Buses, Bromptons and paddle steamers Part I

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Brompton

Being laid up for several months gives time to think and to plan and I guess like most people, I have my list of things that I’d like to do. With a love of steam engines and old machinery in general and loving to see these great machines of the past at work, I felt I would like to sail on the P.S. Waverley. The Glasgow based paddle steamer is the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world, the final survivor of a large number of similar vessels which once plied their trade on the Firth of Clyde and other coastal areas, transporting tourists and holiday makers on pleasure cruises to scenic and hard to reach areas before private cars and foreign holidays became more affordable. A lot of hard work and fundraising has been done over the years to save the Waverley from the same fate as her sister ships which were de-commisioned and scrapped as they became expensive to repair and run in the early 1960s as falling numbers of passengers meant pleasure cruises on the Clyde were no longer profitable. The Waverley soldiered on until the early ‘70s before being sold to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society for the price of £1 and there began a long process of finding the funds required to keep this iconic ship and piece of social history alive and carry out much needed restoration work.

I made the decision that I’d like to go Scotland to sail on the Waverley, when I began planning I needed two crutches to walk. I planned to go in June as I was working on the assumption that I would be able to walk better by then and I would be able to drive. My plan was to take the car on the ferry. I booked the ticket to sail on the Waverley for June 19th from Largs as I thought it was easier than actually going into Glasgow. I’m not really a city person.

Waverley

It has been a pleasant surprise that my recovery from injury has been such that when the time come, I am able to cycle perfectly well, perhaps not with any great speed but I can do decent distances and cycling doesn’t cause my ankle any pain whereas it does get sore if I walk around on it all day. I felt confident enough to cycle rather than take the car. This was good. It is more enjoyable to cycle than to drive (for me at least) and it also works out considerably cheaper which is an added bonus. Also because I was going to Largs and the Ayrshire coast, I knew there is a decent rail service linking the main coastal towns in the south-west of Scotland. If I really did struggle, putting the bike on the train would be an alternative.

A potential problem cropped up with the threat of rail stikes and very limited services on Britain’s rail network. The plan I had put in place required a train from Stanraer to Ayr on the first day. Looking at the timetables online showed a greatly reduced service with two early trains and one quite late. The best laid plans of mice and men… I made a last minute decision to take my Brompton as I can fold that up and put it on a bus. Thankfully, Ayrshire also has an excellent bus service. The internet makes it easy to plan rail or bus journeys in another country.

Day 1 Travelling to Ayr

The first day was pretty uneventful and even a bit tedious. I loaded the Brompton up with luggage, using the front mounted T-bag and also a saddle mounted Carradice saddle bag. The front bag probably would have held everything but I prefer to split the load a bit more evenly as I am concerned about over-loading the front luggage block of the Brompton. I’ve toured with this setup on the Brompton before and it works very well I think. The front bag removes easily and is easy to carry off the bike. It is straightforward if a bit of a fiddle to undo the leather buckles on the Carradice bag and I fit a shoulder strap to put it on my shoulder. The bike can then be folded and fitted into it’s own bag for carriage on a bus (I know Bus Eireann insist on covering folding bikes, not sure if Stagecoach in Scotland would require this but I took the bag and used it as a precaution).

Brompton

I caught an early morning train in Derry which took me to Larne Harbour with a change at Yorkgate and was in good time for my midday sailing to Cairnryan.Two hours later I was in Cairnryan. I rode the short distance to the bus stop in Cairnryan (I found out later that the buses actually go into the ferry terminal so I didn’t need to do this) and waited on my bus. It was grey, misty and drizzling rain (from the ferry it had been difficult to see the coastline due to the mist) but the forecast was for the weather to get better. Weather of course is always the potential problem but I was equipped for all weather conditions. You don’t come to Scotland (or Ireland) for it’s excellent weather. It happens, but not very often.

Larne to Cairnryan Ferry

Stagecoach service 360 took me to Ayr. The approximately fifty mile journey seems to take just a little over two hours and includes trips into many housing estates in Girvan. There is no doubt a train would have been faster and more comfortable but at £8 for the ticket, I feel it is excellent value for money and there is the added bonus that the bus goes up the A77 coast road and continues on the coast through Turnberry and on to Ayr so you get to see the Ayrshire coast and the iconic and beautiful Ailsa Craig in all it’s splendor. Not even the overcast weather could hide the natural beauty. I’ve seen it several times over the years but still am struck with awe on the approach to Girvan as Ailsa Craig comes into view. I was tempted to get off the bus for a walk along Girvan sea front and wait for a latter bus for the rest of the journey but I resisted. I really would love to cycle the A77 some day but I fear it is just too dangerous as it carries quite a lot of traffic and has many corners and hills with poor sightlines and many drivers drive faster and with less attention than they really should.

Ayr seafront

I arrived in Ayr at around a half past five. After re-assembling my bike and luggage I rode the short distance from the bus depot to the accommodation that I had pre-booked for the night. I had been to Ayr before on previous occasions and had a reasonable idea where I was going so didn’t bother looking it up on GPS. I was amazed at the respect for cyclists shown by Ayr motorists as I rode in rush hour traffic. After checking in, I had a shower and change of clothes before taking a walk along the Ayr’s famous seafront with it’s miles of golden beaches before getting something to eat and then relaxing. The drizzle and greyness had cleared and it was a nice bright evening. I was even treated to some interesting colours as the sun set.

Ayr

Day 2 – The Ayrshire Coastal Path – Ayr to Largs.

The weather forecast was right. Saturday dawned bright and sunny with the potential of being a real hot, summer’s day. After a walk along the seafront before breakfast, I packed up and prepared my bike for the road. I had planned to cycle up the coast to the seaside resort of Largs. I was planning to do it off-road if possible. Online research suggested that the northern part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path was passable by bicycle although there didn’t seem to be any offical guide lines on this. I would give it a good try anyway! The distance would be about forty miles but I had all day to do it. My first rule of cycle touring is to always try not to put yourself under pressure for time! The Ayrshire Coastal Path runs longside and sometimes joins with Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 for a large part of this journey anyway so I wasn’t expecting any problems initially but they might come later. I was really looking forward to this ride.

Ayrshire coastal path

Both NCN 7 and the Ayrshire Coastal Path are parts of much longer routes. I joined them on the seafront in Ayr as it was near where I had spent the night. Following the NCN 7 route signs from the seafront you initially have to go through the town (as you need to cross the bridge over the River Ayr) before heading north towards Newtown-on-Ayr and Prestwick before going inland for a bit and then going back to the coast at Saltcoats and on to Ardrossan.

Ayrshire coastal path

I have driven through all these places in the past and didn’t consider them particularly interesting but it is very different when you cycle. You see it differently, you have the time to see what you miss when you drive. It’s why I love cycle touring so much. In a car you are going too fast, you can’t stop on a whim as it’s not always possible to park safely, you can’t interact with the people you meet along the way. The sense of sheer ecstacy I felt as the day unfolded and I surveyed the many beautiful beaches along this route can be barely be described. I was so worried a few months ago that I might never be able to do this again. I felt such a relief to feel I was touring again.

Ayrshire coastal path

Also the realisation that it is sometimes best kept simple. It’s true the Ayrshire coast is mostly reasonably flat but today at least, it was pretty windy so slow going in places. I found the three-speed Brompton perfectly adequate. I love these bikes; the ease with which they can be folded up for transportation and storage and yet they are pretty decent to ride. In truely hilly terrain it would be different with a limited gear range but in normal terrain, I don’t find it any more difficult or tiring than a normal three-speed sports roadster with twenty-six inch wheels. They also carry luggage so well, a huge advantage that all small wheeled bicycles have. I was carrying a reasonably heavy load but it doesn’t seem to affect the handling of the bike at all. If I put this weight on the type of typical steel road frame I often ride, I’d be aware of it making the bike feel cumbersome and top heavy. With small wheels the weight is carried lower down so it doesn’t do that.

Ayrshire Coastal path

Riding a Brompton wins you friends too as people often want to know what it is. Despite being a bit windy, it was a warm sunny day and many people were out walking and cycling and if you are clearly a cycle tourist, people like to know where you’ve come from and where you’re going. Also, after two years of Covid restrictions, it is also nice to see people getting out and about and exploring again and enjoying the good weather.

Old OS mile stone.

At Irvine, you pass the Scottish Maritime Museum. I did stop for a look around although I didn’t actually go in. I just had a look at all the outdoor exhibits. Scotland, of course has a great maritime past and some of the world’s greatest ships were built on the Clyde, an area once renowned for ship building and other heavy industry including many railway locomotives and the beautiful cantilevered Forth Bridge. Steam hammers, rivetters and other tools from the shipywards are on display around the grounds and it’s fascinating to look at the sheer size of them. The Waverley would have been built using tools like these. Shipyards were dirty, noisy and dangerous places to work.

Scottish Maritime Museum
Scottish Maritime museum
Scottish Maritime museum

With my leisurely riding, sometimes unsurfaced paths and endless photo stops I was actually running later than I had planned but I was enjoying myself immensely. This was proving to be one of the most enjoyable routes I had ever done on a tour. It was mostly off-road and traffic free apart from through the towns along the coast (and the respect shown to cyclists from drivers is so different compared to the north of Ireland). I had already made my mind up to do it in the opposite direction on the return and this time to make time to visit the museum in Irvine. It wasn’t to be but I’ll come to that later.

Brompton

From West Kilbride, you leave the NCN and join another part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path which partly runs along the coast from Portencross on either very quiet roads or gravel paths before eventually following a cycle path which runs mostly along side the A78 trunk road. It is a pretty decent facility and keeps you away from the stresses and dangers of the high speed traffic on the A78, (although it didn’t seem particularly busy on this evening at least). Eventually I arrived in Largs, located the B&B I had booked before going for a walk and getting dinner in a pub. With some small diversions off my signposted route and a slight navigational error, I had covered just over fifty miles for the day so a decent day’s mileage for touring. There were no big climbs but there was a noticeable headwind for a lot of it.

Largs is a well-known seaside resort. It’s located on the Firth of Clyde and is just over thirty miles from Glasgow so has always been a popular resort for the people of Glasgow. (The growth of places like Largs and other seaside resorts as well as the popularity of cruises on boats like the Waverley started in the late Victorian period when factory workers were allowed to have a weeks holidays for the first time so in places like Glasgow where there was a huge working population, there was the demand for railways and cruise ships for recreation as people could have a holiday for the first time. We take so much for granted today.) The name Largs comes from An Leargaidh in Scots Gaelic which translates as “The Slopes.” Settlements in this area go back a long time to the Neolithic period and the town has links with the Vikings. In 1263, a battle took place between at Largs between the Vikings and the Scottish army. The battle is commemorated by the “Pencil Monument” about a mile south of the town and is built in the form of a round tower. Largs played an important part in WWII.

Pencil monument Largs

I found the modern Largs a pleasant town with many interesting buildings, a nice beach and the pier from which a ferry service operates to Great Cumbrae. The pier is also a regular berth for the Waverley (paddle steamers are difficult to dock and not every pier is suitable) which of course was the reason I came here.

I had really enjoyed this ride, I was starting to feel like a cyclist again and it’s great to be on the bike in beautiful surroundings on a clear sunny day. Nothing else gives the same feeling of freedom as cycling. After everything that has happened in the past few years with the Covid travel restrictions and then being injured it is such a great feeling to be touring again.

Largs

Day 3 – At sea – Largs to Ardrishaig

The day dawned bright, sunny but windy. It wasn’t particularly hot for the time of year but it was clear blue skies, good visibility and beautiful torquise coloured sea. I wouldn’t be boarding the Waverley until about midday so I had went for a walk after breakfast and it was lovely to see such bright weather. I had wrapped up warm though as despite appearances it hadn’t warmed up much and I was expecting it to be colder at sea.

As the time came close, I made my way to the pier. There didn’t seem to be that many people at first but suddenly there was quite a crowd and the Waverley came into view. I was surpised by how much speed it carrying, certainly much more than I expected. The docking procedure is something worth of watching. One of the downsides of paddle ships is that they can’t move themselves sideways and have poor manourverability in general so ropes need to be thrown ashore and then tied before using the winch to pull Waverley into the pier to allow boarding.

The Waverley was untied from the pier and we were now at sea. Many people quickly disappeared below deck as it was quite cold and windy but those of us of a more weatherproof nature remained on deck. Despite the strong breeze, the sea was quite calm which was good. Waverley travels very smoothly and is much faster than I was expecting. You can hear the noise of the huge 216 inch diameter paddle wheels in the water but it is soothing and rhythmic rather than annoying.

The 693 ton Waverley was built by Shipbuilder A. & J. Inglis of Glasgow (part of the Belfast’s Harland and Wolff group) and named after Sir Walter Scott’s first novel. She took her maiden voyage from Craigendoran Pier to Loch Long on June 16th 1947 and was originally operated by London and North Eastern Railway company and later the Caledonian Steam Packet Company alongside other paddle steamers called the Lucy Ashton, Jeanie Deans and Talisman which I think are all named after characters in Scott’s novels. Waverley was actually the second ship to carry the name Waverley as it was built as a replacement for the original 1899 Waverley which was sank by enemy action in 1940 during the Dunkirk evacuations with a loss of almost four hundred lives. Paddle steamers actually played and important role in both world wars as they were useful for clearing mines as they don’t sit as deep in the water as most other ships. The original Waverley and her sister ships performed this role in both World Wars as well as being used during the Dunkirk evacuations and other troop carrying duties. Today, a little brass plaque visible on the outer deck remembers the tragic fate of the original Waverley.

Waverley

Below deck you can see the beating heart of Waverley, the large triple expansion steam engine built by Rankin & Blackmore of Greenock. It is fired by oil and not coal as might be expected and runs at about 180 PSI of steam pressure. The bore of the smallest cylinder is 24“ and the engine has a stroke of 66“ It is rated at 2,100 horsepower and achieved speed trials of 18.34 Knots (approximately 21 MPH) at 57.8 RPM. Steam engines produce their maximum torque at much lower revs than internal combustion engines. It is fascinating to stand and watch the engine working and how it all operates; something you can’t see with any modern engine. You hear the clangs as instructions are telegraphed through from the bridge. The crankshaft drives both paddle wheels directly with no gearing and no differential which is the reason for the poor manouverability as the paddle wheels can’t turn independently of each other. It isn’t ideal I suppose but it works. Tthe reason these type of ships were used for coastal excursions was because they could sail in shallower water.

Back up on deck it is nice to just sit or stand and watch the scenery pass by. My Scottish geography is nowhere near good enough to name all the places we passed. I regret forgetting my binnoculars. I noted that a few other passengers were following the progress on OS Maps which would probably have been a good idea if you were interested in knowing the exact route but personally I wasn’t too bothered. Sometimes it’s nice to know exactly where you are, other times it’s nice just to admire the view without ove-rthinking it. Boat trips are a great way to see the coastline and I personally have always found being on board a boat very relaxing. I think it’s just about being able to take the time to relax, sit back and enjoy it. Like cycling, the speed on a boat is slow enough to take the time to enjoy it. On the Waverley, the large steam engine runs at very low revs and is very smooth and quiet and the noise of the paddle wheels in the water provide a relaxing rhythm in the background. It is definitely a nice experience to travel by paddle steamer and different from a modern diesel powered ship.

Waverley
Waverley
Waverley

It took about three hours to reach the small port of Adrishaig where we would be going ashore for about ninety minutes. The wind caused problems with trying to tie the Waverley up as the wind blew the ropes back to the boat and the people on the shore couldn’t catch them. The wind was also causing the boat to drift away from the pier so we had to go back and re-enter the harbour a few times but we got there eventually with perserverance.

Waverley at Ardrishaig

Ardrishaig is a nice little harbour town and it was nice to have time ashore to explore a little. I’ve been there once before when I cycled the length of the Crinan Canal as a little aside from cycling NCN 78. The name Ardrishaig is derived from the Scots Gaelic Rubha Àird Driseig which means the height of the “promontory of the small bramble.” The pier and harbour were built in 1873. There was some sort of event or market taking place in the town on our visit with stalls selling arts, crafts and some very nice food. There were pipers on the pier to meet us when we arrived and whilst we were ashore, a group of school children were taken on a trip up Loch Fyne on board the Waverley.

Ardrishaig
Ardrishaig

There was the same problems with the wind when trying to tie the ship up at the pier when they came back for us but again perserverance won the day. The return journey was made on a different route taking us past the Isle of Arran and the Kyles of Bute. The wind dropped and suddenly it was a glorious warm summer evening with many more people spending time out in the open. Below deck there is a bar and restaurant and the Sunday roast dinner I had bought earlier was very nice and very generous in terms of portions.

Waverley

The Isle of Arran looks very beautiful and I was starting to form a plan to cycle around it. I believe the distance around the coast road is about fifty or sixty miles so it’s possible as a day ride. The return journey was more peaceful without the wind and it was now possible to hear the guide over the tannoy system point out places of interest as we passed. On the way out, his voice got lost in the wind. I had had a very nice day and it was with genuine sadness that I walked ashore in Largs again and watched the Waverley steam off into the horizon.

We can reflect that on the year of it’s 75th birthday, it is a truely beautiful ship and it’s brilliant that it has survived against all the odds to hopefully give enjoyment to many more for many years to come. Perhaps rising fuel costs and climate change concerns may make flying abroad less attractive in the future and cruisers may yet again return to coastal areas. New ships will be more efficient and easier to maintain but I doubt they will have the elegance and beauty of the Waverley which dates from a time when things weren’t just functional but were designed to be beautiful to look at as well.

Waverley

My final night in Largs was a peaceful affair with a walk along the beach and putting my plans in place for the next few days. I had booked two nights in Ayr where I had hoped to visit things connected with Robert Burns but hadn’t thought much further ahead than that. I had no decided that I would cycle south along the Ayshire Coastal Path since I had enjoyed it so much on Saturday but would make time to visit the Irvine Maritime Museum for a proper look around this and I would get an early morning bus to Ardrossan with the Brompton for a trip to Arran the following day and then go in search of Burns on the Wednesday. It didn’t quite work out like that though….

Part II to follow soon…..

Ayrshire coastal path
Brompton
Waverley at Ardrishaig

A Moulton Standard

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Dr. Alex Moulton 1920 – 2012

I’ve always had a special interest in small wheeled bicycles. I believe that they should be much more common than they actually are as they have many advantages over their larger wheeled cousins. They are especially good at load carrying as the smaller wheel means luggage racks can be mounted lower down so that any weight doesn’t interfere too much with the bike’s centre of gravity. This makes them good for touring and also for utility riding such as a shopping trip.

Using components of similar quality, a small wheel is stronger and is therefore less likely to buckle or suffer from broken spokes and also lighter which means it is easier to accelerate the wheel up to speed which helps to make the bike much more nimble in urban traffic. Small wheel bikes usually feel easier to ride up hills for this reason.

A small wheeled bike is also shorter overall and takes up less space to store and is much easier to carry and manouvre which is a potential benefit to people who live in terraced houses or apartments and may lack the storage for a large bike and may need to carry it up or down stairs.

The traditional diamond framed bicycle which has been around in one form or another since James Starley’s original Rover Safety Bicycle has it’s design compromised by the need to package the large 26“ – 28“ wheels normally used, especially in the smaller frames sizes and often leads to toe overlap with the front wheel. The diamond frame bike also needs to be made in a variety of sizes with different stand-over heights and top tube/reaches to suit riders of different sizes.

The reasons that large wheels have traditionally been favoured is that they tend to ride better over bumps which was an important consideration before sealed road surfaces became the normal; especially so before the invention of John Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres, and also because of the issue of gearing. The Ordinary or Penny Farthing had evolved because it allowed a higher gear for faster cruising. Starley’s use of a chain drive on his Rover Safety Bicycle allowed the same gear ratio with a wheel half the size which made it much safer and easier to ride. The development of both hub gearing and primitive derailleur systems in the early years of the twentieth century meant that it would be possible to use smaller wheels and still have a range of useful gearing.

The British engineer Dr Alex Moulton began to question the design of the traditional diamond framed bicycle in the mid to late 1950s, prompted by the Suez crisis and energy shortage, he saw the benefits of cycling over driving. He had a background in aircraft design, rubber products (which were his family business) and also suspension design. The bicycle had remained basically unchanged at that point for about seventy years and saw the potential advantages which I have listed up page in using a smaller wheel.

The potential downsides of rough ride quality he felt he could overcome with a simple rubber cone based suspension (Moulton had designed the rubber cone suspension design used in the original Austin Mini and the the later hydrolastic and hydragas systems that followed for other BMC/BL/Rover Group front wheel drive cars and the mid-engined MGF). His work on the Mini with his friend Sir Alec Issigonis highlighted the advantages of moving to a smaller wheel size and compact rubber cone based suspension in terms of freeing up a lot of space in the car’s interior. He aimed to do similar for cycle design.

Calling on his knowledge of aircraft design to create a very simple but strong frame design which was different in it’s construction from traditional lugged and brazed bicycle frames, he came up (after several other designs and prototypes) with what today is known as the F-Frame Moulton and it’s the ancestor of every other small wheeled adult bicycle that has come since such as the Raleigh Twenty, the Brompton, the Dahon and the Bike Friday.

The main advantages were the lower centre of gravity (especially when loaded), the strong, light and fast to accelerate sixteen inch wheels, the shorter overall bike length (Moulton used a very long wheelbase for the bike, partly to distinguish it from a child’s bike and I guess partly for stability and ride comfort but the small wheel size reduce the overall length of the bike), the convenient rack systems back and front for carrying luggage and also the fact that it only needed to be manufactured in one frame size which could be easily adjusted so that almost anyone could ride it comfortably. The frame was an open design too with all the strength in the in the oversized bottom tube which made it much easier and safer to mount than the diamond frame (and stronger than the typical “lady’s frame” of the time). A handle to carry it carefully located at the centre of gravity was included to make it easy to transport upstairs into apartment blocks etc. Despite what some think when they see one, the Moulton did not fold but a take apart version did appear later.

The Moulton was launched at Earls Court in 1962 and the response was overwhelming. After an early agreement with Raleigh didn’t work out he created his own factory to build the bike. Just like the Austin Mini, the Moulton bicycle became a huge fashion icon of the 1960s and the factory couldn’t build them fast enough. A subsidiary of BMC also started to build them for Moulton but there were quality issues. It quickly spawned copies like the Dawes Kingpin and the Raleigh RSW16 which although charismatic in their own way were technically inferior.

Moulton was also keen to promote the sporting potential of his small high pressure tyre combined with suspension bicycle and in December 1962, John Woodburn broke the London to Cardiff record on a Moulton Speed, the first of quite a few sporting achievements for the bike and led to the creation of the Moulton Speed 6 which was the first bike to have six speed derailleur gears. A Speed 6 is a highly prized collector’s item today. The majority of the original Moultons had the 4 speed FM version of the Sturmey Archer hub gear. Hub gears are very suited to small wheelers as it avoids running an easily damaged derailleur close to the road.

In the late 1960s, Raleigh did buy Moulton out although he remained as a consultant he continually carried out small improvements to the design, Raleigh were never really committed to the bike and pruned the range down to just a single model and sales fell away. They had there own small wheeler too in the form of the Twenty which although not as technically interesting or as good to ride was much cheaper to build and to sell and sold in big numbers. Moulton eventually ended up buying his business and patents back from Raleigh and beginning again with a much different design – the space frame – which used thin tubes to create a lighter frame. Variations of it continue in production today but second time around, Moulton concentrated on high end, higher quality rather than high volume production so they’ve never sold in the same numbers as the original F-Frame.

1964 Moulton Standard

Given my love of small wheeled bikes, a Moulton was something I’ve always wanted to own. I didn’t even care which model in a way. I had ridden ones on short rides in the past and was impressed and always fancied having one of my own to get to know it better. When the opportunity came up recently to buy a 1964 Moulton Standard at a very reasonable price, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. It wasn’t an immaculate example as it was in regular use and had some tweaks. The bars had been replaced with mountain bike type straight bars with bar ends, the wheels had been build with Brompton alloy rims and also a square taper Brompton chainset had replaced the original cottered cranks. None of this bothered me, in fact they are very worthwhile improvements as the brakes work better on alloy rims and they are lighter and a square taper chainset is stronger, lighter and easier to service than cottered chainsets.

I picked the bike up in Ballymoney and ventured for a ride around the cycle path system in Ballymoney, including time watching trains coming and going at the station from the top of the impressive looking Sustrans bridge over the lines. It took a little time to get to grips with the gearchange as the original Sturmey Archer four speed shifter has been replaced on this bike with a friction shifter of the type usually used on derailleur systems. Gear adjustment was always very tricky and problematical on the four speed Sturmey hubs so this is possibly a better solution although it took a little practice to use it smoothly. I’m sure grinding the gears is not good for the hub!

Ballymoney Station

I was able to fit the bike into my small car without removing the wheels which was a good start and highlights one of the huge advantages of a small wheeled design. Once home I made some adjustments to the riding position and getting it to my satisfaction. Yesterday, when I had time to spare, it was time to take it for a longer ride to see what I really thought of Alex Moulton’s brainchild.

River Foyle

I had no set route but made my way through Castlefinn, Ballindrait, St. Johnston, Carrigans and eventually to Derry via the cycle path which runs along the Foyle from Carrigans on the route of a former railway line. I took a slightly different route home and had covered over sixty miles, more than I had planned but I enjoyed myself despite some heavy showers and the fact that it seems very cold for June. As the miles clocked up, my respect for the bike kept growing. It is just so comfortable and easy to ride. My average speed probably wasn’t very high but this was through sometimes very hilly terrain on a pretty stormy day and I am also not as fit as I was. I was very happy with the ride and how I felt afterwards and the bike exceeded all my expectations. It just highlights my point that small wheeled bikes should be more common.

1964 Moulton Standard

I enjoyed the route too, on mostly pretty quiet roads with enough gradient to keep it interesting. I always like riding the path along the river Foyle too. It’s always nice to get completely away from traffic. I did go over the Peace Bridge to Ebrington Barracks in Derry and I think it’s great that Derry has all this shared space away from motor vehicles for people to enjoy walking or cycling.

Derry peace bridge

I am definitely very happy with my purchase and very impressed with the design of the bike. I feel it is one of those things like the original Ferguson tractor that was just brilliantly conceived and every aspect of the design was considered and pretty much perfected. You can see this by the “carry handle” that is included in the frame between the seat tube and the main chassis member right at the centre of gravity. Pick the bike up using it and just feels so well balanced in your hand and easy to carry like that. Compare it to how awkward it can be to carry a normal bike. I also found that many random people I met along the way wanted to know what the bike was and where I got it from, clearly the design of it was such that sixty years later, it is still catching people’s attention and piquing their interest. I was trying to decide whether or not I prefer it to my Brompton but it’s not fair to answer that as they appeal in different ways. I do think it’s fair to say though that if the Moulton hadn’t been designed, then the Brompton probably wouldn’t have been created either.

Moulton at Raphoe Castle

I think something that needs to be said regarding the F-Frame Moulton (and also applies to the Brompton to a certain extent) is that it needs time to acclimatise to them and like any other suspension bike, they need to be ridden with a smooth, circular pedalling action to get the best out of them. Otherwise the tendency is to bounce up and down. (This is true of any bike anyway but a bike with suspension will make poor pedal technique much more obvious, as will a fixed wheel bike). I knew that before hand as I had ridden one before but only for short distances. What came to my attention during yesterday’s ride is how good a Moulton actually works in practice. On a short ride, it seems okay, a little weird but nothing special, yet as the miles build and I get a feel for it, my respect continued to grow for it. You stop even noticing the suspension. It just all feels very smooth, even on the often poorly surfaced minor roads that I was riding on.

Now I find myself hankering after a spaceframe Moulton….

The Meenglass
1964 Moulton Standard
1964 Moulton Standard
1964 Moulton Standard
1964 Moulton Standard
Tree sculpture

A Short Tour

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Lough Beagh

Thankfully my recovery has continued without any issues. I will have a further checkup in September but all seems to be okay apart from some residual stiffness. I was told at my last checkup in March that my recovery is about six months ahead of schedule which was put down to my high level of fitness pre-accident. I have been gradually building up activity levels although I am still being careful as I was told not to overdo it by the surgeon and certain activities like running, jumping, skipping or even walking on uneven ground are still out of bounds although my physiotherapist was insistent that the fracture couldn’t be displaced now. Not overdoing it is such a vague term but I am pretty active most days. Indeed, if I sit around my ankle gets really stiff and is always stiff first thing in the morning. It seems to be easier to keep moving.

I have built my cycling up to a reasonable level and cycle about one hundred miles most weeks, sometimes more although it all fairly gentle riding spinning low gears. I am at least starting to lose some of the weight I put on when I was laid up and doing it doesn’t seem to cause my ankle any problems. I had done several rides of forty or fifty miles in length so felt maybe I could venture on a short tour and the June bank holiday weekend with a good forecast seemed a good time to do so. I had happy memories of last year with a trip to west Donegal and staying in a very nice campsite in Crolly called Sleepy Hollows (which I would happily recommend) so decided to got here again.

Glenveagh Bridal Path

I would only be going for Sunday night as I had something else I needed to do on the Saturday so there would not be time for the Arannmore Island trip this time but two days was probably enough for now to see how I would get on with a loaded bike. The camping equipment I have is not ideal for cycle-touring as it’s bulkier and heavier than the more expensive equipment that the committed back-packer or cycle tourist would choose but it’s adequate for my needs as I usually find covered accommodation for longer trips anyway and i can work with it for an overnight or weekend trip. I also elected to take a folding camping chair that I have. It’s very light but bulky but with a dodgy ankle, comfort has become important to me now.

Leaving Letterkenny, I followed one of my usual routes to Churchill along lightly trafficked roads and on to the birthplace of St. Columbkille where I can join the bridal path to Glenveagh. It’s probable that it would be faster to cycle on the longer but well-surfaced road rather than the gravel path but I just find it nice and peaceful to get away from traffic for a few miles with the added benefit of beautiful mountain and lakeside scenery. I actually left later than I had originally planned as the day was so hot and I didn’t really want to ride in the strong mid-day sun and my fair Celtic skin doesn’t like a lot of sunlight. From Glenveagh I turned right on to the R250 to make my way to Gweedore. It’s a faster road than I like really but there aren’t many other options for roads in this part of Donegal. I’ve never found it a bad road to cycle on though. It’s wide and drivers tend to give a lot of space.

Dunlewey

It also passes some of my favourite vantage points in the entire county. I never grow tired of the views across Lough Dunlewey and The Poisoned Glen with the derelict church deep down the valley at the lakeshore and also the views of Errigal as it stands solitary and dignified, soaring over 2,500 feet into the sky. I hope my ankle will recover well enough to allow me to climb it again as the views are spectacular from the top. For now I will just have to be content with enjoying the views from the roadside.

Errigal

It is necessary to join the N56 but traffic wasn’t too heavy and the road is wide. If I had left earlier as originally planned I probably would have taken a less direct route along the coast via Bunbeg but I was running later and riding at a true tourist’s pace (which is best to take everything in. Racing around on tour is silly in my opinion). The N56 is nice too, especially now at this time of year with so many different colours, the bogs, rivers, lakes and the ever-present Errigal in the background. Being laid up for a time has renewed my appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. Time spent cycling through beautiful surroundings is always quality time. You miss out on so much if you travel by car.

Gweedore, Co. Donegal

There’s quite a bit of climbing around here as you are passing through the Derryveagh Mountains but it’s mostly gradual so didn’t cause me any problems. Today was notable for the absence of any kind of wind, not even a gentle breeze – very unusual for this road but on such a warm, sunny day the heat was stifling. As you pass through Crolly (the home of the famous Crolly Dolls – it seems an unlikely place to build a toy factory but it was a thriving industry once), you can see the embankment above the level of the village where the Letterkenny to Burtonport railway once travelled. I hope that one day that all of this former Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company line will be opened as a greenway. Some parts of it around Creeslough and Falcarragh as well as at the Burtonport end have already been worked on.

Annagry, Co. Donegal

Just outside Crolly I turned off the N56 on to the road which leads to Annagry and Carrickfinn. The Sleepy Hollows campsite is located on a small side road but I continued until Annagry first and bought some supplies in the shop there before going to the campsite to check in. I had covered approximately forty miles. The weather was still amazing and the campsite was less busy than I thought it would be. I had thought that there would have been live music in nearby Leo’s Tavern which is one of Donegal’s most famous music venues with connections to many of the famous artists that originated in the area like Enya, Clannad and Daniel O’Donnell but they haven’t started live music yet as things are still recovering from Covid. At the campsite I met a very interesting Swiss couple who had travelled from Switzerland via France, Belgium, England and Wales to Rosslare and then around the South and West coast of Ireland and would be going to Larne and to Scotland before making their way back to Dover on motorcycles. It would certainly be a interesting and varied road trip and one that was taking a lot of time as they were properly exploring and covering modest mileage each day. It was nice to talk to people sitting around the campfire on this warm evening although the dreaded midges were to put in an appearance.

Camp fire

I had a peaceful night’s sleep. This is a peaceful area where you can hear the birds, etc and it’s a very well run campsite. I went for an early morning stroll along the path that leads from the campsite along the river bank before breakfast and packing everything up. This is the downside of cycle-camping of course. It’s so much easier just to hand the key to the receptionist as you leave but there are other advantages apart from the cost. It’s nice to pare life back to it’s bare essentials sometimes and to leave the hustle and bustle of the modern, busy world behind and there are few simpler pleasures than waking up out in nature on a nice morning. Of course, in Ireland the weather isn’t always like this…

My plan for today was to return via different route. I would cycle along the coast via Carrickfinn and Burtonport to Dungloe and then veer inland via Doochary and back to Letterkenny. It would be a longer day and a tougher day in terms of gradient but I felt I could do it. It didn’t seem to be as unbearably hot as it was the previous day either. From the campsite I made my way towards Carrickfinn, where you find one of the nicest beaches to found in the country and you also pass Donegal Airport, often voted to be the most scenic airport in the world and I can see why that would be the case. I really must try to fly into the airport some day just to see this area from the sky.

Carrickfinn Airport

I went for a walk along the beach which was practically deserted apart from a few early morning dog walkers. I decided I wouldn’t have the time today but it is also worth visiting the Boat Strand which is a few miles further on and is truely stunning. From Carrickfinn I then made my way to Ballymanus Strand which is another nice beach. There is a monument to the person killed here when a mine washed up on the beach in 1943.

Ballymanus Strand

I carried on the coast road to Kincasslagh and visited Cruit Island, a small and scenic island with a landbridge to the mainland and it’s always worth a visit. I didn’t spend too much time there as I had further to go but there are a few small roads on the island that deserve further exploration.

Cruit Island

From Cruit Island I made my way to Burtonport. This is where you can catch the ferry to Arannmore Island, something well worth of doing for a day trip. With so many stops it had taken me a long time to cover the twenty-five miles or so between the campsite and Burtonport. I had something to eat in the Harbour Cafe before continuing on my way to Dungloe. I used part of the Railway walk route from Burtonport to where it joins the road again. This is a route which follows the old railway line.

Dungloe

Dungloe or An Clochán Liath is main town in the Rosses area of Donegal. The modern town developed in the mid eighteenth century. The proper Irish name of the town – An Clochán Liath translates as the “grey stepping stone” and is a reference to the grey granite stone which lies in the river bed and was the only crossing point until the bridge was built in 1782. Today the town is an important shopping town in the area and also a popular tourist destination and the Mary from Dungloe festival has become a popular annual event. Given that it was a bank holiday weekend I would have expected this area along the coast to have been much busier but perhaps more people would be out and about in the afternoon. The roads had all been very quiet.

Dungloe, Co. Donegal.

From Dungloe I re-joined the N56 but there is now a seperate cycle path that runs alongside the busy national primary route. This has been an ongoing thing as the road has been upgraded and improved, the cycle path has been developed alongside it. I had ridden part of it a bit further south a few years ago and found the surface ridiculoulsy rough, even when riding two-inch wide mountain bike tyres but I have to say this newer part of the cycle route is much better executed. I guess they’re learning as they go along and listening to feedback. It is still a great facility and avoids the problems of ridng on high-speed main roads or else taking time-consuming detours on to often hilly and indirect minor roads which is a pleasant way to cycle for the tourist who isn’t in a hurry but not helpful to someone who is riding for utility purposes and has somewhere to go in a reasonable time frame.

A few miles south of Dungloe I turned onto the R252 for Doochary. I have always liked riding this road. It takes you through some very remote areas before reaching the remote Rosses village of Doochary and then going on to Finntown. It does have quite a lot of climbing though as it’s a mountainous region and the final few miles before reaching the village has a very sharp descent going around many hairpin like bends. This is known as the “Corkscrew” and definitely somewhere where you need good brakes. Thankfully the cantilever brakes on my Townsend mountain bike are up to the job. Cantilevers can be a challenge to set up initially but they do work very well once set up.

Doochery, Co. Donegal

In Doochary, I turned off the R252 and on to the R254 which would take me to Churchill. Just leaving the village you can see the famed salmon fishing river for which Doochary is famed. The R254 is one of my favourite cycling routes and it was such a joy to be well enough to ride it again. Mostly all single track and lightly trafficked (and what traffic there is is likely to be slow moving or have four legs and woolly coat) it snakes it way alongside a mountain crossed by many small streams and waterfalls as water cascades down the mountain side and there is a lot of bogland and a few small lakes.

Townsend BX-40

It is quite steep though as you ride through the Derryveagh mountains and at the high point you can see down into the deep glen of the Glenveagh Estate with Lough Beagh in the distance. It is possible to ride the gravel path which leads to the castle but I was feeling tired now and I didn’t really fancy the very steep parts of the loosely-surfaced path on a loaded bike so I continued on.

I detoured briefly through the Gartan Estate on the shores of Lough Gartan before making my way back home on minor roads. I had covered around one hundred miles over the two days, the second day was definitely tougher and I felt tired afterwards. I guess my fitness still isn’t what it was prior to the accident but it was a hilly route on a loaded bike and I had a strong headwind all the way from Dungloe which made it into an eight miles per hour slog at times; even on the flat. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that there is actually a strong mental element to cycle touring; you need a reasonable level of physical fitness and stamina but you also need the mental strength to keep going when the conditions are tough such as when met with a strong headwind.

I really enjoyed my little overnight trip to the Rosses and I feel much happier having got one small tour under my belt since recovery from my injuries. I know I was lucky with the weather but I enjoyed it immensely: the mountains, the bogs, the sea, the loughs and rivers, the vivid colours of the Irish landscape on a clear summer’s day and also the friendliness of the people I encountered along the way. Cycle touring is a great way to meet people as people are often interested in what you are doing and how far you are going. There is so much of interest and beauty all around us and many people are in too much of a hurry to see it. I am lucky to have such a beautiful coastal region within cycling distance and the added advantage that it’s rarely excessively busy. If I had been somewhere like the Dingle or the Ring of Kerry on a bank holiday weekend I would have had considerably more traffic to deal with. I am looking forward to my next tour which should be very soon.

Cruit Island
Annagry, Co. Donegal
Cruit Island

Recuperation

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Brompton

It is true that we don’t always appreciate the small things and that we aren’t always grateful enough for what we have got until it has been taken away. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been blessed with good health and have enjoyed a high level of physical activity. I’ve never really been driven by goals in terms of what I wanted to achieve but I’ve always been active, have enjoyed being out and about in all weathers; over the years just being out in nature has given me a lot of genuine enjoyment. It was therefore, very difficult to adjust to being laid up. and spending over two months pretty much house-bound. My ankle was broken in several places following the accident and my left leg now contains a substantial piece of metalwork and quite a few screws. The driver who drove into me has been charged with careless driving which does at least restore some faith in the justice system in this country but there is much more needs to be done to educate drivers to respect cyclists. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure as the old saying goes. Most people are fine but there is a subsection of self-entitled drivers who have zero respect for anyone else and there is also very little in the way of road policing.

It was with some relief to have had the plaster cast removed and being told I can begin to slowly start weight bearing and to work with the physiotherapist on restoring flexibility. I will probably never regain full flexibility in that ankle and I’ve been told it is likely my ankle will always be slightly swollen and I will always have the scars from the operation. Even so, considering the severity of the injury, I have made good progress and have been walking several miles every day (albeit slowly compared to how I used to walk and still with a limp) and have been slowly starting to cycle again. I have been told that my recovery is about four or five months ahead of schedule which is put down to my high level of fitness prior to the injury.

I haven’t been given the go-ahead yet to fully resume normal activities but walking on smooth surfaces where there is little chance of injuring my ankle again is okay and cycling is actually recommended since it is non-weight bearing. Early on in my recovery the physiotherapist had me starting to use the exercise bike and I bought a cheap turbo trainer on her advice to use at home. I set it up with my flat bar Raleigh Vitesse in the shed and I did use it, half an hour every morning and occasionally in the evening as well. I did find it helpful to my ankle and it was good to take some cardio exercise again but I have to say I never fell in love with it. I yearned for the open road. As soon as I got approval with the medics to ride on the road again, the turbo trainer was forgotten. I don’t think stationary cycling is for me…someday soon I must remove my Vitesse from the turbo and take for it a ride on the road where it belongs…

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I started with a short one mile ride on the Brompton and have gradually been building it up but trying not to overdo it. In fact I am surprised how well I feel on the bike despite the long lay up and the weight I have put on but I am wary of doing too much. I was told to do it little and often and not risk some sort of overuse injury. I actually feel I could go and do fifty miles but it’s probably not advised. I’ve stuck with the Brompton for now as it’s easy to ride and suits leisurely cycling. I’m not worried about speed or anything at the moment. I just want to turn the pedals for now and exercise my ankle and hope the flexibility improves further.

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In some ways I’ve found the mental health impact of the injury has been more difficult to deal with than the physical injury. It does take away confidence. As I started getting out and about again there is always the worry that I am doing too much or doing something that risks causing further injury. I still remember how terrifying it seemed after I had had my plaster cast removed and was fitted with a support boot at the hospital and told to walk across the floor with crutches but putting weight on my injured leg – the first time in about three months. I was actually scared to put it on the floor at all. Even now when I can walk without crutches I still feel the need to carry one on longer walks and I’ve left it behind me in places on several occasions which proves I don’t actually need it but I feel happier with it. It hasn’t helped that the Orthopedic consultant tells me to be careful yet and don’t put too much pressure on it whereas the physiotherapist is encouraging me to do more. The physio tells me to stand on the pedals cycling uphill for example to build my muscles again but that would be going against the advice of the consultant. It’s hard to know what to do really. I’ve found it hard to get back to normal in other ways too as I often feel self-conscious about limping around the place or going out in public or where there are crowds as I had bad experiences in my early days on crutches as a tiny minority of selfish people show zero respect and push past you on pavements etc.

I had concerns about being confident enough to cycle on the roads again following being knocked off by a car but I haven’t found that a problem. I just feel so pleased to have my freedom back again and look forward to extending distances and slowly getting back to normal. I still shy away from the hilly routes I used to favour but am slowly starting to feel more confident about them. My fixed wheel Raleigh Pioneer which is the bike I was riding when the collision happened has been repaired for me by the local bike shop at the expense of the driver who hit me but I haven’t even looked at it. I would not feel happy riding fixed wheel or even anything with clips and straps until I have been given the go-ahead from the Orthopedic consultant to resume normal activities. Perhaps I’m just being over-cautious.

Brompton

Over the past month or so I have gradually built up a bit from my initial one mile ride and regularly do around ten miles most evenings now; combined with a three mile walk every morning. I even fitted in a weekend away in Westport as I was determined to make use of the double bank holiday weekend at St. Patrick’s Day. It was nice to see somewhere different after being largely housebound for three or four months. I did visit Kylemore Abbey (by car)and seen round the house and grounds and enjoyed my day and I was pleased that I was able to comfortably complete the eight Kilometre signposted hiking route in the estate as well as walk all over the walled gardens and grounds. It really is worth a visit as there are many beautiful things to see and a lot of history. The whole area is also stunningly beautiful and I love riding here. I might plan a more detailed tour of Connemara when I’m able and I will write more about Kylemore Abbey and it’s history.

Kylemore Abbey
Gothic Church, Kylemore Abbey
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The following day I did cycle. I took the Brompton along the Greenway. I had planned to only go as far as I felt comfortable with and possibly get the bus back to town again if necessary but it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t quite go as far as Achill but did go beyond Mulranny, and I did cycle back again to Westport again too so felt happy with myself as it was by far and away my longest ride since the accident; a distance of about forty miles although mostly pretty flat as it’s along a disused railway line. I never grow tired of the views of Clew Bay from along the Westport Greenway, especially the later sections around Mulranny and Achill Sound.

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When I go home again it gave me the confidence to start riding further and I did do a thirty mile ride involving some climbing on Sunday and as mentioned, I do around ten most evenings. The weather has been so nice and sunny lately and i have got into the habit of cycling a local loop of around ten miles and stopping at Beltany Stone Circle to watch the sun set. It involves a very short, steep climb which I still walk but otherwise causes no problems and I enjoy the sense of piece and serenity of just watching the sun set. I love the sense of mystery that the likes of the stone circle creates as we don’t fully understand why it was built but it’s probable that it had spiritual and religious significance. It’s easy to understand why they picked this spot to build it and I like the fact that it’s not widely known so it never gets many visitors so we locals can enjoy the serenity and the views.

Brompton
Sunset at Beltany Stone Circle
Sunset at Beltany Stone Circle
Sunset at Beltany Stone Circle

I’m pleased with my progress and look forward to extending my riding distances and maybe being able to plan a few simple tours – something I thought I wouldn’t be able to contemplate at this stage. It also amazed how much enjoyment is found from just walking or cyling (outdoors!) and being aware of nature and all it’s beauty. People are in too much of a hurry and miss out on so much. I thought that before my accident and I am even more aware of it now.

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Ballycroy, Co. Mayo.
Doolough Valley
Kylemore Abbey
Gothic Church, Kylemore Abbey
Brompton

A GOLDEN AGE OF CYCLING

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A sort of book review and the random ramblings of a laid up and frustrated cyclist.

In all things, many enthusiasts look for what they see as a golden age. Perhaps what they remember from their youth when everything seemed so simple and carefree. Perhaps some other time, based on tales told by their elders. Perhaps some period in the past of great change when people’s idols were active such as people will look at the music of The Beatles and other 1960s pop groups as a period of great creativity in the music world. Did any of these golden periods ever really exist or are we looking through the rose-tinted spectacles?

1951 Rudge

When was the golden age of cycling? It’s very difficult to answer that question as it’s so subjective. Again for many it will resort back to what we remember from our youth when the summer days were long, sunny and carefree.

I have rarely ridden a bike and not enjoyed the experience. I never grow tired of the feeling of freedom and the open road. Henry Ford and the monster that he created has ingrained the thoughts in people’s mind that a car gives you freedom. It can do but in a limited way. Cars cost a small fortune to keep on the road, cause traffic congestion and come complete with a load of legislation for their use. They are responsible for over a hundred deaths per year in this small country alone. They never give that feeling of adventure (especially as they have become more sophisticated over the years) or the connection to your surroundings as you travel. Ride a bike and you can escape the traffic jams, the noise, the pollution, the stress of driving and enjoy true freedom and the feeling of being at one with your surroundings. By travelling more slowly you can appreciate the beauty of nature and notice things you will speed past in a car. You can stop on whim to look at something that interests you whereas it’s not always safe to stop in a car without somewhere to park it properly. The best of it is that it costs so little money to enjoy cycling. Any bike of reasonable quality, correctly maintained and which fits and is adjusted properly to suit the rider and has suitable gear ratio(s) will give every enjoyment. One of my pet hates is the way cycle magazines, etc push the idea that you need to spend thousands on bikes and gear. If you aim to race, then it may be so but for utility, leisure or touring riding virtually any practically designed bike will work.

Connemara

The thing that spoils cycling today and I guess makes many look back with nostalgia at times past is the volumes of traffic that is frequently encountered nowadays in many places. It’s not even about the volume of traffic; it’s more to do with the aggressive attitude and sometimes open hostility that a small but sizeable minority of drivers have towards cyclists and the apparent apathy of the government to do anything much about it and the attitude of many is that it is cyclists who make the road dangerous! Cycling in heavy traffic can be nerve-wrecking at best and sometimes downright dangerous. A common comment I get from many people I meet when out cycling is that they’d love to ride but are scared of the traffic. I perfectly understand why someone would think that. I think this is sad and needs to change.

It’s why I tend to avoid the main roads and seek out the quiet roads. One of the good things about most parts of Ireland is that there is an abundance of minor roads which have very little traffic and offer an enjoyable cycling experience. There are never any guarantees with anything though and I write this whilst recovering from a badly broken ankle sustained when a driver decided not to bother stopping at a STOP sign at a junction and hit me side on and claimed he didn’t see me. It’s not that he didn’t see me but that he failed to even bother to look but sadly this blasé attitude towards the safety of cyclists and pedestrians is prevalent in Irish society with little political will to change it.

It’s why it’s nice to cycle somewhere traffic free like my trips in September along the Royal Canal and the Westport Greenway. It’s why it’s very easy to look back to times before the automobile took over our roads as the possible golden age of cycling. I sometimes think one of the reasons why I like to use and restore old bikes is that when I look at a vintage bike it conjures up images of open roads and less rushed way of life. I look at modern carbon bikes and find them ugly but also they are built purely for racing or wannabe racing and not suitable for the sort of cycling I want to do.

1951 Rudge alongside River Roe

I like reading books on cycling, it’s history or other people’s stories about their own tours. I while back I bought a book called “A Golden Age of Cycling (A gentleman’s adventure on two wheels” written by Shaun Sewell and I have read it while resting my broken ankle. It is based on the diaries of a keen cyclist called Charles James Pope who seems to have kept journals of his tours and other rides in the period 1924 – 1933; in other words a potential golden age of cycling when bikes had improved enormously from early efforts but traffic levels would have been a tiny fraction of what they are today and the speed of cars then would have been much slower. Having a huge SUV driven by an impatient driver come and breathe down your neck on a single track road is intimidating due to the sheer size of the thing alone. An Austin Seven or Morris Eight would be much less frightening. Of course there was no driving test and the standard of driving would have much worse than today in many cases and cars had poor lights and poor brakes and people happily drove whilst drunk.

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Charles Pope was born in Hammersmith in 1879. In the years following his service in the first world war, it seems he caught the cycling bug and fell in love with using his bicycle to escape the stress of his life in the hustle and bustle of London behind him and escape to explore rural England and Wales (and trips to the Scottish Highlands and Germany, Austria and Switzerland are also documented). His cycling was simple – a rain cape, a large-scale map and the CTC handbook with it’s list of cyclist friendly guesthouses was all he needed. It’s obvious he didn’t approve of the way England was changing as roads and bridges were being changed to make them more suitable for cars and higher speed traffic and things like petrol stations were starting to pop up in every village. He does seem to have held cars and their drivers in contempt.

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Because so few people in Ireland cycle-tour nowadays I often feel people are surprised but impressed that I have cycled long distances on my own carrying luggage and moving from place to place. In the interwar years it would have been very different as so many people used a bike as their only mode of transport and many people used it to explore. We take ease of travel for granted now but before the bicycle many people never left the area they were born in. Charles Pope would have been one of many and it’s obvious from his diary that he met many other touring cyclists as he travelled around.

I really enjoyed reading this book and the account it gave of a bygone way of life; one that I in some ways have inadvertently tried to re-create for myself! Riding for the sake of riding, riding to explore – not riding just purely to achieve stats on some GPS tracking device thing. Riding a normal bicycle in normal clothes, visiting places of beauty and stopping in quaint villages for tea and cake or pint of ale. Unfolding the map and wondering where to go next. Having the time to talk to the strangers on the roadside. Just getting on with it without complaint regardless of weather or the difficulty of the terrain.

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He doesn’t say a huge amount about his bicycle other than it was a Merlin. A quick search online hasn’t given much if anything on this manufacturer but I will investigate more. He had gears. One of the photographs shows the bike and I would describe it as a cable-braked sports roadster. There seems to be a a toptube gear changer on it so it would suggest Sturmey Archer or BSA hub gear. He talks about his low gear of 49“ so it was geared higher than I would have chosen but he was probably more prepared to walk up hills. I do have really low gears on my Townsend which I usually tour on nowadays but sometimes it gets to the point where it’s more efficient to get off and walk. It depends on the length of the climb and amount of luggage. You can do a lot with just a Sturmey Archer AW if you gear it properly and know how to use it to best advantage.

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More than anything else it shows what can be done. On a simple three speed bicycle of the type that people today would say would only be suitable for riding a mile or two to the shop he often clocked up more than a hundred miles per day, often at a decent enough average speed. Remember that in that era, very few roads in Britain would have had a sealed surface which makes his distances and speeds when he needed to hurry all the more respectable.

If you read all the cycling press today you would be eating all sorts of special diets and relying on energy gels to do those distances. Charles seems to have fuelled himself mostly on beer, bread and cheese – most diary entries seems to refer to stopping at pubs for beer, bread and cheese.

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I definitely enjoyed the book but I think it would be more enjoyable for someone who was familiar with the places he was writing about. Some I have been to but I have never been to Wales and don’t know large parts of England. It’s great that he kept this record for future generations to read and to understand what cycling was like in that period. It’s not clear why he stopped his diary in 1933 but it’s possibly because he got married at that point although he did continue cycling. Sadly his contempt towards the motor vehicles that were changing the England he knew and loved for the worse (in his opinion) were to prove prophetic as he was sadly a victim of a hit and run accident in 1951 which ended his life.

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As I sit here with my leg resting on cushions following an operation to put plates on my ankle I look forward to when I can ride again so I can once again ride the routes and visit the places dear to me and to look forward to a tour somewhere to experience something new. If possible, I will probably do a tour somewhere on a vintage three speed in memory of Charles Pope. Right now I really do miss the autumn rides in glorious Technicolor.

1951 Rudge Roadster
1951 Rudge - River Finn

Lough Eske

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I had been experimenting a few times this year with rides towards Barnesmore in the Bluestack mountains and various routes to get there via Meenglass and from Castlederg. I did write about one previous such ride touching on Trusk Lough, Meenglass and various points along the former CDR-JC railway line which passed through the gap on it’s way from Strabane to Doengal Town. I also did a further ride early in September on my Viscount where I rode through the Gap and then via minor roads to Laghey and then back again on the other side of the mountains. This was an interesting ride and the terrain and the scenery is good and the roads quiet but on the day I did it, the weather turned out to be really horrible and I didn’t get to photograph it as I’d have liked so I intend to do this again in the future with better weather and better planning as I made it up as I went along that day and managed to get hopelessly lost in a remote area in a torrential downpour. I still enjoyed the ride though!

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I was also interested in routes along Lough Eske, a tranquil and picturesque like near to Donegal town itself and I could also tie into another railway theme as the “Drumboe,” one of the surviving steam locomotives from the Donegal Railways was being returned to the former Donegal Station House, now used as a museum to Donegal’s railways. The weather also looked promising for my day trip.

I cycled through the maze of minor and pretty much traffic-free routes that climb away from Ballybofey and the Finn Valley towards Trusk Lough and Castlederg. It is hilly but this is some great cycling terrain that I have only really started to explore quite recently despite growing up reasonably local to it. There are so many roads, I am still working out which goes where and often confuse myself and get slightly lost. At many places you can see the remains of the railway infrastructure where the road crosses over the former railway line. I really wish Donegal County Council would get their act together and convert this old line into the type of cycleway that have proved so popular and attracted many tourists in Mayo, Waterford and other places where abandoned railways have been converted into cycleways

I like Trusk Lough, it’s not a very large lake, used as a drinking water supply and is peaceful and has gravel tracks laid along a lot of the perimeter for people to walk and many people come here to walk their dogs. If there aren’t many pedestrians, as was the case today, I take the liberty of riding the lakeshore paths. This is what I like about using this old mountain bike as it is very adaptable and can be ridden on most surfaces as it’s got low pressure two inch wide tyres.

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From Trusk lough the landscape becomes more isolated and bleak in a way and Barnesmore Gap starts to come into view. I love the terrain around here – the high mountains with the glacial-cut pass going through them, the blanket bogland, the rivers, streams and Lough Mourne although today I wouldn’t be passing Lough Mourne. This part of the road is part of the Northwest Passage cycle route and it does use the main Sligo bound N15 for a few miles through the gap itself. I generally prefer not to ride on National Primary Routes but there is a large and generous hard should here to use as a cycle lane so you don’t need to mix with the cars but it’s never that pleasant to cycle due to the noise of the traffic.

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As you ride through the gap you can see the raised embankments where the narrow-gauge line ran alongside the road to your left as you go west. The line operated between 1882 and 1959. You also can see the stone artwork which shows all the placenames of Donegal as they were recorded in 1835.

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From there, you continue a few more miles before reaching Biddy’s O’ Barnes which could probably be considered one of Donegal’s most famous public houses and dates back to the eighteenth century. There are stories that claim the pub is haunted. It was originally a coaching inn where travellers could find refreshment and rest their horses and it has remained a popular stopping place for travellers ever since. I saw no reason to break a two hundred year old tradition and stopped and bought a sandwich and a drink at the bar and enjoyed it alfresco. Cyclists need rest and fuel just as much as horses!

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Shortly after leaving Biddy’s you cross the N15 and take a minor road which will take you into Donegal Town if you follow the Northwest Passage signs. I however had elected to go the longer route around the shores of Lough Eske. Lough Eske (from Loch Iasc – the lake of the fish) is small lake northeast of Donegal Town and is around nine hundred acres in size. The powerful O’Donnell clan had a stronghold on a small lake on the lough, part of which still remains. Following the Flight of the Earls (when the last of the Gaelic Chieftains fled Ireland), the land in this area was granted to Sir Basil Brooke during the Ulster Plantations. Brooke rebuilt and extended Donegal Castle but another manor house was also constructed on the shores of the lough by the Scottish Planters. In the mid nineteenth century, this manor house was re-designed as fine Elizabethan style mansion. It was the work of the Derry- based architect Fitzgibbon Louch at the request of Thomas Young. It is this building which is known as Lough Eske Castle and has been put to use as a very exclusive hotel, certainly way beyond my means but as I discovered, I could go and cycle around the grounds. The castle and gardens are very impressive and I noted that they seem to provide modern hub-geared Pashleys for guests to cycle around the grounds on.

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From Lough Eske castle I cycled the final few miles into Donegal Town. I didn’t actually go into the town centre on this occasion as I didn’t need to as the old railway station was my target destination. The two storey former railway station was built in 1889 and remained in use until 1959. Today it is used as a railway museum. It has always been something on my to-do list to visit it. It wouldn’t be open properly to the public today however but my main reason for this trip was to see the home-coming of the Drumboe. The engine dates from 1907 and like it’s sister engine “Meenglas” was named after the homes of former chairmen of the CDR company. CDR-JC had displayed forward thinking in the pioneering use of diesel powered railcars for most of their passenger services and the end of the 1940s the steam locomotives were only used for freight or occasional special excursion passenger trains. Some of the other locomotives had been taken out of service by then but Drumboe had been given an overhaul and would remain in service until the cessation of all CDR-JC railway services on 31st December 1959. The Drumboe would pull the final train service to ever run on Donegal’s once extensive narrow gauge railway network when it made it’s final journey from Strabane to Stranorlar at 8:30PM on 31st December 1959.

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I believe it was used in lifting the tracks and sleepers as the railway line was lifted. Most of the rolling stock was bought by an American collector but shipping it to America was to prove expensive and problematical so Drumboe slowly deterioriated in the former Strabane station until the late 1980s before being donated to the railway museum. It was taken away to Whiteabbey for refurbishment and refit and is now restored to a standard that it could be put back into steam. Hopefully one day, funding will allow the this to happen and for some tracks to be laid for it to run on. There is no doubt it is a beautiful engine, so bright and colourful in the birght red of the CDR railway company. It is amazing the crowds of people, young and old who had come to see it being lifted into to place by a large crane. I believe it weighs in the region of fifty tons. People had also been checking it’s progress on the journey here the previous day using the museum’s Facebook page and going to see the lorry which transported it. It’s strange how no other method of travel has ever been so romanticised as the era of the steam railway.

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I made my way home again, mostly using the same route that I had used to get here. I would liked to have used the same route I had used on the Viscount on the other side of the mountains a month earlier but I had spent far more time than intended around the grounds of Lough Eske Castle and also looking at Drumboe. Now into October, daylight would be against me so I took the shorter, faster option. A further option would be to go via Pettigo and Lough Derg but that would take even longer. These are options for rides that could be done in longer days. I had enjoyed this ride, a total of just over seventy miles completed seeing lakes, rivers, mountains, bogs, castles and steam locomotives. There is a lot more to do locally than many people realise.

Unfortunately a few days after completing this ride I was knocked off my bike by a driver who failed to stop at a junction and am currently recovering from a badly broken ankle so it could be quite some time before I am able to do any more cycle touring but I look forward to when I can ride again, I would actually be happy to just be able to walk right now.

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Neolithic monuments and film sets Part II

PART I OF THIS NARRATIVE IS FOUND HERE

Day Five: Longford to Westport via Cong.

Townsend BX-40

My original plan had been to go further south but I decided to go to Westport for a few days; I couldn’t face the long drive to Cork and I wanted somewhere to have a bit of peace and quiet so made the decision to book a few days at a lovely, peaceful and remote B&B I had stayed at before a few miles out of Westport called Catherine’s Lair. I knew I would get the peace and quiet I wanted there as I came to terms with the sad news that I had heard the night before.

I didn’t go the direct route to Charlestown and Castlebar but went via Cong, Leenane and then up the east side of Lough Mask which I had in mind as a possible cycle route but I decided against it as the road is pretty busy and not very nice for cycling. I stopped for a walk around Cong, the Co. Mayo village famous as the setting for John Ford’s classic picture “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It is a small village but stunning in it’s beauty and character. I spent a lot of time just standing on the bridge behind the ruined abbey watching the water flow by and enjoying the peace and tranquility. We just don’t take enough time to enjoy nature in this way and the restorative benefits it can offer to the soul.

I had an uneventful journey from Cong to Westport and had a relaxing evening.

Cong, Co. Mayo

Day Six: The Mayo Greenway.

I knew the forecast for this day wasn’t great with rain forecast and I didn’t feel like putting much effort into things anyway so elected for take a leisurely trip along part of the Greenway and see where I would end up with no plans or ambitions for today. I would do plan something properly for the following day when the forecast would be better.

Keel Strand, Achill Island, Co. Mayo

To my surprise I rode the whole length of the Greenway (well from Newport as I rode on minor roads from my B&B on the outskirts of Westport to Newport) to Achill and rode around the island a bit visiting Keel Strand and the famine village and Tra Dumha. Despite the heavy rain in the Westpor/Newport area, it was dry on the island itself.

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I won’t write much about this trip as I’ve covered the ride along the Greenway and it’s history several times on this blog – My first trip along the Mayo Greenway. I had enjoyed a nice pub lunch in Newport on the way back to base and I arrived back soaked to the skin and surprised to find what was supposed to be a leisurely potter around amounted to about ninety miles and my frame of mine was much better. This is the restorative properties of a bike ride (or any other out door exercise) at work. It also shows that you can enjoy a day on the bike even it is mostly wet. I had waterproofs but didn’t bother with them as it was still quite warm and I would just have been soaked in sweat instead of rain.

Achill Island, Co, Mayo

Day Seven: Westport – Louisburgh – Doolough – Leenane – Sheeffry Pass

Today I would re-visit one of my favourite routes from Westport along the coast through Murrisk at the base of Croagh Patrick to Louisburgh and then through the Doolough Valley into Leenane on the coast of Killary Fjord and back again over the Sheeffry Pass. This is a combination of two separate rides I did last year which I felt could be combined.

The day was much brighter and fresher as I set off after breakfast for the short few rural miles into Wesport. I’ve always found the road layout through Westport quite confusing but it is a bicycle-friendly town and drivers are respectiveful of cyclists and will wave you into their lane in a way that is alien to those of us who normally deal with the aggressive drivers found further north.

Croagh Patrick

Rather than follow the direct route I went via Westport Quay and along the coast to where it joins the main coast road. The provision of a reasonable standard shared use path along the road as far as Murrisk in the past few years makes this much more peaceful and pleasant and I like riding along here with the sea on one side and Croagh Patrick’s iconic peak peeking through the early morning mist on the other side. I believe there is a campaign to extend the cycle path as far as Louisburgh which would be very nice indeed and clearly the inhabitants and local councils in west Mayo can see the advantages in promoting active travel.

Murrisk

Most of the traffic is only going as far as Croagh Patrick anyway so after Murrisk the road is much less busy to ride on. There are some nice places to visit along the coast here such as Old Head if you have time but today I continued on to Lousiburgh. From Louisburgh I turned off for the road that would lead me through the Doolough Valley. I never grow tired of this route. I am still in awe of the it’s beauty as the lough comes into view at the base of the deep glen. I had planned to have my lunch stop at the vantage point looking towards the lough.

Doolough Valley

It does of course hide a dark tragedy now as as many as six hundred people died here during the famine when they were refused admission to the workhouse in Westport and were forced to make the trip to visit the officials at Delphi and most died along the way. There is a monument to those who died. There is also a monument marking the construction of the road in 1896 by the Congested Districts Board so the journey made during the famine would have been much more difficult without a road. It’s interesting to note that there were very few roads at all in this part of Mayo or neighbouring Connemara until they were built c1900.

I stopped at the Aasleagh Falls which were amazing in their ferocity after the previous day’s rainfall and it quite amazing to watch the salmon make the leap. I also made friends with some Connemara ponies which were grazing on banks of the river. I sometimes wonder when I find sheep, ponies or other animals in these locations whether or not they are appreciative of the great natural beauty too or do they just wonder what they can eat.

Aasleagh Falls

I contineud on my way to Leenane (there appear to be several different spellings). This is one of my favourite coast roads overlooking Killary Fjord. Killary is one of just three Fjords in Ireland, the other two being Carlingford Lough and Lough Swilly. Carlingford and the Swilly have their own beauty and charm but neither are as dramatic as Killary. A Fjord is defined as an inlet created by glacial erosion. Killary Fjord is about nine miles in length but isn’t particularly deep for the most part. As you ride from Mayo alongside it you can see the road on the opposite side snake it’s way along the coast towards Clifden and as you cross the Mayo/Galway border the village of Leenane comes into view. Leenane is a picturesque time-warp with various museums and centres in connection to it’s wool-producing past. I just love to stand and admire the view out towards the sea. It is also the setting for the highly regarded film “The Field” based on John B. Keane’s masterpiece although I understand that the famous field used in the film is located somewhere on the outskirts of Westport.

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I could have taken the road towards Mám through the mountains but I had decided to go back over the Sheeffry Pass. This meant re-tracing my steps a little before taking the turn-off over the mountains. I rode the Sheeffry Pass once before. It’s not a hugely difficult as the climbing from the Leenane side is mostly gradual. It’s one of the ones where you just select a suitably low gear and get into a comfortable cadence and rhythm for a few miles. It is worth the effort though as you are rewarded with panaramic views of Lough Tawnyard and then a lovely descent on the far side as the road drops steeply around hairpin bends before reaching Drummin and Liscarney (there is another option to go back to Louisburgh) and briefly on the N59 before taking a minor road back to Murrisk where I would re-joining the cyclepath back to Westport Harbour. I stopped at a pub in town for dinner before returning to my B&B for the night with over eighty thoroughly satisfying miles under my wheels for today.

Sheeffry Pass, Co. Mayo
Sheeffry Pass, Co. Mayo
Westport

Day Eight: Westport – Leenane – Clifden – Cong

I had decided to spend a few days in Cong and have a little ride around the area to see what I found there so I packed the bike up in the car and headed along the coast. I wasn’t going to be blessed with good weather today but I didn’t mind so much as I would be driving today. I stopped and walked a little despite the weather at some of the beaches at Old Head and past Roonagh to Silver Strand and the Lost Valley before making my way to Leenane and I continued along Killary Fjord with stops at the magnificent Kylemore Abbey and also the fabled Sky Road into Clifden. Even the wind, rain and clouds couldn’t take away the beauty of the Sky Road and on my second visit to Kylemore I was able to see the magnificent building in all it’s Victorian splendour as when I had been here before on part of my Wild Atlantic Way odyssey in 2017 on the Brompton it had been draped in scaffolding. I also noted that it is possible to take a boat trip on Killary Fjord and I noted that as something else to do at some point in the future.

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Kylemore Abbey
Killary Fjord

I also seen some very old firefighting apparatus in the grounds of Kylemore Abbey which I found fascinating. An excellent restoration job had been carried out on it. There was no information but I’d guess it dated from the very earliest years of the twentieth century. It had a combustion engine to drive the fire pump but it did not drive the wheels; it was clearly horse-drawn. What I found interesting was that it had a Fiat engine. I would have expected a British made engine on something this old in this country. I would like to know more about it and why it was built with an Italian engine.

Kylemore fire engine


Fiat engine

I then made my way to Co. Mayo village of Cong which had so charmed me a few days before. Cong (Conga, from Cúnga Fheichín meaning “Saint Feichin’s narrows”) is a small village which straddles the Mayo/Galway border and indeed on the bridge in the town you can see the GAA colours of the respective counties are used to mark the county borders. It is actually a small island surrounded on all sides by rivers and streams and is situated on the small land division between Lough Corrib in County Galway and Lough Mask in County Mayo. It’s had a long history in ecclesiastical circles and was once one of the five diocese of Connaught but it later became part of the diocese of Tuam following the Synod of Kells in 1152. It was the home of the Anglo-Irish landlord Sir William Wilde who was father to the noted playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde.

Cong, Co. Mayo

Probably it’s most famous today as the setting for the Oscar winning John Ford film “The Quiet Man” filmed in 1951 and starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. John Ford had relatives in this area and had visited on several occasions. He had this location and the storyline in mind for the film for over twenty years before he managed to find a film studio who were willing to take the chance on financing a film set in Ireland. Even then it was part of a two film deal which included the other John Wayne classic Rio Grande which was expected to be the big box office hit but Ford was to borrow the budget from Rio Grande and focus on The Quiet Man instead. This is the reason Rio Grande was filmed on black and white film at a time when it was rapidly going out of fashion; he had used the money to film The Quiet Man in Technicolor as he wanted to capture the full beauty and the palate of colours of the Mayo countryside which he considered necessary to make the film work. Ford’s dogged determination and risk-taking paid off as The Quiet Man became one of the biggest box office hits of all time.

Cong, Co. Mayo

Today you can’t really escape the film when travelling around Cong. There is a large sculpture of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara for a start. When I had been there a few days previosuly they had been wearing the colours of the Mayo GAA but it had been removed on my return journey. Then there’s a thatched cottage used a museum. It’s possible to have a pint of “your black beer” as Sean Thornton would have said in Pat Cohen’s Bar and there is also Danagher’s Hotel clearly named after one of the characters in the film.

Cong, Co. Mayo
Cong, Co. Mayo

There are also a lot of old ruins of the Abbey which dates from Medieval times and is where Rory O’Connor, the final High King of Ireland was to end his days. Today it is amazingly relaxing to just wander around the ruins or to stand on the little footbridge and just watch the water flow by and the entertainment provided by the birds along the river. You can see the house where the monks fished through holes in the floor which are over the river. There is also remains of a canal which was began during famine times to provide work for the locals but was never completed as the limestone rock proved impossible to seal and the government wouldn’t put up the extra money to concrete the base as they had decided to invest in railways and stop paying to build canals. It is known as the dry canal.

Cong, Co. Mayo
Cong, Co. Mayo
Cong, Co. Mayo

Day Nine: Connemara

I had a route in mind which would partially join into one I did last year. I would cycle to Leenane (again!) through the Mamturk mountains and Lough Nafooey. I had done part of this last year and had fond memories. I would take a different route back via Mám which would touch on the shores of Lough Corrib – the second biggest body of fresh water in the country after Lough Neagh. This would be my last day of cycling on this trip and in distance terms would probably be shorter than all the others.

Lough Mask
Lough Mask

After an early morning walk around Cong to see what it looked like without tourists, I made my way towards Clonbur and Lough Mask. I had my lunch at a nice little picnic area on the shores of Lough Mask. I then made my way towards Lough Nafooey which is an unusually pretty Lough. I was able to make my way to the water’s shoreline see it in all it’s glory deep between two mountains. The strange thing about cycling in this area is that you’d expect it to be really difficult terrain to cycle in given that you pass through the Maamturk mountains which rise to a high point of 2,300 feet. It definitely isn’t flat but it’s not outrageously hilly as you might expect. The roads skirt the mountain range rather than pass over them.

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Lough Nafooey

I continued on into Leenane and along Killary Fjord for a bit before turning and making my way back towards Mám and Lough Corrib. This is what is known as Joyce Country due to the abundance of the surname Joyce. I didn’t like this road as much as the morning’s route. It was busier for a start with much more traffic and it’s also not as scenic. I did stop at Mám for some refreshments and watched the world pass by for a bit before continuing on my way. Every other day of cycling on this trip didn’t have a huge amount of time for relaxing so it was my intention to take it easy today.

Mám, Co. Galway
Mám, Co. Galway

From Mám I made my way towards the shores of Lough Corrib. Lough Corrib is the second largest lake on the island of Ireland and lies mostly in County Galway. In Irish, it’s name is Loch Coirib which is a corruption of Loch Oirbsean as it was named after the Oirbsen or Oirbsi who is believed to have been a god of the sea. Many boats and other objects from as far back as the Bronze Age have been found by archaeologists. There are many islands on the Lough, some of which were used as monastic settlements. It is easy to understand why the Monks would have chosen these places due to the serenity of the Lough and surrounding areas. I had certainly found a great sense of peace since I had come here and helped to salve my mind after the death of my friend a few days previously.

Lough Corrib
Lough Corrib

From Lough Corrib I made my way back to Cong for the night. I had covered about sixty miles which was more than I had intended. I had needed this break for a variety of reasons and definitely felt much better now. I had another walk around the old Abbey before getting something to eat and settling down for the night.

Cong, Co. Mayo
Cong, Co. Mayo
sculpture Cong, Co. Mayo

Day ten: Boat trip and home

Killary Fjord

In the morning, I took a boat trip on Killary Fjord before driving home. I enjoyed the trip despite the less than perfect weather. It was my first time to sail on a catamaran. I did learn some things from the tour guide such as that the many sheep to be seen in this area were only introduced in the nineteenth century and also about the navigational aids which are located at the entrance to the Fjord and actually finished in Connemara marble, thought to be the only navigational aids anywhere to be finished in cut, polished marble! A British submarine and a German submarine allegedly both took shelter from a severe storm during WWII and both were aware of each other’s presence but unable to attack each other without both of them having to own up to being illegally in the neutral waters of the Irish Free State.

Killary Fjord
Killary Fjord

I really enjoyed this trip on many different levels and it included some new places and re-visiting some old favourite places. I am pleased with my fitness as I rode some very long days. I did a lot of riding this summer but didn’t manage as many little tours as I would usually do for various reasons. I guess this will be more than likely the last of the year as daylight starts to get short from next month but it was a good way to end the year and I look forward to some winter miles for the rest of the year.

Lough Mask
Connemara

I would like to dedicate this to the memory of Erika Szucs. Her generosity of spirit, her compassion for others and her positivity, zest and enthusiasm for life, even in the face of great adversity will live on in the memory of those who knew her.

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Neolithic monuments and film sets Part I

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I decided to move around a bit this year for my main tour and visit a few things by bike that I had been planning on doing for some time but never got around to it. I’d always fancied doing a ride around the Boyne Valley, an area steeped in history which spans thousands of years. The other thing I had always liked the idea of doing was to cycle the length of the Royal Canal which goes through the midlands of Ireland. After that I’d have a few free days to do as I pleased. I’ve packed so much into ten days that I have decided to split it in two for the purposes of this blog.

There were (when I did this trip) still some restrictions on the use of public transport and as I had decided to take my Townsend BX-40 in preference to my Brompton (as I had read mixed reviews on the canal towpath surface and thought wide tyres might be useful. I also had been considering the idea of going to Cork afterwards to cycle the Ring of Beara where a wide range of gears is all but essential) I decided to put the bike in the car. It is possible to take a full-sized bike on a bus and I have done so in the past but they will only take it if they have luggage space and I might possibly need several connecting services there is the possibility of being stuck somewhere.

Townsend BX-40

One of the things that inspired this trip was reading about the Loughcrew monuments in Co. Meath and that there is a campsite near the monuments. I thought that could be a nice thing to do but as it turned out, they seem to stop taking bookings on weekdays from September so I couldn’t stay there. I ended up booking into a rural B&B near Kells (in an area called Castletown, one of many Castletowns in Ireland). On the Wednesday, I drove to Kells using a different route from what I might normally take – I went via Enniskillen and Cavan using the N3. Normally I would have used the N2 via Monaghan and Slane but I fancied the alternative as I don’t be through those areas very often.

DAY 1 – Castletown – Kells – Oldcastle – Mount Nugent – Lough Sheelin – Ballyjamesduff – Loughcrew

Thursday was to be a slightly overcast day as I unpacked and re-assembled my bike on the morning. I made my way on minor and largely traffic-free roads to Kells. The terrain is much more level than I am used to. County Meath is pretty flat compared to Donegal although there are a few high points which I would visit in due course. I was looking forward to visiting Kells. I had passed through it before but this time would be stopping to do a little shopping for supplies but also I wanted to have a look around this beautiful and historic town.

Kells Round Tower

Kells is just forty miles from Dublin and is located on one of the five roads which led from the nearby Hill of Tara, traditionally the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Kells also became the seat of the High King for a period after King Cormac Mac Airt moved his residence. County Meath has often been referred to as “Royal Meath” or as the “The Royal County.”

A monastery was established at Kells in 560AD which marked the beginnings of Kells being an important ecclesiastical and learning centre. Today the round tower (from the tenth century) and five large Celtic Crosses in the grounds of St. Columba’s Church of Ireland are among the relics of Kells monastic past which are worthy of exploration. You could easily spend days in the town of Kells exploring it’s many features of interest.

From Kells I made my way towards Oldcastle, first stopping at another Kells landmark which I find fascinating – The “Spire of Lloyd” which is found just outside the town on the road to Oldcastle. It is often described as “Ireland’s only inland lighthouse” and was designed by architect Henry Aaron Baker. It was reputedly commissioned by Thomas Taylour, 1st Earl of Bective as a memorial to his father. It dates from 1791. Today it is a fascinating place to visit and as it’s prominent position gives good views of the surrounding area and there is a very nice parkland around it incorporating a “famine graveyard” where countless unmarked graves exist dating from that black period in our history. We really need to be more thankful for living in a time of plenty. A Celtic Cross now marks the entrance the famine graveyard.

Famine Graveyard, Kells, Co. Meath
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Unfortunately he Spire is not open to the public as it would have been nice to have been able to climb the steps to the top of the one hundred foot high tower where it is said views extend as far as Co. Down on a clear day. Today wasn’t a clear day though.

From the Spire of Lloyd I made my way towards the historic town of Oldcastle along the R154. I found this to be a reasonably busy road but again, it highlights the issues with a complete lack of respect and pointlessly aggressive driving often found in the north of Ireland as every vehicle which overtook me did so in a safe and respectful manner – such a difference to what it would be like in Donegal or Tyrone. Why is there so much aggression shown by drivers in the north of the country and complete absence of any real effort to correct it by the respective authorities?

Oldcastle is another interesting old town, like many towns in Meath it seems to have a lot of characterful old buildings. The town is located quite close to the county border with Cavan. The area was the birthplace of St. Oliver Plunkett who was the last Irish Catholic Martyr to die in England. The Naper family received large parts of the Plunkett estate following the Cromwellian wars and the modern town is largely their creation dating from the eighteenth century and many buildings from that period do appear to have survived. The area was to suffer quite badly during the famine years.

Oldcastle Co. Meath

One of the things I had wanted to do if possible on this trip was have a brief ride around some of the lakes in Co. Cavan so I made my way towards Lough Sheelin, which I found a remarkably tranquil and beautiful place before continuing on my way towards Ballyjamesduff.

Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan
Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan

Ballyjamesduff is a market town located on the old mail coach route from Virginia to Cavan and has some things of interest including the Market house which dates from 1815 and was built to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo and also the Cavan County Museum which I did visit briefly. I was very interested in two early cycles displayed inside the doors – an Ordinary or penny-farthing which is thought to be the first bicycle sold in Cavan and a Rover Safety Bicycle. Every time I see one I conclude it takes a brave man to ride an “ordinary” or penny-farthing. I would not like to be so high above the road and would be especially concerned about riding one down a steep hill but people did and people still do. I don’t think it would be for me!

Penny Farthing

The Rover Safety bicycle was interesting in itself and is the forefather of every modern bicycle. The design was by James Starley and was ingenious yet simple. The use of the chain drive allowed gearing to be altered without the need of a large wheel of fifty plus inches in diameter so both wheels could now be the same size which made it much more stable. The now ubiquitous diamond frame hadn’t been decided on yet by this point but two smaller wheels, a conventional saddle and a chain drive mean that the modern bicycle had arrived. It’s interesting to note that the drivetrain is on the left and also the large pitch block chain. The gear ratio is also much lower than we would normally use today but pneumatic tyres and and smooth roads hadn’t been invented yet so I’d imagine it was perfectly high enough. I didn’t measure or count anything but I think from what I read elsewhere, Starley used a 2:1 drive ratio and a 26“ wheel which gave him a 52“ gear ratio – which was the average sized wheel on a penny farthing and to this day, cyclists (in the English speaking world) still use this calculation of comparing the gear ratio times the diameter of the wheel to compare gear ratios by converting it back to the equivalent sized front wheel of a penny-farthing. The Rover bicycle is of course fixed wheel, the freewheel would come in the 1890s. The Rover company survived in various forms until 2006 but from the 20th century would concentrate on motor cars.

Rover Safety Bicycle
Rover Safety Bicycle

I did continue briefly on the road to Virginia but it was obvious I was going to struggle for time if I wanted to fit in the Loughcrew monuments so I turned around and made my to Loughcrew.

Loughcrew Cairn Co. Meath

The Loughcrew monuments are passage tombs thought to be around 5,200 years old, built during the Neolithic period by the first large-scale farmers to arrive in this area. They are indeed burial places but were probably so much more as they were used for religious rituals, places where mass gatherings took place and where people celebrated their ancestors, their gods and nature. There are thought to be a total of thirty-two cairns in this area but I only visited what is known as Cairn T which is the highest point in Meath. There is quite a steep walk up steps from the roadway which then levels out to an open field as you approach the monument. The monument is fenced off but you can enter the area. You are not allowed to go underground at present but looking in you can see art work at the entrance and it is obvious as with all these things that an awful lot of skill, knowledge and also hard work went into building it.

Loughcrew Cairn Co. Meath

The views of the surrounding rolling hills of Royal Meath are pretty impressive, even on this slightly overcast and occasionally damp day. When the weather is better and the days are longer I would definitely be interested in coming here to camp in the nearby campsite as it is a very special place. I spent a lot of time just standing and pondering the inventiveness and resourcefulness of our predecessors before cycling back to the B&B, mostly downhill now from this lofty location. I stopped and ate in Kells on my way back to base. My day’s riding had been interesting and varied taking in loughs, rivers and engineering marvels which spanned the millennia and just short of eighty miles had passed beneath my wheels as I dismounted my bike outside my accommodation.

Loughcrew

Day Two – Slane – Newgrange – Oldbridge House – Tara

The second day dawned much drier than the previous day but still pretty overcast. After breakfast, I made my way using minor roads to the hisotric village of Slane. Slane (in my opinion) is possibly the most beautiful village in Ireland and I’ve always loved passing through it on the way to Dublin. It has so much character and well preserved Georgian architecture. There is also a castle, and old factory and chimney on the shores of the River Boyne and the centrepiece is the amazingly beautiful stone arched bridge which has spanned the Boyne since c1750 and continues to carry a volume and weight of traffic which it’s designers could never possibly have predicted as the north-bound N2 National Primary Route still passes over it. Slane is also built on a hillside with a one in ten gradient leading away from the famous bridge in both directions for several miles.

Slane

My first place to visit was the Hill of Slane which is located about a mile from the centre of the village after a turn off to the left from the northbound N2. I’ve been on the Hill of Slane before but was happy to visit it again. Because of it’s elevation you usually get a great view of the surrounding area but today wasn’t a particularly clear day. There are also the ruins of Slane Friary which are fascinating to view. This may have been picked as the sight of a Christian settlement due to the presence of presence of an existing pagan shrine. It’s thought that St. Patrick lit his Paschal Fire here in 433 in defiance of the High King who had forbade the lighting of any such fires while there was a festival at nearby Tara. The Friary was abandoned in the eighteenth century and is now just an imposing ruin and includes a Gothic tower. There are also the remains of a Norman Motte and Bailey.

Slane Friary

From the Hill of Slane I wanted to continue to Newgrange and this meant doing battle with the N2 to cross the Boyne on Slane bridge. I didn’t really feel like waiting in the queue of cars at the traffic lights and crossing the bridge with a lot of impatient traffic behind me so I elected to ride down the pavement and cross the bridge keeping to the extreme left. I was able to time the light sequence so that I could cross in the short time period after the lights for one side had gone red and the other side were waiting for green. I was concerned about the volume of traffic likely on this road but there was a generous hard shoulder so it was no issue. I would loved to have stopped on the bridge itself to take photos but I didn’t consider it a wise thing to do from a safety point of view. I stopped further up the hill on the hard shoulder on the Dublin side to try to get a photo including the bridge, some of the village and the old factory but I couldn’t get it to work as I would have liked. I ended up too far away from the bridge when I had passed the bushes which were blocking the view lower down the hill.

Slane

I rode a few miles along the hard shoulder until I reached the turn-off for the minor road which would lead me to Newgrange and Oldbridge. I’m fairly certain it would have been possible to have found other minor roads to have missed the N2 part but my map wasn’t detailed enough to show them but it felt perfectly safe (if a little noisy) in the hard shoulder.

The regional road which passes Newgrange was quieter than I thought it might have been due to the proximity of two major tourist attractions. This is why September is a preferable month for cycle-touring in my opinion – the number of tourists has dwindled and the roads are quieter. I decided to visit the Battle of the Boyne heritage centre first and have a look at Newgrange later. I hadn’t really planned to actually visit Newgrange as I believe that they do not allow people into the tomb just now due to the pandemic and lack of space for distancing (and I’ve visited in the past anyway) but I did want to stop and have a look at it again from the roadside. I would do that later.

I continued on to the Battle of the Boyne heritage centre at Oldbridge House – a hugely impressive building in it’s own right set in beautiful grounds. You are greeted by a period canon as you enter the estate.

Oldbridge House

It is an interesting museum and the self-guided tour is very interesting and helps bring the battle and it’s central characters to life. The Battle of the Boyne has had long-lasting repercussions in this country but I suspect what many within certain sections of our communities don’t realise is the Battle of the Boyne was so much more than they realise. It was part of a much bigger European conflict which was important to the balance of power in Europe at that time and was in fact the largest and most important battle ever fought in the British Isles. King James II was an ally of France which was the most powerful country in Europe at the time and Prince William’s supporters came from those who were concerned about the strength of France (including the Pope of the era).

Oldbridge House, Battle of the Boyne heritage centre

Oldbridge House and gardens are also interesting in themselves. Oldbridge House was built in the 1740’s by John Coddington and is thought to be the work of local architect George Darley. There are also stable blocks and walled garden. The house had fallen into disrepair by the 1980s and was bought by the State and restored and opened as the heritage centre. Even ignoring the battle, it is well worth a visit to enjoy the beautiful gardens and park lands, the looped walks and also have tea in the lovely café overlooking the pavilion. There is also a separate exhibition showing the history and the restoration of the house. Apparently a canon ball found during the building of the house, believed to be from the battle is placed above the front door but I had forgotten to go back to look at it.

Oldbridge House

I also found that there is a cycle path/footpath which goes along the Navan canal and the Boyne from Oldbridge to the town of Drogheda. I followed it for a few miles but didn’t go the whole way into Drogheda. I had stopped to look at the “New” bridge which now spans the Boyne for the motorway traffic. I spend so much examining old bridges while cycling, it does no harm to have a look at a new one now and again! I discovered it’s also possible to take a trip along the Navan canal in a currach but apparently they were booked up until October!

Navan Canal

I made the return trip, stopping to have a look at the passage tombs from the road as best as I could. I realised I was on the wrong road for this, the other road just off the N51 between Slane and Drogheda is where there is roadside access to the Newgrange monument (but they don’t allow you in anyway and send you back to the visitors centre. I did briefly go into the visitors centre but didn’t spend much time. If you can’t go into the tomb, there is little point I think and I had been before anyway.

Brú na Bóinne
Newgrange

I also passed Frank’s Country Cottage which is an old farm cottage done up as a sort of museum with all sorts of curiosities and photographs and it was worth a visit and small donation to Frank the enthusiastic curator. I see all sorts of things from Ferguson tractors and Raleigh bikes to the stuffed head of the county Cavan-born horse which won the 1947 Aintree Grand National as a 100/1 outsider to a bomb which had fallen during the misplaced German air raid on nearby Ratoath. Definitely an interesting place to visit.

Frank's Country Cottage Co, Meath

I made my way back to the N2 but rather than go back to Slane I crossed it and took a minor road to Navan and on to the Hill of Tara. The Hill of Tara is a few miles out of the town of Navan is the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. As one of the high points of Meath it offers excellent views of the surrounding areas. The Hill of Tara (Teamhair or Cnoc na Teamhrach) also exists in Irish mythology and consists of numerous monuments dating from Neolithic to the Iron Age which include the passage tomb “The mound of the hostages” as well as other mounds and a standing stone believed to be Lia Fáil or “Stone of Destiny.” It is an interesting place to visit but my visit on this occasion wasn’t ideal as it was overcast and I was also running out of daylight if I was to get back to my base before it got completely dark. I needed my dynamo lights for the last few miles. In my opinion they are well worth the investment. My running mileage total now ran to just over 160 miles for the two days. More than I had intended really but it was relatively flat for the most part and I was feeling fit and in good shape.

Hill of Tara

Day Three: The drive to Longford.

I had had my exploratory look at the Boyne Valley and had enjoyed it immensely. It’s a nice area to cycle in with cycle-respecting drivers and it does deserve further exploration but it was time to move on to the next part of my plan to cycle the Royal Canal Greenway. I had already booked a B&B in Longford town in advance. After two days of over eighty miles a day I decided to have an easy day but did plenty of walking as I had a look around the grounds of Slane Castle and also a more detailed look at some of the looped walks available at Oldbridge House and a visit to the other passage tomb of Dowth before completing the drive (with scenic stops at Lough Owel) to Longford. This was to be my first visit Longford.

Slane Distillery
Slane Castle
Lough Owel

Day Four: The Royal Canal

I had planned to ride the Royal Canal towpath for a long time but had never got around to it. The Royal Canal is one of two canals which link Dublin to the River Shannon and was built to transport freight and passengers. The planning for the Royal Canal began as far back as 1755 when Thomas Williams and John Cooley made a survey to find a suitable route for a man-made waterway across north Leinster from Dublin to the Shannon. This was an ambitious civil engineering project in it’s time and work finally commenced at Phibsboro in 1790 on the new canal. The Duke of Leinster who was involved in the board insisted that the canal passed through his hometown of Maynooth which deviated from the original plans and caused the costs to escalate. The whole project was beset with problems and spiralling costs and in 1794, the Royal Canal Company was declared bankrupt. With endless problems, cash shortages and delays, it was to take twenty-seven years to complete the link with the River Shannon. By the 1830s, the canal was carrying eighty-thousand tons of freight and forty-thousand passengers per annum.

In 1843, the canal and it’s surrounding lands were purchased by the Great Western Midland Railway Company who had toyed with the idea of draining it and running a railway line along it’s base but the decision was made to build the line alongside the canal and the two run side by side from Dublin to Mullingar. The railway line impacted on the traffic on the canal as it was obviously much faster and the canal fell into decline. It did have a brief resurgence during world war two and was taken over by CIE before falling into disuse again in the post-war years. It was taken over by Waterways Ireland in 2000 and was formally re-opened in 2010 after much restoration work to make it navigable again.

The Royal Canal

The other noteworthy historical even on the canal happened during the blackest days of the Great Famine in 1847 when tenants on the Stokestown Park Estate in Co. Roscommon walked the length of the canal to Dublin over several days whilst severely weakened by hunger to board a ship bound for Liverpool and then a further voyage to Quebec. Ironically the ship bound for Quebec carried Irish grain for export while Irish people starved. A lot of people possibly don’t realise that although the potato crop failed in the 1840s due to the potato blight, there was an abundance of grain which was exported because the landed gentry made money from doing so while people starved. An annual walk along the canal commemorates these events and there is now a signposted hiking route following their journey. Be grateful that we live in a time of plenty.

The Royal Canal

Today, I doubt the canal carries any commercial freight but it carries a lot of leisure traffic, both on the canal in the form of barges and house boats and also alongside it as many people walk or cycle the towpaths; which was precisely what I was planning on doing. I messed up my planning somewhat by doing it on a Sunday and there was no early morning trains. I caught the 10:16 from Longford to Maynooth (part of the Sligo – Dublin service) at Longford Station. I find the Iarnrod Eireann online booking system with the option of reserving a place for my bike very easy to use and I was impressed that the conductor immediately made people move suitcases out of the bicycle storage area on the train.

Longford Station

I arrived at Maynooth at around 11:30 after a very relaxing journey. I wish we had more railway lines in this country. It is such a great way to travel long distances in comparison to a car. It was very easy easy to pick up the start of the Royal Canal Greenway as it is right beside the station. The railway line follows the canal after all. There is a little harbour area in Maynooth and it’s easy to imagine that this must have been a hive of activity prior to the opening of the railway line. We take ease of travel and transportation of goods for granted nowadays but prior to the building of the canals and then later the railways, travelling was much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

The Royal Canal Greenway, Maynooth
The Royal Canal

As I learned in Scotland a few years, riding alongside a canal is in many ways cycling at it’s finest. The pace of life is slower, there are no high-speed motor vehicles trying to force you off the road. There are people walking, running, cycling along the canal and a few on board the occasional barge that you meet but because for the most part, the speed is low in all cases, people are relaxed and take the time to interact with each other. It is all very social. This is what was lost when cars took over our town centres and everyone became rushed and impatient.

The Royal Canal
The Royal Canal

There is also a lot to look at in terms of the many bridges, locks and other examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century civil engineering to examine. The Royal Canal bridges are virtually all stone built arches, it doesn’t have any of the interesting swing bridges and other more interesting engineering solutions that I found as I travelled the Caledonian Canal in Scotland a few years ago but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. These bridges are amazing in their own way, a tribute to those who designed and built them that they still stand after more than two hundred years and the road ones carry many times the weight and traffic volume that they were designed for. There are also a number of aqueducts on the Royal Canal where the whole canal passes over it’s own bridge across rivers. It’s impossibly to see these properly from the canal itself. You’d need to be down below at river level but it wasn’t obvious how to (safely) get down there.

The Royal Canal
The Royal Canal

Of course there are also a lot of locks, something that has always fascinated me and I could watch boats passing through them all day. I even involved myself with helping to open and close the gates for the passing barges. It isn’t easy to open and close the lock gates and the boat people appreciate the help of passers by. When the canal would have been in full swing commercially c1840, there would have been lock keepers at each lock gate and you can see most of the lock keepers cottages still remain and now, renovated and usually extended, they are mostly in use as private houses. I would imagine it would be a very peaceful place to live.

Lockkeeper's Cottage, The Royal Canal

I enjoyed my day along the canal but I think I should have done it over two days and stopped overnight at the half-way point. I completed the whole route all the way to Cloondara where the canal terminates at the River Shannon and then had to ride back to Longford as it was getting dark. The complete distance was just over ninety miles. It wasn’t so much the distance as the time it took and as I was later of starting than I would have liked due to the railway timetable on Sundays, I also did the first half very slowly indeed as I stopped and looked at everything of interest, to help people at lock gates and talk to strangers, I ended up having to ride the second half faster than I would have liked to get back to base before it got too dark. Having said that, I did enjoy the last few miles in the dark along the canal towpath back from Cloondara to the Longford Junction and then back into Longford as it was such a nice moonlit night and riding in a completely traffic-free environment the wildlife is more visible than it would be on a route shared with cars. I have good German-standard dynamo lights on this bike which are fantastic but the temptation was to switch them off in this setting and enjoy the moonlit ride but much as I like canals, I didn’t fancy accidentally riding into one in the gloaming!

After getting back to my B&B, I got freshened up and went in search of something to eat. I’d never been to Longford before but it’s quite a nice town and welcoming and friendly.

It was with much sadness that I learned of the death of a friend who had lost the battle with cancer at the tragically young age of 39. It wasn’t unexpected but it was still a shock and makes one realise that we take so much for granted and that we need to try enjoy life as much as possible whilst we are able.

PART II OF THIS NARRATIVE IS FOUND HERE

The Royal Canal
St. Patrick's Church of Ireland Donaghpatrick, Co. Meath
Thatched Cottage
Fordson Major
Thatched Pub
Spire of Lloyd, Kells, Co, Meath.
The Royal Canal
Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan

The untrodden byways of Lough Mourne

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Lough Mourne

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.

Derelict cottage

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.

OS Maps

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.

2021-08-16_09-47-21

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.

Old railway bridge

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.

Trusk Lough

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.

Trust Lough

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 Meenglass
The Meenglass Locomotive on a previous trip to Derry

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?

Stone Bridge
Townend BX-40

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.

Townend BX-40
Barnesmore

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.

CDR railway line

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…

Lough Mourne

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.

CDR railway bridge
CDR railway bridge

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.

Blanket bog

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!

Castlederg

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…

Townend BX-40
Townend BX-40
Townend BX-40
Townshend BX-40

Musings on Bromptons, small wheelers and the Antrim coast.

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Brompton

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.

Raleigh Twenty
My Raleigh Twenty

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.

Puch Pic-Nic
My Puch Picnic

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.

Old OS Mile Post on the N71, West Cork
My first Brompton tour – West Cork coastal route 2017

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).

Brompton

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.

Brompton

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.

Runkerry beach

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.

Dunservick Harbour

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.

Ballintoy Harbour

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.

The Meenglass

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.

Ballintoy

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.

Portballintrae

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.

Brompton and Victorian post box

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.

Ballintoy Harbour
Brompton

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.

Ballintoy Church
Brompton
Brompton
Causeway coast
White Rocks, Co. Antrim
Brompton