Daffodils on St David-19’s Day

After storms and floods
From all man's ills
I rest from howling gale
Beside sweet daffodils

Fair the light this David's Day
They bend their heads as if in prayer
And take a moment to reflect
The monk who refrained from ale and meat

From flesh came this plague that sweeps the Earth
And to all our fears has given birth
While tides are rising and locusts swarm
We can't deny it's getting warm
And know that this is not the norm

Business as usual can't continue
When they lie on the news and mop their ague
One could argue that it's time for change
For climate change and social change
From the broken neoliberal

Let us bow our heads
Like the humble daffodil
And acknowledge in our hearts
That we've all had our fill

Snowdrops Upon Brexit Day

First flower of the warming earth
I rest beside thee on this hillside's girth,
And watch thee dancing in the frenzied breeze
The dazzling sun its rays to please.
It says these days of cold shall cease
Your brilliant bells of radiance shine
And with such silence gloriously chime
Ring in the Spring! Ring out the time!
Adieu mon ami! For auld lang syne!
The past, like a shadow, haunts the day,
Arise, let's climb, and come what may.
In years to come some youthful bard
Will look upon thy pure sweet joy,
And sing that this was as it always was,
But a hope reborn.

Mile Failte 2018 – Part II

Recollections from a 1,200km cycle ride around the south-west of Ireland, June 2018

The Mile Failte is a 1200km audax radiating around the south west corner of Ireland from its base in Killarney.

Continued from Part I

It wasn’t long before I was back up the hill and sipping fine coffee and sumptuous cakes at the café overlooking Queen’s View. Already it was warm and the sky an aquamarine blue. Motoring and invariably overweight tourists vied for one of the few parking spaces, a passenger got out, a dumb photograph showing more car than view taken, before re-boarding and zipping off up the road. At times like this, as you take another slow slip of coffee and allow the sugar-coated pastry to linger a little longer on your appreciative tongue, you ponder on the plight of your fellow souls here on earth and wonder whether you haven’t been singled-out and blessed by an unseen force that led you to take to two pedals and place your hopes and dreams in the simplicity of the aesthetic and noble life of the bicycle traveller with no cares greater than a safe passage to the next control, a place to rest, and the company of like-minded companions.

*

My left-hand downshifter had been growing increasingly difficult to manoeuvre, and somewhere along that fine stretch of rugged road that leads to Dingle had become positively seized. Borrowing a screwdriver from a friendly chap at the Dingle Control, and using perhaps a little more force to release the offending lever than might have been absolutely necessary or wise, I was confronted with the uncomfortable realisation that I would be without the full range of my front-triple chainrings for some considerable miles to come. Selecting the small 28 chainring as my safest bet (at least until I had said farewell to the hills), I headed out towards Slea Head, legs spinning ten-to-the-dozed as the night began to set in.  I’d had this small-ring issue once before – a pretty rare thing to happen – and discovered that far from tiring me out, it actually ensured that I span without too much effort and just conserved rather than expended energy (no grinding it along the flats or downhills – just rapidly spinning-out of gears and then freewheeling at a slowish pace down even the slightest downhill).

Of course, there were no downshifters to be had between Dingle and the end of the Mile Failte, but there were plenty of hills. And so completing the rest of the ride in my small front chainring was no problem at all. And even after the ride, as I set out back for England, there were no downshifters to be had in Killarney, or, so it initially seemed, in Mallow, where the trendy youthful staff in Pi Cycles looked slightly bemused when I pointed out the shafted shifter. Any other cycle shops nearby? Another blank. By accident I got slightly lost and headed south towards the River Blackwater (rather than north and west along the N72) where I chanced upon Cremin Cycles – a gem of a proper old-fashioned bike-shop that stocked, among other vintage components, cotter pins. I knew I was in safe hands and was quickly shown a cardboard box (circa 1970) brim full of assorted downshifters. I went wild and chose a double shifter which I soon had mounted in place and re-cabled. Happy days. With my large chainring back in action I verily coasted along towards Tallow where I was to spend the night, but not before 3 fine pints of Guinness in Mc Carthy’s bar.

*

But I digress, after Dingle left my left downshifter left dangling, and I’d rounded Slea Head with my legs going two to the dozen, I hit the bottom of Connor Pass. Night had well and truly fallen and unfortunately there was little to see but the road rising inexorably before me. I made the crest after watching a bunch of red lights slip out of view and then I was hit with a dose of the dozies. I made it down the other side gingerly, stopping once or twice to gather my concentration, before finding a pleasant patch of turf on the left-hand side of the road. Somewhere a dog barked, but I was too tired to care when I slipped off into a roadside reverie. Still dark and gathering my thoughts I saw a cyclist approach me from the direction of Connor Pass and was soon introducing myself to x, who had taken the precaution of booking a room in Tralee. My guts told me that the use of a bathroom would be most welcome and I asked if I could avail myself of the facilities to ease myself of a heavy load. Being a good Irish fellow, he was happy enough for me to do some serious damage to the water-closet and a welcome wash. Sometimes there is nothing that can beat a good solid shite to lift the spirits and help to keep the pedals spinning. This got me on my way again until I reached Knocknagashel where I decided to take a very short rest before heading south again to Killarney. It was some ridiculous small hour in the morning when I lay my head on the pillow. I’d already decided that I was going to allow myself a decent sleep as I had plenty of time in hand and needed to get a decent rest before my ride back to Oxford.

 The last loop was the shortest – just 100km – and yet in some ways it was also the toughest. After arriving back from the Dingle loop I calculated that I could have a pretty decent few hours sleep before completing the last miles of the Mile Failte. More importantly, by setting off later in the day it would be possible to escape the worst of the heat. By now the land was getting scorched by temperatures more common in the south of Spain or France and the cumulative baking was beginning to take its toll on the majority of riders. To add to the stifling heat was a series of ramps that made me glad to have only the small chainring to spin in. On the outskirts of Currow is the statue of a bicycle. I pulled over to take a pic of it and as I did so saw a familiar VW Beetle with Paul’s friendly face leaning out of the window. All good thanks. The last few riders were still completing the third loop. Wow! I thought. Wishing them well and then into Currow where there was a photo control and shop well stocked with ice-creams and cold coke, which was essentially survival equipment in this heat. Onward to Kanturk control where overheated and exhausted bodies slumped and rehydrated in the late afternoon heat. The N72 offered the opportunity to cruise along a relatively smooth and rolling surface with some cooler air towards the welcome arrivee, in addition to checking out my exit route east the following day (Kate’s Café at Barraduff noted), where I would see the pale green Beetle pass me for the last time – a welcome arm waving out of the window. Farewell fair green isle, until the next time.

Dawn upon Camphire Bridge

That cold clear summer's morning I beheld thee
Still as glass beneath a sky clear and fair
Numb with cold I stood transfixed by dawning day
And the weariness of those long cycled miles
Under the beating sun, and a fulsome moon
Had soaked my bones with sweet Irish marsh marrow
And melted my heavy heart with whispering rhymes
Lying on fresh-cut hay when weary eyes gave way
And in my dreams I dreamt only of thee.

The Celtic Knot – Part II

Recollections from a 1,000km cycle ride around various parts of Ireland, July 2016

Continued from Part I

Saturday 30th June

The alarm went off at 05:00. I felt rather rough but physically fine. After showering I headed to the canteen where the rest of the “team” were already way through their breakfasts. It transpired that we’d made good progress on the previous day as several riders had arrived in the wee small hours and two had abandoned.  After a quick breakfast and packing it was back on the road at 06:00. This time our neat peloton went out to the Wild West to Galway where we once again kissed the coastline at Kinvara, our first control, after stretching our legs a little by the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Kinvara features some very scenic spots. We homed in on a Londis PLUS. There was a bountiful array of provender and the usual quality toilets we’d come to expect. It’s a short hop from there into County Claire and the wonderful limestone pavements and escarpments of The Burren National Park where we located Father Ted’s House atop a stiff hill and had a group photo taken there by a young couple who were making this televisual pilgrimage. It was quite staggering that 30 years after the show, the house still draws frequent groups of inquisitive tourists from the far ends of the earth. The house is a private residence and peering through the rusting gates was as far as anyone could go.

I had already sampled some of Rory’s route planning prior to the Celtic Knot as he’d kindly sent me a route from Dublin to Clara which had taken in some quiet roads and tracks along tranquil canals. And so it came as no surprise when a quiet lane turned into a rugged and rutted woodland track which I found rather delightful (although others, cursing their punctures, had markedly differing views). One of the pleasures of audax routes for me is that they will often mix a little rough with the smooth – often cutting out busy roads or industrial areas in the process. Although neither industry nor major traffic were unlikely to trouble us in the depths of rural Ireland, the pleasure of an off-road segment was not lost – albeit shortly over and back onto the relatively sound metalled surface of Irish roads.

There’s a rugged beauty to this part of Ireland as we made our return journey just to the north of Ennis and to the shores of Lough Derg which provided spectacular views and more photo opportunities. The group was becoming quite stretched out by the time we reached our next control at Ballina, having crossed the River Shannon, and a rest stop seemed to be in order.

We pulled over by a tempting waterside restaurant – the sort where you can have a leisurely meal overlooking the loch and enjoying the late afternoon sun. While debating whether or not to stop there or go somewhere that looked a little less busy, a few of the group had taken a table and begun to order drinks. Not all were of like mind and a splinter-group was emerging. I’d spotted a Polish deli just behind the restaurant and was thinking of grabbing a couple of kielbasa of maybe and slab of kremowka when it was decided that we would check out the town and maybe find a chippy. About 3 minutes later John, Dave Martin and I were standing outside a now familiar brand of supermarket chewing all too familiar fare. A nearby pub seemed to be okay about us emptying our bladders against the wall of the urinal. Let the good times roll.

We headed out into the gathering night and the Silvermine Mountains of Tipperaray which Dave and I found rather a grind while John and Martin raced on ahead. Already the team of four was beginning to show signs of becoming two groups of two. On one particularly steep and recently resurfaced road Dave’s chain came off in the pitch darkness and it was a struggle to get it back into the right place again (but is was a welcome break from clambering up the ramp). Mining in this area of Ireland goes back to 1289 and only wound up as recently as 1992 by which time the mining concerns had extracted baryte, lead, zinc, copper and, of course, silver, and left behind extensive slag heaps.

The road took us down through Dolla and to Toomevara where we found a welcoming Texaco garage and some welcome refuelling. A solo cyclist was just leaving as we arrived – we never saw him again so he was clearly going at a good pace. We clambered back onto our saddles and were soon getting up a good rhythm as we regained Offaly at Moneygall. Offaly is relatively flat with a fifth of the county being made up of peat bogs, making it essentially the Somerset levels of Ireland – just the ticket for legs with over 500km in them!

Our strategy was very simple: heads down, do the miles, minimal stops, get back sooner and get more sleep. It seemed brutally simple, and so it proved to be as we rode on through the bleak landscape and into the night with that fixed purpose lodged in our brains. We sliced our way onwards until the distant lights of Tullamore came into view. Soon we were once again back at Clara – some fresh deep pebbly gravel having been strewn down (it seemed) since our departure to create a final hurdle only metres from the door of the Aspire Centre. I remember feeling a little shot by this stage, but we were now over two-thirds of the way through our Celtic Odyssey and seemed to have a good team spirit. The other six members arrived during a delicious supper of shepherd’s pie, and a high-end pear tart and cream. They were keen to mention fine food stops along the way while working well together as a team.

It was decided that the splinter group would set off an hour later the following morn and so I set my alarm for 06:15 and reached a state of unconsciousness as my head slumped towards the pillow. My room-mate, and all of his belongings had vanished during my absence. One day to go.

Sunday 31st July

It had been decided that we would set off an hour later as we only had 300km to do today – the extra hour in bed seemed like an excellent approach – as both mind and body were starting to feel very tired and sore and the conversation was becoming a little more muted. During breakfast the last pair of cyclists had arrived giving a stark indication of just how spread out the field had now become. The larger group from which we had splintered off had left sometime before so it was just the breakaway gang of four who set out shortly after 7 into a cool grey morning in a southerly direction towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Laois, where we ascended a long steady ramp that under normal circumstances would not have been too arduous, but with over 700k in our legs became a slow crawl. Dave dropped back until he was out of sight while John surged ahead with Martin somewhere behind him. On the way up some casual cyclists were taking an early morning spin and floated passed us effortlessly on lightweight carbon bling. Near to “The Cut” we caught up with some of the original group smiling for a few photos before they disappeared over the crest and out of sight while we waited for Dave to resurface. It was pretty bleak up here and the air was chilly as it oozed around the high point of the Ridge of Capard. Together with the Central Massif in France they are the oldest mountains in Europe and once towered to 3,700m. Weathering has fortunately, as Dave would concur, reduced them to a more manageable 500m – even so, they are still a stiff old climb.

The descent was reminiscent of descending down the French Alps with some fine sweeping bends and sumptuous vegetation and onto terrain that was a little more rolling through Mountrath and the historical town of Abbeyleix once famed for its carpets. At Ballinakill we took a wrong turn. I know this because I saw the positive Deluxe edition blue line appear and then disappear off my smartphone screen as we eked out an alternative route that sadly took us on a rather circuitous route over a hill that made “The Cut” look like a nursery slope. This was the point at which it became apparent that Dave and I would have to work together as John and Martin had now spent much more time disappearing into the distance only to hang around waiting for Dave and I to crawl back towards them. Despite suggesting that John and Martin go on ahead they decided to grit their teeth and we continued to “work together.”  And so we clambered up the slope and into Kilkenny. The view from the top was truly stunning with a view over the lush Nore Valley and across to the Slieveardagh Hills away to the southwest. I was brought out of my reverie by the arrival of a rather hot and relieved Dave. The descent into our first control at the former coal-mining town of Castlecomer was precipitous and rapid and we were soon standing outside of another supermarket beside Martin and John. While wolfing down some calories, Martin explained his plan. It was so simple and so eloquent that we immediately fell in line with it and got to work. The plan had been to stick together and battle into the wind towards Enniscorthy. Although Dave and I insisted that Martin and John go on ahead, they decided to grit their teeth and stick with us (until every so often they would press on ahead unable to bear the tedium of watching us spin slowly up another gentle incline at a pace only fractionally faster than a snail). But they did keep pulling over and getting a breather (which must have been a welcome relief as the wind was quite fearsome at times) and watch Dave and I slowly crawl back towards them. Eventually a petrol station marked the outskirts of our destination and we inevitably pulled in to try out the waiting foodstuffs which included sour milk and sandwiches barely within their BBF dates. Being an Englishman it was naturally assumed that I had no taste until Martin also tasted his milk and confirmed my worst suspicions. Begrudgingly some fresh milk was made available to us.

And so suitably refreshed we turned around (catching a glimpse, as we did so, of the rest of our original group waving from what appeared to be the terrace of a restaurant away up the road) and traversed out of Wexford and across Carlow into southern Kildare to the fine town of Athy which was our next control. At another petrol-station somewhere along this stretch, Martin had complained of severe pain in his right knee and was threatening to bail. After taking painkillers he rallied around to such an extent that he disappeared ahead of us again into the evening. Dave and I didn’t think we would see him again until he emerged with John from a fish’n’chip shop in the aforementioned town (Dave and I had faithfully followed the script and ate on a forecourt to the bemusement of the Polish girls running the tills). Martin’s knee was hurting to such an extent that Dave and I were able to get to the front and we even managed a short stretch of chain-gang. As John so eloquently put it: “it’s a good way of working with what you have” (which presumably was not a great deal).

And so we laboured on into the night retracing a north westerly direction until we were safely back across the Offaly border and a faint phosphorescent glow announced the approach of Tullamore. We pulled over and decided to give Martin a bit of a head-start (thinking we would probably reel him in before reaching the Arriveé). After a few more miles John accelerated up the road after Martin and eventually his rear light also disappeared into the night (which was both fine and mild). Dave hung onto my wheel as we continued to spin into the night and eventually through the streets of Tullamore and then straight out the other side on the final stretch back to Clara. That last stretch was tough as it contains a gradual ramp before finally dropping down into Clara.

Back at base-camp Rory was waiting for us and handed us a medal almost too heavy to hold in our exhausted hands (John and Martin had only just recovered from the euphoria of receiving their medals). We clambered upstairs to the dining area to refuel and catch up with those who had already arrived. Several of the guys were getting ready to head off in their cars (among them John, Martin and Dave). We had completed the last leg at around 11:30 and, despite a little knee pain in my right knee and some soreness on my left upper foot (yes, I wear toe-clips, so what could I expect?), I wasn’t feeling half as bad as the previous night. The total distance came in at 1034km with a moving time of 65 hours and 28 minutes. I know that without the aid of the others I would not have achieved such a positive time and may even have completed outside of the 75 hours allowed. By the time that the rest of the original team arrived at about midnight, my three team-mates had spirited themselves away into the night and I was almost the only person around.

I sat talking to a weary looking chap that I shall call Brendan who was seated with the most amazing trophy I’d ever seen before him – a huge structure of seriously heavy steel formed around a front chain-ring bearing the letters WAWA – the Wild Atlantic Way Audax – a 2,100km epic that featured horrendous wet and windy weather and put my own modest achievement into perspective. But what of my own challenge? On reflection, I would say that it is always better to ride with a group. The Irish lads that I rode with on the latter-half of the CK had a similar approach to the Zappis club (based in Oxford and of which I am a member) rides – minimal stopping along the way; heads-down and grinding away between stops. This was an effective approach to getting the ride accomplished in a good time, but, as someone new to the country and with a keener interest in savouring the culinary delights along the way, the approach taken by the main group would have made for a slightly less arduous ride with a little more “joie de vivre” along the way. It was much to their amusement when they heard of my petrol station sour milk experience, or being left with Dave to limp up the hills. I got their point and could see from their sense of camaraderie at the end that they had experienced something deeper than just grinding through the miles, ticking off the controls and following (badly at times it has to be said) a set of instructions on a route sheet.

Monday 1st August

I finally made my way to bed and slept like roadkill until hunger drove me back along the varnished corridor to the welcoming kitchen. Over breakfast I had a good chat with Geordie and Caroline who were planning to stay a little longer in Ireland. Anne also had plans to travel around Ireland in her VW camper van and take in some of the tourist attractions we had no doubt cycled past on the CK. Mary, who had put in a serious shift in the kitchen over the past 3 days fuelling an army of cyclists was putting away the last of the cups and plates and offered me a pack of biscuits (which kept me going on my cycle back to Dublin).

Just before I was due to leave Clara for the last time, at around 8:30 and only 30 minutes before the cut off, the last two weary travellers, Tom and Lorcan, arrived – on a pair of Enigma’s – one of which was stainless steel but looked at a glance like it might have been titanium. Both were clearly spent but relieved to have completed their first ever long-distance audax event. It was wonderful to be there to welcome them to the Arriveé and hear of about their long, slow, sleep-deprived ride through the cold and dark of night, and their superhuman grit and determination to finish come what may: it is to such as they that the true spirit of audax is to be found.

Mile Failte 2018 – Part I

Recollections from a 1,200km cycle ride around the south-west of Ireland, June 2018

The Mile Failte is a 1200km audax radiating around the south west corner of Ireland from its base in Killarney.

I suppose it all began two years earlier when I cycled over to Ireland and back to do the Celtic Knot. That ride was largely flat, slightly shorter, and stayed mainly in central and northern parts of Eire. However, it did tease with some of the WAW and some hills to the south, and even further hills beyond on the distant horizon….

And then there was HV Morton’s “In Search of Ireland” with his wildly lyrical portrayal of an almost unspoilt Ireland full of rustic charms and olde worlde delights. Surely those rustic cart-tracks and innocent barefoot girls were still there to be found?

When the pint was placed down before me I took a long time before I took a sip: to make the moment last that little bit longer. I’d cycled 550km from Oxford (via south Wales, then diagonally across Wales to Fishguard, Rosslare, Waterford, Dungarvan) and the temperature had been rising day by day. I was astonished by how light the glass felt in my hand as I slowly quenched a thirst that had been building for days. Murphy’s, I concluded, had an edge to it I’d not encountered in a Guinness. Maybe it was smoked peat? I ordered another, immediately.

I’d cruised into Killarney along the N22 and found the hostel after lingering in the sun in a parkland café. The briefing was nearing its end. “Well”, concluded Paul, “it is what it is, like.” I’ve always appreciated that no-nonsense, deeply understated Irish style of delivery.

Bikes adorned the outside of the old, stone hostel building in all shapes, sizes and materials. No other Flying Gates, but a number of other steel bikes. Several were still being assembled and tinkered with. I borrowed some lube and applied it to the chain. I decided to leave the accumulated road dust with a wink to gritty realism.

I think there were six of us in the dorm. I kept myself awake for an hour or more trying not to snore. When someone else made a little regular snuffle it seemed safe to drift off.

In the morning a full Irish and I recognised the lady in the kitchen, as cheery as she had been two years earlier.

*

Sprawled across the stepped plinth of a gleaming white statue of what appeared, as I shot past, to be that of the Virgin Mary, was the unmistakable spread-eagled form of a randonneur in what appeared to be the contorted, face-up and prostrate form of an unrepentant sinner. There was no sign of movement from the outstretched form. Had it not been for the bicycle laid at its side, it would have looked almost as if it had been carelessly discarded or dropped from a great height from passing jet plane. Later, it came as no surprise to learn that the apparition had been none other than Martin with whom I had ridden so much of the Celtic Knot.

*

One could hear Damon before you could see him – or rather his drone hovering above the poor suffering souls climbing up Goat’s Pass in the sweltering heat. Its little motors whinging and whining as it slipped back and forth effortlessly through the thin, hot air and torched tarmac that was beginning to slide back down the severe gradient. There were no goats. Not even sheep. Just the paranoid dentists-drill whir of an overactive motor driving a camera lens in search of pain and suffering – for this was not a hill that could be walked – that way would lead to everlasting shame. Reaching the top, gasping for breath, more lenses and the overjoyed face of the directeur at work. Someone had thoughtfully placed a statue of the suffering Christ at the crest of the hill. The irony was not lost on those of us who might make the final cut.

                                                                                                *

One of the more surreal and highly memorable moments of Mile Failte was arriving at Father Ted’s house, up way on top of the barren Burren landscape, and finding a swarm of nuns running a mock about the place while various randonneurs, who normally stand-out in any setting, went about their normal business of faffing about their bikes looking well, rather dull in comparison. I almost wept (it had been a very long, dry stretch and I had run out of water some miles back) when I saw a lookalike of Mrs Doyle holding a placard stating “GO ON GO ON GO ON” and gladly stood and posed next to her quipping, “DRINK! DRINK! DRINK!”. Inside there was water aplenty and stoutly brewed tea served from an enormous aluminium tea-pot. On the table were strewn large chunks of cheese and the sort of dainty cakes you would normally find in first class hotels served on classic multi-storey cake stands. People were suffering. The Burren had been baking hot where throats went parched and overheated heads lolled up and up yet another winding ascent. The tea and cakes and cheese were so welcome and so unexpectedly Audax-fare, that for a small moment it was almost as if we had tasted a little bit of heaven.

How do you explain the appeal of Father Ted to someone who has never seen a single scene? How do you even attempt to convey the rich gallows humour, delivered so perfectly on cue, of the main actor (God bless his soul)? To explain the juxtaposing personalities that rubbed up against each other and the overarching and all-pervading Catholic in-jokes that only made sense in the highly illogical mind of the devoted? I tried to explain in-between trying to breathe (it wasn’t easy on both counts) to a kindly German rider who probably grasped little of what I was attempting to convey and, as we turned yet another baking corner of limestone escarpment as the road went heavenwards, politely excused himself insisting that he take some photos of the unique flora so that he might have something to remember the journey by. It mattered little, for I continued to play the script in my head and probably continued talking aloud as the unique heat no doubt touched my head. Father Ted – it’s surely a religion?

*

That night, that warm, sweet, heavenly night with a sunset as pure as any I’d ever seen before, and the colour slowly leaching out of the night-sky and dissolving into a dusty darkness that turned to pitch among the giants of the hills. After coasting along the coast, headland after headland we eventually turned inland and uphill after passing through the lively streets of Kenmare where the local musicians played those distinctly Irish jigs to awe-smitten tourists, drinking and dining in the fine late evening air.

I was feeling strong and determined as the notes fell away and I began to climb up the road with another cyclist, John, several hundred metres behind me. The view from the top was truly breath-taking and I stopped to take a few pictures for posterity. Then on, on into the night. It cooled a little, but not dramatically so, and it was a pleasure to be out under the stars on these twisty silent roads amidst the hills. Eventually the road climbed up and over Moll’s Gap. I imagined what the view must be like from up here during the daytime before plunging down and through the tunnel and across the park that led back into Killarney and a waiting bed…

Part II

The winter hill

What way is this,
Heft o'er hugging hills?
Who thought to place you here
Far above the comfort of rambling valley lane -
Lost amidst the chilling mists?

Why do I seek your gravelly way,
Stretching through the contoured clarts?
Where wheels slide and slip
Through leaf-strewn mire
While aching limbs burn and tire.

Where others pause or turn the heel
The randonneur will grip the bar and turn the wheel.
There are no easy answers here,
Only the hard winds blown over the timeless moors -
The fading light and driving rain
Will be the wheelers close companion
Until, like the frosted morn,
Needs must return again.

Ivy

Lately I've noticed you creeping slowly
Snaking your sinuous way
Across patches of earth unnoticed
Weaving boldly up whitened walls
Your bold glossy heart-shaped leaves
Fluttering above the Autumn foliage
All innocence as you herald the impending decay

The camouflaged fencing is leaning under your weight
The rotted posts rooted in breathless air
The bush is bound
The dry branch breaks to the touch
Latching and lacing your greedy twine
Sucking the sap
Splitting the stone
Choking, chiding, reminding

You caught me unawares
Sensing that this neglected patch was yours for the taking
Tunnelling under my feet
Trailing into my thoughts
Rooting into my core
And taking the fading light
From the failing morn

But I have woken from this slumber
And know now that I must root you out
From every shade and shadow
And bound you up
Until at last I leave the fallow
And you come tapping at my window
Follow

The Celtic Knot – Part I

Recollections from a 1,000km cycle ride around various parts of Ireland, July 2016

Thursday 28th July 2016

It was clear that Clara, once a thriving industrial town, had seen better times. Boarded-up shops and pubs greeted me as I hobbled around town (my feet blistered and in agony from walking too much around Dublin). Large and rusted machinery jutting out from behind crumbling walls hinted at former enterprise. After some wandering around I spotted some lean looking chaps with a distinct spring in their step who had also come to town for the Celtic Knot and directed me towards the Aspire Spa Centre tucked away behind a pair of once grand and crumbling gateposts.

Here I was warmly welcomed by the Audax Eire support crew who seemed genuinely surprised that I had cycled from Oxford to get there. Judging by the wide array of largely carbon machines, with a few titanium bikes among them, which were leaning haphazardly around the walls of the showers and changing rooms, it also appeared that I was one of the last to arrive.

In a nearby store I located some pies and retreated back to base to reheat them in the large and well-equipped kitchen and devoured them while chatting to some of the others – mainly Irish riders, but with a small number from further afield like Anne from Wales, Geordie from Dorset (although originally from Northumbria) and Caroline from Idaho (although originally from New Zealand).

The main organisers appeared to be Rory, Brian and Paul. Rory was bald and seemed a little anxious. He had taken part in the Celtic Knot before on a fixie (I believe he abandoned) and had, it later transpired, toothache. Brian was a hip Dubliner who had some issues with a shoulder, worked in cloud-based computing and seemed effortlessly cheerful and chatty. Paul was a superb host. He immediately offered to get drink or food and was full of lively and positive words of wisdom.

Some had already gone to bed while others had located a nearby curry house and were engaged in some serious carb-loading. I chatted with the volunteers and a few of the other cyclists who seemed to know each other and were catching up since previous exploits, until my eyes grew too heavy. I ended up in a room at the end of a long corridor bedecked with well-polished and varnished wooden flooring. A solitary occupant on the bed next to mine lay motionless as I slipped into deep unconsciousness before my head hit the pillow.

Friday 29th July

As I leapt out of bed at 5am I noticed that my room-mate was still asleep. After a quick shower I made my way to the kitchen where a generous selection of breakfasts awaited and was soon demolished. A cool, dry cloudy morning awaited the assembled cyclists. Just before we set off we received a few kindly words of encouragement and general advice (of which I remembered none) and then we slipped out of Clara and into the awaiting Offaly lanes and started the Celtic Knot in earnest.

After an hour or so a group of around ten of us formed into a natural club-run type of peloton. Occasionally some would shoot off the front only to be caught up the road; others dropped off the back only to catch up again at the next stop.  The group had a good range of abilities providing stronger riders with an opportunity to get up ahead and cut through the headwinds while slighter individuals could work around behind in 3rd or 4th wheel (or just hang on at the back). Among the stronger riders was Martin, John and a giant of a man who had grown up in a farming community in rural Ireland. Geordie (a recently-retired fireman) also managed to get to the front for much of the time. Others in this group were Dave Clark, a clubmate of Martin’s, who had only done a few shorter (200k) audaxes before CK but was full of fighting spirit. Geordie, Anne and Caroline had endured long-distance events before as evidenced by PBP jerseys. It was reassuring to be part of a group with such seasoned veterans.

As is common with large groups of cyclists equipped with multiple navigational devices, it wasn’t long before, upon reaching a junction, opinions begun to differ as to which road was the correct one. I had downloaded a deluxe all-1000km-in-one GPX prior to leaving home (several days earlier). But this, I discovered, had been superseded by three separate files for the individual loops; the differences seemed to be rather significant. However, this didn’t stop me from chipping in with route suggestions when the opportunity availed itself. Remarkably, given the variation in options, we tended to stick more or less to a route which connected the controls on my deluxe edition, although one or two legs on dual-carriageways didn’t feel quite right! The route-sheet, I should add, which caused much cussing, and was almost as indecipherable as a string of perverse DNA, was proudly mounted on many a handlebar and consulted in moments of deepest indecision with grim determination. To those trundling along at the back of the group this all provided some light diversion from the serious business of waffling on about anything and everything under the dubious summer skies of Ireland. We made good progress while sharing our cycling experiences and backgrounds.

Our route took us in a northerly direction towards Carrick-on-Shannon (our first control) via Moate, Balymahon and Longford. This took us out of County Offaly, across Westmeath and Longford and into County Leitrim in less than 4 hours. If cycling in England with a group of cyclists while crossing a county border sign you may get a faint phut of an acknowledgement from someone – “I say, old boy”, they might sigh, “did you happen to notice that we’ve just crossed into Gloucestershire?” In Ireland, a land where people are hard-wired to their counties at birth, and never truly leave them no matter how far across the surface of the globe they may wander, a county sign is an invitation to wax lyrical about the hurling championships, battles fought several centuries ago and childhood memories of driving tractors back home (while still a child). The odd disparaging remark about a particular football result might be hurled up in the air only to be returned with a swift volley about a memorable hurling result – frequently of historic vintage.

Cyclists from London, or indeed any British city, could not fail to be impressed with the standard of driving in Ireland. With the exception of towns (where inconsiderate motorists can nearly always be found), drivers will show great courtesy to cyclists and give them plenty of room while overtaking and exercise caution when driving behind them. Even when in a peloton, the drivers were generally understanding and this added to the pleasure of cycling in Ireland. For our part, there was a reciprocated courtesy of checking ahead and, if safe to do so, waving the motorists past the group – normally followed by a thank you toot of the horn. Not one window wound down and obscenities exchanged. A very different experience from that found in the South East of England where cutting up and swearing at cyclists is considered a mandatory part of the on-road experience.

The sun came out as we kissed the Sligo coastline like a glittering treasured jewel. It became clear that this was a tourist area as the number of foreign-plated campervans and twee little gift shops and cafes began to appear. This was a fine stretch providing some stunning views as we wound our way along the coastline until the sumptuous Killala Bay came into view and the delightful town of Enniscrone which was clearly popular with tourists. Martin, who had emerged as ride leader led us safely past the rather tempting harbour-view cafes to a rather average Irish supermarket where we grabbed assorted snacks and gathered on the pavement outside to the bemusement of passing tourists. Did I mention that we also cut across Roscommon en route to the coast?

Ireland possesses some of the finest small supermarkets and petrol-station forecourts Europe has to offer. In addition to the usual attractions and facilities, many also supply 24-hour full-Irish breakfasts, coffee vending machines and flushing toilets, which essentially boils down to 99% of the average audaxer’s needs. What they don’t provide – a fine dining experience – can normally be obtained several streets down the road. For the majority of the group, at least initially, this delicate balance in favour of basic needs over aesthetic experience was sufficient to hold the group together – normally sprawled around the frontage of a modest store. Perhaps an initial crack in this strategy first appeared when I succumbed to the temptations of a fish and chips shop over a meal of the more regular grab’n’go variety. Oh they tasted so good – even when gobbled down quickly to keep within the decreed stoppage allowances the group imposed upon itself.

“Come on now – we haven’t got all day!” And so on into Mayo to Ballina and Foxford (it’s rather cool to cycle from Oxford to Foxford), Kiltimagh and Knock (sadly no time for pics).

Between Ballina and Foxford is a small lane that goes off route to a tiny hamlet called Attymass – we were literally only a kilometer or two from it – where the author Marrie Walsh documented life growing up in this part of Ireland in the 1930s and 40’s in “An Irish Country Childhood”. It’s a wonderful read bringing to life the harsh realities of a way of life that has now all but disappeared. While she paints a picture of poverty which drives the menfolk and the older children away from their homes, and even their country of birth, in order to earn wages that will enable the younger children and women to be able to sit around the homeside hearth (which never goes out) and scrape together an existence, it also tells of those small activities that bound the isolated homes together in shared experiences – such as cutting turf, celebrating holy days and attending wakes.

My last visit to Knock had been on leaving Ireland after a friend’s wedding something like 30 years ago – a two-week blur that had taken me from Dublin to Malahide to Cashel, Tipperary and then to a town, maybe Charlestown, in Mayo, and then by a precarious high-speed drive down relatively minor roads to Knock Airport.

I’d known about Knock long before I ever went there, as my Grandmother, of distant Irish Catholic stock, had told me all about the pope’s visit there (in 1979). The Pope had attracted vast crowds of pilgrims when he came to the centenary of Knock Shrine; built to commemorate an apparition of St Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, a Lamb and a cross on an altar, and seen by 15 people on 21st August 1879. Somehow the story of Knock, the Pope and the later airport all seemed to be intertwined in some mysterious modern miracle – for what else could explain an airport with a runway long enough to land a 747 in the middle of an Irish bog? Niall, who was connected to the European Parliament, and therefore knows such things, mentioned something about Star Wars and the Cold War (or was it the Iron Curtain) which sounded sufficiently X-Fileseque and of that era to be plausible. Sadly, we cycled straight passed the Shrine (and Basilica) where a candle and prayer might have been in order (for I was raising money for CAFOD by undertaking a 2000km cycle ride – of which CK was the main course).

I’d been to no airport like Knock. For a start, it was in the middle of nowhere – literally nothing but open countryside all around as far as I could see. Then the airport was little more than a collection of portacabins that had been joined together to make a check-in, arrivals, departures, shop and then the runway. I sat in a very small room with the other passengers each clutching our hand-luggage and duty frees and waited. Our plane, which was the only one on the runway, wasn’t moving anywhere. Eventually, the men who look at the underbelly of planes took a closer look and got their tool boxes out. Being a Sunday nothing was happening very quickly. Eventually we were allowed on the plane. But the unsettling sound of men tinkering under the fuselage wasn’t terribly confidence-building. After an hour or so, and still on the plane, we were told that the plane would not be going anywhere and that we would be allowed off – after the friends and family had left the runway that they had walked onto to get a closer look at the action – there was nothing happening, but my guess was that this was as exciting as it got on in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Eventually after several hours we were back in the departure lounge (a rather grand title for what was little more than a flatpack garage assembled into an airport facility). After further tinkering with the unwell plane and a little more deliberation we were told that a replacement plane was being sent across from Luton. The plane eventually arrived and we eventually took to the skies and I waved Knock and Ireland farewell to be unceremoniously bused into central London (compensation was basic in those days) in the middle of the night. I think dawn was breaking when I finally made my way back to Turnpike Lane just in time to have breakfast and catch the tube into central London and back to the office grind!

On we pedalled, worked as a tight-knit group, and cruised into Ballyhaunis, our last control of the day at around 6:30pm, and still in Mayo. This was a short stop and on we travelled into Roscommon through Creggs and Curraghboy (a name that belongs to the title of wistful poem) and finally to the outskirts of Athlone where a luxurious Texaco forecourt next to a McDonalds kept us all amused for a good half-hour and then, fortified, we went back into the night and into Westmeath via Moate and then safely back into Offaly for the final stretch to Clara at just after 11:30pm, and with 376km rather than the advertised 364km in our legs. Despite the distance, the steady shared pace and good company had made it a fine day on the road and I soon crashed out after feasting on lasagne, apple pie and proper fresh cream and chocolate milk-shake. The bed next to mine was unoccupied.

Part II

The Road to Rambouillet

The official start of my Paris-Brest-Paris began about 400km north of Rambouillet on the outskirts of Oxford. Here, on a fine summer’s morning, Quentin and I set off shortly after the appointed 8am start. My Flying Gate was pretty loaded up with a rando bag at the front, a rear-rack bag behind and a couple of rear panniers for good measure. Quentin’s Dawes Galaxy had a couple of rear Ortlieb panniers too, but without the extra baggage as he was only travelling to the outskirts of Paris where he would spend a leisurely long weekend with an old friend.

After peeling off the A40 after Wheatley we headed in a southerly direction. At the pretty village of Ewelme we reached our first short ascent marking the beginning of the Chiltern Hills. It was time to lose a layer and take a short breather. Around us the countryside bristled with the expectation of a fine warm day ahead. We wound our way over rolling hills, along quiet gravelly lanes and through villages with sweet names like Ipsden, Gallowstree Common and Kidmore End until we reached the outskirts of Reading. So far so good.

Over the bridge spanning the Thames we made a sharp left turn and onto the riverside path which was busy with walkers, fishermen and a few other cyclists. Under the railway bridge, along another river (the Kennet), down some side streets and across some parkland and we were out of the clutches of Reading and on the Wokingham Road – a relatively painless route to avoid a town I normally avoid. We were still in urban Berkshire and the roads were busy but bearable as they led us through the leafy commuter belt towns of Crowthorne and Sandhurst. After passing under the M3 we had 75k in our legs and the hot sun meant a cafe stop was in order. Olivers cafe in Frimley had cycle racks outside the front door and ticked all the other boxes too. Being used to leisurely weekend CTC rides Quentin was starting to stretch out as he pushed his plate away, but I was keen to get back on the road as I knew The Hope at Newhaven would only be serving meals until 8:30pm and we had some distance to cover before we reached its generous portions.

Back on the road and more endless suburbia: Frimley Green, Ash Vale, Tongham and Runfold where we turned into the wooded Surrey Hills towards Beacon Hill and Hindhead where we pulled over to take a short breather. It was all pretty much downhill from this point but the road down to Haslemere and on to Fernhurst was narrow and busy and I was thankful that we were descending it at speed and not weaving our way up in the opposite direction (as I would learn on the return journey).

It was a relief to cut across to Bury via a series of quiet lanes that took us through Lickfold, Lodsworth and Selham, before we were once again on a busy downland road. We had now entered West Sussex and well on our way towards the coast. A final clamber up Bury Hill and we swept down to Arundel where the roundabout was gridlocked with traffic. The only safe way around this was to dismount and walk across the angry traffic. A final straight stretch through Ford and we were within sight of the sea.

I’d arranged to meet my daughter in Worthing for afternoon tea and she called to check where I was at around this point. “O, not far now. Maybe half-an-hour or so”, I opined. Being a medic, you may well imagine that she doesn’t do waiting. Worthing, it turned out, was a good 20km sprint around bungalow-clad coastal sprawl like Angmering and Ferring and it was now that hottest part of the day. We were pretty cooked by the time we flopped outside of Giuseppes which served delicious Italian gelato, ice creams, pastries and cakes – I would say that it was just what the doctor ordered! We left Worthing refreshed and ready for the final 35ks to Newhaven.

It seemed quite a stretch before we reached Shoreham where the 200k SeaShore audax had parted company with the coast. Brighton and Hove had the usual obstacle course of summer-stunned pedestrians strewn randomly across the cycle path. But we were making good time on this flat stretch and were soon riding beneath the white cliffs towards Rottingdean and Peacehaven where the cycle-route veers away from the coast up a steep street and then takes a non-scenic concreted road past poorer housing stock. The rutted track that forms part of the NCR was a serious mistake, but, after a short diversion to save both our tyres and our sanity, we were soon on the main road and spinning rapidly into Newhaven and the final meal orders at The Hope Inn (suitably named, I always reflect, given that it is the last point before crossing The Channel). I must say that after 200ks the steak with all trimmings went down a treat with a couple of local ales for good measure.

Suitably refreshed we left the pub and headed for the dockside where a long line of cyclists stood waiting to board the midnight ferry, while their various rear lights flashed distressingly: we’d finally caught up with Operation Blighty Does PBP.

I wandered up and down the line chatting to those I vaguely recognised. There was much excitement and anticipation and a wide assortment of bike layouts. Few had travelled far on two wheels to get to the ferry. I met Lee who relayed that poor Ricki had managed to wound his hand with a penknife while cutting off a zip tie, and was currently languishing in Brighton Hospital’s A&E department. The hazards of audax where anything can happen at any almost time.

Naturally, and perhaps to Quentin’s disappointment, I hadn’t booked a cabin for the crossing (and as anticipated all of the cabins had been taken by the time this was highlighted as a potential issue). Nonetheless, after staring at some brightly light florescent ceiling panels for an hour in the desperate hope of some shut-eye the allure of the luxury lounge seating was starting to fade. I wandered the decks and found an upper storey to the canteen had become a makeshift dorm with cocooned bodies littered beneath tables and chairs. I quickly gathered my belongs and did likewise and managed to get a few deep snorts out before the tannoy announced our imminent arrival at Dieppe (which was clearly a lie as we were barely mid-channel) but there was nothing else for it but to shuffle to the stairwell and try not to look too stupefied.

Below deck we bumbled with our bikes and emerged into the twilight world of dockside Dieppe. There were even more bikes now, it seemed, than the night before and we made a fine sight as we rode southwards and in formation along the road that leads through the Brays. It was a brisker pace than Quentin and I had been used to and it took some effort to keep up with Group AUK. After some while we were escorted onto the pitch-dark Avenue Vert by Phil Whitehurst (aka Route Master), and it was here that I chatted for a while with both Lee (who may have been on fixed), and Aidan who was most certainly on a tricycle. We were going great-guns (I believe a rendezvous with a bakery had been arranged), but Quentin and I decided to drop the pace and stick with our original plan of feasting on omelettes and pastries at the Cafe Dieppe in Forges-les-Eaux where some strong grand cafe was also most warmly welcomed.

…we made a fine sight as we rode southwards and in formation along the road that leads through the Brays

By now the morning had truly broken and the petites oiseaux were chanting in the bushes, etc. etc. In other words the petit dejeuner had done the business and we were now firing on all four cylinders again.

The route that I had plotted out months ago on ViewRanger (a GPS package widely used by walkers it has to be said) had seemed fine-looking in the mapping package, but it was not long before we found ourselves in the rough down an overgrown farm-track. Quentin is an astonishingly tolerant chap and took this small diversion in good spirits (perhaps it is also because he is so used to my surprise off-piste tracks by now from several previous expeditions that he barely bats I eye when we plunge off perfectly smooth roads and into tracks barely fit for sheep and cattle).

Still, back on the road and we found ourselves on the old charity-run route of 2018 through the rather original and German-sounding Hodeng-Hodenger and the fine winding and wooded road that leads to Beauvoir-en-Lyons perched on a hill. Here we took a diversion through a woodland road before re-emerging onto the wide open hedge-less farmland typical of this part of Normandy. Between Morgny and Étrépagny a splinter-group from the ferry caught up with us. At this point it was starting to get a little hot and I was fading a little so I slipped back and let Quentin power-away on the front. The guys were on a quest to find another bar (having already visited one between the Avenue Vert and this point) which meant that it was a pretty feverish pace to Étrépagny where we parted company outside a bar. We had now completed 100km since leaving Dieppe and we were blessed with another hot dry, day.

The basic plan on this French expedition was to avoid Paris by heading around the fringes of the Parc Naturel du Vexin Français, cross the Rhone on the western fringes of the conurbation at Mantes-la-Jolie where I would bid au revoir to Quentin, and then take a south-westerly route to Les Vaux de Cernay tucked in the heart of the Parc Naturel Haute Vallee de Chevreuse. Like I said earlier, it all seemed pretty straightforward on the mapping package.

We headed still further south into Vexin-territory along gently rolling and smooth-surfaced tarmac that almost made you weep with joy until we dropped down into a river valley (the Epte) and stumbled onto none other than the Avenue Verte again (I was as surprised as Quentin by this development even though I’d plotted the route). This was an old railway line again and was easy-going. At Forges we made the surprising discovery of an old mill which now appeared to be a hostelry. We were both hot and thirsty and a cool drink would have gone down a treat on this hot afternoon, but hell, this was France and such logical conclusions don’t always follow. The Moulin was ferme and we had to suffice with taking some photos like everyone else while our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths.

A few k further on and being both hot and befuddled the rutted, rocky, ferme track seemed far more obviously sensible than the smooth road surface – particularly as it scrambled up the valley side before disappearing into some dense woodland. As I mentioned earlier, being rather sanguine Quentin merely shrugged off this nonsense of navigation and we struggled over the ruts until we emerged at the edge of a small airfield surrounded by wide open fields and perched on the lip of land we were now cresting.

After the off-road scramble the descent to the bank of the Seine was exquisite if not a little short lived, for the road soon went back up the valley side again (for we cutting a straight line where the river curved out and then back again like a squirming snake), but then back down the other side and the almost welcome view of something sprawling and urban: after the thick-end of 150km of French countryside the gritty congestion of the ironically named Jolie was rather pleasant if not a tad polluted. We crossed the bridge and struggled to find food as we might have expected. Finally a table in the shade by the exhaust-fumes and some pastries from a boulangerie over the way was our final meal before Quentin made a quick get-away to the train station (and presumably a cycle-free weekend).

Some heavy construction work blocked my route to the riverside. I skirted around the town centre and finally found an alternative route and was now down on a riverside track but after a kilometre or so it too was barricaded with absolutely no way around. I backtracked, made for a gap into an industrial estate and then followed some diversion signs around some fairly hairy and precarious roads – precarious unless you were in an articulated lorry that is, which everyone else seemed to be driving. After feeling my way around some unpleasant large roads on what I presumed to be a cycle-path I was soon heading away from this concrete-ridden urban milieu and on the road to Guerville up yet another valley side.

I can only presume that the reason my mapping package had taken me to Arnouville-les-Mantes rather than Boinville-en-Mantois is because there was a splendid track across a field that I would have missed had I merely settled for smooth road and an easier afternoon. Further meanderings around pleasant rural roads over expansive field landscapes finally lead me into woodland which I knew to be a very good sign, as was crossing the N12.

The last 20km took me into well-heeled manicured towns and villages – like Egremont with it’s roughly cobbled high-street (which brought me to a juddering halt and forced me to dismount and appreciate its beauty from the pavement); Saint Hubert perched on top of a steeply wooded hill surrounded by tracks only equestrians could hope to enjoy; and, Les Mesnuis with its confectionery 17th century château complete with further rigorous cobbles which all traffic was forced to endure.

One short and seriously misguided piece of route-planning later and I was sliding down a heavily-rutted and rock-strewn gorge (by this point reduced to stumbling on foot) down and over the stream which I believe goes by the name Vaux and into the lush manicured grounds of the stunning Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay, where I was to spend the next two nights.

View from my window, Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay

After finding a safe conference room to store my mud-spattered bike (several other gleaming and manicured machines were already positioned around the walls), I made straight for my room, poured and oversized bath containing two bottles of bubble-bath, in which I soaked for the best part of an hour, and then promptly flopped into the vast bed for the next 12-hours.

I was now ready to face the ordeal of registering for PBP in the pouring rain.