I think that many cyclists (and I include myself in this) are guilty of not exploring their local areas as much as they probably should do. Certainly in most parts of rural Ireland we are blessed with an amazing labyrinth of unclassified roads awaiting exploration by the touring cyclist. When I am actually touring, I always leave sufficient time for random detours away from the more trodden highways as the mood takes me and I have enjoyed many such random excursions.
Local to home, I’m guilty of usually doing variations of the same loops. I think this is probably partly just laziness and habit and also when at home, we fit our riding in between work and other commitments so I often think in terms of “I’ve two hours to spare, I can do X loop in two hours” so go and do that rather than look for alternatives. I’ve been making a genuine effort in the past year to explore more new routes. I’ve also found that with so few other things happening because of Covid-19 restrictions in the past sixteen months or so, it has freed up more time to devote to cycling. It has also given me an even greater appreciation of nature and an increased ability to just enjoy the moment and be absorbed by the natural world around me.
I’ve bought Ordance Survey maps for my local areas and have spent time studying them and looking for less obvious but potentially interesting routes I can. One such route which looked interesting was the journey between Ballybofey and Bearnas Mór in the Bluestack mountains. The obvious way to do this is to use the N15. Makes sense in a car, but little sense on a bike in my opinion. With an exception of a few very quiet ones like the N59 in the northwest of Mayo, the national primary routes are not conducive to enjoyable cycling and N15 is probably one of the worst as it so busy and people often drive on it at ridiculously high speeds. I defend people’s right to ride on such roads (and most of the clubs do) but it’s not for me personally. I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be but there is still a need to educate a lot of drivers to respect cyclists and pedestrians on our roads. The numbers of cyclists and pedestrians will keep increasing, it’s inevitable in my mind as rising fuel costs, traffic congestion and environmental concerns will force the issue.
In the past I took different routes to Donegal town via Pettigo and also via Doochery on other occasions to miss the N15 and the gap. There are a lot of minor roads though which run via Meenglass direction towards Bearnas Mór and they should be lightly trafficked. These roads cross the border with County Tyrone several times and were a scene of much smuggling once upon a time. I decided to test it out on Sunday. I would use my ’90s Townsend BX-40 mountain bike. The low gears might be useful and I knew I would be on some un-metalled surfaces so the two-inch wide tyres would better than road bike wheels.
The North West Passage is a signposted route which roughly makes the journey I was planning and it would have been the easy option to have followed the signs for that from Stranorlar but I decided not to do that! I would take a slightly longer route which would take me alongside Trusk Lough. A lot of my rides seem to take in things related to the once extensive narrow guage railways which once linked up many parts of remote Donegal (and the west of Ireland in general). Today would be no exception. Passing through Stranorlar took me past the modern CIE bus depot where the former CDR-JC train station stood and if you take the time to look you can see the remains of the bridge where the branch line crossed the River Finn on it’s way to Glenties.
Turning off the back road between Stranorlar and Ballybofey I would begin my journey to Trusk Lough. Almost immediately after leaving the town, you can see the stone bridge which crossed over the railway line. The walls are covered in ivy now and it’s probably easily missed at car speeds but on a bicycle you have the time to notice these things. I believe that CDR employed a large team of people to maintain and clear away vegetation along the lines so I’m sure the bridge would never have looked like this when the line was operational.
The road climbs quite steeply for next few miles towards Trusk Lough and I appreciated my low gearing. There are actually many roads here which all link together, I didn’t follow a set route as such, just taking whatever road took my fancy and was going in the general direction. As you climb you note the changing landscape from the rich, green fertile Finn Valley to the more peat bog terrain.
Lough Trusk is a relatively small lake used for a public water supply and it is also apparently used for recreation as I found people fishing and kayaking on it. It is nice to see young people enjoying outdoor activities. I explored a gravel path which runs around a large part of the lake and joins a bog road. At this time of year, the heather is full bloom on the hillside and turf cutting is still practiced in the bogs around here.
Blanket bogs are important from a biodiversity and carbon cpature point of view and there are increasing restrictions on the cutting of turf. This combined with the ever-increasing use of more efficient heating systems leaves the question of how much longer will we witness the great rural Irish tradition of cutting the turf or smell the unmistakable scent of a turf fire when out walking or cycling on frosty winter’s evening.
I continued my journey westwards touching on an area known as Meenglass. The Viscount of Lifford lived in Meenglass House (demolished in 1948) and was one of the people behind the original Finn Valley Railway line. One of the locomotives used was called the Meenglass (I think there may have been more than one over the years) and it is this locomotive which is on display outside Derry at the Foyle Valley Railway Museum and is an old friend as I often stop to look at it any time I cycle to Derry. Most of what is housed in the Foyle Valley Museum is old CDR rolling stock.
The terrain here levels out to a long but gentle drag but I found I had a horrible headwind. This is an exposed part of the countryside with little to break the wind and I believe the Stranorlar to Donegal train was derailled on a number of occasions by strong gusts of wind over the years in a similar manner to the infamous accident at Ownecarrow near Creeslough. Fortunately speeds were low and there were no high viaducts or embankments here so there were no fatalities. The terrain here is scenic with the acres of purple heather and the horizon broken up with the large forestry plantations and the Bluestack mountains in the distance. There are many streams and rivers and some beautiful stone arched bridges to cross over them. Modern concrete and steel bridges may be cheaper and less labour-intensive to build but there are not so pretty. You also have to wonder if they will still be around in a few hundred years time and be able to carry many times their design weight?
The road I was on would eventually join the N15 on the approach to An Bearnas Mór or the Anglicised version Barnesmore (which translates as simply “The Big Gap”). This is a moutain pass cut through the Bluestack Mountains by the retreating glaciers around 13,000 years ago. As the N15 got closer, the noise of the passing high speed traffic got much louder. After a few hours cycling where I didn’t really have any traffic at all and certainly no high speed traffic, it seemed suddenly very intrusive. There is a lot environmental concerns about the motor car nowadays but few people consider the antisocial aspect of our excessive car usage.
I was interested in a path through the bog which I had seen marked on my OS map which would lead me around the back of Lough Mourne. I located the entrance to the path and made the right turn. This was the main reason I had brought my mountain bike as I had no idea what sort of surface to expect. It wasn’t bad most of the time but there were a few bits surfaced with really course stones which would not have been good for road bike wheels. It’s really only a path for people to access the bog to cut and to retrieve their turf. It also had some pedestrian traffic today. I suppose it is a scenic and peaceful place to come to walk off the Sunday dinner. I noted there were other mountain bike tyre tracks but I didn’t encounter any other cyclists on my travels. I did stop and have conversation with one or two of the walkers. This is the beauty of cycling and walking away from cars, people interact with each other and the world is so much more peaceful.
The path loops around Lough Mourne to the pumping house (Lough Mourne is also a public drinking water supply) to where it rejoins the N15 although access from this side is restricted by a gate. I visited the pumping station once as part of a National School trip more years ago than I care to admit! Just past the pumping house you can see the raised embankment where the train passed through the bog and along the loughshore and on to Bearnas Mór and beyond.
The final train passed here at the tail end of 1959 and all these years later you can still see so much evidence of the infrastructure which was built more than a century ago and has been left to decay for over sixty years yet so much has survived. An enduring tribute to civil engineers who designed it and the workmen who laid the tracks and built the bridges, stations etc. If you stand at this point and look towards Bearnas Mór you can see the track bed runs as straight as a die. You can also ponder how beautiful the rail journey must have been as it passed from heather-clad blanket bog to lakeland views to a deep mountain pass before eventually reaching scenic seaside locations like Killybegs or Rossnowlagh.
There is some cine camera footage made on board one of the diesel railcars in the 1950s which can be found online. When the decision to close the line was made, I doubt many fully realised or understood what they would be losing or the unfulfilled tourism potential in later years but it was economically unviable to keep it open in this sparsely populated area in a time when more and more people wanted the freedom of a car. In it’s final years of operation it carried fright more than passengers.
Today, a few yards away, cars thunder past at high speed as one frustrated motorist after another rush towards the next traffic jam without taking the time to enjoy the journey. They will get there faster than the narrow gauge train would have done but why the rush? I doubt a train will ever again travel on this route but I really hope that one day the council will have the vision to clear the line and open it as greenway. I look forward to riding on it…but won’t hold my breath…
I ate my lunch by the loughshore; the gentle lapping waters reminded me of W.B. Yeats’ beautiful “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the sense of serenity that only come from sitting in solitude by the water’s edge. I then began to retrace my tracks through the bog and back to the road. I turned right and rode towards the N15 but didn’t join it. I would love to ride through the gap but not today, I didn’t want to do battle with high speed traffic. This was to be a day of relaxation. I stopped at the little road bridge that crossed the railway. This one is in much better condition than the one I crossed earlier. It looks like it’s been restored to it’s former glory. I climbed down the embankment to have a proper look at it, the wet peaty soil was difficult to walk on and caution was needed so as not to fall into a bog hole! I’m sure the bog caused problems for the railway builders.
On the opposite side of the road, a short raised boardwalk extends across the bog to show some of the features of a blanket bog and there is a tourist board explaining all about it. The raised walkway avoids the problem of walking on the soft peaty soil and probably avoids damaging the ecostructure with heavy hiking boots. The other problem with walking in heather and bogland while wearing shorts is getting insect bites. It wasn’t ideal but I was dressed to cycle rather than hike. It is always worth checking for ticks if walking through heather in shorts.
I then started the journey home again, this time using different roads. I didn’t have a plan for the return journey really, I just made it up as I went along. I passed by Garavgh Hall and through Killen and Castlederg and passed the Alt Presbyterian Church on way to Castlefinn. I stopped to have a look at what is left of Castlefinn Station, another CDR-JC station on the line from Strabane to Stranorlar. It is all grown over with ivy. Castlefinn Station was always famous for having platform signs which had Castlefinn spelt with one N on one side and with two Ns on the other!
When I got home I found I had covered around seventy miles according to my cycle computer. Less than I thought really given the time taken but the outward leg was a long slog into a headwind (this is where drop bars can be huge help over flat bars of a mountain bike or roadster) and I covered a fair few miles on poor surfaces. I also had a lot of stops. I think this is the point really, get on your bike and go and explore. Never worry about the average speed. It’s all about enjoying the journey and being part of the places you pass through rather than just passing through them. I will be exploring these areas further I think, this is only scratching the surface of what can be found. I await the day that I can cycle along the Finn Valley and Bearnas Mór greenway…
I must admit to liking small wheeled bicycles. My 1971 Raleigh Twenty has been part of my life in one form or another for almost as long as I can remember and in many ways was responsible for my interest in older bikes in the first place. The Twenty rides better than the sum of it’s parts would suggest and doesn’t really give anything away in performance terms compared to it’s larger 26“ wheeled brethren. It is currently in dry dock at the moment until I get around to investigating why it slips out of third gear.
I also have an early ‘70s Austrian built Puch Picnic. It may not quite have the grown up feel of the Raleigh but it is still a fun bike to ride and always puts a smile on my face. I must get out and about on it a bit before the summer ends. Unlike the Raleigh I don’t think it would cope so well with longer rides.
My 2006 Brompton on the other hand does see a lot of use. I don’t really feel it rides any better than the Raleigh but it does have brakes that work properly (thanks to the alloy rims and short reach callipers) and also as a folding bike it works so much better (arguably the Brompton is the best of all folding bicycles in this respect) so it can easily sit in the boot of my small car or go with me on a bus easily. This is the clincher really. If I go out for the day anywhere in the car, the Brompton often comes too so I can try to find time for a ride in different surroundings if possible. Touring by a combination of Brompton and bus works well too but my efforts at doing so have been thwarted by Covid-19 in the past while. I do have fond memories of tours along the south coast, Mayo/Galway and also West Cork and when conditions allow, I hope to do more of the same.
I think many people don’t take small-wheeled bikes seriously. Few believe them to be capable of serious use, people assume they are hard to pedal and slow. In the 1960s, people set some impressive times on the sportier versions of the Moulton. Alex Moulton was one of the pioneers of the use of small wheels on adult bicycles. Others that came later such as the Raleigh RSW16 and the later Twenty were in some ways cheaper copies of the Moulton without the rubber suspension. I really would like to own a Moulton one day.
It is assumed by many that a bike is better with large wheels. I love my 28“ wheeled roadster and the big wheels do seem to roll effortlessly along once you overcome the inertia and the weight of the big, heavy wheels. When bikes like my Rudge were originally designed in the early years of the last century, roads were not hard-surfaced like they are today, many were little more than paths. The big wheels rolled over the ruts better so bicycles were built with big wheels. There are problems though – big wheels compromise the frame design for smaller riders, any luggage is carried higher up where it interferes with the centre of gravity, the bigger wheel is heavier and weaker, the weight means it’s more difficult to get it up to speed (and also more difficult to stop).
By the 1960s, roads had improved drastically and Alex Moulton had realised that by using smaller wheels, the bike became much more responsive and more easier to manoeuvre (useful in traffic), the same frame size could be adjusted to fit people of all sizes, shopping and other luggage could be carried lower down more easily where it had less effect on the bike’s handling and for people living in flats or small terraced houses, the bike was much easier to store. There was a cult following for Moultons back then and in 1970s, the Twenty was to be Raleigh’s best selling model.
Yet most people still ride large wheeled bikes. Indeed, you are considered some sort of eccentric crank by many of the “serious” cyclists on their posh road bikes. I don’t particularly care though. I have been riding my Brompton a lot this year. I find it so practical for shopping; the large Brompton T-Bag is large and can hold a lot of stuff. The Brompton luggage accessories, like the Brompton bicycle itself, seem expensive but are beautifully designed and well made.
I also have been using it a lot for general leisure riding, often covering perhaps sixty miles or more in a leisurely day ride. The bike is relaxing to ride, the upright riding position means it’s easy to see the scenery, again the big bag on the front is great for carrying rain coat, lunch, water, tools and anything else I think I might need. I cycle alone usually and always like to be well prepared for any likely eventuality.
When I bought this bike in 2016, I expected just to use it as something to take in the car in for occasional use but I’ve found it so much more than. It’s more than just the utility aspect of carrying shopping, it’s just a fun bike to ride and although you may come across the odd idiot who will try to make fun of it, generally speaking it is a bike that will make you friends wherever you go as people tend to take an interest in it and admire it.
I’ve enjoyed many Saturday and Sunday all-rides on it this summer and I don’t feel it is any more tiring to ride in normal terrain than any other bike. Obviously it’s a three speed bike and has the same limited gear range as any other three speed but I’ve never found it to be too much of an issue in normal use, either on this or on my roadsters. I have derailleur geared bikes to use should I want to go into the mountains. Besides, you can always walk. I know it is personal preference in many ways but I personally am a big advocate of gearing Sturmey Archer hubs low so you can climb most hills. I have rarely found the lack of a high gear a problem.
I made many local trips around home and Derry and Tyrone on the Brompton this summer in preference to my large wheeled bikes and enjoyed every one of them.
I also used it as intended and took it on a couple of occasions to the Antrim coast and starting in Portrush, did various combinations of the coastal routes and the NCN 93, cycling inland in Armoy direction on minor roads and cycling back along the coast road past Dunluce Castle and the White Rocks. This part of the coast road can be fast and busy and not conducive to enjoyable cycling but I ride on the footpath at this part.
I do love visiting this area, I have family in Portrush and always associate it with childhood holidays back in the day. The scenery is nice and people are friendly. There is also a lot of history to explore if you take more time. As you go towards Ballycastle you can see Rathlin Island and also the Mull of Kintyre on a clear day. I plan on making a trip to Rathlin in the not too distant future as the Island is beautiful in itself and it’s a short ferry trip from Ballycastle. I believe there are only twenty-three miles of road on the entire island but some of it is very hilly.
I will need to service my Brompton in the not too distant future as the chain is worn, the headset needs attention and my back tyre has worn down to the canvas and needs to be replaced. I don’t mind, it’s a measure of how much I have used the bike and enjoyed the bike and I haven’t done much too it in terms of repairs in the five years I have owned it. I can’t put a figure on the mileage but I’ve worn out two rear tyres. I realise they will never last as long as a large wheeled bike simply because the circumference is much less and they turn more revolutions for each mile travelled but I still obviously have covered a few thousand miles on it.
People think Bromptons are expensive but it would have cost me much more to have driven all the miles I’ve rode on my Brompton in the past five years and I know the Brompton gives more enjoyment – enjoy the journey not just the destination – something many impatient motorists and performance-obsessed cyclists never seem to understand. One of the things about travelling by Brompton is that it is relaxing so you never feel the need to rush and take more time to enjoy the small things in life.
I also know that a derailleur geared bike would have needed a few new chains and a cassette by now I suspect. I don’t consider the Brompton expensive really, it’s a quality product, in some ways the ultimate commuter bicycle as it comes with mudguards, etc fitted as standard and many other features are available. It’s also easy to store, easy to ride, easy to maintain and is very practical. You won’t win the Tour de France on a Brompton, but it’s not about the speed. It’s still a perfectly good bike for longer rides and even touring. I had fancied one for years as I like the engineering of it but always thought it was too expensive – until I bit the bullet and bought a second hand one. It cost more than I would consider ever paying for any bike but I have never regretted it for one minute.
Summer has arrived at last and further easing of the Covid restrictions mean it is possible to do some cycle touring again (and not a moment too soon). One side effect of the lack of travel options is both good and bad in that it means Irish people are probably taking more interest in their surroundings and getting out and about more locally. This is good of course but it means some beauty spots have been unusually busy with day-trippers and as a cyclist I enjoyed the quieter roads during lockdown.
With the June bank holiday coming up I had considered several options on where to go for the long weekend. I decided it was time that I did something I had been threatening to do for quite a few years – visit Arranmore Island – the largest island off the Donegal coast. You get the ferry for the (short twenty minute) crossing from the town of Burtonport. I had heard good things about a campsite in Crolly which is reasonably close to Burtonport so that was everything sorted – stay in Crolly and take a day-trip to the island. Sometimes simple is best. The island is quite small so it should easily be possible to cycle around in a day.
I elected to ride my Viscount Aerospace to which I had given a little TLC over the winter. I had replaced the cracked mudguards with the full SKS Longboard ones – these are full mudguards which cover more of the wheel similar in profile to what is fitted to a vintage roadster only made from lighter plastics rather than steel and have built in rubber flaps, back and front. I was hoping they would give greater protection from the elements than the light, skimpy set I had on the bike previously and it has proven to be the case when I’ve ridden it in the rain. These mudguards are more expensive but are high quality, offer great protection and should last a long time. For a utility bike or a touring bike, I have decided they are a worthwhile investment. When choosing mudguards, it is best to go for ones which are wider than the tyres you use.
Towards the end of last year I had also worn the rear Continental Tourguard tyre through the tread and into the red puncture protection and had covered a few hundred miles like that riding on the puncture protection layer and never suffered a puncture. I was previously not a fan of Continental tyres after bad experiences with their Ultrasport tyres but I believe the Tour Ride is an excellent tyre, I can’t say how many miles I’ve covered on it but it’s a good few thousand and I never had a single puncture and it retained it’s shape right until the end. I had no hesitation in ordering another Tour Ride in my 700 x 32c size to replace it and look forward to many more trouble-free miles. It’s not a tyre for the weight-obsessed but for practical use in the real world I haven’t experienced anything better.
After studying the map I decided to make a loop of it, I would leave my parents house near Raphoe and cycle to Crolly via Ballybofey, Glenties, Doochery and Dungloe using mostly minor roads. I would use a different route on the way home.
It would be a long ride but I was giving myself mostly all day to do it at my leisure. I was concerned the coastal areas might be busier than I liked on this bank holiday weekend but the roads were eerily quiet. The Saturday ride was pleasant an uneventful. I like the R253 between Glenties and Ballybofey, it’s a delightful route with little traffic as most people use the slightly longer but wider and faster route via Finntown. The R253 snakes it’s way through Glenfinn and Welchtown and beyond through bog, forests and lakes. It also crosses the River Reelin at the Reelin Bridge which will be known to anyone with an interst in Irish folk music as it is immortalised in the song “Johnston’s motor car” written by William Gillespie in the 1920s and recorded by many artists in the intervening years. The song tells the true story of the Stranorlar-based GP, Dr Johnston who was called out by a hoax telegram sent by members of the local IRA during the War of Indepdence calling the unsuspecting doctor out to a medical emergency and he was ambushed at the Reelin Bridge and his car hijacked and used to transport weapons to Dungloe. I believe Johnston’s Morris was one of only three cars in Stranorlar at that time, a sign of how times have changed. Now many households have three all to themselves! I wonder are we really better off with so many cars around. While doing this ride I did ponder the question that my bike ride to Dungloe could quite possibly be completed in similar or even less time than it would have been possible for Johnston to have driven there as all the roads then would have been narrow, winding and very poorly surfaced and car design has progressed much more than cycle design since 1920.
An amusing side note to the tale of Johnston’s lost motor car is that as the song started to become popular around Ballybofey and Stranorlar, the writer worried that Dr Johnston (as a staunch unionist) would hear it and take offence from it but it seems he saw the funny side and the only thing he objected to was the line – “you could hear the din going through Glenfinn” as he claimed his motor car was impecably maintained and didn’t make any noise! Some recorded versions of the song over the years substituted other place names for the Donegal placenames mentioned in the song. The whereabouts of Johnston’s car (or what is left of it) is known and he never did get it returned to him in his lifetime.
From Glenties I briefly turned on to the main road to Finntown before trying to take minor roads to Doochery but got it wrong and ended up getting lost in a forest. I suppose the roads turning from tarmac to gravel should have told me that I had taken a wrong turn but most forest tracks rejoin a road somewhere but this time I was wrong and ended up at a dead end and had to re-trace my steps and find the place where I had gone wrong. No real harm done but quite a bit of time wasted. It wasn’t really wasted though as I really enjoyed riding through the forests. Gravel bikes seem to be latest cycling craze just now but if your steel road bike can take wider tyres (I run 32s on the Viscount), they cope fine with a little light off-roading.
People have been riding their ordinary bikes on loose surfaces for decades before the mountain bike or now the gravel bike was invented. I’ve often riden my Visount on gravel paths. It’s the brakes that let it down really, the cantilever brakes on my mountain bike give much better control and you do need lower gears than you do on tarmac, especially with luggage. Disk brakes probably make most sense for this type of riding but that necesitates the purchase of a new(ish) frame.
I eventually found my way to Doochery, a small village on the edge of the Rosses area of Donegal. I have always liked it here, the roads are quiet and the scenery is nice. Any bike ride in this area will always be a pleasure. I don’t do it very often but I love the view overlooking the river valley as you climb away from the town on the road to Dungloe as the road “corkscrews” around several hairpin bends. The road is much wider than it used to be now. I didn’t stop for a photo today as I was now running a bit late and there were also other people stopped at my favourite vantage point but I have loads from previous rides in the area. I had wondered previously if the gearing I had on this bike would allow me to climb this hill with luggage and camping kit but it was fine in reality.
The pleasant quiet roads have to come to an end unfortunately as you join the N56 about three miles outside of Dungloe. To be fair, unlike most national primary routes in more populated parts, the N56 around here isn’t a bad road to ride as there’s not that much traffic and drivers in the west of Donegal are more respectful than in the east in my experience. The problem at the moment is the never-ending roadworks and endless sets of one-way temporary traffic lights in operation. Long stretches of roadworks like this are never nice on a bike as you usually have impatient drivers trying to force past you on narrow sections or you can’t clear the controlled section before the lights at the other side have changed so then you end up having traffic coming towards to you. It was okay today though as I had only a few cars come behind me and I had room to let them past comfortably and I was able to reach the other side before the lights had changed (Am I getting faster or have the council re-calibrated their traffic lights?).
I stopped at Supervalu in Dungloe to pick up some supplies and to have a little break and a snack. I then continued along the N56 for Crolly. It would have been nice to have used the coast road but it was getting later and I had already covered quite a few miles. At Lochanure I turned on to minor roads for the final few miles to Crolly, following a signpotsed cycle route, and very nice it is. Little roads with grass growing up the centre, drystone walls and no traffic – cycling paradise. It was hilly though. From Crolly I turned towards Annagry.
I did go on to Annagry to see what was happening in the village before going to the campsite. The thing about Annagry that it seems to have an unusual amount of old bikes used as street decoration including many old Raleighs and also a home-made tandem. I have mixed feelings as I like to see old roadsters but I would prefer to see them being used, enjoyed and cared for.
I turned around and headed back for Crolly (the home of the famous Crolly Doll) but turned left for the campsite at Meenaleck, going past Leo’s Tavern, one of Ireland’s most famous music pubs with associations with Enya and Clannad amongst others. Sadly, as with all pubs at the moment it was spookily silent due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One hopes it will be allowed to open soon. The Clubeo live music events here were something a bit special and I have fond memories of attending events here as a volunteer during the Errigal Arts Festival where I seen great acts like Donovan, Without Willow and others.
The Sleepy Hollows Campsite is just a few hundred yards past Leo’s and it would be my first time to stay here. I checked in and pitched my tent. Initial impressions were good, the hosts were friendly, the pitches generously sized, the toilet/shower/kitchen facilities were good and well-kept. I then had my evening meal, it was very welcome. It had been a long day of around seventy-four miles, hilly and sometimes windy. Unusually for me on this type of ride I had made very few scenic stops and just kept going. I was fortunate to meet some very nice people and was able to relax in front of the fire the host had provided – a mix of peat and wood smoke being pretty much essential to avoid being eaten alive by midgies. I retired for the night tired but relaxed and happy. It had been a long but enjoyable ride on quiet roads in dry if slightly overcast weather. It was nice to talk to other people from as far afield as Buncrana and Latvia and compare notes.
I awoke pretty early the next morning as is normal for me. It had the promise of being a nice day as the the very early morning mist and dew cleared quickly. I prepared my breakfast and ate it leisurely. This was the main day of this tour as I would be doing something different but there was no rush. I had all day. I would visit Arranmore Island. Being a Sunday, the first ferry was at eleven o’ clock so I had all morning to make my way down the coast to the ferry port at Burtonport. I was intending to make it a leisurely ride.
From the campsite, I turned towards Annagry and then made the detour towards Carrickfinn. I didn’t go to the beach but rode around the roads beyond the airport to the boat strand and continuing on I also called at Ballymcmanus strand and passed through Kincaslagh. This is one of the most scenic routes in Donegal if not the entire country in my opinion. I didn’t take the time this time but it is also worth visiting Cruit Island. I continued on my way towards Burtonport. The trip to Arranmore was what I had based this weekend tour around. I had been to the island once before many, many years ago and saw it from the back seat of the family Ford Cortina MKIV. Much has changed in the intervening years.
Despite the detours I was still over an hour early for my eleven o’ clock ferry so had some refreshments in the Harbour Cafe (alfresco as indoor dining is not currently allowed) and replenished my water bottles from the tap at the harbour.
Burtonport (or Ailt an Chorráin – Steep-sided glen of the point) is a small fishing village in the Gaeltacht. It’s been a busy fishing port for centuries and the Letterkenny to Burtonport railway line was mostly constructed to transport shell fish to Britain from the small fishing communities which existed in the area. The railway line is long closed like all the others. On nearby Rutland Island, James Napper Tandy attempted to land with a French force during the failed 1798 Rebellion. In more modern times, Burtonport is the hometown of Packie Bonner, one of the heroes of the 1990 World Cup, and also Pat “the Cope” Gallagher, a well-respected Fianna Fail politician of many years service.
Some very skilled driving is called for to fit as many cars as possible on the small ferry, then I could board with my bicycle. There is no additional charge for a bike. I was pleased to note that there were quite a few other cyclists. Cycling has definitely grown in popularity in the past few years which is a good thing for all sorts of reasons. The journey to Arranmore is only around three miles so it is a short ferry crossing.
Arranmore or Árainn Mhór is the largest inhabited island on the coast of Donegal with a population of close to five hundred in the last census. As with all the off-shore islands, the population had steadily decreased over the years. Sixty-two percent of the island’s population are native Irish speakers and Coláiste Árainn Mhóir is a well known and respected school of the language which attracts students from all over the country to study the language during the summer months. The main inhabited part of the island is the sheltered east coast around the main village Leadhb Gharbh. The island has been settled since Celtic times with an old promontory fort on the south side and more recent remains include the coastguard station near the lighthouse and a World War Two monitoring fort. The lighthouse remains in operation. It was the first offshore island to gain electricity during the E.S.B.’s Electrification of Rural Ireland programme of the 1950s and the last place in the country to gain an automatic telephone exchange in 1986.
I had been given a map of the island when I bought my ferry ticket and had studied it on the ferry during the crossing. The crossing had been unusually calm as there was barely a ripple on the surface of the sea. The early morning clouds had dispersed by now leaving clear blue skies. I was going to be lucky with the weather.
After disembarking the ferry, I stopped at the harbour wall for a few minutes to let the cars get off and to drive off into the distance before continuing on my way. Something I have learned about taking a bike on a ferry over the years. Just wait ten minutes and the all the traffic will have disappeared and I can then enjoy quiet roads! I also noted that virtually all the cars had turned left at the exit of the harbour so I decided to turn right and would circumnaviate the island in an anti-clockwise direction.
The island definitely isn’t flat, it was lucky that I had emptied my panniers at the campsite and was travelling much lighter than the day before as it made life easy. This was to be a really leisurely day, the island has a surface area of eight square miles and I had all day to ride around it. The road I was on would be following a loop around to the lighthouse but didn’t hug the coastline. I decided to try to cycle on the marked hiking paths as they looked well enoguh surfaced. If I ran into problems I could always re-trace my steps. I should probably have brought my mountain bike here really but the Viscount coped absolutely fine.
As the roads and paths climbed, I had a great view over the harbour area and the small beaches. Eventually I reached the lighthouse. The first lighthouse here was established by Thomas Rodgers in 1798 but was taken out of service in 1832. Years of campaigning eventually brought a new lighthouse, designed by G. Halpin and using stones from the old one. The new lighthouse is around seventy-six feet high and the light was first lit in 1865 and was visible for a distance of eighteen miles. The need for improvements brought a conversion to electric lighting in 1953 which gave a range of twenty-nine miles. Generators powered by Lister diesel engines were installed to power it with it being finally connected to the mains electricity in 1970 and it was shortly fully automated and the final lighthouse keeper left the lighthouse in 1976.
The old coastguard station stands adjacent to the lighthouse, I’m not sure of how old it actually is but I believe it was burned during the War of Indepence. The island still has an RNLI base and a Severn Class lifeboat. Also near the lighthouse is a flight of stairs which lead right down to the water’s edge. I assume this was used as landing place for supplies to the lighthouse when road transport was more difficult that it was today.
I continued my way as closely as possible around the circumference of the island. I was lucky it was so dry I suppose but the gravel hiking paths proved no great difficulty on my 32mm tyres. There are also several small lakes on the island which are pleasant places to just sit and relax. One has some stone monuments/art work which seems to be to commemorate the twinning of the island with Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. I also found time to have a look at some of the inland roads.
Despite covering probably very little actual mileage, I was definitely feeling tired when I arrived back at the harbour, almost an hour early. I had really enjoyed my day, the weather had been amazing, so much so that I was actually sunburned. It was all so peaceful on little paths or single track roads with little to no traffic apart from occasional other cyclists or pedestrians and the scenery can compare with anywhere else I’ve been too. What struck me when I look back on my childhood visit here in the 1980s is how much more prosperous it seems – the roads are mostly much better, the houses are better maintained what cars there are also look to be in much better condition.
When I got off the ferry I rode a little along the disused railway now open as a shared use path. I know some funding has been made available for redevelopment of the old line and it would be nice if the this path was to be extended the whole way back to Letterkenny as this was a very scenic railway journey. I’ve written about the railway line and it’s history on previous entries on this blog so I won’t do so again. There is a monument at the harbour to commenmorate those who were killed in the 1925 Owencarrow Viaduct tragedy made from a stone taken from the viaduct. I definitely felt tired when I arrived back at the campsite.
It was with sadness that I got up on the Monday to begin packing up. I had enjoyed my few days in The Rosses. It’s true that I was lucky with the weather but I really did enjoy myself. It was just nice to get out and about to meet people on again after such a long time of being stuck in a 5KM box. I met some very nice people along the way and I was very impressed with the Sleepy Hollows Campsite.
As I was up and about pretty early I made a trip to Carrickfinn for a walk along the beach before making the journey home. I would also make a detour to Bunbeg Harbour before continuing homeward bound. I rode along the minor little-trafficked roads to Bunbeg on this glorious June morning in bright sunshine with the scents of Rhododendrons, roses, whin bushes, heather, and freshly mown grass to the audio backing track of singing birds or the occasional soft relaxing thrum of a single cylinder Briggs and Stratton or Honda as people took advantage of the bank holiday and nice weather to mow their lawns. The ever-changing colours of the Rhododendrons, whin bushes, hawthorns, blackthorns and wild roses which line the hedgerows with the turquoise sea on the horizon and the Derryveagh mountains in the other directions. As I got away from the coast and towards the mountains again, there was the heather on the hillsides and the turf left to dry in the sunlight for next winter’s firing.
This is the joy of cycling and why I would argue that even the cheapest bike will give more pleasure than a new Rolls-Royce. The car driver misses being connected to nature, seeing the beauty of the natural world and closer to home, it’s why I can ride the same routes regularly all year around and not get bored as the different seasons and lighting make them look different and each season can add something else of beauty to the picture if you take the time to look for it. I also fear that those who are only interested in the sporting, competitive side of cycling miss the point of this too. You also always meet people as you go along, you are never isolated in the same way as you are in a car. It makes me wonder why we are all in such a rush.
I continued my journey home via Gweedore under the watchful presence of Errigal towering 2,500 feet up into the air and the deep Poisoned Glen with the ruined church down on the lakeshore as I made my way towards Glenveagh – the glen of the birch trees. Near Gweedore I stopped to watch a group of musicians who seemed to be recording a music video along the riverbank. To my surprise. they turned out to be professional musicians and one of the group was Imelda May, I hadn’t expected to meet celebrities on my travels today! They were all very friendly and took genuine interest in where I had been and where I was going and expressed surprise at the distances I was cycling but I slipped away quietly rather than try to interrupt their work. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes as you will be disappointed but I am not remotely disappointed. Imelda May is a lovely person. Typically the day I meet someone famous I am sunburned, sweaty and probably look like I was dragged through a hedge backwards but such is life.
I took the bridal path from Glenveagh back to Churchill. I had enjoyed quite a few miles of “rough stuff” on my Viscount this weekend, more than I would usually do, especially on this bike. A mountain bike is definely more suited but this works too. It is nice to get away from busy roads. I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, knocked another island off my list of places to visit, met one of my favourite singers, met quite a few other nice people and came home feeling relaxed and refreshed despite the high level of physical activity. As I never got around to fixing the cycle computer on this bike I can’t offer and accurate mileage total but my estimates from tracing the routes on online maps suggest around 170 miles over three days. I do like a rough idea of mileage when I’m touring but I am trying to get away from worrying about figures hence I didn’t fix the computer yet. I don’t really need it. An article I read somewhere suggested that instead of measuring the miles covered when cycling, just concentrate on the time spent cycling. I think it makes sense. I look forward to my next trip…
Winter miles, summer smiles or so the old saying goes. I must admit I do enjoy winter cycling and the challenges it can through up. Daylight is limited of course and it’s not really advisable to cycle in slippery conditions so my mileage in winter is less than in summer but there is no doubt it helps come the summer to have maintained a decent level of fitness over the winter. Unfortunately my winter mileage was seriously cut this year due to distance restrictions caused by the ongoing pandemic.
Thankfully things are beginning to open up again and I am now able to ride further afield again. I do feel I have lost some fitness compared to other years and gained a bit of weight but I am starting to tackle longer rides again. Arguably it never really really gets easier anyway – you just get faster.
I decided to try for an all day ride to see how I would get on with it. I want to try a few overnight camping trips in the not too distant future as restrictions lift so I wanted to know how much I would be capable of. This wasn’t going to be any kind of attempt to ride fast, just an attempt to cover long distance and check on stamina.
I knew I wasn’t going to be covering any new ground but I left with a sense of adventure as I didn’t really have a route plan – just a vague idea of general direction and to just ride and see where I ended up. This is never a bad idea and I am trying to make my local rides less regimented and more spontaneous nowadays.
I decided to start with a ride along the Lough Swilly to Ramelton. This is a pleasant route that I rarely do. I usually go in the opposite direction and take the inland route to Ramelton if I want to go that direction so I decided to take the coastal route today. I’m more familiar with it coming in the other direction.
After a good breakfast I made a start, going through the town towards Kiltoy. I must admit I don’t like riding in busy traffic at this time of the morning as everyone is in such a hurry to get to work and some drivers occasionally take offence at a cyclist daring to impede their progress to the end of the next queue of cars. I never understand the rush to get to work anyway; I can understand people’s desire to get out of work as quickly as possible though…
I made a minor detour before leaving the urban area to Auganinshin Abbey. I had often noted the sign for this but had never taken the time to visit – another example of how we tend to ignore what we have on our own doorstep. The Abbey was thought to have been established by the Franciscan Monks in the thirteenth century, probably on or near the site of earlier Christian settlements. It remained in use until they were evicted in 1610 and it was noted in records as far back as 1834 that it was a ruin. There isn’t a huge amount to see really unless you enjoy reading old tombstones.
I had set off from home probably only thirty minutes earlier in blue skies and sunshine yet it had clouded over and as I left the ruined abbey the hailstones started to fall; most unlike the type of weather one would expect in May. Luckily I had packed my waterproof jacket as I expected there would be showers at some point. The hail made me query my decision to wear shorts however.
After crossing the main road to Ramelton it was on the sort of small, lightly trafficked roads that I enjoy riding on. I always think that this part of Lough Swilly looks nice when the tide is in, not so nice when it is out with all the mudflats and debris showing. The tide was out on this occasion.
With the Covid restrictions ongoing, hotels, etc are still closed but the gates to the Castlegrove House Hotel were open so I took this as an open invitation to have a quick lap of the very impressive grounds and gardens which belong to the hotel. The hotel is part of a two hundred and fifty acre estate and most of it is a working farm. The Grove Estate was originally owned by William Grove in 1656 and he resided at Castle Shanaghan which was about a mile away from the current house. The Grove family were aligned with King James II and following the Siege of Derry in 1689, Castle Shanaghan was burned to the ground. The current Grove House was built in 1695 with later additions in the Georgian period. The Grove family were to play a pivotal role in the election of Daniel O’Connell to parliament in 1828. The house remained in the family until 1970. You cannot not be impressed by the well preserved period features of the house (which extend to the interior, I was inside a few years ago) and the impressive and well maintained grounds. I can definitely understand why people would wish to stay in this hotel.
I would pass another ruined Christian settlement further along the banks of the Swilly when I come to Kildonnell Friary. The Friary was founded in 1471 by the O’Donnells (who were the ruling clan of Donegal) for the Franciscan Friars on the site of an older church, possibly tenth Century. It was completed in the early sixteenth Century by Calvagh O’Donnell. In 1603 following the Plantation of Ulster, the land was given to Captain Basil Brooke who closed down the Friary. The graveyard remains in use. I didn’t go down the access road today as I have been in the past (this photograph dates from a previous visit).
From the friary I would continue on to the town of Ramelton (Ráth Mealtain – “the fort of Mealtan” who was an early Gaelic chieftain). The fort is said to be under the ruins of the O’Donnell’s castle. The O’Donnells were the ruling family of West Donegal prior to their exile to mainland Europe during the Flight of the Earls. Rameton was settled by the Scottish planters during the seventeenth century and is the location of the oldest Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Ramelton was once the most prosperous town in the county and was a busy port. The coming of the railway lines to Letterkenny began it’s rise in importance and wealth and the slow decline of Ramelton. It’s sad to see the decline of the once beautiful Georgian buildings which line the Quay and the Shore Road but on a positive note, renovation work converting the old warehouses into apartment blocks is in progress so at least they are being preserved and re-purposed for future generations.
By now the hail and dark clouds had cleared away to reveal blue skies again although it remained unseasonably cold for the beginning of May. I decided to go to Rathmullan. I wouldn’t use the direct coastal route as it tends to be busy and fast nowadays but would use an indirect route via Carn High and Ardnared Lake. It’s hillier and bit of a detour but as I was in no particular hurry it made sense to take the more peaceful if less scenic route.
Rathmullan has always been a popular seaside resort in a sheltered location on the shores of Lough Swilly. Rathmullan has a long history and several points of interest including a Carmalite Friary (in ruins sadly) dating from 1516 and later the residence of the Church of Ireland Bishop of Raphoe, the Rev. Andrew Knox. It was later turned into a fortified house in preparation for a possible French invasion during the Napoleonic era. There is also a Martello tower from the same period which was held as a fort by the British Army as recently as the first world war before being abandoned. It was used as a heritage centre to the Flight of the Earls until the turn of the century when it was closed as the building had deteriorated but renovation work is currently in progress so hopefully it will re-open in the future. The Flight of the Earls is one of the most significant historical events associated with Rathmullan (and indeed the entire country) as it marked the end of the Gaelic way of life when the remaining Gaelic Chieftains set sail from Rathmullan in 1607 for permanent exile to escape their increasingly hostile English overlords. There is a monument and sculpture to mark the Flight of the Earls near the beach.
The weather had improved a lot from earlier and it was now actually quite warm when directly in the sun. I decided to continue along the coast from Rathmullan, passing Kinnegar Bay and on towards Knockalla and Portsalon. This is arguably one of the most scenic coastal routes in the country as you look across Lough Swilly towards Inishowen, Buncrana and Fort Dunree. You pass Knockalla Fort which stands sentry over the Swilly as you start climbing Knockalla mountain. You can’t gain access to the fort as it’s private property. It was built to help defend Lough Swilly which was an important Royal Navy base. Lough Swilly is second deepest natural anchorage in the country and as such, the navy attached great importance to it. This fort also dates from the Napoleonic era. It was abandoned by the military in the 1870s and has survived as a private residence.
Across the Lough you can see it’s sister fort at Fort Dunree (The fort of the heather) across in Inishowen. It was retained much later by the military and was one of the three treaty ports still held by the British following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. It was the last of the treaty ports to be surrendered to the Free State Army in 1938. Today it is a military museum (although currently closed due to Covid).
From there the ascent of Knockalla begins, although it is nowhere near as severe in this direction as it is from the Portsalon side. It’s just a long gradual climb over the course of several miles. Having a triple chainset to play with on my mountain bike makes it easy but I have climbed this on the 40/24 bottom gear of my Viking Superstar in the past. Not easy but manageable. At the top, you can see Portsalon (or Ballymastocker) beach, possibly one of the most recognised beaches in Ireland nowadays. I never grow tired of this view. There is the layby at the top of the hill where cars stop and the Wild Atlantic Way sign is installed but on a bike it’s easier to stop in other locations further down the hill to get a slightly different perspective.
I did stop at the beach to eat my lunch sitting on the sand dunes and watching out to sea and the lone dog walker with a very energetic young collie which was really enjoying being at the seaside. The weather at this point was truely glorious. This is what cycling is all about to me – not just to ride for the sake of it but to take the time to engage with the area you pass through.
From Portsalon I continued towards Fanad Head, the setting for the famous two hundred year old lighthouse said to be the most photographed in Europe. I didn’t go out as far as the lighthouse on this occasion but continued along the loop towards Kerrykeel with the intention of going back down the other side of the Fanad Peninusla. There are a surprising amount of small lakes in Fanad. I stopped at Kindrum Lake, I’ve always found this a very peaceful spot.
You can see the memorial to the Fanad Patriots. The Fanad Patriots were Michael Heraghty, Tullyconnell, Michael (Rua) McElwee, from Ballywhoriskey, and Nial Sheils, of Doaghmore who ambushed and shot the tyrannical landlord Lord Leitrim as he travelled to Milford on the second of April 1878. Lord Leitrim was a much hated figure who treated his tenants abysmally. The actual assassination itself was in response to the fate of a young girl from Fanad, the daughter of a tenant farmer who was working for him in his castle under duress. It was claimed that he debauched her and she was found drowned days later. The identities of Lord Leitrim’s assassins were widely known in the Fanad area but no-one would inform the RIC. Lord Leitrim’s heir offered £10,000 in return for the identification of the killers. It was never collected. They became known as the Fanad patriots.
In a spontaneous change of plan I decied to cross the Harry Blaney bridge across Mulroy Bay rather than go down the west side of the Fanad Peninsula to Kerrykeel. It brought the options of quieter roads once clear of the bridge itself and as I had made better progress than I expected, was still feeling fine and the weather was nice, it seemed silly not to extend the ride.
The Harry Blaney Bridge has always been controversial with some describing it as a bridge from nowhere to nowhere but I’m sure it’s of huge benefit to the people who live locally in the area and leaves it possible to travel between the two peninsulas without the time-consuming and wasteful journey back to Milford. It is certainly great for cycling! Also on a bike you can easily and safely stop at the top and see what the motorised users probably don’t even notice – it offers great views of the Mulroy bay area and across Island Roy and towards the Rosguil peninsula and looking toward Errigal on the land side.
From the Harry Blaney bridge it is only a few miles into the seaside town of Carrigart. The main road here isn’t bad to ride on but there is a minor single track route if you turn right just as you leave the bridge and it brings you into the centre of Carrigart. It’s a nice alternative with great views across Island Roy and Mulroy Bay.
From Carrigart I had choices, I could go directly to Milford, go to Creeslough along the coast or back to Kilmecrennan via Lough Salt and Glen village. I decided to go to Glen Village. In Glen you find one of the few remaining pre-metric road signs. The road home via Lough Salt was tempting in such clear weather the views across the lakes would be good. So I decided to do something different – take the small road which passes Glen Lough on it’s way to Creeslough. I had never travelled this road before so it seemed a good thing to do.
It turned out to be a very pleasant ride. The Lough Salt route over the mountains is more scenic but it’s also extremely hilly and is quite a challenge to ride. The “low” road is nice, with just enough gradient to keep it interesting with being a test of endurance and you have good views across Glen Lough.
As I had never used this particular road before I wasn’t sure exactly where it would bring me out in Creeslough. As it turns out I didn’t touch the town, it emerges on the N56 a few miles east of Creeslough. I don’t like riding National Primary Routes very much but as it turns out I wouldn’t have to as it was very close to the other minor road I like which leads to near Glenveagh and transverses the Owencarrow Valley. That worked so neatly for my plans you’d nearly think I had planned it!
The Owencarrow valley is very scenic in it’s own right with bog, rivers and mountains and you can also see the ruined remains of the notorious Owencarrow Viaduct which carried the Letterkenny to Burtonport line and was the scene of a tragic accident in 1925 when the train was derailed from the top of the bridge in this exposed and windswept location by a strong gale. Several people were to lose their life in the accident. What’s also interesting to note about this bridge is that the engineers responsible for building it had a lot of problems due to the soft and waterlogged bog being unable to support the weight of a train and the supporting pillars are apparently supported on packed sheep fleeces. I was surprised when I read this but apparently this technique was applied when building the West Coast line in Scotland as well. There actually is a book all about the building of this line with stories from those that worked on it in Letterkenny library and I hope to borrow it at some point (whenever the library re-opens. Covid again!).
I had never planned to be here when I left home this morning but now that I was in the area it seemed silly not to visit Glenveagh National Park. In the winter on 2019/2020 I had got so used to spending my Sundays riding the bridal and gravel paths through the National Park and yet this would be my first visit in 2021, mostly because it is more than five kilometres from home. I’ve written about the park and it’s history at great length in previous posts on this blog so I won’t go into it again. I just want to say how great it was to be able to ride along the beautiful Lough Veagh once again.
Since I was riding a mountain bike, I made the decision to carry on past the castle and along the lake up the steep gravel paths that lead out of the deep glen up to the road which links Letterkenny to Doochery. This is never an easy climb due to the steepness and the loose surface. It is for this reason I tend to favour my old and basic Townsend mountain bike over my road bikes nowadays – it brings the option of riding routes like this if I feel like it.
After the six or seven miles of the gravel paths through the Park I re-joined the R254 and turned towards Churchill and Letterkenny. I decided to take the small little travelled route that leads past Claggan Lough and not on the other side of Lough Gartan which is the route I’d usually use. This road is a delight despite the poor road surfaces. It brings you back to near the Glebe House. From there I took a slightly meandering route back to base. I covered just short of one hundred miles according to my basic cycle computer.
It was greater distance than I had planned, and took in some tough climbing. I’m pleased I can still do a ride like this but there is no doubt I felt it more than I would have done this time last year. Still there is now all summer to look forward to riding and seeing where each adventure takes me!
It was a very enjoyable day on the bike even if I did struggle towards the end of it. It also showed the eccentricity of the Irish weather in that I left home in sunshine, got pelted by hailstones and managed to get a little sunburned on the way home all in the one day!
I think that as the Covid-19 situation has dragged on into it’s second year, many of us now apprecaite the things which we took for granted in the past. Pre-Covid almost seems another world now. People bemoan the lack of shopping, or restuarants, pubs, live music and other forms of entertainment and socialising opportunities. I do too – not shops as I have rarely, if ever gone shopping just for the sake of it but it would definitely be nice to see live music again or to meet friends for a drink. It has been a disaster of course for those who earn their living from any of the businesses which have been forced to close or very restricted.
However, as someone who is a natural introvert and can be a bit of a misanthropist at times, I can be perfectly happy in my own company. What I found hardest to cope with was when there were travel restrictions. As someone who regularly cycles long distances and can easily turn a bike ride into an all-day affair or who occasionally will jump in the car and drive to a deserted beach for a walk (even on wet, windswept days) and to be alone and be at one with the power of nature, I found it really difficult to suddenly be restricted to within a five kilometre radius of home. The lifting of the restriction to allow county-wide travel was an event eagerly awaited for me.
More free time allowed more time to read some new books and to revisit some old favourites. I can re-read a good book many times and there are always things which were missed on the first reading. One of my all-time favourite authors is the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, famous of course for “Treasure Island,” “The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” and “Kidnapped” amongst others. I also read the excellent travelogue “The road to Muckle Flugga” by the Welsh motoring journalist Phil Llewellin, a book I would highly recommend. There is a little crossover in a way as Llewellin was also a fan of RLS and defines his love of travel using an often quoted line from Stevenson – “The great affair is to move.”
The full quote “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly, to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints” is expanded on by Llewellin as why he likes to enjoy the process of travelling and how he would rather drive a basic, cheap car somewhere interesting than to drive a Ferrari somewhere boring. It made me think about my own cycle touring and why I do it.
I think I prefer to enjoy the journey too, rather than focus on the destination. Now at this time of year when the days are longer and the weather (usually) better, I often could make some sandwiches and cycle fifteen or twenty miles to somewhere nice by a lake or river just to eat my lunch after work. The routes will be chosen carefully – they need to be quiet with little traffic. They need to often nice scenery (I am lucky to live somewhere where both of these things are achievable most of the time). The point is that I enjoy the journey.
I have many bikes of different types and eras but I don’t believe it is hugely important which bike you are using for leisure riding so long as it is a good fit, comfortable and had suitable gearing for the terrain you wish to ride in. I can appreciate all gear systems really – I love the simplicity of riding a fixed wheel bike and often do and am happy to challenge myself on hilld but there are places around here where it would be a form of purgatory to attempt to use a fixed wheeler due to the amount of climbing involved. A Sturmey Archer hub gear can fill the gap between the simplicity and ease of maintenance of a fixed wheel or singlespeed freewheel bike and the added complication of derailleurs.
I had a ride in mind which I had planned for a few months but wasn’t able to do due to lockdown. It was mostly localish to where I grew up and had a theme invloving some of the remaining relics from our once extensive railway network. I wanted to use a vintage bike in keeping with the theme and era. I wanted to use my Rudge. Unfortunately I suffered a rear puncture which is a much more time-consuming fix on a traditional roadster than on any modern bike. I would deal with it later.
The good thing about having a lot of bikes is you can always just switch to another should a problem arise so I brought my Raleigh Trent Sports out. It is lighter than the Rudge as you might expect. It has a four speed Cyclo-Benelux derailleur gear system, my only bike with this particular gear system. It has it’s quirks, is tricky to set up but it works well enough in practice. The downside is that I have a 48 tooth chainwheel mated to a 16/18/20/22 freewheel block so even the lowest gear isn’t very low for the area I live in. The Cyclo is an older type of derailleur, it does the same job as a modern derailleur but it does it in a different way and is normal low rather than normal high. It lacks the precision of the parallelogram type mechs which took over in the 1960s but it was respected in it’s day and had a lengthy production run.
This bike dates from 1958 according to my research and is a joy to ride – smooth and responsive and what the Cyclo gear system lacks in precision and speed of shifting it makes up for in other ways as this bike rides completely silently and feels responsive like a single speed. No modern derailleur system feels so efficient in that way; I’m unsure if it’s down to the 1/8“ chain, the full size sprockets with no ramps and cutouts to aid shifting or the comparatively narrow angle the chain runs at in all gears. That was one of the limiting factors of early efforts at derailleur gearing – the chains of the time weren’t flexible and didn’t like being run at angles. Modern derailleur systems can do all those things and therefore have far more sprockets due to the narrow bushingless chain but it came at the expense of durability. I would expect my chain and freewheel to last every bit as long as singlespeed drivetrain. That is definitely not the case with modern systems.
As the purpose of my ride was mostly just “to move” as RLS suggested all those years ago, I only had a vague idea of exactly which route I would take. Minor roads with not even so much as a stray sheep to impede progress would take me from my parent’s house towards Ballindrait. Some are poorly surfaced but on practical tyres with compliant steel forks to absorb bumps that isn’t really a problem on this bike. At least some of the roads I’d be using today form part of the North West Passage. I passed a yard full of old vintage curiousities – old farm implements, tractor and horse drawn, a Fordson tractor and there are also the rusting remains of “Golden Sunbeam” which is sadly rusted through at the chainstays. The Sunbeam with it’s fully enclosed oilbath chaincase and BSA 3 speed hub was arguably the “Rolls Royce” of British roadsters.
From there I passed through the town of Ballindrait and made a brief detour to the old railway station which still stands, I had hoped to taken some photos of it but it’s part of a yard now, guarded by dogs who did not appreciate my presence so I made a swift retreat. I quickly left the main road on to minor lightly trafficked roads again, after crossing the horribly busy N15 at a crossroads I would pass the remains of Robert Smyth and Sons mill which made cattle feed and had been in operation from 1865 to the late 1990s when it was destroyed by a fire.
From there, I continued to Porthall and what was to be the main purpose of this trip, I was going to ride across the railway bridge to Corkan Island which is a small island in the middle of the River Foyle. This was part of the old Derry to Strabane railway line which operated from 1848 up until 1965. You can see the remains of the platform where the station must have been before you come to the bridge which has been resurfaced in concrete and is used for far vehicles. My mother remembers walking along the railway line to visit people who lived on the island in her youth in the days before health and safety. I was aware of the bridge’s existence but it was the first time I had seen it in real life. It’s a fairly typical iron bridge of it’s era but the view along the Foyle is very nice.
From there, I began to make my way homeward again, via Ballylennon and on towards Raphoe. I did extend my ride a little and took in some other railway related sights such as Raphoe Station House (now a private residence) and looked out for other evidence of where the railway line was laid.
I also visited Beltany Stone circle, a Bronze Age stone circle near Raphoe and also Raphoe castle (properly called Bishop’s Palace) which was built by Bishop Leslie in 1636 and destroyed in an accidental fire in 1803. It is a very imposing ruin, sadly deteriorating.
My conclusion is that I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson; the great affair is indeed to move. My leisurely perambulations covered areas I had mostly passed through before, didn’t cover any new ground, just part of the Laggan Valley area of Donegal where I grew up and spent most of my life, yet I did enjoy the ride enormously. I did see a few things I hadn’t seen before or hadn’t noticed before. I did enjoy the nice evening and nice weather. I did enjoy using my Raleigh Trent, even though I did find some of the climbs I encountered tough using a 48/22 gear. I had covered perhaps about forty or forty-five miles total. It’s a shame that the 26 x 1 1/4“ wheelsize used on this bike went out of fashion as it rolls well, is wide enough to be comfortable and the slightly smaller diameter than the more usual 700c is helpful for smaller riders.
I think this is the point really. People are in so much of a hurry these days. My ride was leisurely. I took the time to be aware of my surroundings; I didn’t set out with any targets in mind. I was to ride as much or as little as I wanted, as fast or slow as I wanted. Cycling is not just about average speeds, stats and figures. It is arguably the most enjoyable way to explore the countryside as you cover more ground than a pedestrian but don’t go so fast that you miss everything as a motorist usually does. There is also the convenience aspect of it. If I ride my bike and see something of interest, I can stop and leave the bike in the hedge whilst I investigate. Use a car and you can’t just abandon it at the side of the road as it may be dangerous or cause an obstruction. There is also the wonderful feeling of freedom – just me and the open road. A simple steel-framed bike with only four gears can give complete enjoyment if we take the time to engage with our surroundings and enjoy the journey. By always rushing around the place, we can often miss the beauty and the interesting things that are on our doorstep.
About twelve years ago I purchased a basic early 1980s Gents three speed roadster. It is badged as a Record of Surrey although certain features of the frame always made me think it was Continental rather than British. Such bikes were common once, indeed I also had a step-through version of it at one point which I sold to a friend who had need of a bike to lock at train and bus stations without the need to worry too much about it’s fate. I had assumed these were Dutch or German. Research by my friend who has much better language skills than me revealed the most likely origin was the Rog Turist which originated in Slovenia. They are nothing special in many ways, being functional and like most bikes of this type, strong, simple, durable but pretty heavy.
I had bought it as a utility bike originally and gave it a full service and replaced the original tyres and tubes in the interest of reliability. What I found was that the bike was deceptively nice to ride. Maybe a bit harsher on a bumpy road than a traditional Raleigh Sports but pretty responsive given it’s weight. 26 x 1 3/8 inch wheels give a smooth ride and roll well. I found myself riding it far more than I had intended and I tweaked a few things to make it better such as replacing the steel wheelset with alloy rims, replacing the basic dynamo lights with Busch and Mueller Lumotec halogens (pretty decent lighting in it’s time now surpassed by LED lighting). I also fitted a better rack so I could fit my panniers when required and I replaced the plastic saddle with Brooks B72 which I had bought from Ebay back in the days when second had Brooks saddles could be bought for sensible prices on the second hand market.
In this modern world of super lightweight carbon fibre racing bikes, some people reading this might question why I bothered wasting time on a bike that’s heavy and not worth much, or why I chose to ride it as much as I did. I would say that it’s practical, durable, comfortable and does exactly what it says on the tin. In the intervening years I really did ride it a lot – I wore out two Michelin World Tour tyres on the back wheel, I did all the things I had bought it for such as ride to the shops but also did a lot more – I toured on it. The tours of the Co. Sligo coast, the Mayo Greenway and part of the Causeway coast are included on this blog. I also rode it to work two or three times a week over the summer for a few years in the days when I had a twenty mile commute. Note that the chain is still original, proving the point that a hub geared bike will be cheaper and easier to maintain than a derailleur bike.
Other things were showing the miles though. My Brooks B72 which I had found very comfortable suffered from a broken saddle rail so I had fitted a different saddle. More worryingly the bottom bracket was failing with very pronounced pitting on the cones and was impossible to adjust to have no play without it binding. The bottom bracket is an unusual design (unusual here at least, not that rare in Germany or the Czech Republic) so I wasn’t sure where to get replacement parts. I took the bike off the road a few years ago and it lay in the shed since until this winter I decided I would like it back on the road again.
The wonderful thing about the era we live in is the internet makes information and obsolete/hard to get parts easier to get hold of than in times past. The bike has what is known as Thompson or a Thun bottom bracket with press fit cup and the cones screw on the spindle similar to the one-piece Astabula cranks found on American or children’s bikes but with removable cranks held on with the usual cotterpins (9mm Continetntal sized pins). I found I could source replacement bottom bracket parts from the Continent via Ebay. I then realised that replacements with sealed bearings and square tapers where available for very little extra money so this seemed to be the way to go. Sealed bottom brackets are worthwhile as they should last for many years with no maintenance required. Indeed, a problem with the Thompson bottom bracket is that the sealing is not as good as the usual cup and cone type which probably hastened it’s demise as I rode it in all weathers and possibly didn’t pull it apart for servicing as often as I should have done.
I started by dismantling the existing bottom bracket so I could remove the press fit cups to measure the shell diameter as several sizes are available. The outside of the shell was showing some rust and stone chips too from years of use in all weathers so I took the opportunity to give it a good clean and brushed on a coat of red oxide primer which is a reasonably good match for the metallic red colour of the frame. As my main aim here was to create a utility bike I was happy to just touch it up like this rather than the expense of a full re-paint as it will still stop the rust from developing and a tatty appearance is actually a desireable attribute in a utility bike as it’s less likely to get stolen.
Fitting the new bottom bracket was very straightforward. Ideally I suppose one would use a press of some sort for this but I used a hammer and a drift as I had no press available. It went in easily enough anyway. The secret in doing something like this is to work gently around the circumference of the bearing so as to ensure that they go in square. Otherwise you risk damaging things. I had a spare Stronglight 46 tooth chainring which I used (conveniently the cottered original was also 46 toot). I had checked and double-checked my measurements and calculations many times before purchasing the bottom bracket as I was concerned it would give the wrong chainline (as I was converting cotterpin to square taper I just couldn’t order a direct replacement). Thankfully it all worked out fine although I did have to change the rear sprocket around on the dish to line up the chain.
I had noted that the rear hub was a little bit gritty so I opened it up to see what the problem was. I couldn’t see one so washed it out and pushed in some fresh grease and put it back together again. I think the bearings were a little too tight int he first place. I find the Sturmey Archer hubs work best with a tiny amount of play in the bearing adjustment. I also serviced the front bearing while I was at it.
The steel mudguards were also showing quite a bit of rust on the inside so I wirebrushed the inside and gave it a coating of Hammerite Kurust before giving it a coat of car underseal which should hopefully protect them for another few years. It’s actually a shame nobody seems to make mudguards in this size in chromoplast or stainless steel. Steel mudguards always rust through eventually if the bike is used in all weathers. To be right, I should have bare-metalled them inside and out and gave them a coat of zinc paint before giving them a top coat. I might do that before next winter.
I took the opportunity to change a few other things too. One of the less desireable features of this bike was the long-reach Weinmann brakes which never gave confidence-inspiring stopping power even on the new alloy rims. I often read of other restorers replacing these type of brakes with modern dual pivot brakes. I was always sceptical of the benefits but decided to give it a go as an experiment so I ordered a set of Tektro dual pivots. I fitted the first one without an issue but it proved to be much more difficult to fit the back calliper as the mountings for the rack were in the way. I decided to just keep the Weinmann on the back as perhaps eighty percent of the raking power comes from the front anyway.
I missed the springs of the B72 saddle so decided to order another sprung leather saddle. Brooks saddles are so expensive now. In the past I have ordered cloens of the B17 and of the B66 from China and have been happy with the saddles. My main touring bikes both have Chinese copies of the B17s for many thousands of miles and I like them a lot. I did have a clone of a B66 on this bike for a while but it’s found a new home on my Brompton. I tried to find a similar saddle bit couldn’t so ended up buying the triple sprung saddle from a supplier in Poland for a very reasonable €40 including postage to Ireland. I used to often order things from UK Ebay but now with Brexit and so on it may make more sense to order parts from Germany or Poland as it will work out cheaper.
So how does the finished bike work? I’m very happy. Of course the problem I have at the moment is the 5KM travel restriction which has been in place since New Year. It’s why I haven’t really done much cycling at all this winter or written any thing for this blog as I’ve had no rides long enough to be worth of writing about.
So yesterday and today I ventured out on my newly refurbished Record three speed. I did stay local but even so may have slightly gone out of my 5KM area. I agree wit the need for Covid-19 restrictions and I actually think I would ahve favoured a shorted but stricter lockdown rather than this long drawn out mess the government has left us with but think the 5KM travel restrition is utterly ludicrous. On 99% of my rides, I speak to no-one after all. The one thing about the Raphoe area is the endless maze of the small roads so I could put together a decent length ride without straying too far from base.
I am very happy with the outcome. I was questioning why I was bothering but the end result was worth it. The bike rides nicely, it makes such a different to ride it now without the ever-present clunk from the bottom bracket as it was the last time I rode it. The sprung saddle is very comfortable and seems to be well made although the tension bolt did work loose. I will put some thread lock on it. The bike climbs well (I run 46/22 gearing which gives me gears of approximately 40, 54 and 72 inches. You will climb most hills on a 40 inch gear in my experience. The Tektro brake calliper has transformed the stopping power. You can ride it with complete confidence now.
The bike rolls along in silence. I had cleaned the chain and put it in hot oil before giving it a protective coat of grease as outlined in cycling books I have from the 1940s. A chain treated like this is silky-smooth and will remain like that for a long time. It is of course messy but I have a chainguard so it won’t get on to my trouser legs.
I thoroughly enjoyed my proving rides. The weather was nice and it was a glorious evening yesterday. I made the short detour while out to watch the sun set behind the Bluestack Mountains from Beltany stone circle as the it looked it was going to be a colourful one. Heavy cloud cover blocked some of it but the horizon looked like it was on fire. Definitely a case of “red sky at night.”
A roadster gives a more relaxing ride than a road bike and the upright handlebars give a great view of the countryside. I love my truely vintage roadsters but this is almost the same thing but it stops in a way that a rod-braked bike never will and there is less ned to feel precious about it as it’s not seventy years old. Once the travel restrictions are lifted I look forward to getting a few longer rides and maybe a few relaxing short tours/camping trips in on it.
Cycles Peugeot was founded in 1882 in Sochaux, France by Jean Pequignot Peugeot. Prior to that Peugoet had been a manufacturer of water mills and over the years the business (ran by three brothers) had expanded into steelwork before the decision was made to start building bicycles. The Peugeot trademark lion was first created in 1858 by an artist who lived near the ironworks. The first Peugeot bicycle was a high-wheeled “penny farthing.” The business continued to expand and grew substantially during The Great War as a supplier of bicycles, cars, lorries and arms to the French military. The cycle and automobile business was split in 1926.
Both the cycle and automobile businesses continued to expand and to prosper. In the mid 1950s, Cycles Peugeot were building over 200,000 bicycles per year and employing 3,500 people. Peugeot’s success was built on their strong racing heritage and even back in the 1890s Peugeot were enjoying success in racing. It was to continue into the 1980s when it became to costly to support a works team.
I do not have the knowledge or the time to go into an indepth history of one of the most iconic and respected marques in the history of cycling.
Peugeot made many highly regarded lightweight frames such as the 531-framed PX-10, now highly prized by collectors. I don’t have a PX-10 unfortunately but I do own it’s cheaper sibling – the UO-8 which was produced from the late 1960s through to about 1980. I don’t know enough about them to be certain and mine never had the original components in my ownership but judging by the paint scheme and the decals mine dates from c1974.
Online snobs may ridicule the UO-8, demeaning it’s “Peugeot Tube Spécial Allégé” as cheap gaspipe tubing. In reality, like the later Carbolite 103 and HLE bikes, base model Peugeots may not be especially light but are good to ride and do not deserve such ridicule. The UO-8 has a few tricks of it’s own too, the long wheelbase and curved front forks makes it very comfortable, stable and very good for carrying panniers. The UO-8 is a fine touring frame for very little money.
I have owned this example for many years now, originally riding it with a five speed block, steel wheels and a single 46 tooth cottered chainset. I did many miles on it like that, added a bottle dynamo and some lights and rode it a lot over the winters back then which made the already tatty paintwork deteriorate further. Somewhere along the line I fitted a set of basic alloy wheels in the interests of being able to stop in the rain and at a time when I was starting to get into riding longer distances and tackling more challenging terrain I fitted a 14-32 six speed freewheel and 48/36 Stronglight square taper chainset which of course made it much better for hilly rides. The problem I was having was that the headset was completely worn through the case hardening and couldn’t be adjusted correctly and the bike had developed handling issues and a tendency to speed wobble. I parked the bike and turned my attention to my Viscount Aerospace instead as long ride/tour bike.
I needed a new headset but this is where French bikes become complicated nowadays. The steerer tube (and bottom bracket) is threaded to French standard dimensions (25mm) and replacement parts are much less common and often more expensive than the usual British standard (1 inch, 24 TPI. Raleigh used their own 1“ x 26 TPI threading which is also obsolete now). It took a bit of searching to find a suitable headset without spending more than the bike is worth but I did eventually find a Thun headset in the French standard on Ebay for a sensible price.
I had also decided I couldn’t ignore the paintwork issues any longer as more serious rust was starting to develop. I decided to repaint the bike and had begun to remove what was left of the original paint. I discovered a small hairline crack at the chainstay bridge while I was working on paint removal. I was going to just scrap the frame but thought about it and decided to get a friend to carry out a brazed repair on it. In the process the frame got shot-blasted and painted in primer which made life easy for me.
It languished in the back of the workshop for a long time before I decided to sort it out, at least paint it I thought and I can build it on a later occasion. Last September I took advantage of a very nice weekend to spray paint it in blue. I intended to let it harden properly before applying the decals and a clear coat to protect them. As I don’t have a spray booth and only ever paint things outside in good weather, the weather was not kind enough to give me another chance to finish it off in 2019.
With the Covid-19 restrictions, I didn’t get a chance to work on it during all the perfect painting weather in April, May and June as I would have been breaking the law to have travelled home to where the frame was stored.
Finishing the project sort of subconsciously got put on the long finger as after the five kilometre restrictions were finally lifted I wanted to get a decent few miles in for the rest of the summer and make up for lost time so to speak so I concentrated on riding the bikes I already had. Eventually I applied the decals and gave the frame a clear coat to help protect the decals and the paintwork. It turned out fine I think. I know it’s not an exact colour match but I think I prefer this shade of blue.
With the frame finished it was only a case of re-assembling the rest of the bike. I stripped and cleaned the Mafac brakes. I had serviced the hubs previously. The new headset was fitted. New 1/4“ ball bearings were fitted to the bottom bracket. The brake and gear cables were replaced with new ones. Ideally the brake cables need shortened slightly as they look too long.
The previously galvanised steel mudguards had rusted deeply but were made from thick steel in the first place so I cleaned them and applied an anti-rust primer and two coats of black enamel. I’m not entirely happy with the way the top coat dried out but it will do – they definitely look much better than they did when covered in rust.
I decided to fit a different bar and stem which I had in my bit box. They are newer than the bike but are wider and not so deep in the drop which makes them more comfortable for me. I was missing bars and brake levers when I originally got this bike and an old Raleigh item was utilised with Weinmann levers. Somewhere along the line I had found the correct Mafac brake levers. Interestingly both the old Raleigh stem and the replacement I used were both for the more common British standard of 7/8“ (22.2mm) which technically should not fit the French 25mm steerer (22mm internal diameter) but they both did without any difficulty. Clearly a lot has to do with the tolerances at the factory. The bars were wrapped with NOS Benotto bar tape which is a nice period piece and easier to maintain than the cotton tape soaked in shellac which many would deem appropriate for a French bike.
I had undertook a few very short rides to double-check gear and brake operation, saddle position etc so today was the day I was to venture further afield for a proper test ride. I must admit to being genuinely surprised at how responsive and lively the bike felt despite the basic wheels and the heavy but tough and durable Michelin Protek tyres. This isn’t what you’d call a super-light bike either. If you are the type of cyclist who is obsessed with getting the lightest of the everything, my advice is not to buy a Peugeot UO-8. It’s made from plain gauge Peugeot “Tube Spécial Allégé.” The snobs may turn their nose up at this but I have rode other Peugeots and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the basic Peugeot tubesets. They are missing out on bikes which are excellent value for money!
The other thing is that the new headset has totally transformed the feel of the bike from what I remember. It feels so much smoother and more positive rather than the slightly ponderous feel it had before. After a summer of mostly riding either my Townsend MTB or Viscount Aerospace, both updated to have modern(ish) Shimano cassette hubs and hyperglide transmission, this old school French-made freewheel block with full-size sprockets does not change gear so quickly or effortlessly but snaps home with a satisfying clunk and with a bit of practice gear changes are quick and effortless. The other advantage of course is that it will wear better and last considerably longer. The derailleur on this bike is non-standard – a basic Shimano mountain bike mech rescued from a skip at some point in the past. It’s not pretty but it works! The Simplex original was retired simply because it couldn’t cope with the 14 – 32 block which I wanted to use. The lovely thing about using friction shifters for derailleur gearing is simply the fact that all compatibility issues are removed and virtually any common mech can be mated with whatever block you like and it will work fine.
My route took me from my parents house near Raphoe over Carnowen hill into Castlefinn and along minor roads to Ballybofey and along more minor roads back through Convoy and Raphoe and beyond. A total of perhaps forty miles and the bike performed faultlessly, the only adjustments required were to tweak the saddle height a little. I probably will change the saddle for something else at some point. The Mafac brakes are very powerful and confidence inspiring which is a nice change for an old road bike! I believe using the correct Mafac brake levers in place of the Weinmanns used previously has made them work better. They really are a fine brake. If they have a downside, it is their tendency to wail like the Banshee! In all the miles I rode on this bike I never did find a way to make the brakes work silently which is a bit annoying and embarrassing.
I am definitely pleased with the outcome of this project and am pleased to have saved a fine old bike from the scrap heap. It may not be of any monetary or historical value but that is not the point. The enjoyment is to see a restoration project come together and sense of achievement it gives me. When the finished product is nice to ride and capable of giving me many hours of enjoyable riding, it is an added bonus. I may do a little tour on this next summer. It is geared well and stops well (if noisily!). I just need to fit a more period correct saddle and refit the bottle dynamo (or find another one as the one I had used on this bike has found a new home on my Brompton). I have a Soubitez headlamp which I might put on in place of the Lumotec Plus as it is more in fitting with the character of the bike. The pedals also need tidied up or replaced.
I will put it away now for the winter but I definitely look forward to putting a few miles beneath it’s wheels next summer.
Back in 2015, I rode the Great Western Greenway for the first time, I wasn’t as fit then or didn’t have the cycle-touring experience I’ve since gained. If you click here – https://theoldbikeshome.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/the-red-and-green-of-mayo/ – you can read about my first impressions and a little of the history of Great Western Greenway which utilises much of the former Great Western Midlands Railway Company’s Westport to Achill line which operated from the 1890s through to the Autumn of 1937. The journey along Clew Bay and it’s dozens of small islands was once described as the “jewel in the crown of Britain’s railway network.”
Rail traffic never reached the volumes anticipated despite GWMR’s attempt to push the tourism angle and even went so far as to open a luxury hotel in Mulranney and sell combined rail/hotel tickets. The line closed as it was uneconomical. The decision to re-develop the abandoned railway line as a shared use, traffic-free cycle/pedestrian path was a moment of true inspiration by Mayo County Council which drastically increased tourism in the area and has been copied in many other locations around the country. As a resident of Donegal I live in hope that our County Council will catch up, move into the 21st century and re-work the former Londonderry and Lough Swilly line to Burtonport and the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee line from the Finn Valley to Donegal town through Barnesmore Gap as cycle paths. Either could rival the Mayo Greenway for scenery but I fear Donegal may be too car-centric to “waste” money on cycle facilities.
My decision to ride the Greenway again was partly because of the Covid-19 situation meant my original plans for my September tour would be difficult if not impossible, partly because I enjoyed it and partly becuase there was one other ride that I had earmarked as something I would like to do and had also spotted another possible loop from Westport on the map that could be interesting. I hadn’t intended to spend as long as I did in Westport and had planned on moving on to other locations but I was enjoying myself so stayed in Mayo for the duration of the trip.
I decided to use my Viscount Aerospace as I haven’t used it enough recently and long day rides is the sort of thing it does very well. I’ve done loaded touring on it in the past but I would prefer my mountain bike for that these days as it has better brakes and lower gears. I also packed tent and camping equipment to give myself more options depending on weather and how things worked out but had booked a B&B for the first few days.
With the bike and luggage stored in the car, I made my way to Westport. I didn’t go the usual route via Charlestown and Castlebar but detoured via Ballina and Crossmolina (Mayo is a very large county). This added quite a bit of time but I was interested in exploring the road alongside Lough Conn as I felt I could make a long day ride of it from Westport to Ballina up one side of the lough and back down the other side. I did stop at a nice little harbour area on the shore of Lough Conn and had my lunch but I discounted this as a ride I’d like to do. The roads were winding and narrow and from the road map looked like minor roads (they are) but they are also very busy with traffic going faster than it probably should and most of it does not give lakeside views anyway. Perhaps the East side of the lake is more picturesque but I decided to cancel this part of my plan. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it very much.
In the morning, I decided to start with the easy bit – the Greenway itself. I rode the short distance from my rural accommodation into the town of Westport and picked up the start of the Greenway. In the past I had joined it slightly out of town along the Newport road. There is a short, sharp climb where you basically climb the old railway embankment at the official start and then you cross a small viaduct. They’ve created some interesting railway-inspired art work such as park benches in the shape of old suitcases along the Greenway. More of it seems to be tarmac surface nowadays too which is of course easier rolling and safer to anyone on high pressure skinny slick tyres.
I stopped in Newport to have a look at the beautiful old viaduct and also took time to locate the station buildings which thankfully have been re-purposed and are in a good state of repair. You leave the railway line just prior to Newport and cycle on the road through the town before picking up the Greenway again. Outside of Newport I got talking to another cyclist from Dublin who had also came to ride the Greenway and I was to spend most of the day riding with him. It was nice to have company but the distance was covered quicker than I probably would have done myself and there wasn’t the opportunity to stop for photos or to explore things. He comes to Westport once a year to ride the Greenway as he loves the area, the scenery and the traffic-free route.
I did note that the old station building in Mulranney which had been a ruin when I was last here in 2016 has now been restored to it’s former glory and is now used as public toilets for Greenway users plus a few other small businesses. We rode as far as Keel Strand on Achill island before making the return trip. Day one total was around eighty miles covered. The weather was good although it wasn’t a particularly clear day for the best views of Clew Bay. As usual, the ride out ot Achill was tough enough due to headwind but the return journey was pretty easy as the wind is now behind!
This was day that I had really planned this trip around. I also knew it was going to be a long day – perhaps it might have been more sensible to have split it in two. One of my favourite parts of cycling the Wild Atlantic Way was the ride from Murrisk to Clifden on the Brompton in 2017. I had often considered the idea of doing my favourite part again – the Doolough Valley and some sort of inland route back to Westport. What I eventually decided was to cycle to Leenane and then turn inland and I had two options – to cycle up the west side of Lough Mask via Trean and Tourmakeady or up the east side via Cong and Ballinrobe which would be further and also probably a busier road.
The weather wasn’t so nice today – it was very overcast and there would be occasional showers but also very windy. I rode the few miles along minor roads into Westport and took the R335 for Murrisk and Louisburg. This is one of my favourite roads anywhere in Ireland. It is heavily trafficked as far as Murrisk with people making the ascent on Croagh Patrick but there is now a shared use path alongside the road which leads from Westport harbour to the base of Croagh Patrick. I don’t recall this path being there before but it is welcome, reasonably well laid out and makes the ride to Murrisk much more peaceful.
Scenery just doesn’t get much better than this really with the sea to your right and the iconic and beautiful Croagh Patrick to your left. The peaks were shrouded in mist today but it doesn’t detract from the beauty. If anything it gives it an eerie and mysterious beauty. There are so many postcards, paintings, sketches and photographs of Croagh Patrick in circulation yet I never lose the sense of awe each time I see it for real. The other mountain which gives me the same sense of awe is Ben Bulbin in Co. Sligo.
From Murrisk, the shared use path stops but the volume of traffic reduces to just an occasional car for the next few miles to Louisburg as you pass through several small villages. It is a nice ride as far as Louisburgh and as always with these type of coastal roads there are an endless amount of minor roads which take you to the sea and small beaches and harbours if you want a leisurely day’s exploring but I wouldn’t have time for that today. From Louisburgh the road loops inland with options of going to Roonagh pier and to the Silver Strand and Kinnadoohy though the Lost Valley but this road is a dead end and very steep in places. I did do a little of it to see what it would be like before returning and following the Wild Atlantic Way signs which would take me to the Doolough Valley.
The Doolough Valley is simply stunning – a deep glen with a lake at the bottom of it. It also holds a dark secret as possibly up to six hundred people perished here in 1849 when they were refused entrance to Westport Workhouse and had to seek permission from the officials in Delphi but were refused and many didn’t survive the journey. Today a monument to the memory of those who perished stands at the viewing point above the lough. It is a chilling reminder that we are fortunate to live in a time of plenty in a wealthy country. Sadly such things still continue to happen in less fortunate parts of the world. I wrote more about the Doolough Valley and Leenane in my previous entry when I did it on the Brompton a few years ago so won’t repeat it all – https://theoldbikeshome.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/wild-atlantic-way-part-v-murrisk-to-galway/
I enjoyed the ride to Leenane despite the headwinds and occasional heavy showers. Lets just say I was pleased I had brought a bike with drop bars and thank my lucky stars that I did not have to contend with this headwind when I rode my Brompton here. Roads do not come much more scenic than this one and in less than ideal weather out of tourist season and on a weekday, traffic was basically non-existent so I had peace and tranquillity to absorb it all. With recent rain, the Aasleagh Falls which is a waterfall on the river Erriff jusy before it enters Killary Fjord looked noteworthy. It’s not the highest waterfall but still manages to look impressive.
Leenane is a picturesque village on Killary Fjord, which is one of only a few Fjords in Ireland. Leenane is in Connemara, just across the Galway/Mayo border. I really love the scenery in this area but I would not have the time to go on to Killary Harbour which is where the true beauty of the Fjord can be appreciated in my opion. I ate in a small cafe in Leenane before turning inland. I still find it difficult to get used to all the Covid restrictions and the need to give name and contact details when eating in a cafe but I guess it is a small inconvenience to pay for the greater control of outbreaks of the virus.
From Leenane I took the road for Maum. There isn’t much to say here really. This area is so remote there isn’t muct to say about it other than it is stunning in it’s beauty. I’m sure people much smarter than I could identify many things in the natural environment. To me, I just know it looks nice! I have never spent much time in Connemara, perhaps I should come back at some point and tour the area properly. My route touched on Lough Na Fooey and Lough Corrib. I had made the decision to skip Cong and go up the west side of Lough Mask as the east side would have taken too long. I hope to come back to the Cong and Ashford area at some point in the future as they are nice and it was in this area where the classic John Ford picture “The Quiet Man” was filmed starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. I understand that Ford (who had connections with the area and had visited often) had the film and the location in his head for years and spent over twenty years trying to persuade one of the Hollywood film studios to pay for it but they all said it wouldn’t sell. Ford’s dogged determination paid off as it was to become one of the most successful films of all time. He was given the budget to film it in black and white but he borrowed from the budgets of other films he was working on to shoot it in Technicolor as he wanted to capture the colourful landscape.
This area and the lakes of Galway and Mayo have always been popular with salmon fishermen (and I had taken the opportunity to sample some locally produced smoked salmon in the cafe in Leenane earlier. I can recommend it. It is so much nicer than the stuff from the supermarkets). It has also always been popular with hikers. I see why. The dull overcast day did nothing to shield the beauty of the lakes and the mountains with the never ending variety of colours of the grasses, the heathers, the wild flowers and the tough, horned mountain sheep which are legion and can apparently find enough grass to thrive on in this barren landscape. The skilfully-built dry stone walls which march off towards the horizon in all directions. I know that they exist in all parts of Ireland but I suspect Mayo and Galway have more of them than anywhere else. They’ve performed the dual function of keeping sheep from straying and also to provide the sheep with shelter in bad weather for centuries. It is truely mind-boggling to consider how many tons of stone that had to be gathered by hand to build them. Sheep of course have also always been very important to the local economy as well and this area is famous for it’s woollen produce.
My ride back to Westport up the west shore of Lough Mask was uneventful in many ways. The wind was now behind me which of course made it easier. Even though I didn’t have as much time to stop and explore as I might have done if I’d not still had a long distance to cover, I really enjoyed this ride. It was one of the best I’ve ever done I think. The scenery was stunning, the roads were mostly deserted, the ever-changing weather condiotions meant that the lighting was always changing so views across mountains and lakes were always changing as I rode along. So long as you are not dealing with dangerously strong winds, extreme cold or completely torrential rain, then you can still enjoy a ride. Just prepare properly and carry rain jacket, etc. When I do a ride like this I have everything I am ever likely to need in my saddlebag.
It had dried up in the evening to a clear but still quite windy evening and I had covered just short of one hundred miles as I turned into the lane of my B&B at night. The temptation was to go back to the crossroads again and come back to make it a proper century but that would have been childish. It really was an all-day ride and I had felt the need to switch on my dynamo lamps for the final few miles. I didn’t even feel that tired. I had just rode in the drops and used a lowish gear when riding into the headwinds and although I was riding through mountains, none of the climbs were severe – mostly very gradual. In my opinion, it is senseless to tire yourself out fighting a strong headwind on a touring, leisure or utility ride. There is rarely any rush – try to make up the time when the going is easy when the wind is behind you or down hill. If you are touring – always make the time to stop and see things.
I awoke at half-past six with rain beating off the cottage windows. The wind had died down overnight but the rain had got much heavier. The forecast was showing that it would start to dry up after about ten. I had no particular plan for today anyway since I had decided not to do Lough Conn. I had two high mileage days on the bike anyway, an easy day would do no harm. I had breakfast and oiled the chain and checked tyre pressures. The couple who ran the B&B were good enough to allow me access to their sheds to park the bike overnight so I could work in the dry. I was surprised to find that that the Continental Tour Ride tyre I have on the back had worn through to the puncture protection layer over the past few days as I could see the orange showing through. I’m not sure how many miles this tyre has covered but it’s probably four thousand at the very least. I decided there was no immediate cause for concern as the tyre showed no signs of weakening it’s structure and all that had happened that is that the rubber tread had worn away. I’ve never suffered a puncture with this tyre and would happily buy another one.
I then sat and read my book for a while and as forecast the rain had started to ease. I had no particular plan for today so set out and went in the opposite direction to that which would take me back into Westport as I’d done the previous two mornings. These are small single-track roads without much in the way of signposts so I genuinely wasn’t sure where I was going. Some of my most enjoyable rides have happened when I went out without a plan and just went with whatever felt right. I eventually found myself on the N59 just outside Newport. I didn’t really want to ride the N59 (although it’s nowhere near the worst National Primary Route to ride) so I turned on to the Greenway again and continued in the Achill direction. It might seem a bit pointless to do this again but I was in no hurry this time and didn’t have my temporary riding companion so stopped wherever I wanted.
I enjoyed exploring the old railway infrastructure and I am pleased that they restored the station building at Mulranney and also the hotel behind it which was built by the GWMR Company in an effort to boost trade. The hotel had been closed for many years before being renovated and re-opened. I must admit that the thought occurred to me that the GWMR Company were probably about a century ahead of their time with that idea as I honestly think the idea of a combined rail trip to a scenic area with a golden sand beach and luxury spa hotel where you get pampered could be sold to the people of the large cities like Dublin or Cork today if the railway line was still functioning as people have more disposable income now and spa weekends in hotels seem to be popular. The advantage of doing it by train is of course the freedom to have a drink or three.
The weather forecast was right and it did clear up into a beautiful evening. I didn’t go beyond Achill Sound this time as I wanted an easy day and I had started later and also taken more time to explore and look at the scenery along the Greenway. Despite this, I had made good progress. I stopped again in Newport and had a look around the quayside this time.
One of the things I missed this year is the option of having a proper meal at the the end of a long day’s touring as the Covid restrictions make it more difficult to eat in a pub as you should really be booking a table. I decided to attempt to have apub meal in Newport as it was still only around five o’ clock and it’s unlikely they’d be booked up at that time. I decided to try in Newport rather than wait until I got back to Westport as it’s likely to be less busy. The pub had lots of tables and were willing to serve me and I elected to eat outside as it was now such a nice day and I ordered my first pint of Guinness since before the lockdown. I really enjoyed it and the meal.
I made my way back to Westport following a different cycle route – one which took me from Newport to Westport Harbour along the coast via Kilmeena and past the golf club and the GAA ground. It was definitely much further than using the Greenway but a pleasant ride and I found an abandoned church and a ruined castle along the way. I’m not sure what they are called. I also enjoyed a leisurely ride around Westport Quay. Once the fourth busiest port in the country, it is now not deep enough for the modern, large cargo ships so sits mostly deserted apart from pleasure craft. Old cranes and things remain as a reminder of Westport’s seafaring past and the old warehouse buildings along the quayside have been beautifully restored and re-purposed. I hope that the quayside in Ramelton will look as nice as this some day soon.
Despite my idea of having an easy day, I had covered almost eighty miles when I reached my B&B again. I had been the only guest but tonight were two women from Tuam – a mother and her grown-up daughter and pet beagle. They said they’d come to go shopping on Saturday and visit Clare Island on Sunday – that seemed like a good idea.
In my head I had a vague plan to drive to Doolin and camp and catch the ferry to Arranmore Island in the morning. The gale warning for the west coast on Saturday made me feel that camping at on the Clare Coast may not be a good idea! I asked if I could book another few days at the B&B I was staying at but they were unfortunately booked out over the weekend. I removed the wheels from my bike and put it in the car ready to go further afield. I was sad as I liked it at Catherine’s Lair – one of the best places I have ever stayed and very reasonably priced.
Camping on Achill Island was another option I had considered but again the gale warning made that inadvisable. I also considered just going home but he forecast was only bad for Saturday evening/night. I decided to just sit out Satruday evening and find somewhere else to stay. I booked into a B&B in Murrisk for Saturday night. On Saturday morning I had decided I was going to climb Croagh Patrick before the weather got too bad! I’ve climbed it before. It is a challenge no doubt, I don’t find a difficulty with the climb or the descent but with the loose surface you have to work carefully or risk an injury. The climbing of “the Reek” is of course a major event in Ireland each summer and something that many people travel from all over the world to do. In the visitors centre (currently closed due to Covid) you can see many photos of famous people who have climbed it over the years including Princess Grace of Monaco.
The weather wasn’t clear enough on this occasion to fully appreciate the amazing views that this mountain has to offer. St. Patrick certainly picked a nice place to be in solitude. He certainly picked an exposed one too! The wind was really strong on the summit and bitterly cold at this altitude. I and most of the other climbers who had braved the weather took shelter from the wind behind the oratory to eat our lunches. I do wonder how they got the building materials up to the summit to build it. I overheard some girls at the summit discussing how their fitbits had measured about nine thousand steps on the ascent. The summit is just over two and half thousand feet about sea level
It was time to make the descent, something that I feel is worse than climbing it in the first place as the surface is so loose that it would be easy to sprain an ankle or worse. Learning from my previous climb a few years ago, I had rented my “pilgrim’s staff” at the bottom before setting out. Having a strong stick does make it easier I think. I have enormous respect for those who can run up and down the mountain. They are much fitter than me. I have even more respect for those who climb it in their bare feet as surely the loose stones must cut bare feet to bits.
By the time I reached the car park the weather really had taken a turn for the worst although there were still hardy souls setting out to climb the mointain. I had a brief walk around Murrisk, the National Famine Monument and talked to a group of people who were travelling in VW camper vans.
It was too wet and windy to comfortably do any cycling or hiking so I went for a drive out along the coast and to check out another possible cycle route through the Sheeffry Mountains which I was interested in doing before going into Westport where I passed an hour or so looking around the interesting book shop I had spotted on the Quay (and did leave with some purchases). I got fish and chips before driving back to Murrisk to my B&B at Rose Cottage. On the exposed coast road, my car was blown all over the place and the rain was now very heavy. I could only hope for better in the morning.
The day dawned dry and clear but still a bit stormy although the weather forecast was promising. I could see the damage caused by the storm in the amount of leaves and a few branches which had come down and the B&B in the garden had broken. What to do today? I really wanted to do the Sheeffry Pass ride that I had investigated the previous day but it was very stormy and likely to worse at altitude. I decided I’d visit Clare Island (assuming the ferry was sailing).
After a leisurely breakfast I drove along the coast to Louisburg and turned off for Roonagh Pier a little outside of the village where I would catch the ferry for Clare Island. I hoped!
The ferries were operating despite the heavy seas. Due to the Covid-19 situation, it was necessary for everyone on board to give contact tracing information and to wear a mask, even on the open deck. The “Clew Bay Queen” had been built on the Clyde in 1972 and I’m sure sailed in worst conditions than this over the previous fifty odd years. Myself, and most other people stayed out on the open deck despite being washed with waves for the fifteen minute crossing! I must admit I always love to be on board a boat.
Clare Island or Oileán Chliara is a mountaineous island which stands sentry at the entrance to Clew Bay. It formed part of the lands of the O’Malley’s and it’s most famous resident was the pirate queen Gráinne O’Malley. The O’Malley tower house stands guard overlooking the harbour. Today about a hundred and forty people live on the island but it was once much higher – perhaps sixteen hundred prior to an Gorta Mór. You can see the remains of many deserted cottages. During the famine, a Clare Island woman called Nora Daly was evicted from her home and her ghost is said to wander the roads of the island by day or by night and it’s said that where she walks it never rains.
The island has been immortalised in The Saw Doctor’s hit song “Clare Island” which portrays the island as a tranquil escape from the busy city. That is certainly true. There is a lot of great hiking routes and things to see on the island, including the Abbey, the ruins of a Napoleonic Signal Tower, O’Malley’s castle and the lighthouse which was taken our of service in 1965 and is now open a bed and breakfast. You can also enjoy great views of the mainland and Croagh Patrick. It is possible to take a bike on the ferry or to hire a bike on the island but I never bothered as the island is pretty small and I was happy enough to walk. There is also a shop, post office, pub and restaurant on the island. I had taken my own lunch as I wasn’t sure what would be open. I enjoyed my day on Clare Island very much despite the very strong winds, especially on the exposed cliffs where the signal tower was and I was barely able to walk against them. The weather remained dry so I guess the spirit of Nora Daly mush have accompanied me on my perambulations around the island! The return ferry crossing was just as rough as the outward journey. After returning to the mainland, it was really just a question of going back to Westport for something to eat before relaxing for the evening. I at least now had a lot of reading material to work through following my visit to the bookshop the previous day!
This was a much calmer day although quite overcast. It’s possible that there would be a few showers but unlikely to be anything serious. I would do the Sheeffry pass ride today. After breakfast I set out once again on the road to Louisburg via Murrisk. I had four days of cycling on this trip using different routes but there was always a bit of overlap between them all. All of them were such nice routes that they stood up to being repeated. With long cycle loops like the ones I’ve done on this trip, there would be an argument for doing them all in the opposite direction too as they’d look completely different and give a different set of challenges.
I stopped and bought some food and supplies for the remote part of the journey at the supermarket and deli counter in Louisburg. I got talking to some other cyclists from Dublin there for a bit including one with a beautiful 531 framed Mercian built with some modern parts and one with a modern steel framed Genesis touring bike with disk brakes. I must admit I fancy the idea of a bike with disk brakes. We compared notes on where we had been and where we were planning on going.
From Louisburgh I was following the same route to the Doolough Valley as I had done a few days before. Only this time I was to turn left before Delphi (not many roads to choose from in such a remote and mountaineous region. This road was only built as recently as the 1890s by the Congested Districts Board.
From my previous reconnaissance mission by car on the Saturday after climbing Croagh Patrick, I expected this to involve some tough climbing. In reality, it was all very gradual and I didn’t find it too much of a challenge. I didn’t even need my lowest gear. This is a great route to cycle too in my opinion as I don’t I met a single car for many miles. The only other traffic I encountered was a different group of Dublin cyclists who asked if would take a group photo of them all at the highest point overlooking Lough Tawnyard. I was happy to oblige although tempted to point out that having someone follow you around with all the luggage in a van is cheating at touring in my opinion!
The descent down the other side of the mountain was also mostly pretty gradual and posed no problems. I felt the need to drag the back brake to control speed at the steepest parts into the hairpin bends in the drizzling rain. You always need to be wary in these situations as it’s possible to build up a lot of speed on these types of long descents without even realising it and rim brakes are not as effective in the wet as they are in the dry (which is why I expect to see disc brakes become ever more popular in the next few years).
As cycle routes go, I was finding this one pretty impressive, nice scenery, practically no traffic whatsoever, enough gradient to make it interesting without any killer climbs. The rain had stopped again by now and it was starting to brighten up. With this in mind, rather than follow the signposted route to Westport I took another minor road which was signposted for Louisburgh, again low traffic and sparsely populated rural areas. I could really get to like cycling in this area. From Louisburgh I turned back towards Murrisk, Croagh Patrick and Westport and made a few scenic detours to various beaches which led off from the main road and took the route back through Westport Harbour and Westport House, stopped for food in Westport and then returned to my B&B to relax for the evening.
I had decided to take one extra day and visit Inishturk which is said by many to be nicer than Clare Island. Inishturk (Inis Toirc in Irish, meaning Wild Boar Island) is another small island nine miles off the Mayo coast, also accessed by ferry from Roonagh Pier. Evidence of human settlements date back as far as 4,000BC and the island has been inhabited permanently since about 1700AD. The current population of fifty-eight is much lower than in years gone by. It is less developed than than Clare Island in many ways and rugged in it’s beauty. It also has a Martello tower ruin.
The ferry crossing was much calmer than Sunday’s crossing to Clare Island. On this weekday out of tourist season there were only two other visitors present. The ferry was shared with some sheep however who seemed to take life at sea in their stride as they stood nonchalantly chewing their cud.
I spent a very pleasant and relaxing day following the longer of the signposted hiking routes with some detours. The island has it’s own National School and GAA club. It interested me that they managed to find a flat bit of land big enough to make a sporting pitch in such a mountainous region! The most interesting thing for me were the rugged cliffs and I spent a lot of time just watching the waves roll over the rocks beneath. There is also the Tale of the Tongs art work which celebrates the spiritual and cultural past of the island (I must admit I didn’t fully understand it).
The return journey on the ferry to Roonagh was just as tranquil as the way out. I had really enjoyed my day but felt tired now. I had had a very active week with four long (by my standards) bike rides and also three days hiking. I went in search of food and then retired to my B&B to relax.
This was to be my last morning in Mayo as I would be making my way home today. I woke up to glorious weather. After a leisurely breakfast I took a walk around the town of Westport during business hours and had a look at a few book shops. Westport is full of magnificent Georgian period buildings has some beautiful bridges and areas along the river. All is not as it seems as there is a specific reason why Westport looks as it does.
After I was finished with the town I walked around the gardens of Westport House. I would not describe Westport House as an elegant or beautiful piece of architecture but there is no doubt it has presence and I also took a lot of enjoyment from admiring all the examples of art work around the house from the ornate birds on the garden gates and plaster mouldings and ornate iron benches in the garden and the water features as well as the more recent statue of Gráinne O’Malley. The Brown family who build and owned Westport House until quite recently were descended from the O’Malleys. They had great wealth, that much is evident and they received the title Marquis of Sligo; although there is a shady past involving slave trading and other less than acceptable business transactions when viewed through modern eyes and moral values.
I am definitely not an expert on either Westport House or the Brown family. It is worth taking the guided tour of the house to learn the whole history (I’ve done so in the past many years ago). The short version is that the original town of Westport was located in what is now the gardens belonging to the house and when the new house was built, the town spoiled the view so the current town of Westport was built and the old one demolished. One has too wonder what it must have felt like to have so much money that you could have an entire town demolished, rebuilt and a river re-routed to create your idea of heaven! It is said that the Marquis of Sligo once employed up to fifty full-time gardeners to maintain his many acres of garden and parkland. What we see today is a toned down, lower maintenance version of what it once looked like.
The reason “new” Westport looks as it does today is quite specific. The architect who laid out the new town had been impressed by the Siene area of Paris so tried to re-create a mini-Paris in the west of Mayo. The river was re-routed to it’s current course and the grand Georgian buildings which line it were contstructed. I would consider it one of the most scenic and picturesque towns in the entire country and there is something so relaxing about taking a stroll in the evening twilight along the river and past the many stone bridges and perhaps having a relaxing drink in one of the many live music pubs (not possible at the moment unfortunately due to Covid restrictions). Westport has a unique beauty and atmosphere which makes it such a wonderful place to visit. It is sadly muted at the moment with the virus but that will pass in time. I look forward to returning in happier times again.
On such a beautiful day though, it is great that the people of Westport have this magnificent parkland available to them for recreational purposes and you can lose track of time just watching the river flow over the weir or the water features in the garden, admiring the hundreds of mature broadleaf trees, looking at the other buildings in the grounds including the remains of a private church and the old stable block which has been restored. There is also so much artwork and detailing on the house and garden walls and gates.
The parklands also link the harbour with the greenway and town centre and it’s incredible how many bike shops and bike hire places have sprung up to serve the needs of the people who come to Westport to cycle the greenway and the surrounding areas and there is a vibrant cycle scene in the town with many utility cyclists in evidence. The respect shown to cyclists and pedestrians and the lack of aggression on the roads even when driving the car are a stark contrast to the often aggressive, impatient and sometimes downright dangerous drivers encountered in Donegal and the other Ulster counties. Cycling, even in the urban area or the National Primary Route is a pleasure here. Why is it so different in the north of the country?
For the rest of my day, I followed the coast road from Westport to Belmullet and on to Sligo via Ballycastle, Ballina, Ballysadare and Standhill. I did stop and do the tour at the Ceidi Fields near Ballycastle which shows how the bog landscape in the area evolved over the centuries and is well worth a visit. I stopped at Strandhill and got food. I considered climbing Knocknarae but I felt too tired. I took the main road home from Sligo. It was a lot of driving but a nice end to a very pleasant trip with a lot fitted into it.
It left me pondering the question of whether it’s better to have a cycling holiday using a fixed base like I did here or by combining it with public transport and moving on to a different place each night. If it wasn’t for the Covid restrictions I would probably have taken the bike on the bus or the train somewhere and kept moving on. That has it’s appeal too. Take a car and you always have to go back to wherever the car is. But by being based in the one place allowed to me to change my mind about what I was doing and explore other options that I spotted along the way. It was also nice to just check into a B&B and call it home for a few days to save endless packing and unpacking. There is no right or wrong answer as both have their merits and downsides but both can be perfectly enjoyable.
I had long fancied doing a more detailed tour of the coastal regions around the Glencolumbkille area. This is arguably the wildest and least developed of the whole Wild Atlantic Way and is all the better for that in my opinion. It is also stunning in it’s beauty – the high mountains and deep glens dropping down to a rugged North Atlantic-battered coastline with high cliffs (Sliabh Liag is the highest sea cliff in Europe at a height of 1,971 feet above sea level), countless little inlets, harbours and many beautiful and often deserted beaches. It is also relatively close to home for me which is good in this present state of travel restrictions.
I would ride my Townsend BX-40 which I rebuilt in touring specification a few years ago. I would need the low gearing for my planned route and I would be carrying camping kit. I would only be staying two nights away from home. My plan was to ride to Kilcar/Muckross head on the first day, cycle around the coast to the deserted famine of Port on the second day and then make my way home again via a different coastal route. I would in fact be following large parts of Slí Dhún na nGall which is a signposted route around the remote southwest of the county.
Even the journey to reach there is beautiful in itself. I left Letterkenny and made my way to Ardara via Finntown and Glenties. This is mostly very remote and often picturesque – especially overlooking Lough Finn. The forecast for today had been good but it was cold and windy so far and progress was mostly an eight MPH crawl into a cold headwind. A ewe and her two lambs were taking shelter on the leeward side of a turf stack and I couldn’t help feeling that they possessed greater intelligence than I!
Beyond Ardara it gets even more interesting. A few miles after leaving Ardara on the N56 you turn off the main road on to the R230 and this will lead you over the magnificient Glengesh Pass. I have ridden this before several times before but never grow tired of it despite the level of difficulty. The road climbs, gradually at first over a distance of several miles and then very steep around a serious of hairpin bends to a height of approximately nine-hundred feet above sea level. It doesn’t get any easier with time but it is worth it for the view across the deep glen from the top. From here the weather improved too with the wind dying down and the temperature increasing.
Several miles later the road forks, usually I would be going right to the village of Glencolumbkille but this time I would be going left to Carrick. I had never used this particular route before. It is undulating without any serious climbs and pretty remote and scenic for the most part. It is a very lightly trafficked single track road. In my experience roads like these make for the most enjoyable cycling. From Carrick I made my way along the coast to the village of Kilcar.
I had booked to spend the night in the campsite at the Derrylahan hostel near Kilcar. I bought food and supplies in the shop in Kilcar before riding out to Muckross Head which is surely one of the nicest places on the Donegal coast line. Along the way back to Kilcar on the coast road you can see the Promontory fort, one of countless ancient monuments to be seen in this area.
I then made my way to the campsite, checked in and set up my tent. I had covered sixty-three miles on my first day. I had good day’s mileage when I considered the difficulty of the terrain I had passed through. The Derrylahan hostel/campsite is an excellent place to spend the night with a friendly host and good, well-kept facilities. I was able to walk to Derrylahan beach after I had set up my tent and eaten my evening meal.
I slept well and woke up feeling refreshed on a fine July morning. Today would be a shorter day in terms of distance but more time-consuming as I would have a lot more stops as I would be exploring the coastline. After breakfast and packing up my gear I made my way back up the coast along Teelin Bay to Carrick and then the trip down the other side of Teelin Bay to Teelin Pier which is a beautiful little harbour where normally you could catch a boat for a tour of the cliffs but like many things at the moment, it is not running due to the Covid-19. A group of monks sailed from Teelin to Iceland in the fifth century and there is a monument to their achievement.
I made my way back to Teelin village where a left turn will take you towards Sliabh Liag and Bunglas. I rode my bike up to the vantage point, as far as I could until the terrain got too rough! I have walked Sliabh Liag in the past and I should really do so again but not today as I wouldn’t have the time if I was to reach Port by nightfall. Even the little bit I did do on the bike has made me want to do it again on foot as it beautiful.
I also seen the first of several signalling towers built during the Napoleonic wars which I was to see during this trip. I believe around eighty in total were built around the coast of Ireland to watch for and to warn of any impending French invasion but with the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, most fell into disuse and are now derelict. More recent “defences” can also be seen here as signified by the large “EIRE 71“ written on the cliff top in large stones. This is again just one of a series of such things (the one at Malin Head is numbered 80 so must be the final one I am guessing) which were built during the second world war (“The Emergency”) to warn not just the Luftwaffe but also the RAF and AAF that they were about to enter the neutral airspace of Saorstát Éireann.
I was to pass through the outskirts of the village of Carrick once again as I made my way to Málainn Mhóir. This road is a very nice bike route with little traffic and it follows the Owenwee River initially before turning across bogland and past Lough Auva. At this time of year there is much activity in the bogs around here as people prepare their turf and begin to draw it home. The Massey Ferguson 35 and later MF 135 are still the tractor of choice for doing this it seems, their light weight lending itself to working in the soft peat bogs and the land drive PTO gear giving the option of using a trailer with a driven axle if it is required. It’s amazing that some of these tractors are over sixty years old and are still working. I also stopped to look at the Málainn Mhóir Court tomb which is about five thousand years old. A court tomb is a rectangular burial chamber distinguished by the open oval forecourt at the entrance.
I made my way to Málainn Bhig which is really as far as you can go on this road. I love this place, the Silver Strand beach is amazing and if you use the 174 steps to reach it you can walk along the golden sands and also see the sea arch further out. It is of course tough climbing the 174 steps back up again but well worth it!
It is approximately five miles from Málainn Bhig to Glencolumbkille but I made many detours to the little harbours that are to be found along the road and also I visited another Napoleonic era signalling tower near Málainn Mhóir.
I eventually arrived in the village of Glencolumbkille which would be my last brush with civilisation for the next twenty-four hours or so. There is much to see in Glencolumbkille including many stone monuments and it’s possible to take a “Turas” (tour) of the various sites around the village and surrounding area. There is also the folk village where you can see and learn a lot about the culture of this area throughout the ages but I wouldn’t be doing so today. You can also see yet another signalling tower high up on the Glen Head above the village. To walk from Glencolumbkille to Port past the tower and along the cliffs is surely one of the best coastal hikes in the country. Down at the beach you can also see a magnificent example of the stone mason’s art with “Stones of Ireland” sculture made of stone from all thirty-two counties in commemoration of the 1916 rising.
I bought lunch in the cafe and some supplies from the village shop before making my way to Port. I was about to enter some very remote places and would effectively be cut off from the world for the next day or so. Leaving Glencolumbkille you follow signs for Adara and the Glengesh pass initially before taking a left at the fork and going to Port. The road to Port is a delight in itself – about ten miles of remore single track road past remote farm cottages and ruined farm cottages with nothing much to delay one’s progress other than the sheep which wander along the unfenced roadway. After initialling climbing, the drops towards Lough Kiltyfanned around a serious of tight corners.
Eventually you end up at Port, a small harbour and you can see the ruins of the houses which were abandoned during the famine. I think we need to be grateful that our lives are so much easier today and that we live in a time of plenty. The renowned Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived for a time in a remote cottage near Port in 1935 on the advice from his manager who wanted to send him to this remote spot to help him stay off drink but unfortunately Thomas was to become friends with the local poitín maker… Thomas later descibed life here as “Ten miles from the nearest human being…and as lonely as Christ.” It was in Donegal that he was to write “I in my intricate image” and “Altarwise by owlight.” It seems the solitude got to him and he wrote to a friend in Swansea “I can’t indefinitely regard my own face in the mirror as the only face in the world.”
I pitched my tent overlooking the little harbour and rocky beach. My running total was now 107 miles over the two days. I’m unsure if the solitude would get to me like it got to Dylan Thomas if I were to stay here for months but for one evening I was perfectly at peace with the world and myself and happy to sit on a rock reading a book with the ebb and flow of the tide and sound of the fast flowing burn as background noise. My evening perambulations spotted an old engine that someone had dumped in the burn! It was obviously very old and seemed quite a large four cylinder petrol engine but I couldn’t identify what it came from. I’d guess a small lorry or a tractor as not many large engined cars were sold here. Surely it has scrap value attached and not the sort of thing someone would dump! I also met and made friends with the family from Wicklow who had taken the remote holiday cottage across the road from me for a week. Friendly and interesting people, it was nice to meet and to talk to them (socially distanced of course) but it denied me the night in complete remote solitude I had been expecting.
As always, I awoke pretty early the following morning and had time to have breakfast, a quick wash and pack up the tent etc and still be ready for the road shortly after eight. It wasn’t as nice this morning as it had been in previous days but it at least it was still dry – for now as ominous black clouds hung overhead. I didn’t really care as I was on my way home. It has always been my concern with the idea of cycle camping is how do you dry your wet clothes if you have several days of rain?
This is where it was going to get really interesting as I as going to take an alernative route back to Ardara which I had never been on before. From Port, I re-traced my steps whence I had came the previous evening to begin with when I reached the T- Junction, I continued on straight rather than turn right back towards Glencolumbkille. This road would take me mostly along the coast back to Adara and was unchartered territory for me as I had never travelled it before.
It is a route well worth cycling as it has so little traffic. In fact for the first ten or twelve miles until I reached Maghera beach I can only recall one interaction with another vehicle when I pulled into an entrance to allow a delivery lorry to overtake me and the lorry proceeded with a cheery wave of thanks from the driver. I think a little co-operation between drivers and cyclists goes a long way and if cycling on a single track road I am happy to hold over to faster traffic past. I know many say it is my right to take the lane but what would it have gained me to have held up the driver? The only other traffic encountered was of the four-legged variety. It’s interesting that sheep respond better to a bicycle bell than most humans!
At Maghera strand, I was starting to re-join the civilised world again. It was my first visit to this beach and with the tide out there are huge expanses of sand. There are caves too but on this occasion I didn’t go looking for them.
From Maghera strand you continue along the coast towards Ardara. You can see across the sand to Loughros point and several small islands. A few miles west of Ardara, you come to one of the area’s most noted landmarks – the Assarnacally Waterfall which is always beautiful. I’m not sure of the height of the waterfall but it is also so graceful and elegant and one could sit and watch it all day. There is always a steady stream of visitors to see it.
I continued on to Ardara, stopping to fill my water bottles at the public drinking tap at the old iron pump in the main street. We need more public drinking water availability like this rather than buy endless plastic bottles of the stuff and add to the ever-growing plastic waste mountain. Because I had started off early and had made better time than I thought I would I decided to extend my ride a little. From Ardara I headed towards Dungloe on the coast road and took the scenic route via Rosbeg and Portnoo. Some pretty tough climbing here but it’s worth it.
I joined the N56 a few miles south of Letermacaward. I could have went back on to the remote coast roads again but decided to use the shared use path that now runs alongside the N56 in many places. It is peaceful because it gets you away from the motorised traffic and some parts of it are excellently surfaced and it is possible to maintain a good average speed without any real effort. Unfortunately there are other parts with a terrible road surface which makes it difficult to ride above about 8 MPH without shaking yourself to pieces despite the damping effects of the balloon tyres and heavy load. It seems they didn’t bother to roll the road surface hence it’s unbearable roughness despite what looks like a pretty good surface at first glance. The cycle path along the N56 is a fantastic idea badly executed. I can image the uproar from drivers if the council left a newly surfaced road in this condition yet they consider it suitable for cycling. Double standards again.
From Dungloe, I decided to revisit Burtonport and check out some of the railway path. The Letterkenny to Burtonport line operated between 1903 and 1947 and it is excellent that at least some of it is being re-purposed for walking/cycling. You can see many of the remains of the old railway infrastructure such as the raised embankment for the track bed at the coast, the former station and engine house at Burtonport harbour, several other bridges, many of the round pillars which were something of a Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railways trademark at crossings etc. It is a pleasant route, surfaced in gravel so not ideal for those that ride skinny high pressure tyres.
I stopped to eat alfresco at the cafe which overlooks the harbour in Burtonport before riding the railway path in reverse. I didn’t quite go to the end of it. I’m not sure how far it actually extends but I had assumed it would lead me back towards Dungloe as I think Dungloe was the penultimate stop before Burtonport harbour. I re-joined a little road and thought I was going in the direction of Dungloe but found myself in Kincasslagh so a bit of a navigational error on my part. Not that it made any real different but it wasn’t worth going back to Dungloe to take my preferred route home so I continued on through Crolly and Gweedore and Churchill. It was a long day’s riding and my running total when I got home was 207 miles over the three days – the third and final day being by far the longest in terms of both time and distance.
It was an enjoyable experience though and highlights yet again that there is much to see and do on our own doorsteps if we take the time to look for it. Perhaps the lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions will help people to see that for themselves.
Now that the country slowly return to normal (and we hope we can avoid the dreaded second wave that some experts predict) my thoughts once again turn to cycle touring and what I can do within the limits of what is sensible at the moment within the guidelines. Hotels, etc have now opened up but I’m still unsure about staying in these type of places. I have tended to favour hostels when touring and I am aware that some can open but how they achieve social distancing I’m not sure.
I had always meant to experiment with camping whilst cycling. Now seems like a good time to do so as it largely guarantees social distancing! I may do longer trips later in the year but I wanted to start somewhere local to check it all out first. I decided that The Rosses area of Donegal needed some better exploration. I have touched on most of these places before but only on long day rides so never really had the time to stop and explore. I was particularly interested in the coastal area around Carrickfinn and Kincashlagh.
The Rosses (Na Rosa) is a mostly an Irish language speaking region with boundaries which are defined by the River Gweebarra to the south, the Gweedore River to the north, the Derryveagh Mountains and the Gweebarra River (Doochary Bridge) to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The name comes from “Ros”, the Irish word for headland. The area is rocky and barren but contains some areas of what I would consider unparalleled natural beauty; including many unspoiled and often deserted beaches as well as many lakes, rivers and mountains.
My plan was to take a Saturday and Sunday with an overnight stay somewhere around Carrickfinn. I left home without really planning where I would spend the night but knew I would find somewhere. My kit consisted of a relatively basic double-skinned two-man tent, a rolled up sleeping mat and a sleeping bag. I didn’t really need much in terms of clothes this time as it would be only two days and I didn’t need evening attire when I wouldn’t be eating out in a pub or mixing with anyone. I just took an extra layer in case of cold, spare underwear and socks and a waterproof jacket – this is the west coast of Ireland where it only rains for fifteen minutes once every quarter of an hour so best be prepared.
I would fit it all into my Carradice saddle bag. I also took quite a bit of food as I needed my evening meal and my breakfast, enough for a second small meal/snack somewhere on Sunday as well as an extra two litres of water as I wasn’t sure if I would have a tap where I would be camping yet. Water is of course very heavy. I also took a book and a small AM/FM radio (it works better than the radio app on my phone) to pass the evening. Typically the book that I am currently reading is a large hardbacked volume and quite difficult and heavy to carry! In all of my trips previously I have always bought food as I went along to support local businesses but on this occasion I took it with me – partly because I have been wary of buying groceries during the pandemic and tend to wash things or remove packing where I can in an effort to try and avoid possible contact with the virus and also because I had a few things to do on Saturday morning I would not be leaving until later in the evening and you always need to be careful with shops in rural areas as they often close earlier than the large supermarkets in towns.
So, a bit after four o’ clock saw me leave Letterkenny with a stuffed Carradice bag with a tent, a sleeping mat and the sleeping bag bungee-corded to the outside of it. I had put the sleeping bag and the sleeping mat inside a bin liner as it seemed prudent to so. A wet bed is never a good idea. I would use my Townsend BX-40 mountain bike. It works well for touring, the low gears would be useful in a hilly area with the likelihood of strong coastal headwinds and having two inch wide tyres gives options for going off the beaten track should I desire to do so.
I didn’t have a huge amount of options for ways to get to Carrickfinn as there are only really two roads through the Derryveagh mountains. I would use one road on the way out and the other on the way back to make a loop of it without making the distances crazy. To anyone unfamiliar with cycling in the west of Donegal, the distances may not seem huge but there is much climbing to be done – often in short, sharp climbs followed by short, steep descents which make it difficult to maintain a rhythm with your pedalling cadence and remember that you are facing the might of the North Atlantic so headwinds are always present. Distances will always take longer here than you think they should from a casual glance at a map.
I made my way towards Churchill via minor side roads and elected to take the bridal path to Glenveagh and avoid a lot of the traffic and also to make a more picturesque route. It would probably take longer due to a good few miles of unsealed roads but the beauty and ever-changing lighting of the Derryveagh mountains and mirror-like lakes on a fine July evening is something to savoured and not rushed.
From the National Park I turned onto the R251 towards Dunlewey (Dún Lúiche), Errigal and the Posioned Glen. I increasingly hate riding on main roads but this one isn’t that bad most of the time. There isn’t that much traffic and the road is wide so dangerously close passes are very rare. On such a clear day it was possible to see the top of Errigal. It’s iconic 2,500 foot high peak was to be an almost ever-present backdrop to this trip. Beyond Errigal you reach Dunlewey and the Posioned Glen, again crystal clear on this July evening. I never grow tired of the view across Lough Dunlewey, the ruined church and the Posioned Glen. There are various folklore tales about how the glen got it’s name – one story is that it was wrongly translated from Irish to English years ago and the correct name should be ‘Heavenly Glen’ (the Irish word for Heaven is neamh and the Irish word for poison is neimhe). Another story is that the king of Tory, Balor, had a very beautiful daughter whom he kept closed away in a tower out of the view of men. However word of her beauty spread and she was kidnapped and brought to Magheroarty. Balor followed and got her; he killed her kidnapper with a giant stone. At the entrance to The Poisoned Glen one such stone stands and it is said to be the poisoned eye of Balor. The Church was built in the 1830s from locally quarried white granite but fell into disuse due to a declining congregation and the roof was removed for safety reasons. The Church, photographed from deep down the valley with the peak of Errigal in the background is probably one of the most iconic images of Donegal published over the years. I wouldn’t be going down the glen today but it is worthwhile to do so if you have time. It is a fiendishly difficult climb to cycle back up again.
From there it was on through the village of Dunlewey and to Gweedore, Crolly and Annagary. On such a beautiful day the scenery was shown to best advantage with Errigal ever present in the background. This is generally a very remote area. Crolly is the home of the much-acclaimed Crolly dolls and nearby Leo’s Tavern is an award-winning live music venue (but closed like all the others at the moment) known as the home of both Enya and Clannad. I made a little detour from the signposted route to Ranafast and then on to Carrickfinn.
Donegal Airport is also located at Carrickfinn and it has been voted the most scenic approach to any airport in the world. It is easy to understand why it would win such an award. There are quite a few beaches on this tiny peninsula, all with golden sand and clear blue water. The view across the islands is nice too. On a day like today, the silvery peak of Errigal can be clearly seen in the background.
I found a small campsite overlooking Trá an Bhaid (The Boat Strand) which was extremely basic but it was reflected in the price (€5). It was worth it for the view alone. My original plan had been to camp in the sand dunes at Carrickfinn but the council seem to have put up “No Camping” signs since I was last here. I went looking for somewhere else and asked a man who was practising golf in a field and he pointed me in the direction of the campsite and I’m pleased he did. I would never have come down this road otherwise as I had thought it was a private lane. I couldn’t believe the views from where I pitched my tent and ate my lunch I later took a walk along the beach and the little harbour.
I slept well and awoke early (as is normal for me anyway) so had another look around the beach and the harbour. Now at low tide it was possible to walk to the little island. There is a moment on the island which is called Oileán na Marbh (literally Isle of the Dead). As can be seen from the Irish language inscription below it, the monument is to the famine dead, dead sailors and still-born babies who were buried here in the 19th and early 20th century. It does give pause for thought and we should be eternally grateful that we live in a time of plenty.
After my walk, I prepared and ate my breakfast and packed up the tent and re-filled my water bottles. This is a disadvantage of camping no doubt – it takes much longer to get ready for the road in the morning. Still, there was no rush, I had all day and I was looking forward to a leisurely exploration of the coastline between here and Dungloe about twenty miles away.
I first stopped at the main Carrickfinn beach again for a walk and noted that there were several camper vans parked up on top of the sand dunes so clearly the no camping law is not enforced. The beach was deserted this early on a Sunday morning. It was still dry and clear but it was nowhere near as warm as you would expect in July. I had to put on my jacket.
From Carrickfinn I turned left onto the coast road towards Dungloe and Cionn Caslach (Kincasslagh), probably best known as the home place of Daniel O’Donnell and his sister Margo. Clearly people around here are pretty musically talented as Margo, Daniel, Enya, Clannad and Moya Brennen have all achieved international success and acclaim. My first stop was at Ballymanus beach which is a beautiful beach in itself. A tragedy occurred here in 1943 when a sea mine washed ashore. Some people tried to put a rope around it to secure it but it exploded with the loss of nineteen lives. There is a monument to their memory today.
I made further detours from the coast road to visit many different little beaches and harbours, all deserted apart from the occasionally dog walker or sea kayaker.
I crossed the bridge to visit Cruit Island (Oileán na Cruite), which although a very small island has the sort of little single track coast road which is a true pleasure to cycle. Again you see many beaches and also the famous wrecked ship washed up on one of the beaches.
I continued to make detours to all these little beaches, many of which I am not even sure of their names as there were very little sign posts. I took me a considerable length of time to cover the fisfteen miles to Dungloe. This is what cycle touring is about in my opinion – taking the time to explore all the less obvious places along the way. In the past, I have cycled my apporximate route of the past two days in one day on a lightweight road bike. I did enjoy doing so and would do it again but there is also a different and arguably greater pleasure in breaking the journey in two and taking all the little side roads to see where they go instead of rushing past trying to get home before it gets dark.
I had only really scratched the surface of what you could do. I did make my first visit to a cafe since pre-Covid in Burtonport where I ate alfresco as it seemed better than being inside despite the increasingly overcast day. Burtonport is of course where the Letterkenny to Burtonport railway line which opereated between 1903 and 1947 terminated and now parts of it have been re-purposed as a walking/cycling track. I am not sure what the distance is but I formed a plan to come back here some day in the car complete with Brompton to explore it and see what it is like. Abanoned railway lines make excellent cycleways.
It started raining as I left Dungloe, just a drizzle at first and then very heavy. I passed through Dungloe without stopping. If the weather hadn’t turned out so wet I may have extended my ride and experimented with different options. As it was, I took the turn off the N56 for Doochary (An Dúcharaidh) using the R254. The R254 is a nice a route to cycle really. The first part of it from Dungloe to Doochary is two lane and can be relatively busy at times but has nice scenery.
Doochary concludes my tour of The Rosses as I leave the Rosses area. It is a small village in a picturesque setting famous for it’s salmon fishing. The old part of the R254 from Doochary to Churchill is a little piece of heaven as it changes to single track, is lightly trafficked and follows and is criss-crossed by various rivers and streams and little waterfalls all of which are accentuated by recent heavy rain in the past few weeks. It is not uncommon to find deer or sheep on the exposed parts as you pass through the mountain.
The ride from Doochary back to Letterkenny was one of the surreal ones. It had stopped raining by now and the mist rose from the warm road surface and hung in the air and traffic was pretty much non-existant. I always like the view you can get from this end of Glenveagh but today it was covered in a beautiful, mysterious and eerie mist. My efforts at photographing it didn’t work as I was only using my phone.
I had covered a little over a hundred miles over the two days (Sunday was the longer day), which is easily enough daily mileage for touring as I had time to pay attention to my surroundings. It feels good to be able to tour again and I enjoyed my little tour of Na Rosa and I have a few ideas for other relatively local tours or day rides which I hope to do in due course.