Recently the ‘Wild Atlantic way’ is being offered as a tantalizing treat to tourists.
Log on to youtube and you can watch video’s of aerial view’s of huge waves crashing on cliff’s. Jeeps with surf boards atop cruising the winding coastal roads. Horses galloping across fields unhindered. All set to evocative heart stirring music.
On one of those cold April days with the rain pelting off the window I happened on this imagery and memories of my two cycles of the 2,400 km route, the first in 1980, the second in 1981, came flooding back.
I still know the route well . Still cycle it these days but in smaller doses. Though now ugly metal height restriction barriers are placed in front of some of the most picturesque beaches. There are ‘no camping signs’ at the places I pitched my tiny tent. Increased road traffic, wider roads, new houses have changed forever what was once for me, the great ‘wild Atlantic way’.
But my experience of the delight’s, colours, sensations, smell’s, freedom and thought’s whilst cycling this route alone, with a tent and sleeping bag on the back of my bike remain the same.
June 1980, somewhere in Donegal.
I hear a distant church bell ringing.
Probably from a village beyond the mountains.
Creeshlough or maybe Falcarragh or some other mellifluous sounding name.
My Dad loved these place names. Inismicatreer, Gougan barra. Moylisha. They would slide from his tongue like water dripping into a mountain pool and we would want to go there just so that we could repeat them again and again.
Gweedore, Laherdaun, Inchageelagh, Inistioge.
Of course there was always a lake above them or below them or a river or sometimes the sea.
But here in this lonely place, my ear, no longer clogged with noises of cars and buses and city crowds, can pick out the sound of the bell easily between the song of the sky larks, the whish of the sea and the humming of bee’s among the wild dog roses.
Can pick it out easily from the far off lonely sound of black faced sheep on the slopes of Errigal.
Can pick it out easily from the whooshing sound of my tyres on the road and from the soft pinging of my dress against my bicycle frame.
Its a beautiful sound.
As clear as a bell should be. One single ‘gong’ echoing and bouncing between the dark ravines and the high cliff’s where peregrines soar,and just as it tapers away another ‘gong’ takes its place.
I could be in the hills of Tibet listening to the bells of the Buddhist Monks but instead I am on a small road in Donegal in the Northwest of Ireland.
And I’m carrying out an ‘experiment’.
The experiment is to see how far I can cycle along the road without actually pedalling.
A road that makes its undulating way across a soft bog between the mountains and the sea.
This road , more a bohareen really, with grass growing down the middle, contains a series of low hills.
The trick to success is to lean forward and gather momentum coasting down the hill and then see if the momentum would carry me up over the next without effort on the part of my legs.
Sometimes I barely make it, but by leaning as far over the handle bars as possible, I encourage the bike up the last few millimetres and just as I think I have to give in, I crest the hill and down the other side to repeat the pattern again.
If I cheat no one will know save the family of donkeys who, pausing from their grazing, watch me with curiosity.
I haven’t seen a single soul for the last two days apart from distant figures cutting turf under the mauve coloured mountains and I wouldn’t have even noticed them if it wasn’t for the tell tale wisps of smoke of their turf tea making fires .
I do admit to pedalling like crazy on the very first down hill but that is permitted in my game, a sort of cyclists handicap, because first of all my bike is a single speed and secondly I am carrying quite a heavy load. Panniers containing a small volcano kettle, one frying pan, one saucepan a plate a cup, a knife and fork, a bottle opener as well as a few articles of clothing, dresses and flowing skirt’s (totally inappropriate for cycling) and a raincoat.
I have also a tent and a rolled up sleeping bag tied to my panniers. These items are to be my home and sole possessions for the next four months or so.
There is also on board a pair of my brothers old shoes for reasons I will later explain.
I wear cloth Chinese shoes bought from the now obsolete dandelion market and which will also later on have stories of their own. When it rains I cycled barefoot to preserve them.
But now with the bonus of the wind at my back, I manage to travel in this manner for sometime before the road veers sharply to the left and meeting the coast begins a stiff climb, following the contours of the sea and bringing an end to my game.
When the hill becomes too steep to cycle, I get off and push my bike. We are hugging the coast now and at the top I stop to look over the low wall at the sea crashing far below, white spray shooting up into the air and sea birds cruising on the wind
It’s early morning. The sun only new, and there is dew on the moss covered stones. I cover them with my raincoat and sit to take a breather and check the stones in my hem of my dress.
I have lost a few more.
The only sign they were ever there is a series of small tears in the fabric through which some of the stones, rubbing off the frame of the bicycle have made and have fallen through. I unpin my hem and the remainder fall with a ‘ping’ onto the road.
Searching along the wall and I gather a handful of smooth round ones about the size of a two euro piece, more like pebbles really and turning up the hem above the holes, pin them in carefully, spacing them equally apart.
My dress, initially reaching my toes is getting shorter by the mile and this mornings ‘stone pinning’ bring it up just above my ankles.
But my idea of pinning the stones into the hem of my dress to stop it blowing up in my face as I cycled along is working well.
This dress is my favourite!
Pale blue, with a print of tiny pink and yellow flowers, I feel I am wearing a summer meadow.
At the rate the stones are making holes in it I wonder if any of the meadow will of it be left by the time I reach my destination.
I am still only in Donegal and I have another 2,400 kilometres to cover before I reach cape clear island in the south (though on this cycle I had no idea of the mileage I was about to cover)
My plan is simple. I have no map and no watch but I’ll just pedal along keeping the sea to my right to ensure I am heading south.
For some naive reason I presume it is down hill most of the way as though I am cycling down an ‘Ireland’ stuck on a wall of a classroom.
My view over the wall is telling me different story and way below I can see the road repeatedly turning back on itself and at the end of the road I spot a beach.
It’s too early to stop for the night but a good place for lunch and a swim.
Hopping back on the black bicycle I shoot off down the hill, my hair flowing out behind tangling in the wind.
Down, down I fly keeping a sharp eye out for pot holes, gravel spitting from my wheels as I braked on the corner’s
At one point I pass two lads out scything a field.
Their brown forearms flashed in the sunlight.
One of them whistles as I shoot passed and I wave, glad that my dress was behaving itself and that the stones were doing their job weighing it down.
Finally the road levels out and two dogs run barking out of a farmhouse.
I kick out at them with my bare legs but it was my clattering pots they are after.
They bark noisily at my saddle bags.
Others might have found it intimidating but I am not afraid of dogs
I grew up with an Alsation dog.
My Parents called him ‘Sabre’ (after the sabre toothed tiger).They got him when I was 6 weeks old,
‘Never put your face down to a dogs face’ My father warned us ‘No matter how friendly! You can’t trust them’.
We were not allowed near Sabre when he was eating but otherwise he followed us faithfully, sitting beside my pram and minding me on the beach while my mom and dad took my two older sisters down to paddle at the waters edge.
These days with three grandchildren of my own I wonder about my Fathers rational, for he also built three ponds in our garden, one in the front and two in the back.
It was obviously a test of our survival skill’s.
If the dog didn’t eat you or you didn’t drown in a pond you had a fair chance of surviving life’s dangers.
Funnily enough we never fell into any of the ponds, but our friends did.
We spent a lot of time handing out clean t shirts and shorts through the end bedroom window when they came to play and if my mother wondered where our clothes were disappearing to she never said anything.
Anyway we were used to sharing and hung our friends wet clothes on the branches of the pear tree and when they were dry, wore them ourselves.
We probably went to school smelling of pond water.
We also developed a taste for this water and my Mother had to use various means to stop us.
Full of leeches and other aquatic larvae, it wouldn’t have been the healthiest of water.
I remember a spoon of mustard was given to any of us caught drinking it, but I don’t know if this was a deterrent or a cure.
One of my sister’s has a story of us being lined up beside the pond and my father doling out a spoonful of mustard to each child,, who immediately cried when the hot paste hit their tongue and promised and swore they would never drink it again.
Except for this particular sister, who obstinately swallowed her spoonful with a face screwed up in pain then smiled, opened her mouth and asked for more. My perplexed father did not know what to do and that was the end of the mustard treatment.
We continued to sip at the water when we got a chance which probably helped us escape constipation in later life.
I wondered how my family were doing now as I pedalled past a rick of perfect turf propped up against the stone wall at the gable of the cottage. Brown brown sod bricks stacked neatly at an angle to allow the rain run off, but crumbling and toppling at one end where the fire maker fills a bucket from.
I felt a pang of homesickness at the sight of the rick and the homely cottage with its gable to the road, and a nagging concern about my families safety.
I had spoken to one of my many sister’s from a phone box yesterday, perched in the middle of nowhere green and ‘sentry’ like.
The interior smelt of new wood and fresh paint, the black handle shiny, unlike the greasy ear pieces in the Dublin phone boxes.
I wound the handle and a lilting voice asked ‘number please’ I pushed my coins in a slot and my sisters voice floated through, faint but clear.
A week before I had left, my brother and some of his friends were chased by a gang of ‘skinheads ‘ (as they were known then) my brother cleverly hid in the local graveyard but his friends ran screaming to our house, tripping over the rockery in the dark, one stumbling into the pond and ringing hysterically on the door bell.
Those of us still awake ran out onto the front porch where we were met with a hail of rocks.
We turned and rushed back inside in manner of a cartoon, all getting jammed together in the doorway but eventually making it to safety. However some of the rocks smashed the front windows and one hit my sister on the back of her head and the next day I found her lying on the floor of our bedroom unconscious.
At first I thought it was a ploy as, just like in any large family, we were prone to drama, (it sometimes being the only method of obtaining maternal attention), but, after shaking her for a while and sorry, yes pulling her hair (a sure way of telling if the perpetrator of the drama was being genuine)I got no response.
An ambulance was duly called by my distracted Mother (we didn’t dare tell my father for fear of an outburst ) and she was carted away for a skull xray which thankfully proved negative and she ‘came round’ in the hospital (she would say she actually gained conciousness on the way to the hospital but didn’t let on as she was enjoying eavesdropping on the conversations of the ambulance drivers).
The night of the incident we woke those asleep and dragging our mattresses off our beds, we pulled them up to the living room where we slept together in a huddled bunch, feeling exposed and very vulnerable.
My Mother calmly swept up the broken glass, while my father roared and shouted like bull, angry with this intrusion into our already eccentric lifestyle, but only managing to frighten us further.
We forgot about my brother in hiding and he sauntered in later surprised but not overly so (we were after all prone to oddities) to see us all lying together, stepping over a heap of glass shards and drawing further rumblings from my Father, he ignored our snores and braved his own room.
My mother memory of this incidence was spending days afterwards picking shards of glass out of our socks.
I hoped they felt as safe as I did up here in Donegal.
Thoughts of family are halted by a herd of young cattle, jostling and pushing and shoving and blocking my path.
I get off my bicycle and thwacking a few tail ends push my way through the heaving mass and out the other side,
The road run straight ahead and looks as though it was dipping itself into the sea but ending at a small stone pier which thrusts itself out into the sparkling water which in turn laps at a small white strand.
A single currach bobbed alongside the pier on which lies a neat row of lobster pots.
Further to the left is a patch of grass with small marguerite’s and harebells.
A row of islands lie beyond, Gola, Inishmeane, Inishshirrer.
A single sail boat makes it’s way between the Islands, heading south
Even though I recognised the Islands I wasn’t sure exactly where I was,but I knew that even though it was barely noon by now this was as far as I would go today.
I push my bicycle along the grass till a low stone wall brings me to a halt.
Behind the wall another piece of gentle grass reaches out onto the sandy strand. I lift the bike, not without some difficulty, over the wall and lay it on the grass.
When the water reaches my waist, I lay on my back and look up and watch the terns stroke the blue sky with pointed wings.
I don’t remember my exact thought’s that day but I guess they wouldn’t be too different from my present ones.
Being of a spontaneous nature I relish days when I have no plan, no schedule. My cherished ‘not having to do anything days’ are so opposite to my work days, where every thing is timed, that I want to wrap them in soft wool and cosset them.
(to be continued)