NORTH WEST BY NORTH WEST (PART ONE)
A MOTORCYCLE TRIP AROUND THE SHIPPING FORECAST
I read a brief travel article last year which set my writing and motorcycle touring imagination running. It was about travelling to the very north west segment of Ireland including Malin Head the most northerly point of that land in County Donegal. In describing his travels the writer included information about crossing two peninsulas on small ferries.
Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea...
...Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Rockall, Shannon, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle... The familiar and reassuringly timeless identities annunciated through the BBC Shipping Forecast. Only familiar and reassuring if you're a land dweller and not about to experience: 'Force 9 to Storm Force 10. North Westerly veering Northerly expected imminent'.
I had no plans to put to sea as such. But combining travel to Malin (NW Ireland) and Hebrides (Western Scotland) using a clutch of ferries would make an interesting and stimulating motorcycle tour itinerary. And so it was that on a rare day warm enough to only require a T-shirt under the motor cycle jacket, I set sail; whoops sorry, I meant pressed the starter, slotted into first gear and headed west to Holyhead on Anglesey for the ferry hop across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
I was aboard (nautical term intended) my Moto Guzzi 1100 Breva which has become a solid and reliable part of my motorcycle life. A good touring mount with easily detachable panniers which comfortably carried all the stuff I would need, including warmer clothing because weather patterns can be so variable in these regions: as I would find out as the miles unwound.
Bar hopping and Craic?
It's always tempting to organise an overnight in Dublin if, like me, you appreciate bar hopping, craic and the music culture on offer. But I decided to 'get out of town' and head for Navan towards the north west on the N3 for an overnight before riding along the southern shore of Lough Erne and on to Letterkenny in Donegal; where I was initiated into the first wave of Atlantic weather sweeping across the northern tip of Ireland. It was not just raining on me but also on the riders and thousands of other motorcyclists shoehorned into the three small towns in Co Antrim that host the NW 200 races.
It took a while to find the right road out of the city, but a couple of friendly people put me on track, and admired the bike, which at the time was untainted by the mud and road grime - that was all to come. It was impossible not to notice that every Dublin lamp post was covered in election posters for the forthcoming Euro ballot. Were the Irish enthusiastic Euro voters? Or did they just like festooning the city? Probably a bit of both. The countries infrastructure has benefited enormously from their membership of the EU, especially the roads, and in the recent banking troubles the country's politicians were able to give the central bank a call to help stave off bankruptcy.
On the Lough Erne route the non-existent border between the north and the Republic is criss crossed a number of times. So the kilometres turn to miles and vice versa, and the currency flits from Euro to Sterling and back. But as in border towns throughout the world dual currency prices are on display wherever a purchase is made or needed.
Land and seascape
Before I left I'd found out through internet info that one of the small ferries, the Lough Swilly Ferry running from Rathmullan on the Fanad Head peninsula to the town of Buncrana on Inishowen no longer ran, having had a subsidy withdrawn, and according to the company making its operation no longer viable.
No matter, I ran up the peninsular on the narrow wet roads in a vain attempt to view the land and seascape amongst the low drifting clouds and drizzle. Not good riding, and all that stood out were the dominant Lego type bungalows scattered on the hillsides, almost all painted in a shade of yellow. Were these uniform dwellings the revenge of a provincial architect who had poor memories of a childhood in Worthing? Built from modern materials they are a blight, and make few concessions to landscape blending.
Thwarted, I returned to Letterkenny and my hotel. Tomorrow was Malin Head day, and the Lough Foyle Ferry (definitely running).
Fifty shades of grey
In waterproofs and steady rain I followed the tourist route signs to Malin from the Letterkenny to Derry main road. My optimism teased by cloud drift over the hills which showed tantalising glimpses of lighter grey. I'm tempted to rename this the 'Fifty shades of grey tour'; that would capture attention. Then towards Malin Head and the most northerly point in Ireland; the last stop before Iceland – the frozen country, not the frozen food store.
At Malin Head the surrounding landscape is austere but beautiful, and a lightening sky from the sea throws shadows and cloud forms onto the hills. There were a few other visitors when I got there who seemed as captivated as I was by end of Ireland; and with blue sky galloping in from the Atlantic we were all smiling and taking our pictures. It was time to discard the waterproofs and seek refreshment. There was a small coffee van parked up, but I had noticed a tempting cafe called 'Northern Bites' in one of the villages nearby, and made that my goal.
Two BMW riders were parking up just ahead of me. They had been spectating at the NW200 and they too were intent on enjoying as much of what the landscape had to offer. The two women serving us said that they had been very busy with motorcycle visitors in the days leading up to the actual race programme; when the weather was kinder. I said goodbye after a good lunch and big pot of tea, and made my back down the peninsular to Greencastle and the brief ferry ride across Lough Foyle to Magilligan Strand.
The treasures of Ireland
Alfie was the only other bike rider on the ferry, with his Pan European. Another NW200 spectator he was now taking some time to follow a couple of clues as part of a cross Ireland summer long treasure hunt. A map reference and clue is provided, you have to locate the clues object and take a picture. No prizes for those who find all the 'treasures'. Just fun and a good excuse to get out on the bike. On the short ferry ride we also managed to touch on the elections – he is a Dubliner – the merits or otherwise of Sinn Fein, and replacing major parts on the Pan himself: the joy of motorcycle travel, who you meet, and what subjects you can cover with 'strangers'.
The Strand where the ferry lands is marked as an 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty', a pity then that they had decided to construct the Magilligan Prison on this beauty spot. It's grim looking and supposed to be that way of course, but future policy is for it to close in favour of a new prison nearer to Belfast - the border between the two Ireland's runs the length of Lough Foyle.
Back into waterproofs
Back into waterproofs and back to Letterkenny. Parked up and dry again I was thankful for the friendly warmth and shelter of the Cottage Bar on Main Street, the only worthwhile drinking establishment in this disappointingly drab town.
Plan A? Bad idea...
The Plan A route to the next ferry ride was to follow the Antrim coast road around the top of Ireland to Larne, where P&O operate a fast ferry service to Troon on the west coast of Scotland; but this would have been a poor route choice on another wet and dreary day.
So Plan B was to head straight to Larne through the Glenshane Pass in the Sperrin Mountains. The 'highlight' of the trip was my breakfast cum lunch stop where the young waitress engaged me in a conversation about the NW200 races – I'd watched the excellent highlight programmes on BBC Northern Ireland TV – and the merits and personalities of William and Michael Dunlop and their extraordinary racing family. Now there's a first.
At the Larne ferry the tail end of the NW200 crowd lined up their bikes for the two afternoon sailings to Cairnryan and Troon respectively. We skimmed smoothly across the Irish sea with the small western isle outposts silhouetted under fine skies. But as first bikes traversed the off ramp the storm clouds opened. I spotted a harbourside hotel come pub, The Anchorage, and dived in there for a room. In the entrance way was a large wooden panel illustrated with a map of the British Isles and all the shipping forecast areas. If omens are to be believed here was a positive sign for my Hebrides journey: to follow shortly in Part Two.
John Newman for Wemoto News
Any thoughts email us at email@example.com
SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive updates and new posts straight to your in-box.