A trip from Ireland to Wales

 


On June 29 2004 I set out from my home near Castlerea in the Irish Republic to go to the wedding of Peter and Liz in Wales. The distance to the port of Rosslare is about 170 miles. From there I would get the ferry to Fishguard, and then visit a friend living in the hills of Pembrokeshire.

Ireland is a great country for cycling. The people are almost invariably friendly and helpful. However, if you ask someone the way, they may begin their answer by telling you the way to somewhere else; and if you say you are cycling to the other end of the country and beyond for the weekend, and then coming back again, they might start pulling your leg too. Travellers should be aware that it can be against Irish custom to get to the point of a conversation too quickly, if at all. Your only real problem may well be the weather.


I left home after lunch on a showery Tuesday. Within minutes of buying a waterproof 'Dundrum Easyfold Handy Map' in Castlerea I was sheltering under a tree and trying to think of reasons to call the whole thing off. The belief that I had forgotten my toothbrush was annoying but not quite sufficient. By nightfall I had passed the peat-burning power station in the flat boggy country around Shannonbridge, pitched my tent on the soft turf by Loch Boora, then had a couple pints in the nearby Fiddler's Elbow.

Wednesday was also punctuated by heavy showers. The yellow rear fairing of my trike is made from a lightweight plastic sheet material having two thin walls 5mm apart. The fairing provides abundant light storage space and is aerodynamically helpful, but the cells can collect water, especially if the edges are not taped. Before leaving, I sewed a waterproof cover for the trike. I considered putting a hole in it for my head, but decided I could do this with my penknife if the need arose.

For touring, I have a pair of carriers which attach to the trike's sides. I made them in 2003 on my tube bender from the same springy lightweight 531 tube I use for the GNAT's wishbones. Before then I carried luggage directly on the trike sides, but the extra support the carriers give is well worth the slight weight penalty.

On a GNAT, I enjoy a long climb, if it is not too steep. By Wednesday night I had bisected the Blackstairs mountains in county Wexford, pitched my tent in a wood, and found my toothbrush. On Thursday morning, I met Bill Donaldson cycling home to Scotland. Someone going in the opposite direction can be helpful: Bill told me there was a good hard shoulder on the main road past Wexford town all the way to Rosslare, and I gave him some hints on his route north. I forget how many countries Bill told me he had visited, or how long he had been away, but both were impressive. He was already planning his next trip.

I have sometimes wondered what makes people cycle round the world, if they possess a comfortable bed. Are they looking for something, getting away from something, or simply enjoying new surroundings? Perhaps Bill, unlike me, lived a tidy life, and did not have a hundred and one things still to complete while the brevity of human existence breathed ever more heavily over his shoulder. Bill told me in his turn that he wondered why people rode recumbents. The question, it seems to me, is easier to answer rephrased as Do you want your buttocks cleaved in half? I told Bill I used to tour with an upright bike, but now would always choose my trike.

In summer two ferries usually ply the route between Rosslare and Fishguard. I arrived around mid-day on Thursday, to find that the frequent fast ferry I planned to catch to Wales was laid up in dry dock. The other was sailing next around 9pm. I walked up the steps above the dock to pass some time. Irish people are good at talking, so passing time is usually not difficult, and I fell into conversation with a retired man who was looking out to sea. He told me how I could bring my trike up - currently invisible at the bottom of the steps. After riding up the hill I continued the conversation, only to discover when the man reappeared that I must have been talking to someone else. Things like that do not matter so much in Ireland though.

Rosslare is in the southeast corner of Ireland, with sandy beaches and the best climate of the country, popular with Dubliners getting away from the city. The hours passed quickly, and my sleeping bag soaked up sun rather than rain for a change as it enveloped one of the concrete cannon overlooking the port. The ferry reached Fishguard in the small hours, but, with the long summer days, I was not equipped for night cycling. A loaded trike is about as easy to push as a giant tortoise so on leaving the dock I tried to stick between two other cyclists who had lights. An official stopped me and pointed out that I was breaking the law. I explained that I had wanted to get the day ferry; that the next day's sailing was full; that I was going to a wedding; and that I had not planned to cycle at night because it was dangerous. 'So, you come from Ireland do you?' he replied.

In the dock area I met a young couple who had been at the Glastonbury Festival. They were dithering about going to Ireland, and wanted to know what it was like, and where to go. I answered both questions by explaining why there was no answer, and caught myself sounding like one of my philosophy lecturers from back when I was an undergraduate student in Aberystwyth. The only advice I could give was 'Go west'. When we parted the young man held out his hand, and his blonde girlfriend gave me a kiss. Hippyness is alive and well.

I pitched my tent on the first piece of grass I found. Nobody bothered me, but I did not sleep well. The tea tasted good in a café on Friday morning but the waitress seemed to treat me like a dangerous escaped lunatic. 'How many miles to the gallon does that do?' someone asked in the car park as I left. 'That depends whether you are talking Guinness or whiskey' I replied, before deciding that the question was serious and that my answer was doubly inappropriate in a culture where drinking was sinful and pleasure came not in bottles but from eisteddfods. Outside a food shop my mood lifted when I met amiable Alex examining my trike. He told me about his friend Friend Wood and his wooden 3-wheel motor-cars (yes, Friend, pronounced Free-und, is our mutual acquaintance's first name). I am no fan of the infernal combustion engine, but I had already met Friend at a cycling meeting.

The hills are steep in this part of Pembrokeshire, and perhaps due to lack of sleep, I missed my turning. Two and a half hours after leaving Fishguard, I reached the B-road I had intended to take out of the town. The signpost said Fishguard 6 miles. Still, I did not have far to go. However, my destination was a forest where Judith lived a secluded eco-existence in a wooden cabin insulated with sheep's wool that she had built, to the consternation of the planning authorities. Locating it proved to be difficult until I stopped at the nearby home of a writer. He phoned my friend then highlighted my route in yellow on an OS map photocopied for me in his well-equipped office.

Saturday was the day of the wedding, but owing to my confusion over Welsh place names, it was 30 miles away. Judith suggested we set off on her motorbike, then hitch hiked, as it would be quicker. When we got going I saw what she meant. A passing policeman would have been spoilt for choice of reasons for stopping us. Worst for me was Judth's cycling helmet, too small for my big head, and lacking adjustment on the strap. In the event of falling off most of my head would be exposed, but I would probably die from strangulation. After two bus rides, three or four lifts, and quite a bit of walking, we arrived at the celebrations at least two hours late, and dressed very inappropriately, but just in time for the food and dancing.

On Sunday I went to see Friend. He has been triking for so long that his brain is probably divided into three lobes rather than the usual two. I had been looking forward to sitting on his settee and talking sprockets, but Friend had recently acquired an expensive Dutch machine; a giant yellow cigar with three wheels, the only one of its kind in the country, he said. After a meal of homegrown food we did a circuit of the roads around his house, with Friend on my GNAT. When we got back, I was exhausted, I had cramp, and the only way I could get my foot off Friend's pedal was by removing my shoe. While I stood on one leg taking photographs he somehow managed to separate cleat from pedal with the aid of a screwdriver. It was getting late and we did not have much time to talk. You can just make out one of Friend's wooden creations in the background of the picture.

My first thought, on seeing Friend's new Precious, was 'I want one', but after a few miles in the hills, I was looking forward to getting my GNAT back. A fully faired trike can descend hills like a rocket, but it is heavy, and to retain speed for the next hill requires nerve - something Friend seemed to have more of than I did. The tight cockpit, which prevents the rider from leaning into corners, made me worried about rolling the machine. Friend said he had lifted a wheel but only knew about it when he felt it hit the road again. He mentioned that when he was buying the vehicle in the factory where it was made, there was one damaged by being rolled over - but, Friend assured me, the rider was OK. He was lucky, I thought. The possibility that the wind might catch the long sideways profile at an awkward moment worried me - it is two or three feet longer at the front than it needed to be, because, 'the people who make them are tall'; and a similar excess length at the back, to reduce drag. A further drawback is the large turning circle, as the tight fairing prevents much steering movement. OK, yes, I would still love to have one though.

The ferry left Fishguard after lunch on Monday. As I sat on deck, a large red helicopter appeared and flew sideways above the stern as if glued to the ship. Evidently the crew were practising when they winched a man and stretcher to the deck and up again before flying back to Ireland. I was pushed forward to an uncomfortable proximity to the aircraft by a large crowd gathering behind me, and, not for the first time in Ireland thought 'This would never be allowed to happen in England'.

I spent the night on a strawberry farm in Wexford, on the front lawn of the farmhouse. 'Hope to see you in the morning then' I said to the elderly farmer, after he promised me a cup of tea. 'By the grace of God, I hope so too, to be sure', he replied. Like most Irishmen, he did not use one word when a dozen would do. As we enjoyed a pot of tea and a new day, the man's son appeared with some Romanian fruit-pickers. The old man invited me back, and I thanked him while explaining that it was rare for me to camp at the same place twice. To prove myself wrong, the next night I was in the same spot by Loch Boora where I had camped the previous Tuesday, conveniently close to the pub.

Back in county Roscommon on Wednesday morning, with the magnetic force of home pulling me along, I heard a shout from someone I had met on the first leg of my journey. John, unlike me a 'club' cyclist, had just built his house. With my digital camera I showed him my photographs, and found we shared a cycling acquaintance in Ireland whose name was Wood, and who like Friend also made his living as a woodworker. Perhaps I seemed light-headed, as John cautioned me to be careful; it is in the final stages of things - races, journeys and perhaps building houses - when one is apt to get careless.