ireland

A Circle Formed

Until yesterday (Tuesday), I’d ridden most of the way around three of the UK’s constituent parts, but not all the way around anything. But as I rolled off a segregated bike path into the centre of Belfast, I realised that I was about to meet the Big Fish again, and complete the circuit in Northern Ireland (‘NI’).

I’d spent the previous days in border country. On both sides of the border, in fact, as it’s pretty much impossible to avoid crossing over a few times. At the moment, it makes little difference; it’s all largely rural, there are vehicles from the UK mainland, NI and the Republic on the roads, and the rain showers pursued me regardless of which country I was in.

If you ever need the info for a quiz question, the westernmost settlement in the UK is called Belleek, and is a pretty little town between the western end of Lough Erne and the Atlantic. If you have a swift half in the last pub in the UK, and then turn the corner, you’re faced with the border (pic above).

As you can probably see, there really isn’t one. A British cycle route sign points you straight across the international border into Ireland. And 150 metres later, you hit a junction with the main road, and are back in the UK again. Who knows how all this would work if the Brexit negotiations go wrong?

I cut across a somewhat larger chunk of Ireland later that day. County Monaghan pushes the border way to the north, which would have made an awfully long diversion. So I cut across it. Despite some incredibly black clouds floating about close to where I was, I managed to navigate this excursion into ‘abroad’ without too many issues, and popped back into Northern Ireland on the ferry across Carlingford Lough on Monday morning.

Sadly, although I wasn’t getting all that wet, the proximity of rain was definitely affecting the views as I rumbled up the eastern coast of NI. The Mourne Mountains were mostly hidden under clouds, and, although they look quite atmospheric in the gloom (above), it would have been nice to see their full magnificence.

The flip-side of the south-westerly wind that was pushing all the rain my way was a decent tailwind, so I made good progress back towards Belfast. Even the extra wait to cross Strangford Lough (due to the school ferry taking priority for some reason) didn’t hold me up too much.

And so, yesterday morning (Tuesday), I finally located the awfully-signposted Greenway into central Belfast. This is a lovely piece of infrastructure, with a wide ribbon of nearly-new tarmac whisking you through the suburbs before suddenly dropping you off in central Belfast. It needs much better signs, as it took me nearly half an hour in the small town of Comber to find the far end of it, but once again, it’s good to see decent cycling facilities being put into various UK towns and cities.

Once I’d met the Big Fish again, thereby completing the circle of NI, it was just a case of retracing my earlier wheel tracks to the ferry port, and on to the Tuesday afternoon sailing back to Scotland, pursued this time not by rain, but by seagulls and competing ferries.

Although I’d have preferred some sort of open-jaw excursion to Ireland, without arriving back exactly where I started, it does at least mean that I get a few more days in Scotland before heading further south, back to England and then Wales.

But with new Covid spikes all over the place at the moment, it’s feeling less likely that I’ll make it back unmolested by local lockdowns or other restrictions. We’ll have to wait and see…

Deja Vu All Over Again

Once upon a time (in 2015) I got on a ferry to Northern Ireland with a bike, did a bit of a twiddle around, and then got on a ferry to Cairnryan in Scotland, and headed up the Ayrshire coast. I moaned about headwinds and rain, while marvelling at the beauty of the countryside. I wrote about it here.

Considering I’ve been (mostly) travelling in the opposite direction this time round, and deliberately changed the route where possible, I might have expected a different experience. In fact, it’s been much the same, but with added wise fish and castles.

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I was amazingly lucky with the winds around northern Scotland, so I’m not going to whine now that things have returned to normal, and the Atlantic westerlies are sporadically chucking rain in my chops. Besides, the occasional forced route change or dive for cover can throw up the unexpected.

Staring down the barrel of over 110km into the leading edge of a storm on Tuesday, I found the spooky castle above by the simple means of cutting inland by a mile or two rather than plugging straight down the Scottish coast.

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And, despite the best efforts of a 30mph headwind, the road along the coast was as beautiful as when I’d followed it in the opposite direction half a decade ago. Though I was struggling to convince myself that only being able to reach 9mph was good, because I had more time to appreciate the scenery.

Wednesday was predicted to be a washout, with rain warnings to add to the strong winds. I decided to spend as much of it as possible hidden in a ship, crossing to the capital of Northern Ireland. My cunning tactics kept me surprisingly dry until a cloudburst just as I approached Belfast’s Big Fish (below) in the city centre. The internet tells me that it’s actually a Salmon of Knowledge. Which means it should really have been able to tell me I was about to need emergency shelter…

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I’d never spent any time in Belfast before, so a quick wander around was nice, despite the rain. Like every other city I’ve seen in the UK in the last few weeks, it’s got a ‘ghost town’ feel to the city centre at the moment.

Covid effects aside, it has a slightly different feel to other UK cities (and not just because of the impact of the Troubles on the inner suburbs). To me, the centre feels a little bit American somehow, maybe reflecting the historic links between the island of Ireland and the USA. It also has the habit of juxtaposing old buildings right next to new ones, in a way which would be rare elsewhere in the UK.

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By Thursday morning, it was time to head into the countryside. Having taken the decision to skip the lovely, but strenuous, Antrim coast this time (I’d had a good look on my previous trip), I was a bit surprised to find myself at the double bridge below.

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I’ve got a very similar, but more cloudy, picture of a touring bike at this bridge from five years back. I’m still not entirely sure how what I thought was a brand new route turned out to be the exact road I’d taken before. But I did soon make sure I was into new territory by turning left at Coleraine.

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This took me along the north of Northern Ireland towards the western edge of the UK. More significantly, it was taking me straight towards a fleet of heavy showers, which made yesterday’s (Friday’s) riding, erm, interesting.

With bright sunshine between the showers, and another howling headwind, I spent the day sprinting along soaking roads before diving under cover as another cloudburst hit. Thankfully, with countryside more similar to England than Scotland, there’s usually a little shelter from the wind, and plenty of cover from the rain, including the odd tunnel.

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I’m now right up close to the UK’s only land border. Being a set of islands can sometimes make you forget your close links to other countries. It’s unavoidable here, from the mix of British, Irish and Northern Irish registration plates on the cars, to the double name and tumultuous history of Londonderry / Derry (below), one of the hotspots of the Troubles.

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My last visit to this region was a long time ago (at least it feels it, being pre-Covid, pre-Brexit, and even pre-finishing the Round the World ride). It’s probably good to remember that the big problems in Northern Ireland have been over for a lot longer than that,despite occasional rumbles. And it’s great that the country is still as beautiful, and the people as friendly, as they were last time.

Now I just need the showers to stop…

Here I Go Again…

The bags are packed.  The bags are on the bike.  One of the bags is hanging off a bit, which is not so good.  And the bags, the bike and me are in (currently) sunny Cornwall, ready to begin touring again.  That’s a good day (even after getting drenched on the four miles to the station this morning).

Here’s The Beastlet raring to go at Bristol Parkway station this morning, fresh from its early shower:

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So, where am I going?  Well, I’m riding (as close as sensibly possible) the length of the United Kingdom from south to north.  And I’m going to all four of the UK’s countries on the way.  This sounds deceptively simple, but even among my fellow British Citizens, there may be a little confusion about exactly what it means.

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about where the UK starts and stops.

Many people I met in the US, for example, think that England and Britain are the same thing, and labour (or ‘labor’) under the odd impression that there’s such a thing as a ‘British accent’.  They aren’t, and there are hundreds, including a bunch of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh ones.

At the same time, as a citizen of the UK, I had to check whether (for example) the Channel Islands or Gibraltar are part of the country.  They aren’t.  Good job, too, as it would be a much longer ride from Gibraltar…

So, first off, a little geographical ‘clarification’ for you.  This may need reading carefully if you’re not over-familiar with our little archipelago.

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Deep breath.  Here we go…

The archipelago known as the British Isles lies off the coast of mainland Europe.  It’s made up of hundreds of islands, and is shared between two nation-states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  The two biggest islands are Great Britain and Ireland.  All of Great Britain (comprising most of England, Scotland and Wales), a bunch of other islands, and the north-eastern chunk of Ireland (Northern Ireland) are in the UK.  The rest of Ireland (and some other islands) is a separate nation-state, but was part of the UK until independence in the 1920s.  So, Ireland is an island.  And most of Ireland is not in the UK, but some is.  And all of it used to be.

Clear as mud, isn’t it?  Let’s simplify things by looking at sport.  In the Olympics, the UK competes, slightly confusingly, as ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.  In football, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play as separate countries, and so does the Republic of Ireland.  Obviously, as it is.  Except in Rugby, Ireland and Northern Ireland play in a united Irish team, meaning that the one team represents two nation-states.  But one island.

That might still not be clear enough for some people.  So here’s one more try.  The UK is a proper country.  It’s on the UN Security Council and everything.  It issues its own passports and money (the pound).  It’s governed from London, which is in England and in the UK (technically, it’s governed from Westminster, which is next door to London, but that’s an entirely different set of ancient confusions).  It has military forces, a single foreign policy, and a single Prime Minister who deals with that sort of stuff.

So, it’s a country.  But…  England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also called countries.  Together, these four countries make up the UK, which is a country.  Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not in Wales) can issue their own banknotes.  They are authorised to do this by the Bank of England, which manages the currency and sets interest rates for the whole of the UK.

Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not Wales) have their own legal systems.  England and Wales share the same one.

Scotland has its own parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies.  England has neither, just relying on the UK Parliament in Westminster.  Which obviously has elected members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in it.

And all four countries have their own capital cities; England’s just happens to be the capital of both England and the UK.  And everyone who has a UK-issued passport is British.  Including lots of people from places which aren’t part of the UK.  Or Great Britain, which, as we established at the start, is an island, like Ireland.

Clear enough?

Well, finally (I promise!), there’s one place from where, on a clear day, you can apparently see all four of the UK’s constituent countries.  It’s right in the middle of the UK.  This place is another of the British Isles; the Isle of Man.  The sportspeople of the Isle of Man (for example, the great cycling sprinter Mark Cavendish) compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Unless it’s the Commonwealth Games, of course, when they compete as the Isle of Man.  The island uses the pound, and is protected by the UK military.  And obviously, the Isle of Man isn’t part of the UK at all.

It strikes me that it might be easier just to say where I’m going.

After a lot (and I mean a lot) of internet-bashing, I finally worked out that the southernmost point of the UK is in the Isles of Scilly, three hours south-west by ferry from Penzance in Cornwall, where I now sit.  And the northernmost point is in the Shetlands, which are a surprisingly long way north.  You get palm trees down here in Cornwall.  The north of Shetland is roughly level with Anchorage, Alaska, and the bottom end of Greenland.  It’s about 200 miles from Bergen, in Norway, and over 600 miles from London.  Thankfully, they’re both marked on the map (thanks, Wikipedia!) up above the confusing stuff.

Here’s the plan.


[Edit – don’t think the map’s showing up as it should be – try this instead – https://www.google.com/maps/@55.357832,-3.658619,5z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!6m1!1szZYTuYtj57uU.k2f-gGvpi1Xo – and if that doesn’t work, either, I need to do some sort of Google Maps course…]

I’m setting sail for the Isles of Scilly tomorrow morning (Friday), and then heading over to Land’s End, which is back on the mainland.  Then it’s back up to Bristol for my first day off (I’ll hopefully update the ‘Progress’ page on the website with some more realistic stats and maps while I’m there).  Then it’s up through the Welsh borders and Liverpool to Lancashire, then another ferry to the Isle of Man (I know, I know, it’s not in the UK).  From there to Northern Ireland, then across to Scotland, and all the way up to the top of Great Britain.  Then Orkney, then Shetland.

Roughly a month, and there are quite a few ferries involved…

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The Beastlet has recovered well from its conversion to a touring bike.  New wheels, a mountain-bike chainset, and the mandatory racks have made it considerably heavier, but it feels pretty rugged, and rides really nicely with the bags on.  All should be well.

And Cornwall, which I’ve unforgivably never visited before, looks lovely (if very hilly).  This picture is looking out from Penzance; the castle on the hill in the distance is St Michael’s Mount, which is more-or-less an island.

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So, a day-trip with minimal cycling tomorrow to get things kicked off.  Then the business of touring begins in earnest on Saturday.

Shetland, here I come!