NORTHERN IRELAND – ‘A well kept secret’ by Andrew Wright
Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement of the 10th April 1998, and the intervening years of relative peace, bicycle touring in Northern Ireland is these days a safe and enjoyable undertaking. The recent past can not be ignored however and any visitor must take it into account. This land was once blighted and scarred by the turmoil which was known widely as ‘The Troubles’. The roots of which are sunk deep into history and in modern times were reignited by the spark which was the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s and early 70s. Mayhem and chaos came to reign with the re-emergence of the IRA and their counterparts on the Loyalist side. The stories of that time of good and evil, courage and cowardice will ripple through the ages.
I decided to make a diversion in to Northern Ireland as part of a longer six week John O’Groats to Lands End charity bicycle journey. My trip caught the splendid rain free weather that was the early summer of 2010. The P & O Irish Sea ferry took me from Troon, in Ayrshire, to the port of Larne, the gateway to the famous Antrim coast. The ferry arrived at 10:20pm but fortunately it was only a half mile to a campsite. I enjoyed a supper of a tin of chicken korma followed by milky coffee.
I was on the road at 7:30am to pick up the ‘Causeway Coastal Route’ heading north. There was a fine sunrise to admire. Antrim is a beautiful County with much to explore if time avails. I passed by the renowned beautiful nine Glens of Antrim which radiate inland from the Coastal Route.
In the Rough Guide to Ireland I read that in the village of Carnlough is a hotel called the ‘Londonderry Arms Hotel’, which has the distinction of once being owned by Sir Winston Churchill. Sir Winston inherited the hotel from a second cousin. At the Hotel there is the Churchill Lounge devoted to memorabilia of the great man. I took photos and revelled in this snippet of history.
The Causeway Coastal Route took me over high ground of moor land and forest, stopping briefly for lunch by the road side. A sweeping freewheel down into the seaside town of Ballycastle was quite exhilarating. Arriving in time at a bar to watch England vs Germany in the World Cup, my spirits were dampened by the dismal result, a good reminder to me not to put too much store in the game of Football. Ballycastle has a beautiful beach backed up by rising and undulating grassy dunes. I found a small area of flat ground amongst the dunes and pitched my tent with a fine view over the beach from my door. From Ballycastle it is possible to take a ferry excursion to the small craggy island of Rathlin where Robert the Bruce gained inspiration from a determined spider to “try, try and try again”.
Another early start of 7:00am helped me to reach the Carrick-a-reed rope bridge before it opened and before any large tour parties arrived. The rope bridge is run by the National Trust and there is an admission charge of £4.90. The rope bridge is strung 25 metres above the sea and spans 18 metres. It is an experience to cross the bridge as it wobbles, bucks and springs. Not an experience for the nervous. On the cliffs near to the bridge seabirds can be viewed nesting, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Razorbills and Guillemots.
I had tea and a scone at the National trust café before pushing on towards the Giant’s Causeway. It is seven miles to the Giant’s Causeway, a journey made special by a meeting with a fellow cyclist called Ian Campbell. We cycled together and chatted. I found out that Ian is in training for an event called ‘Race Around Ireland 2010’. At our meeting he was in the middle of a 300 mile, not stop, training ride from his home in Newcastle, south of Belfast. The remarkable thing is that he is 64 years old and recovering from prostate cancer. He is an endurance cyclist extraordinaire.
I parted from Ian at the Giant’s Causeway car park. The Causeway’s funding clearly relies on the excessive car parking charges for visitors. Cyclists are not charged for their visit. I locked the bike at the Visitor’s Centre and walked the half mile down to the Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway is worth all the effort to reach. It is rather special and magical to clamber amongst the 60 million year old geological formations. A visit to Northern Ireland would not be complete without seeing this spectacle.
After the Causeway I cycled on to Portrush where the weather turned to drizzling fine rain. I did my e-mail at the public library, had some fish and chips and stocked up on supplies ready for a wild camp on the road to Coleraine.
I was on the road at 2:30 am for a spot of night riding. I reached Londonderry via the Foyal Bridge, longest in Ireland, after 60 kms. A fine full cooked breakfast at the Caife Failte was my reward. Londonderry to the Protestants, Derry to the Catholics and Maiden City to the politically impartial is a fascinating place to spend a couple of days.
The Derry City Independent Hostel at £13 for a dorm bed, including breakfast and free internet, is a bargain place in which to set up base. I immersed my self into the political history of Derry with a visit to the ‘Free Derry Museum’ and a tour of the Bogside political murals. The Free Derry Museum details the history of the ‘Troubles’ with particular emphasis on the Bloody Sunday disaster of 1072. The guardian of the museum is the brother of one of the protesters killed on Bloody Sunday. Derry is a fine place to savour the ‘craic’ in the traditional pubs of the city.
I now needed to make my way in the general direction of Belfast to catch the ferry to Liverpool and so onto my continued route towards Lands End. I decided to cut south of Lough Neagh. The route crossed the beautiful and wild Sperrin mountains, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Sperrins are wild and bleak, comparable to the northern fells of the Lake District. All day I had been expecting forecast rain, but it did not materialise. I wild camped on the lower ground in a secluded spot behind a stone wall.
After a breakfast of porridge and toast at a café in Cookstown I pushed on in the rain to reach Dungannon, in County Tyrone. At the library in Dungannon fate set me a course of events that would lead me to the heights of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont itself. While asking directions from the librarian I was told that on my route was the ancestral home of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, the great Confederate American Civil War general. So I went in search of the blue memorial plaque to Jackson in the village of Birches. It was in Birches that I stopped to ask of the whereabouts of the plaque and fate put me in the hands of a woman called Stephanie. We chatted and she helped get me a place at the Cottage Country House B & B at a discount because of my charitable endeavours. Stephanie also introduced my to a fellow called John Tate of Birches, who is the Secretary of the ‘Stonewall’ Jackson Society. I spent a good half hour taking with John. He gave me a Confederate three bullet from the Civil War. Stephanie also made for me an introduction to Stephen Moutray, Mayor of Craigavon and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I made an appointment with Stephen at Stormont.
I was on the road at 5:30am to make my appointment at Stormont. At 11:00am I met Stephen Mountray and he gave me an interesting tour of the Stormont Parliament building. It was a little unusually being in such a grand place dressed in my travelling clothes and meeting with such a distinguished man.
In Belfast I checked into the Vagabonds Travellers Hostel. In the evening I went to Sandy Row to witness an Orange Order parade. It is a great spectacle to see the stirring banners and rousing pipe and drum bands.
Next morning, my last in Northern Ireland, I cycled up the Falls Road to visit Milltown cemetery where the Republican Nationalists, including Bobby Sands, are buried.
All in all my six day tour of Northern Ireland was a fascinating, enjoyable and rewarding experience. It was also a quite unique detour from a long JOG-LE ride.
Flights go to Belfast International Airport with easyjet from Liverpool, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. www.easyjet.com
Norfolkline Irish Sea ferries sail from Birkenhead to Belfast twice daily. www.norfolkline.com
P & O Irish Sea ferries sail from Troon, in Scotland, to Larne in Northern Ireland. Bikes go free. www.poirishsea.com
Map: Michelin Ireland No. 405 (scale 1 cm : 4 km).
Guidebook: The Rough Guide to Ireland by Paul Gray and Geoff Wallis.
Background research: ‘A Place Apart’ (1978) by Dervla Murphy
By Andrew Wright