My month in Morocco had been amazing – and I wouldn’t have changed anything about it – but for my next ride I wanted to do something completely opposite. I had time for a 3-week trip, which meant anywhere would be possible, but I settled for somewhere closer to home. A country that I’ve always wanted to visit, but never quite made it to: Ireland.
Flying a bike is always a faff, and the Spain/Morocco logistics (including getting the bike to London’s Stansted Airport in the midst of Storm Eunice, the flight to Morocco as a replacement for the lack of ferries from Spain, and the chaos of trying to source a bike box in Agadir) had put me off the experience. The environment-impact plays a factor too. It’s almost unfathomable that my return from Agadir to London cost just £15, but I’m conscious that I’m flying quite a lot this year and a local bikepacking trip means I don’t have to worry about any complex logistics.
So instead of flying to Ireland, I opted to cycle over to Fishguard in the South-West corner of Wales and catch the ferry over to Rosslare. In contrast to the cheap Moroccan flight(s), the ferry from Wales to Ireland isn’t quite such a bargain (£46 each way) but travelling by boat is a far more charming method of transport.
In the end, I actually started by taking the train from London to Bournemouth to begin my ride, despite having intended on cycling straight out from my dad’s front door. When you don’t have a ticket for a specific train/flight it’s a little harder to motivate yourself to leave home, and I ended up procrastinating in London – enjoying my brief time at home between trips. I wanted to spend my first night back on the road staying with a friend in Somerset, but I realised that I needed to get there within a day of riding – so I took the cheapest train ticket I could find to somewhere within a day’s ride. That happened to be a £10 one-way to Bournemouth.
As I disembarked the train I knocked my knee onto the pedal. Ouch. It was now a month since the accident in Morocco and I was still struggling with the my injury. I’d been to see a physio in London who was concerned that I’d fractured it (you could see the bone on the cap was deformed), and they had referred me for an X-ray where it was concluded that nothing was actually broken. I’d been worried about how it would hold up on this tour, but weirdly it seems that cycling 100km a day for 3 weeks straight would eventually cure it. At the time of writing (another month down the line) – the knee still looks odd, but feels fine. So that’s the last we’ll hear of that!
I stopped for a Gregg’s vegan sausage roll (an almighty bikepacking snack) and a coffee before I started riding properly. Everything about this tour would be different from Morocco, and I was excited about that. Familiar food from generic high-street chains, supermarket meal-deals, easy miles on tarmac, riding my round-the-world Dawes Galaxy on slick tyres and not having any cultural or language barriers to contend with.
It was a beautiful spring morning. I love this time of year in the UK, despite the relentless hayfever which does its very best to spoil my existence. The English are finally looking less miserable as they exit their winter slumber, collecting the first dashes of pink across their sunburnt necks. Kids are out playing football in the parks, on makeshift pitches alive with daisies, dandelions and buttercups. Cow parsley lines the bridleways and the forests reek of wild garlic. The bluebells have had their moment of glory, and now the white garlic flowers are making their appearance in the woods.
That evening I stopped in the village Castle Cary and stayed with my friends Harry and Lauren. Harry works in a local bakery, so was up at 2.30am to ride off for his morning shift. At least he gets to start the commute with a downhill cycle. Apparently he screams on his way down the hill to scare off any badgers that may be loitering in the road. I woke up at a sensible hour, nursing a 5-pint hangover wondering how on earth he does it. I certainly didn’t have to deal with this type of handicap in Morocco.
I made a short detour to see Harry’s bakery, which you could smell from the main road, to catch a glimpse of the master at work. From there I made a second detour to ride through Cheddar Gorge – one of the more famous cycling hills in this part of England – on my way towards Bristol. It was a pleasant descent, but slightly underwhelming if I am totally honest. I think Morocco might have warped my sense of what is ‘epic’ in a road.
Thanks to the work that Sustrans do, there’s an amazing network National Cycle Routes in the UK. If I’m not in a hurry, and on a versatile touring bike, I plot my route on Ride With GPS using the OSM Cycle overlay – which shows all the National Cycle Routes. The default ‘bike route’ that the computer throws up (regardless of whether you are using Google Maps or a specialist planner like RWGPS) often defaults to these anyway, but it’s helpful to visualise them. Thanks to these networks, I found myself cruising along quiet lanes and converted railway lines for much of the day.
I crossed into Wales and wild camped in some woods near Chepstow (in this country I often use Google Map’s satellite view to find these spots). It was nippy at night, but there’s a perfect amount of dark hours for a good 8-9 hour kip without wasting light.
The weather had turned, and it was a bleak grey day as I cruised through Welsh suburbs. None as depressing as Newport’s edges, the only highlight of which was the mega drive-though Greggs. The wind was behind me so I wasn’t complaining.
I made it as far as Swansea, where I stayed in a hostel in town. As I arrived (on Saturday evening), Wind Street was gearing up for a big night out. Every storefront was a bar/club, with promoters lingering outside offloading flyers in an attempt to get a crowd inside their establishment. The sight of a night out in a regional city in the UK is a unique thing to witness; with girls dolled up under an inch of makeup and lads out in the freezing cold, with fresh sharp fades and only a t-shirt for warmth at the end of the night.
In the morning, I cycled back through the street at the crack of dawn, now littered with thousands of polystyrene fast-food boxes and half eaten chicken wings. I rode through just as the cleaners were beginning to restore the street to an orderly sight and erase any trace of the previous night’s antics.
I was up early, with a big day ahead of me. I’d decided to blast it to Fishguard in a day so that I could catch the night ferry to Wales. I figured the sooner I got to Ireland, the sooner I could slow down and enjoy being in a new country.
The ride west along the coast from Swansea was really pleasant, with the sun back out and the wind behind me. I started seeing little stickers for the Pan Celtic Race – a 2,600km bikepacking race around the British Isles, now entering its third edition.
It was a long slog over relentless hills. Wales is hardly famous for being flat, but these hills were seriously punchy. Everything continued to be very quaint. Little village halls, old churches, bright red post boxes built into stone walls and old phone boxes turned into mini libraries. Hilarious village notice boards with the most random community-news and advertisements. It’s hard to imagine this is actually how some people still sell their old lawn mower. The Welsh love to fly their national flag, but there was a new addition – Ukrainian flags from houses and business, which were at least as common a sight as the Welsh flag.
I arrived in Fishguard in time to cook a quick dinner before it got dark and grab a pint before boarding my ferry. I figured the overnight crossing would be a good way to save on a night’s accommodation, but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience of the trip. We boarded around 11pm, and my bike was put in a bus and driven on to the boat. (I’ve taken my bike on so many ferries over the years, but the Stena Line to Ireland and back was the only time I’ve not been able to go on with the cars). I rolled out my mat on the floor, grabbed 4 hours of semi-sleep and then got up again at 3.30am to disembark.
I’d wanted to cycle off into the dark and ride into the sunrise, but I was too tired for that. Instead I chucked a fleece over my eyes and slept in the terminal for a couple of extra hours.
I continued to be remarkably lucky with the weather. It was cold, but the sun was out and the wind continued to blow from the East, presenting me with a nice tailwind. By the early afternoon I’d reached Waterford, where a friend’s dad is involved with a whiskey distillery. I got the invite to pop by and visit the site for a quick tour, which was something to behold. It was on the site of a former Guinness brewery and some of the original machinery had been kept intact. In the warehouse across the road was the modern whiskey distillery. Similar, in that it had the same huge barrels, but ultra-modern huge in comparison. Waterford Whiskey are of single farm origin – meaning each batch can be traced back to one specific grower. Pretty cool. Just a pity I don’t have a particularly sophisticated palate for whiskey.
That evening I finished up shortly before Dungarvan. The campsite I’d been aiming for was closed for low-season, but a shop-owner pointed me in the direction of some municipal land that he reckoned I could camp on without bother. It was a banger of a first campsite in a new country…
The following day I arrived in Cork, which is where I’ll wrap up this blog.