Just over a week into our Irish adventure we’re sitting in our little tent listening to it being ‘soft’ outside. The pitter-pattering of rain drops seem to get amplified in a tent, and so any drops at all give the impression of it being thoroughly wet outside; yet it really isn’t. I wonder if the Irish have 50 words for rain, the same way as the Eskimos have 50 for snow.
Whilst writing this, the ‘softness’ seems to have transformed into something rather ‘harder’ but it’s unlikely to last. Only on our third day here did it truly last, and that was for about 18 hours; we just sat it out and were lucky to have the use of the campsite’s family room, complete with awful Irish television. You have to accept rain in Ireland and anyway, there’s always stuff to occupy oneself with. The campsite reception informed us that they needed the rain – it hadn’t rained for seven weeks.
Anyway, to start at the very beginning, this is the tale of our Irish odyssey, delayed from last summer by a long-range forecast promising lots of rain: we should have known better than to believe such things – I heard subsequently that it wasn’t too bad – for August. This time we were here in May which is supposed to be a dry month and you’ve also got the long light evenings. And we didn’t bother to look at the forecast!
Because we wanted to get there by train, ferry and bus, if we wanted an easy ride (so to speak) we needed to use our folding bikes – I never need much of an excuse to bring out our wonderful Bike Fridays; and because we had a full load of camping gear to lug we would need a trailer of some sort: now I’ve got a Bob Yak, which is a brilliant trailer but it’s heavy and a bit on the bulky side. I’d seen this trailer called a Carry Freedom which folded flat and could be ideal, so after a bit of research on the internet I decided to try one out. Fortunately there was one going cheap on Ebay and it wasn’t very long before it was undergoing close scrutiny in my garage: it was going to be ideal for the job.
Train tickets and accommodation for our first night in Cork were easily obtained via the internet, and we couldn’t believe how cheap it was to get to Cork – £65; that said, we ended up paying an extra £10 for the privilege of riding our bikes on to the ferry at Holyhead rather than folding everything and giving it all to the baggage handlers: probably not the best idea given the complexities of our ton of luggage! We also decided to make the journey on a Saturday so as to avoid commuters.
So off we set. All three trains offered ample luggage storage and we never had to fold the bikes up which was a relief. Plus we quite enjoyed cycling through two capital cities to get from one station to the next. We left at 7.25am from Godalming and reached Cork at about 21.35 the same evening, travelling via Holyhead and Dublin. We found our accommodation at Sheila’s Hostel, situated up a very steep hill with steps to the front door – not ideal! But the room was OK if small. Despite being a hostel, it had a double en suite room and we wanted nothing else: paid for it though…€50 or so.
Breakfast the next morning was excellent, and the bikes – folded, locked and stashed in a passage in the hostel – were still there thankfully: I’ve heard bad things about security in hostels. We had time to take it easy because, being Sunday, there were no buses going to where we wanted to go until late morning and we knew that we would have to fold everything and bag it all up, so we set about doing this and then waiting nervously for the bus to arrive: would we be allowed on with our mountain of luggage?
We needn’t have worried. The driver didn’t get out of his seat and there wasn’t that much other luggage so we just piled it into the luggage bays on the sides of the bus and climbed aboard. (Bus cost €22 each.)
We always had the best of intentions of doing a genuine ‘Mizen to Malin’ or Irish End to End; however, I’m a realist and it was never going to be easy to do as much mileage as we needed to do to get to Mizen Head and then ride to the first campsite I could find; we therefore agreed to cut our losses and get the bus to a small town called Ballydehob from where we could immediately set out for first campsite at Glengarriff.
We enjoyed the two hour bus ride to Ballydehob which turned out to be a small unassuming Irish town, and duly unloaded our luggage hoping that nothing had fallen out when people had taken their luggage out at an earlier stop. Re-assembly was the next step which takes about 15 minutes to do both bikes and the trailer and then load them up, after which it was high time for coffee. Immediately opposite where the coach had deposited us was Budd’s; it’s funny how the outside of such an establishment seldom gives any indication of what’s happening inside. Here we were in a little Irish village at around 1pm on a Sunday; all was quiet, few people were around and just the occasional car passed. Open the door and – ching! – light, life, laughter, people! The place was humming, and what’s more, the food was amazing too. This was nothing short of being one fine gastro-caff, and clearly we weren’t the first to discover it. An hour later we emerged with full bellies, rather lighter wallets and big smiles on our faces.
In fact, whilst on the subject, Ireland is most certainly not a cheap country, but it can be very reasonable if you’re careful: campsites invariably cost €20 for the two of us for one night, which you can’t complain about. And if you’re wanting a cheap meal, a lot of small supermarkets have a built-in café selling a small range of hot and cold food and drink.
It was time for some cycling, so in time honoured fashion, yours truly promptly set off in the wrong direction which, as ever, was uphill. So down we came not long after to find the proper road, the N71, which was a quiet main road and which we would follow through Bantry and all the way to the first available campsite (Ballylickey) or perhaps the one just beyond at Glengarriff.
Believing that Ireland was still quite religious, and therefore effectively closed on Sundays, we were surprised to discover that it’s very much open on Sundays. We were only interested in a supermarket and we had no trouble finding one attached to a garage – and it wasn’t that small either. It was also immediately opposite the entrance to the first campsite, but it wasn’t late so we opted to push on for a few more miles to the small town of Glengarriff where we turned off the main road and found our campsite a couple of miles towards Castletownbere.
All good, all set up. Soup and noodles eaten – remember we’d eaten an expensive lunch – and ready for an early night. Cue the rain! And so it was to continue for 18 hours, on and off. So there isn’t much to say other than we managed to slip into town at lunchtime the next day for a quick meal without getting too wet, but generally the day was a complete washout.
Tuesday dawned better and so off we set back on the N71 to test ourselves on the Caha Pass. Not much of a test, I’m delighted to report, despite the road heading upwards for a few kilometres, but it was a gentle gradient and was followed by an equally gentle descent down to the busy town of Kenmare where we had our picnic lunch in a small park.
The route now joined the famous Ring of Kerry and we were to ride some of it, as far as Killarney, where we would stay tonight. Firstly we had to climb to Moll’s Gap which again was blessed with a gentle gradient, gorgeous scenery and a magnificent downhill swoop – perhaps the most spectacularly beautiful of the whole trip (hence all the photos).
Killarney arrived and we camped just short of the town at the Flesk campsite. Susan was well pleased with the facilities, which included a camp kitchen where we ate our Chinese takeaway, located just yards from the campsite entrance. The off license wasn’t quite so near and involved a lengthy ride towards town before one was found and the beer carried back. Altogether a great day and great weather too.
Although I had a plan for the trip worked out, plans always need to be flexible, and so we decided to have an easier day and ride only as far as Tralee, where we could enjoy some time off the bike. We were keen to watch the new Alien film – Covenant – and were amazed to find that the cinema in Tralee was showing it on a superlarge screen, which made it even better. The campsite there was excellent too.
The hill out of Tralee was long and hard, but more than made up for by the flat ride we then enjoyed to Tarbert. Lovely surface to the road too! We stopped for an enjoyable break at Listowel – and our first supermarket meal – followed by a wander round the town which was attractive enough without having anything special to single it out for special attention, except perhaps for a stand-alone public toilet which gave itself a complete clean after every use. Thank goodness neither of us was in a hurry to use it! I’d been feeling a little guilty that we had passed through Kenmare, Killarney and Tralee without really looking round much but, despite having differences obviously, they’re just towns with pubs, gift shops and all the usual stuff. They’re often quite colourful and the shop signs are often attractively painted, but it’s the countryside that I was here for – and Susan wasn’t complaining.
Tarbert served us our first pints of black, velvety Guinness, plus our second night in a hostel, which was better than the first despite having a big group of Michigan girls staying. Our double en suite was excellent, the breakfast less so but adequate. €50 again for the night.
Just beyond Tarbert is the ferry which crosses the mouth of the River Shannon, saving a long detour round via Limerick. We had our first unavoidable wetting as we awaited the ferry but quickly dried out. The other side from Tarbert is Killimer where the main road heads west before turning north; we used minor roads to cut the corner which didn’t go down well because as soon as you get off the main roads, it gets lumpier. We were obliged to walk up a couple of short steep hills and I felt Susan turning against anything that might lead to a ‘big effort hill’. This was to have a major influence on our choice of route from now on.
Once we got back on the main road again – the N67 – the surface improved and it became flatter as we followed the coast north from Quilty. Nothing spectacular, with scattered housing leading to Spanish Point and beyond to the town of Lahinch, which is a bit of a resort and hangout for surfers. We enjoyed a good lunch at Joe’s Café and pressed on. We had a hill to climb and the Cliffs of Moher to explore.
The cliffs were buzzing, not only with seabirds but with tourists. The Irish have made quite a thing out of them and there’s a large visitor centre and a short walk from the road to where you can peer over the edge if you’re lazy, or walk along the top if you’re not. Frankly, we were a little disappointed: sure they’re quite high and there are vast quantities of any number of variety of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, fulmars and the like, but I guess my tastes are somewhat jaded having seen so many amazing places over the years. Anyway, we duly took a few photos and continued the short distance to our next stop – Doolin.
We were expecting great things of Doolin, being a bit of a centre for Irish music. The village is kind of strung out with some colourfully painted houses and it wasn’t long before we were accosted – in the nicest possible way – but the proprietress of a hostel immediately opposite the campsite we were heading for. Did we want to stay at her hostel, or maybe camp in her garden? We had a look and that was all that was needed for us to say yes. We had the use of the hostel facilities and a lovely little enclosed green space to plonk ourselves – perfect and very comfortable and a mere €18 for the night. We’d had a long, tiring and quite chilly day so we enjoyed several cups of tea before washing and heading to a local pub for dinner and some music. We went to the recommended pub which was packed, although food came quickly and was quite delicious, but the music… well, maybe it wasn’t a good night, but I wasn’t impressed.
Initial showers in the morning dried up and so we set off uphill to rejoin the main road, the satnav having failed to load today’s route up. No problem though because the main road was quiet and the scenery through the Burren was lovely, with distant views of all that bare limestone, for which the area is famous, and Galway Bay behind.
All good things come to an end and ours did at Kilcolgan, when we had no choice but to join the N18 which is a busy, fast and noisy road. Fortunately there was a wide hard shoulder we could use – otherwise I’m not sure we would be here now. It was unavoidable as far as I could make out and we had to suffer such busy roads all the way to Galway. The hard shoulder petered out from time to time but thankfully the N18 veered off too, but it wasn’t a pleasant end to the day. What’s more, the wind had got up big time and we were heading into it. As we approached Galway, the occasional cycle lane petered out when it was most needed – the planners must have trained alongside their British counterparts. Just past the centre of this large town is Salthill, Galway’s seaside resort. Susan ground to a halt and needed food so we spoiled ourselves at a very nice fish restaurant with gourmet fish and chips – not that the fish or the chips were that much better (or different) to usual, but when served on an oblong piece of wood with the chips in a wire basket and the mushy peas in a little earthenware pot, you can get away with charging premium prices! But we needed it and it was worth it.
Suitably refreshed we ploughed on into the strong headwind and soon came to a campsite which we booked into with alacrity. We later discovered two more just a few more metres up the road which were better equipped but it wasn’t really worth moving. S was not terribly happy with the facilities at the one we chose.
Galway is full of students and very lively. Lots of people were enjoying walking round the pedestrianised centre which teemed with pubs, eateries, buskers and stuff. There was an indoor shopping mall and a street full of craft stalls, so it was all very nice and interesting. It was good to have a day off the bike and we had quite enjoyed the walk into town although it was rather longer than we wanted. We ate pizzas and drank beer at a restaurant called Fat Freddy’s (of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ comics fame) before walking home – about an hour, this time against the wind which continued to blow like a banshee.
To our delight the wind died at some point that night, so we woke to peace and calm, but sadly a change of wind direction – well, there’s never ‘no’ wind! This meant that we were destined to fight a headwind all day. A brief ‘domestic’ regarding the route – I wish Susan would realise that I’m always right (winking emogee here!) – preceeded our easily finding the right road – the N59 – heading WNW into Connemara and our most westerly destination – Clifden. We enjoyed a good stop in Moycullan at a café owned by a Libyan chap, then continued to Oughterard – pretty town – for provisions and a browse round a massive tourist shop.
The road was a main one, but quiet and very pretty. The scenery was exceptional and the terrain as flat as one could hope for given the location, so we progressed quite well and found a spot for a picnic and a rest. And so onwards: mountains to the right of us were impressive and desolate, the weather just OK – cloudy but dry. Some five miles or so out from Clifden it got a little hillier but still it was pretty. We were determined to stay at a B&B tonight, having camped for the last few nights and because there were no campsites that I could find when planning the trip, but of course they were there and we passed a couple, plus several hostels along the way before reaching Clifden, in a fairly pooped state.
This town barely shows up on Google Maps but in fact it’s quite sizeable. We stopped in the centre of town and considered out position. There were several B&Bs around so we headed for the nearest which turned out to be full; ditto next door. The American proprietor advised us to check the room first when we said we’d try the one over the road, but his advice fell on rather tired ears. Thus although we did check the room we were shown at Waterfall Lodge, we didn’t really take in what we saw.
There’s no doubt that after a hard day’s pedalling one needs a good half hour to come back down to earth and start thinking with the full capabilities of one’s brain. The brain had not quite kicked in when we inspected the room our host, Geraldine (née Gerald perhaps!) showed us. I’m glad to say that I can’t be held entirely to blame because Susan was with me when we checked it and both agreed that it was ‘OK’, but perhaps we – certainly I – were too attracted by the knock-down price of €20 each including breakfast. How gullible can you get! There were so many indications that our choice of B&B was an unwise one: the overall smell of damp, the so-called garden at the side which was extraordinarily unkempt, and our hostess herself – possibly more man than woman – and wearing a blond wig which she kept pushing out of her eyes. Anyway, after paying Geraldine, who had insisted on immediate payment, we moved our mountain of baggage in and started to take a closer look. Hmm, the sheets had seen better days and were clearly chosen not to show the dirt. Ditto the duvet cover, although not a lot of trouble had been taken to conceal the stains. And so it went on. The carpet wasn’t nice and there wasn’t anything decorative in the room other than a rather weird picture which looked unfinished.
Long story short, we were lumbered and so proceeded to make the best of it, firstly by laying our two groundsheets on the carpet so all our stuff could avoid coming into contact with it. We got our sheet sleeping bags out to protect ourselves from the bed sheets and later got hold of some napkins to cover the pillow with. The shower was OK if small. You live and learn… again and again in my case!
Dinner at a local pub was very good and somewhat surprisingly we didn’t find breakfast too bad – despite strict portion control – mainly because we shared it with another four people who must all have suffered from the same accommodation shortcomings as us but were clearly still alive, like us, to tell the tale. Two sisters from San Diego were delightful to chat with as they watched us with fascination loading our bikes and trailer up with all our luggage.
Looking at Trip Adviser it was interesting to see two distinct sets of reviews: some were English and spoke highly of the Waterfall Lodge – I’m presuming these were written by Geraldine; others in a foreign language which Trip Adviser failed to translate, wrote considerably less favourably about it and gave it a very low rating. No surprise there!
Time to move on. Clifden is a good base for exploring this beautiful wild and remote region with several excellent circuits to be ridden. However they weren’t for us – we needed to press on northwards and tonight we hoped to be in Westport.
It was murky as we left but it soon perked up and we enjoyed some really lovely scenery including an area where rhodedendrons ruled the roost. With few roads, we stuck to the main N59 and enjoyed a very quiet and relatively flat ride.
We tried, not terribly hard it must be said, to find the planned campsite in Westport, but we both felt that we deserved something a bit luxurious to take away the taste of Waterfall Lodge. And so we found ourselves in the centre of town doing some serious research into B&Bs courtesy of some free wifi and Trip Adviser. It wasn’t easy but eventually we found the Elephant, named because our hostess loves the beasts, and by jove it ticked all the boxes, as well it should for €75 for the night. Modern, clean, a huge bed and a lovely breakfast – wonderful! And the fish and chip supper we found locally was excellent too.
As touched on before, all the carefully researched routes, designed to avoid main roads and show us lots of remote, quiet places, wasn’t going to happen. The fact that I didn’t spend enough time loading and checking that my planned routes had transferred across to my Garmin Etrex 30 was a contributing factor, but it was really out of kindness to Susan who wasn’t finding all these days in the saddle quite as easy as I was. The smaller roads, although delightful in many ways, are undoubtedly harder work and I was as reluctant as she was to have to push our way up hills. My gears weren’t low enough for the load I was carrying, so I was pretty happy to stick to main roads too, quiet as they were. Only the odd section was busy and very often these had hard shoulders so no problem really.
One such busy section took us from Westport to Castlebar the next morning, but it wasn’t all that busy and once in Castlebar we struck lucky with the Rea Café, which was really nice. After that it was yellow roads – the happy medium between the red ones and the white ones – through Pontoon, between Loughs Conn and Cullin, and so north to Ballina – a really lovely day’s riding. We enjoyed seeing a gaggle of Minis from Lincolnshire who were attending a Mini Rally at Westport. The campsite is north of Ballina in Beleek and is quite delightful, as was Jerry in his small caravan!.
Back to main roads for the next day’s ride to Sligo, in fact just west of Sligo on the beach at Strandhill. The riding was OK if a little dull today but the good weather continued – I was even getting a tan! The final section from the main road to Strandhill seemed to go on for a long time but was quite pretty, but neither of us particularly liked the campsite, I think perhaps because there was more than just us and a couple of other people staying there and we had become rather used to being very alone!
A second night of pasta with Susan’s cheese sauce and a mountain of parmesan on top, again using the campers’ on-site kitchen, improved our mood and saved much gas again!
We woke to another fine morning and thankfully a much easier road back east to Sligo which we slipped through with n’eer a stop. Today involved a few sections of white road and naturally it was barely a mile up our first before we were pushing our bikes up a hill we couldn’t ride up. Susan was patient but I knew I couldn’t risk further white roads, so after we eventually got back to the main road, after a delightful section of quiet lanes which were admittedly hard work, we stuck to the N15 and it wasn’t so bad.
There was no doubt that the scenery was changing – and not for the better. We passed through the town of Bundoran, stopping for an ice cream of course, and frankly it wasn’t what we had come to Ireland for: it was one of those rather run-down places that you find all too often along the coasts of the UK. We weren’t expecting such a place on the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’!
Not long after we reached Ballyshannon a fortuitous encounter with a chap in a supermarket led us to a campsite just outside the town centre, which saved us 9 kms in the wrong direction. And very nice Lakeside Camping was too. I nipped back into town for fish and chips which we washed down with some lovely cool beer and all was well with the world. (Yes, we did have a lot of fish and chips!)
The forecast predicted rain, starting at some point during the night and I recall hearing a pitter patter at one point, but in fact the tent was dry the next morning, but not for long. The rain began before too long and was forecast to hang around for quite a time. It was decision time! Do we hole up and wait for a lull? Or something else perhaps? Research had not given us much in the way of intermediate stops before our next target destination of Strabane, which wasn’t really where we wanted to go, but seemed the best place to make for since Donegal was too near and Derry way too far. There was also an option of several long days (with campsites at 50+ mile intervals) which would take us to Belfast – perhaps a little too ambitious. What to do?
To cut a long story short, we decided to cut our losses and not get involved in the UK bank holiday turmoil which would have undoubtedly interfered with our gentle progression, not to mention our journey home that weekend. So we resolved to return home via Dublin where there wasn’t a bank holiday until the following weekend: and there just happened to be a bus leaving Ballyshannon at 1.30, scheduled to arrive in Dublin around 5pm. Perfect! €20 if not booked online (which we couldn’t do). We weren’t entirely sure what we’d do then but it would probably involve a long evening in Dublin before catching a ferry to Holyhead and then trains home, with our expected ETA in Godalming sometime in the early evening of the next day.
That wasn’t what actually happened: on arrival at Dublin’s central bus station, I happened to see the magic word ‘Eurolines’ and decided to do some internet investigations as to whether we might use this service to get us to London. It so happened that there was a service leaving at 8pm bound for Victoria Coach Station for about €50 each which I thought was a pretty good bargain, and so this is exactly what we did. Furthermore, we would arrive in London early the next morning and should be home by midday. Winner! We showed our ticket, bought over the internet, to the driver using the screenshot facility on my phone and it worked just fine. So no hanging around in Dublin worrying about the bikes. We just shoved everything, packed in bags of course, into the recesses of the luggage bays on the bus, which fortunately was nowhere near full, and that was us done.
All except for the security at Holyhead that is; following the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, security was extremely tight, and we had to carry all our luggage through for inspection. We couldn’t manage the bikes and told them so, and fortunately they weren’t concerned. Serious looking security though, and some very nasty looking guns being sported by the military support.
Yes, it was a shame we didn’t make it to Derry, or Malin Head for that matter, or see anything of Northern Ireland, but it’s not going to go away. The coach to Dublin did take us through Enniskillen and a whole lot of Northern Irish countryside (which looked very pretty) so at least we could say we’ve travelled a bit through Northern Ireland. We’ll have to leave that trip for another day.
Nevertheless, we’d done very well on the whole. Our approximate daily distances were as follows:
|From||To||Distance (miles) – approximate|
And about 12,000ft of ascent over the whole trip.
The weather had been really kind and the Irish had been absolutely lovely, and we’d really enjoyed ourselves. I feel a good sense of achievement and very satisfied with our Irish adventure.
Next time, I’d like to try to ride more lanes, take more photos of interesting signs – ‘Connemara Bog Week’ and ‘Co Mayo respects cyclists’ – spring to mind; go into some more remote places in the west, and not move on each day so much. I’d have lower gears on my bike too, and better brakes!
Despite these shortcomings, the Fridays performed admirably. Susan had one puncture in her rear tyre – duly fixed, but her gears went funny; this was undoubtedly due to something very strange happening to her bottom bracket. Her left hand crank fell off and the bottom bracket shifted as a result, which caused the gear issues. But she coped fine nevertheless and never had problems with her lower gears thankfully. And I fitted the offending crank back on – at the second attempt!
Enduring memories: the lovely Irish people who always had time to chat and be interested in what you were up to; the easily obtained food – at garages and in small supermarkets where they often had hot food and seating; the good behaviour of Irish drivers (almost without exception); the cost of camping – invariably €9 or €10 per person per night; and the cost of a pint of Guinness – up to €6!! – not such a good memory; the lovely scenery all the way up the west coast; the relative flatness of the main roads; the endless ranges of mountains visible from the road; and the ease of getting our folding bikes, trailer and luggage out to Ireland and back – and how relatively cheap it was to do this. I’d recommend a trip any time!
For more photographs of the trip, visit: