Like the reporting of the first cuckoo as a herald of spring, the first bike trip of the year is a noteworthy event. The previous few days were anxiously spent tracking down thermal underwear and wet gear (knowing the changeable nature of Donegal weather systems) and hunting for my gloves, which had mysteriously disappeared during our recent house move. But we found all the essential accoutrements in time, and by Friday morning had packed the paniers and were ready for the off.
The crowd coming from England were planning to do the Antrim coast road, but we decided that, being locals, we could do that anytime and opted instead for a more direct route across the Glenshane Pass, Northern Ireland's backbone and highest main road, before reaching not only my native Derry, but also passing the very place of my birth (Altnagelvin Hospital). And then we achieved an ambition I'd had for a while: a ride over the Foyle Bridge, a gorgeous sinewy elegant structure which is known colloquially as 'John Hume's Bridge', since the local MEP was so influential in securing the funding for it.
And so on into Donegal, Ireland's most northerly county, where the weather was just superb. Here signs of spring were everywhere: the gorse bushes blazed golden, carpets of shiny yellow celandine and paler lemon primroses covered the ground beneath the trees, which were heavy with fluffy catkins and sticky buds. We discussed what to listen to — I suggested that Daniel O'Donnell would provide the right sort of vernacular soundtrack, but sadly, we didn't have any with us, so instead we let the sat-nav shuffle its way through Zepplin/The Smiths/Shakira.
The venue for the weekend was Ramelton, a quiet little town on the edge of Lough Swilly. They used to call places like this a 'one-horse town'. Nowadays, a more accurate description would be a 'one-cash-machine town'. At least there was one! We made good time and indeed were the first to arrive. We propped up the bar whilst the rest of the gang petered in, and the main group made it it time for dinner (okay, dinner was re-scheduled for an hour later) at the Bridge Inn. This place does fabulous fish dishes — the chowder smelled and looked delicious, while my red snapper was beautifully succulent and meaty. An early night (well, midnight-ish) was in order, in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day.
It looked okay on the map!
Saturday morning, Dai did his usual brownie-point earner by chatting up the kitchen staff in order to produce a morning cuppa for me. The sun rose pinky-gold across the car-park full of bikes, and at around 10:30, twenty or so of us set off for the road run, staring off in glorious Glenveagh National Park. The wild rolling peaty mountains have a desolate beauty and the unusually blue sky and bright sunshine bathed the landscape in a soft hazy light. We stopped to admire the reflections in the mirrored stillness of Lough Beagh. I was struck by the words Veagh/Beagh — I'm sure they have the same root, given the near interchangeability of B and V in some languages. We took to the newer section of roads and really enjoyed the swooping bends round the foot of Mount Errigal, a stunning twin-peaked Alp look-alike with precipitous scree slopes, which at 751m high is Donegal's tallest mountain. We stopped for welcome soup and sandwiches at the Dunlewey centre, before carrying on over practically to the west coast, within smelling distance of the Atlantic Ocean at Dunglow Lough. Here, the leader of the group decided to try a change in our planned route and we headed off onto a gravelly track, that in infamous terms 'looks okay on the map'. Hmmm. The gravel was big and loose and on a downhill section the laws of physics took over and we were ungracefully tossed off. Thankfully we were barely doing 2mph and I did manage to land in a nice soft peaty puddle, so no serious damage done, apart from a damp neck....
How to Fall Off
This was my first fall, so I wasn't too sure what to expect. Dai did manage to give me three seconds' warning that it was going to happen, which allowed time to see what the terrain was like by the roadside. The trick, apparently, is to relax as much as possible — there's a greater risk of injury to limbs if they're stiff. You don't want the bike landing on top of you, so try to land out of its trajectory. Once you've hit the ground, ensure everybody's okay before seeing to the bike — if the engine is still running, switch it off. Make sure you pick up all your bits and pieces — I nearly lost the lead from the intercom until some kind soul spotted it and retrieved it from the puddle.
Dinner was a jolly affair, catered for by the staff at the BnB. My salmon (I'm guessing it was locally caught — fishing is a popular sport around these parts) was very tasty indeed. My new best friend, Tash from the Isle of Skye, remarked on how friendly all the locals are, and we demonstrated some of the finer points of blueshirt... er... I mean bluetooth... technology.
Sunday morning we were woken by the staff enquiring who had yet to get their breakfast, as the bacon was starting to dry out. We packed our things, said our goodbyes and headed off for the shortest route home, slightly jealous of those without prior engagements who could make the most of the still-glorious weather and take the scenic route. Mind you, the shortest route wasn't without its charms: a large portion of it follows the River Foyle, sparkling in the sunshine, full of contented-looking fishermen (and presumably less contented-looking fish). As we took the new Omagh bypass (much to the sat nav's confusion) I glanced at the familiar sight of the church spires at the top of the hill, famous on our TV screens for the worst atrocity to happen during 'The Troubles'. Perhaps, given the past week's historic significance, little towns like this will find themselves more famous for their fishing once more. Our journey home took a mere two hours and soon I was on the phone to Seamus at the BnB, booking in for a couple of days over Easter. I have to climb that mountain!