Monday 31st August 2016 – From Slemish Barn to Belfast, c. 40 miles.

We left about 10am and pushed on along lanes up over the moors near Slemish. We were high up on Carnalbanagh when I took a 360° video of slemish, moors, distant sea. even Scotland way away. then down, down, down to Ballyeaston where we got a bit lost and had a four mile detour before we reached Ballyclare. At Ballyclare while Guy was shopping in Lidl a slightly drunk man discussed the best routes to Templepatrick. It’s a bank holiday so slight drunkenness is understandable by midday. He was a former racing cyclist and said that the area has the disadvantage that if you want to go east there’s the sea and west there’s Lough Neagh. I thought of suggesting windsurfing or canoeing. Bradford has the problem that Leeds prevents much pleasure when cycling east, and the south you soon have to wobble between Hudds and Halifax, etc. Anyway, we reached Templepatrick via Doagh (pron. dawg) and saw the National Trust Mausoleum for the Viscounts of Templepatrick (impressive as funerary architecture goes and great ) then a quick visit to the National Trust Spade Mill (water driven via an enclosed turbine into which pressurised water is injected). Amazing how much thought can go into making a spade, and spades in Ireland are pretty crucial – think of all that turf to be cut for the peat fire!

Then we found the Lisle Hills Road which was a bit busier with lorries (quarries. dumper lorries) than expected. But soon it was down and down into Belfast via the Crumlin Road, the Shankill, then the Falls Road.We visited Gaelic Language Centre on the Falls Road – Scots gaelic as well as Irish. Guy gave it the thumbs up and bought books. They had James Graham’s first CD which is a marvellous bit of traditional singing in scots gaelic. Sounds heart achingly full of longing and melody tho’ it’s usually about a lost cow or such. A voice. Then Wetherspoons and the boat, two or three miles out, past the seaman’s church with it’s half Rialto Bridge, out to the endless shipping offices and docks…

We achieved our ambition of getting to Malin Head from Belfast, as well as circumnavigating Lough Neagh on a pretty decent route. My bike’s gears need replacing but it’s been a delightful fuchsia and hebe strewn bike ride.

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Sunday 28th August 2016 – From Ballycastle to Slemish Barn, c. 45 miles.

Slemish is a volcanic plug that you can see from the road about half way between Carnlough on the coast and Ballymena. Slemish Barn is a very comfy hostel nearby, specifically at a place called ‘The Sheddings’ on my map, tho’ the eponymous pub was closed. We set out from Ballycastle about 10am got to the coast road, and then turned off that on the Corrymela lane that goes closer to the coast and past the Corrymela community that was famous for its reconciliation work during the troubles. Coastal lanes are scattered with fuchsia, wild roses, honeysuckle and even, just occasioaly, Hebes.  The fuchsias show just how mild it is here, they are six feet and more tall. Then from Ballyvoy we went over the hills to Torr Head. A slightly lost cyclist on a super carbon bike, though with a creaky seat post, asked where Torr Head was  – tho’ we met him coming the other waya few miles before we reached Torr Head so he must have been very near! We then reached the National Trust village of Cushendun designed by Mr Williams-Ellis of Portmerion fame, which showed in the quaint windows and style of the village houses and, indeed, the Big House (not so big) – tho’ there’s no herbaceous borders or entry to the house. It’s a pity, Northern Ireland could do with more in the way of NT gardens. Perhaps it’s planned…

We pushed on over the next headland on a small lane, avoiding the main coast road and reached Cushendall. It has a great beach, where I swam in cold (no-one else was swimming), clear water, shallow for quite a way out (otherwise I guess it’d be even colder). Wonderful on a hot day. You can see Scotland while you are swimming – the Mull of Kintyre looms out of the haze about 12 miles away. Then we pushed on along the coast past Waterfoot, saw an old faery tree in the ruined church (tied about with votive objects – pretty odd ones, like a ‘new car’ air freshener). Then along the sea, the water lapping at the road, past high cliffs inland, hot sun, rocky shore. Then finally to Carnlough – a pretty seaside town, where I bought dulse (seaweed) and postcards. The dulse is a dark salty edible seaweed and it’s to be tried out with tonight’s pasta. A sort of salty slightly elastic, marine flavoured kale. Then up Ballyvaddy road, climbing up and up to eventually reach the hostel. Excellent – a musical (there’s a piano), comfy, spacious place. We were sad to see the local pub closed but tried the Halfway House about a mile along the road – evidently very lively on a Sunday evening but faced with rather ordinary beers we took a pack of Guinness Extra Stout back to the hostel. It was also getting dark.

Guy discussed Brexit with the hostess – since it seems all the Northern Irish have joint Irish citizenship Brexit won’t alter their own rights in relation to the EU but the recreation of borders and tariffs are not helpful, of course. I wonder if you can just apply the tarifs and so forth at the border on the British side – at the port – and have no additional tariffs in the entirety of Ireland? No doubt Merkel and Junkers would be down on that like a ton of eurocrats… [this seems quite likely actually - currently no passport or checks are carried out until you cross the sea back to England... so perhaps it'll stay like that]

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Saturday 27th August – From Bushmills to Ballycastle – c. 45 miles.

Given that it is only about 12 miles between our start and our finish today, by a direct route, it is all the more impressive that we managed to add over 30 miles to that! We achieved this by going to the severely touristed Dark Hedges – famous apparently from some Game of Thrones TV faux medieval boobs and bimbo fest which I’ve luckily managed to miss. But the Dark Hedges are wonderful trees, ancient (300 yr old, which is old for a beech) trees, and put up with excessive motor cars and people parking over their roots. We got a bit lost getting there and then we had to get to the Giant’s Causeway, but we reached Ballycastle before we reached Carrick y Rede ropebridge – this was ludicrous really, people paying £6 to do a nice bit of coast and walk over a short ropebridge – and there were queues!

Then the Giant’s Causeway – great but £9.50 for non-Nat Trust members. It’d be nice to remove all the car parks and visitor centres and let people find this place by  walking the coast path unaided by road or audio guide… Then a circuitous route back, trying to avoid the dreadful traffic – many vehicles find it difficult to overtake a bike because their vehicle is a huge thing that struggles to fit on the road, the road itself is windy and sometimes narrow, and there’s a continuous stream of traffic coming the other way. Not so good, you feel in the way. Makes you doubt the wisdom of the whole mega tourism phenomena, doing a hyped set of tourist experiences without too much in the way of rhyme or reason. Anyway we wound back very circuitously indeed, ending up lost, to Ballycastle where we rapidly found our hostel, shopped and ate. Ballycastle was in party mood, it’s a bit of a seaside funfair sort of place today – indeed the funfair was right by us. and the Lammas Fair starts tomorrow, but we’ll be cycling out of town…

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Friday 26th August – From Londonderry to Bushmills, c. 45 miles

Set out via the Guildhall, where we admired the stained glass, then over the Peace Bridge that connects Protestant East Londonderry with Catholic West Derry. Up on the main road until we found our small road that parallels the main road and took us out to Eglington and then Greysteel. Eventually ont the A2 and into Limavady. Wow, a bike shop and it had a Gatorskin 700 x 28c so bought at a price and strapped to back of bike. Then off on the B201 and then off on a minor road over the Binevenagh. Had lunch by the masts on the top. A decent climb. Two touring cyclists from Hebden Bridge went past just after we set off, this road is a cycle route. They were doing Bushmills to Limavady, and since we had the wind behind us they had a tough headwind. They were heading then for the Lough Foyle ferry tomorrow, so it is running… Hit by a squall of rain at the viewpoint over Lough Foyle, sideways strong gusts of rain. Then down to the coastroad with a glittering sea at Castlerock then along and rapidly through Coleraine, then a long straight ten miles to Bushmills towards the end of which my tyre punctured – this is the 7th puncture. I switched the tyre over for my Limavady Conti Gatorskin [NB: no more punctures during the remaining three days of cycling, Gatorskins seem to have solved the problem] where we shopped and discovered we were right by the Youth Hostel. Pleasant Belfast Black Beer from t’shop across the road. Burnt dry flavours. Lovely but not very cared for garden at the hostel – magnificent rosemary, curry plant and lavender raised bed.

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Thursday 25th August 2016 – From Malin Head back to Londonderry, about 50 miles

The view from Sandrock Hostel window is superb – distant mountains over a blue sea sprinkled with foam whitened rocks, an occasional neat surfy wave breaking out in the deeper channel. This was the venue for breakfast. It was a bit difficult getting going given how lovely the place is… Impressive wifi too, so at long last diary entries were uploaded, along with photos. But we got going at about 10.30am and cycled around the headland to Malin Head, which was busy. A girl was playing old tunes on the violin in hope of an appreciative donation, a PR man was asking a victim to rate his experience of the area (‘how would you rate the magic of the experience on a scale of 1 to 10′), food was available and numerous tourists were coming and going, parking being at a premium. I suppose it was a bit like Land’s End…

We pushed on along the coast, stopping only to take a photo of the metoffice (Irish Met Office) that gives the readings for Malin. You know the sort of thing – ‘Malin Head South West Gale Force 8, light snow, good’. As good as a cup of cocoa for getting off to a cozy sleep safe on land…

Then mostly following the Inishowen 100 route – Portaleen, Culdaff with its lovely beach where I swam in the very clear, and cool, water while the tiny swell rolled in 10″ high, delicious for a sweaty cyclist, then along the back roads to Leckemy. Then on to Moville where we joined the rather busy coast road down to Londonderry – except that at Muff we diverted off onto a smaller road inland which led us into a bit of town we just didn’t know so we wound around for while… But we still got to the hostel almost at the dot of 5pm. Early for us. Derry City Independent Hostel has a bath which is very nice.

Aside: do you say Derry or Londonderry – whichever you say you offend someone. Can’t they revert to an older name or invent a new one… I suggest Fifi, a town called Fifi would be a tourist draw and no-one who was passionately on either side would ever want it. So that’s the perfect choice! A serious choice would be Calgach or Columba since they predate Derry entirely.

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Wednesday 24th August 2016 – From Londonderry to Malin Head, c. 50 miles

Breakfast at Derry City Independent Hostel is part of the deal so we adequately provided ourselves for the day’s cycling and set off to the Tower Museum. It gives a reasonably balanced account of the troubles – through people’s own life stories. This does mean that there’s a implicit contradiction between some of the descriptions – one man is heading out to fight for the British Army on the front while another is planning an uprising. The other half of the museum is concerned with an Armada wreck – the Santa Trinidad Valencere (spelling?). Cannon, bits of guns and clothing, etc. It sank off the Inishowen Peninsula, where we are heading, and was only recently recovered. Marvellous stuff. The inhumanity shown to the survivors was remarkable, many of whom seem to have been shot. Then off out on the road to Buncara, tho’ there a lovely lane paralleling the busy A road and we reached Buncara without too much traffic. Then we set off on the Inishowen 100 route, lunching at Dunree Head, then over the Amazing Grace Col, or Gap of Mamore, with some walking. Wow sea views, then rims overheating along towards Clonmany. Then to Carndonagh before which we got diverted over a tiny hill road, packed with other diverted traffic. I had two punctures – glass coming out of Clonmany and then a pinch puncture on the diversion in light rain – this is the fifth puncture and cycling can induce a fair amount of stress as you sit in the rain at the side of the road trying to stick a patch on. Thank goodness patches these days seem to be super good at sticking and compensating for weary fingers. Then, time and daylight starting to press, on through Malin (tried an off licence for beers but only the usual suspects, Coors, etc) and then a brief deviation to see the Five Fingers – basically a gorgeous beach with scars running out. Surfing was distinctly conceivable, tho’ you’d be on your own, I guess. Then out and out to the bay just before Malin Head – Sandrock Hostel. It’s Gorgeous, with files of into about shipwrecks (three U boats out there), local history, and surrounded by Crocosmia, grows wild locally in great clumps, Hebes, and New Zealand flax. But it was 8.15pm…

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Tuesday 23rd August 2016 From Gortin to Londonderry, c. 43 miles

Some kind of sheep market occupied most of the night, but I was so sleepy that it made little difference. I think other people were less sanguin. Ate loads of sachets of microwave porridge to build up our carbs – poor value for money but we can’t face choco stuff. Out to the north to Plumbridge, then out on the B47 to Cranagh where we fortunately noticed the road over the pass in the Sperrin Mtns that goes to Park. Up a lovely moorland road and then down and down to Park, rain petering out now and then to Claudy. Just after Claudy we got on the quiet lane on the opposite side of the valley to avoid the A6. This got us all the way into Londonderry. Wandered around – wonderful city walls, dubious murals tho’ impressive. Art and violence is a not unfamiliar combination but… Still some high fences around so that people feel safe from being attacked. Learnt about the siege of Londonderry by James II (not the only siege). The hostel is a friendly place – a retired californian gave me his blog address after an enjoyable chat about cycling (he’s done the complete west coast of the USA by bike) and travel see Tomorrow we’ll visit the Tower Museum, which I think has a history of the troubles. I think it’s great to put your troubles in a museum, but the hope is no doubt that they just might stay there.

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22nd August 2016 from Armagh to Gortin, about 45 miles.

A very much sunnier day, allelujah! Great cycling weather apart from a persistent headwind which slowed us a little. Armagh Church of Ireland Cathedral had an organist practicing, probably for the upcoming choral festival – some national event, and so blasts of music swept around the building. There’s stained glass worth getting out of your pew for, and also the grave of the last King of all Ireland, King Brian. And also a funny little leprachauny thing in stone that was found at Tandragee – perhaps it is the Tandragee. A sort of imp. Usually Ireland has been divided up so King Brian was a bit of an event. Sets the north versus south troubles in context anyway. I mended my puncture of yesterday evening and we headed out circuitously to Navan, the site of the various archaeological remains, but perhaps most importantly where the King’s of Ulster had their base, a thousand years before King Brian. Well, it’s a hill fort so familiar stuff really though fascinating stories of archaeological reconstruction made the site come to life, evidently a religious site. The visitors centre is big and we were in awe of its high tech eco-ness. Almost worth a visit just for the cafe… Armagh is laying down pipelines and lots of roads seem to be up so we had to suffer for our history. Then on to Dungannon where we had a late lunch, we heard a lot of Polish there – I think it’s said to be more common than gaelic generally. Then on to Pomeroy, then squeezing past more closed roads and roadworks we went over the low moors on a tiny lane that got us to near Greencastle, then a lot of speedy downhill on a B road to Gortin, where we found our hostel easily because a local spotted us and found the lady that was in charge. It’s a lovely little hostel with the sort of sofas that are heaven to a bloke that’s been on a bike all day – soft with back support. We visited a pub but the range of beers is not good – Coors Light, Tennents, Guiness and Smithwicks… so we only had a half and retreated to tea and books.

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Sun 21st August 2016, From Belfast to Armagh, c. 45 miles

From Belfast to Armagh. Left YHA at about 10am, after eating all the emptyings of the fridge back in Bfd. Veg sausages in heaps. Saw Botanic Garden – pleasant Palm House with a lovely pelargonium called Creamy Nutmeg, great scent. Also a superb Rose Garden pretty much at its zenith and mostly the roses were Irish and Scottish ones I didn’t know. No David Austin roses were seen. Then a quick visit to the Ulster Museum where the lovely painting The Watcher by Russell wowwed me – I’m a succour for radiant boggy landscapes with faery folk. Then on the B38 out of town for some miles and steadily uphill. Crossed the Falls road with all its Irish flags and ‘Remember Bloody Sunday’ murals, even an INLA clubhouse. The revenge tit for tats of the past, not the future I hope. I had two punctures as we climbed out of Belfast due to very littered roads. Belfast, like Bfd, is rich in the middle and mostly poor outside of this – lots of broken bottles, not a great deal of pride in their environment. Eventually reached Lough Neagh and followed the road near the shore. Had lunch at a broken down old quay. Then through Lurgan and down to Tandragee, great name! Then we followed the B78 and a very straight little lane that more or less, with a mile of A road, got us to Armagh. Where I had another puncture. Maybe new tyres? Replenished our calories with a big pasta and a bottle of local beer – Northern Brewing oak smoked and also their version of an alt bier. Great. Sleep was guaranteed. Oh, it rained pretty much all afternoon, with sunny spells in the morning. The youth hostel seems very quiet and has raised beds and sweet peas, so I’m satisfied that things are just right.

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20th August 2016 Getting to Belfast

Rainy and windy crossing that took c. 8hrs. Not so full so pleasant really. Saw Isle of Man (we went to the east of it and felt the reduced swell) and the Mull of Galloway (I said Mull of Kintyre to someone who said what’s that land over there, oh dear…). Belfast is in party mood on a sat night, even now in bed i can hear music and voices. Tried to drink at The Crown (Nat Trust pub) but big queues to get a drink. Visited the nearby Wetherspoons which was so big even the crowds could be coped with – seemed all English or Scottish beers… We will be woken at dead of night by the other members of the room returning from a boozy night out… And indeed we were woken and Guy had evidently taken someone else’s bed but they just quietly moved to another at some early hour of the morning, slightly boozy and carrying various clothes.. Impressively  quiet really.

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