Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1998
Wednesday, June 10th, 1998 - Dispatch #5
Belfast, N. Ireland
The temperatures have been in the low 60s and high 50s, just fine for
Bike riding, since I generate plenty of heat as I ride. Mostly I've
been only been wearing a long sleeve T-shirt under my biking jersey.
Occasionally I'll put on a light jacket to keep warm. But today it's
windy and cold, probably no more than 50-55 degrees, so I'm quite
pleased to sitting here in the cyber cafe.
I go to sleep exhausted and wake up only tired--a net gain so I'm not
complaining. My legs are getting stronger each day. A big-time
appetite has kicked in, which I accommodate as often as I can. In
addition to real food, I make regular visits to each village's bakery
for freshly baked tarts and cookies. I figure I consume at least an
additional 3,000 calories each day I ride.
The joy of the wind has been dampened by rain. While I've been lucky
that the major storms have passed through at night and the daily rain
showers have been relatively mild, I'm still getting too wet for my
One squall caught me square on the jaw. Thinking it was just another
short, mild shower I sought shelter under a tree. When I realized the
raindrops were making holes in the leaves I formulated plan B. I made
a quick 10 yard dash to a barn which I thought would protect me from
the driving rain. But, as I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, the
buildings here in the UK do not have eves, so once I got to the barn I
had all the water from the roof pouring down onto me. Time for Plan
C. I made another dash, this time across the road which was now 3"
deep with water to a school bus stop shelter. Safe at last! Then, of
course, the rain stopped and I was soaking wet.
I'd like to make a point here on how the UK and Irish roads are
engineered. Unlike in the U.S., here they build them below the grade
of the surrounding land. Instead of water draining off the road, it
actually drains onto the road, effectively making the roads into
canals. The road builders compensate for this by installing storm
drains and, presumably, a network of pipes under the roads. They even
put curbs on country roads! This all blows me away. Road building
has got to be real expensive proposition here. But who am I to say,
it may cost less than raising the height of the roads 6 or 8 inches.
Immediately after the storm I came onto about thirty cows walking in
the road. I thought, "How quaint, an old fashioned cattle drive."
Then I realized that no one was accompanying these lost, confused
animals. Apparently the storm had blown down a gate and they had
escaped. The red car in front of me took charge and gently herded
them back down the road. A car coming the other direction did the
same. Soon the entire herd was reunited. "How cool," I thought, "this is mankind at his finest." But now what? The cows grew agitated, started bellowing and milling about. It was utter confusion (sorry). The car coming from the other direction gently parted the herd and passed on through. This emboldened Mr. Shiny Red Car in front of me to do the same. He started through the herd with me riding right behind. He was my icebreaker.
Then, Mr. Shiny Red Car, who apparently cared more about his paint
job then my life, stopped. Yikes! I had watched enough "Rawhide" as
a kid to know that Rowdy Yates (a.k.a. Clint Eastwood) would never
dismount his steed in the middle of a stampede, so neither would
I. I eased my way around Mr. Shiny Red Car only to be greeted by a
big, big brown-eyed cow who bellowed right in my face. "Excuse me,
Ma'am," I muttered as I zigged to my left only to find two calves
blocking my path. They can't possibly kick as hard as their moms, I
figured, so I forced my way between them--actually scraping one with my
bike bags. "What are you doing to my child," must have been on the
mind of the cow who then started rushing toward me. I quickly
accelerated away from her and, thankfully, to freedom. When I looked
back I saw Mr. Shiny Red Car still surrounded by the herd. Frankly,
I hope they did a tap dance on his roof.
Back to where I left off a few days ago: From Galway City, I headed
west along the coast. This part of western Ireland was scraped clean
by glaciers during the last ice age, so rather than agricultural land,
it has a lot of smooth rock and rounded mountains. Its a barren and
sparsely inhabited area. The mountains are beautiful. But from my
point of view as a bike tourer, their real beauty lies in the fact
that, although they soar spectacularly up to a height of 1,000 to
2,000 feet, there are numerous passes between them with summits of
only a few hundred feet. Man, that's having your cake and eating it to.
As I headed inland over and between the mountains, I discovered many
peat bogs. Bogs are formed where, due to poor drainage, spaghum moss
(I don't know if its always spaghum moss) gains a foothold. The moss
accumulates as it dies, retaining a lot of water, and a bog is formed.
Since peat is still used as fuel for heat, many of the bogs had neat
rows of freshly dug peat laid out for drying. A special shovel is
used to harvest the peat. It scoops out a slug of about 3 inches
square and 10 inches long. Once dried these slugs go directly into
fireplaces and stoves. On cold, rainy days the distinctive smell of
burning peat is quite noticeable in the smaller, poorer, more remote
villages. It reminds me a lot of burning leaves.
"Due to acidity and lack of oxygen in the peat, fragile organic
artifacts are occasionally preserved, which would have disintegrated
long ago in any other environment. These countless relics, some of
them 5000 years old, include Iron Age wooden highways, preserved
bodies and wooden wheels and buckets. Among more recent items found
were 300-you-old packets of cheese and butter." according to Lonely
Planets' travel guide on Ireland. I have read about a corpse being
found in a bog that was clearly a murder victim. The local officials
opened a case file on it until they realized it was several thousand
years old. Solve that one, Columbo. Also, many hoards of silver and
gold which were buried in advance of ancient invaders are now being
found as the peat is harvested.
That night I put into port at a small of village named Leenane (now
immortalized by a current play, Beauty Queen from Leenaun). It
actually was an extremely small fishing and wool village, surrounded
by soaring mountains, situated at the end of a ten mile fjord.
There, in a pub, I met and compared notes with another biker. He was
from Montreal, had just submitted his dissertation for his doctorate
on cancer research and was in the middle of a two-month tour throughout
The following day I made it all the way to Ballina, a town again located at the end of another outlet to the North Atlantic. On my
way there I almost caused an international incident when I stopped for
a haircut. All I did was to walk into the shop, sit on the bench and
wait for my turn. Soon after I sat down the guy next to me moved over
a space to a spot that had just opened. "Boy, I should really wash
these clothes," I thought. Oh well, I went back to half-dozing.
Then another customer walks into the door and starts talking. Turns
out he was talking to me, but I wasn't listening. Soon he said
something in disgust, walked in front of me and sat next to me, still
muttering. Well, as soon as he moved down the bench away from me I
figured out that it was not my clothes--although it sure could
been. It turns out that in Irish barber shops you move down the bench
when the guy on the end gets up to get his haircut. This always
leaves the end space on the bench near the door open for the next guy
who walks into the door.
The next day was a real pedal-to-the-metal day so I could meet my
Irish friends, Sally and Eddie, in Bundoran, a resort town on the
Sligo coast. They were driven up from County Cavan. I barely made it in time--it was that last darned castle that I had to photograph. It sure was nice to have a social evening, full of conversation, after being on the road alone for a couple weeks. That night I stayed in a wonderful B&B, the Magheracar House (Tel: 072-41438). The owners let me stay until 3 PM the following day until the rain cleared. They
even surprised me with a lunchtime tray of sandwiches.
Before I sign off, I want to say how pleased I am to see that Ireland
is prospering the way it is. New houses are being built everywhere.
Most outsiders will be surprised to know that it has taken Ireland 150
years to recover from the 1845 potato famine. Then Ireland had a
population of 8 million, now it only has 4 million people--its been in
reverse for that long. Generation after generation of Ireland's best
and brightest have emigrated to other countries, leaving behind a
poor, struggling society. Now, due to the many high-tech
companies which have come to Ireland (and for other reasons I'm sure)
young people are staying because they have a future.
So if you want to come see the quaint, old Ireland you'd better hurry.
Soon there won't be any donkeys pulling carts, or peat burning
stoves, or bad roads--thank God!
Tomorrow I catch the super-fast catamaran ferry to Stranraer,
Scotland. Stay tuned...
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