It was raining the day I rode into Dublin. The type of incessant drizzle that makes any town feel a little depressing. I picked up a flat white from one of the many fancy cafes at the edge of St Stephen’s Green and settled on a park bench with enough tree cover to protect me from the rain.
When the woman sitting next to me finished her cigarette, she stood up, gave my loaded bike a good stare and said ‘you don’t need much to be happy in life’ with a smile, before walking off into the drizzle.
It’s true. But a little sunshine helps as well.
I sacked off my sightseeing plans for something more important (and more dry). I’d treated myself to a selection of Ireland’s stouts: Guinness (obviously), Murphy’s (my new favourite) and new-kid on the block Islands Edge (disgusting) – but I was missing one of the ‘big three’: Beamish. To my dismay, I’d recently realised that Beamish is most definitely a ‘Cork-thing’ and not that easy to find up here. Perhaps I’d missed my chance.
In the end I found it – in Wetherspoons, of all places. I was proud to have sourced a pint of Beamish before leaving the country, but slightly embarrassed that my final pint in Ireland was in a Wetherspoons.
I hopped on the ferry after a short onward cycle in the rain. I’ll visit Dublin properly another day.
Unlike the empty overnight ferry from Fishguard 12 days earlier, this crossing was full. I’m glad to have spent the afternoon sailing, as it rained most of the day.
I squeezed in one final pint of Guinness on the ferry back to Wales, after having promised myself that I’d not drink any more until I was back home. They add up, those pints. I was looking forward to starting the ride across Wales, but I also wished I had longer to explore Ireland. I’d have enjoyed more time to chat, hanging out in villages and pubs, with less hours spent constantly pedalling. Everyone I’d met in Ireland had been so lovely, helpful and charming. I’d have liked to have had time for deeper conversations.
Times are changing in Ireland, for sure. The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a source of constant tension since our political highlight of the last decade, Brexit, and the riddle continues to be a headache on both sides of the border. When the UK was still part of the EU, moving goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was straightforward, but now it’s subject to an impressive length of red tape and things are still a complete mess.
Just a day after I left the country, Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, won the largest number of seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly election for the first time. The victory means they are entitled to the first minister post in Belfast for the first time since Northern Ireland was founded around 100 years ago. Having a pro-reunification in this position clearly brings the prospect one step closer. To a travelling cyclist, the Irish landscape will look the same in 10 years time: a patchwork of fields, with winding lanes and bleating sheep. But the political landscape could look very different.
By the time we reached Holyhead in the early evening, the rain had cleared and the sun was back out. I churned out a quick 30km and camped in some woods. Three big days and I’d be back in England.
I was excited to be riding National Cycle Route no. 8: Lon Las Cymru. This is a route that had been on my ‘to-ride’ list for a long time, and now seemed the perfect option to head south. I’ve only ever really dipped my toes into Wales, and this was a good opportunity to cycle the length of the country.
For the first time, I heard people speaking Welsh everywhere. The only Welsh I heard spoken cycling across the south of the country was an automated message in the elevator of my Swansea hostel. Every official sign in Wales is bilingual, so you’ll see more of the language than hear it. When I first rode into the country, it was on a long training ride for the Transcontinental Race – from London to Brecon Beacons and back again over a weekend. It had taken me an embarrassingly long amount of time to figure out what ‘ARAF SLOW’ meant plastered across the Welsh roads. Turns out – perhaps obviously – that ‘araf’ simply means ‘slow’ in Welsh.
Funnily enough, I didn’t hear any Irish spoken on this trip. I did ride through areas in County Clare and Cork where many people speak Irish – but it’s still less than half of the population that can speak the language in those areas, despite it still being a national language that is mandatory to teach in schools. To be honest, the accent was so strong in places that they may as well have been speaking a different language anyway.
The second night I camped just off the Mawddach Trail. It was an incredible pitch, definitely the most scenic of the trip. If it hadn’t been for the midges that decided to keep me company – I might have described it as perfect.
The riding through Snowdonia National Park was stunning. Epic, even. As I inched closer and closer to home, it was nice to be reminded that there are some truly amazing areas that you don’t need to travel halfway around the world for.
But my God it was hilly. These stretches of the Lon Las Cymru were paved, but the gradients were sadistic. For the first time on the trip, I really wished I’d had lower gearing.
I was starting to feel worn out. Once again, I’d bitten off slightly more than what was sensible to chew in three weeks of cycling. I averaged 100km for 21 days straight, without a single day off – which may be the most consecutive days riding I’ve ever done on the bike.
I pushed on through Brecon Beacons. The previous day I’d ascended over 2,500m and the hills were sucking the life out of my legs. But it was nice to be riding off-road, and this was one of the longer sections of gravel on the route.
When it comes to off-road riding potential in Ireland, the land is set up and divided quite differently. I’m not sure I did a single metre off-road, despite trying to ride small lanes wherever possible. There just isn’t the same land-access and bridleway network in Ireland, which is a pity.
The supermarkets across Britain and Ireland make shopping a homogenous experience, but it certainly makes grabbing dinner a little easier than it was in Morocco (for a price, admittedly). I pulled into an ALDI at Merthyr Tydfil to grab some pasta, and as I left a homeless man asked if I had any change. I rarely do these days, but in rural areas of Britain there are still plenty of small shops that only accept cash, so for once I had some coins that I passed over.
He asked where I was cycling to, to which I replied “England“.
He looked shocked: “When will you get there?“
“Erm, tomorrow I suppose“.
“Where will you sleep tonight?“ he asked.
“I’ll just camp somewhere at the edge of town,“ I replied.
He looked puzzled. “So… you’re homeless?“
The question threw me. I suppose I was, technically, but you could hardly compare our situations. It’s not lost on me how privileged a position I am in to be able to do these trips.
My final campsite was a fitting spot, located just a short while later, nestled in among a patch of bluebells. They were on their last legs, as summer will soon be arriving properly. The seasons are definitely shifting and the days noticeably longer than when I set off on this tour…
I left Lon Las Cymru and started riding east. My loop was complete, and I was riding some of the very same lanes that I did when I first arrived in Wales almost 3 weeks ago. Before long I’d reached the Severn bridge. The sun was out and I was pedalling in a t-shirt. Quite a contrast to that miserable grey day that I crossed in the opposite direction.
I was remarkably lucky with the weather on this trip. Perhaps I deserved it after all that snow in Morocco. It had literally rained about 3 times during the day, and on each occasion I’d managed to avoid the worst of it. For April in the UK and Ireland – that’s pretty good going.
But best of all – the wind had literally followed me on my loop. I’d had an out-of-character tailwind as I rode west across the South Coast of Wales and Ireland, but it turned to its prevailing direction as I started riding towards home. Thank you, weather Gods – I owe you one.
I stayed with a friend in the Cotswolds and had a good look at the map. Despite the good progress I’d made, I was still a day shy of my target. I needed to be back in London the following evening, but the Big Smoke was still 180km away.
I considered knocking it out in a one-day ride. Doable, but a real slog on this loaded bike. After my 3 weeks of good fortune, my luck with the weather had finally run out. It was going to be a wash out day.
I had a look for places within a day’s ride from where I was, and chose a spot with the cheapest train ticket back to London: Hungerford, just 80km away.
My last day of cycling was beautifully miserable, with heavy non-stop rain the entire day. It’s much easier to end a bike trip when you’re not having fun.
I got on the train a soggy mess, and 50 minutes later we pulled into London Paddington. The rain was finally easing slightly as I cycled back down to South London. As I rode past Buckingham Palace, where hundreds of smartly dressed people in military uniforms and elegant dresses were lined up under umbrellas, waiting to get into the garden party. It was a funny sight. This part of the world seems less interesting to me, a Londoner, than Morocco – but it can still be a fascinating and bonkers part of the world, in its own uniquely British way.
It might be a long time before I have the opportunity to go on another 3-week bike tour, so I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity.
See you next time!