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Biking from Canterbury to Belfast
Bob Moen's Tour de U.K. 1998
Wednesday, June 10th, 1998 - Dispatch #5

Belfast, N. Ireland
The temperatures have been in the low 60s and high 50s, just fine for Bike riding, since I generate plenty of heat as I ride. Mostly I've been only been wearing a long sleeve T-shirt under my biking jersey. Occasionally I'll put on a light jacket to keep warm. But today it's windy and cold, probably no more than 50-55 degrees, so I'm quite pleased to sitting here in the cyber cafe.

I go to sleep exhausted and wake up only tired--a net gain so I'm not complaining. My legs are getting stronger each day. A big-time appetite has kicked in, which I accommodate as often as I can. In addition to real food, I make regular visits to each village's bakery for freshly baked tarts and cookies. I figure I consume at least an additional 3,000 calories each day I ride.

The joy of the wind has been dampened by rain. While I've been lucky that the major storms have passed through at night and the daily rain showers have been relatively mild, I'm still getting too wet for my taste.

One squall caught me square on the jaw. Thinking it was just another short, mild shower I sought shelter under a tree. When I realized the raindrops were making holes in the leaves I formulated plan B. I made a quick 10 yard dash to a barn which I thought would protect me from the driving rain. But, as I mentioned in an earlier dispatch, the buildings here in the UK do not have eves, so once I got to the barn I had all the water from the roof pouring down onto me. Time for Plan C. I made another dash, this time across the road which was now 3" deep with water to a school bus stop shelter. Safe at last! Then, of course, the rain stopped and I was soaking wet.

I'd like to make a point here on how the UK and Irish roads are engineered. Unlike in the U.S., here they build them below the grade of the surrounding land. Instead of water draining off the road, it actually drains onto the road, effectively making the roads into canals. The road builders compensate for this by installing storm drains and, presumably, a network of pipes under the roads. They even put curbs on country roads! This all blows me away. Road building has got to be real expensive proposition here. But who am I to say, it may cost less than raising the height of the roads 6 or 8 inches.

Immediately after the storm I came onto about thirty cows walking in the road. I thought, "How quaint, an old fashioned cattle drive." Then I realized that no one was accompanying these lost, confused animals. Apparently the storm had blown down a gate and they had escaped. The red car in front of me took charge and gently herded them back down the road. A car coming the other direction did the same. Soon the entire herd was reunited. "How cool," I thought, "this is mankind at his finest." But now what? The cows grew agitated, started bellowing and milling about. It was utter confusion (sorry). The car coming from the other direction gently parted the herd and passed on through. This emboldened Mr. Shiny Red Car in front of me to do the same. He started through the herd with me riding right behind. He was my icebreaker.

Then, Mr. Shiny Red Car, who apparently cared more about his paint job then my life, stopped. Yikes! I had watched enough "Rawhide" as a kid to know that Rowdy Yates (a.k.a. Clint Eastwood) would never dismount his steed in the middle of a stampede, so neither would I. I eased my way around Mr. Shiny Red Car only to be greeted by a big, big brown-eyed cow who bellowed right in my face. "Excuse me, Ma'am," I muttered as I zigged to my left only to find two calves blocking my path. They can't possibly kick as hard as their moms, I figured, so I forced my way between them--actually scraping one with my bike bags. "What are you doing to my child," must have been on the mind of the cow who then started rushing toward me. I quickly accelerated away from her and, thankfully, to freedom. When I looked back I saw Mr. Shiny Red Car still surrounded by the herd. Frankly, I hope they did a tap dance on his roof.

Back to where I left off a few days ago: From Galway City, I headed west along the coast. This part of western Ireland was scraped clean by glaciers during the last ice age, so rather than agricultural land, it has a lot of smooth rock and rounded mountains. Its a barren and sparsely inhabited area. The mountains are beautiful. But from my point of view as a bike tourer, their real beauty lies in the fact that, although they soar spectacularly up to a height of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, there are numerous passes between them with summits of only a few hundred feet. Man, that's having your cake and eating it to.

As I headed inland over and between the mountains, I discovered many peat bogs. Bogs are formed where, due to poor drainage, spaghum moss (I don't know if its always spaghum moss) gains a foothold. The moss accumulates as it dies, retaining a lot of water, and a bog is formed. Since peat is still used as fuel for heat, many of the bogs had neat rows of freshly dug peat laid out for drying. A special shovel is used to harvest the peat. It scoops out a slug of about 3 inches square and 10 inches long. Once dried these slugs go directly into fireplaces and stoves. On cold, rainy days the distinctive smell of burning peat is quite noticeable in the smaller, poorer, more remote villages. It reminds me a lot of burning leaves.

"Due to acidity and lack of oxygen in the peat, fragile organic artifacts are occasionally preserved, which would have disintegrated long ago in any other environment. These countless relics, some of them 5000 years old, include Iron Age wooden highways, preserved bodies and wooden wheels and buckets. Among more recent items found were 300-you-old packets of cheese and butter." according to Lonely Planets' travel guide on Ireland. I have read about a corpse being found in a bog that was clearly a murder victim. The local officials opened a case file on it until they realized it was several thousand years old. Solve that one, Columbo. Also, many hoards of silver and gold which were buried in advance of ancient invaders are now being found as the peat is harvested.

That night I put into port at a small of village named Leenane (now immortalized by a current play, Beauty Queen from Leenaun). It actually was an extremely small fishing and wool village, surrounded by soaring mountains, situated at the end of a ten mile fjord. There, in a pub, I met and compared notes with another biker. He was from Montreal, had just submitted his dissertation for his doctorate on cancer research and was in the middle of a two-month tour throughout the U.K.

The following day I made it all the way to Ballina, a town again located at the end of another outlet to the North Atlantic. On my way there I almost caused an international incident when I stopped for a haircut. All I did was to walk into the shop, sit on the bench and wait for my turn. Soon after I sat down the guy next to me moved over a space to a spot that had just opened. "Boy, I should really wash these clothes," I thought. Oh well, I went back to half-dozing. Then another customer walks into the door and starts talking. Turns out he was talking to me, but I wasn't listening. Soon he said something in disgust, walked in front of me and sat next to me, still muttering. Well, as soon as he moved down the bench away from me I figured out that it was not my clothes--although it sure could been. It turns out that in Irish barber shops you move down the bench when the guy on the end gets up to get his haircut. This always leaves the end space on the bench near the door open for the next guy who walks into the door.

The next day was a real pedal-to-the-metal day so I could meet my Irish friends, Sally and Eddie, in Bundoran, a resort town on the Sligo coast. They were driven up from County Cavan. I barely made it in time--it was that last darned castle that I had to photograph. It sure was nice to have a social evening, full of conversation, after being on the road alone for a couple weeks. That night I stayed in a wonderful B&B, the Magheracar House (Tel: 072-41438). The owners let me stay until 3 PM the following day until the rain cleared. They even surprised me with a lunchtime tray of sandwiches.

Before I sign off, I want to say how pleased I am to see that Ireland is prospering the way it is. New houses are being built everywhere. Most outsiders will be surprised to know that it has taken Ireland 150 years to recover from the 1845 potato famine. Then Ireland had a population of 8 million, now it only has 4 million people--its been in reverse for that long. Generation after generation of Ireland's best and brightest have emigrated to other countries, leaving behind a poor, struggling society. Now, due to the many high-tech companies which have come to Ireland (and for other reasons I'm sure) young people are staying because they have a future.

So if you want to come see the quaint, old Ireland you'd better hurry. Soon there won't be any donkeys pulling carts, or peat burning stoves, or bad roads--thank God!

Tomorrow I catch the super-fast catamaran ferry to Stranraer, Scotland. Stay tuned...

Dispatch #6
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