Monday, December 12, 2011

Northern Ireland I - Orange Day and Beyond

50 miles, July 12

On the two hour crossing of the Irish Sea I reflected on the Scottish things I would miss: the phrase “a wee bit, ay!” (a little bit , yes). I never heard a Scot say “small” or “little”; it was always “wee this” or “wee that”. And because food is so important to us, I wondered if Northern Ireland would also provide us with the triangular-shaped oatcakes, infused with a crunchy nutty flavor so delicious topped with cheese or apricot jam. There were never enough in one package.

We docked in Larne, ambivalent to what lay ahead. A woman in Scotland warned us about July 12, “They march today. Stay out of Belfast.”

We pedaled through town, listening to drums as bands practiced marching in alleys and corner parking lots for Orange Day. “Orange” came from the Duke of Orange, a protestant, commemorating his victory over King James II. I confess to my lack of British /Irish history and have to quickly understand that these Protestant/Catholic conflicts have festered for centuries. Red and blue flags hung from various buildings. A parade in Larne, and Belfast especially, was cause for IRA violence. After reading about a death the previous day in Lisburn (southwest of Belfast) we stayed clear of the city, hoping the country folk, like anywhere, were more open to travelers.

We kept to well-signed county roads along the eastern edge of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. After a week of riding Andy and I had “found” our cycling legs. Miles were no longer an intense effort. We pedaled in periodic heavy drizzle, cresting small rolling hills, adjacent to cow and sheep pastures and green potato fields. Northern Ireland, or Ulster, seems more populated though the roads less congested. Back roads wind and swivel through ridges only to drop down a hill and cross a narrow stone bridge. As in Scotland, at least one pub, advertising Guinness or Tennent’s Lager, anchors a crossroad or town center. Most were closed because of the holiday.

Houses are more often made of brick as opposed to stone. Many favor a mixture of both; the effect is sturdy, colors a rich blend of earthen clay and soil.

Helicopters often rattle overhead, sweeping close to the ground. We imagine it’s because of recent IRA activity. The noise adds to the brooding ceiling of dampness.

Ulster Way walking path that rings Northern Ireland. Photo credit:

Then, as we pedaled through Lurgan searching for signs to a campground on the southern shore of the lake, we were unnerved and surprised to find two British army soldiers standing in the street. They clutched machine guns against camouflaged uniforms. We didn’t expect patrols 20 miles south of Belfast.

Andy went up to one soldier and asked directions. I followed close behind, a bit frightened as I’d never seen a machine gun. Only a breath away, I studied the man’s painted face. A mask of zigzag green and black markings camouflaged his cheeks. He helped us on our way, his eyes continually scanning the street. I was thankful to get out of town, by now expertly maneuvering through the roundabouts.

While I’ve been writing, a miracle has happened. The darkened sky blew further south; the northern half is now light blue with horizontal spears of thin clouds, undersides lit with pink. As the drizzle has been discouraging, we hope the weather will hold for tomorrow.

40 miles, July 13

A beautiful day! Days like today refresh the spirit, not to mention dry out all our wet clothes and tent. I washed a few items and dangled them from the panniers.

Heading south rolling up and down more Irish hills, the scenery is reminiscent of Sabra Field’s stark and colorful wood block prints. Puffy cotton ball white clouds, verdant fields striking with their many shades and weave of crops, Holsteins jet black and snow white. When the rain lifts it’s as if the country has been cleansed, ready for a fresh start.

In Newry the army, again, walked the streets, whispering into radios. More people roamed about though, and we stopped, eating a snack and watching city life.

We’ve discovered wheaten bread, a quick bread made with whole meal. It is tender and airy with a nice grainy texture.

The hills of Mourne country ruffle the eastern horizon; purplish and green hues entice us onward. A promise of a walk along the Ulster Way, a 600 mile route ringing the country, is too much to pass up.

Narrow Water Castle, Photo credit:
Following the Carlingford Lough, an inlet of the Irish Sea, the smell of saltwater carries on a headwind. We pedal by Narrow Water Castle, a 16th century tower on a spit. Sometimes it’s curiously out of place to watch Jaguars, Mercedes, and vibrant lycra-clad cyclists scream by ancient edifices - the 20th century clashing with the 16th.

In Rostrevor we camped in a nearby park. It is part of a huge forest service park, complete with numerous walking paths, also part of the Ulster Way. Often campgrounds are located far from towns that we stay near the tent until bedtime. This gem is a short walk into town. After set up, we cross the expanse of day-use park to relax in a pub and drink Guinness.

Three young Irishmen play pool and chat with us. We mention the military presence in Newry. The crew explains that Newry is a hotbed of Catholic/Protestant uprisings.  Two of the guys recently became dentists; one works in England. Apparently 50% of Great Britain does not regularly visit the dentist so the profession had looked promising. But the National Health Care Budget was recently slashed and they are starting at lower pay.

Rostrevor, Photo credit:

Later, as we sit at a picnic table overlooking the stone church spires, the town, the massive oaks, and the Carlingford Waterway, Andy and I are struck with the age and beauty of each and every village and the history that must accompany each.

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