The coastal route from Derry to Belfast around the coastline of counties Derry and Antrim wins many plaudits for it’s beauty and scenery. I am very familiar with the first half of it as far as Ballycastle and Cushendun/Cushendall, Torr Head and I’ve also been to Rathlin Island a few times. I’m less familiar with the other half – Cushendall to Belfast on the A2 via Carnlough. In fact I’ve only travelled that part once before by car about six years ago.
On Saturday I was to meet some friends in Belfast for a bike ride along the Comber Greenway. I decided to take the opportunity to complete coastal route in more or less it’s entirity. Two days should be sufficient I felt. I booked accomodation at the Giant’s Causeway and in Larne.
I set off on Thursday morning on my Viscount Aerospace, riding the 22 miles from home to Derry and catching the 11:33 train from Derry to Bellarena. Doing this misses the very cycle-unfriendly direct route between Derry and Limavady and it is from there that this coastal route starts to get more interesting in my opinion. The weather was very nice so far and the sun was shining when I got off the train at the new Bellarena station.
I made my way along the Seacoast Road bathed in sunshine. When passing through Coleraine my rear tyre split along the sidewall. It was a Vittoria Randonneur with around 2,000 miles covered and I would have expected longer life than this. On examination, there was no evidence of any damage – it seemed as if the fabric was just rotten and decayed. I guess I have no way of knowing how long the tyre had been in stock before I bought it. But right now it presented a bit of a problem as the tube was pushing through it and any attempt to ride it would only have bust the tube.
I wheeled the bike down the main shopping area of Coleraine in the hope of finding a bikeshop but there didn’t appear to be one and I asked several passers-by who didn’t know of one either. I often do carry something to use as a boot if I am riding a bike with old and slightly dodgy tyres but I didn’t have anything on this occasion. In desperation I had a rummage through a rubbish bin and found a strong foil crisp packet. I took off the tyre and put the crisp packet on the inside, to keep the tube inside the tyre and made sure I trapped it under the bead of the tyre when re-assembling it to make sure it stayed in place. It seemed okay when pumped up so I re-fitted the wheel and carried on my way at reduced speed. There was a prominent bump at the weak spot which I could feel while riding. I hoped to find a bike shop to buy a replacement tyre.
Portstewart, Portrush and Bushmills all proved to be bike-shop free zones but my crisp packet repair seemed to be holding up. I stopped at a shop in Bushmills to buy some food and while I was in, it started raining heavily – very heavily. I stood taking shelter in the shop doorway along with all the other customers who were waiting for the rain to stop before venturing out. It did clear eventually and I returned to my bike along pavement still awash with water from over-flowing guttering but with that sense of fresh clear air you get following very heavy rain.
It looked like it could rain again at any moment but I only had a further two miles to go to the Finn McCool hostel. I had intended to take the off-road path along the railway line but it turned out to be closed so had to go around the road. I arrived just in time as the heavens opened for a thunderous downpour with nearby thunder and lightning. It was very nice to sit in the hostel and look out at the flashes of lightning over the coast but I was definitely pleased to be indoors! I had some basic waterproofs but they would not have kept that amount of rain at bay for very long. The strange thing is that if you are caught out in that type of thunderstorm when cycling it can be enjoyable so long as it’s not cold and it makes everything nice and fresh and clears the air.
I had a pleasant evening with the people at hostel including a group of Scottish motorcyclists who had many interesting stories to tell. One of them was also a very keen cycle tourist and still rides a Mercian frame he bought in when he was 17 in 1977 and it hung up in the garage for two years while he saved for components to build it into a working bike. He also has a second Mercian he has built as a fixed wheel so he rides his geared Mercian for touring and his fixed wheel for day rides. He also tours with a double chainset and 36 tooth inner ring so I’m pleased to know I’m not alone. Most cycle tourists I meet tell me my gearing is too high but it works for me although I’m not climbing the Alps with full camping kit and a month’s worth of luggage.
I made a reasonably early start the next morning immediately after breakfast as I had a lot of miles to cover and as the overnight rain had cleared to a nice clear day I was planning on going the Torr Head route which involves pretty tough climbing. I checked my crisp packet tyre repair before the off and it seemed to be okay. I was expecting there to be a bike shop in Ballycastle anyway.
I stayed on the coastal route to Ballintoy and stopped at the viewing area at Whitepark bay which must surely be one of the best views in the entire country. The journey continued and the first of the tough climbs came past the entrance to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. It wasn’t too bad really but there was no doubt the “bump” in my tyre was getting worse but Ballycastle and a bike shop and hopefully a new tyre wasn’t far away.
But there was no bike shop to be found. It must have closed as I am convinced there used to be one in the town. I explored every street and asked a postman I saw out on his rounds who ought to know whatever was in the area but no bike shop. There was nothing else for it. I went into a harware shop and bought a roll of strong Duct Tape and stopped a little out the road where it was quiet and pulled the tyre off and re-inforced it with tape. A group of cyclists passed by while I was working but none asked me if I needed help. Satisfied that even if my tyre was a little out of shape it would hold together I put it back together and re-installed the wheel in the bike and set off once again.
I turned off the A2 for the climb up Torr Head. This would be a test of whether or not I needed a triple chainset. I did this climb before on the same bike but without any luggage and found it very tough but it didn’t seem that bad today. I must be getting fitter I guess and I would never describe it as easy but I definitely found the Gleann Gheis Pass on the road to Glencolumbkille tougher last month. I didn’t seem to have any of the brake problems I had at Gleann Gheis either on the long descent into Cushendall. I didn’t actually go down the side road to Torr Head itself on this occasion as I didn’t really have time.
It is definitely a tough climb on any bike to get here but for me this is the best part of the Causeway coastal route. Scotland is only about six miles away across the North Channel but it was too misty for me to see it properly today. You actually get a clearer view in crisp autumn weather I’ve found. Then Cushendun comes into view and it is a very picturesque village and the literal translation of Cushendun is “foot of the dun” and the mouth of the River Dun was traditionally a landing point for hundreds of years for the ferry trip to Scotland but that service ceased during the great famine of the 1840s. There is also a very nice stone arched bridge which dates from 1860. Most of the archetecturial heritage of the village we see today was the work of Ronald-John McNeill who was also a minister in the Conservative government of the 1920s.
Cushendun also became a popular inspiration for writers and artists in the Victorian period including the Irish-Canadian singer-songwriter and poet Moira O’Neill, most famous for the ballad “Green glens of Antrim” and also former British Poet Laureate John Masefield. There are many others. The other famous resident – Johann the goat – who grazed the grass of the harbour area and welcomed visitors was unfortunately a victim of the foot and mouth cull in 2001 but has been commemorated in a statue by Deborah Brown and now a new goat called Miriam carries on his duties.
It is only a short ride from Cushendun to Cushendall. Cushendall is larger, busier and doesn’t hold the same appeal for me but has a very nice sea-front and also some very nice Victorian buildings. There is also the “Curfew Tower” which was built in 1817 by a local landlord to house prisoners.
By the time you reach Cushendall, the coast road has levelled off and it is easy progress from here to Larne. The next stop is the small hamlet of Waterfoot which is close to the Glenariff Forest Park. The next town is Carnlough which features a very picturesque harbour. The harbour was built by the owners of a quarry near the village and was linked to the quarry using a small railway system which crossed over the bridges across the street which still exit today. Carnlough is also home to the magnificient Londonderry Arms hotel which was established in 1848. I did have a meal here once with my companion on my only other previous visit to Carnlough in 2010. Today, on my own, I made do with sausage rolls from the village shop. I doubt a hotel of this calibre would welcome a cyclist. I did see four lovely old motorcycles and talk to their owners who were sitting out drinking tea. They had travelled from Sterling to take part in a vintage motorcycle ride along the coast.
The coast road continues from Carnlough into Glenarm (Gleann Arma – valley of the Army) which claims to be the oldest town in the province of Ulster having been established in Norman times. It is the family seat of the MacDonnells who also occupied Dunluce castle which I had passed the previous day. Glenarm castle dates from 1750.
My next and final for the day stop was the port of Larne. This is of course an important harbour town and has been since early times and was the only Viking stronghold in Ulster. I arrived just after six and located my B&B without difficulty and checked in. 119 miles covered over two days, not bad considering the amount of climbing involved in parts of the ride and my carefully taped up tyre continued to give good service so far!
After a wash and a change of clothes I went to find something to eat and to also have a look around for a bike shop I could visit in the morning but I couldn’t find one here either. You have to wonder where all the bike shops have gone but I must confess I don’t support them very much either, mostly because they don’t sell parts for the bikes I ride and I also find they often just try to sell you a new bike rather than the part I want. If I’m honest, I didn’t find Larne a very nice or inspiring town to spend an evening in although I did find a pub with a decent live band I really do have to say the towns on the west coast of Ireland are much more welcoming to visitors.
I had to make the trip to Belfast the next morning. The meeting place was Belfast Central Station so it seemed logical to catch the train. It’s not very far in distance terms (maybe about 15 miles) but I had no map and no idea how to find Central Station by road and any effort to follow signposts would take me on roads I would not like to cycle on.
Much is made of the beauty of the rail journey between Derry and Coleraine but I personally feel the one between Larne and Belfast has just as much to recommend it or perhaps it’s just because it’s new to me. It was nice to meet with friends for the VCC ride along the Comber Greenway (another cycle path on an abandoned rail line) and to see some very nice and rare bikes lightweight bikes including an Ellis Briggs and a Leader as well as a really rare Mercian Mixte. We had a lovely lunch at the Castle Espie cafe and made the journey back to the Central Station. I had to replace my tube enroute – it looked like the crisp packet had rubbed a hole in the tube but thankfully I had a spare. And finally, in Belfast, a bike shop – Dave Kane’s excellent shop and I purchased a new Contintenal tyre – not my favoured brand but it’s round and doesn’t have holes so it’s good!
After we said our goodbyes, I caught the train back to Derry. I was planning on replacing the tyre on the train journey but it was very busy and crowded and didn’t feel I’d be welcome to do so on a crowded train so I waited until I got off in Derry. It was 8 o’ clock by now as the train had been delayed due to a carriage door which wouldn’t close and set to work around the corner from the station to replace the tyre. It doesn’t take long on a bike with derailleur gears and quick release wheels and my Vittoria Randonneur was deposited in a bin outside Waterside train station. I got something to eat in Hillbillies on the Strand Road before going home and I’ll mention the nice girl who served me without comment when I arrived at the counter with black hands covered in tyre rubber and chain oil! I was expecting to be thrown out! I then cycled the 20 odds miles back home. Total distance over three days was around 170 miles and tyre failure, although a bit inconvenient, did not spoil my enjoyment of the trip. That is the difference between travelling by bike or car – with a few basic tools and ingenuity, you can usually get a bike functioning again, it’s rarely that straightforward with any car built in the past twenty or thirty years.
Of the two days travelling the coastal route, I would say the first was most enjoyable although more difficult and slower. The roads are quieter, you feel under less pressure and you can stop to take photos or explore in a way I felt I couldn’t do from Cushendall onwards. The A2 wasn’t that busy when I did it – compared to say a bank holiday or Sunday afternoon and I have no complaints about any of the drivers I came across but there is potentially so much history and things of interest I could have explored but it wasn’t really practical to stop as you couldn’t wander around the road to take pictures or to look at things in a way you can on a quiet road. There is just too much fast moving traffic but apparently it’s called progress.