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In the trail of Brian "Rua" O'Cearbhain
On the backroads of the West of Ireland (Mayo by bicycle.)
1. The Westport to Achill Railway
"D'tiocfad an la nuair a bead rota iarainn ar coirti teinaead o dear agus o tuadh"
"The day will come when there will be iron wheels on fire carriages from the south and the north"
Brian Rua U'Cearabhain was born in Erris, County Mayo in 1648, but his eyes saw much further than the century in which he would live.
I awoke one morning in Portland, Oregon, in the United States of America, recalling a surreal dream, which seemed to suggest that I should return home to follow and write of the Westport to Achill Railway line which carried it's last train in 1937.
The line sprawls itself, in a now grassy and overgrown bank of a graveyard trail, through hawthorn hedges, grassy cuttings and bogs, from Westport Rail Station to Achill Sound.
I had followed the trail in soul and thought, through the windows of an automobile, for probably the previous ten years, marvelling at the twists and turns, in may places now bog roads, which carried it over and under bridges out of Westport, across the Castlebar road and down through Kilmeena, through tunnels and across the marvellous nine arch Newport Viaduct, before hitting the inhospitable Mulranney peninsula and finally marvelling how, after disappearing from view, it emerged from the turf banks on the approach to Achill Sound, to arrive at it's final and even still proud and defiant destination.
On my return, I dredged through rolls of old Newspaper microfiche in Castlebar Library, in the hope of unlocking and releasing some hint of a dead spirit which drove an older generation to fight their way through the most Western depths of a hell which Cromwell called Connaught.
West Mayo folklore has it that O'Cearabhain, foretold of "Carriages on iron wheels, blowing smoke and fire" which on their first and last journeys would carry corpses.
The Westport Achill line, like the Galway Clifden line, was almost a personal project of the Chief Secretary for Ireland of the time, one A.J. Balfour M.P. So much so indeed that the lines became known as the "Balfour lines".
Following legislation enacted in 1889, the Midland and Great Western Railway undertook to construct a new railway link connecting Westport with Achill Sound.
In 13th May 1895 the Midland Great Western Railway opened the entire stretch of its Westport to Achill Railway line having previously opened the Westport to Newport stretch on 2nd February 1894 and the Newport to Mulranney stretch on 16 July, respectively.
In an announcement on the Connaught Telegraph of 18th May 1895, the attractions of journing to Achill by the new railway were expanded as follows;
"THE NEW RAILWAY TO ACHILL - OPENING OF THE EXTENSION LINE FROM MULRANNEY: The opening of the above line will be agreeable news for pleasure seekeres as it affoards tourists and excursionists opportunities, hitherto unavailable, for spending a holiday amid the seaboard scenery of Mayo, washed by the Atlantic". It goes on to say, later in the passage;"It should surely interest touristss from England, the Continent and America to see and study the Irish of these Atlantic Islands as they really are, and not as they are described by people who have only the most cursoary accquaintance with their lives, charachter or habits. They are hospitable in the extreme, courteous and attentives to strangers and never weary of showing them civility."
One must wonder is this statement made in pareticular reference to a recent
scandalous publication "The Playboy and the Yellow Lady"based upon about events on Achill, in which a local man by the name of Lynchehaun, was charged with raping the daughter of the local landed gentry. Local opinion was more in favour of the idea that the alleged assualt might be better described as a seduction.
The trial and surrounding notriety of Lynchecaun had attracted great attention from the media as far as London and further.
This piece of course was to be the precursor of an even more contetious publication some years later by one JM Synge who would write his "Playboy of the Western World" partially based and inspired by this story.
PICTURES OF ACHILL STATION SHOWIN FREIGHT YARDS, etc CIRCA 1910
Achill is a foreign soil, even to the people of Mayo. In my youth, before I had the opportunity to venture overseas, I had always regarded my forays to Achill as a departure from the mainland of Ireland, thus constituting a vague form of temporary emigration.
There is an old sepia photograph in Castlebar railway station of a steam locomotovie with three carriages labouring on the Achill line just beyond Mulranney, where the line swept out towards the sea inlet before encoutering the final leg of it's journey along the Currane peninsula. It is photographs such as this which awaken the senses to the past and drive one to dig deeper into a romantic yet harsh past, in an age where Ireland still struggled for a proper birth.
I had long decided that the only way to fully appreciate and experience the trail would be to follow it as truly as possible, by bicycle.
Like many sudden impulses which one is compelled to follow, I thought I should investigate the possibility of accquiring a different bicycle for this undertaking. I already had in my possession a touring bike which had for the previous five years served as my faithful and loyal two wheeled companion any time I felt the urge to travel by such mode. I reasoned it was both unfair and possibly disrespectful to expect this seasoned companion, which had seen me across Europe and on numerous trips up and down to Galway and around the West of Ireland, to accompany me on a terrain which posed the prospect of severity in parts. In any case, with a vague ambition to conquer St Patrick's holy mountain by bike, sometime in the future, in the back of my mind, I resolved to go in search of a mountain bike.
There tends to be a school of thought in modern fashion physche which dictates that in order to partake in a particular activity, you must first surround and equip yourself with the "best" and some how coincidencally, the most expensive equipment and rig out necessary for your planned new pursuit.
I suspect that this in itself is one of the main driving tools of the fashion industry, which drives the poor pathetic 'slave to fashion' to comply with the dictates of an all powerful pressure grouping in the mistaken belief that they must be in possesion of the best of equipment and the top of the range in apperel, before they can sample partaking in a new activity.
The presently hip activity of cycling is one of the tragically afflicted activies which has been targeted by the fashion gurus, who preach a mantra of austentatious and astroinomic spending in order to participate in what should be, and can be, a very cheap and incredibly enjoyable activity.
I am afflicted by an additional problem with this, in that the pricing policy of fashionable cycling has the effect of turning many potential cyclists off the idea, and therefore I am deprived of the companionship of countless potential cyclists.
It was therefore partly because of this abhorence of the "fashion" element of cycling that I decided on a basic second-hand mountain bike for my new purchace.
I had a good idea of a specification listing in my head; Good Name, Light Frame, Good Gear Range, Good Alloy Rims, Solid wheel construction, Good Brakes. All in all, a basic reliable servicable solid mountain bike.
I found what I was looking for in a local second hand bicycle dealer.
A 'Giant' Mountain bike with 18 gears and the added bonus of mudguards, a rear carrier and a dynamo.
The machine set me back £100.00 and on the first day I rode it twenty miles over dirt tracks, across rivers, along the railway track and through bumpy fields with foot high grass. Bar a break to fix an existing slow puncture, the bike performed and responded as I expected and fully lived up to my requirments.
I was satisfied, indeed thrilled, with my totally unextravagant purchace.
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A Relatively Normal Madness
The Trip: Ireland to
Istanbul Israel with a bicycle, Autumn 1997
(It would have been Istanbul but a carpet shagged me)This is an extract of a book I have written. If you'ld like to read the rest CLICK HERE
In the Autumn of 1997, when most people were thinking of Christmas or planning next year's summer holiday's, Peter Jordan set off on a bicycle trip from Ireland to Istanbul. Along the way confronted by intense loneliness, homesickness, a marked absence of fellow travellers and, in the midst of El Ninõ, he persevered in pursuit of a dream.
En route he encounters uneven roads, a collapsed wheel, torrential rains, hard sell carpet salesmen, resourceful beggars and goes through many many spoke changes in a losing battle to keep his bike mobile. Along with dipping into his carry-on reading material and any other literary reference he comes upon on the road, he also compiles a repertoire of songs with significance from his past and relevance for his present.
His closest friends, for much of the journey, turn out to be his bike and his radio but he also develops something of an attachment to several inanimate objects, such as plastic shopping bags and bottles. To occupy any remaining time and satisfy superstition, he is enslaved to a series of eccentric traveller's quirks, somewhat mind-boggling in their strange logic. And in true traveller's style he also embarks on a journey in search of himself.
This is an account of his travels.
When I was quite young I received, and read eagerly, a copy of Tim Severen's Brendan Voyage from an aunt. It struck a chord somewhere deep within me. In my childhood years I undertook great explorations and treks around the farmland surrounding my home. I recall, at one stage, drawing up and attempting to implement plans to build a dugout canoe with a view to navigating the local river (stream) to source. This was but one of many similar plans, some more successful than others, although the aquatic plans never tended to be as successfully realised as those overland. Even so the treks never brought me particularly far afield. My dreams always seemed to exceed the boundaries of practicability. I was fascinated by the copies of old ordnance survey maps which my local schoolmaster had at the school. I poured over the facsimiles noting the natural features of interest and the dispersal of buildings now in ruins or utterly changed. With my first bicycle the geographical possibilities became marginally wider, but the move to Secondary school quelled and near extinguished my spirit for adventure and I all but resigned myself to a life of normality and conformity, aspiring to a career and material wealth to provide the necessary trappings of a modern life.
But then I read Dervla Murphy.
After reading Full Tilt I was hooked, captured and converted to the world of the bicycle oddessy.
I started with a couple of jaunts from London, where I lived at the time, across the channel to spend the Easter holidays cycling in Northern France.
In 1991 with very itchy feet, severe dissatisfaction in my work, and inspired by Full Tilt, I began planning to visit my friend in Eastern Europe which would involve crossing Europe by bicycle, alone - I couldn't convince anyone to come with me.
In the summer of 1992, I took 3 months leave of absence from my job and cycled home from London to Mayo before setting off on a cross Europe trek to a friend who lived in Lubjiania in Slovenia, a newly independent republic of the fragmented and strife-torn former Yugoslavia.
And out of this came somehow the idea of Istanbul and a trip that would bring me completely and officially across all of Europe to the edge of Asia.
It was a five-year dream that reddened the ears and wearied those close to me. My great plan to cycle to Istanbul. The great conversation piece, icebreaker, crazy idea, attention getter, attempt to impress and in reality it seemed that it might never really come about.
For five years I coveted the dream, planned sometimes optimistically, sometimes apathetically. And whenever a job seemed to be coming to an end or was getting to restrictive and stuffy to bear much longer, I turned to the escapism twilight of my dream and visualised long sunny days on the saddle somewhere in Europe and the anticipation made reality bearable.
And a few times in the five years it seemed to be closer.
Like the plan for the summer months of 1994 after I finished my second stint in college for a year as a mature student or when I'd almost arranged leave of absence from a job in the Spring of 1995. In the late Spring of 1996 I returned from 3 months in the US with no real job prospect and it seemed that this might finally be the time. In a bank account in England I had the remnants of an escape fund which I tried to keep topped up for whenever the day might come. But I had to repeat an exam in college and that thwarted my summer travel plans that year. My leave of absence went un-availed of when a girlfriend talked me out of the idea (For the time being!). Shortly after returning from America, I was confronted by two job offers that were difficult to refuse or cycle away from.
And then in the summer of 1997, amidst the mass tourism of Killarney, the pieces began to fall into place and I finally began to plan in earnest as my feet became ever itchier and yet another job became just a little too much to bear. At this stage I began to announce openly my intentions and even to speculate on a probable departure date.
I revised my packing list and began to arrange my finances.
I retrieved a bird-shit covered Pedro, my faithful travelling companion of 5 years, from the garage after a 2-year temporary retirement and dispatched him for an overhaul.
I'm listening to the radio on Saturday morning. On a programme called Talk Radio on RTE Radio One, Ray Darcy is seeking people with stories to tell, of chance meeting in strange places. I am camped at the ferryport in Ringnaskiddy in Cork on the morning of my departure from Ireland. I recall meeting a girl I knew from Ballinrobe one morning in 1992 sitting outside a camping site in Salzburg in Austria which I was leaving and she was waiting to get into. What struck me as the strangest part about it was I had dreamed about her and her family about two nights previously in Slovenia.
Figuring this was the sort of thing that might be of interest to the programme producer I go to the telephone callbox in the Ferry terminal building and proceed to redial until I got through to the researcher to whom I relate the story.
Ten minutes later they call me back and, after a sound check, I'm on air, talking to Ireland.
I preface the story I've actually called up to relate by mentioning that I'm about to embark on a trip to Istanbul by bicycle. Ray Darcy is actually quite captivated by this and wants to know the details. I give a brief rundown of my loose itinerary and he wonders whether I shall cycle over the Pyrenees. I express the hope that I shall. He sounds like he would like to discuss it further but we are both conscious of time ticking away on this brief vox pop and so he moves on to my chance meeting story. It somehow seems less, overshadowed by our opening conversation.
The story told, he wishes me luck on my travels and then is gone - on to another interview.
When I call home from the terminal building to say a final goodbye, my brother confirms having heard me, whilst my mother has just received a phone call from an old friend of mine in Donegal who hadn't been sure of my whereabouts until she heard the interview. No point in looking for me in Ireland now though. I'm about to leave.
On my way onto the ship at the check in area, the receptionist asks whether I am the person cycling to Turkey, who'd been on the radio in the morning. When I confirm that it is I, she shows me a note on the computer from all at Brittany Ferries who want to wish me good luck and bon voyage on my journey.
And that's it. I'm onto the first ferry of my trip and I'm ready to leave Ireland for I don't exactly know how long. I had delayed my departure for a week to witness Mayo losing their second all Ireland football final in 2 years and, on Wednesday 1st October 1997, loaded up the bike and set off from Breaffy to Cork to catch the ferry on the following Saturday.
Aboard a ship peopled almost entirely with returning French holidaymakers, it being the last sailing out of Ireland for the year, from the beginning I begin to feel like I am on foreign ground. And even as we sail out between Haulbowline and Cobh past Spike Island and Roches Point lighthouse the mental acclimatisation into French mode is underway. I'm trying to recall useful phrases and words for necessities which I figure will probably prove useful (or essential!) upon my arrival on French soil.
In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from London to, what was then, Constantinople, by foot. In the first part of his account of the journey; A Time of Gifts, he talks about his equally low key departure from Irongate Wharf on the Thames in London aboard a Dutch steamer, the Stadhounder Willem;
"The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon - feeling, suddenly forlorn; but only for a moment - to be setting off from the heart of London! No beetling cliffs, no Arnoldian crash of pebbles. I might have been leaving for Richmond, or for a supper of shrimps and whitebait at Gravesend, instead of Byzantium"
On the ferry I sit down to write the first hesitant pages of my journal: "I realise I must begin somewhere..." Reflecting on the variance between airports and ferry ports brought about by a visit to Cobh and my experience of Ringaniskiddy ferry port I write: "To me airports are places of great excitement and adventure which exude a sense of happiness even in departures, whereas marine ports carry an air of sadness and melancholy. This sadness, anxiety even, that infringes upon my impending departure from an Ireland I love deeply is probably compounded or heightened all the more by my visit to the Cobh heritage centre which houses an audio visual exhibition documenting the story of Cobh as a marine port. The exhibition is so powerful and emotional that a number of times I was almost driven to tears as the shivers ran down my spine and the lump welled in my throat amidst mock-ups of coffinship interiors and lists of emigration statistics from the port between 1800 and 1950."
With not much happening on board I situate myself in the aft facing Pullman lounge and, as the last traces of Cork disappear over the horizon, begin to reflect on the couple of days which have seen me cycle the 85 miles from Castlebar to Doolin for a reunion with my brother home on holidays from Israel.
Over a few pints in McGanns in Doolin, his girlfriend and himself decided to accompany me down to Killarney to revisit and say a final goodbye to the many friends I'd made there. We put the bike in the boot of the car and headed for Killarney. Over another few pints in Yer Mans pub in Killarney they fell upon the idea of visiting Blarney castle the next day, and since it was more of less in the direction of Ringnaskiddy, I again figured I might as well travel with them, with the bike loaded into the boot of the car.
After climbing to the top of the castle in Blarney to "snog the famous stone" we set off in the direction of Cork City. Then, at a roundabout on the main Mallow Cork road, about six miles outside the city, they turned north towards Limerick and I unloaded my bike from the car to head south towards the city while they commented on what an unlikely and inconsequential insignificant place it was to say goodbye. Departing, I promise to meet him in Tel Aviv for his birthday on the 28th November.
As I lay back on a Pullman seat, listening to a book review of the third Lifelines Poetry anthology, I promise to get myself a Christmas present of a copy, provided I'm back in Ireland by then. But, for now, Christmas seems so far off....
To continue reading CLICK HERE
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Ireland to Istanbul by bike (Temporarily Postponed)
Most people thought I was mad, and the majority of them didn't believe me anyway so it was relatively easy to be mad.
I had a five year dream you see. It involved cycling to Istanbul.
Since I'd cycled from Ireland to Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, I'd been thinking of going further and gradually the idea of cycling to Istanbul began to take shape.
Between one thing and another, mostly the necessity to work and earn a living, I just couldn't seem to get around to starting the great trip until October of 1997.
Mayo were after losing the All Ireland and the county was in something of a state of depression, so on the Wednesday after the tragic event (Well to Mayo people anyway!) I left my home near Castlebar and began to head for Cork to catch the ferry to Roscoff in France.
On the following Sunday I found myself on French soil with a bicycle laden with a tent, sleeping bag, ground mat, stove, a few clothes, a couple of candles, five books (in case I got bored) and a couple of other things including my very treasured SW radio.
It was a nice sunny day so I started heading south immediately figuring I'd keep following the sunshine.
Of course it couldn't last. The next day brought rain and wind which stayed with me all the way down the Atlantic coast until I passed through Biarratz into the beautiful Spanish (Basque) city of San Sebastian (Or Donostia as the basques prefer to call it). The sun was shining there so I stayed a couple of days before heading on again to link up with the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route half way between Burgos and Leon.
This episode cost me a back wheel. The pilgrim path was a bit too rough going for the bike.
After Santiago de Compostella I figured I might head down into Portugal. Unfortuantely as I passed throught they were having the worst rain in seventy years. I had to stay in Lisbon for five days to dry but I didn't mind. It's a nice city.
In Cadiz, back in Spain, I'd literally given up on the Istanbul dream when a new option began to fall into place. It meant heading across to Tangiers in Morrocco and from there back to Mediterranian France.
I arrived in Tangiers, and was instantly struck by a desire to get away again as soon as possible. Unfortuantely this wasn't possible for thirty hours so in the meantime I met a fellow called Mohammed who brought me to a Bazaar where I bought a carpet. He then passed me on to his friend Achmed who brought me to a restaurant where I bought us both a very expensive dinner.
Still thought the place kinda grows on you and I think I'd like to go back some time.
After that I ended up in Marsaille where I caught a ferry to Sardiana and from there another to Civitavecchia near Rome. I spent another five days in Rome, probably the most awe inspiring city I've ever been in in my life.
From Rome to Brindisi by bus (I cheated!) and then another ferry to Greece.
I got to Athens on the third of December. The dream of making it to Istanbul was still alive but time was rapidly running out. In the end I was forced to choose between a week in Israel or heading for Istanbul. The weather reports said it was 23 degrees and sunny in Tel Aviv so it helped me make up my mind.
I arrived in the Israeli post of Haifa after three days on a ferry from Athens.
The security men wanted to know the origon of my name. For some reason they had a suspicion about the name Jordan.
I started heading south towards Tel Aviv and nearing a town called Ceasarea on the Mediterranian the cycle computer clicked up mile number 2,100.
Hell of a trip. An awful extreme to go to just to send Christmas cards from Bethleham.
But then I'm probably a bit mad.
This is a poem induced by the smoking of some strange substances!
The (Di) vision
I shuddered as the combined forces
Exhilaration broke like a gasp of fresh air
This poem comes from my pained self loathing period!!!
I fell in love again today
I fell in love again today
I fell in love again today
Yet again it was a love
Now again the fuel has burned
The ongoing conflict
I schemed and plotted and planned
I viewed the prize again
Again I tried and shuddered and shook
And I withdrew to lick my wounds and plan my next assault
This is a poem inspired by the isolation and sense of madness that probably every budding poet or arty type person feels at some stage...
Elegy for a Dog
We called you Lucky all those years ago,
You waved your tail in a homecoming welcome
But it was inevitability rather than invincibility.
My greed tries to contend with
This poem was inspired by the life and suspicious and seemingly tragic death of the German Green activist..
Petra Kelly - In Memoriam
Just another blossom in the desert,
And we tried to comprehend the waste
A perfume in the stench
So we believed
Our ivory tower, Our rainforest pyre
And we tore our hair
And we forgot Petra Kelly
Heaven on earth
The heaven which I strive to find
I'm weary of the waiting
Take from me the chains and shackles of former days.
It was a calm and intricate night. The dudes had gathered from all corners of the locality. Pnajow canatheth ilynich can gombe and a bogoleen winkled down the bogalong. Ther brothers had assembled. Summoned by a dream by the cuf. The dreams flowed by the minions and a calafract woggled down the way. Bocachi ses he it'sd a pjngalong that is wingled on the boggedy.
Tada agus sishi agus bochich. Joe the neibor is goin dowbn from a severe stress on the higher or lower artery. Its a tragic situ that cometh from the scenario that thus is Tom. He that specify the connebaration of the Jordan dude. Tom that dissuade the pernpoberation of the psyche. And then cometh the exasparation of the Ger that walleth on the minueth of the constitution. The Quitest honnebarition of a silver screen, the best soundes of ever a panorama thast ever flowed forth which inspired all the callafracts forth. It was, in truth a noisy collection of sheep that eminated forth. Sheep that mewed and baaad and shook the solitude of a night spent in reflecton and rumination of a time wath.
And on the reflection of the wrath that flowed forth we reflected on what might be on a future age. Nudnijck went by the wallie and the bould Deasy ventured forth in a brave but distainful attmpt to escape the escaspade. Tom excasparates the fuk al of the bolik who perjurates the negativity of the matrimonal arrangment in a Roman church that he canneth quite comprehend nor wishes to investigate furhther. Chaucer intervens and a liturgy spews forth which makes sense to none but the most perjurated of the bology. Deasy ventures forth on a litany of perturbed Cuntry and westr'n repitoire of dismal solitude which echos the hopes and aspirations of a generation, nay a entire spectrum of an institution which wallows in a quagmire of monotony. Tom is okay but the entire sanity of the dudes must be questioned tom the full. Th influence of the grape, nay the seeed of the barley, barely camoflages the desolation of a percption clouded by the never never land of a permutation of obscurity.
Deasy ventures forth again on the lack of personality and soul of the dudes. The alarm system, early warning system, all preca\ttions and evantualities, even the casual precations of the hot press and draught free larder and top shelf failed us on thyis occcasion. An enquirer into the sacred psyche, a intervention onto the ritual and one of the duds was heard to question, what cometeth forth, what strange force drove forth thius intrusion onto the hstoric gathering. And why from this strange abberation doth come an abberation of possibilities. Why did the seduiction of the princip[al take place. Why did the Deasy insist insist on calling a hired omnibus,
And it was thus in a night that made no sense to all but the minority. Multiudes cannot appreciate the perceptions of a few.
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Portland to San Francisco by road, May 1996
I roll out of Portland, Oregon on a Wednesday morning in a four wheel drive Ford Explorer with a tank full of gas, which I'd got from one of those wonderful driveaway companies when you leave them your fingerprints and a deposit of $300.00. Christy Moore and Friends are singing to me from the stereo.
I head south on the I-5 and don't turn off until I am half way down the state of Oregon. Then I swing left and set off for the Pacific Ocean and the Sand Dune National Recreation Area.
The first chance I get to deposit the Portland dust off the soles of my feet is when I swing off the road to a viewing area overlooking the vast expanse of desert-like dunes stretching for miles, peppered with a stubble of brush and wiry grass.
Back on the road again and headed for the California Border. Stop for dinner in the lovely town of Brookings which straddles the border. It is a beautiful pleasant evening and the impending warmth of the Mediterranean climes of California is in evidence, Proof that I am truly headed south. Brookings it is said, enjoys an average annual temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It seems it is favorably placed to benefit from a warm Pacific current which washes upon its beaches.
I stop for the night in a park overlooking the ocean and sit for fifteen minutes staring out to sea while the sun sinks beautifully beneath the waves in a strawberry and orange dessert of colour. I lick my lips and lap it up, savouring the magnificence of what I am watching.
Sleep in my flea bag in the back of the truck comes in waves. At five in the morning I awake and in the twilight of dawn, shock my senses to life in the tingling waters of the Pacific. After stopping at the border crossing for the obligatory photo opportunity, I pass through the unmanned agricultural inspection station.My guide book tells me that Crescent City was destroyed by a tidal wave in 1966. Forgetting this significant detail, I skirt the town and only note the fact again some 20 miles further down the road.
I enter the Redwood country to pay homage to the giants
which Steinback called "ambassadors from another age". On the Avenue
of the Giants one is confronted by one's mortality and insignificance in the
face of some of the most awe inspiring vegetation on the planet. Many times I
stop the truck to get out and gaze up at these magnificent hulks which tower 300
feet above me. In Founders Grove, I stroll among them and pay homage. I visit respectfully the resting place of the Dyerville Giant. Estimated to be possibly 1,600 years old at the time of it's falling in 1991, it now straddles 370 feet of forest floor and still towers above me with it's 17 foot diameter trunk.
In Leggett, I drive through a tree in "Drive-thru tree park".
Back on the Road on the most westerly highway in the US, still headed south on highway-1, I pass through a little hamlet called Westport and stop to buy postcards to send to friends in Westport, County Mayo. The green fields sweeping down to the sea and the telegraph poles and the barbed wire fences and the cows remind me of the sea road around Clew Bay from Westport to Old Head.
Leave the Ocean and head inland to Sonoma Valley. I am drawn to a little village by a series of radio advertisements on Irish radio. Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley, California is a small and compact hamlet and Marshall's Auto Repairs sits on the corner across from the town's only bar. Outside the grocery store next door, on a public phone, a woman is shouting down the line at her lover or husband or boyfriend, She is not happy. I feel a thirst for beer. Inside the bar I order a beer and am invited out the side door to look at a dead squirrel who is propped up against a log with a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of beer in one paw. I take a photo to preserve my memory of Glen Ellen. "A heck of a good town". After more beers and some enjoyable conversation I adjourn to the back of the parked up truck for a second night. Morning outside the gates of a Wine Yard I brush my teeth and head south in a glorious California dawn.
Highway's 121, 37 and onto 101.
During a Friday morning rush hour, 2 day's and 850 miles from Portland, Oregon, I cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and almost immediately fall in love with San Francisco.
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Mountain Biking in Killarney
A Near Perfect Evening
Leave work within a whisker of six on a sweltering July evening. Home, change, clear out the boot and drop the back seat to fit the bike.There's a fabulous mountain bike trek I know which tonight seems like a good evening to tackle.
I speed out the Muckross road eager to get there, impatient behind those enjoying the easy pace of life in a Killarney evening.
Skirting the lakes with the sun dipping red and a still balmy evening breeze blowing in the open window, I recognise contentment and give thanks for the opportunity to exist in such a beautiful place. The track I'm headed for is a stretch of the Old Kenmare road that begins near Galwey's Bridge and steadily climbs to reach an ultimate summit at an aptly named Windy Gap. Swing left at the allegedly haunted church, where a group of cyclists have congregated. I assume, by the looks on their faces that they have already completed a portion of the run I'm headed for. Slow down considerably in an attempt to negotiate the generously potholed road. Resigned to the fact that it's hopeless trying to avoid them all, I forge on, bouncing the car along the uneven surface. Cross a pleasant arched stone bridge and pull the car in to the left beside a sign for the national park, prohibiting camping, fires or bikes in the portion of the Old Kenmare road stretching into Killarney. Decked out only in a pair of cycling shorts a vest and a pair of runners (No socks). On my back a rucksack containing a thermal vest and a fleece just in case the descent gets chilly. Bike out of the boot, water bottle on and away I go.
It's been a few weeks since I rode my bike. The first 100 metres or so remind me what I've missed and I'm glad to be out again. A car does that to you sometimes. You tend to begin to use the car for every little trip and the faithful bike gets neglected and when you take it out again after a period during which you've neglected it, you feel a sort of guilt.
The first shallow ford comes after about 300 metres. There's something childishly delightful about speeding through a stream with water splashing everywhere and you go through so quick that your shoes hardly get wet at all.
Wind my way up a small rise, down into the lower gears, negotiating around the bigger rocks on the path.
There's only one house in this valley. I figure it must be a wonderful, but also incredibly lonely place to live. Obviously such are the reason that those people have chosen this spot. Perhaps they're not lonely but there is something beautiful and poignant, enriching perhaps, in loneliness. It's a sad pitiful kind of happiness.
More fords, and the road goes on, up stone littered hills where even my lowest gears don't allow me to proceed pedaling and I dismount to push the bike ever upward.
There's a wooded hill where the road spirals up in semi corkscrew fashion. I picnicked here in early Spring with a group on a walk along the road. There is a diversion from the traditional road where, somebody told me, in recent years they cut a new portion of road with a lesser incline to enable a JCB to negotiate the hill.
Further along, on the left are the ruins of what appear to have once been substantial buildings on the roadside. Perhaps this was a tavern alongside the old route, certainly this stretch of road would have needed and warranted such a facility.
There is a boggy flat stretch with muddy puddles before the final ascent. At one point where the road was cut between two large rocks, decades of running water have disintegrated the track into a uneven series of muddy steps. It is the only section of the route that I consider unnavigable by bike on the descent. This has come to my attention from my first attempt, where my front wheel lodged in a foot deep puddle of mud. propelling me over the handlebars, arms outstretched, to land hands first among rocks and more mud.
It takes about 50 minutes to the ascent to the Windy Gap. At the top a light breeze blows, cooling the sweat on my arms shoulders and legs. I don't hang about for long. I've soaked in the view on the way up and even on such a beautiful evening I'm liable to get chilled if I hang about long. Anyway the prospect of the descent is enticing me to head back down. It normally takes about 10 minutes for the ascent, depending on how much I use the brakes.
This evening, owing to my time off the bike and I guess, just my mood, I liberally apply the brakes on the first section downhill. However such is the effort required for this that I gradually use them less and less. In any case it is probably more advisable to let the bike go most of the time, using the brakes only to moderate the speed in the event that you might be propelled over the handlebars which is a high probability. On a steep fast descent like this, using the brakes to try and stop would be an ambitious and unlikely aspiration.
Near the bottom I have discovered a stretch of the river that I have dubbed my own private swimming pool. You head along the section of the old road leading to Killarney, past the National Park sign prohibiting fires, camping bikes etc. The road goes up hill through a tree-lined glade. Then downhill again for a short distance till you come to a bridge across the river. Swing left before the bridge and walk along the grass tufted bank as far as the falls. Above the falls the river meanders slowly along a valley floor.
In one of the U bends among trees is a sandy bottomed pool. In Spring the bank is grassy but in summer a multitude of ferns blanket the area.
Sweaty and hot, I peel off my sticky clothes and dive into the cool, not chilly, refreshing waters. I swim around for a while and then lie on a raft of vegetation in six inches of water looking upward into the leaves and branches above me. Underneath the plants, the mud has stored up the heat of the day and it's soothing to lie here in water just deep enough to keep the flies off. About 6 feet away a trout jumps for a fly.
Climbing out, I towel myself dry and dress. With the sun casting longer shadows over the hill, I head back to the car.
Back at the car I turn on the radio. Van Morrison is singing Madam George from "Astral Weeks" (1968) and life is good.
I head for town, back to people and traffic and buildings and the spell is broken.
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Notes compiled from a cycling tour in Picardy, Northern France, Spring 1992.
Distance: Average mileage per day, 60 miles.
Duration: 9 days
Accommodation: Municipal Campsites
Budget: 900 Frfr
For Easter 1992 I chose to go touring in Northern France. I entered France through the Channel port of Boulogne via Dover. Boulogne is supposed to be the most attractive of the "Daytripper" ports. If this is the case I don't particularly wish to enter by the others. Perhaps my bias is partly due to arriving late in search of Accommodation or the miserable wet Sunday I spent prior to my return, however the advice I offer is to give it a brief passing glance, brief being the opportune word unless your interested in filling your panniers with wheel buckling amounts of French groceries Ala the daytripper.
My first full day in France took me from Boulogne to Arras, a distance of about 70 miles. This is battlefield country. Like so many European cities, Arras has been tastefully and practically rebuilt. Recommended attractions are the Town hall, resembling a cathedral, The cathedral, resembling a town hall and the subterranean passages where the population took refuge during the shelling in 1914 - 1918. The cities pleasant campsite (2 star) is situated the far side of the railway station from the city centre (approx 1 mile).
Sunday morning still encamped in Arras I took a unloaded cycle to Vimy ridge about 5 miles to the north. This is this the scene of one of the many tragic stalemates of the first world war fittingly described as trench warfare. Vimy ridge is now a Canadian national park "won" by the soldiers who captured the ridge in April 1917. A section of the battle field is preserved complete with mine craters and opposing trenches (Only 10 metres apart).]
Canadian students give guided tours in English and French of the deep tunnels behind the front line. The highly interesting tours are free but tips are appreciated. The actual memorial to the Canadians is approached through land still containing the warning signs "DANGER, Unexploded missiles" and the surface of the land leaves little doubt about the truth of their proclamation.
Sunday afternoon I set off for Albert about 30 miles distant from Arras. About 20 miles into this journey you enter the first few villages and hamlets written into history during the second half of 1916. It is beautiful countryside for cycling, with huge sweeping fields and a choral population of birds.
Nearly every village, as well as the outlying fields, contain war cemeteries and the whole area is worth traversing for those interested in the actual Battle strategy and formation.
However, from a purely human point of view, the most moving sites are Lutyens memorial at Thiepval, containing the names of 73,000+ men with no known graves who died in the Battle of the Somme. Do not take a quick glance from the road. Go in to the memorial and stand beneath the massive columns. Look up and note the variety of names and regiments, Look for your own Surname, it's probably there. Note the geographical spread of the drafts. From the Irish Guards to the Scots and Cornish regiments. Look out for the names under the bicycle regiments, men like you and I who "toured" this same land over 75 years ago.
The other definite site is the Newfoundland Memorial park at Beaucourt Hamel. Again the trenches are preserved, though more realistically than at Vimy. It is a huge site encompassing both front line trenches and the second highly fortified German line with traces of the supply roads still visible. Pause a while a St. Johns trench and look out onto no mans land where a petrified tree still stands. Try to picture the scene as it was then, climb out of the trench and start to walk down the hill to the German trenches and imagine having a machine gun trained on you. How could anyone have truly expected to survive going over the top here ?. Stop in no mans land and look at the ground, note the craters and shreds of barbed wire still remaining. On reaching the German trench look back up the hill and picture the scene again. A shell crater houses a Debris dump of rusting helmets and assorted junk.
Don't be tempted to collect souvenirs. Firstly the place is a memorial, secondly the debris is there as a reminder and thirdly collecting live ammunition isn't recommended.
Finally note the Scots memorial with the kilted warrior and containing the soldiers view on the battle in the Gaelic inscription translated as "A true friend is one in a time of battle". Such were the thoughts which kept such men going, Not politics or military formalities, they were the things which were killing them.
Cycling through the Somme battle field the sight of your first shell lying by the roadside may be quite alarming to you but don't set off to alert the army like I almost did. You'll soon notice their presence everywhere. I stopped near Mametz wood and laid my bike down, not intentionally !!, beside a heap of rusting hand grenades. The main thing to remember is not to touch them. If you want souvenirs try the edges of freshly plouged fields, not the middle of freshly planted ones!. There are millions of items to be found from bits of barbed wire and shrapnel to badges and buttons. Again don't be attracted to anything which looks vaguely explosive.
Albert too has been rebuilt. Among its landmarks the best known is the church famed for its hanging virgin during the war. The campsite (1 star) is 3/4 mile west of the town centre.
Day 3 I set off from Albert to St. Quentin on a trip which was again to take me back to the 1916 frontline through places like Poziers and Delville where droves of Australians and South Africans respectively died in thousands gaining those famous "few feet of land". Delville wood is preserved as it was in 1917 except that it has been replanted (One tree survived the onslaught !) The memorial is approached along a familiar manicured lawn between two rows of South African oak trees. It is possible to walk around the wood observing the 70 year old scars although it is not recommended to leave the path as the wood suffers from the same " Litter problem " as Vimy ridge.
St. Quentin is a large industrial town which like so many others has been destroyed and rebuilt because of the war. In the middle of the town is a large attractive cobbled square surrounded by reasonobly priced bars and restaurants. The campsite in the grounds of the youth hostel about 2 miles distant. It is very good value at 7 Frfr per person per night with hot showers and laundry facilities.
Day 4 was to take me from St Quentin to Reims. A few miles from St Quentin you find yourself in what is essentally the plains of Champagne. From 15 miles out as you approach the town of Laon it is an imposing sight built on a rock in the midst of the flatlands. The Gothic cathedral, one of the oldest in France and model for such famous ones as Chartre and Notre Dame de Paris, is perched atop the rock surrounded by the cobbled streets of the old town. It is a fair climb up the winding streets, so steep in fact that there is a cable car for the faint hearted. Either way a visit to the top is worth it.
Reims is the capital of the region and along with Epernay, houses the most famous names associated with the sparkling tipple. The tourist office can provide you with any information you require with regard to Champagne including a map showing the Champagne houses of Reims. Almost all are open for free guided tours after which you receive the customary sample of the produce, the quantity of which varies according to the company and the size of the group.
Champagne apart Reims has many interesting attractions of which the most attractive must be the cathedral with its celebrated joking angels on the west facade.
Reims is a cycle friendly city with an extensive network of cycle paths. The campsite is well equipped but expensive for this part of France (27 Frfr per night).
Epernay is the second largest town in the region and home to Moet and Chandon, the house I'd decided to visit.
It is an impressive building, understandable when you consider the world wide interests of the company in things as diverse as spirits and perfume. However in Epernay the subject is almost solely Champagne. The guided tour in English is very polished, but interesting nevertheless. The actual process is explained using a slide show in the main foyer where you learn that the secret of Champagne is in the double fermentation, the second being forced by adding sugar. Rather than being allowed to escape the carbon dioxide produced is forced back into the wine thereby producing the bubbles of "the bubbly".
In addition you learn the how and why of a Dom Perignon, the Moet and Chandon champagne par excellence named after a famed monk who dedicated his life to perfecting the method champagne. After the show you proceed to the cellars where, you are informed, the temperature is at a constant 10 degrees centigrade, the ideal fermentation temperature. The 38 km of cellars contain 90 million bottles of champers. The tour of the cellars lasts about 40 minutes and takes you step by step through the process. Along the way you see the private family cellar ( behind bars !! ) and lots of mementoes of Napoleon, a good friend of Monsieur Moet. An other interesting sight are men travelling the cellars by bike. These are the bottle turners famed for their skill in turning and tilting the bottles. They are the best paid cellar workers and the only ones permitted to ride bikes in the cellars.
Unless the group is really big there are always more glasses than people for the tasting and if one is cheeky enough to keep drinking you can end up fairly light headed which sets you up nicely for the next stage of your journey.
From Epernay I traversed the remaining hills of vines on route to Chateau Thierry. The name itself comes from an old chateau on a mound in the middle of the town, little of which now remains except the crumbling ramparts. Aside from this the town's other place in history is as the scene of American soldiers first action of World War 1. There is a imposing memorial to the fallen on a high hill overlooking the town. In spring 1992 the town's municipal campsite was partly dug up and officially closed, but nobody said anything to me for camping there. The future for it is unknown.
Day 6 on route from Chateau Thierry to Compiegne you pass through a place called Pierrefonds which contains a beautiful "fairytale" castle which makes a photo worthy of any album. After this you enter the forest of Compiegne which is one of the oldest in France. It is a most pleasant cycle ride and very flat if you stay near the lakeshore. Six miles from Compiegne is a fitting culmination of a battlefield tour. Here is the Armistice clearing where the Germans surrendered on November 11th 1918. Or in the words of the French "Here the criminal pride of the German empire was .... brought low ... by the free peoples whom it had sought to enslave". In revenge Hitler made the French sign their capitulation here in 1940. A small museum (adm 7 Frfr) contains a reproduction of the original carriage, along with other associated memorabilia.
The Palace of Compiegne is where Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette chose to play at being peasants before deciding, after all, that they didn't want to and instead undertook some "renovations".
The result in its day must have been fantastic. Today the place is a bit run down, understandable when you compare the resources of the French office for state monuments to the endless outpourings of the former royalty. You won't lose your head but it gives you an idea why some lost theirs. The same approach applies to the gardens which still offer an idea of the complete spectacle and even today are breathtaking.
Compeigne's campsite is about 1 mile from the palace on the edge of the forest.
Day 7 Compeigne to Amiens.
Amiens was the city nearest to the front line in 1914 - 1918. Therefore it was the target of quite extensive bombardment, however its cathedral survived to give Amiens its main tourist attraction today. It is the largest Gothic building in France and like the others is well worth a visit. In contrast, for sheer bad taste, across from the railway station is a monstrosity called the Tour Perret. Basically it is unpassable as an eyesore, best described as a collection of diminishing rectangular grey concrete blocks with windows, stacked on top of each other.
In Spring 1992 what used to be the campsite beside a lake was found to be dug up and covered with heaps of spoil. The only option was to go out of town, the nearest site being a private, 3 star one 5 miles north of the town in the grounds of an old Chateau.
Day 8 Amiens to Berck Plage
This days travel basically involved following the Somme to its estuary just beyond Abbeville and thereafter cycling up along the coast through many small, Channel holiday resorts. There's not much to see in Abbeville, it was very nearly totally demolished in the war. The costal ride would be very pleasant on a fine day, unfortunately I encountered a saturating mist blowing in from the Channel. Berck Plage is a pleasant holiday resort with a good selection of accommodation, restaurants and four campsites. The camping municipal is situated about 1 mile from the seafront. The showers operate on tokens available from the cashiers office which is only open from 9 AM to 6 PM.
Day 9 Berck Plague to Boulogne
The two places of any interest on route to Boulogne are Le Touquet, site of an airfield which, in the area's heyday, In the 1920s and 1930s,was claimed to be the busiest airfield in France. Nowadays the place is much quieter. For kite flying enthusiasts it is the venue for an annual international kite flying gala in April.
The other place worth a look is Etaples. In the First World War this was the site of a vast training ground and field hospital for the front line troops. The brutality of the officers was notorious and led to the Etaples mutiny, One of the only times during the war that the actual soldiers stood up and declared that they'd had enough, so much so that even today details of the incident are suppressed and vague. All that remains today is large cemetery between the road and the beach containing the casualties who survived the front line only to die here.
There are British, Indian and Chinese graves along with soldiers of the Navy and the Air force killed in the Second World War.
If you have time to waste in Boulogne you can take a stroll up to the old town which contains a good selection of restaurants, most geared towards the daytripper. Alternatively, provided its not a Sunday you can visit the supermarket and spend your remaining currency on French groceries.
This site is maintained and updated by Peter Jordan,
Last Updated 5th July 2001
© Peter Jordan, 1999-2001