Why Cycle?

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In the age we live in with fast and reliable cars, buses, trains and planes it can be hard to explain why cycling is my preferred mode of transport. A few generations back, cycling was the main source of transport for the working class in this country yet now only a tiny minority cycle and we are often an object of scorn and derision. So many just simply refuse point blank to even consider riding a bike and will drive ridiculous short journeys which could easily be cycled – often quicker and certainly cheaper.

Doochery

There are many different sides to cycling. There has been an increase in the amount of sports cyclists in recent years who aim to train hard and constantly improve and push themselves to the limit and are happy to invest considerable amounts of money in their bikes. This is a positive thing really as more cyclists on the road make it safer for all cyclists as drivers get more used to dealing with cyclists and it is good for the health and fitness of the participant.

There are also the utility cyclists who ride for general transportation and this is the branch of cycling I would like to see most promoted and catered for as each utility cyclist is another car off the road which brings untold benefits in terms of reduced congestion, air and noise pollution as well as improving the health of the participant. Utility cycling is sufficient really if simply being healthier is your main aim. Ride just a few miles every day, hail rain or snow and it is enough to improve your general health, reduce blood pressure etc, suffer less colds and ‘flus. What I suspect many drivers don’t realise is that over the sort of short journeys most people make on a day to day basis, a bicycle will be often just as fast a car in most cases, especially when you add up time spent looking for parking spaces, etc.

I’ll leave sports cycling and utility cycling for a later date. The object of this article to explore the fact that a great deal of genuine joy can be had from simply going out on the bike. A few hours or a full day if you have the time – just riding leisurely as fast or as slow as the mood takes you, exploring the lesser travelled highways and byways and avoiding the main roads wherever possible. This is the side of cycling that gets over-looked nowadays and I think this a great shame.

The Poisoned Glen

It can be done on virtually any bike (I’d avoid any of those horrible, cheap dual suspension things). The most important thing is that the bike works as it should, the saddle height, reach to the bars, etc is set up so that you are in an efficient and comfortable riding position and the gear ratio(s) should be such that the bike can be comfortably ridden in the type of terrain you normally ride in. For me, the ability to take wider tyres and mudguards is pretty essential and rules out nearly all modern road bikes (just my opinion, if you’re loving your carbon steed, keep riding it). Wider tyres give you more options for the types of surface you can ride on as well as reducing fatigue due to the greater shock absorbing qualities. Rural roads are often dirty – mudguards will keep you and your bike clean.

My ride today is typical of the sort of thing I think is one of the most enjoyable sides of cycling. I woke up to unseasonably good weather for the time of year and had no particular plans so decided to spend a day cycling. My Viscount Aerospace is a typical example of how an old road bike can be tweaked to make it ideal for this type of riding. There is room for 32mm tyres which is wide enough for most normal surfaces including unmetalled roads. The Continental Tour Ride tyres are a strong and reliable tyre with puncture protection. I’ve fitted a 50/36 chainset (the original was most probably a 52/42) and a wide range 12-32 cassette (I fitted modern wheels to this bike). The original freewheel block would likely have been 14-24. The advantage of this wide range gear set up is to make it easy to ride up most hills (even when loaded touring). I have Brooks B17 saddle because I find them more comfortable than modern type saddles and it also has the loops to fit my old fashioned Carradice bag which tends to go with me everywhere. Inside I have tools and puncture repair kit in case of problems, a rain jacket, an extra bottle of water and my lunch. This a day out after all. In winter I may carry a Thermos flask of soup.

England Made me!

I left home without any particular plan other than to go westwards as I usually do. The scenery is prettier and the roads are quieter. It was still reasonably earlier on a Sunday morning and the traffic was stll very light so when I joined the R251 after about 18 miles of minor roads, I decided to modify my plans slightly and instead of taking the bog road to Creeslough as originally planned I stayed on the R251 towards Glenveagh National Park and to Gweedore. I didn’t stop at the National Park. If I had wanted to go there I would have used the bridal paths and ridden my mountain bike. I continued on towards Gweedore. This takes you past Errigal, the highest mountain in Co. Donegal at around 2,500 feet. Errigal is one of several peaks in the Derryveagh mountain range. It is well worth the effort to climb it.

Errigal

Opposite Errigal is what is known as the Poisoned Glen or Dunlewey. It’s a deep glen with Lough Dunlewey at the bottom. The views across the Poisoned Glen from the R251 vantage points are beautiful and possibly one of the most iconic views in Donegal with the disused Church on the lough’s shoreline the subject of many postcards down through the years. I decided to go and visit the church. The Church of Ireland Church was built by the widow of the local landlord who had the Church erected in memory of her recently deceased husband but in such a remote area the congregation was always tiny and the famine, years of hardship and breakup off the estate further declined the congregation. The church fell into disuse and the roof had become dangerous so it was removed for safety in 1955.

Dunlewey Church of Ireland

I also took another little scenic detour from Dunlewey down to the lake shore and across the bridge/causeway which separates Lough Dunlewey from Upper Lough Nacung. I’d never been down here before but it shows Lough Dunlewey from another angle with Errigal in the background. The road continues and I’d have liked to have continued on it but I suspect it would lead to a dead end. I must consult the OS Map to check if the road actually does go somewhere as it would be an interesting route.

The Poisoned Glen

I continued on through Gweedore, Crolly (home of the famous Crolly dolls), Loughanure and to Dungloe. I didn’t stop much but kept riding. The road was becoming busier now. It is an amazing route though with so many mountains and lakes. It’s a challenging route to cycle too. I like travelling main road to Dungloe but I’d never ride the N56 in summer as it would be too busy. I stopped briefly at a shop in Dungloe before continuing.

Lough Anure

It was nice to turn off the N56 again on to the much quieter R252 to Doochery and then R254 back to Letterkenny. This is one of my favourite cycle routes in the county. It doesn’t carry much traffic and large parts of it are single track. It also offers great mountain scenery and for large parts of it the road runs parallel to a small river and you can here the running water as you cycle along. There are also quite a few small waterfalls as water runs of the mountains. It’s a really peaceful route and there is another option here to take bridal path back to Glenveagh Castle and then to Churchill. I’ll save that for another day when daylight comes back again. It would be easier on my mountain bike anyway.

Overlooking Doochery

I found my self back in Letterkenny with around 90 miles covered. My average speed would have been pathetic if I‘d measured it but I was out for the day, not to set new personal bests. It was an enjoyable ride because I had slowed it down and taken the time to see the things that most other people will rush past and not notice. This is the point of a leisurely perambulation and why I think more cyclists should do this at least occasionally as they are missing out on so much of what cycling has to offer. As for non-cyclists, give it ago! You don’t need to cover 90 miles – the ability to do that comes with time if desired. Just pootle around local places of interest and gradually build you fitness.

The Poisoned Glen

So in answer to the original question of “Why cycle?” the answer is that it is an enjoyable pastime which allows me to cover more miles in a day than I could on foot but allows me to cover those miles in a way in which I interact and feel part of the landscape I pass through in a way that I could never do in a car. In a car you are too isolated and travelling too fast to notice the details – the shadows and lighting, the wildlife and the scents and the smells. Cycling has the further advantage of being as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it. It also helps to keep me fit and active and is as excellent stress-reliever.

Perhaps a more pertinent question would be “Why don’t more people cycle?” – Answers on the back of a €10 note….

The Poisoned Glen

The Poisoned Glen

Dunlewey Church of Ireland

Dunlewey Church of Ireland

The Caledonia Way (by Bike)

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In many ways, September is my preferred month for cycle touring. It’s true you lose a little bit of daylight but there is still more than enough at this time of year. You often get better weather too than in July or August and as schools and colleages are back, places tend to be less busy so roads are quieter and accommodation usually easier and cheaper to find.

Campletown Loch

I was looking at options on where to go this September and where I could take my bike on ferries. I had considered Wales and France but in the end decided to do the easier option and go to Scotland. A recent (non-cycling related) visit to Maynooth and an afternoon walk along the tow path of the Royal Canal made me interested in the idea of cycling along a canal towpath as a traffic-free route. I could of course have cycled the Royal Canal but was looking for something longer and more challenging. I set my sights on the Sustrans NCN 78 (The Caledonia Way) which runs from Campeltown on the Mull of Kintyre to Inverness in the Highlands and part of it is through the Great Glen and along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal which links the lochs (as an Irishman I always have to stop myself from writing “lough” when refering to Scottish lakes!) of the Great Glen together to provide a shipping route.

I decided to do this. I’ve travelled in Scotland before and indeed have family living in the north-east of the country and on visits in the past when I took my car on the ferry, I had usually taken my Raleigh Twenty folding bicycle and done little bits of cycling here or there but had never cycle toured in Scotland. Some of the places I would be visiting along NCN 78 I would be familiar with – Oban, Fort William and Inverness, but whereas I’d drove along trunk roads to reach them before I would be using very different routes this time to link them together and the I had never been on the Mull of Kintyre before so that would be something totally new. I also knew the incredible beauty of the Great Glen and idea of riding a bike through it was enormously appealling. The fact that it is possible to get a ferry from Ballycastle to Campeltown made it sound even more appealing as it would be easy to get to the starting point.

The Caledonia Way

I went ahead and booked my ticket for the Kintyre Express and also booked one night’s accommodation in the Campeltown Backpackers Hostel. After that I decided to do something different. All my other tours along the Irish coastline had been planned with military precision in terms of daily mileage, booking all the accommodation in advance etc. There is an argument for doing this as it removes stress in many respects. It also means I have to be somewhere in particular each night as I have booked accommodation. I can’t change my plans, ride further or shorter as it suits me, or detour if I feel like it. After Campeltown, I decided to leave it open and see how it worked out. I hadn’t even booked the return ferry trip. I knew I would probably be coming back via Cairnryan by taking my bike on the train from Inverness as I couldn’t have enough time off work to have ridden back to either Cairnryan or Campeltown. As a precaution against having nowehere to stay, I took a tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag. I am not the most experienced camper and had never combined camping with cycle touring before but I aim to begin doing so in the future. I had also packed my meths stove with the intention of cooking in remote areas if I needed to. I had a vague plan to take three leisurely days to reach Oban and I would use my tent for that and afterwards I would be around large towns and would try to book into hostels to stay in the town and enjoy a nice pub dinner each evening. As a well-known Scottish poet once said – “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley…” although I was thankfully left with the promised joy and not the grief or pain warned about by Robert Burns.

As an owner of a wide selection of bicycles, the question when planning rides often throws up the question of “which bike?” With a lot of public transport involved, a Brompton is always an appealling option but the 122 miles between Campeltown and Oban involved far too much climbing to make it sensible or enjoyable with only three gears to play with. It would have meant a lot of walking.

The choice was really my Viscount Aerospace or my Townsend BX-40 mountain bike which has recently had refurbishment with a new, better wheelset, 8-speed cassette hub (fitted with wide range cassette) and new chainset. Unfortunately the frame has a 70mm bottom bracket shell so I was not able to source a suitable sealed bottom bracket unit to suit it so I rebuilt the existing cup and cone bearings with new loose 1/4“ ball bearings and fresh grease. I prefer to not use the cages you often find inside cup and cone bearings as without them you can fit in more ball bearings which spread the load better and wear better.

The Townsend is a sturdy bike well suited to touring. The Viscount works well too and I have toured a lot on it. The gearing is just about low enough (36/32 bottom gear) for loaded touring and it is a capable and comfortable mile-muncher. The Townsend also has wider semi-slick tyres which would probably work better on canal towpaths and the cantilever brakes are much more powerful than the calliper brakes of the Viscount. The decision was made when the bottom bracket bearings of the Viscount developed a squeak and roughness a few days before I was due to leave. It wouldn’t be worth the risk of taking this bike on tour until I’ve had a chance to fix it. It is also a non-standard bottom bracket and something a normal cycle shop would have in stock. So it was to be Townsend.

A relatively early start from Letterkenny got me to Derry along mostly minor roads to catch the 10:38AM train to Coleraine. This was a good omen – I had reached Derry 30 minutes earlier than I had thought and just about made the 10:38 train with seconds to spare when I had planned to get the 11:38! This was to be the first of many rail journeys on this trip – so much so if I wonder if I should be calling it a train tour with a little bit of cycling thrown in!

I reached Coleraine an hour earlier than planned and the weather was absolutely amazing. I had originally planned to take a more direct route to Ballycastle but it was such a nice day and I had spare time – I decided to go along the coast.

Overlooking Ballintoy Harbour, Co. Antrim

From Porstewart I took the shared-use path along the coast to Portrush and turned down Ballywillan Road to follow NCN 93 which leads to Ballycastle via Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway with views of Dunluce Castle and White Park Bay and is a very scenic route in itself. I arrived at Ballycastle in very good time. I had now covered around 57 miles so far on the Irish leg of my tour and was running well ahead of schedule despite riding some reasonably challenging terrain on a fully loaded bike. This was the first time I had actually trained for a tour and rode a lot of miles in the month leading up to this and it was showing. This is the fittest I have ever been.

Whitepark Bay, Co. Antri,

I found the departure point of the Campeltown ferry, which wasn’t actually that easily done. A litte bit of advertising and signage would surely help their business so people could actually find them! I had to ask in the tourest office. I then locked the bike and went to the shop and relaxed on this sunny Autumn day admiring the views from Ballycastle sea front. Ballycastle has always been my favourite of the north-coast towns.

Ballycastle Harbour

The ferry is one of the high speed type so it would be a fast crossing with the downside of losing out on one of my favourite things – wandering around the outside decks of a ship at sea. I would be totally enclosed and was had to wear a seat belt! The bike was to stay outside and I was asked to remove the luggage. The lovely thing about the Carradice Panniers I have is that they unclip very easily so it’s no big deal to so.

A word about panniers. These Carradice Super C panniers have been one of my best investments and have now had a lot of use touring as well as being used for shopping and other utility uses. Their waxed canvas and old fashioned design and construction methods may make them seem like something from a bygone era but they are surpemely well made, very user friendly and well designed and have never let in water. Even if they did, they could be re-waterproofed again and should I ever rip them it would be possible to sew the tear. Carradice sell all the mounting brackets separately so these can also be replaced should I break something. Carradice of Nelson products may seem expensive but they are quality hand-made products which will last a lifetime and are actually more cost effective in the long term than cheap panniers which won’t last.

I enjoyed the ferry journey. The hull of the little ferry must have incredible strength to survive the pounding it recieves crashing through the bigger waves at high speed. I can see why they insist on seatbelts. This was a calm day too. In some ways it was more like being in a small aircraft than on a boat due to the seating layout. This was my first time to travel by a high-speed ferry. The crossing takes about 90 minutes and gives good views of the islands etc and I could also spot Ailsa Craig and the Ayrshire coast on this very clear day.

It was 6 o’Clock on a glorious September evening when we docked in Campeltown. Because my bike had been outside, the ferry staff insisted on washing it for me to wash of the ocean salt so I now had a bike which was shinier and cleaner than before I had left home. I probably don’t wash my bikes often enough.

Campeltown - Start of NCN 78

I enjoyed a nice dinner and decided to make use of this nice evening for a bit before checking into the hostel. I would be heading north in the morning so I headed south to see what it looked like. The answer is very nice. Campeltown Loch as the sun goes down is a place of real beauty.

Campeltown Loch

I was looking forward to tomorrow. I hoped the weather would remain like this but the weather on the west coast of Scotland is just a unpredictible as the west coast of Ireland. I would expect anything but was prepared for it. My first day’s total was 69 miles as I entered the courtyard of the Backpacker’s Hostel which contains many interesting buildings in it’s own right and seems to have been a church at some point. It is an excellent place to stay too with good facilities, secure bike storage and comfortable and spacious dorms. It is an un-manned hostel run by a charity with no wardens or receptionists which is why they only accept bookings with advance payment and detailed completion of a form (I had to post the form back with a cheque as they don’t currently have credit card equipment) and they sent me the door access codes I would require as well as other information by SMS text message on the day of my arrival. I was not sure about this beforehand but it worked very well in practice.

Campeltown Backpackers

Campeltown was originally known as Kinlochkilkerran but was re-named in the 17th century after the town and surrounding lands were granted to Archibald Campbell (Earl of Argyle). The town became a busy fishing port and also well known for it’s place in the Scotch whisky industry and once had five distilleries but now only three. The town’s involvement in whisky is the subject of the Scottish folk song Campeltown Loch (I wish ye were whisky) sang by Andy Stwewart and others.

The following morning dawned just as nice as the day before. After an early morning walk around Campeltown, stocking up on some supplies in the Co-Op followed by a leisurely breakfast I was ready to hit the road a little before 9AM. I found the starting point of NCN 78 along the sea front and set off. As mentioned, I had no particular plan, just see where I ended up. I sort of aimed to hit Lochgilphead as sort of the half way point between Campeltown and Oban but wasn’t bothered if I didn’t. I had planned to camp and there were quite a few remote camp sites. I’d see how it went. I had enough food and water with me too.

NCN 78 - Mull of Kintyre

From a cycling point of view it went very well. There is some incredibly tough climbing along this route but I was well geared for it so it wasn’t really a problem. I was also amazed at the contrast between the standard of driving in Scotland and at home. I’m not sure what they do differently to educate their their drivers in Scotland but we need to copy it. I’ve found this on the occasions I took my car to Scotland too. You don’t get any of the stupid dangerous overtakes or inconsiderate and selfish driving here that is so prevailent in the north of Ireland.

NCN 78 - The Caledonian Way

Once well clear of Campeltown and the views of the sea though, this part of NCN 78 becomes a bit bland and featureless. I did stop to visit the Cistercian Abbey at Saddell which was founded in 1160 by the ancestors of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. The most interesting thing to see here are the huge carved grave slabs which are incredible works of art and I believe were made on the Isle of Iona.

Saddell Carved stones

The climbing was relentless but I was making good progress; aided I suspect by not stopping for photos or to examine things like I usually would do when touring as this route took me mostly through forests with very little to see apart from a tunnel of pine trees. These forests roads were basically traffic free. Rather than stop for the night (I had passed many remote campsites) I decided I would aim for Lochgilphead as the weather was good, I was feeling good and it made sense to keep going while everything was going well. I was also aware that the weather was changing. It had become dark and deathly still. A thunderstorm wasn’t too far away but there is always the chance of missing it.

The final few miles into Lochgilphead were completed on the towpath of the Crinan Canal which I found much more interesting than the endless forestry. As Lochgilphead came into view the inevitable happened and the heavens opened. I saw the sign for the campsite as I entered the village but in light of the changed weather conditions I decided to have a quick ride around the village to see if I could find covered accommodation. I was in luck, I got a very nice B&B. It was here I met the first of several other cycle tourists I was to meet along the way – in this case a German woman who was also cycle touring in the area.

I think the decision to book the B&B when I could was the correct one. My rolling total was now 141 miles, I felt okay but knew I would benefit from a good night’s sleep and staying inside a proper house enabled me to dry out the clothes I had been wearing when the deluge occurred. When I woke at around 6:30 the following morning after a comfortable night’s sleep and heard the rain beating of the window pane I knew I had made the right decision. Thankfully by the time I had eaten breakfast the rain eased to a barely perceptible drizzle.

I also knew I was around half-way to Oban and had successfully completed what was supposed to be the most difficult part of the route. I would easily reach Oban by the evening. Also, with the weather having now turned wet I decided to book a night under cover in advance in Oban to avoid traipsing around the town knocking on doors. I had been lucky in Lochgilphead; I may not always be so lucky. I booked a bed in the Oban Backpacker’s Hostel.

Today’s route was to prove just as difficult in terms of gradient. It stared easily as I re-joined the Crinan Canal to begin with. I actually added a few extra miles by following the canal the whole way to Crinan. I was enoying cycling along the canal and rain had stopped by now. I’ve always been fascinated by canals and lockgates and it is always a pleasure to watch barges passing through them. On this occasion I got roped in to help out when I stopped to watch at a series of lock gates and got met with a cry of “Could you gi’e us a hand, Pal?” as I stepped off my bike from someone who was clearly struggling. Turned out that they had just collected the hired boat and this was their first lock gate. I can confirm it is pretty difficult to open and close lock gates, I guess you are moving a door through ten feet of water which is never going to be easy. I am also aware that there is probably an easier way than that which we were doing but that comes from experience which none of us had. I continued on my way with aching shoulders! I hope that they enjoyed their trip.

Crinan Canal

Crinan Canal

The Crinan Canal runs the nine miles between Crinan and Ardrishaig and was opened in 1801 to provide a shorter, faster and also safer route between the Clyde and the Sound of Jura and the Inner Hebridies. This canal has fifteen locks and is crossed by seven bridges – six swing bridges and one retractable bridge. I will talk more about bridges later as I was to see so many fascinating bridges of all types on this trip and learned a lot about bridge construction as I went along.

Crinan Canal

Crinan

As I left Crinan (which is a picturesque little harbour town in it’s own right) I could see the beginnings of blue sky beginning to show through the grey clouds. It was to be a much more interesting day in terms of things to see and do than the day before. It also took in a good few miles of unsealed surfaces and although it is much slower than riding on the tarmac it gets you away from traffic and brings you past Carnassie Castle and various other much older cairns and stone monuments.

Carnassarie Castle

Nether Largie monuments.

This is in many ways (in my opinion) the best part of the NCN 78. It may not touch on any of the famous sights of Scotland but it is very varied with canal, sea, mountains and rivers and for the most part is really remote and gives a great sense of serenity – just me and the open road. For most of it, traffic was non-existant. It is though just a hilly as the previous day. It was quite late and beginning to go dark when I checked into the Oban Backpackers. I had felt the need to use my lights when cycling around Oban trying to locate the hostel. Dynamo lights (bottle dynamo powered in this case powering modern LED light with standlight) are a great thing to have on a touring bike as they are always there and will never suffer from flat batteries. Typically when I had planned ahead and booked accommodation it was to be a glorious evening but such is life! My rolling total was now a little over 200 miles.

NCN 78 - The Caledonian Way

Oban

Oban (An t-Òban in Scottish Gaelic meaning The Little Bay) is a popular tourist resort. There are remains of settlements here going back to ancient times although it seems the modern town grew up around the famous whisky distillery which was founded in 1794. Interest in Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lord of the Isles” brought tourists into the area in the early 19th century and the completion of the railway line in 1880 opened the area up for further tourism. Oban was an important naval base in the Battle of the Atlantic in WWII. The modern Oban is a pleasant town with many nice bars and restaurants, a museum and tours of the whisky distillery are also possible. I didn’t visit it on this occasion but McCaig’s tower which overlooks the town is an interesting curiousity, it is a folly, designed and funded by John McCaig, a wealthy banker, purely as a monument to his family and to provide work for stone masons in the winter. The design was heavily influenced by the Colosseum in Rome and the tower is 600 feet in circumference.

Oban

Day three dawned bright but quite breezy. Today promised to be an easier day. A large part of my route would follow an old railway line so it was likely to be less hilly and the distance would be less at around fifty miles. This was the beginnings of what is known as the Caledonia Way. A few miles outside of Oban I would also have to cross the Connel Bridge. I was looking forward to this as it’s a very interesting bridge. The Connel Bridge is a cantilever bridge which crosses Loch Etive. It was originally built as a rail bridge in 1903 by Arroll’s of Glasgow (who also built the Forth Rail Bridge) but was later modified to carry both rail and road. It was given over entirely to road traffic when the railway line closed and is now part of the A828 trunk road. Despite the removal of the railway it is still not wide enough for two way traffic and there is a traffic light system in operation. I bent the rules a little by riding on the footpath and not bothering to wait with the cars at the traffic lights but doing so allowed me to stop along the bridge to admire the views. I was so pre-occuppied with seeing what the area looked like from the top of the bridge that I had forgot to take a photo of the bridge itself as it’s quite fascinating in it’s own way.

Views from the Connel Bridge - Loch Etive

Views from the Connel Bridge - Loch Etive

The route along the former Connel to Ballachulish railway line (originally built to access the slate quarries at Ballachulish) suits fine if you are not in a hurry. It’s very disconnected in places with having to cross the road many times and constantly yielding to side roads. It doesn’t really follow the railway line as such either as I can see the old railways infrastructure alongside the road. Large parts of it are really just riding on the hard shoulder. I enjoyed the ride but I have to say such projects in Ireland have been much better executed in Mayo, Cork and Waterford. There are some great views however, including Castle Stalker.

Stalker Castle

Loch Creran

It was near Ballachulish where I was to meet and talk another cycle tourist from lowland Scotland who was largely doing the same route as me but he was using local knowledge to add extra bits in and shortcut some parts. We were to meet randomly many more times between here and Inverness and we always stopped to compare notes. He was riding an old alloy-framed Dawes hybrid which he had bought from Ebay for a few pounds and had also ridden it to the south of France early in the year. It further emphasises my point that cycling need not be an expensive hobby if you don’t want it to be. The bike he had appealled to me really with triple chainset, rack and mudguards and V-brakes, it was a very practical machine although he found he couldn’t do the off-road sections I had done on the 700 X 28c road tyres but the frame had clearance for wider tyres. In my experience, Dawes bikes are always good to ride.

From Ballachulish it all starts to go a little wrong on NCN 78. You are on a shared use path which is barely two feet wide in places with walls or fences on one side and HGVs passing you with inches to spare on the A82 on one side. The cycle path then stops. In theory you can get to Fort William using two ferries to avoid the main road but the last ferry sails at 4:30 and I would never have made it. To reach Fort William I was going to have ride on the A82 – something I had hoped to avoid. I cannot complain about the driving standards which were much higher than you’d get on a similar road in Ireland but still it is not enjoyable cycling on a road like this. This part of NCN 78 is in serious need of improvement. It was to begin raining heavily again as I reached Fort William so I decided to look for accommodation with a roof again! Most places had “No Vacancy” signs outs but I was fortunate enough to find a very nice and senisbly priced B&B within walking diatance of the town centre.

Loch Linnhe

 

Loch Linnhe
I had started this trip with a vague plan to make time to take a train ride from Fort William to Mallaig if possible. I had driven from Mallaig to Fort William quite a few years ago and
remeber the stunning scenery and the railway line goes alongside the road for a lot of it and it also crosses the amazing Glenfinnan Viaduct. It is a very special rail journey through some very scenic terrain. I decided to spend an extra day in Fort William and make the rail trip. I then discovered that it is possible to do it by steam train.

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It was a damp start to the day but I wasn’t particularly bothered as I wasn’t cycling today. I went to the train station early to try and buy a ticker for the Jacobite Express but it turned out it was all booked up for the morning. I bought a ticket for the afternoon. I did spend quite a bit of time looking around the train and was invited up on the footplate before it departed. The locomotive was one of the last steam engines to have been ordered by British Rail in 1963 and was built in the locomotive works in Glasgow. I guess this is as good as a steam locomotive ever got as it is right at the end of the development cycle. I learned that it took about 2.5 tons of coal to do the round trip to Mallaig and back, a trip of almost 90 miles. It sound excessive but when you consider the amount of passengers and how many cars would be required to do it by road it is actually pretty efficient I think.

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I had a morning to wander around Fort William.

Fort William is the second most populated town in the Scottish Highlands (after Inverness) and the first settlement here was a fort built during the Cromwellian era. Today it is a major centre of tourism due to it’s location at the foot of Ben Nevis (The highest mountain in the British Isles at around 4,500 feet above sea level). I’ve been up Ben Nevis in the past. Today it was shrouded in mist. Fort William is also close to the stunning Glen Coe Pass, surely one of the great road journeys and as mentioned, it’s about 48 miles from Mallaig and the Isle of Skye Ferry.

I visited the West Highland museum (which has a BSA Paratrooper folding bicycle tied up to the roof). I was aware of the publicity stunt carried out in 1911 by an Edinburgh Ford dealer Henry Alexander who drove a Ford Model T to the top of Ben Nevis. They now have made an incredible bronze statue of him and his Ford motor car which sits outside the museum. You can count the leaves in the springs, the tread on the tyres, the woodgrain on the floorboards, the castellated nuts on the track-rod ends – the details are incredible.

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Eventually it was time for my train, leaving Fort William at around 2:30. I was to enjoy it very much and I would highly recommend this as something to do if ever in this area. It’s true I would have seen the same views from the modern train but the steam locomotive added an extra dimension I feel. The modern train may be more efficient but it lacks the character of it’s forefather. You can smell the steam, the coal and hot oil and it takes on a life and character all of it’s own. I don’t think any other mode of transport has ever been so romaticised as the steam railway era. The journey surpased all my expectations and going over the Glenfinnan viaduct pulled by a steam locomotive was a very special event. The viaduct consists of 21 concrete arches and is 416 yards long and stands 100 feet above the ground at it’s highest point. It is also built on a curve. It was the work of Robert McAlpine. The best view is across Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan monument. The train was also to stop at Glenfinnan station for about 20 minutes to allow us to look around the museum where you can see all sorts of old railway memorabilia as well as learn about McAlpine and how the bridge and the railway line were constructed.

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I had about an 90 minutes to spend in Mallaig before the return trip. I didn’t do much here as I hadn’t really time to go on a proper walk. I did try to visit the museum but it was closed for the afternoon. I like Mallaig and found it a friendly and welcoming place when I stayed overnight here once before. Today I just wandered around the harbour area and admired the view and also sampled one of the things Mallaig is famous for – it’s kippers. I must admit to having a love of smoked fish so this was a very nice evening tea for me. The return journey was also very pleasant and enjoyable. It was more or less dark when we were pulling into Fort William station, proof that the summer evenings have gone for this year now. The train really slows to a crawl for the last few miles on the approach to the station (and it had been the same on the outbound leg of the trip too). I later noted that the modern train does this too. I’m unsure if this is to keep the noise down for the people who live alongside the line or if it’s the restrictions of the small swing bridge which crosses the Caledonian Canal.

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The following day I would be back on the bike again. It is another 70 odd miles from Fort William to Inverness along the NCN 78. With an early start I could have probably have made it in one day. I didn’t want to rush though. I had saved a day by rushing the Mull of Kintyre part earlier in the trip so I would use that day here. This was now the part I was most looking forward to – cycling through Scotland’s Great Glen and large parts of it would be along the Calendonian Canal. I decided to split it in two and aim for Fort Augustus by night. I had visions of a leisurely ride along the canal with the time to stop and watch ships passing through the lock gates and Neptune’s Staircase.

I took the opportunity to do some laundry first before leaving Fort William. I had never done this before, always carrying sufficient clothes but had decided I could save some weight by carrying less clothes and doing some washing along the way. Doing this left room for food and basic cooking equipment. I used the coin-operated washing and drying machines in one of the hotels as recommended by the B&B owner. It cost £2 to wash my clothes and just 40 pence to dry them and gave me an opportunity to clear my pockets of loose change. I would do this again I think as it cuts down on the amount of clothes I need to carry.

From Fort William town centre, the NCN 78 route is confusing to negotiate at first (and I suspect takes you on several miles of a detour) before you find yourself at the beginings on the Caledonia Canal and the Great Glen Way. Ben Nevis should be towering above you at this point but today it was shrouded in mist. It seems incredible that someone drove a little Ford car to the top of the Ben (and it was re-enacted on the centenary in 2011). It needs to be remembered that the suspension and braking system of a 1911 Model T are primitive and although the long stroke engine probably produced good torque at low revs the car only had a two speed gearbox. This is one journey which would have required a skilled driver.

Neptune's Staircase

Ben Nevis covered in Mist

The Great Glen Way

Down at sea level on my bike alongside the Caledonian Canal, the first thing I encounter is the fabled Neptune’s Staircase which is a series of 8 lock gates which raise the canal 64 feet. I’ve always found such things fascinating. This is why I had decided to split my journey to Inverness over two days as I wanted the time to watch ships passing through the lock gates. I believe it takes three hours to complete the sequence at Neptune’s staircase. Unfortunately there wasn’t a ship or a boat to be seen apart from a few moored at the side of wider stretches of the canal.

Scotland’s Great Glen ( Scottish Gaelic Gleann Albainn “Glen of Scotland” or Glen More from the Scottish Gaelic An Gleann Mòr) runs just over 60 miles and follows the Great Glen Fault line which bisects the Scottish Highlands. It contains several lakes – Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy and Loch Linnhe which are linked by the rivers Ness, Oich and Lochy. It has formed an ancient travelling route since ancient times as the high mountains make travelling difficult in the surrounding areas.

The Great Glen - Loch Lochy

As far back as the 1720s, engineers had been looking at the possibility of linking the lochs with a canal to create a shipping route from Loch Linnhe to the Moray Firth near Inverness. This would benefit the fishing industry and improve shipping times and avoid ships having to navigate the trecherous waters of the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath. The area was surveyed by the great Scottish Engineer James Watt in 1774 but the expected cost was prohibitive.

Further suveys were carried out by Thomas Telford with advice from the Royal Navy (who were concerned about attacks by Napoleon and could see potential in safe anchorages away from France’s reach) in the early 1800s and an Act of Parliament passed the House of Commons in 1803 to build and fund the canal with work commencing in 1804. As is often the case with government projects, the canal took much longer and proved much more expensive to build than originally thought. The canal finally opened in 1822 – much longer than the seven years originally planned and at much greater cost. 3,000 men had been involved in the construction project. By 1822 when the canal opened, Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 so the Royal Navy were no longer under any threat from the French Navy and the coming of steam power and larger iron-hulled ships meant that the canal was now too narrow for the newer generation of commercial ships so the canal never reached the volumes of traffic originally anticipated. In some ways it’s time had passed before it had even begun.

NCN 78 - The Caledonian Way

It was one of the first civil engineering projects to be funded by parliament and is still owned and operated by the British Government. Around 3,000 boats a year pass through the canal (not on the days I was to spend alongside it though!). About 1/3 of the route of the canal is man-made, the rest passing through the lochs. The canal was never a commercial shipping success but the dramatic scenery it passes through made it a tourist attraction and even H.R.H. Queen Victoria completed the journey in the 1870s. Today the canal attracts around a million tourists every year, not just to sail on it but to walk or cycle along the towpaths (just like I was doing). Ongoing refurbishment and improvements mean the canal is probably in better condition today than it ever was.

As mentioned, I’d see or cross a lot of bridges of all types on this route. Over the length of the Caledonian canal there are 29 lock gates (including the 8 at Neptune’s Staircase) 10 bridges and 4 aquaducts. I stopped at many of the canal bridges I seen. They are swing bridges (or variations) to allow traffic to cross the canal on the road and then they swing out of the way to allow boats to pass on the canal. They are fascinating pieces of engineering, each different, from small manually operated ones which presumably predate motorised traffic and have perhaps a 2 ton weight limit to the large, modern automated ones where the trunk road crosses the canal. You don’t always follow the canal because as mentioned, only 1/3 of it is an actual canal – the rest consisting of lakes so there are many places where you veer inland, often through forests and gravel roads.

The Caledonian Canal

The part I liked best of the inland sections was the part around Invergarry along the abandoned railway line. This was a very impressive railway project in it’s time. As it was supposed to link Fort William and Inverness eventually, it was built to full mainline standard including a long and impressive tunnel (unlit – ideally I should probably have used my lights). The full rail link was never completed and this lightly trafficked route which led nowhere in parucular was uneconomic and had a short working life. Unfortunately I found another problem with NCN 78 around Invergarry. It is a lovely route on well surfaced traffic-free paths but has some gates of ludicrous design which are locked and have small access gates for cyclists/pedestrians but do not open down to ground level. It necessitates lifting my heavily loaded cycle over a 2 foot bar which is not an easy thing to do. Who thought this was a good idea? How is anyone pushing a pram or on a wheelchair or with mobility problems supposed to overcome this obstacle course Sustrans call a shared use pedestrian/cycle path?

NCN 78 - The Caledonian Way

I also came across the now disused Oich Bridge which crosses the River Oich near Inveragarry. It is one of the many interesting bridges that I was to come across on this journey. It was built to replace an earlier stone bridge which got washed away in a flood and although it looks like a suspension bridge at first glance, it is described as double cantilever bridge which is a variation on the normal cantilever bridge and is entirely self supporting from each end. In theory the bridge could be cut in half and it would still stand. It differs from a suspension bridge in the way that it is anchored. The purpose of the design in this fast-flowing stretch of river was to prevent the flooding problems caused by the previous stone-arch bridge as the arches obstructed the flow of water when the river level was high. It is also a very pretty bridge. It was very interesting to spend the time working out how it worked and how it was built. The supporting chains are a work of art in their own right.

The Bridge of Oich

Despite the relatively short distance I had ridden today, progress was slow and it was getting dark as I rode the final few miles of towpath into Fort Augustus. To be fair, I had a later than usual start in the morning due to the laundry and I had spent a lot of time just musing, studying lock gates, bridges, railway tunnels and anything else that had caught my eye. I had also crossed paths again with other cycle tourist on the Dawes (several times during the day) and spent time talking to him and to several other random people I met along the way. We are so used to high speed travel today and even most serious cyclists (in Ireland at least) are only interested in bettering their times and going faster that we forget to slow down and enjoy the journey. My average speed today would have been utterly pathetic (if I’d measured it) but it was a thoroughly enjoyable day’s riding because I engaged with the places I passed through and with some of the people that I met along the way. Why is everyone in such a hurry?

I found a place to stay in Morag’s lodge hostel (which I liked much better than the Oban Backpackers) and spent a relaxing evening. I went out for a stroll along the canal and the locks and bridges in the gloaming. Fort Augustus is small town but actually very charming and I could spend hours just sitting along the canal and listening to the water flowing and feeling at peace with the world. Again, there was a total absence of boats going through the locks.

Fort Agustus

Fort Agustus

My final full day of cycling would see me complete the NCN 78 route to Inverness. I made a good early start and continued along the canal briefly before being directed back on the road. A short few miles on a busy road led to another off-road path partly along a river and then into a forest. I made a wrong turn somewhere on the forest roads and found myself in a very remote place with no map, no mobile phone signal and no idea where I was and no-one anywhere to ask for directions. My gut instinct told me I had gone wrong somewhere so I retraced my steps until I picked up the NCN 78 route signs again. I probably added about 10 un-necessary miles in the process. Despite this and the fact that no effort was made to go fast, I made much better progress today. I really enjoyed it in terms of scenery and I was to meet my Dawes-riding friend again several times as one or the other of us would be stopped somewhere to look at something or take a photograph and the other would see and stop to compare notes on our progress. At a layby overlooking Loch Ness, we were talking and were joined by two Australians who were riding in the opposite direction and had stopped to take a photo. It is always nice to meet other cycle tourists and compare notes, planned routes and to look over each other’s bikes and equipment and see if we can learn anything. The downside of following this route is that you don’t really get to see Loch Ness in all it’s spectacular beauty. The trunk road which runs on the other side of the lake gives much better views. You do get to see Urquart castle though from the other side of the lake.

Lough Ness

NCN 78 - The Caledonian Way

I also made a slight diversion to the Falls of Foyers which is a waterfall on the Rover Foyers which feeds Loch Ness with a drop of 165 feet. I had heard of this and was familiar with Robert Burn’s desciption of a a “horrid caldron” and “dim-seen through rising mists” when he visited in 1787. I actually felt a little disappointed by the falls. It is pretty, no doubt and some nice walks around it if you had more time to dedicate but I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as a “horrid caldron” and there wasn’t any rising mist from the lower levels as the flow of water was nowhere near great enough. Perhaps it had been a dry summer in the Great Glen and the volume of water was lower than usual. I was to learn from the tourist information board that the falls had lost their power following the building of a hydro-electic power station in 1895 to power the aluminum smelting plant which once operated here. The smelthing plant shut in 1967 but the power station still is still active.

Falls of Foyers

Falls of Foyers

It was to be only around 4 or 4:30 PM when I arrived in Inverness. There was a sign to tell me that I had reached the end of the NCN 78. I had covered a total of 345 miles to get here.

Inverness - The end of NCN 78

Inverness

While I was wandering around outside the castle where the route ends, two other guys on modern road bikes had turned up with someone in a Citreon van in close attendance congratulating themselves on having completing the route. It is achievement in it’s own right as most of the population would be too unfit to ride such a long distance but dare I say it – my achievement was greater than theirs – I probably took at least a day longer to complete it but I did it entirely self-supported with no van to carry my luggage or to help me out. I also suspect they missed out the challenging, hilly forest parts as muddy unsurfaced roads and slick high-pressure tyres don’t mix very well. Their bikes looked too clean…

As I had arrived here much earlier than I expected, I probably could have got on a train back to Glasgow or somewhere for the evening and broke my journey home. But I decided to spend the night in Inverness and to relax. I booked into the Black Isle Hostel which was conveniently located close to the train station in the centre of town and is a really nice modern hostel. I was to meet and talk to a young Canadian student here who was spending the summer cycling around Scotland and doing temporary jobs along the way to fund her trip. After a wash and a change of clothes I first went to the station’s ticket office and booked my ticket with bike reservation for the morning (which turned out to be much easier and considerably cheaper than I thought it might be) and then went for a walk around town, had something to eat and then sat relaxing outside the Castle Bar in the gloaming and having my one celebratory whisky (without the E!) as I watched the sun set on the River Ness.

Inverness (from the Scottish Gaelic Inbhir Nis, meaning “Mouth of the River Ness”) is known as the capital of the Scottish Highlands as it is the administration centre of the Highland Council. Settlements in this area date back to the 6th century. The modern Inverness is a very pleasant city with some lovely walks along the River Ness and many bridges, I again spent a lot of time looking at some of the Victorian iron bridges, mostly built by the Ness Iron Works in the 1880s. Modern engineering is amazing but when the Victorians made something permanent like an iron foot bridge, they didn’t just built something to do the job, they decorated it and made something of beauty.

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At 10:46 the following morning I was leaving Inverness Station with my bike safely stored in it’s reserved place and ticket attached. Unfortunately I had to unload the bike to put it in it’s correct place. I was in possession of a stupid amount of tickets as the very helpful woman in the ticket office had worked out it was cheaper to book the journey in stages so I had many tickets and also duplicates to attach to the bike. I couldn’t get a direct train to Glasgow with a cycle reservation so had to change in Perth which was easy enough as there was a 15 minute wait at Perth Station so I had easily enough time to locate the right platform. At Glasgow Queen Street I had to re-load the bike and wheel it the short distance to Glasgow Central for the train to Ayr. I had booked the ticket from Inverness to Ayr. I had planned to spend a day or two in Ayr as I wanted to cycle parts of the Ayrshire coast, visit Electric Brae and to Alloway and other places associated with Robert Burns and then do the inland vis Newtownstewart back to t he ferry but I could not find sensibly priced accommodation as everywhere was booked out or else asking in excess of £150 per night. When I got to Ayr I did cycle a few miles around the town and out along the coastal path before returning to the station and buying a ticket to Stranraer. Ayr station is currently closed as repairs are being carried out to this magnificent building and a temporary station is in operation. With the help of a platform attendant I man-handled my loaded bike over the bridge which crosses the tracks as I couldn’t access the lift as the station building is closed. I appreciated the help. Northern Ireland Railways could learn a lot about customer service from Scot Rail.

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I had booked a night in the Craignelder Hotel in Stranraer for a very reasonably £36 with breakfast included. I still had a few days I could have used but decided to get ferry home in the morning. The journey to Cairnryan was uneventful early on a Sunday morning and Loch Ryan offers some nice scenery too. I suspect this part of Scotland is often overlooked as people just drive off the ferry and rush to elsewhere.

Loch Ryan

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From Larne harbour I got the train to Belfast Central and then to Derry and cycled the rest of the way home. I covered just a little short of 380 miles on this trip. I have done longer tours in terms of mileage but very few have had a much climbing as this one. Overall it was a very enjoyable trip with much to see and do. Although I enjoyed the ferry trip to Campeltown and Campeltown Loch is beautiful, if I were to do this again I would probably skip the Mull of Kintyre part and start in Lochgilphead as that is where the cycling became interesting for me. I did carry camping equipment which I didn’t actually use but the weather conspired against me in some ways. It was dry during the day but usually heavy rain at night. Camping certainly could be done but although I am definitely not wealthy I can run to a few nights accommodation which gives me a comfortable bed and good night’s sleep and somewhere to dry off damp clothes. I fancy the idea of weekend overnight camping trips at home as it extends my possible distance but on a tour for days at a time and riding big miles there is a lot to be said for the comforts of a proper bed.

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The cooking equipment was useful though. I found that a tin of beef stew or similar heated up and with a few slices of wheaten bread and perhaps an apple or pear for dessert makes a convenient, cheap and effective mid-day meal and now that we are in autumn and the weather is getting colder, I hot meal can work wonders sometimes.

Taking a bike on train is a relatively painless thing to do too and as mentioned I found Scot Rail much more helpful and accommodating that NIR. Interestingly, the price I paid for my journey to Ayr by buying the ticket and making the reservation at the station ticket office came in over £20 cheaper than the prices that were showing up when I tried to book it online.

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As for NCN itself, I have mixed feelings. For the most part, the roads were quiet but I suspect if I had been in possession of a decent map I could have found better roads to use in some places and the stretch towards Fort William is less than ideal and also the gates on some of the parts around Invergarry and Inverlochy are utterly ridiculous. It is still a beautiful journey for most of it though and due to the canals, rivers and lakes you cross many bridges which gives a great insight into the many different designs.

The single most glaringly obvious thing I observed on this trip is how the attitude of the Scottish drivers is so much superior to that of the north of Ireland. I don’t know why it should be Scottish drivers are so much more considerate towards other road users.

The Great Glen

NCN - Route 78

Carnassarie

NCN 78 - The Great Glen Way

Enjoying “Britain’s Best Bicycle!”

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1951 Rudge

In an era where the marketing people have convinced us that we need the lightest possible carbon fibre bicycle with the skinniest high-pressure racing tyres with ten or eleven speed cassettes and double or even triple chainsets; and also the need to be constantly wired up to to gadgets which tell us our heart rate, cadence, calories burned, and all sorts of other information, it can be possible to lose sight of what can make cycling an enjoyable activity or a practical form of transport in the first place.

Some of my most enjoyable bike rides over the years have been on relatively simple or basic bicycles, often with no more than three gears, sometimes without a freewheel, and always much heavier the modern carbon fibre racing machine. How much heavier – how about around fifty pounds in weight! That is the typical weight of a traditional 28“ wheeled roadster though I’ve never felt the need to weigh any of my bicycles. I don’t believe it’s overly important to the utility or recreational rider.

People today equate heavy with cheap. A vintage roadster may very well be a hefty machine but that doesn’t mean it was cheap when originally purchased. In fact quite the opposite as they represented a sizeable investment for a normal working man. They weren’t heavy because they used cheap components; they were heavy because they used quality components!

1951 Rudge alongside River Roe

Designed in a time when most roads weren’t the smooth metalled surface we take for granted today, the frame was built strong to take the punishment. Likewise the wheels – usually 28 inches in diameter. Large wheels because a large wheel rolls better on a poor surface (try going over a cattle grid on roller skates) and heavy because they had thick-walled steel rims and heavy, strong tyres to cope with poor surfaces. British bikes of this period usually had forty spokes on the rear wheel and thirty-two on the front; it made sense to build the rear as a stronger wheel as it carries more weight. Rod operated rim brakes are the normal on a bike like this – much heavier than cable operated calliper brakes but they will last forever with minimal maintenance. You usually find a fully enclosed chain on bikes like these too. The chaincase adds considerable weight but will drastically extend chain life by keeping mud and grit away from it and will also reduce maintenance required as the chain doesn’t get dirty it is easy to just oil it once in a while. Also for utility use, a fully enclosed chain will keep chain grease away from one’s trousers.

Rudge Roadster chain case

Usually the hubs and bottom bracket will also have oil ports so a few easy to apply drips of oil ever now and again will keep the bearings running sweetly and reduce the need for stripping them down for overhaul and fresh grease. Variable gears (if fitted – single speeds are out there too) will be of the hub geared type which again lends itself to low maintenance and all weather use as the gear system is protected from the elements inside the hub shell. The bottom line is that these bikes were built as the transport of the working class and were designed to cover large mileage in all weathers with minimal maintenance, something which they could do better than almost any modern bike. The laid back geometry of a vintage roadster combined with wide low-pressure tyres gives a comfortable ride. Anyone who laughs at a full 28“ wheeled roadster and it weight or the non-sporting aspects of it’s design has just demonstrated their ignorance of why they were built in the way that they are and the intended use to which they were put.

Changes in living arrangements mean I no longer have easy access to all my bikes so some don’t get ridden as much as I’d like. One of these is my 28“ wheeled Rudge roadster. This is a true roadster dating from 1951 with all the features mentioned above plus the added convenience of having a Sturmey Archer Dynohub lighting system so the dynamo is also enclosed inside the hub (can be back or front hub) away from the elements and also offers extremely low drag even with the lights on. Not all roadsters were fitted with the Dynohub lighting system but it adds further convenience as it means lighting is available at the flick of the switch. More upmarket versions were also available with a dry battery unit which took three R20 (D Cell) batteries to provide power to the lamps when stopped. Many of these type of bikes also had built in steering lock as an anti-theft device. It is incredible to look how well specified with practical features they were. They really did have everything required to be a practical all round, all weather commuting bicycle – try finding anything as well equipped in your local cycle shop today.

Mine is a Rudge. Rudge is a company with a long history, being founded by Daniel Rudge in Coventry in the days of the Penny Farthing. They used the slogan “Britain’s Best Bicycle” in their advertisements but whether or not that was true is open to conjecture….Daniel Rudge invented the adjustable race ball bearings still used in most cycles today which represented a major engineering breakthrough as it reduced friction and drag over the plain bearings used previously. Rudge was to merge with Whitworth cycles in 1894 to create Rudge-Whitworth. Like BSA,Triumph, and many of the other early British cycle manufacturers they got involved in motorcycle manufacture and the cycle division ended up being taken over by Raleigh. By the time my 1951 Rudge was built, it was really a Raleigh DL1 with a few features to distinguish it as a Rudge such as the sloping crown front forks and the hand chainwheel (Daniel Rudge had Belfast connections and used the “Red Hand of Ulster” as his logo. It survived into the Raleigh era) which is hidden by the chaincase on mine. Incidentally, the sloping fork crown of a Rudge should be chromed but this is a seperate piece of thin metal which slides down the steerer tube and is held in place by the lower race of the head bearing. Mine had rusted through and was beyond redemption so I just removed it and painted the fork crown when I refurbished the bicycle many years ago now. I don’t like to over-restore things and it was a case of making the best of what I had and a re-paint although I did have wheels rebuilt with new rims.

Rudge fork crown

Rudge Roadster restoration project

Mine had belonged to my grandfather and was in poor condition when I acquired it as it had stood many years in a damp outbuilding but I nursed it back to health. I have ridden it quite a lot off and on over the years since it’s rebuild and I would describe it as a nice bike to ride. It isn’t a racing bike and you are aware of it’s weight when taking off from a standing start but once rolling it is fine and the conservation of momentum effect means that a bike like this is actually very effortless to maintain cruising speed in rolling terrain if no major climbing is involved. Also, the large 28 inch wheels roll so effortlessly. I wish someone would make lightweight rims in this size. For a taller rider, this wheelsize makes a lot of sense. The thing that anyone used to the aggressive geometry of the modern sports bike would find strange is the laid back angles and seriously raked fork mean that once you get up to speed they do not do sudden direction changes very well. It works great on lightly trafficked country roads but I would not want to ride this bike in the heavy traffic conditions of a large town in the modern era as they’re not very manoeuvrable and don’t stop very well in the rain.

I’m perhaps blessed to live in mostly rural area so when I ride this bike or my other similar vintage bikes I can take them into their natural habitat of single track roads with little traffic. The Rudge is joy to ride in such conditions where you can just cruise along at your own pace in perfect peace and tranquillity and leave the hectic modern world behind. This is a great way to enjoy cycling and to de-stress. Other bikes might get you there quicker but that is to miss the point. It’s not about the average speed – this is about enjoying the journey. Also, make no mistake, this may not be a racing bike but if you are not in seriously hilly terrain this old girl can be ridden at decent enough pace if your pedalling technique is good and you know how to use the three speed hub to best advantage. On this bike, I fitted a larger 22 tooth sprocket to lower the gearing to something more sensible as this bike, along with most Sturmey equipped bikes left the factory with gearing for timetrialling, not for a hefty commuter bicycle.

My route was to take from my parent’s home first to Raphoe, although I made a detour first to Beltany Stone Circle which is always a nice place to visit. The route up to is a tough one but I was able to climb it today – the last time about six years ago I rode this bike up here, I had to walk a little – my fitness has obviously improved. Beltany circle was built on a great vantage point over-looking the whole area around 1200BC and consists of sixty-four stones. There would have been more originally. It was used for spiritual and religious ceremony and the evidence shows it was in use for many centuries. I keep meaning to visit here sometime to watch the sun rise on the Summer Solstice but I have never gotten around to it.

Beltany Stone Circle

Beltany Stone Circle

From the stone circle I proceeded to Raphoe past where the railway line once crossed the road and evidence of the this is still visible if you look hard. I didn’t go into the town but used Sheep’s Lane which passes the castle (properly called Bishop’s Palace) which is now a ruin following an accidental fire in the early nineteenth century. Eye witness accounts say it burned for days. Sadly I can see how this imposing ruin has deteriorated badly even in my own lifetime. I wish money was made available to help preserve what is left before it collapses. Further past the castle you also pass the former Royal School House which dates from 1608 – one of five Royal Schools in Ireland which were established by Royal Charter. The modern school which I attended is located further out the road but the old school is still used as boarder accommodation.

Bishop's Palace Raphoe (Raphoe Castle)

From Raphoe, briefly along the main road for a few miles before turning on to the labyrinth of minor roads which eventually brought me to Carrigans where I was to visit the Dunmore House gardens which are open to the public. I wrote about the tragic history of the house in a previous entry on this blog when I rode there specifically to visit the gardens on my 1958 Raleigh Trent. Today I just absorbed the peace and tranquillity of the place in the scorching heat and enjoyed the shelter of the old and beautiful trees. It is definitely worth a visit I think.

Dunmore House, Carrigans

Dunmore Gardens

Dunmore Gardens

Dunmore Gardens

Dunmore Gardens

My next stop would require some real climbing. I intended to cycle to Binnion Hill outside St. Johnston. My three gears were just about enough. This is where my grandparents lived and where my Rudge had languished alone and foresaken in a byre for many years until I decided to rescue it. It also offers stunning views and is not somewhere you will find on your tourist guide. It is private property but I am family! King James II camped here during the Siege of Derry in 1689 and declared that “it was a land well worth fighting for.” The views overlook the River Foyle. In the other direction you can see Muckish and Errigal in the distance on a clear day. Binnion hill is over 600 feet above sea level and I spent much happy time here as a child. It used to seem like a mountain to a child. An old byre in the yard was where I had originally rescued my Rudge from it’s slow destruction so in a way I was bringing it home for a visit too!

Binnion Hill, Overlooking River Foyle

Binnion Hill, St Johnston.

The air was painfully hot as I wandered around Binnion Hill and the clouds looked ominous. As I was here I decided to visit my uncle and whilst I inside the inevitable thunderstorm occurred. I was pleased to have biscuits, tea and shelter from the storm as I looked out the window as the rain coming down in stair-rods and observed the cattle in the nearby field run for shelter as the thunder rolled.

As is often case with summer thunder storms, it passed very quickly and I entered a world that was smelled fresh and pleasant after the hot sticky atmosphere a little earlier. I made my way, down some steep descents and it highlighted the single biggest failings a bike like this has. The brakes don’t really work in the rain. It may have stopped raining but the roads were still saturated and the spray was enough to mean I had effectively no brakes. I had to drag the brakes to keep the rims dry so they just might work if I actually had reason to stop suddenly. Polished chrome is not a good braking surface and also these brakes don’t have the mechanical advantage of something like cantilever brakes.

1951 Rudge

The journey back to my parents house was extremely pleasant, now that the atmosphere was fresh and clean after the rain and thunder. The few people whom I seen out about probably thought I was a bit mad as I charged along splashing through puddles and grinning like an idiot as I charged along on my majestic steed, revelling in the conditions and feeling at one with my bike and my surroundings as I remembered how deceptively rapid it could be in the right terrain. The enormous front mudguard with original leather mudflap (which absorbs road spray rather than deflecting it like a plastic or rubber flaps. A leather mudflap is a worthwhile addition to an all-weather bike and can be cut from an old armchair or similar.) kept my feet bone dry. The heat of the road surface was such that the rain evaporated off them and it wasn’t long before it looked like there had been no rain at all. Everything now looked so green and so clean in the fading June sunshine. In the meantime I rode through the puddles and the clouds of water vapour coming from the road surface. My own personal sauna! It was also peaceful. The thunder had stopped the birds from singing. There was just silence apart from the gentle tick of the Sturmey Archer hub gear in top gear and the slightest amount of tyre noise and gentle squeaking you tend to get from sprung leather saddles. This is a very quiet bicycle. Riders of derailleur geared bikes may not be aware of how much racket the chain makes as it threads it way through the torturous meandering route of the jockey wheels unless they have ridden hub geared or single speed bicycles.

Yes, a fifty pound bike can give perfect enjoyment and satisfaction. People have toured on these. I covered around forty miles on my afternoon ride and really enjoyed it and didn’t find it any great hardship. A good “light” roadster on 26 inch wheels is great to ride too but in a different way – they lack the majestic and effortless ride of their larger, heavier ancestors. As I thought about it as I rode home, these bikes were a pretty amazing piece of engineering in their own right. Mine is one of the good ones in a way – built before cost-cutting came in and quality in British industry in general was to go steadily downhill in the postwar era. Don’t completely dismiss a late model Raleigh roadster should you find one – the paint and chrome will possibly fall off it in great chunks in comparison to much better quality earlier ones but they still rode well.

Binnion Hill, St Johnston.

The incredible durability and the practicality of it all – the closed in chain, the oil ports, the built in lighting system, the comfort of 1 1/2 inch wide tyres, slack angled frame and triple sprung saddle. You may very well choose something lighter for long rides (and even back in the day, keen cyclists usually did too) but for practical utility riding, these old roadsters had all they needed. It is true the brakes are fine in the dry and pretty hopeless in the wet and great though the Sturmey Archer Dynohub was, the lights with a 1.25 Watt headlamp bulb and 0.4 Watt tail lamp bulb are just too dim for modern road conditions but that is too miss the point. Progress has brought us better lights and brakes. This Rudge had everything it needed to carry out it’s role using the best technology available at the time. Almost seventy years after it was built, it can still give me enjoyment today and is still capable of doing what it was meant to do. The Sturmey dyno can power a modern LED headlamp (I know as I’ve tried it – it is bright if a little flickery due to low frequency AC generated by these hubs) and it would be possible to fit drum brakes to the wheels to bring the braking up to scratch if you were really intent on using one of these as everyday bike.

As for me, I will just accept it’s limitations and enjoy the time-travelling ability to take me back into a slower, more carefree life whenever I feel like doing so. It’s only had one overhaul in it’s 70 year life. I will probably not live long enough to wear it out – that is proper quality!

Rear reflector and mudguard

Sturmey Archer headlight

1951 Rudge

Wexford to Mizen on a Brompton

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Brompton

Now that I have completed the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coast which was my aim when I first started to experiment with cycle touring, I had pondered the question of where to go next! Getting ferries to Scotland, England, Wales or France are possibilities I have filed away for future consideration. As it was, I had some time booked of in May and the dates crept up on me without having planned anything. I decided to turn my attention to the south coast of Ireland as it could be easily done and planned at the last moment so this is what I elected to do.

The South coast is of course much less rugged than the West. I decided to use my Brompton. I could transport it easily on the bus and I was interested to see how it would cope with loaded touring. I purchased a Brompton T-Bag last year which quickly and easily attaches to the front mounting block of a Brompton had proved to be a Godsend and and made the bike so convenient for shopping or other utility duties as it can hold so much and apparently has little or no effect on how the bike rides. If anything, I feel a Brompton rides better when loaded to the front, something which other Brompton users I have met have also agreed with.

I have always felt small-wheeled bicycles are under-used. The small wheels make it much more convenient to put luggage on the bike as the luggage can be mounted lower with no wheels to get in the way. This has less effect on the bike’s centre of gravity. All other things being equal, a small wheel will also weigh less so it is easier to accelerate the bike up to speed and it will also be stronger than a larger wheel built with similar quality components.

Despite this, small-wheelers have always been a difficult sell. People assume it will be harder to ride and be slower and think that bikes should have large wheels. When the traditional 28“ wheeled “black” roadster (which was to become the normal transport of the British working class) was designed prior to the first world war, Europe had little or no tarmac roads so the large wheel rolled better on very poor surfaced roads. Today, most cyclists are carrying out their riding on reasonably well-surfaced roads so the need for those large wheels has become less clear-cut.

Furthermore, for smaller riders, the challenge of fitting large wheels of twenty-six or more inches in diameter into a small frame without crippling toe-overlap means that the frame geometry is often compromised to package the large wheels. Small wheels remove this problem and the way that most small-wheeled bicycles are designed with step-through frames and long seatposts mean that they are infinitely adaptable for people of different heights. Something like a Raleigh Twenty could be ridden comfortably by anyone, male of female, aged nine to ninety or anywhere in between so frames don’t need to made in many different sizes. Every household should have one as it can be easily stored and lent out out to visitors should they need transport.

Brompton

A lof of this was championed by Sir Alex Moulten in the 1960s and his small-wheeled bicycle obtained a cult following and the sportier versions were used to set some hugely impressive times so the myth that small wheels are slow is not quite true. The Moulten led to a lot of spin-off copies (but usually without suspension) such as the deceptively lively Raleigh Twenty, the Royal Enfield Revelation and also the Dawes Kingpin (One I’d like to add to my collection). The were also copies on Continental Europe such as the Austrian-made Puch Pic Nic (I own ones of these too). These bikes all sold well in their time but have almost disappeared now. It is rare to see a small wheeled bicycle in use today apart from occasional folding bikes and I feel this is a great shame as they can be great fun to ride as well as enormously practical. I would dearly love to own an original Moulton but they have become very collectable and expensive.
The Brompton is possibly one of the best known small-wheeler of the modern era. They are quite an expensive bicycle but a very high quality machine and fold very easily and very compactly so can be easily transported by car, bus or train. My Brompton is a relatively basic three speed model but I love it. I have toured on it before but at the time I didn’t have any proper Brompton luggage accessories and trying to strap a rucksack to the rear carrier was less than ideal. Ever since acquiring my T-bag I had been itching to try out the touring potential of the Brompton. Plenty of people have successfully toured on a Brompton, I wanted to try too!

Many people will probably point to the lack of gears and some have come up with ingenious ways to add extra lower gears for loaded touring. Such things interest me from an engineering point of view but I didn’t really feel the need to do so. I have done tours before on a (26“ wheeled) three speed and found the gearing fine if the ratios are chosen correctly in the first place. I believe a Sturmey Archer AW hub will be fine for 90% of the riding most people will do – and as for the other 10% – you can get off and push if you really need to and if you are spinning out on a descent, then just freewheel. Sadly most three-speed bikes have left (and continue to leave) the factory with ludicrously high gearing for the use that they are likely to be put too. It is relatively simple to swap out the rear sprocket of any post 1951 built Sturmey Archer hub for a larger one. I did this on my Brompton too when I got it first – swapping the 13 tooth sprocket for a 15 tooth. If your technique is good though, you can climb much tougher hills than you realised and also pedal at a much higher cadence than you think possible. Concentrate on pedalling smoothly and in complete circles. This is why riding fixed wheel can be used to help with technique for anyone wanting to train and improve – the fixed wheel will force you to pedal smoothly and you can then use this improved technique on your geared freewheel bicycle. I know many will disagree with this but I’m basing it on my own experience.

Brompton

So early one fine Friday morning, I found myself complete with Brompton and luggage boarding a bus for Dublin. I had decided to increase my luggage capacity by adding a Carradice saddle bag, I probably could have fitted enough into the front T-Bag but I thought it was perhaps better to balance things out a little with some weight on the back as well. I had changed the saddle on this bike to a cheap copy of a Brooks B66 (borrowed from my Record roadster) to provide the bag loops and also because it would be more comfortable. The gel saddle I had on the bike was fine for about thirty miles but then became distinctly uncomfortable. I personally favour leather saddles. They can be hard and unforgiving to begin with but will soften up and take shape to suit you just like a good pair of shoes.

On the subject of luggage, I know many could travel lighter than I do but I prefer to have sufficient clothing, for both on and off the bike and as the weather along the Irish coast can change rapidly and sometimes without warning, I am equipped for whatever the weather will bring. Being cold or wet can make it miserable. I also carry tools and puncture repair kit, tubes, spare cables (I wanted a spare gear cable as I doubt a cable for an SA hub would be in stock in many bike shops these days. It is unlikely it would break but it is light to carry), a few spare chain links. A derailleur chain can always be shortened if need be and although you’d lose your low gear you could still continue. With my hub gearing, I took spare links just in case as you can’t really shorten the chain of any hub gear or single speed bike. I would sometimes be passing through remote places too so always carry at least a little food just in case. I prefer to be prepared. It just depends on how minimalistic you wish to be – I met a Dutch guy once who cycling the Wild Atlantic Way with basically nothing; he was buying a new cheap T-Shirt every day. Seems very wasteful to me but each to their own.

My plan had been to start my south coast tour at Rosslare Harbour as there is a railway station there but electing to use the Brompton meant I could now risk a multiple bus trip which of course works out much cheaper. I had booked my first night’s accommodation in a rural location in Carne in County Wexford. This is quite close to Rosslare anyway. From Dublin I took a second bus to Wexford town. I could have gone further along the coast by bus but had decided that Wexford would be enough. It would leave me a nice leisurely twenty miler to the B&B to ease me into the trip.

It began to drizzle rain as left Wexford, but it never became heavy, just a slight dampness and a mist hung in the air. Navigation proved tricky on minor unclassified roads and twenty miles were probably more like twenty-five with “scenic detours” in reality but I was in no hurry. I was to spend the night at the Windy Acres Bed and Breakfast and I was made very welcome and can happily recommend it. It even had sea-views and views of the many wind turbines which populate the Wexford coast. I know many complain about them but they have a graceful elegance and I don’t find them noisy at all. They are certainly preferable to a coal-fired power station belching filth into the air.

Carne Co. Wexford

The view of the sea and the turbines was much clearer in the morning as the rain and mist had cleared overnight. After a leisurely breakfast I began my first prope day of touring along the Wexford coastline. There are in fact many possible routes to explore here, including the Velovision which is part of much longer European route along the Atlantic coast crossing country borders from Norway to the south of Spain. It also forms part of the Norman Way – a route which can be followed linking up sites which have connections to the Normans.

The Norman Way

The Normans first came to Wexford in 1169 at the request of Diarmait Mac Murchada, the King of Leinster who had recently been over-thrown and had enlisted the help of King Henry II of England and the Anglo-Norman Lords to help him regain his Kingdom. He promised the hand of his beautiful daughter Aoife in marriage to Richard de Clare (Strongbow) and also the Kingdom of Leinster (upon the death of Diarmait Mac Murchada) was to pass to Strongbow. This was the early beginnings of eight hundred years of British occupation of Ireland.

The Normans brought fresh ideas with them too, evident in their buildings of defensive towers, fortresses and churches. You can still see much evidence of this around the coast of Wexford even today with many ruined churches and forts. The Normans also brought the design of the post windmill and many were built in Wexford for the same reason that electricity companies today have built so many wind turbines here – it tends to be windy! You can see the famous preserved windmill at Tacumshane which was working as recently as 1936 before being replaced with a diesel driven mill. It is now in the care of Office of Public Works.

Tacumshane Windmill

Tacumshane Windmill

Also in this area is Our Lady’s Island (linked to the mainland by a sandy causeway) which was quite an interesting place to visit.You will find a Norman Castle and Tower as well as the medieval church ruins and graveyard. The most striking feature is the leaning tower. The tower was built by the de Lamporte family in the 12th century. Rumours of buried Norman treasures at the base of the tower have caused people to dig and excavate around the base and foundations for the missing treasure over the centuries and the weakened foundations have caused the tower to lean at a rather dramatic angle. Our Lady’s Island was also to become an important pilgrimage site.

Our Lady's Island, co. Wexford

Leaning tower - Our Lady's Island, co. Wexford

The other thing I found which I found hugely interesting was the “Shell Cottage” in Cullenstown/Duncormick. This is a cottage (and outbuildings) which over the course of many years, had all sorts of artistic art work applied to the outside walls by the former owner Kevin French (1921 – 2003). It is obvious that work is being carried out to the thatched roof which is currently covered by a tarpaulin but the shell decorations are a thing of beauty. I spent ages just examining them and I could easily have spent much longer if I had time. It is really an extraordinary piece of art showing great vision and dedication as the time taken to achieve this must have been considerable.

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

The Shell Cottage - Cullenstown, Co Wexford

I continued on my way along the coastline. I would spend my second night in Fethard-on-sea. The Norman ruins, the windmill and Our Lady’s Island as well as many thatched houses were of interest, but I had not been particularly inspired by the Wexford coastline so far. I found it a bit flat and featureless so far and traffic volumes on even the minor unclassified roads was higher than I would have expected. I rarely get the chance to cycle in flat areas but today taught me that I actually prefer the hills as it is more varied, interesting and challenging.

The terrain did become more interesting as I moved westward. There were now hills to climb, the Brompton worked fine on them despite the luggage. The signposted route took me mostly along the coast though all sorts of interesting little villages and coves. I also found the Taylorstown Viaduct which is a magnificent red brick arched railway bridge dating from 1904. The long difficult climb out of the deep valley which the viaduct crosses saw me having to get off and push the bike for the first time.

Taylorstown Viaduct, Co Wexford
The signposted route would also take me into the grounds of the Tintern Abbey which was built in the late thirteenth century. The Anglo-Norman Knight William Marshall, first Earl of Pembroke, was the patron of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales. On his return to Ireland, with a new title, Lord of Leinster, his ship ran into a storm. Marshall vowed to establish a monastery wherever he landed safely. After landing at Bannow Bay in Wexford he bequeathed 3,500 hectares of land for the foundation of a Cistercian abbey. The abbey was named after the one in Wales and also colonised by monks from there.

Following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries it was granted to Anthony Colclough who was an officer in Henry’s army and he coverted it into a private residence. The final member of the Colclough family to reside at Tintern Abbey was Lucey Marie Biddulph Colclough who left the house to live in Saltmills in 1960 and donated the abbey on her death in 1984 to the Irish Nation. I was aware of the Abbey but knew little about it and had no plans to visit it. It was just a chance that quite a few miles of my signposted cycle route was to pass through the gravel paths on the grounds and past the Abbey itself. It is a very beautiful place well worthy of a visit. One could spend hours exploring the woodlands and gardens which surround it.

Saltmills, Co Wexford.

Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford.
I had covered about sixty-three miles as I rolled into Fethard-on-sea. It had been very easy going today, mostly flat, I don’t think I needed my lowest gear much, if at all. The wind had made it a bit of a grind in places but that is to be expected here – the presence of the wind farms is a bit of a clue! I had checked into the Hook Hostel for the night. Basic accommodation but perfectly functional and it gave me all I needed. For a second night, I had stayed somewhere in which I was the only guest.

The next day also promised to be kind from a weather point of view and I had been looking forward to to seeing around Hook Head and the peninsula. It is very scenic and of course the main point of interest at Hook Head is the Hook Head lighthouse. I’ve seen many lighthouses on my coastal tours. I still consider the lighthouse at Fanad head in my native county to be the most beautiful but the Hook Head lighthouse is a little bit special too – especially in terms of it’s long history.

Eurovision Atlantic Coastal route, Hook Peninsula.

First though, I made a quick detour to Slade castle and harbour. Slade castle was built in the fifteenth century by the Lafftan family who were to lose the castle following the 1641 Rebellion. It was used as storage by the salt works until the nineteenth century before being made into tenement housing. It was taken over by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. A bright yellow early steel-framed Raleigh Hybrid bicycle has clearly been left to rot away in the salt air at the side of the castle which is a shame as it’s nice frame with decent components but it is seized solid.

Slade Castle, Co. Wexford.

Slade Harbour, Co. Wexford.

As far back as the fifth century AD, there are records of a beacon being lit on Hook Head to warn mariners of danger. The current lighthouse tower is 847 years old and was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law, the Earl of Pembroke who succeed Strongbow as Lord of Leinster. The lighthouse was maintained originally by monks. The first lighthouse keeper was installed in the eighteenth century. Over the years the light has been changed from wood fires, to coal, to whale oil, to gas, to paraffin oil and finally in 1972, to electric light. The final lighthouse keepers left the building in 1996 when the lighthouse was changed to automatic operation and is now in the charge of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It is the oldest light house in the country and the second oldest in the world which is still in operation. It is incredible to think that this simple tower has stood guard at the entrance to Waterford Harbour and cast a warning and guiding light to sailors for over eight hundred years. It seems the Normans built things to last.

Hook Head Lighthouse, Co. Wexford

It is possible to take a guided tour of the lighthouse but I declined due to time constraints. There is quite a lot to see around the lighthouse itself though, including the houses built for the lighthouse keepers which are now the visitors centre, a display of maritime relics and a small museum which contains an original rocket car amongst other things. I also seen one of these on Valencia Island when I cycled the Kerry coastline a few years ago. These were used to transport the life-saving equipment of the day – a rocket to fire a rope to the stricken ship from the coast which could then be fastened to a mast by the people on board and it could then be used to bring people safely to the shore. It obviously remained in use until the mid 1920s at least as it has been sign-written with Saorstát Eireann which would mean it was used after 1922 when An Saorstát Eireann (The Irish Free State) was created following the War of Independence and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The advances in both vehicle design and in life-saving equipment in the past one hundred years is nothing short of incredible when you think about.

Rocket Cart, Hook Head museum.

My next stop would be at Loftus Hall. I must admit I had never heard of this before but it also has had a long history; dating back to 1170 when it was originally built and it became known as Redmond Hall. It had an interesting past, including being the scene of many attacks and battles during the Eleven Year War and the Cromwell conquest of Ireland. English planter Nicholas Loftus was granted a lot of land in Wexford by Cromwell and purchased Redmond Hall (from adventurers) and it was to become the main residence of the Loftus family in 1666. The Redmond family continued to dispute the Loftus possession in court and were eventually granted land in the north of county Wexford in compensation. The Redmonds were to became a prominent local political dynasty in Wexford and avid supporters of Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell and of course, the most famous, John Redmond succeeded Parnell as leader of the Irish Home Rule party and came very close to delivering Home Rule for Ireland in the years prior to The Great War.

Loftus Hall went through a major re-structure in the 1870s to create the building we see today. It is thought that the extensive works were in preparation for a planned visit by Queen Victoria which never actually took place. The Loftus family never got to enjoy the refurbished house though as the family were in a poor financial position and house was placed on the market. It was eventually purchased in 1917 by the Sisters of Providence and used as a Convent School until 1983 when it was sold and re-opened as a hotel. The hotel closed in the 1990s. It is now open as a tourist attraction (although clearly in need of much renovation) and is marketed as Ireland’s most haunted house! There is a famous ghost story associated with it involving a game of cards and man with cloven hooves in place of feet (I remember my maternal grandfather used to tell a similar tale which happened somewhere near St. Johnston. I must check details with my mother).

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford.

I continued on my way along the west side of the peninsula. I was following cycle route signs which would eventually bring me to Tramore in County Waterford where I was planning on spending the night. First though I had to make a short ferry journey, one of two I would make on this trip, between Ballyhack and Passage East. It is only a short crossing across Waterford Harbour but substantially shortened the journey to Tramore as well as avoiding the need to cycle into Waterford City.

Dollar Bay, Co. Wexford.

Ballyhack Harbour

From Passage East, I would head south along the other side of Waterford Harbour. I must admit I was liking this much more than the first day. The terrain was more interesting and varied and the traffic volume had now reduced. On a glorious May Sunday evening I rolled into Tramore after completing a further fifty-eight miles. I had definitely enjoyed today more than the previous day. Tramore, as a popular sea-side resort was very busy when I arrived, as you might expect on such a nice Sunday evening. By seven or eight o’clock however all the day-trippers had gone and for a third night I was the only guest in my chosen accommodation – the Beach Haven Hostel which is a very nice hostel based in an old townhouse.

Tramore (Trá Mhór, meaning “great strand”) is a popular seaside resort and like many such places began as a small fishing port which became a popular holiday destination with the coming of the railway line and has remained popular for watersports even though the railway link with Waterford has long since gone. In the first few days of opening the Waterford to Tramore railway line, around five thousand people had made the trip and the Royal Irish Constabulary had to be brought in to maintain order on the platforms when boarding the train; such was the demand for a seaside trip by the residents of the nearby city. We really do take ease of travel for granted today.

The town’s symbol is the seahorse which has also been adopted as the logo of the Waterford Crystal company. The seahorse is a reference to a tragic event in the town’s history when the transport ship The Seahorse went down off Tramore with the loss of over three-hundred lives.

The good weather continued through to Monday. I was to continue along the coast today to Ardmore. This part of the Waterford Coastline is known as the copper coast as copper mining has taken place here in the past. It is certainly very beautiful. I also first passed the other thing which Tramore is known for – the Metal Man. Tramore Bay is sheltered yet potentially treacherous and can be easily confused with the safe haven of the Suir estuary. Following the sinking of the Seahorse, the ship’s insurers – Lloyds of London paid for the construction of these pillars as navigational aids. There are three pillars at Newtown Head, two pillars at Brownstown Head and finally Hook lighthouse is used as a single pillar. Sailors were warned to only enter Waterford Harbour after passing the other pillars and the lighthouse became visible. The “metal man” is a fourteen foot tall metal sailor mounted on one of the pillars. It has also passed into local folklore and legend as marriage is promised to any “eligible maidens” within a year if they could hop around the base of the metal man. Since the circumference is around eighty yards on uneven ground, this also ensured that any available eligible bachelor would be getting a fit and healthy wife who was able to complete this physically demanding task! Needless to say I did not spot any eligible maidens hopping around the base!

The Metal Man, Tramore Co. Waterford.

"The Metal Man" Tramore Co. Waterford.

I actually decided the Copper Coast is one of the most under-rated pieces of coastline in Ireland. I really enjoyed my day’s riding here and would have liked more time to have explored some things in more detail. There is even an art work in a very picturesque location (“Fire and Water” by Collette o’ Brien) which represents all the formations and layers which make up the coast line. From a distance riding along the road I saw it and thought it was paint on the stone but is actually some form of enamel. A little past that you will reach Tankardstown Copper Works. Now a ruin, you can see the chimney, the engine house, the boiler house, the beginnings of the mineshaft and other relics of the mine. The steam engine was installed c1860 and sold for scrap in the 1870s as the amount of ore was less than anticipated. The engine house was to house a diesel engine when the mine was re-opened for a short time in 1906.

Copper Coast Geopark

Tankardstown Copper Mine

I passed through many little towns and seaside resorts and visited many little coves and beaches, the names of many of which I cannot now recall as they were so many. The Waterford coast really is under-rated. I had it all almost to myself. I was to spend the night in Bayside Cottage in Ardmore. First I made a final scenic diversion to Helvic where you can see the Victorian public baths and also a monument to the 1867 Fenian (Irish Republican Brotherhood) rebellion called Erin’s Hope.

Brompton on the Copper Coast

The Copper Coast, Co. Waterford

Helvick

Helvick 1867 rebellion monument

Bayside Cottage is a lovely little B&B run by a lovely couple who made me feel completely at home. Yet again I was the only guest! Where is everyone? We complain about the cost of B&B but it is probably quite difficult to make it pay outside of the usual tourist traps as the season is actually really short. May or September are my preferred months for cycle touring for this reason – still long days and usually good weather but less people, less traffic.

Ardmore (Aird Mhór, meaning “Great Height”) is a small seaside town in Co. Waterford. It is noted in religious circles as being possibly the earliest Christian settlement in Ireland with the Christian faith being brought here by St. Déclán who came here possibly as early as 350AD which of course precedes St. Patrick. Today you can see the impressive and very well preserved round tower which dates from the twelfth century and the remains of the cathedral which mostly dates from slightly later although part of the complex dates from the eighth century. I found it fascinating to look around the remains of the cathedral. I am no expert on architecture but a few things did interest me. There is some impressive stone masonry in the cathedral walls, they actually represent Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and also Solomon’s Judgement.

Ardmore high tower, county Waterford

Ardmore Cathedral artwork.

Ardmore Graveyard, Co. Waterford

You can also see the difference in Gothic and Roman arch design as you look around the ruins. I’m guessing here but I suspect the impressive Gothic arch on the inside dates from a later period of building work to the exterior walls which feature the traditional rounded Roman arches in the doors. The Gothic arch was of course a major advance in building design in it’s time as it needed less material to build and made larger windows, etc possible as the load is forced mostly downwards from the keystone rather than outwards as with rounded Roman arch so less masonry was required to carry the load. Inside the cathedral you can also see Ogham stones. Ogham stones were used to write the early Irish language and around four hundred originals exist in Ireland today, mostly in Munster and also some in Wales.

Ardmore Cathedral Gothic arch.

Ardmore Cathedral Roman arch

Ogham stone - Ardmore Cathedral

I found Ardmore a very pleasant place to stay, probably the nicest of the towns in which I stayed during this trip. A number of celebrated writers have lived here including Molly Keane who is buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard, the American writer Nora Roberts who based three of her books in Ardmore thus making Ardmore a popular destination with American tourists over the years and also British writer Claud Cockburn moved to Ardmore in 1947.

The good weather continued on the Tuesday morning. I continued my journey westwards along the coast via Caliso Bay and Ferrypoint. I would have to join the N25 to cross the bridge over the River Blackwater. I always prefer to avoid National Primary routes but I never feel threatened or endangered around here in the way I do on busy roads in the north of the country. The standard of driving is and general attitude is so much better and you also rarely see the people who endlessly drive around town centres in the evening causing pointless noise, pollution and congestion which seems to be a favoured hobby for many in the north of the country.

I would soon arrive in Youghal and Co. Cork – my first visit to east Cork. I only passed through Youghal (Eochaill, meaning “yew wood” as there once were many yew woods in this area) but my initial impressions were favourable. The town has a long history, going back to a Viking settlement in the eleventh century and evidence of other settlements going back much further to Neolithic times. Youghal became a prominent and important town to British rule during the Plantations of Munster in the sixteenth century. Sir Walter Raleigh planted his first potatoes here at his home in Myrtle Grove after he brought them back from the “New World” and he was later granted 42,000 acres of land in the surrounding area by Queen Elizabeth I. Due to the Sir Walter Raleigh connections, it also became important in the early tobacco trade. There is so much history associated with Youghal that I can’t possibly go into it all here (nor do I know it well enough). I actually regret not taking an extra day here just to explore the many historical sites in the town and the immediate area. It is also a very scenic area with nice beaches and harbour and the second lighthouse I was to visit on this trip, in comparison to Hook Head, this one is a mere youngster – it only went into service in 1852! It was the work of architect George Halpin and is very nice building in it’s own right. Youghal was also where a lot of the filming was done for the 1954 film adaptation of Moby Dick.

Youghal Co. Cork

Youghal Co. Cork

Youghal Co. Cork

I followed the coast road from Youghal towards Knockadoon Head. Things were to become slightly confusing here due to the absence of any useful road signs and several diversions due to roadworks but I eventually found my way to Ballycotton where I would end up talking to a lovely Dutch couple who were touring the Irish coast in a Renault Estafette 1000 van. I didn’t ask them how old it was I had just assumed 1960s from the styling of it but I’ve now read a little and found they were produced from 1959 – 1980. It has just a 1300cc engine to pull the rated one tonne payload. I’d imagine the gearing would be low to allow a small engine to pull such a payload so I’m sure their cruising speed would not be too high but if they are touring there is no rush whatsoever. This is how I like to see old cars (or bikes, tractors or anything else) – being used and bearing a few battle scars, not used as pristine museum pieces. At Ballycotton you can get a good view of Ballycotton Island and yet another lighthouse.

Knocadoon

Renault 1000 Van

Cape Island

Despite the navigational problems and extra mileage, today was turning out to be a highly enjoyable day. The roads around this part of Co. Cork are basically traffic free, mostly very scenic and what little traffic exists is incredibly respectful. I stopped briefly in the village of Cloyne to look at another round tower. This one dates from 560AD when St. Coleman founded his monastery. It is not in such good condition as the one in Ardmore (it suffered a lightening strike in the eighteenth century) but is beautiful none the less. One can only marvel at the skill and the time that went into building such things. Quarrying and transporting sufficient stone would be a difficult task in itself before the machinery we now take for granted.

Cloyne round tower

More problems with roadworks and diversions from leaving Cloyne and my planned route was closed to all traffic so I ended up on a busy main road in rush hour. Not what I had hoped for but again, the incredible respect shown by the Cork drivers is alien to me and not what you would find in the north of the country. It is never pleasant cycling along a busy main road though but at least I never felt in any danger.

At Saleen, I was able to turn left towards East Ferry which overlooks Cobh and was a little piece of tranquil heaven on the road to Midleton where I would spend the night. I had booked a room at Carrigashane House B&B is located a little out of the town and which was very welcoming, and comfortable and had huge gardens. I had a wash and change of clothes and cycled the two miles or so back into Midleton to get food. I was to take advantage of the nice evening and the nice garden to sit in a seat in the garden and read until it was it was time for bed. For the first time on this trip, there were other guests! I was surprised to see that I covered eighty odd miles today too – not all planned! I did have to walk a few hills but the Sturmey was working fine for touring. I think we over-think our gearing needs for touring!

East Ferry Co. Cork

East Ferry Co. Cork

Wednesday dawned nice and bright again and after a hearty breakfast to fuel me for my journey I was ready for the road again. One option would have been to venture into Cork City itself and continue around the other side of Cobh but I didn’t fancy that – too busy, too hectic. Some people enjoy cities but they’re not for me. With a Brompton, one other option would have been to have folded it up and got on a bus and missed the busy part that I wasn’t interested in. I took the third option – the ferry.

DSCF8155 (Copy)

DSCF8151 (Copy)

The Crossriver Ferry Company operate a service from Carrigaloe to Passage West across the River Lee which would keep me out of the city. I made a leisurely trip to Carrigaloe Port to catch the ferry. I regret not going on further first to visit Cobh (known as Queenstown prior to the formation of the Irish Free State), a port with a lot history going back many years and also was the last port the ill-fated Titanic was to call at before the tragic iceberg strike in April 1912. Cobh is actually the second deepest harbour in the world and was one of the “Treaty Ports” (along with Bantry Bay and Lough Swilly – also very deep sheltered natural harbours) which the British retained following the formation of the Free State until finally surrendering them to the Irish Defence Force in 1938.

River Lee

The ferry crossing was very smooth and tranquil and lasts around five minutes. At only €1.50 I cannot complain about the price. I now found myself in West Cork, one of my favourite parts of the entire country. I would be spending the night in Kinsale, first I would be taking the coast road. I had been to Kinsale before, but never explored the coastline to the east of it. I would do it now. I began to make my way to Ringaskiddy and Carrigaline. A nice surprise was to await me at Carrigaline – the former railway line to Crosshaven has been turned into a “greenway” – a shared cycle/pedestrian path. I really do wish Donegal County Council would get their act together and do this with some of the many former railway lines here.

Carrigaline to Crosshaven Greenway

Carrigaline to Crosshaven Greenway - Drake's Pool

It is so much nicer to ride a path like this than to ride on the road. It is a very pleasant route too along the Owenabue River, Drake’s Pool and the Royal Cork Yacht Club. Unlike the Mayo Greenway, this has a metalled road surface (to be fair I never found the surface of the Mayo greenway to be a problem but many have complained). The greenway makes the ride to Crosshaven much more pleasant than the road journey would have been. I found Crosshaven a very pleasant coastal town. Crosshaven was originally a Viking Settlement, I learned that the name of Drake’s Pool which I passed on the River Owenabue is in reference to Sir Francis Drake having taken refuge there from the Spanish Armada. I bought some takeaway food from the deli counter in a supermarket in Crosshaven and sat and relaxed in the afternoon sun whilst I ate it in the village green opposite the Crosshaven House Hotel which is a beautiful eighteenth century mansion brilliantly preserved. The whole area and coastline around Crosshaven is wonderful and was one of the highlights of this trip.

Crosshaven House Hotel

Crosshaven

I made a quick journey to Camden Fort (or Fort Meagher) which is on a hill a few miles out of town. The fort covers forty-five acres – sixty-five percent of which is underground. It is one of the defences in Cobh Harbour which was maintained by the British military following the Anglo-Irish Treaty and formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. It was handed over to the Irish Defence Force in 1938 (along with the other treaty ports in Lough Swilly and Bantry Bay) when it was renamed Fort Meagher by the Irish Army. It was maintained as a coastal defence by the Irish Army until 1989 when the army handed it over to Cork County Council. It is now a tourist attraction which is occasionally open to the public.

Camden Fort

From Crosshaven I would make my way to Minane Bridge and then Robert’s Cove which proved to be another one of the highlights of this trip. The roads in this area are largely traffic free and peaceful and Robert’s Cove was stunning in it’s beauty and it’s tranquillity.  A beautiful beach and tiny village, surrounded by beautiful scenery. I could have sat and admired the views and enjoyed the peacefulness for many hours but had to get back on the road again. This was a Yeats “Lake Isle of Inisfree” moment.

Old Irish signposts

Robert's Cove

Robert's Cove

I continued my way along the coast to Kinsale with many other scenic stops and detours. The Cork coastline has a beauty all of of it’s own and perhaps it is just because I’ve only ever been here out of the main tourist season but it is generally quite peaceful and quiet. I consider Cork one of the best cycling counties in Ireland. Kinsale and my stop for the night was drawing closer. The last few miles would be on the busy R600. I discovered it was still possible to cross the River Stick using the old iron bridge which sits beside the new one just as you join the R600 (cyclist and pedestrian only traffic on the old bridge. It was built in 1878 according to dedication plaque which still exists).

The old Bridge, Kinsale

At Kinsale (Cionn tSáile, meaning “Tide Head) I was to join up where I had been to before. Kinsale is long-established coastal town on the mouth of the River Bandon and has always been an important fishing port. In 1601, the final of several Spanish Armadas landed in Kinsale and linked up with local rebels to attack England but were defeated. Today a replica of the mast of a Spanish Galleon has been erected on the quayside.

Kinsale

King James II of England landed at Kinsale in 1689 with support from the King of France in a campaign to regain his Kingdom and was to flea Ireland to France from Kinsale in 1690 following his defeat at the Battle of The Boyne. In the late seventeenth century Kinsale was to become a prominent Royal Navy Base but was later to decline in importance during the Napoleonic Wars as the Navy moved to the deeper waters of Cobh.

Recently I read a biography on Ernest Shackleton and learned that two noted Antarctic Explorers also originated in Kinsale. Mortimer McCarthy (1882-1967) who sailed with Captain Scott on the Aurora and also the ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole on the Terra Nova. He was awarded a medal for his exploits and donated a harpoon gun from the expedition to the Kinsale Museum but saw out his days in New Zealand. His brother Timothy (1888 – 1917) sailed with Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance and was to spend fifteen months trapped in pack ice and was one of the six men selected by Shackleton to complete the eight-hundred mile voyage in a open boat through some of the most inhospitable seas in the world to South Georgia to get help for their stricken companions. Timothy was also to be awarded medals. A remarkable seaman who was to sadly to become one of the countless tragedies in the Great War following a Torpedo strike. There are two plaques in their memory near the harbour.

Kinsale is a fascinating town to just wander around with it’s maze of narrow streets and brightly painted shop fronts, historic buildings, beautiful harbour, many restaurants and pubs, mostly with live music in the evenings. In my only other visit to Kinsale, it was winter and dark when I arrived, It was nice to see it in daylight. I was to spend the night at Dempsey’s Hostel. There were some other guests but not that many.

In some ways I would be re-tracing my footsteps from a previous trip which can read about here – https://theoldbikeshome.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/wild-atlantic-way-part-iv-kinsale-and-west-cork/ I have some of my fondest memories from all my Wild Atlantic Way trips here and I decided to revisit them when I was here anyway. The days were longer now in May than in January and I was a Brompton novice then. Now I had confidence in it’s ability to cover longer distances. I aimed to reach Skibbereen in one day and had booked into the Russagh Mill hostel a few miles out of the town.

I made a nice early start so decided I did have time to visit the Old Head of Kinsale after all. The rebuilding of the Napoleonic signalling tower seems to be complete now and also a very fascinating piece of art has been added to the collection of memorials to the 1,198 people who perished on board the R.M.S. Lusitania following the German torpedo attack on what was a civilian ship and not a legitimate military target. The artwork takes the form of sheet of steel with 34,513 holes drilled in it to create a picture of the great Clydebank-built ocean liner in full steam. It looks like a picture at a casual glance but if you look at my photo, you can see the Wild Atlantic Way road sign in the distance behind it through the holes. I found it fascinating.

Old Head of Kinsale

Old Head of Kinsale

Old Head of Kinsale

Old Head of Kinsale

From The Old Head, I continued on my way to Timoleague – or at least that’s what I planned to do. I will always remember this tour as the one which was much longer that it should have been due to endless diversions due to roadworks! I suppose it is good for my fitness! Sometime cyclists or pedestrians can pass through roadworks safely if you ask the County Council workers nicely even if the road is closed to motorised traffic. Not this time. I arrived at the bridge which crosses the River Arigideen on the R600 and found it had just had new load of steaming hot tar applied which they were starting to roll into place. I couldn’t walk or ride on the boiling hot road surface and it was a narrow, old stone bridge with no footpaths. I was told in no uncertain terms by the workers that I wouldn’t be allowed on it for about five hours. I still had to cross the river though so needed another bridge…the detour was massive, the people working at the bridge were good enough to tell me a much shorter route to Timoleague rather than follow the Detour signposts for the cars but it took me over a small mountain on mostly gravel roads and I had to get of and push for large parts of it. A planned half-hour journey took me about two hours longer. I would probably have been quicker taking the sign-posted route but it was interesting to explore somewhere truely off the beaten track and to fend off the sheepdogs at remote farms who were probably not used to cyclists straying into their domain.

Timoleague

With this delay, it was with much sadness at Clonakilty that I decided not to do the loop through Ardfield, Red Strand Beach and Galley Head. I stayed near Ardfield last time with a friend who was living there at the time and it is one of the unsung parts of Irish coastline but it would have taken too long. I could have cut the Glandore/Union Hall loop instead but the alternative to doing that is to ride the N71 to Skibbereen which I didn’t want to do. I continued directly to Rosscarbery with a heavy heart and turned off for Glandore. This is not easy terrain from here with a lof climbing but it is worth the hard work. Glandore (Cuan Dor, meaning harbour of the oak trees) must be the single most beautiful village on the whole Wild Atlantic Way and has a long history as a settlement – the Normans built castles here in 1215. The present pier dates from the early nineteenth century. I took the time to visit the Church of Ireland Church which overlooks the sea (is this Ireland’s most beautifully situated church?) and I also noted that the cave which you can from the other side of the road pass underneath the road. The entrance gate to the church is actually cut through the rock.

Glandore

 

Glandore Church

Glandore Church

Glandore Church

Glandore

Nearby Union Hall (Bréantrá) is larger but similarily beautiful with it’s stone walls and bridges and the surrounding area has several ringforts and a souterrain and there are also the remains of two castles. It was near Union Hall that an over-taking Garda patrol car was to pull up alongside me and the Guard who was driving started chatting out the window to me. My first thought was one of fear – I must have committed some sort of traffic law violation but no idea what it could be. It was very different – he was asking me where I was going to and whence I had come – and making suggestions of where I should stop and explore. Community policing in action!

Union Hall

I continued on my way to Castletownshend, another beautiful seaside village in West Cork – and yet more roadworks in the main street! It was closed to traffic so I walked the bike on the pavement to the beautiful harbour. Castletownshend (Baile an Chaisleáin, literally “Town of the Castle). The village developed around a small 17th-century castle built by Richard Townsend, whose descendants still reside there. The main street of the town which is lined with large homes from the 18th century runs down a steep hill leading to Castlehaven Harbour and the castle.

Castletownshend

Castletownshend

I cycled the final ten miles or so into Skibbereen itself to do some shopping as I now had a fixed base for the next or so and use of a kitchen before locating the Russagh Mill hostel. It is a large building using a converted mill and is very welcoming and friendly with good facilities. The next day would be a free day, to do what I pleased. I had assumed I’d feel tired by now and had planned to take an easy day to relax and unwind before going hope the following day but I felt find so decided to some riding.

I liked Baltimore the last time I was there so decided to go there. I went the scenic route via Tragumna and Lough Hyne and I was following cycle route signs which I assumed would take me to Baltimore! It did! Via a very hilly route (somebody had painted slogans like “You’re doing great!” “Nearly there now!” and “Well done, you made it!” on the road on some of the steeper climbs. I did make it but on foot for some of them.) but one with great views and little traffic. Lough Hyne was very nice. There was to be a wooden boat festival in Baltimore that weekend but I saw little evidence – a single wooden boat in the harbour and a woman sitting on the green trying to sell sailcloth. Perhaps I was too early.

Lough Hyne(Loch Oighinn)

Baltimore

I considered my options from here. Taking a ferry to the islands from Baltimore was one option but the timetable was not friendly I would have a long wait and I preferred to keep moving. I decided to ride to Mizen Head. I knew it was a long way from here but I also knew if I timed it right I could get the bus back to Sibbereen from Goleen. So that is what I did.

The ride to Mizen Head was relatively uneventful. I stopped in Ballydehob and ate my lunch in the shadows of the magnificent viaduct where it crosses the River Bawnakockane. The viaduct is a twelve arch stone bridge and a fine piece of civil engineering. The train between Schull and Skibbereen ran from 1886 to 1947. From Ballydehob I completed the journey to Goleen and Mizen Head, first stopping at the beautiful Barleycove strand, one of the nicest beaches that I have seen in Co. Cork. I have written about Barleycove and Mizen Head in my blog entry from my previous visit – https://theoldbikeshome.wordpress.com/2017/10/09/wild-atlantic-way-part-vi-tir-na-nog/ I enjoyed my second visit to Mizen Head but am left wondering if I should have been more creative and went somewhere else instead of repeating what I had done before.

Ballydehob Viaduct, Co Cork

Barelycove beach Co. Cork

Mizen Head

I made the return journey to Goleen to wait on the bus back to Skibbereen. This is the beauty of riding a Brompton. You can extend your rides further than you might otherwise have gone as folding the thing up and putting it on board a bus is always an option. It is true they will carry a large bike too and I’ve done so in the past several times but you are always trusting to luck as it depends on the available luggage room and the driver’s discretion – the bus driver is with his/her rights to say no. With a Brompton they can’t really do that as it folds down into a piece of luggage. I do carry a cover for it when travelling by bus as Bus Eireann state that it is required in their terms of carriage but I doubt that they’d insist on it.

I had a really enjoyable week but it was over now and on the Saturday morning I was faced with the long bus journey from Sibbereen back home to Donegal. It took eleven hours but I did have a ninety minute wait in Cork bus depot and one hour wait in Dublin. Not ideal but it’s not too bad in reality. The only real issue was being effectively marooned in the bus depots as I didn’t want to leave the Brompton and my luggage unattended. I am pleased I had taken the Brompton now as the bus between Cork city and Dublin was packed with a lot of luggage and I suspect a full sized bicycle would have been rejected. Taking a Brompton public transport really is very easy as I did it a lot this week!

Tickets

I think I can declare this tour a success and the Brompton coped brilliantly with all that I asked of it. The gearing was fine most of the time and I found it no great hardship to walk an occasional hill. In fact, with long days in the saddle day after day it can be a nice change of pace for a few moments. I’m not sure whether it is because the Brompton is loaded to the front rather than the rear or for some other reason but it is very easy to push a loaded Brompton up a hill. Pushing a Viscount Aerospace with two loaded panniers up a hill is not actually that easy and having the gearing to climb a long hill is very useful. With a Brompton it doesn’t appear to matter in the same way – strange. Also, with practice on a step-through frame you can make the transition from cycling, to walking and then back to riding without actually coming to a stop!

From Friday to Friday I covered just over four hundred miles on a three speed city bike while carrying luggage. I’m not really sure it was much more tiring than doing it on a large-wheeler. For touring (if done properly), there is no rush so any possible advantage from 700c wheels is probably never noticed. It’s same with the aerodynamics really. If you were aiming to ride at twenty MPH or more, this upright riding position would not work but at touring speeds it makes little difference and gives a better view of your surroundings.

The Brompton really is possibly the most practical and usable of all bicycles. During this trip I became more and more impressed with my Brompton. It’s not a racing bike but it works brilliantly as a utility bike (The T-bag is brilliant for shopping), as a commuting bike, a leisure bike or even as a touring bike (so long as you are not going to extremely hilly terrain). On certain types of road surface you do notice a harsher ride quality than you’d have with a large wheeled bike but it’s manageable most of the time.
Riding a Brompton is also a great way to make friends as there are a never-ending supply of people who are curious about it and ask questions. I was comparing notes with a elderly gentleman I met outside a shop who had a modern day Raleigh folding bicyle with twenty inch wheels. It may not be the same quality as the Brompton and the fold is probably not as neat but he said he won it in a raffle a few years ago and doesn’t know how he survived so long without a folding bike as he uses a lot and often takes it on buses for random days out exploring with his free bus pass! I hope I live long enough and am blessed with good enough health to do likewise some day!

Hook Head Lighthouse

Old P&T telephone box

Wexford cycle route 3

Sculpture. Ballydehob

Tankardstown, Co. Waterford

Brompton

Stradbally village green, Co. Waterford.

Volvo 121

Dollar Bay, Co. Wexford.

Easter Monday Meanderings

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I remember my maternal grandmother used to always say that the older you got, the faster the time seemed to pass. I am now beginning to realise just what she meant as I age myself. For the younger version of me, the three-month summer holidays from National School always seemed like an eternity stretching way into the future. Nowadays, it seems, three months pass in the blink of an eye. New Year seems as if it were only yesterday yet in reality we are now at the end of April, Easter has just been and gone and we will soon be halfway through 2019.

The Easter weekend of 2019 was to be blessed with some very nice weather as the summer sun was to put in an early appearance this year. Weather like this need to be put to good use by getting a few miles in on the bike. It is always a nice time of year to be cycling as you see all the signs of new growth – the buds on the hedgerows, the young lambs and calves skipping playfully in the fields, the planting of this year’s crops and the sweet scent of the bluebell and the whinbush linger in the air and add a dash of colour to the countryside.

I was to get plenty of miles in this Easter too – a leisurely twenty miler on the Brompton after work on Good Friday, I was busy with other things for most of Saturday but did manage around thirty miles through the Lagan Valley on Saturday evening on my Townsend. I would have liked to have done big miles on Sunday but a visit to Church in the morning and a plan to meet a friend for dinner and a few drinks in the evening meant only about thirty miles in the afternoon. I would make Easter Monday a big day.

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I had a plan for a while to combine some of my favourite rides in the north of Donegal into one big ride but hadn’t really got around to doing it. I knew this would be touching on a hundred miles in terms of distance but I felt fit enough, I had all day to do it and it seemed a perfect way to spend a bank holiday Monday.

I toyed with the idea of using my recently re-commissioned BSA racing bike but the gearing would be wrong for some of the areas I would be passing through. I would just use my Townsend. I own lots of bikes but right now I find this relatively low end early mountain bike is the perfect companion for the sort of cycling that interests me most at the moment.

I knew I was to have a long day ahead of me, some of it in difficult terrain so I left relatively early at around 10am. Possibly not as early as I had originally planned but I had met a friend for a few drinks the night before…As I said, I had planned to combine a few of my Donegal routes into one. Part one would be to Downings, Atlantic Drive and Ros Goill peninsula, one of my favourite parts of the county if not the entire country and I particularly love Trá na Rosann beach, the totally unique hostel there and the glorious Murder Hole beach at Melmore Head. There are many ways to get there from Letterkenny, my preferred one as it’s the quietest road as well as the most scenic (unless you do the much longer Fanad Drive Loop and cross the Harry Blaney Bridge) takes me via Chruchill, Lough Gartan and towards the Glenveagh National park before turning off across the bog road to Creeslough (L1332) where you will see the eerie remains of the ill-fated Owencarrow Railway Viaduct where the tragic rail accident occurred in January 1925 when gale-force winds derailed the Burtonport train from the top of this exposed bridge. On the outskirts of Creeslough I would be making a right turn and following the road to Carrigart (The R245).

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You will pass the the picturesque Doe Castle on this road. You can visit the castle, it is a detour from the main road of just over a mile but I didn’t do so today as I had a lot of ground to cover and I had been so many times in the past. Further along the road towards Carrigart you can stop at a lay-by which gives and excellent view across Sheephaven Bay toward Doe Castle (unlike many such towers, this one has survived in good condition).

Doe Castle

It was the home of the MacSweeney clan. I spent a little time here as I ate a snack before continuing on my way. I didn’t go into Carrigart as I took the road which turns off to the left just before the St John the Baptist Chapel. It was Easter Monday after all just past the Chapel at the graveyard there was a 1916 Easter Rising commemoration service taking place. You come to another forked junction where you join the road which loops the Ros Goill peninsula (known as Atlantic Drive). You can continue into the town of Downings or else turn off to the right about 1.5 miles before you reach Downings and some relatively tough climbing at Rosapenna as you begin your short tour of the peninsula.

Atlantic Drive

Normally I would be turning left toward Melmore Head and Trá na Rosann as those are my favourite places on the peninsula (Mervagh Boat yard is also worth a quick visit) but on this occasion I decided to complete the Atlantic Drive loop, something I hadn’t done in quite a few years and I had forgotten how beautiful it is, especially on a day like this with a clear and unfettered view of Horn Head in the distance. I stopped at the vantage point for a short time to admire the view and eat my lunch before continuing on my way towards the seaside resort of Downings.

https://flic.kr/p/TugBqw

The road drops steeply and the final mile or so into Downing has the potential to be a high speed fun descent. Not today though. The cars badly parked outside the pub and holidays homes on this narrow single-track road and impatience of other traffic means I was dragging the brakes. As morning gave away to afternoon, the volume of traffic at the coast increased and Downings itself was jammed with cars. On a bicycle, I was able to filter through it and leave all the over-sized four wheel drives and expensive German saloon cars to sit going nowhere fast! I did stop at Downings Harbour first though. Here you can see the gun rescued from the wreck of the White Star Line’s ocean liner, the SS Laurentic which had been commandeered by the military at the outbreak of WWI. The ship went down not far from here after striking German mines in 1917 with the loss of over three hundred lives. The ship was also carrying forty-three tons of gold bars. In a major operation, Royal Navy divers recovered the majority of the gold when the war ended but twenty bars remain un-accounted for and wreck of the Laurentic remains a popular destination for divers who still continue to look for the missing gold…The anchor and chain from another shipwreck – the Greek ship Caliope (torpedoed in 1943) can also be seen at the harbour.

Gun from the SS Laurentic

I had covered just a little over thirty miles at this point. I would be making my way back towards Creeslough and it’s amazing how the volume of traffic had suddenly increased along the R245 from it’s almost deserted state a little earlier. Clearly people were having their dinners before going out for a drive at the coast. I was to go into the town of Creeslough this time, and then take the sign for the signposted route for Dún Lúiche which would take me past Muckish and on to the other side of Errigal. I had touched on parts of this route before but this was the first time I would do it in completion as signposted. The distance would be a bit over twenty miles.

Townsend Bx-40 cycle route 1

After the busy roads of Downings and Creeslough, it was nice to turn on to the proper cycling roads again – narrow ones with nice views, little or no cars and often grass growing up through the middle of the road. This is the life! I did of course meet that great, tradional part of rural Ireland, the elderly farmer in a venerable Massey Ferguson 135 (or TE-20, 35x, 240, Fordson Dexta or some similar Harry Ferguson based small tractor) with a cheery wave and a sheepdog sitting on the link box.

The route is well signposted and easy to follow. It is hilly as you might expect as you cross the foothills of a mountain range but it’s the headwind that made it tiring. The hills are definitely there but there is nothing major and indeed I remember riding in this area from the Gortahork side on my Raleigh Twenty a few years ago (part of an organised ride – the story is in one of the early entries on this blog) and finding the Sturmey gearing just fine. Today though, the wind made it a struggle even on the level but such is the reality of cycling in the west of Ireland.

You do criss-cross parts of the old Letterkenny to Burtonport railway line which operated between 1903 and 1947. It must have been no easy feat to have built this line given the terrain it passed through and the remains of the track bed where it was raised on embankments or blasted through rocks as an effort to keep it as level as possible is very much in evidence.

Former L&LS Railway - Letterkenny to Burtonport

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Former L&LS Railway bridge- Lettekenny to Burton port line

Former Falcarragh Station House?

There are also many fine old arched bridges and houses and other buildings that were clearly associated with the railway line can still be seen – some still in use and well preserved, others having fallen into disrepair. I have written about it before (and also the history of the line) but parts of it, especially between Creeslough and Falcarragh have been surfaced and turned into walking/cycling tracks. I did a large part of it on foot quite recently with a friend and found that the surface is now better and it has been extended from when I rode my bike along it a few years ago. Hopefully, it will one day reach Burtonport. Cine camera footage of this picturesque railway journey made by the late Father Doherty of Dunfanaghy in the 1930s exists and extracts of it can be seen on the RTE archives.

RTE Archives

It would be nice to be able to cycle the old railway in it’s entirety but it is also a great pleasure to cycle the roads which pass over it. This is not an easy route but it is a bonnie one, with mountains, rivers and loughs and each corner you turn and each hill you crest reveals something else of beauty which comes into view while originally from leaving Creeslough, the table-topped Muckish mountain and later as you near Dún Lúiche the iconic twin peaks of Errigal soar majestically 2,500 feet into the air casting shadows in the afternoon sun. I really must climb Errigal again very soon.

Muckish

Errigal

Eventually Loch Dún Lúiche comes into view as the road drops sharply for the final descent into Dún Lúiche where you re-join civilisation it the form of the R251. It’s back to high speed traffic again, although I’ve never found the R251 a bad road to cycle. It’s wide so close passes are rare. I stopped to re-stock on food at the shop in Dún Lúiche and sat for a time at the picnic table outside, re-fuelling, admiring the view and also the pre-war Morris Eight which happened to be sitting outside. The efficiency, build quality and reliability of the modern day car is incredible but they really do lack the cuteness and character of cars like this Morris. I cannot imagine the driver of a Morris Eight getting frustrated and causing road-rage in the way a driver of modern day Audis do. I wouldn’t want a Morris Eight as an everday car but can see the appeal of leisurely drives on minor roads at the helm of a car which doesn’t have power-assisted everything and a load of electronics to keep me out of trouble. Proper driving!

Morris Eight

After leaving Dún Lúiche village, I stopped briefly at the vantage stop over-looking the Poisoned Glen and Loch Dún Lúiche which must surely be one of the greatest viewing points anywhere in the country. It is even better if you go down into the Glen and view the ruined Anglican Church with Errigal towering above it – just like the postcards but I wouldn’t have time for that today. From the Poisoned Glen it is a long, draggy climb for many miles along the R251 and there is always a headwind here. When I reached the National Park, I had options – continue on straight on the main road towards Kilmecrennan – the best surface, least climbing and probably fastest despite being longer or I could have went home via Lough Gartan and Churchill. There is another option though – go into the Glenveagh Estate and take the bridal path back to Churchill – this is what I did, after stopping to replenish my water bottles at the public drinking tap in the car park at Glenveagh.

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The ride along Lough Beagh and then up over the mountains past Lough Inshagh as the sun set in glorious red-orange hue behind the Derryveagh mountains was the possibly the best part of a long, varied and interesting day. I hadn’t bothered to take my camera, I just relied on my phone and I regretted that as my proper camera could have done a much better job of capturing the glorious technicolour sunset. Sometimes I feel I should be using filters, etc to improve my photographs but I like the simplicity of just trying to capture the moment without the hassle of lugging a case full of equipment around.

Sunset at Lough Beagh

Sunset in the Derry each mountains.

I clocked up 103 miles in (for me at least) an epic ride. I didn’t even feel overly tired. My route took in mountains, bog, rivers, lakes, sea and forests on varied terrain from gravelled footpaths to (short sections) on National Primary routes. I am delighted with my fitness levels and my new-found confidence for tackling long rides. This for me is what cycling is all about – exploring my surroundings and taking time to enjoy it. I think back to all those people stuck in a traffic jam in Downings – cycling bring freedom and enjoyment in a way that a car can never do.

Errigal

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BSA Tour de France refurbishment

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BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) began the manufacture of machine-made guns in 1861. The company grew and expanded but a reduction in orders in the late 1870s caused problems and the factory was temporarily closed for a time in 1879 due to a lack of work.

BSA Tour de France

The decision was made to diversify and the company was to begin it’s early experiments in bicycle manufacture in 1880. The machinery used to make fire arms proved to be very adaptable into the production of cycles as both required high volume production of accurately made small parts. The production of bicycles ceased in 1887 due to a new contract for the War Office and the supply of new rifles to the army.

The company did begin manufacture of cycle components for supply to the trade in 1893 and also bought the Eadie Manufacturing Company and took over production of the Eadie Coaster Brake hub as well the two-speed Eadie hub. It also signed an agreement to commence building the Three Speed Gear Syndicate’s three speed hub under licence. BSA began the manufacture of bicycles again in 1908 and were to gain a good reputation for the quality of the products and engineering excellence. BSA’s hub gear was always said to be superior to the near-universal Sturmey Archer and the company was also to create an early form of cassette hub and derailleur gear system although it was not a success. The company’s firearms heritage can be seen on the headbadge emblem of three rifles.

BSA head badge

The company had also began manufacturing motorcycles with increasing success. The cycle and motorcycle divisions were split into two separate entities in 1953 and the 1957, BSA cycles was sold to Raleigh who spent most of the twentieth century buying up their competitors (Humber, Triumph, Rudge, etc). This was the beginnings of tough times for the British cycle industry as falling demands, greater competition from abroad and declining quality and some odd managerial decisions all had a detrimental effect.

In 1976, the now Raleigh-owned BSA cycles was to introduce a new entry level racing bicycle called the Tour de France. The bike was nothing special in itself but seems to have been remembered fondly. Yet I’ve seen other online commentators call it little more than a BSO. The ones I’ve seen have all been in the same shade of blue and are definitely an attractive bicycle.

BSA Tour de France

A Tour de France has recently come into my possession so I would be able to answer the questions of what it was really like when I got it back on the road. It is a blue machine. It was actually in good enough condition when I got it. Everything pointed to a bike that had covered very few miles. The chromework and in some places the paintwork had unfortunately developed quite a bit of surface rust. The tyres had also suffered from old age and were perished beyond redemption.

bsa

It was to prove one of the most straight-forward restoration projects I have ever undertook. Starting with the wheels, the chrome rims polished up to an acceptable standard. They are not like new as there is still slight pitting and one or two spots were a large blister of rust had removed the chrome plating. There is no doubt that the quality of the chrome plating on rims of 30s – 50s was much better than this. I then stripped, cleaned and rebuilt the large flange Normany hubs. No wear was in evidence and cup and cones cleaned up well and assembled with fresh grease. The rear hub had clearly taken a little moisture at some point however as there was some rust on the ball bearings themselves so I replaced the loose 1/4“ ball bearings with new ones. Once adjusted, the hubs now spin freely without any free play and pendulum using the valve stem, as described in old cycle service manuals. Cup and cone bearings are very simple things but it’s worth taking the time to adjust the pre-load on the bearings properly. All too often I see incorrectly adjusted bearing cones, even on brand new hubs direct from the manufacturer. If not adjusted properly, they will not wear as well and will also add to drag when riding.

Two new Panaracer tyres in 27 x 1 1/4“ tyres and new tubes completed the wheel refurbishment. I would probably not have bought such posh tyres for this bike but I had these hanging up in my garage at home for a few years now as I bought them for my Carlton and then found that the tight clearances on that frame demanded 27 x 1 1/8“ tyres (the narrower size is more difficult to find and I’d hoped I get away with it but it was just too tight) and I decided I may as well use them. Unfortunately they proved to be the most troublesome aspect of the whole project as it proved to be incredibly difficult to seat the tyres on the rim properly. I’ve never found this problem with old non-hook edged rims before. I got the front one right eventually but need to have another attempt at the back one.

Raleigh cotterless chainset

I removed the square taper chainset (which thankfully came off very easily) and I gave the bottom bracket and head bearings similar treatment to the wheel bearings. Again, there was no wear in evidence and everything adjusted as if they were new parts. I stripped and cleaned the 42/52 chainset. I think the square taper suggests this is a late model Tour de France as they seemed to be originally fitted with cottered chainsets. The cranks are Raleigh branded and the 42 ring is removable. Interestingly the cranks are 165mm. I would have expected the more normal 170mm. The unfortunate thing with this bike (and many other entry level road bikes, past and present) is the use of racing gearing. The inner 42 tooth ring when combined with the 24 tooth large sprocket on the five-speed Maillard block gives a low gear that isn’t low enough for most normal riders. It probably helps explain why this bike and so many similar bikes are often found in almost unused condition. I usually tweak the gearing on these bikes to give something lower but I decided to leave all as standard to see how I get on with it as I am now three stone lighter and much fitter than I used to be. I think I can manage… Besides having access to so many bikes, I can just use something else if I want to tour or do a really hilly ride so it is difficult to justify the expense of buying another chainset.

The Weinmann centre pull brakes were stripped and cleaned as thet were tarnished and the opportunity was taken to clean and grease the moving parts. A tip I picked up from somewhere (can’t remember where now) is to put a small blob of grease on the points where the springs slide along the arms on Weinmann brakes (probably all calliper brakes) as the spring slides easier and the brake will be easier pulled and in the case of sidepull callipers, they will centre easier. I do believe there is an element of truth in this. Many “online experts” are really critical of centrepull brakes but they are actually really powerful if set up properly. They do require a determined pull on the levers I agree but if you put a bit of effort into it, they will work at least as well as any other calliper brake.

Weinmann 610 Centre pull brake

I cleaned the frame and the handlebars/stem and it all cleaned up to an acceptable standard apart from some rust which had broken out around the bottom bracket. I sandpapered these localised rusty bits back to clean steel and dabbed in a little blue enamel paint with a small brush into the affected areas. It isn’t an exact match but will keep rust from developing into something worse and won’t really be noticeable to the majority of people who look at it. The bike has Benotto bar tape in a yellow shade which compliments the blue frame very well in my opinion. The bar tape shows some minor tears and scuffing which were probably acquired in storage over the years rather than by usage. I didn’t feel any need to replace it though. It is perfectly serviceable and I always prefer not to over-restore things or create unnecessary waste. Also you can’t buy Benotto bar tape any more (unless it’s new old stock). I like this type of bar tape, I find it more comfortable than some of the really heavily padded stuff on the market now (necessary I guess because modern road bikes are much harsher).

This bike was fitted with the little “shorty” mudguards which are totally useless (I guess they do keep dirt and water from getting washed into the lower head bearing) but were the ultimate fashion accessory back in the day. They were also the most corroded part of the whole bike. I did my best but they will never be perfect. It is tempting to replace them with proper mudguards but as they came on it, I will leave them alone. I have plenty of bikes with mudguards for wet weather riding.

The bike was then re-assembled, using liberal coatings of grease on all fixtures and fittings. Greasing you seatpost and handlebar stem is especially important as it will seal water out of the frame and prevent seizure. It is worthwhile on any bike to remove the seatpost and stem every year or so and re-apply grease (and doubly so if the seatpost or stem are alloy as there will be a risk of galvanic corrosion between the aluminium part and the steel frame. In extreme cases, the seatpost or stem will be destroyed trying to remove it. With steel on steel, the chances are a bit better).

When I am re-assembling a bike after working on it (or on my car, tractor or anything else) I will usually apply a little grease to the threads of the nuts and bolts. When I was much younger and teaching myself mechanical skills on such diverse machinery from Raleigh Twenties to Ford Cortinas to Massey Ferguson 65s, this was normal practice as taught to me by my Dad and others but few seem to do it now. It is worthwhile for several reasons in my opinion and experience. It will make the nut easier to tighten. The grease will prevent corrosion so it will be easier to unscrew at some point in the future if there is a need to do so. Also, it might be counter-intuitive but greasing a thread will make it less likely to come loose in service due to vibration as the lubrication will allow the threads to take greater torque without stripping so the nut will be tighter and threaded fasteners rely on the tension between the parts to stay tight (this is why we have spring washers in certain applications; the spring helps maintain the tension required to keep the nut from unscrewing).

Raleigh Huret derailleur

My biggest concern in the whole project before I started was the rear derailleur as I got the impression the spring was broken in it when I removed the wheels to fit the bike in the back of my car to bring it home. It didm’t seem to take up the slack in the chain as it should do.The mechs seem to be Huret with Raleigh badging. I stripped it down and cleaned it and it turned out that it was simply so gunged up with a thick grease which was old and had gone hard. I cleaned it and re-assembled it with fresh grease and it seemed to be working as it should. There was some rusting on the chromed part of the derailleur body but not much I could do about that other than clean and polish it the best I could.

With all the moving parts freed and re-lubricated, nice new tyres fitted and the bike fully re-assmbled, the next logical step was to venture for a quick test ride. I was only planning on doing a few miles but actually done around thirty. I all worked perfectly, just two issues presented themselves but I knew they would anyway – the seatpost is a bit on the short side for someone of my height and I will need to get a longer one so I can put the saddle where I need it for fully efficient pedalling. As mentioned the rear tyre needs another attempt to fit it properly as it’s not centred on the rim and it gives an unmistakable bump at higher speeds. When rotating the wheel before fitting the tyre, it wasn’t 100% true but well within tolerances and no obvious flat spots so I know this is coming from the tyre fitting. It is annoying though but tyres that seem to be too tight on rims seems to becoming more of a problem these days. If I simply can’t get it right, I will try a different type of tyre.

BSA Tour de France

Apart from those two things, I am really happy with the bike and how it rides. Perhaps it’s just because I have got used to plodding around on a mountain bike but it feels really responsive and handles well. The Huret gears with friction shifters may not change as silently or as quickly as the modern Shimano system with cut-away and contoured teeth (which come at the expense of durability) but with a little practice and mechanical sympathy, Huret gears change quickly, reliably and snap home with the with precision. I prefer friction shifters to indexed anyway. They need less time to set them up and will keep working reliably for years.

A state of the art modern road bike road bike would have more gears on the rear cassette than I have in total. I don’t see this as a problem really. The most important thing with cycle gearing is having a decent range. This is where this bike falls short – it’s not that it doesn’t have enough gears, it doesn’t have a low enough gear for easy climbing for the average cyclist. A different chainset or freewheel block can correct this easily enough. Having said that, the route I did around Churchill and Gartan takes in a fair amount of climbing and I had no trouble whatsoever despite the low saddle but I really attacked the hills and climbed out of the saddle. You don’t have the option of an easy ride with this. You really need to attack big hills or walk (good for average speed and fitness of course, perhaps BSA were on to something with these gear ratios!). Of course the option of spinning the low gears on climbs is less tiring so you could keep riding from dawn to dusk if you have touring gears. To achieve that on a bike with this gearing would need a much higher level of personal fitness (or a flat route). I can ride a bike without low gearing but it is definitely preferable to have it.

BSA Tour de France

None of that really matters though. The bike was able to put a smile on my face. It’s not particularly light by any standards but you would never notice when riding it. It responds well and feels confidence inspiring on fast descents. The Weinmann brakes are powerful and work better than could ever be expected on chrome plated rims (with original Raleigh Raincheater pads). Just as I was musing on the step-through Raleigh Pioneer I rescued last year and also when playing with my Twenty before Christmas, Raleigh (and this is one, no matter what the BSA headbadge says) made great frames. Even their basic bikes ride brilliantly. I was also meticulous when assembling this bike. It shows in the ride. The other thing (which may be entirely a figment of my imagination) is that I honestly believe 27 x 1 1/4“ are the best all-round size for riding on tarmac. 700 x 32c may be the same width and only slightly smaller in diameter but they never seem to roll along effortlessly in the same way.

This ride is the other side of cycling for me. The previous day I had made sedate progress on a hefty old mountain bike over almost fifty miles distance on a wide variety of road surfaces, stopping regularly to take photos or just admire the views. Today, I was riding a sportier, more responsive, more nimble bike and attacked the ride, completed at a much higher average speed and enjoyable too but tickling different pleasure centres. Neither approach is wrong, I’m just fortunate enough to be able to choose my bike and my type of route to suit the mood. The most important thing in cycling is to just enjoy it, no matter which bike you have!

BSA Tour de France

In answer to my own question about how good a BSA Tour de France actually is – this is an excellent bike which rides great even in standard trim. Don’t let the cycle snobs tell you otherwise. If you didn’t mind sacrificing the originality and could justify the expense, it would be interesting to see what this would ride like with a set of better, lighter wheels on it. Replacing the original chainset with something like 36/48 and maybe a 14-28 block would also transform the bike into something much more usable in hilly terrain. I like my BSA and although it won’t be my main bike, once I get a longer seatpost for it I certainly intend to clock up a decent few miles on it this summer.

BSA Tour de France

BSA Tour de France

Bsa Tour de France

Glenveagh National Park via Lough Inshagh Part II (Enjoying a slow bike ride)

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Lough Inshagh

As a follow-on from my musings on cycling the bridal path over the mountains to Glenveagh, I decided to repeat it and also to continue further along the lakeside path. Looking at the Ordnance Survey map (Discover Series Number 6 covers this area) shows that this path continues until it reaches the R254 road to Doochery. Most of my planned route is marked as unclassified road but the last few miles is just marked as a public path. Would it be cycleable? There was only going to be one way to find out…

As before, I cycled to Churchill along minor roads and turned on to the bridal path over the mountain. I’ve come to really enjoy this route. It’s so nice to get away from motorised traffic. I can’t emphasise how nice it is to ride on routes like these, something I’m only now starting to appreciate as my various road bikes sit at home gathering dust. It was beautiful dry and sunny day although with a real nip in the air. The previous day’s snow could still be seen on some of the higher mountains. I was pleased I had worn plenty of layers. It might be the beginnings of spring but winter is not leaving without a fight. It would be warm in direct sunlight and cold everywhere else but I’m not complaining. Weather like this is infinitely preferable to endless grey clouds and drizzle.

Glenveagh National Park

Eventually Lough Beagh comes into view and you make a left turn at a T-junction to follow the road along the lough shore to reach Glenveagh Castle. I took advantage of the covered in picnic tables behind the castle to eat my lunch in shelter. As this was St. Patrick’s day I was expecting a lot of people to be out and about but there was basically no-one at all. I guess the cold weather must have put people off.

From the castle I continued on my way alongside the lough following the signs for Astelleen Waterfall (you can’t really go wrong anyway so long as you follow the lake). Eventually, the lake becomes a small burn (River Owenacoo) which feeds into the Lough. The water level was high today with all the snow-melt from the mountains. The road surface deteriorates after you leave the castle and is more loose and rougher but it’s not a problem on any bike with reasonable width tyres.

Astelleen Waterfall

There are a number of small waterfalls from the mountains (more were probably visible today than usual due to the melting snow) but the big one is known as Astelleen. I did cycle out here on other occasions and walked out tot he waterfall on many more occasions but this was to be my first time to venture beyond that. If I had read my map properly, I’d eventually be joining the R254.

Glenveagh

So it proved, although the distance was a little longer that I had expected and quite a bit of climbing was involved which were steep enough to call my 28 tooth inner ring into service. It is well worth it though. The scenery is nothing short of amazing and freed from the constraints of the traffic on a normal road, you can quite literally stop where you feel like and go as fast or as slow as you want without any other road-users to consider. I think I met just one group of hikers this far away from the castle. As you go along, the road does indeed deteriorate although the surface remains easily ridable. It just gets narrower. It may only be about three feet in width in places although this isn’t a problem when there is no-one else there! I guess in peak tourist season, this path would experience more hikers and probably a few mountain bikers as well.

Glenveagh

When you reach the R254, it is worthwhile to take the time and to look back. You are quite high up at this point and you can see the river and path snake through the deep-sided glen and see the lough in the distance and I think that this may actually be one of the best places from which to view the “Glen of the birch trees.” I was actually very tempted to return and trace my steps but I had been determined to make this a circular route so would continue along the R254 back towards Churchill. I will do this loop in the opposite direction at some point. I think it would be worthwhile as you often see everything in a different perspective.

Glenveagh

The ride back to Letterkenny was relatively uneventful on little trafficked road. The R254 must surely be one of the best cycling roads in the country although I wasn’t on the most interesting parts of it (I would have needed to go in the opposite direction towards Doochery for that). I didn’t take the direct route but explored a little around Lough Gartan and I actually did one of my regular training loops in the opposite direction from normal which gave me a whole different perspective on it.

Lough Gartan

I managed to make it all into a ride of just little short of fifty miles in length. No personal bests were achieved during the course of this ride. It is entirely possible I achieved a few personal worsts as my average speed was very low at times. I don’t actually care, speed isn’t the point of a ride like this. If I had just wanted to go quickly I would not have been riding this hefty, upright and un-aerodynamic bike and I would not have selected this route with large parts of it surfaced in gravel. There is a time and place for enjoying a fast ride on lightweight road bike but I think too many of today’s cyclists are missing out on the simple pleasures of a relaxing ride with no stress or rush, the freedom to stop when you feel like or make an improvised detour should the mood take us. Life is simply too short to waste rushing around like an idiot!

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Glenveagh

Lough Gartan

Glenveagh National Park via Lough Inshagh

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As traffic levels get ever higher and speeds and lack of care towards cyclists in this county (from a minority of drivers it must be said but there are enough of them around to at best take the fun out of it and worst, make it downright dangerous and token law enforcement and no political will whatsoever from our elected lords and masters to improve matters. I am still waiting on a response from my local TD to an email I sent him on my concerns on the issues of road safety facing cyclists and pedestrians in the Letterkenny area several months ago. Sadly I am not surprised by this silence. The car is king and the driver can do no wrong in this county.) so it was my intention last year to explore options for cycling away from the traffic.

Townsend BX40

With this in mind I had dredged my old 1990s mountain bike from storage and gave it a bit of a re-work and put it back into service. I did ride it a lot actually, several thousand miles and several tours and I found it made an excellent touring bicycle. I even completed a century ride on it last summer. I did though, ride it mostly on the road and hadn’t really done much of what I had planned to do with it.

I did get some respectable miles in over Christmas and New Year and had actually started riding fixed wheel again with the intention of improving my fitness over the winter but I was then put out of action by a horrible cold which seemed to take forever to get completely better. There is always the risk of making it much worse or developing a chest infection so apart from some short utility rides around town, I hadn’t really done any cycling at all from the beginning of January until now. I wanted to get back out again on the bike. I had done a twenty mile ride and had felt okay so today I decided to push it a little more and to also explore an off-road ride I been meaning to try for a while. I would ride the twelve miles or so to the Glebe Gallery on the road and then use the shared use path to ride to the Glenveagh National Park through the mountains and past Lough Inshagh.

Townsend BX-40

The ride to the Glebe was completed along minor roads which were blissfully traffic free when I left at around 10AM. I really enjoyed the ride despite tha cold wind and was happy to have some sort of fitness once my legs warmed up after the first few miles. The Lough Inshagh walking trail is supposed to be from Glebe House to Glenveagh Castle but in reality it starts a mile or two past it from where the birthplace of St Columbkille is. There would usually be a gate to negotiate but it was conveniently open today. So I met a Mitsubishi Colt despite the no motor vehicles sign! There really is no getting away from cars! It was being responsbily driven to be fair.

The Lough Inshagh is more like a farm lane really, surfaces vary a little from hard-pack stone to loose gravel. It presents no problems to any bike with practical tyres. You could easily ride this on a tradional touring bike on 32mm tyres (at least when it is dry like it was today) but I wouldn’t venture along here on high pressure racing slicks. This is not a route for the carbon fibre brigade. My 26“ X 1.9“ semi-slick Continental tyres were in their element here. It is for routes like these that I put this bike back into action and opted for semi-click tyres rather than full road tyres which are usually recommended for old MTBs. Even on a normal road, I cannot tell any noticeable different in rolling resistance between these tyres and the Schwalbe City Jets which I had on it before anyway so there is no real reason not to choose the semi-slick option and it gives you better off-road capability should you feel like doing so.

Townsend BX-40

I found it an easy route really. Obviously you would go faster on a metalled road and as you might expect considering you are in the Derryveagh mountains there is a fair amount of gradient although in this direction the climb is gradual and I had no need for anything lower than 38/24 although I did get out of the saddle to climb on a few occasions.

It was a nice day if sometimes a bit overcast. There were occasional threats of rain which never materialised. The views across Lough Inshagh and towards Muckish mountain are good here despite the mist which sometimes descended.

Lough Inshagh

The distance to Glenveagh Castle isn’t huge (about six miles) but it took longer than I expected (I guess I am used riding on surfaced roads and my fitness isn’t where I’d like it to be at the moment). On routes like this you also have to be respectful of any hikers you come across and a bell is worthwhile in my opinion if you are sharing routes with people on foot. There were some walkers but not that many on this cold February day. Do this in summer and I’d expect there would be many more. Even if the average speed is low (and why would anyone rush a ride through such stunning scenery anyway?) it is much more pleasant to mix with the hikers and exchange pleasantries and occasionally stop for a chat than it is to mix it with high speed cars on the main roads. This must have been what cycling was like before the Great War I guess.

Eventually the Lough Inshagh route joins the path which leads from the Glenveagh National Park visitors centre and car park to the castle. There were more pedestians here and I also came across a few cyclists. Someone on a modern road bike was brave enough to ride the surfaced road road used by the shuttle buses. I remember from riding this on my Raleigh Twenty many years ago before the cycle/foot path was laid that the people who drive the shuttle buses here are impatient lunatics. I stayed on the shared path! I wanted a relaxing day with no hassle. I even respectively obeyed the “no cycling” sign for the final few hundred yards through the garden and wheeled my bicycle. It was obvious that recent storms had done some damage to some of the trees in the garden.

Lough Beagh

I ate my lunch at the covered picnic area behind the castle. It was cold and I had considered buying some nice warm soup in the cafe but it seemed very busy and I couldn’t be bothered waiting for a table. What to do next was the question on my mind.

Glenveagh Castle

I could have ridden on past the castle toward the waterfall (I have done this previously on a three-speed roadster but I had arrived at the castle by road on that occasion. I documented this ride on this blog a few years ago where I also told the history of the Glenveagh Estate. I could have ridden today’s route on a roadster too and it would have worked well enough but I think I would have been over-geared and ended up walking large parts of it). I have also walked this route to the waterfall quite recently with a friend.. I have never went beyond that but I understand that it eventually joins a minor road where I could have cycled around the other side of Lough Gartan and back to Glebe House. This is something I want to do at some point in the future really but the days are still short (I do have good dynamo lamps on this bike but it would be a bit pointless in the dark as I wouldn’t have seen the scenery) and it would also have added up to big miles in lumpy terrain and I need to be used to doing long rides again I think before doing this. Returning to Letterkenny by the road was also an option but it wasn’t what I was trying to achieve today. I would go back the way I came.

Lough Beagh

It is always tempting to look for other options to return from somewhere but there is also merit in re-tracing your steps as the same thing can look different when viewed from a different direction and so it proved today on the Lough Inshagh route. The most obvious thing to start with is that the climbing is much tougher from this side. After leaving the Lough Beagh shoreline, I must have spent two miles in my inner 28 tooth ring. This is the other advantage of riding an old mountain bike for touring purposes – they came with really low gearing as standard. Also the large 2“ wide tyres remove the harshness of unsurfaced roads if you run them at the correct pressures. I have seen online articles suggesting to pump them up to 80 or more PSI. Don’t do this. It defeats the purpose of having wide tyres in the first place and will actually increase rolling resistance on most surfaces.

Lough Inshagh

Eventually I reached the top and from there it was easy again. I took the time to visit the gardens at the Glebe House again (I wrote about Glebe House previously) for a stroll and to enjoy the extra daylight we are now getting before returing home again. I like Glebe House. The gardens are stunning and a nice place to spend time. Many snowdrops were in evidence at the moment. I always like to see the snowdrops. It means spring is coming soon and new growing season commences.

Glebe House

From there, the ride home was uneventful. I covered a total of forty-two miles. Not a huge amount but enough and thoroughly enjoyable. I am happy with my fitness. I thought I would have struggled to complete this but it wasn’t too bad at all. This is the advantage of having low gears I guess. I look forward to doing the longer version of this ride at some point later in the spring. I have also some better wheels I have acquired for this bike so I look forward to fitting them an some other changes as the new wheels will necessitate a change from thread-on five speed freewheel block to seven speed cassette hub so I will gain a few extra gears and I have also a new crankset as my current (non-replaceable) middle 38 tooth ring is very worn and on it’s last legs. I expect having better quality (though old second hand) hubs with lighter wheels will make some difference from the current bottom of the range hubs (they’ve never given any trouble to be fair).

Lough Beagh

Lough Beagh

 

The Raleigh Twenty at Fifty

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Slí na gCopaleen ride 13/2/2016 Raleigh Twenty

Thanks to the influence of Alex Moulton, small wheel bicycles were very popular in the 1960. In some ways a small wheeled cycle makes more sense than a large wheeled one, especially for utility riding. A small wheeled cycle can be easily adapted to suit virtually any rider, short or tall, young or old so they don’t need to be produced in a range of frame sizes (also, many small-framed large wheeled bikes have been compromised in their geometry to fit in the large wheels). All other things being equal, a small wheel will be stronger, better for carrying loads. A small wheel is also lighter and has less inertia so it is easier to accelerate such a bicycle up to speed. Small wheels also lower the centre of gravity and leave more space for mounting a box or a basket for carrying groceries or other heavy items. I’ve noted this recently with the T-Bag I bought for my Brompton as it has huge storage space and does not make the bike feel in any way top-heavy as it would do if I were to use a large bag or basket above the front wheel of 26″ or 700C sized bike. In fact, I feel the Brompton handles better with a weight on the front end of it.

People will mention rolling resistance but for a utility bike, this is largely irrelevant for the distances most people are riding around town as they go about their business. Besides I’ve done half-century plus rides (the longest was 85 miles around the coast of County Galway last summer on the Brompton) on small wheels and I don’t believe the difference was truely noticeable. I doubt you could win the Tour de France on a small wheeler (although it should be remembered that the more sporty versions of the Moulton were used to set some very impressive times in the 1960s) but for most of us, we are not riding (or capable of riding in most cases) at that level and cycling can often be more enjoyable if we slow it down and take in the scenery.

Raleigh Twenty and Errigal

Back in the swinging sixties, Raleigh’s take on the Moulton was originally a 16″ balloon-wheeled bike called the RSW16. It undercut the Moulton on price but it was inferior, the wide low pressure tyres had high rolling resistance (they went down the low pressure tyre route I guess as the Moulton had suspension and the RSW16 didn’t). They tried again, and in 1968, the ubiquitous Raleigh Twenty was born.  It was similar to the RSW but had 20 X 1 3/8″ wheels (usually, I believe export models were fitted with the slightly smaller but wider BMX 20″ sized wheels) and it worked much better.

After a slow start as Raleigh didn’t promote it much to begin with, it began to sell well and the RSW16 was killed off due to the success of the Twenty. It was to be produced in Nottingham and also several other countries including the Dublin Raleigh factory that existed until 1976 and also in New Zealand. The New Zealand version differed in not having the small bracing struts at the bottom bracket. It was produced as a single speed, a three-speed and for some markets with kickback hubs or coaster brakes and was marketed under a myriad of the different brand names that Raleigh had acquired over the years (Sun, Triumph, Hercules, BSA, etc). A folding version was introduced in about 1970.

Raleigh Twenty

Today, collectors like to fawn over the high end Raleigh and Carlton lightweights that they produced in in that era, but for much of the 1970s, the humble Twenty was Raleigh’s best selling bike with 140,000 being produced in Nottingham alone in 1975 although sales did start to tail off in the late ’70s and production ceased in 1984.  As a child, I remember that were to be found on every street corner and yet today, they are a rare sight and increasingly valuable. If I see one now, I stop for a look at it if I can. I do know of one that seems to be in regular use.

I will admit a special interest in the humble Twenty as I was given a tatty and abused family hand-me-down version as a child. To the best of my knowledge it has been in the family from new and dates from 1971 (assuming the back wheel was original). It is also a Dublin-built model. I rode everywhere on that bike in my formative years and it kept going despite a complete lack of maintenance or any kind of care. I did re-paint it at one point in bright red, I guess I probably didn’t cover huge mileage on it but it certainly got regular use.

Raleigh Twenty

More interesting bikes came along and the Twenty languished in the back of the coal shed for many years until I decided to restore it about 12 years ago. It was rather the worst for the wear and neglect and considering how cheaply they could have been bought back then, it would have been prudent to have just bought a better one. However, my enjoyment in these things comes from nursing things back to life rather than the actual finished product. Fortunately I did it back then rather than now as the price of bits and pieces on Ebay has gone mad. I paid the princely sum of 99p plus carriage for a set of replacement wheels as the originals were very rusty and not very round any more. Replacement mudguards (posh chrome plated ones no less!) and a replacement 26TPI bottom bracket were also sourced form Ebay. The headset was also very worn and attempts to shim the nylon bush which was used on these bikes rather than a conventional bearing race on the top were unsuccessful. The steerer is threaded however, albeit in Raleigh 26TPI standard but I bought a 26TPI headset and found a way to work it in despite the pinch bolt for the adjustable stem being in the way. I would hate to think what it would cost today to have bought these parts but back then, such things only cost a few pounds. Fitting a proper headset was to transform how the bike rode although I’m sure the nylon bush arrangement worked fine before it wore out!

Some shiny bits

The newly painted frame

The frame was stripped back and given a coat of Ford tractor blue (mainly because I had spare paint from the Ford tractor I had restored a few years earlier but I have always liked that shade of blue) and generic Raleigh decals were also bought online. New tubes and whitewall tyres replaced the booted and patched originals.  I did the best I could to polish the bars, seatpost and rack. The end result looked pretty good I felt. I made one further modification, the biggest fault (in my opinion) that the standard Twenty had was that it continued Raleigh’s long tradition of building commuter bikes with gear ratios best suited to time trialling. Certainly it made riding them in the hills of Donegal more difficult than it should have been. I changed the rear sprocket to an 18 tooth to give three sensible gear ratios.

Over the intervening years I haven’t rode it very much in reality. I rode it a good bit just after I restore but most of my cycling in those days was carried out after work and as winter arrived, I did fit some period correct lighting but I had other bikes with better modern lights so it was put away. I rode it mostly on NI VCC rides and also I used to occasionally fold it and put in the car when on trips to Portush to visit family and some of my most enjoyable rides on this bike have been leisurely all day rides along the coast from Portush to the Causeway, Ballintoy or sometimes Ballycastle in the winter time when traffic is light and the skies clear blue. Given the terrain, this mightn’t seem like an ideal bike for these routes but I found it coped fine. I may actually repeat this some time early in the new year for the nostalgia factor. I also once took it to Scotland in the car and rode a good few miles along the Ayre/Galloway area.

White Park Bay, Causeway Coastal Route

NI V-CC Ride 2013 - Raleigh Twenty

Ayr sea front - Raleigh Twenty

It occurred to me recently that I hadn’t rode it in about two years! There are several reasons for this and also acquiring a Brompton which works much better as a folding bike was a big factor.  I decided it was time to put that to right so I unearthed it from it’s storage and gave it some lubrication and pumped the tyres up and it was good to go. I should perhaps have cleaned the cobwebs and dust from it first! Also the chrome needs a good clean and polish to prevent rust getting a hold of it (my own negligence I know) and bell seems to have lost it’s cover for unknown reasons.

I had done several short rides on it over the past month when visiting home where it is stored in my parents garage but today I decided to venture further for an afternoon ride. I had only a few hours to spare, the bike is called a Raleigh Twenty so a Twenty mile ride seemed a good idea! The route was nothing special – just a twenty mile loop from my homeplace around Raphoe and Convoy that was one of my regular training rides when I lived there so one I know well and one I’ve done on everything from 28″ wheeled roadsters to my 531 framed fixed wheel Carlton and everything in between so I would be able to accurately access the Twenty in comparison to other bicycles.

Raleigh Twenty

If this was Raleigh’s best selling bike of the 1970s, is it still relevant today? Well yes, I think so. I had forgotten how much fun one of these is to ride. It’s not a racing bike but it rides just as well as a full sized 26″ wheeled three speed (possibly a little harsher on bumpy roads than a full sized roadster but never bone jarring, certainly more comfortable than any modern alloy or carbon bike) and you can’t help but smile when you ride one. This is proof yet again that enjoyable cycling need not be expensive. Considering no effort was made to rush and I did stop for photos, I feel I covered the rote in a decent time too.

Raleigh Twenty

Cottered cranks, cup and cone bottom bracket, steel wheels, hefty steel frame, hub gears – all things that today’s weight and image obsessed cyclists would shun, and yet if it’s put together properly it all works perfectly and will continue to work for decades. The Twenty is a hefty lump, even compared to other similar bikes like the Dawes Kingpin but it was a quality machine dating from before the time of the throwaway society. Time brings progress and it’s modern day equivalent would be lighter with better brakes (brakes on steel wheels today get a  lot of bad press online and there is no doubt riding fast in wet conditions on an old racing bike needs anticipation but for whatever reason, the brakes on my Twenty have never given any cause for alarm, they work great in the dry and acceptably well in the rain. Must be to do with pad compounds) but the Twenty will probably outlast them and fifty years after it’s launch it will still put a smile on the face of the rider. I’d say that Raleigh got it spot on (apart from the idiotic gearing in standard trim).

Raleigh Twenty

Convoy Woollen Mill

County Clare

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North Clare Cycleroute

One of the (many) places I passed through on my Wild Atlantic Way tour which I had decided I would like to return to for further exploration was Doolin in County Clare.

Doolin (or Dúlainn) is coastal town on the edge of the Burren area of county Clare and is built on the Aille River. The town itself is small but quite scattered over a relatively large area. The reasons to visit it are many. It is a good base for exploring some of the most beautiful landscape in the country including the fabled Cliffs of Moher and The Burren, it is a relatively flat area for cycling, you can catch ferries to the Aran Islands and the live traditional music scene in the town is legendary. It is also one of the hubs of the National Cycle Network which promises some nice cycle routes on lightly trafficked roads.

Doolin Pier

Fisher Street, Doolin, Co. Clare

When I was here before earlier in the year I was only spending one night and passing through on my coastal journey. This time I would go directly there and spend four nights with plans to visit one of the Aran Islands and also the Cliffs of Moher as well as explore some of the signposted cycle routes. I would base myself at the Rainbow Hostel where I stayed last time and highly recommend.

On Satruday evening I arrived after a tedious five hour car journey complete with Brompton and checked in to my accommodation. I decided to take the Brompton as it rides well, packs easier and would be easier to take on the ferry to the islands and in this area, three gears are perfectly sufficient. I just relaxed really on Saturday evening, walked around the village and harbour areas and sampled some of the live music sessions in progress. Tomorrow I would start with the early morning ferry to Inis Oírr, the smallest and closest of the three Aran Islands. It was a difficult choice really but locals told me that Inis Oírr was the most scenic and as it was also the smallest at roughly three square miles, I would have a whole day to explore it properly.

It was my first time to use my recently aquired Brompton T-bag which I instantly decided is an excellent piece of kit, worth the expense as it’s practical and well made and very spacious. With it, my Brompton now becomes a valid touring bicycle, on other occasions I had tried to use it for touring, strapping a rucksack to the carrier was less than ideal. I wouldn’t need all that space on this occasion but was able to take my lunch and camera, some waterproofs and spare clothes as the weather would be very mixed and have plenty of room to spare. The rear facing bottle holder is also very practical. The whole bag can be easily unclipped and used as a large shoulder bag too which is good if you were doing mixed mode travelling with buses or trains. I am very impressed with it.

I got the ten o’ clock ferry, the earliest available and the crossing takes twenty minutes. The fact that a Brompton effectively bends in the middle at the rear hinge if you pick up like you would a normal bicycle confused the ferry staff when they lifted it on board and I would get jokes about my “wonky wheel!” The ferry crossing was quite rough but I enjoyed it. I always enjoy being on board a boat.

Aran Ferry

The early morning brightness I had experienced in Doolin had gradually disappeared and when we docked at the island pier the day was quite over cast and misty with a slight hint of rain in the air. After leaving the boat I stood on the pier and looked around me. The mist clung to everything and the air felt damp despite the strong wind. The island actually had the feel of a small remote fishing village ( I suppose that is what it is in many ways) with a beautiful beach near the harbour, a lot of houses (and also pubs, shops, etc) in the immediate vicinity of the harbour and the ruins of O’Brien fort overlooks the harbour from it’s prominent hilltop location, as it has done since the fourteenth century.

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

 

The Aran Islands have an unusually temperate climate and frost or snow are almost unheard of on the islands. As the soil temperature usually remains above the 6C required for growth these islands actually have the longest growing season of any part of the British Isles. The islands are really an extension of the Burren and the small fields are the results of years of building soil by creating layers of sand and seaweed on top of the rocks. Stone walls abound on the island and I was to be grateful for the shelter they were to give me in the face of the Atlantic winds.

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

The island currently has a population of around 250 people. I believe the Arans only really became heavily populated during the Cromwellian period when people were forced to flee their land by the English forces (to Hell or to Connaught). There is evidence of monastic settlements dating back much further than that. The earliest sign of settlement on the island is the Cnoc Raithní, discovered in 1895 which dates back to 1,500 BC. Up until relatively recently, the islanders were self-sufficient in most things. Cattle were led to the mainland by being tied behind Currachs – the traditional west of Ireland lightweight fishing boat which is noted for being surprisingly seaworthy even in heavy seas. Many of these small boats are still in evidence.

Currach

I enjoyed riding around the island, there are no hills to speak off and it is easy terrain despite the fierce Atlantic winds. It may be small in size (3.1 square miles) but it contains a bewildering amount of roads and paths, the more important ones are surfaced, others are just grass or stone but I found no difficulty on the Brompton on any surface. It is possible to take guided tours of the island by pony and trap and just about the only traffic I encountered anywhere was of the equine variety with a few of the small 3 cylinder Zetor tractors which seem to be the prefered power on the land on the island. I couldn’t help feeling the rust-resistance of these little tractors in the face of the salt-laden air is a tribute to the quality of Czech engineering as the few British tractors I did see had long since lost the battle against rust.

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

Somewhat amazingly on such a small island I was able to find enough roads to keep me riding almost continuously apart from occasional photo or food stops for several hours. When the weather suddenly improved and cleared, giving the views for which the island is famous, I did most of it for a second time! It was an enjoyable and relaxing day, nice to get away from the huslte and bustle and traffic of the mainland for a time and there was much to see, including the endless and fascinating stone walls, the beautiful memorial to those lost at sea, the lighthouse, O’Brien’s castle and various other ruins, and also the wreck of the Plassey, made famous on the opening credits of the Father Ted TV series of the 1990s. The Plassey was originally a steam trawler launched in 1940 as the HMT Juliet. It was converted to a cargo ship in 1947 and was acquired by the Limerick Steamship Company in 1951 who renamed it as the Plassey. It ran aground and was wrecked during a severe storm in 1960 at Finnis Rock. Thankfully all crew members were rescued. A subsequent storm a few weeks later washed it above the water line where it has remained, now very much the worse for corrosion but I guess it’s almost 80 years old.

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

I caught the late evening ferry back to Doolin, the crossing being much smoother and in nicer weather than the voyage out. Unfortunately I missed the photo opportunity of a lifetime when a dolphin jumped out of the water at the stern of the ferry but such is life!

My plan for the following day involved a visit (my first) to the fabled Cliffs of Moher – one of Ireland’s most iconic scenic beauty spots. I did pass by earlier this year but it was extremely foggy at that time so wasn’t ideal for sight-seeing. There was to be no trouble with fog today, the weather was a clear, crisp, sunny Autumn day, not especially warm but it was dry and mist free with the promise of seeing the cliffs in all their glory. It is a short ride of about five miles from Doolin to the visitors centre. Some climbing is involved but I found it very easy on my Sturmey hub gear. I didn’t follow the main route completely but used the sign-posted cycle route 2 which took me on to some minor roads which were a delight to cycle on and past a tower of which I could find no information (I admit I didn’t try too hard!) but was clearly private property.

North Clare Cycle route No. 2

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

The cliffs extend for about eight miles and the high point is 702 feet above sea level ( much lower than Sliab Liag in southwest Donegal) at the point where O’Brien’s Tower is built. About 1.5 million people visit the cliffs every year. The cliffs are mostly shale and sandstone and home to an estimated 30,000 pairs of nesting birds of 20 different species. They take their name from the old promontory fort called Mothar which stood at Hag’s Head. It was demolished in 1808 and the stones were used to build the lookout/signalling tower like so many of the others around the Irish coast in case of possible French invasion during the Napoloeonic Wars. I locked my bike at the visitors centre and walked from O’Brien’s Tower to the Napoleonic Tower (where I sat and ate my lunch) and back again, probably about a two hour hike in total and it was indeed very enjoyable. I toyed with idea of completing the whole looped walking route which would have taken me back to Dooolin eventually and then driving back to collect the bike but elected to continue cycling. I completed the whole of the Route 2, 39KM according ot the tourist information and it is a very nice route, one I would recommend and it should be within the capabilities of most riders. When I had arrived back at my bike at the bike rack, I found a Canondale Tandem chained up beside it and got talking to the owners who were a couple from Belfast who were cycling the Wild Atlantic Way on the tandem.

Cliffs of Moher

O'Brien's Tower

Cliffs of Moher

DSCF7385 (Copy)

Canondale Tandem

I arrived back in Doolin earlier than I had expected and found I was in time to catch the final sailing of the Cliffs of Moher tour boat. Since it was such a nice evening, I decided to do that and it in itself is very worthwhile as you get a different perspective on the cliffs from sea level and are actually better able to appreciate their beauty.

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Day three, and my final full day in Doolin, my plan was to visit the Doolin Cave (Poll-an-Ionain) where one can see the largest Stalactite in the northern hemisphere. It is a short ride of a few miles from Doolin to the cave entrance and visitors centre. The Stalactite is just over 200 feet below the ground and a lot of stairs leads to it and there is the need to wear the supplied helmets underground as it’s very easy to hit your head on the low passages in the low light conditions. The tour is excellent and very informative but I found the cave very claustraphobic and was pleased to get outside again. The cave was discovered in 1952 by two English men – J. M. Dickenson and Brian Varley,  After the underground tour, you can walk around a very nice park area with many varieties of goats and sheep on display.

Doolin Cave stalactite

Doolin Cave stalactite

After the tour, which didn’t take very long, I had the rest of the day to contemplate cycling. I decided to follow more of the signposted routes, starting with route number 3 which took me through Lisdoonvarna, but as it was still early and such a nice day, I also added route 4 to my ride taking me towards Lahinch where I was to stop for food and also called at the other highlight of the day – Poulnabrone Dolmen, which is the oldest dated megalithic monument in Ireland and the second most visited site in the Burren (after the cliffs of Moher). It is classified as a portal tomb and archaeologist Anne Lynch who carried out investigations in the 1980s found the remains of 21 bodies. The site was in use for a 600 year period with oldest dated remains dating from 5,800 years ago. The human remains show evidence of hard physical labour and one of the remains has an arrow-head embedded in it suggesting some sort of conflict. It is a fascinating site to visit and as always with these things, you are left with the question of how they got the stones into position. It is older than the Great Pyramids! This was in many ways the most enjoyable day of the trip as it was all very relaxed and I probably covered in excess of about fifty miles through some beautiful scenery on perfct cycling roads. Yet again (as in all my trips to the south-west of Ireland) the standard of driving and respect shown to cyclists and pedestrians by drivers show just how terrible and selfish the attitude of many drivers in the north of Ireland actually is.

Lisdoonvarna

Pulnabrone Dolmen

Pulnabrone Dolmen

Brompton

For the final day of my trip and the longest day (in terms of mileage) I decided to treat myself to dinner in the pub. Another night spent listening to the many excellent traditional bands to be found in Doolin, I was in some ways sad to be returning home the following morning. I was impressed yet again with the Brompton, they are such a practical bike and so good to ride. the addition of the front bag (and the possibility of fitting a Caaradice saddle bag if more luggage space is required) make the Brompton into a perfectly viable touring bike for shorter trips. It’s true it might be necessary to walk some hills due to the limited gear range of the Sturmey Hub gear but for a relaxed touring trip that is largely not important and the Bormpton has the advantage of being so easy to transport by car, bus, train or ferry

This was probably my last tour of 2018, and the only one completed from a fixed base as on the others I was always moving to a new destination each night. There are pros and cons to both methods of touring. Finding yourself in new surroundings each morning adds it’s own interest and you can cover greater effective mileage as you don’t have to return to base but on the other hand, once you settle in to your accommodation, it feels like home and is nice to go back each evening.

Kilmacreehy Graveyard

Inis Oírr

Inis Oírr

North Clare Cycle route No. 2

Inis Oírr