A two man, five day cycle tour round Ireland.
Another summer holiday, another cycling tour to plan. There were many fanciful and elaborate plans made throughout the year but the same thing happened and I had arrived in the five week holidays without any concrete plans. A new
club member with Nottingham Clarion had recently built up a retro touring bike and was understandably keen to get out and ride it. He had never done a tour before and I was probably in the least good shape of my life. We were to keep the millage civilized.
Scotland had been done, and with such a long period of time on offer it seemed like getting on a boat would make the most of the situation. Ferry from Holyhead to Dublin was a steal at £65 return. We drove over to Holyhead in about 4 hours and found an excellent spot for a camp in Breakwater Country Park. Car in the car park, tent pitched on a flat, soft ground in the deserted darkness of the park. We went for a walk up along the cliffs of Holyhead Mountain in the dark before zipping ourselves up in the tent. It rained for most of the night.
Up early in the morning we packed up the tent, parked the car on a residential street and loaded up the panniers and rode off to the ferry. The crossing was as one would expect, I bought a road map of Ireland so we could see where we were going and it was a good place to charge phones.
In Dublin the sun was shining. It seemed a modern place, there were people in suits who were trying to convey a look of importance, there were people in bright t shirts drinking coffee in disposable cups and plenty of flags outside the many bars serving London burgers and craft drinks. People were young or young at heart and everyone seemed friendly enough. More a regional capital than a national capital. We flew through on the wide and well thought out cycle lanes. I was looking forward to spending some time there on foot after the cycling was done.
Fifteen fleeting minutes after crossing the River Liffey the road climbed up hill. Snaking around bungalows and surrounded by thick green foliage, the road resembled a tunnel. A combination of the yellow road markings, kilometers on the signposts and the unlikely afternoon heat made the climb feel almost Spanish. It was about six miles of beautiful, hot, quiet climbing before we emerged in the middle of a quite staggering national park. The Wicklow Mountains really do not feel like a place that is so close to the busy capital below. Seldom was a single car within my frame of view. Similar in spirit to the North Pennines, they are large, round topped and broad hills, thick with peat and heather. The landscape is scarred with peat cuttings but devoid of evidence of habitation. The roads that intersect at the lonely Sally Gap are the routes back to shelter from the wind.
Following the high point was a couple of long, flowing descents and a few water features which justified whipping out the camera.
We were making much better progress than expected so decided to press on with the millage in order to have less on our plates the following day. This meant tackling a rather long, steep and serious climb near Aughnavannah. Strava calls it Slieve Mann. It’s 2.7 miles long and has an average gradient of 7%. It is forested and I liken it to a slightly more forgiving Bealach Ratagan in the Scottish Highlands. In fact I sit here quite smug after a bit of research and finding out that that climb is also 2.7 miles long with a gradient of 8%. Well it’s Irish cousin was hot, thick, oppressive and I was forever swarmed with flies. Matt took his opportunity to soar like an eagle and span his very generously geared bike to the top with time enough to look cool for my overweight arrival.
Now it was time to look for a camp for the night. I was covered in sweat, and not relishing being eaten to death by flies up in these vast pine forests. We descended quickly through the drizzle to find a friendly villager with information about a local campsite. A few Euros was worth the prospect of a warm shower. We were received by the calm understated Irish hospitality that was to become a reoccurring theme on this journey. Our host for the evening lit us a fire that was roaring in minutes, pointed us in the direction of the frankly excellent shower and camper kitchen and after checking we had everything we needed, left us and the other solitary family in the field to ourselves.
By the time I had stripped my bike of it’s burdens and erected the tent I decided I could face the extra couple of miles down into Hackettstown to pick up some beers and fresh milk. As I raced through the now deserted countryside the elaborate Catholic church was illuminated with a blood red light from the rapidly setting sun. I’ll admit, with only the negligible weight of a few tins of beer on the bike I imagined I was Sean Kelly returning from one of his monster training rides. Some people never grow up.
Drying shorts by the fire. Top tip: it is harder to spot them burning in the dark.
The next morning was a much shorter ride and one that really led us into the heart of Ireland. We were to ride on the network of minor roads that crossed the narrow plains that were separated by the shoulder like mountains now shrouded by the not so low clouds. This section of Ireland seems flat on the whole, but always some part of your view is in the shadow of a vast area of upland bog.
Not all of a tour is about cycling or even adventuring. Riding, as we were, across the very core of Ireland showed us beyond the postcard perfect thatched cottages and rugged cliffs. It’s human geography is very different to that of England, Wales or Scotland. I found that the stereotypical English village at least rare, if absent altogether. Dwellings are instead spread out, evenly spaced along the length of the roads that connect the small towns. I never felt like I had left one settlement and was about to enter another. The houses seemed to enjoy their own space from one another, each was detached, fully surrounded by a well kept garden and set back from the road. The majority of these buildings are bungalows, and all are painted brightly, looked modern and were pristine. The architectural style was more American than I had imagined but be in no doubt the people of these counties are certainly house proud.
Some houses showed clear sign of age but a closer look revealed the yellowing net curtains and dusty interior of abandonment. Stone cottages crumble and in many instances completely deteriorated leaving only grass and discarded tubs of animal feed a their furniture. Even historic churches are allowed to crack and tumble and are discarded to the undergrowth. I felt that these southern counties of Ireland have a real affinity with the derelict.
When England began to see ruinous landmarks as being the mark of a romantic past featuring stories of chivalry and heroism they no longer saw their gunpowder slighted castles and dilapidated town walls as being dirty wastelands and reminders of the backward past. The story in Ireland could not be any different. As we were to learn, I can fully understand why Ireland wishes to forget rather than glorify and protect its dark and unfortunate past. Rather than renovating and modernising the ancient family home, allow it to decay and build a new house on the same plot of land. Whether I’m close to the truth or not – there are a lot of abandoned buildings in Ireland.
Killkenny was a colourful and busy town. There were lots of tourists, many Americans. We received a few odd looks as we brewed some tea and cooked some pasta in the trangia stove by the river.
A 73 mile day ended with a long climb up to our campsite. The tourist board of Ireland recommended this place although when we arrived I came to the conclusion that it was a while since anyone had been to gain an update. It was empty for one Frenchman and his dog and we could not find anyone who seemed responsible for the overgrown field from our arrival to leaving in the morning.
We showered, ate and relaxed in the bivvy bags with some Whisky. The skies were clear and we had been tremendously lucky with the weather. I had expected five days of rain yet lay down reading with sunglasses on. Hemingway makes a good accompaniment for any tour. When the stars came out there was next to nothing in the way of light pollution and not a cloud in the sky. There have only been a handful of times that I have seen stars as well as that night. The smaller, seldom seen stars appeared as one silvery, long, broad cloud at first glance but as the eyes focused the sparked and became individuals. Fantastic but the coldest night of the trip.
Ireland really loves it’s Gaelic sports. They are also fiercely loyal to their home county. Although the sports certainly look exciting (as viewed on TV in a crowded pub on a Saturday night) they have next to no international following. Children are seen wandering around carrying hurling sticks, clad in their county colours. School playgrounds all have the Gaelic style goalposts and huge netting is suspended to catch stray balls and you are never out of sight of a brightly coloured checkered flag hanging from window ledges or telegraph poles.
Kilarney was the destination on our third day which was a 97 mile headwind blasted slog in a straight line towards Kerry. Everyone we spoke to along they way assured us that we would love Kerry. Oh what a magical place Kerry is! Oh you’ll see it’s an Enchanted Kingdom to be sure. Just as we crossed the boundary into Kerry, the flags changed colour and it started to rain quite a lot. My single layer of merino and flimsy outer layer actually did a fantastic job of keeping me warm whilst wet. Exactly as I had hoped. Matt opted for the full e-Vent rain jacket over his other layers and also seemed comfortable. Attitude is probably the most effect layer in any clothing system. My orange knees seemed to glow from the cold, and exertion. There is always something a little bit epic feeling about cycling with lots of luggage in the rain.
The Ring of Kerry started off as a steamy, wet, green and lucious environment that took me back to my childhood daydreaming about Jurassic Park. The road twists and turns, through hand carved rock and kissing the shores of black watered loughs it is a wonderful journey. The Gap of Dunloe was a rocky mountain pass on the east flanks of Ireland’s biggest mountain. A mini Bealach Na Baa.
I love a good tourist route and the Wild Atlantic Way has a fantastic name and the seconds that we rode along were worthy of the brown signs. Cliffs, caves, heritage and a real sense of being on the very edge of Europe.
Finally the Dingle Peninsular was definitely my favourite place. On this western frontier peninsular The Emerald Isle becomes more of a rainbow isle. The hedges are littered with wildflowers in the sort of spectrum of colours and density of intensity that initially lead you to the conclusion that they must be planted an maintained as in the garden of a stately home. Later we realised that maintenance of, what was revealed to be miles and miles of this biodiversity would be an impossible task and that these flowers of red, blue, orange, purple and yellow were all wildflowers which happened to all be in full bloom at the time of our visit. A climb up from the cost and across the peninsular was my favourite of the entire journey. Although it did not have the dizzying heights, challenging gradients or sweeping switchbacks of other climbs it was had a charm of its very own. There was a costal view, with shrouded mountains, luscious pasture land, neolithic standing stones, a cobbled section where a stream flowed across the road and always these blue sky topped tunnels were lined with the full spectrum of colours.
Finally we caught the train back from Tralee to Dublin. They were reasonably priced bought the night before we left, online at our campsite with the help of the very friendly receptionist. Although there were only two spaces on the train for bicycles, they were free for us to use and cost 8 euros per bike.
When booking bicycles on trains in Ireland the consensus is that the website is not that great. We were advised to call the station as they will be able to check if there are bike spaces on the train you would like to catch and book them for you over the phone!
Milk, tuna, cheese, beer and bread are all reasonably priced in the smaller shops. Roughly similar to the UK although milk is cheaper. Water is more expensive and wine is really expensive. We barely ate out – favouring packet pasta, eggs and beans cooked in our trangia. The same bottles that can be found in England for £4.50 were demanding 9 Euro. Campsites were between 8 and 10 euro per night and varied enormously in terms of what you get for your money. People’s hospitality was unfailingly excellent.
6 days away, 5 days cycling, 361 miles cycling, 1 puncture, 1 snapped chain, 2 men, 1 tent.
Total cost per person £260 approx.
More Information –
I always look here first – cycle tourer
Irish rail – Irish Rail
We used Stena Line, booked as foot passengers with no extra charge for bicycles – Stena Line