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UK, Northern Ireland: 1690 and All That
Northern Ireland was, says PHIL McGOVERN, a great place to cycle, with its quiet country lanes and friendliness. (This piece was written around 1999, so some of the references are dated. We have left them in, for historic interest. Ed.)
Northern Ireland seems familiar yet foreign - the post-boxes are red and the high streets are filled with familiar chain stores – but there's no Queen's head on the banknotes and signs on lamp-posts threaten £500 fines for drinking alcohol in public. Then, of course, there's the graffiti, much of it concerning events which happened in the late 17th century. In fact the troubles are now a tourist attraction: the Northern Ireland Tourist Board sells postcards of the paramilitary murals and arranges sight-seeing tours to the Falls and Shankill.
I took an anti-clockwise route, starting from Belfast, crossing the Black Mountains which dominate the town, and following minor roads up through Antrim and Ballymena before joining the coast at Ballycastle.
I left the city via the Springfield Road. It is part of Gerry Adams's constituency and Sinn Fein election posters adorn every lamp-post. The housing became more dismal as I climbed out of the city. Run-down Victorian terraces were followed by grey pebble-dashed estates overlooked by huge corrugated-iron army forts equipped with watch-towers and cameras. Tricolours and Che Guevara murals offered the only colour. But ahead, on the higher slopes of Divis Mountain, it looked a different world, with whitewashed farmhouses glinting in the sunshine.
Soon Belfast was out of sight and tricolours are replaced by union jacks. In many (Protestant) villages the kerbstones are painted red, white and blue and '1690' is scrawled on walls: the date of the battle of the Boyne where Protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic James II. I searched my map of Northern Ireland in vain for the Boyne. It is actually south of the border, near Drogheda.
The rich, rolling farmland of North Antrim is pleasant cycling country if you can ignore the whiff of manure. The lanes are spined with grass and moss, and traffic consists of little more than the occasional tractor or horse rider. Only the roadside posters advertising an 'Anti-Talks Rally' at Ballymena Orange Hall ('regalia to be worn') strike an odd note. Paisley country.
The seaside town of Ballycastle is reassuringly normal. After sharing my 'fash and chaps' with the seagulls (their idea not mine), I headed west, along the wide but quiet coast road west, stopping occasionally to peer over the chalk cliffs onto the seething sea below.
The province's greatest tourist attraction is undoubtedly the Giant's Causeway, the series of basalt columns formed by a major volcanic eruption 60 million years ago – but it's not quite as big and spectacular as the tourist brochures seem to promise. Dunluce Castle, draped in sea-mist a few miles further along the coast, was more interesting, probably because I'd never heard of it before.
I switched from road to rail at windswept Castlerock to miss out the busy and tedious road after Limavady. The short section of coastal railway line is perhaps the most spectacular in the UK. The track runs along the beach for much of the way between cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean. Soon it meets the Foyle estuary and pulls into what Nationalists (and the City Council) call Derry and Unionists (and the BBC) call Londonderry.
With around a hundred thousand inhabitants, Londonderry is much smaller and more convivial than Belfast. I munched cheese and soda bread up on the enormous city walls, regretting that it's no longer possible to walk all the way around the walls because an army observation post has been built on top, its cameras pointing down onto the Bogside and Creggan estates. Down in the shabby Brandywell and Bogside estates mural painting seems to be the principal community activity. Every gable end is a blaze of colour, whether denouncing the RUC, commemorating Bloody Sunday or announcing one's entry into 'Free Derry'. This is where the current conflict ignited, back in August 1969 when an Orange march resulted in five days of rioting.
After ten minutes of cycling through the grey pebble-dash I breathed the open air of verdant countryside. A narrow sunken lane lined with oaks and pink rhododendron took me south alongside the Foyle, and fifteen minutes later I crossed the unmarked border into the South.
At first it is only the switch from miles to kilometres on road signs that indicates a change of country, but arriving at the small town of Lifford I noticed an atmosphere which was clearly more relaxed than in the Northern towns. I felt able to ask people in pubs what they thought of the situation across the border. The unanimous consensus of this highly irregular poll was that the Republic is better off having nothing to do with the North and that most Southern politicians pay only lip-service to reunification.
I crossed the Foyle to Lifford's twin town of Strabane (in the North), where the watch towers and concrete barriers by the bridge seemed doubly oppressive, and stopped for a late breakfast of 'Ulster Fry': black pudding, white pudding, fried bacon, fried eggs, fried sausage, fried soda bread and unlimited cups of strong tea.
A quiet lane took me over the unmarked border into Monaghan (in the South), near Fivemiletown. Apart from a spotter plane wheeling overhead it seemed very relaxed. The wooded, hillocky land, dotted with small secluded lakes was populated by no more than the occasional angler.
The maze of overgrown 'boreens' lined with yellow gorse and purple foxglove makes for pleasant cycling but difficult map-reading. I realised that I had crossed the county and was back in the North when the hill-top Army observation towers appeared. Welcome to South Armagh.
The village of Crossmaglen, with its vast and empty market square, was dominated by watch towers. After tea and hot apple-potato cakes from the bakers I rode on towards Newry. The day turned soft as I approached the bulk of Slieve Gullion and the mountain rapidly disappeared in mist and drizzle, while invisible helicopters clattered overhead.
The treeless housing estates on the bleak outskirts of Newry sat sombre and grey in the rain. The town is staunchly Nationalist and every lamp-post and bus shelter was covered in tricolours or IRA slogans.
With traffic increasing and my map turning to papier-mâché I took the train back to Belfast. As it rattled through the Protestant heartland the IRA murals gave way to those of the Loyalist paramilitaries and the drab Catholic housing estates looked increasingly beleaguered. 'Our Time Will Come' was painted on the walls of one estate in Portadown. Demographically it's true: the higher Catholic birth rate means that within a couple of decades they will no longer be a minority.
A week gave me just a glimpse of the province, but it was enough to realise how badly the troubles have distorted our image of Ulster. Constant reminders of the sectarian conflict could not spoil my vivid memories of quiet, overgrown lanes, the desolate beauty of the Sperrins and, above all, the friendliness of ordinary people.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board publishes an Information guides to cycling which lists several round routes including:
The Orchard County around Armagh
The North Antrim Coast
The Aards Peninsula
The Mourne Mountains
The Glens Trail
The latter, which takes you around Ballycastle, promises “roadside fuchsia hedges towering ten feet high, dry stone walls, isolated hill farms and cliffs which tumble down to the Irish Sea.
The Kingfisher Cycle Trail (also featured in the Tourist Board brochure) is the first long-distance cycle trail in Ireland. Based in Fermanagh and Leitrim Lakeland, the 230 mile trail follows a figure-of-eight through varied countryside around Upper and Lower Lough Erne and other lakes.
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