Whenever I head off on my yellow bicycle along canals or on small country roads I don’t expect much to happen and except for describing the nature I am passing, I don’t expect to have much to write about either. But inevitably things DO happen. Sometimes big things. Sometimes small things, but they are usually a reflection of the goodness of humanity. And in a world filled so much with hate and fear and war it is good to be reminded that there is lots of ‘ordinary’ goodness out there.
It was an early summer morning, the sun was out, the birds were singing and the gorse smelled of coconut.
I pulled my small camper off the main road and down a slip of a boreen looking for a place to park.
Jostling along the potholed lane which ran parallel to the canal I came to a lock with a small house beside it. Probably once a lock-house but now renovated into a pebble dashed bungalow.
With shallow pitched tiled roof and windows too big for its size, it had lost its traditional simplicity. The only redeeming factor were the roses growing around the door.
Pale pink and entwined with honeysuckle, unkempt and straggling against the otherwise pristine neatness, they scrambled up over the tiles in search of a foothold.
I wondered if the owner was too afraid of heights to climb a ladder and put a halt to their waywardness.
The smell through my open window was exquisite and outdid the scent of the gorse without effort .
Behind the house and parallel to the laneway was a yard with a farm gate. I pulled in on the grass verge and hopped out to check that I’ve left the gate clear and that other traffic could get by my van.
This was part of the tow path which is open nearly all the way to the shannon.
A wonderful across ireland cycle greenway and I was going to see how far I could go along it within the day at a easy pace with plenty of ‘picnic’ stops.
My camper, a toyota hiace, is turquoise in colour on which I have painted pink flowers.
(I wanted it to look as though I had driven it through a cherry blossom orchard)
I had everything I needed on board.
Fridge, cooker, sink and bed inside and outside on the back, a rack for holding bicycles.
It was always a bit of a struggle to get the heavy yellow bike down. I usually ended up catching a finger in the spokes or mudguard but that day I managed with nothing more painful than a pair of oily hands.
Leaning the bike against the wall, I noticed a face peering around the gable of the house.
A few minutes later an elderly lady reappeared. She was holding a sheepdog firmly by the collar.
The pair approached me cautiously.
The dog looked more scared than she did.
Keeping its tail tucked firmly between its legs, it had its hackles raised and was growling softly.
The woman was waving a tea towel with her free hand and shouting crossly ‘What do you want? there’s nothing here for you!’
‘Good morning’ I called out cheerfully ‘Is it alright if I park here?’.
Though the relief in her face was visible she still kept a firm grip of the dog and continued to regard me with suspicion.
When they reached me, I held out my hand and let the dog sniff it.
He obviously changed his mind and decided I was not a threat after all and started wagging his tail enthusiastically.
I petted him and he leapt up placing his muddy paws on my chest nearly pulling his owner over on top of me.
‘Get down bruno’ She yanked his collar roughly
‘I don’t mind’ I laughed ‘I’m used to dogs’.
With that she let him go and I watched as he ran off to pee on the wheels of the camper.
I turned back to catch her looking me up and down curiously.
‘You best not park here’ She said and seeing the look of disappointment on my face quickly continued.
‘You can park it in my yard instead. I’ll be here all day and will keep an eye on it. We’ve had a few breakins recently. Traveller’s the guards say! In fact I thought you were a traveller when I saw you pulling up in your van. I’m a widow and my son is no nearer than ten miles from me so I have to be careful’.
She put her hand to her mouth as though she had said too much.
‘Well I am a SORT of a traveller’ I replied relieved to know why she was so unfriendly initially ‘And that would be most kind of you but I don’t want to put you to any trouble’.
‘Ne’er a bit of trouble’ She was already opening the gate.
‘I’ll be gone for most of the day’ I warned her. ‘I’m planning to cycle along the canal as far as the day allows and back’.
‘Alone?’ she looked worried ‘well aren’t you the brave woman! goodness mind yourself now, its a lonely place along the canal’
I shrugged, used to this reaction from women. ‘I’ll be fine’. I said.
She looked doubtful and seemed to be about to say something but instead she called the dog who was now sniffing around the wheels of the yellow bike.
‘Oh don’t forget to close the gate after you’ she waved over her shoulder and disappeared back around the house, the dog at her heels.
I loved this part of the canal.
Alder, hazel and plenty of white fragrant lacey hawthorn to one side of me and the calm still water of the canal to the other.
I approached a high bridge and followed the towpath down under it. It was cold underneath with muddy puddles from yesterdays rain and I was glad to come out the other side and back into the warm sunshine.
Plenty of dragon flies hovered over this stretch of water and coots and water hens were busy and noisily taking care of their young.
I could hear the sound of traffic from the main road but that soon faded as I cycled further and further away from civilization.
The scrub gave way to bog and the ground became black and turf like under my wheels. At one place it grew very soft and I got off and pushed my bike for awhile but soon it was firm enough to cycle on again.
And all the time the breeze tugged my hair and rustled through the reeds and the smells of hawthorn and gorse mixed with the slight scent of muddy water filled the air.
I pedalled on, only stopping when something of interest caught my eye.
Which was often.
The carpet of bluebells among a sudden copse of hazel.
Yellow Cowslips on a bank.
A red admiral warming its wings on the flower of a dandelion.
Cabbage whites mating in flight.
The green and blue flash of a kingfisher.
The hovering dragonflies.
A moorhen hustling her chicks along through the bull rushes.
A ripple in the otherwise still water as a pike or perch rose to snatch an unfortunate hatching fly.
A heron poised like statue on the bank or soaring along the line of the canal wings outstretched, a modern day pterodactyl. It’s beady eye watching for any movement below the still water.
A flock of noisy finches swooping by in search a feed of crabapple buds or wild cherry.
These are the wonders I notice when no one else is there to distract me with chat.
This is the benefit of cycling alone.
Of course I should not blame a companion! I am as full of chat as the next.
But it is in times of pure solitary cycling that I really get the chance to note the wonder that is around me.
There is no nicer seat to perch upon than a lock gate and no more excellent a table either and the one ahead looked freshly painted and stood fully in the sunlight. I spread my picnic out along its wide timber and poured tea from my battered flask.
Having made my baguette the night before the french way* the flavours had deliciously diffused throughout the bread.
I took a bite, a sup and turned my face to the sun as I chewed.
I was about to swallow when I heard it!
A dull thudding noise, like an old engine ticking over.
I stood and looked both ways along the canal but could see nothing.
Maybe it was machinery cutting turf far off on the bog.
But no! It was definitely coming from the canal and getting louder all the time.
I was puzzled.
This was not a canal that barges frequented.
Unlike europe, Irish canals have been sadly left to fall into disrepair. Choked with rushes and water weeds and farmers letting cattle graze along their banks and causing the banks to fall in they were of no attraction to tourist barges and cruisers. It was to the Shannon and the erne waterways that boat lovers went.
And though in recent years the inland waterways had begun to clear and repair, some stretches remained impassable for boats
I sat and waited curious to see what this noise (growing louder by the minute) was going to produce.
I didn’t have to wait too long,
Around the bend came a huge barge.
So big it nearly took up the width of the canal.
But it was not so much the barge (an old and glorious relic I will admit) that caught my eye but the small motor boat pothering ahead of it.
The water was nearly up to the gunwale and in its well was a full filming rigout complete with film crew.
Luckily for me the cameras and all attention was on the barge.
I quickly gathered up my belongings and shyly disappeared behind some hazel scrub, where I could watch the proceedings unnoticed.
There was much shouting and laughing as they manoevered the monstrosity into the lock where it had to be turned at an angle to enable the closing of the gate behind it. a huge roar ensued drowning out the filmers shouts as the lock flooded lifting the massive boat up the next level.
Then the front gates opened and as it chugged off on its merry way I caught a glimpse of a large bearded man at the wheel.
The process was then repeated as the motor boat was got through and when the last of the engine noises settled to a mere muffled grumble and peace had once more reigned in my little paradise, I realized it was time for me and the yellow bike to head homewards.
It is true that the journey back always seems shorter and I flew along with ease.
There was the first lock and the yard gate. I hopped off still curious about what I had seen.
Were they making a documentary* or maybe a period drama?
I’m sure I’d find out sometime.
Meanwhile I had better say goodbye and thankyou. I looked over at the house.
And there she was peeping out the kitchen window.
I wheeled my bike around to the front door but before I could knock on it, it swung open.
Bruno greeted me first, leaping up on me like a long lost friend.
‘You’ll be stopping for a cup of tea!’. Her smile was as wide as the door she was holding open.
I started to shake my head but through the kitchen door I could see a table laid out with a white dish of crisp green lettuce and slices of home cooked ham and boiled eggs and soda bread and butter and jam and a pot of freshly brewed tea and I knew this table was not laid for a husband or a son but for the woman on the yellow bike who had come back safely after her day of solitary cycling with stories of her day to share.
I smiled ‘I would love a cup of tea ‘ I said.
How was I so sure the set table was for me?
Because I had spent enough time in the Irish country side to know how warm and concerned and friendly people were.
And sometimes lonely too.
So in return for her kindness I sat and ate her carefully prepared tea and told her the news from of my day. The huge barge I has seen and she told me how she had heard some man was going to bring an enormous barge that had not seen water since 1923 from dublin to the shannon. Did I not know? everyone was talking about of it. It was called The Rambler and had been built in 1870 something. It was going to be on TV. Then we talked about my family and my work and we discovered lots of things in common. Her love gardening for one. And she told me how her son kept saying he would get up on a ladder and prune her climbing rose back before it took over her roof but how he was so busy with work and family and she didn’t see so much of him anymore and she was afraid of climbing up by herself because if she fell and broke her leg well that would be the end of her and then who would take care of poor bruno.
So filled with an Irish high tea, she reluctantly but at my insistence fetched the ladder from the shed and held it steady while I climbed with the secateurs and got more cuts and scratches then I ever achieved in taking down the yellow bike from the rack on the back of my flower painted camper.
*french picnic baguette: (to be made the day before the picnic)
- cut open one baguette lengthways into two pieces
- rub a garlic clove along each piece.
- drizzle olive oil over the garlic
- place a layer of romaine lettuce on the top piece
- Place a layer of thinly sliced onions and tomatoes on the bottom piece
- place some brie or camembert cheese on the tomatoes.
- Put the two slices together
- Wrap in tinfoil. put on a plate with a second plate on top, weigh the top plate with a heavy stone and put the whole shebang in the fridge overnight.