Greetings from Northern Ireland, which is part of the British Isles rather than the Republic of Ireland.
We’ve nearly ridden 3 thousand kilometres with about 7 hundred kms and two weeks to go until we reach Dublin, our final Irish destination.
It’s been weird crossing the border into Northern Ireland, as there was no big welcome signs or really anything to inform you that you are entering another country. Despite this there are lots of critical differences for the traveller such as the speed signs now being in miles per hour, road distances being in miles and of course difference currency – Pounds instead of the Euro. On our first venture into Northern Ireland we crossed the border in a quiet rural area, stopping in a small town to buy supplies for lunch we found they didn’t have any ATMs or accept credit cards but we could pay in Euros and receive our change in Euros as both currencies were kept in the shop til.
Another significant difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been the different religions being now in a predominant protestant/Church of Ireland part of Ireland rather than Catholic. Historically Derry (called Londonderry by the British) , where we visited a few days ago, was a centre of many disputes between the two religions including “Bloody Sunday” in 1972. Our visit involved some very informative and educational background of the turbulent history of the area leading to the current environment of a workable and constructive peace.
It seems the Catholics had been treated unfairly by the protestant law makers for Northern Ireland, with little civil rights or job opportunities which lead to significant unrest and massive protest marches, ultimately resulting in “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 when 28 unarmed people were shot by the British Army, with 14 dying. Ireland has certainly had a turbulent history of being occupied and taken over by many different nationalities. In modern day Ireland, it seems most Irish just want to live in peace alongside their neighbour regardless of religion. Though we experienced first hand the different feelings of security when walking down the street in Enniskillen a largish town in Northern Ireland where a police officer with a loaded machine gun, finger on the trigger stood in shadows whilst his comrades flagged down vehicles. It remains unbeknown to us what the circumstances were.
Derry has managed to fully retain the city walls built in the 1600’s to protect the garrison from warring chiefs. We walked along the top of the walls which extend for about a mile in a rectangle within the CBD.
We’ve spent about 8 days cycling through Donegal County in the far north-west of the Irish Republic. It’s known as the most remote and wild county of the republic. The coastline is certainly very spectacular with white sandy beaches interspersed with huge cliffs crashing down to the sea. Adding to the ruggedness was the weather- wet, windy days with rare sparkles of sunshine, this apparently is the norm in Ireland and we now understand why the Irish have been telling us for the last 7 weeks “you’ve had such good weather” because according to their usual weather we have had, though compared to Jindabyne weather where dry is the norm and it hardly ever rains we haven’t really thought the weather was that good. So we’ve experienced first-hand why it’s so, so green here. Though I have to admit the rain really just comes in short light showers of ten minutes or so and you usually get to dry out between showers. If you don’t like the weather just wait 10 minutes and it’ll be different. It hasn’t dampened out enthusiasm but we’ve shortened our cycling distances some days to accommodate the conditions even though it hasn’t really been cold mostly round 15 degrees but the last few days down to 12 degrees. The temperature doesn’t change much during the day with the range being less than two degrees. We celebrate when we have shadows as that means the sun is shining even for a brief minute or two.
We’ve also had some fabulous tail winds where we easily fly along and cover the distance effortlessly but then of course we’ve also had some strong headwinds. Most of the time though, the roads twist and turn so much so the wind is not always on your back or front. However one particular late afternoon cycling through Glenveagh National Park, we had 20 kms to go into a very strong wind, we very very slowly climbed up to a pass, taking it in turns to be at the front through magnificent treeless mountains surrounded by wet bog. The wind was so strong we had to continue to strongly peddle downhill after the long arduous climb to the pass. Fortunately most days the wind has been kind to us.
Glenveagh NP was a particular highlight for us as it was an unexpected delight. We entered the National park via a dirt track which we hadn’t known whether it would actually go though or not. In the morning we had a fast uphill run over a pass, then dropped off the main road onto an unsignposted track to descend in light rain showers to a huge lake surrounded by huge treeless mountains with numerous waterfalls(because of the rain) cascading off the steep rocky cliffs. We followed the lake for some 8 kms and then came to a castle and hordes of noisy schoolgirls who had entered the National Park through the traditional entry point. This is the last place you would expect to find a castle as on Irish standards it is quite remote and high in the mountains. The castle had been built in the 1850’s as a hunting lodge by a rich landowner who had just evicted poor tenant farmers from their land after the potato famine. There were hectares of beautiful exotic gardens to complement the castle which has retained many of the original decorations from the 1800’s.
Climbing Mt Errigal, shaped like a pointy volcano, in Glenveagh NP was a real highlight. After climbing steeply for an hour in heavy mist and through bog and rock scree the clouds parted just in time for superb coastal and mountain views.
For accommodation we’ve usually been averaging staying in hostels for 4 or 5 nights a week and then Bed and Breakfasts the other nights when no hostels were nearby. We really like the mixture of accommodation. At the hostels we can cook our own food and meet other travellers and then interact with the real Irish people and eat out when staying at the B&Bs. Cycling through the far west though we had a couple of days where we’ve had difficulty finding any sort of accommodation even in towns of a few thousand people and had to cycle on a further 10 or 20 or 30 kilometres. Most the way around Ireland there has been bed and breakfasts every couple of kilometres in most towns, villages and in rural areas, but in Donegal the tourist season doesn’t really get going until June, it’s a bit like the Australian ski season, short and sharp.
One hostel we stayed at was an old monastery where in the rooms were the old libraries from monastery days, in the shared bathroom candles were lit, a peat fire was burning in the ancient fireplace and there was pipped music, it was very quirky, but this was also where we had our most enjoyable breakfast as all the travellers from various countries and hostel owner just seemed to connect.
Most of the B&Bs are small family operations and many have had absolutely glorious views over surrounding rural hills or even water views, it’s been a pleasure enjoying their wonderful houses.
Thanks for all the birthday wishes at the end of April. I spent a very enjoyable day cycling some 60kms then walking around the shops in Clifden a tourist town a bit similar to Beechworth, then we had dinner at a restaurant where live traditional Irish music was being played, it even started at 6.30pm where in most pubs the traditional music starts at 10pm.
As I write this dispatch we are sitting by the window of a dramatically located hostel at Malin Head, the northern most point in Ireland. Out the bay window, less than 50 metres away from us, we are entertained by huge waves crashing down on the rocky shore. Two days ago an Italian lady photographed Baskin sharks from the same windows. It’s such a brilliant place we decided to stay an extra day here. We wandered the cliffs and explored the beaches some which were full of beautiful coloured stones which when polished retain the glossy colours similar to being wet.
We are thoroughly enjoying the long days of light-one of the advantages of being so far north it gets light before 5.30am and is still light until after 10pm, this might be one of the reasons that little seems to happen before 10am.