Ireland, October 2015

Ireland – land of Guinness and Leprachauns? Yes, and, well, I’m not superstitious!

Home of the Dunlop motorbike road racing dynasty? Absolutely.

AirBnB – Bed and breakfast without the breakfast? Not this time.
Accommodation on the cheap? Nope, well, certainly good value, but definitely didn’t feel cheap!
Luxury? Yep, well, certainly felt like it!

Going to Ireland in October is a bit of a gamble weather wise, but we were lucky and got pretty damned good weather. Not exactly toasty, but largely dry, and to be honest that’s probably the best you can expect.

The ferries – Stenna vs P&O

Thanks to differing sailing times, and the fact that neither Stenna nor P&O seem to offer any discount on a return trip, we sailed to Ireland with Stenna and back from Ireland with P&O.

Bike friendly? – both were very friendly at check in and security and guided us to the head of the queue for boarding. On board the ties down positions were spookily similar, Stenna’s tie down straps were thinner than the ones used by P&O, but the P&O guy was a bit over zealous with the ratchet and really crushed the seat down, the Stenna staff did a more careful job. Stenna wins that one.

Onboard comfort – Stenna ferry was bigger, so the forward lounge had more space. The only down side being a lot of the seating was against the forward windows, so you would be sitting with your back to the window – P&O on the other hand have lots of tables and chairs at the front windows – this is important to any traveller who tends to suffer from motion sickness – a clear view to the horizon can really help stave off the onset or severity of the motion sickness. That said, comfort and space wise, Stenna was better, so overall I’d call that a draw.

Onboard food – We thought Stenna was a little on the dear side, but after sailing back on P&O we discovered that Stenna was around 25% cheaper on board for meals than P&O, so Stenna wins again.

Cost wise there wasn’t really much to choose between them, we only went with the different operators to get sailing times that suited us.

Overall then, Stenna wins the ferry battle.

The plan – 5 days, 4 nights.

Day 1 – Ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast (would have gone from Troon, but that service ends at the end of September), head north around the Antrim coast, pop into southern Ireland via Derry into Donegal, staying near Letterkenny.

Day 2 – take the coast road around the westerly bulge, part of the wild atlantic way, Glenveigh national park, and finish up in Ballbofey.

Day 3 – head a little east and south, take in ? and Enniskillen, crossing back through Northern Ireland even though we’re heading south.. stay near Drumsna.

Day 4 – head further east and come North, visit NewGrange, a 5,000 year old burial site, finish up near Carilngford

Day 5 – north up to Larne, ferry to Cairnryan and head home.

Originally I had thought we’d try and do the entire Irish coast – but that would have been way too long – we could have managed it, but it would mean long, long days in the saddle and not many opportunities to stop and smell the flowers. So I worked out some shorter routes, and we’re keeping the rest of the south of Ireland for another trip.

day 1

Antrim is very pretty, lovely coast road with enough twisties to keep me happy. Heading west there’s a handy car park a mile or so before the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge that affords a nice view of the bridge.

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Along to Giant’s Causeway I sneaked the bike into the Hotel carpark and off we wandered, skipped by the visitor centre, down the road and grabbed a few photos on the causeway before the sun dipped below the horizon.

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It was getting dark by the time we walked back up to the bike, and here it’s worth noting that my preferred route mapping method (written instructions, held on my tank bag so I can glance down and see them) work great in daytime, but it’s pretty useless after dark! Time then to dig the satnav out and let it take us to the accommodation in the dark.

We stopped in for fuel near Derry and grabbed some food and wine for dinner, squeezing the various bits and pieces into any and all available spaces in the panniers.

That first night we stayed in a cottage – someone’s house – Maria – only Maria wasn’t there, she was away on holiday, but she did have a house sitter – who was away to a concert! So we recovered the house key from the prearranged spot, let ourselves in, had dinner, stayed over, had breakfast, tidied up, locked up and headed off. To be entrusted with someone’s house, someone we’d never even met, is a huge privilege and honour, and no way would we leave the place in a mess. Sharon was in her element, running around feeding all the cats, talking to the cows in the field next door, and a random friendly spaniel that appeared.

The wild atlantic way around Donegal is very pretty indeed, the landscape varies more than I’d have expected, but also has a seen a huge amount of housing development – I don’t mean big housing estates, just lots, and lots, and LOTS of big detached houses, and it felt like they were everywhere! It’s a damned shame in my view, it’s like there’s not really any beginning or end to some villages, they just run one into the other, and never enough density of housing to suggest a village centre… it’s weird…. Do bear in mind though that this is just my impression after over 100 miles of road – it’s not ALL houses, there are a few bits devoid of them… not many though…

day 2

We took a couple of detours off the main road, one into Glenveigh National park – very pretty

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Sharon spotted a ruined church, down a road signposted as the ‘Poisoned Glen’ – Google maps says it’s Dunlewey – The Lonely Planet explains how it got it’s name :

Legend has it that the huge ice-carved hollow of the Poisoned Glen got its sinister name when the ancient one-eyed giant king of Tory, Balor, was killed here by his exiled grandson, Lughaidh, whereupon the poison from his eye split the rock and poisoned the glen. The less interesting truth, however, lies in a cartographic gaffe. Locals were inspired to name it An Gleann Neamhe (The Heavenly Glen), but when an English cartographer mapped the area, he carelessly marked it An Gleann Neimhe – The Poisoned Glen.

We rode down and parked up outside the ruined church – built around 1830 and includes a lot of local white marble

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The next (random!) detour took us off to the west of the main road – we found ourselves at Donegal Airport!

We came inland for the Friday night, to Ballybofey – the planned dinner stop – a hotel/restaurant at the junction of the road we had to take wasn’t there – which didn’t help as that also meant I missed the road and had to find a place to get turned. With no other food options nearby we road on past our accommodation and on into the town centre. Riding slowly through town in the dark and rain looking for a place to have dinner we were filled with indecision – never good to be indecisive on a bike… happily the slow speed of the traffic let us ride slowly and look for options. After turning in a handy carpark we came back through town again and I found a handy place to park the bike up a few metres away from a Chinese restaurant I’d spotted.

I’m always nervous leaving the bike parked in roadside parking areas – worried a reversing car might hit it….

The restaurant was quiet – hmmmm – thank god it got busy! I don’t trust a quiet restaurant in a town centre on a Friday night!!

Suitably stuffed we returned to the thankfully unscathed bike and as we were getting the kit on some moron in a big 4×4 almost reversed into me, standing beside the bike – only shouting and a slap on the car from Sharon stopped the car going further – the driver made a one word apology and drove off – OK, it was dark, and wet, but I’m 6’6” for christ sake – how the hell didn’t he see me, right behind him? I despair!

Our host that night was Bernard, in his lovely house. The AirBnB reviews hinted that Bernard could talk the hind legs off a donkey – they weren’t far wrong – and that’s not a complaint! After settling into our room we nipped back downstairs to ask if we could make a cuppa, well, that was us chatting away happily with Bernard until it was time to call it a night – entertainment at its best and not a drop of alcohol in sight.

day3

The Saturday run took us south, and thanks to the odd and seemingly random border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, we left Ireland, into Northern Ireland, and then back into Ireland, all while heading south. Just seems odd to me. The only thing to give it away was the different roadsigns – apart from miles vs kilometres on the signs, the style is different too, and the system not quite as helpful…. For example in the UK it’s normal to have an advance sign for a junction, followed by a finger sign at the junction itself, but not in Euro land, there all you got was the sign AT the junction, not so handy as you rocket past it… The road signs seem to assume everyone knows where they’re going and just need the odd reminder….

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The route took less time than I’d planned so we made a detour up around Lough Allen and stopped in at the canal lock in Drumshanbo for a gander and to use the facilities. The road up out of the carpark was steep – with pillion and full luggage it was interesting having to stop at the top of the exit – the front of the bike was so light! Not much traction on the front until we were actually on the road and able to turn – that was one wide turn!

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Our host for that night, Cat, wasn’t at the house when we arrived. Thankfully it wasn’t raining. We were wondering what to try after texts and calls gave no joy when a car pulled in, only this turned out to be the other guests for that night. Two lovely girls from Alaska, one rather painfully shy. Turns out this was their 2nd visit to the house that day in an attempt to get in…. they’d turned up an hour earlier to find no-one at home, gone for a drive, and come back an hour later to find us there, and still no sign of Cat.

We chatted to them for maybe a quarter of an hour and then Cat turned up, looking suitably harassed and highly apologetic. Running a household with 4 young kids is hectic and clearly she was being kept more than busy with this lot! We got settled into the biggest bedroom I’ve ever seen. It had two double beds and a big en-suite, yet still had so much space it made the beds look small. Outside the bedroom, on the upstairs landing (huge!) was comfy seating, tea and coffee facilities, biscuits etc. With the kids clearly still very active downstairs we settled onto the bed with our books, and after a while we were both so drowsy we gave up and went to sleep – it was only 9:30! I guess we needed the sleep, we were out like lights. We had to apologise to Cat the following morning – as we sat eating breakfast in her massive kitchen. I believe in taking people as you find them, and Cat was lovely, if a little harassed by her brood of hyperactive children!

day 4

Sunday was our last day, a bit of motorway like road had me bored pretty quickly so I looked for an alternative route that would keep us off the main roads. That was a definite improvement. We stopped in at the Newgrange site – leaving the lids and tank bag at the visitor centre we got the bus up to the Newgrange site – remarkable to consider it pre-dates Stonehenge by one thousand years, and the great pyramids by five hundred years! Although the external walls have had to be rebuilt, inside the site is amazing – 5,000 years old and still watertight!! We had the warmest weather of the trip here – should have brought the water bottles off the bike along with us. We were parched by the time we got back to the bike.

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More back roads, a few probable wrong turns, but what the hey, we were going in the right direction, and soon we were in Carnlough on the east coast. We found a good spot to park the bike in the street and got dinner in a pub. After dinner I was very glad to be leaving the town – noisy, although, to be fair, I think the rugby was on and Ireland were playing!

Since it was now dark, the satnav was again pressed into service and we found our way to our final night’s accommodation. Turning into the driveway I wondered if there was some mistake… the grounds were so big, the house so big, I wondered if it was a private school… Pulling up beside the house we could see someone sitting in the kitchen, who turned out to be a friend of the host, Eve, who’d been called away at short notice. After a brief tour of the huge house, we were handed the keys and left on our own once more, in someone else’s house! We sat in one of the lounges, wondering at the space, the furnishings, the potential view… it was pitch dark…

The morning revealed the true grandeur of the house and its location – just stunning. They had three living rooms… The kitchen had a full size Aga, plus a ‘normal’ cooker beside it – and the kitchen was so vast the cooker didn’t look all that big!

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Views from the house were amazing, up to the hills. Just gorgeous. What treat to stay here – and what a privilege to be trusted with the care of such an amazing house!

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Monday was simply a case of get to the ferry, and get home. The only nice road was from Carnlough up to the motorway, and then just a zoom to Larne. We diverted off the main road at Larne to find a petrol station before going to the ferry as we had loads of time. The weather was cooler today, windy, and the odd sharp shower. Happily the showers stayed away while we waited to board the ferry, but Sharon had to don her helmet long before then just to keep the chill off her neck and ears.

We’d planned to get lunch on board the ferry – but the prices were crazy, so we settled for some sarnies and crisps. That was fine really as although I wasn’t actually feeling sea sick, the feeling was always there that it wasn’t far away… I’m not great company on a ferry, I go quiet and pretty much just stare out the window. It’s just my way of avoiding/coping with motion sickness. Happily, although it was a little rough, it really didn’t amount to much movement on the ferry and I was fine.

Going back down to the bike it felt very odd that we were the only bike on the ferry – I’ve not taken the bike on many ferry crossings – this one was only my sixth – but this was the first where I was the only bike… something nice about the camaraderie of other bikes around you. Oh well.

Getting off the ferry and heading north up the A77 the weather stayed pretty dry and I could have a bit of a play in the corners, and nipping past traffic from the ferry. Once we reached Ayr and the start of the dual carriageway, that was the end of the fun, and it was just a case of stick to the limits and get home. Boring, but necessary.

The road system in Ireland is broadly equivalent to the UK – M is motorway, N is an A road, R is a B road, but the signs aren’t the best.

Some of the N roads are pretty major – no fun on a motorbike. There’s an interesting system on some of the N roads – it’ll be wide, still one lane in each direction, but each lane has a kind of hard shoulder on the nearside, lined off by a broken orange line – sometimes vehicles joining the road turn into the road and use that ‘hard shoulder’ as an acceleration lane before merging in – sometimes joggers are using it…. sometimes a slower vehicle will move left, into that area, to allow a faster vehicle to go by without it having to encroach into the oncoming lane..

So, Ireland – not always the best roads, but good, and a beautiful place, wonderful people – a fantastic destination for a holiday. The recession hit Ireland very hard, and there are signs of that here and there. House prices are still very depressed, because there’s still precious little employment outside the cities – every so often you see part finished buildings – big grand houses that are unfinished and now going to ruin – presumably started in the good times and abandoned after the recession hit and the money ran out. Sobering. But the spirit of Ireland feels like it’s still very much there.

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