Friday, 5.30am: Dai is bouncing about the bedroom like bloomin' Tigger, full of boyish enthusiasm at the prospect of three days on the bike. Meanwhile, I groan quietly, regretting that final whisky I'd had last night. 'You don't do mornings, do you?' he observes.
'This is not the morning, it's still the middle of the bluddy night!' I reply.
6.30am: On the road. I have to admit I've never seen the Mournes look so elegantly beautiful, framed against a pale pink sky, the mist still hanging in the valleys between County Down's famous drumlins. That big ole harvest moon is bright in front of us, the rising sun glinting in the rearview mirror. Definitely a moment to take a mental photograph.
7.10am: A deserted car park at a shopping centre, with 20 minutes before McDonalds opens to provide me with that promised McMuffin and an all-important third cup of tea. 'Ooooh, this is exciting!' he beams. Hmmm, I suggest that someone needs to get out more.
You Be Charley, We'll Be Ewan
M arrives to join us for the first leg of the journey, south to Dun Laoghoire ferry port. We make good time, I make myself useful as a pillion by paying the toll fee for both bikes from a five-euro note tucked inside one of my vents and we arrive at the port in bright sunshine. The boat is on time, I fulfill more pillionesque duties by dashing up the stairwell to baggsie a long bench to stretch out on, while the guys do their bit with anchors and straps to protect their precious babies on the journey.
After a calm crossing, we zoom off the boat and head along the gorgeous north Welsh coast. As a bridge afficionado (pontophile? surely there's a word for it), I adore crossing the Britannia Bridge, with the great view across to the Menai Bridge. But what's with that house in the middle of the river, eh? How do the occupants get there? Why was it built in the first place? How do they cope without broadband, hmmm?
Our journey is quite stuttered, with stops for pee, petrol, sore arses, changing to sunglasses, putting in earplugs, etc. At one stop we notice that the new exhaust, deliciously throaty though it is, is obviously causing a vortex next to the pannier and has melted the indicator cover! Oops. On another stop, I turn my mobile phone on and receive probably the worst news I could get, short of someone dying. So now I have the prospect of a weekend away camping, already anathema to me — I'm only doing this as a birthday treat — while wishing I was back home to try to deal with the situation. With no alternative but to press on, we continue through Stoke-on-Trent and let Persephone the GPS guide us to our destination. Blimey, your English motorways are crowded! I'll never complain about my commute to Belfast ever again. And what naughty boys and girls they all are — I lost count of the number of drivers smoking, drinking coffee, on mobile phone handsets. Oh, and one group of lads gesticuating wildly to me from a blue transit. I think they were telling me how big the fish they'd just caught was. Possibly. The traffic becomes dead slow. Stuck in a jam, we can only watch as Persephone adds minute after minute to our ETA.
But we get there in the end! And now, time to erect the tent. Alcohol is essential for this technical manoevre and as I set off the find the promised bar, I learn that it is half a mile up a dirt track. But lo, there's my mate J in his Land Rover, kitted out with fully-stocked bar. So that'll be a Stella for him outdoors and a Pimms for the lady then. Lovely! I proceed to claim ignorance of all matters tentular and sit in the folding chair with my drink and a pack of duty-free fags (£2.95) from the boat.
Dinner is something from the resident burger van, where we chat up the chef and order Irish soda and wheaten bread for breakfast, before meeting up with friends old and new at the bar. I'm drinking to forget my sorrows and also to make it easier for me to conk out in a sleeping bag, but these teensy English measures make it hard for me to achieve the required level of drunkenness. I'm reliably informed that I spent some part of the night snoring, so I guess I got some sleep eventually.
Saturday morning, Dai proves he's a star by bringing me my morning cuppa in bed and after a potter around investigating the showers (half a mile up the lane, 40p for eight minutes...) we gear up and discover that both the road ride and the fords run have already departed. Ah well, a quick confab with our fellow-countryman next-door neighbour suggests Matlock Bath as a cool place to visit, so off we go, burbling through the lush, green wooded lanes, dotted with classic sandstone-housed villages. Matlock Bath itself is a revelation — it's a bit like a Victorian seaside town nestling in the Derbyshire Dales on the banks of the River Derwent. The promenade is full of fish-and-chip shops, ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades. Oh, and a damn fine chocolate emporium in a former pharmacy, the old apothecary's display cabinets used to great effect. I can heartily recommend the chocolate gingers, while Mr Sweet Tooth devoured a slab of Kendal Mint cake. Obviously knowing their market, there are even motorbike-shaped chocolates. And yeah, the streets are lined with bikes! We secure a table in the glorious sunshine at the fantastic [email protected] Cottage and my body satisfies its leafy green vegetable craving (24 hours of being catered for from a burger van does that to me), with a truly delicious salad of mozzarella pearls marinated in truffle oil and basil. We watch the world go by and admire the illuminations along the river banks.
Hot and Pink
The weekend was chosen to coincide with the finish of the Pink Way Around Britain (PWAB), a group of female riders who completed a non-stop circuit of Great Britain in under four days to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. The evening's entertainment started with a mechanical bull (no, I didn't have a go!), followed by a hogroast — splendid dead pig in a bap with what must be the most perfect crackling ever. The live band took to the stage, playing classic rock songs which dragged most of us onto the floor. The pink ladies sing a few songs, we do a bit of belly dancing coached by a proper belly dancer in full regalia who was one of the pink ladies and we do more than a bit of drinking.
Too Darn Hot
Sunday morning dawns bright and sunny. Too much sunshine, in fact! Trying to pack and roll tents and sleeping bags into a stuff bag while wearing bike gear in the blazing 20+-degree heat, while time ticks on and we know we have to get going to catch the boat... well, you can understand how tempers started to fray. At midday, we wave farewell and set off to catch the 6.30 boat. I wince every time I turn on my mobile and receive some more ranting and raving messages. The traffic isn't so bad this leg and when we reach Holyhead we are first in the bike queue and the incoming ferry is right on time. We are hustled on board by a marshall with a death wish and are just getting settled on our usual bench when the captain announces a delay. The HSS are rather fabulous pieces of engineering, no doubt, but those powerful jets require at least a metre of water to get out of harbour. And there's currently only 70 cm, so we have to wait for the tide to turn and rise a bit higher. Phooey.
We pass the time by dozing, reading the Sunday papers, doing the crossword and the like. It's dark when we get to Dublin, with its confusing and atrociously sign-posted streets. Thank God for Persephone, who safely leads us onto the M1, the Boyne Bridge looking especially spectacular with its greeny blue illuminations. We get home at about midnight.
And The Verdict?
Well I honestly can't count the number of years since I last went camping. I think it may have been when I was in the Girl Guides. And I truly thought it was going to be awful. I'd even changed my tag to 'I don't do tents' at one time. And circumstances made it a really difficult weekend emotionally. But — and this is a huge concession on my part, you understand — I've agreed to go camping at least once a year. And I'll remember to bring a wee hat so my head doesn't get cold.