By Eddie Smyth
The excitement, to be loaded up and leaving at 07:00 on a cold grey Saturday morning was not dampened in any way because it wasn’t damp, despite a whole week of pouring rains and icy cold mornings. Spring is very late this year and April 10th felt more like February 10th except for the extra daylight this time of the year affords.
Kidderminster to Kilsallagh Day 1: 300 miles (not including the water bit)
The bike pulled away like a puppy dog heading excitedly for its morning walk, the engine ever eager to go that much faster. I kept my composure and divided the calculated 160 mile journey from home to Holyhead into five targeted segments. The first, the junction at Bridgnorth barely 12 miles away gave confirmation that I was finally on my way towards a trip I had planned and developed over the previous six months: That feeling of excitement, anticipation and the culmination of what began when I first set my heart on buying a motorbike way back in my mid-teens. This is what it is all about. Not commuting, joyriding or trips to a bikers’ café 30 miles away on a Sunday morning. This, a week-long trip to foreign lands is what it is all about. If you have no idea what I am talking about there is no need to consider buying a motorcycle. Like rhythm, you either got or you ain’t, if you ain’t you never will have it.
The roads were clear of traffic and I made good progress despite the cold and it was Llangollen when I finally succumbed to stop to stretch my legs. Well, that’s not the only reason; my heated glove on my throttle hand was not working. For the first time in 4 years the battery had failed, the little cable was frayed beyond use, almost. My hand was freezing to a point of paralysis. In a layby with a beautiful view across the valley towards Pentredwr and the River Dee below, I fiddled and twiddled until a connection finally ignited the red indicator light on the glove. Relieved, I climbed back in the saddle and headed onwards to Betwys Coed, my third target point. The A5 north of Shrewsbury is a fantastic road, as you weave along wonderfully winding roads and through tiny villages that were just waking up on this Saturday morning. Take a left at Chirk and the Snowden mountains stand in your way. And they look increasingly amazing as the road dips you in and out of view as you get nearer.
Today they were snow covered and a resultant shiver mixed with pupil dilating enjoyment fills the visor. Fortunately the snow was restricted to the mountains only, the road surface was clear, if shiny, in places. Banking left, right, left, up and down, like Postman Pat on his rounds I ghosted through villages and passed lakes and streams until the A5 became the A55. Now, section five and it’s the icy cross-wind blast that one encounters every day of the year when traversing Anglesey. At least I can open the throttle for longer periods and by 09:45 I was parking the bike against the kerb in the town of Holyhead, right outside a greasy spoon. A lad sitting in a shop doorway crossed the street and asked about my bike before telling me he used to own two wheels, including a Bultaco. Now, there’s a name that has such iconic status to it he might have been referring to some royal character in ‘Game of Thrones’. This town takes you back through the ages and it’s not just the inhabitants.
I enjoyed my legendary fry up and hot tea in the café, my second breakfast, for the princely sum of 3 farthings and a groat. Several older fellows sipping coffee at the next table nodded a welcome in my direction as I sat there and then they carried on speaking in Welsh. Foreign soil already.I filled up with fuel having covered only 145 miles compared to Google Maps’ original assertions. I think it had directed me via Ipswich. After my refueling I refueled the bike and queued for boarding with all the rows of cars. When the ramps came down I was beckoned on board first. I parked in a tight corner and as the bike was strapped down tight I made my way to the upper deck for the reserved seat I had paid extra for, because I’m worth it. I was allocated a nice high backed recliner, away from others. My MP3 player (Chaka Demus and Pliers seemed appropriate for some reason) and a plate of snacks and plenty of fluids to hand made the 2 hour pond like crossing a wonderful experience.
Feeling immortal, I grabbed my crown (Scorpion helmet) when the call came to return to our vehicles and strolled statesman like to my steed. The only other bike on board was an articulated earth moving Valkyrie with the standard Spitfire sized engine. The diminutive rider said I had better go first to alight the ship since he would need more than a three point turn to get his monster backed out of the corner and facing forward again.
I rode directly into sunlight and Dublin. My Sat-Nav, re-programmed to kilometres, telling me I had 300km to go to reach my final destination of the day: Kilsallagh, somewhat west of Westport. I give no apology for shattering the teary eyed dreams of romantic, beautiful Dublin’s fair city that seems to pervade when Ireland is ever brought up in conversation. It sucks. Dirty, drab, jaded, not vibrant green but peeling dilapidated and out-moded. It has more traffic light than pubs and more pubs than cat’s eyes. The traffic is horrendous. The plethora of pedestrian patrons by the million all seem to be seeking inebriation by the shortest possible route. Why come here to find an Irish bar when there are several in every major town all over the rest of the globe?
But that is all superfluous scepticism if you are on a motorbike. I got out of there somehow, still intact and relieved I had not decided to sample the bustle of hen parties, stag groups and wannabee O’irish romantics from the USA looking for their four leafed clover of personal ancestry.
Tarmonbarry, County Roscommon
I stopped in a cosy looking hotel called Keenans in Tarmonbarry and found the bar and staff warm and welcoming as I wrapped my frostbitten fingers around a steaming coffee pot. The landlady was somewhat abrupt with her admonition that hail and snow was forecast locally on the radio that very morning and I should have known beforehand. I avoided enlightening the stupid bitch that I was actually 200 miles away in the UK when she got the ‘local’ news and since those ridiculous road side information boards only warn you to check tyre pressures and take regular rest stops I had minimal opportunity for any advanced warning of the weather front in County Roscommon . Still, the comfort break gave me the respite I desperately needed. I was more than halfway across Ireland by now and the resurgence of anticipation renewed vigour set me off on the final leg of my journey.
Westport is a nice place, a back- in- time- type of town. Bustling in its own way at weekends as it fills up early doors with revellers who probably think Dublin is a dump and one to avoid. One thing I noted which took me back to the 1960’s in England though: A petrol station where the pumps are actually sited on the kerbside. It was surreal. Pedestrians walking in front and behind the pumps as cars drew up to be attended to. H&S and risk assessments for such arrangements have yet to reach these parts I guess. I am all for that.
Westport looks inviting with its bars, old buildings and narrow side streets but I have a few more miles still to go. I dropped down into the Quayside road which took me along the waters’ edge as I glided towards Murrisk and then Kilsallagh which was my target for my first night in Ireland since 1982.A photo opportunity arose at the Famine Memorial which is sited just outside Murrisk on the road side. A galleon designed with interwoven skeletons and skulls depicts the horrors of an era of destitution which ripped Ireland apart like carrion on corpses.
Not far now, 5km in fact and I was greeted at Achill View Lodge by the sweetest old lady you could ever cast in this idyllic image of Irish hospitality. My bike, though exposed to the elements for the night was tucked up a driveway between two walls and a garage door. My room, of less importance, was cosy, lilac but had all the requisite needs of privacy and comfort. I found sockets to charge the various electronic devices we now seem unable to survive without and I persisted with charging my heated glove batteries, just in case Lazarus is not just biblical apocrypha. I was invited to recline in the sitting room to drink tea (a wide selection) and eat home-made scones with home-made jam, surrounded by family photographs and personal memorabilia: So cosy.
The shoreline is 100 yards away as the meadow slopes away across the road. I made my way through the briars and boggy grass to watch the waves batter the shore and witness pure solitude and peaceful bliss as the sun, cloaked in clumpy clouds crept away to its own bed chamber. My journey through tempests and torrents was worth every icy, finger stinging mile to reach this very moment.
I headed to a nearby pub back in Murrisk to sample the ale and listen to some diddly dee local tunes played by a couple of musicians who had promised to perform for those who wished to hang around. I waited quite a while, the bar very appropriate for the occasion as three folky type guys took longer than Rammstein with 26 trucks of equipment, to set up three mikes and a couple of speakers.
Eventually they strummed up a tune on a guitar accompanied by an accordion and a flute. Ah, that’s all I needed to hear. Confirmation I was where I was in every sense of the word. I fired up the bike for the final time this day and wheeled through the darkness along a deserted road, hemmed by a choppy shoreline and a snow capped mountain called locally, no surprise as Holy Mountain back to the cottage and slithered into my bed. The electric blanket heated what bones still required reassurance that they would be needed again in the morning and I slept with a smug smile that made my cheeks ache.