Cycling in Ireland, day 6

Rathlee to Sligo: 58km, 3hr 4 mins, av 18.8km/hr, max 41.8km/hr

It’s my final day of cycling in Ireland, but it shouldn’t be a long one; it’s only around 55km to Sligo, from where I’ll catch the train back to Dublin at about 3pm, if all goes to plan.

Now, if I was a pro cyclist I’d have probably set off at 7am, in order to do a few extra side trips and visits in and around Sligo. But I’m not; the bed is super comfy and I’m tired, so I have a lie in, and don’t get going until about 10.30am, which has been my default start time most days, to be honest.

The home-owners have gone out to work for the day but they’re totally cool with me just letting myself out and leaving the front door unlocked – but guarded by 2 very cute and not-at-all intimidating dogs. I guess that’s one of the advantages of living in such splendid isolation.

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My first stop is just down the road, at Easky Tower, where there’s also a small harbour and another surf beach. From here, I stay on the coastal road, the R297, which is part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

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It’s a lovely scenic, quiet road, with a few ups and downs, but nothing too strenuous. Then, for some reason, just past Skrean, the signs point you back towards the main road, the N59. I follow the signs, rather than stay on the back road for another 3 or 4km, which is the only bad roads decision I’ve made, since the N59 is fast and busy, and not a road that you want to be on for longer than strictly necessary. So, if you’re going this way, be sure to stay on the R297 for as long as possible!

I pass through Ballysadare and pause for a quick lunch (last night’s leftover chips in a bun!) in a random little patch of grass on a luxury housing estate close to the water, before pressing on towards Sligo.

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Thankfully, there’s a quiet little side road running parallel to the railway and the main road into town, the N4 – the first dual carriageway I’ve seen, and definitely not something you’d want to cycle on.

By the time I get to Sligo, I’ve not got much time to do anything. Yeats is buried in a cemetery a few kms north of town, and a few km’s beyond that, is the iconic Benbulbin mountain, which I’d have loved to have seen but will have to save for another time.

I cycle around a bit, but there’s not really time to do any of it much justice, so I head to the train station, ready to head back to Dublin.

A shout to my WarmShowers host in Dublin that evening, Philip, who was super nice, a great cook and very hospitable.

My Ireland adventure has (almost) come to an end, bar the cycle to the ferry terminal tomorrow. It’s been all I’d hoped; exhilarating, beautiful, scenic, refreshing, challenging, hard work, pure me-time, with plenty of time to think and reflect on the road my life is on. And, if that’s not what cycling is all about, then I don’t know what is.

One surprise though; not a single bird of prey spotted the entire time.

Cycling in Ireland, day 5

Binghamstown to Rathlee: 113km, 5hr 36 mins, max 49.5km/hr, av 20.1km/hr,

Boy, today was a long day! And I’m not even adding on any extra side-trips this time. If anything, I’m actually having to miss a couple of excursions to amazing places, just to keep on track. So, the spectacular headland at Carrowteige will just have to wait.

For the first part of the ride, I’m going back on myself, but this time with the wind behind me. I’m on the ever-reliable R314 again, and I make speedy progress north east, up towards the coast again. Piece of piss, this cycling lark.

I have my first major stop at the Ceide Fields, a huge neolithic excavation site, with an impressive permanent exhibition housed inside the visitor centre, which has been designed to appear semi-underground, to mirror the excavations going on around it. It’s all pretty fascinating to learn how they lived and farmed here 5,000 years ago, and how the pattern of living in a loose spread of dwellings over a large area, with their animals in adjacent fields, hasn’t really changed in millenia. Just now the fences between fields are made of barbed wire rather than stone.

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The actual excavations, piles of stones and rubble, aren’t in themselves especially exciting, but the overall experience and information that you learn is enough to bring the stones to life.

From the rooftop viewing point, Downpatrick Head is visible, and that’s to be my next stop, after a quick lunch break in a lovely walled garden in Ballycastle.

Downpatrick Head is a slight excursion, but totally worth it. The stack of rock is mighty impressive, as are the sheer cliff faces all around, the sculpture that’s been built around a blow-hole about 100 metres inland, and an intact (or restored) World War 2 lookout post, of the same design as the one at Erris Head.

Back at the car park, I’ve left my bike behind a Tea Caravan (the friendly owner says he’ll keep an eye on my panniers, and he is true to his word). In return – fulfilling my side of the unspoken deal – I buy a cuppa from him, and sit down to drink it. There’s a guy sat down also who, it turns out, is 2 years into a walk around the entire coastline of Britain and Ireland.

Peter estimates he is about half way, and to make it more of a challenge, he’s not sleeping indoors for any of it (and his tent has been destroyed). So he’s basically sleeping under the stars, under a bush, or in abandoned houses (and there are plenty of them around here). He’s raising money for environmental charities, The RSPB, World Land Trust and Renewable World. Please give generously!

From here, it’s south and east, taking in the lovely bay at Lackan Strand, and the impressive Round Tower at Killala, where a kind lady invites me into her (holiday) home while she refills my water bottle. So far, I’ve managed to not buy a single plastic bottle of water or fizzy drink – resisting the lucozade temptation on several occasions – and have survived with just my steel bottle, refilling it either from hillside rivers or friendly people along the way.

On the outskirts of Ballina I spot a fish & chip van, parked up in a layby, and decide to indulge myself. Even though my air bnb hosts have said they’ll leave me some food, I am starving, and I have been cycling all day.

They wrap up the food well, so I cycle on to the town centre and find a spot by the river to eat. 15 minutes previously, at the van, it was blue sky and sunshine, but, by the time I get to the river, the skies are darkening (again! It’s been sunshine and showers all day) so I have to wolf the food down before the rains come.

I’m on the home straight, but still around 20km to go. It’s getting tiring now. At Enniscrone, I go and investigate the beach, where there’s someone attempting – successfully – to kite surf. There’s a little pavillion type thing which provides enough shelter for me to make a cup of tea on the stove, with a bit of millionaire shortbread to see me through the final few km’s.

I arrive at my air bnb at around 8.45pm – it’s been a long day. They’re very friendly and they’ve kept food for me. To be honest, eating a second meal after the fish and chips is a struggle, but I just about manage to eat the spag bol they’ve left me.

The lady of the house encourages me to run a hot bath with salts added; it’s one of those huge deep baths with the tap in the middle so is pretty luxurious. But well deserved I reckon. Afterall, this is the first time I’ve managed a long ride with an average speed of more than 20km/hr! Either I’m getting fitter or I just had a lot of luck with the tailwind today. I think it’s probably the latter.

Cycling in Ireland, day 4

Ballycroy to Binghamstown: 5hrs 12 mins, 91.4km, max 39.3 km/hr, av 17.5km/hr

Day 4 and today’s overnight destination, Binghamstown, is a mere 35km or so away. So, I throw in a couple of excursions too.

First up, a speedy journey north on the N59 to Bangor Erris, with the wind behind me and an average speed of around 22km/hr. The road is dead quiet, with just the odd car speeding past (the speed limit again is 100km/hr).

After a quick fuel stop (bananas, not petrol) then it’s north-west on the R313 to Belmullet. This time, with a bit of a westerly headwind and a couple of squally showers passing through – rain stinging my face; basically an outdoor shower (I didn’t have one this morning, so it’s all good). But with the stinging comes a delicious feeling of being alive. YOU’RE NOT SOLUBLE, EGH?

Belmullet appears to be a lively little town, but I decide to press on for a 20km loop up to Erris Head and back. It’s a lovely little ride out of the town, through more peat and bog, until eventually I hit the jagged northern coastline of Eire. There’s a car park with 1 car in it, and soon a couple of walkers appear, back from doing the Erris Head loop. They recommend it so I decide to give it a go, leaving the bike locked, with panniers on (and my passport inside, oops). But this place is so deserted, I don’t see another person on the entire walk.

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It’s a lovely walk, leading to a windy headland, complete with a decaying army lookout point, and an old WW2 sign in rocks on the ground, EIRE 62, which was meant to signify Ireland as a neutral country to any overhead German bombers.

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Right way round

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Upside down; 62 Eire

90 minutes and 5km later, I’m back on the bike, and it’s 10km back to Belmullet, in a much heavier and prolonged shower, which forces me to take refuge in a Spar Extra supermarket on the edge of town. Eventually it shows signs of clearing, so I set off towards my b&b for the night.

Stinging wind and rain once more, before it clears, and soon I’m at my Air bnb for the night. It’s a little different from the others, a real house (well, still a bungalow, but feels more lived-in than the others).

It reminds me a little of houses that I grew up in. I have a cup of soup, unload half of my luggage, before setting out on another excursion, this time down to Blacksod Bay; where my great, great grandfather was lighthouse keeper around 100 years ago.

It’s a windy ride to start with but, eventually, the sun comes out and I pass a sheltered little bay so decide to stop for my daily cup of tea on the stove. There’s one other person on the beach, walking their dog. Once they’ve passed, I dip a toe in the water. It’s not that cold. The water’s clear and calm, and no one around aside from the odd car going past.

I throw caution to the wind (no towel, no swimwear) and strip off before running into the water. I stay in for all of a couple of minutes, not head-under but long enough for a swim, before running out and getting dry with my running top as a towel. I regret nothing! Apart from having the tea before the swim rather than after.

 

Blacksod Bay lighthouse is just around the corner. It’s now a lovely evening with a great view across to Achill Island. The lighthouse isn’t accessible in anyway, but it’s great to see it. It has a plaque on the side, explaining how the lighthouse changed the course of history when it issued a report of a “weather window” which enabled the D-day landings to take place.

From here, there are a couple more sites of interest; a beautiful little stone sculpture; a wrecked church with a tiny window which I climb through three times in order to not die at sea; and a holy well, which has some very tiny creatures swimming around (so I don’t drink from it).

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Then, just for good luck, I hit another rain shower; it lasts all of about 30 seconds as I’m cycling over a hill. I whizz down the other side into sunshine, and then a rainbow appears.

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From here, I have the wind behind me and I speed back to the place I’m staying, to enjoy a meal at the family table while the owner, Joseph, eats a meat and 2 veg meal with his daughter. Finally, a Guinness from a can, then a very good night’s sleep in a bedroom very obviously once belonging to a teenage boy (he’s now about 20 and studying in London).

Cycling in Ireland, day 3

Newport to Ballycroy: 4hrs 45 mins, 68.4km, max 48.1 km/hr, average 17km/hr

Day 3 is all about the Greenway, Ireland’s longest stretch of off-road cycling, following the old railway line from Westport/Newport to Achill Sound. It’s not an especially long route, maybe 50km in total, but it is great fun to cycle it. The surfaces are good, the signposting is clear, and the scenery is always interesting. Plus, of course, NO CARS!

Again, I stop lots to take it all in, attempt to take photos of housemartins in flight (no chance!) and add or remove layers according to the weather (the showers come and go, but are at least getting lighter).

Unlike the previous 2 days, today I do actually see some other cyclists! I meet a couple from Canada who are riding a tandem; they’re doing the thing where you hire the bike and have a van take your luggage and act as back up in case you have a puncture or whatever. I looked these up when researching the trip, and they’re not cheap, considering all you’re doing is going for a bike ride. But hey, if you can afford it and if it helps more people get on two wheels, then why not? There are also kids going on a bicyclating adventure of their own – they look like they’re having fun.

At the small town of Mallaranny, I have a choice. Do I carry on to the end of the Greenway at Achille Sound (and then have to come back), or start to head north? I decide to carry on, and see what’s at Achille.

In truth, there’s not much, apart from a bridge over the Sound, a couple of pubs and a supermarket. I don’t doubt there’s loads to see and do on Achille Island; the information boards boast all sorts of highlights, and if I had more time I’d have loved to explore it properly. But, unfortunately, I don’t, so I instead re-trace my route back to Mallaranny, wind behind me this time.

If you’re short on time, the stretch of Greenway between Mallaranny and Achille could definitely be skipped.

Heading north now, I make good speed as I race towards the Ballycroy National Park visitor centre before it closes. This means I have to skip what looks like an interesting 2km boardwalk on the left. It’s part of the National Park and, if you’re lucky, you might see an otter there.

I make it to the Visitor Centre a few km further north in decent time; most importantly the cafe is still open so I sit and enjoy lashings of tea with a fruit scone, jam, and an incredible view towards Claggan Mountain.

The Visitor Centre is free to look around and has some really good exhibits about the blanket bog and its importance for maintaining biodiversity and fighting climate change, as well as about the generations of people who have lived and worked here.  Definitely worth checking out. The staff were also really friendly and knowledgeable, recommending good places to visit in the area.

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When it closes, at 5.30pm, I’m still good to do the 2km walk around the area, and have the place pretty much to myself. The views out towards Glencullen are amazing. Huge wide expanses of bog and sweeping, sombre hills.

Back at the visitor centre before I head off, I notice some nest boxes that have been put up to attract swallows. They’re making a lot of noise and for a moment I think perhaps there’s a young family of swallow chicks inside; then I remember back to the exhibit which explained how they’re relaying the sound of swallows in the hope they will be heard on the wind and eventually real swallows will be attracted to nest here. The sounds have been playing for 2 years now, without any luck. Which actually makes it the saddest, most plaintive sound in all of Ireland. 

Onwards bound, I pass yet another abandoned local shop/pub (often the two are combined). It’s been faintly depressing to see so many – a sign, I guess, of the outward migration this part of the country has experienced. As well as, no doubt, the growth of car culture which makes local shops uncompetitive with the bigger supermarkets you find in the towns.

I peer in the window and, eerily, there are still loads of products on the shelves. I can definitely see a display of Ritz cheesy biscuits! I wonder what the story is; I’m guessing an old owner died recently.

It’s just a few more km to my air bnb for the night, which really is in the middle of nowhere, like so many rural houses that are scattered all over this part of Ireland. When the owners eventually come to the door, I’m welcomed into my part of the house, which has its own bathroom, dining room, lounge and bedroom. There’s a peat fire roaring and it’s very cosy. Bliss in fact, until I make the mistake of turning the TV on and watching the latest Tory leadership debate. Urgh. Now why did I do that?

Cycling in Ireland, day 2

Connemara to Newport: 3hr 57 mins, 74km, max 46.6km/hr, average 18.7km/hr

It’s raining (like, really raining) when I wake up, and when I have breakfast, and when I pack up. So I have a coffee and wait. And then wait a bit more.

By about 10.30am it’s easing so I set off, looking forward to going back on myself a bit – this time downhill and with the wind, hitting 46.6km/hr at one point – as I cycle back towards Leenaun.

From here on in, I’m breaking new ground as I head onwards around the water, then back around the other side of the fjord (on the lovely R335), before heading north towards Delphi.

I make pretty slow progress as I keep on having to stop to photograph things; the incredible views, St Joseph’s Well, a graveyard overlooking the water, a man fly fishing, a house called Joseph’s Retreat, sheep ‘pon the road, and so on…

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sheep pon the road

Eventually, I come to Doo Lough, a wide expanse of water with a large hill jutting up on one side. It feels like the Scottish Highlands. I decide to make this my lunch spot; it’s relatively sheltered, which means I can get the gas stove out and make a cup of tea on the shoreline. Lunch is a crisps and jam sandwich – aka: winning at life.

I dip a toe in the waters, just to see if a swim is possible. It feels cold – really cold – and the hint of sunshine evaporates at about the same moment. So, no swimming today. Still, it’s been a great lunch spot and totally deserted too.

Onwards, and the next stop is the Doo Lough Valley famine memorial. It’s hard to imagine what misery went on here, but the display board spells it out:

How lucky we are to live in (relatively) peaceful, prosperous times.

From here, the countryside opens out, I have the wind behind me, and I can properly say – I’m cycle touring and loving it. I decide to skip the Sheeffry Pass, which is the more direct route to Westport but also the more hilly, so instead head towards the coast at Louisburgh, then westwards. As I near Westport, I accidentally cycle into the grounds of Westport House; it’s stately but not especially amazing (apart from the giant killer swans), so I press on.

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From Westport (which i don’t cycle through but is supposed to be very nice), I decide to take the scenic route, passing beautiful bay after beautiful bay, at Carraholly and Inishcottle. The sun even comes out and it’s t-shirt weather for the first time!

The sky is blue, and the air is fresh and full of birdsong. What birds exactly, I’m not sure. Redpoll and chaffinch, I think, wren definitely (although it sings with a regional dialect), little flocks of starling, house sparrows, goldcrest, and lots of pied wagtails.

Finally, I join the much-flaunted Greenway cycle route, for the last few km into Newport. It’s off-road, well sign-posted, and takes me through fields, sometimes runs alongside the road, and sometimes is a purpose-built track.

Newport is pretty small but quite pretty, mainly due to the Newport River and the old railway viaduct that traverses it. It has a well-stocked supermarket and a decent pub, The Grainne Uaile, where I order a veggie burger and chips before making my way to digs for the night – an air bnb called Harbourside. It’s basic, but after a long day of cycling, all I really need is a hot shower and a comfortable bed, and it has both.

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Cycling in Ireland, day 1

Galway to Killary Fjord: 4hrs 10 mins, 82km, max 43km/hr, average 19.6km/hr

This is my first time in NW Ireland, but not to Ireland. Previously, I’ve enjoyed childhood holidays in and around the Dingle peninsular, a weekend romantic break in Dublin, and (from what I recall) a slightly miserable solo break to Cork, back when I still used to jump on a plane without really thinking about the consequences.

Doing a sale-rail has been on my to-do list for some time; it’s relatively cheap and you can take your bike for free, which makes it cheaper than doing the same thing by plane – even if it does take a day instead of a couple of hours. My employer, Friends of the Earth, has, since I got back from hols, introduced a new Climate Perks policy, giving 2 days paid leave if you decide to travel overseas by surface transport rather than air. I wonder if I’ll be able to claim it retrospectively?

Alas, train chaos (due to someone on a bridge considering suicide – thankfully, he didn’t jump) results in me missing the ferry and eventually arriving in Dublin at about 12.30am. Thankfully, my warmshowers hosts are very kind and stay up late to let me in.

So I’m not exactly fresh-faced and raring to go after an early start to get the 8.30am train from Dublin to Galway. But rare to go I must, so I jump on my newish bike + 2 panniers, and set off… all of about 100 yards.

This is the distance it takes for me to realise that a stop for pancakes and tea in Galway – no point cycling on an empty stomach – is probably a good idea before I get going. It’s a good decision, as I get to hear a local busker doing a version of Jolene, my name on Facebook. A good omen?

This will be my first cycle tour on my new bike, so I’m interested to see how she holds up.

The ride out of Galway along the seafront is pleasant enough, passing through Salthill and Barna on the R336 coastal road. But, it’s *really* busy. On the other side of the road, there’s a traffic jam of cars heading into Galway, all idling with engines on, while on my side of the road, it feels like cars are stacking up behind me as there’s not much room for them to overtake. This isn’t what I had envisaged, and I start to worry that the whole of the Wild Atlantic Way route (marketed very much as a “driving” experience) will be like this.

I experience a couple of close passes by frustrated drivers; and then it starts raining. Just a few spots at first, but within 30 minutes it’s become heavy. Somewhere around Inverin I seek warmth, dryness and food in a promising-looking pub. It has a covered area where I park the bike; peering through the window I can see a fire going – so far so good. So in I go.

There are 3 people inside, 1 behind the bar, 2 the other side. I order a lager shandy (I have no idea why) and then enquire about food. There are tables laid up for dining so I’m optimistic. The landlady replies, “No food today I’m afraid, we’re waiting for a wake to arrive.”  Ha! Just my luck. I try and dry off by the fire a bit, then cut my losses and head back out into the grey mist.

Beyond Inverin, I turn north, and the rain intensifies. A couple of miles up the road, The Courthouse Cafe provides welcome shelter – and food. Aware that I can’t stay inside for every, I head out into what seems to be slightly lighter rain, and continue to head north, towards Maam Cross. By this stage, the traffic has generally disappeared and I’m on a much quieter, more rural road, passing bogs and small lakes. The rain comes and goes.

At Maam Cross I have to decide whether to turn left and head to the coast towards Clifden and Letterfrack (I love this place name!) Clifden in particular is recommended, and taking this route would allow me to pass Connemara National Park. But time isn’t on my side, the N59 is a busy, fast road, and the ride would be westward, into the headwind. So, reluctantly, I continue to head north to Maum, then north west to Leenaum, on a lovely quiet road, with just a couple of small hills to get over.

At Leenaum, suddenly, there’s a fantastic view of Killary Fjord, but a left turn takes me into the headwind, and then up the biggest hill of the day. I’m about 75km in at this point, but my destination is within grasp. A long slog uphill brings my average speed below 20km for the first time today, but with such amazing views unfolding to my right, I’m not complaining too much.

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100km/hr? Sure, why not.

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Then it’s a simple roll down the hill to the ace Connemara Sleepzone Hostel. At which point, the sun comes out! This place is in an amazing location and is highly recommended; it has great facilities and lovely, snug areas to read, play pool, cook and eat. Plus, I get an entire dorm to myself so enjoy a good night’s sleep.

It’s been a great first day of cycling in Ireland, once I escaped the traffic of Galway. They could definitely do with some cycle lanes and/or speed restrictions on that road because it was pretty hairy.