We had spent most of the winter strangely free from the self-imposed pressures of home life, soaking-up the warm sunshine, and the very welcome breezes on Fuerteventura. We had explored the island well, cycling off into the oldest villages, hidden away amongst the more remote hills.
Our main reason for travelling abroad had been to avoid the Irish chilly season, but we soon discovered a glorious spin-off! There are so many more hours in the day when you are away from base, with just the minimum amount of cooking and cleaning, plus a bit of grocery shopping, each day offered a wonderful expanse of beautiful freedom.
However, after our wonderful holiday in Fuerteventura, Easter Sunday brought us, happily and excitedly, to our own front door once again – to last year’s flowers blooming once again and to that faint but enticing fragrance which hangs in the air, long before any tree blossoms can even be seen. We had plans made, the list was growing fast and we felt re-fuelled, with more than enough energy for the outdoor demands of summer. However, within just a few days, our re-found ‘busy-ness’ seemed all too much – overwhelming, even rather depressing!
“How on earth do we normally keep all the balls in the air?”, we found ourselves saying: we had been truly spoilt by our long holiday.
First there was a Confirmation, followed by a Christening (life can be busy when you have ten children between you, each with kiddies of their own). New togs bought and hairdressers visited, we brushed-up well and enjoyed being fully-submerged into society again, but both eager to get down to our scruffier, outdoor tasks.
Our much-neglected garden pond contained water which was so thick and green that we were convinced a heron had taken the fish. Either that, or they were simply refusing to swim through the green fog, up to daylight, even for food. Meanwhile, a polytunnel still lay, forlornly in its package, a surprise Christmas present of 2014 from adult children, who had then, expectantly, mentioned the delights of home-grown strawberries!
The sight of its huge cardboard cocoon, pushed into a corner of the shed, brought pangs of guilt which even out-bid the murky waters of our neglected pond.
We togged up for a messy time, wondering what, if anything, lay beneath the murky waters. Soup ladles to hand along with sieves and large pans – bailing out the last of the water after the pump had done its best. Soon our fish were, to shouts of delight, found and liberated, into huge buckets (exercising amazing feats of robust athleticism (look here, we are not dead!!), whilst Ed pleaded with me to be more careful in my random fishing with the kitchen colander.
His fondness for his wet pets was equalled by my child-like enjoyment, wellie-clad and knee-deep below him. The plastic pond liner was hosed, wiped, scoured and pronounced fit for habitation. Clear waters were now pumping down the stone waterfall to greet our re-homed and over-frisky pals, who gave a resplendent display of silver, orange, white and piebald, as they frolicked on the surface in delight and confusion. A full day of a job, but so good to have it done, at last.
The following day we set-about building a much-needed raised and cemented work area, for mending bikes and sawing timber. Two days’ of enthusiastic mixing and shovelling saw the job completed, without any hitches at all. We stood, proud as punch, tired and aching, but well-satisfied to have managed it all with only the aid of a small hired cement mixer.
No sooner had I gone inside to make a cuppa, than I trotted out to see Ed tearing at the cardboard of the said Christmas present! (I often think that the ‘hunter-gatherer’ genes in our men-folk can be detrimental to their wellbeing). Is it only the female of the species, the nurturers, who know when it’s time to take a well-earned rest – who, instinctively know, how to look after ourselves, and our men-folk too?
Perhaps mine is a rarer breed, who is driven on more than most? This can often be seen when faced with a seemingly impossible hill cycle, which challenges his willing legs to a duel, whilst I, begrudgingly, and with expletives, dismount!). I am not complaining – for his tenacity serves another, wonderful purpose. When we look around the house and notice the mounting fluff and dust, (or if visitors are suddenly expected), it is not myself who is found wildly brandishing the vacuum and mopping-out the kitchen. Enough said!! I am a lucky lady!
To show my appreciation, when the mood takes me, aromas of rhubarb pie and apple crumble emanate from our little kitchen, not to mention the waft of home-made excuses for biscuits and strangely-shaped scones. He relishes them all, with the same enthusiasm he shows for everything life offers.
Five minutes rest, on dusty plastic chairs, and our tea supped, found us measuring out the ground and shifting sundry obstacles, in order to mark the lines of the trench, which needed to be dug around the outer edges of the tunnel. The ground was dry and very hard under the old plastic weed repellant, which had served its purpose so very well. Even the huge pick-axe was making little impression.
This was definitely a job from which I could be excused, without guilt. I watched, making carefully-timed sounds, both of empathy and of disapproval, along with suggestions that we hire a machine, but to no avail, until Ed admitted, red-faced and sweating profusely, that it was, indeed, time to rest for the evening, and to re-think the trench problem.
The tough digging was, it seemed, unavoidable, so it continued over the next few days, ‘bite by bite’. (This has become the encouraging phrase I hear, shouted back to me, whenever I get off the bike to walk….more of that later.) With the trench finished, two huge wooden growing-boxes had to be built, then filled with prepared soil/compost and placed in situ, where the tunnel would be.
This done, we poured over the very meagre erection instructions, but managed to join-up the tubular frame without too much of a struggle. When we opened up the green tent-like plastic cover, anticipating a tough and frustrating performance in fastening it to the frame, it proved to be surprisingly easy to fit, but, to our chagrin, it was a design which did not require a trench to be built at all!!
As always, my hubby remained pragmatic and hammered in pegs to fasten the edge of the cover, which only just reached to inside his carefully dug-out moat, whilst also placing breeze-blocks at intervals along the hem of the plastic, before replacing the mounds of soil, to weigh everything down securely. His hard-won trench had a purpose after all!
No sooner had we shopped for small veg plants and seeds, eager to start our production, than Ed was sighted with the pickaxe to hand, yet again (masochism?). He was anticipating the time when the stronger plants would need to be moved to a cooler growing area, outside the tunnel! The sun had been beating down for several days so the ground was even harder. Tiredness was, at last, bringing my male protector and provider to a halt. His face said it all. Why were we wearing ourselves out in this beautiful sunshine?
WE REALLY NEED (ANOTHER) BREAK
He has often surprised me, at the strangest of moments and this was one indeed. He suggested, tentatively, that we award ourselves some time off – take the tent – go off exploring on the bikes?? I jumped up from my spectator’s position and within seconds I was checking my illegible scribblings in the diary (this is one responsibility which I am happy to shoulder….much easier than digging and shovelling…but an important one, at times like this). We saw that we had a ten-day period with no commitments at all! There was nothing to stop us!
Having cycled some of the beautiful West Cork coast previously, using B+B. accommodation, and having both loved it in spite of the many torturous hills, its pretty little villages were calling to us again. As with the pain of childbirth, the mental and physical agonies of continual up-hill cycling seem to fade, mysteriously, from the memory, once the body recovers and when that wonderful sense of achievement settles in the brain.
A good night’s sleep brought Ed out to the bike shed, first thing, dusting off pannier bags, checking brakes and lights, oiling moving parts and topping-up tyre pressures, whilst I pottered about, sleepily, cuppa in hand, muttering that I hadn’t made any lists, that there were things we needed to sort, like the bin collection! I wondered if, perhaps, this time I could manage to feel organised without the need to write everything down?
Still in my nightie and with my mind buzzing with an imaginary list, I piled things in a heap, on a kitchen worktop – pain-relief pills, indigestion remedies, crossword book, pens, water bottles, sun cream, tea bags, coffee and sugar and a big bag of muesli (gosh…do I really eat that amount in ten days?) while stuffing a small pile of laundry into the washer. After all, if the weather changed we’d be needing an empty machine on our soggy return!
The sunshine continued as my totally-single-minded mate could be seen test-driving his bike, to see if his heels hit the newly-attached panniers as he pedalled. Painstaking adjustments were needed. Then I was hailed, in earnest. It was my turn (and warm enough to be outside in my nightie) to test my pedals, whilst his favourite treat, sausages, sizzled in the pan (my ability to multi-task is well equal to, and compatible with, Ed’s single-minded dedication to his duties).
Our robust breakfast consumed with speed, I heard Ed rummaging, back indoors, as he hopped from foot to foot, eyes twinkling, high with anticipation of our first night under the stars. His child-like enthusiasm for adventure, even if it includes pain, is a blessing to us both and, thankfully, quite contagious. Duties as team mechanic complete, for now at least, our new lightweight tent (as yet, untested) and trusty camping gear already packed, he was gathering undies and socks, colourful lycra and our toilet things. It was now looking as though we could be ready to go that very same day, rather than the following one, just as long as I managed to catch-up, and then keep pace, with his excited hyperactivity.
11am saw us setting off, eagerly, wobbling as we accustomed ourselves to the heavy load. Within yards a very faint scraping noise was coming from my machine. I was loathe to mention it, knowing that, even in the car, my best mate cannot tolerate any rattles or squeaks, has to stop and find the cause, there and then. He heard it himself, so we pulled into the verge, just as a neighbour pulled up to ask our travel plans and suggested, to hubby’s mortification, that perhaps we needed to oil the bikes!! His face was a picture!
KILDORRERY TO BANTEER
Mallow was to be our first goal, but we never use the direct, hairy-scary road from KIldorrery, preferring to take the quieter route, via Castletownroche. As I grew more comfortable with the extra weight, I suddenly realised, to my horror, that we would have to tackle that short, but very steep, approach to the town, not to mention the other tough slopes we’d need to climb on our way to that one! We managed to make it without walking, to my surprise, but I did dismount just before the summit of the last one.
Sitting to regain our breath, on our usual cosy wooden bench, we soaked-up the peacefulness of the village, then cycled off for Killavullen, where we saw two young girls, basking in a feast of sunshine, down below the river bridge, trousers rolled up to the knees, throwing stones for their little terrier, from a sandy bank of pebbles, mid-stream, to which they had paddled, carrying their pet like a baby. This weather was a welcome blessing for everyone and on the bikes we had the added benefit of a constant breeze, which saved us from the oppressive heat.
Our supply stop, Lidl in Mallow, was en route, the plan being that we’d buy a non-cook evening meal and extra water, lest we ran out of pedal-power, and had to ‘wild camp’. We had packed two tins of mackerel as emergency rations, plus the ever-present bag of nuts and raisins. (Our trusty tinned fish was to make the whole journey with us this time, before being returned to the pantry press, yet again.)
A bottle of wine was added, to celebrate our being on the move once more. We do sometimes wonder if we both have some type of nomadic gene, the freedom of the road, even on wet days, being as enjoyable as the nights we relish beside our own fire, on darker evenings. I suppose it’s just a matter of needing contrasts in order to fully appreciate all of life’s blessings, comforts and challenges.
The road to Killarney from Mallow offers peace of mind for cyclists, its wide hard shoulder taking us, without much effort, towards Banteer, a village unknown to us, but one which was to reveal its own special delights. We took a small left, sooner than planned, so stopped to consult the map, while a young man in a work van pulled-up to offer help. It was an alternative route to Banteer, but, he told us, a much prettier one, quieter too. Soon we were cruising along happily, through green tunnelled lanes and past beautiful pink-sandstone barns and farmhouses, standing proudly as a tribute to the work of local quarrymen of times gone by.
“This is just like cycling in the French countryside,” we said, “but with the addition of our Irish pot-holes and bumpy patch-work tarmacadam.”
We scanned the route for likely places to pitch a tent as we approached the village crossroads, where a sandstone church and other rendered and coloured buildings showed signs of a thriving community. The Post Office offered the snacks and water we needed. As we paid, we tentatively asked would there possibly be a place for our over-nighting. A rather serious-looking customer, waiting to pay, smiled across, telling us we were welcome to camp in her garden, or her field. We could follow her car and choose. There was no problem at all!
Her perfect English and her ‘Irish’ face belied the fact that she was, in fact German, but had been here for forty years, raised her family here and had taken-on the easy disposition for which we are renowned. Relaxed and without any bother, she settled us into a shady wooded copse opposite her home, with admonitions to come over to her if we needed anything at all. If this was to be our first night in the open it portended well, we’d have no worries regarding finding future resting places. (Ed has long-held fears of an angry farmer appearing in the dark, sporting a shotgun!) Could we really say we were ‘wild camping’, if folk were to be so helpful and kind?
Our home for the night was inviting and cosy. The carpet of grass was long and soft. Stones seemed to be few, while several forgotten silage bales cocooned our nest in one corner and provided the perfect garage for our bikes, plus some privacy from the road. Our dinner was cold meat with salad, with a couple of glasses (plastic) of port to round-off our satisfying day. As the sun began to sink across the fields, we took a stroll along the lane, passing a grand old victorian domain, Clonmeen House, well-hidden by summer foliage, its winding driveway an invitation to the curious.
Further along we found Clonmeen graveyard, the oldest cemetery we had ever seen. Its entrance gate informed us that there was a grave dating back to 1647. It was the burial place of the O’Callaghans, one of whom had been slain at the Battle of Knocknanuss. Headstones had tumbled down in grassy confusion and writing was so weathered that we did not manage to locate the exact spot, but it was a quiet time for reflection.
Back in our shadowy glade we snuggled up in the sleeping bags for our first night. We were very happy bunnies and slept well, for twelve delicious hours, waking to early morning sun and lively bird-song, both calling us to rise and pedal onward.
BANTEER TO KILGARVAN
Having left Kildorrery with the West Cork coastline strongly in our minds, anticipating its wonderful seascapes and its wild, brisk freshness, as we cycled along we were bowled-over by the simple beauty of our inland lanes,those routes which we normally miss, so often choosing the speed of the main-roads in our hurry to ‘get there’. White tunnels of hanging hawthorne greeted us around every corner, assailing our noses with its scent.( All the blossoms, hedgerow blooms and wild roses seem to have been extra-abundant this year, in particular the deep pink tea-rose which so well adorns our local villages.)
We stopped to peer over stone bridges to find rivers which had become braided in the recent heat, struggling to flow, like mere ribbons of water, trickling over sunswept pebbles. An old ford crossing-point, now clearly visible beside the road, brought thoughts of times gone by, long before bicycles had pedalled over the bridge, when wooden-wheeled carts had splashed across the large water-smoothed stones, defying the current, on their way to market.
There is so much time for reflection when travelling slowly, when we leave our cars at home….we find we are torn, so often, between stopping to soak-up a breath-taking scene, or riding on, in order to achieve the planned distance for that day.
As we neared Millstreet we were met by a colourful sight and by the sound of happy banter. A team of willing workers was spread-out along the pavement, below an old high stone boundary wall, pulling out weeds and brushing off the ravages of its age, some on their knees, others standing back to rest. Bright-eyed African ladies laughed together while they stretched up to tug at greenery or brushed up the debris, quite unperturbed by the strong heat of the morning.
If this was a community work scheme it was a joy to see and to be proud of. We stopped to share a special minute with the lively crew, relishing the chance of a well-earned rest, but finding we sorely missed the breeze which had been keeping us cool as we rode along.
A cuppa and a bite were calling loudly to us as we entered Millstreet village and saw a sign for Centra. (Thankfully, refreshment stops are easily found on our Irish roads.) Ed has a penchant for doughnuts, sugared and jam-filled if possible.
Custard ones were new to him, but a packet of four was in his hand well before I had wet my tea-bag and stirred the sugar into his coffee. (Another difference here between our male protectors and we ladies: they seem to have less need to watch the calorie intake, or it could be all those hills, where he tries so much harder than I do, food for thought indeed!)
As we sat at a picnic table, munching and slurping, me my fruit scone without butter, and Ed, now onto his third doughnut, bearing in mind that he adamantly refuses to even try home-made custard in a bowl…we spotted a most peculiar thing. To one side of the fore-court stood a huge coin-operated outdoor laundrette! Large or small loads could be washed and dried at the push of a button, even duvets! What a great idea! (We just rinse our socks and undies through and hang them on the handlebars. They are dry by lunch-time).
Had the weather been miserable and wet we’d have been able to do our laundry, drink copious tea and coffee, then ride off warm and dry. The old coke advert sprung to mind, but Millstreet was not the place for two golden oldies to be baring their flesh and, thankfully, we had no need today.
Ballyvourney was our next tea-stop, where there was hustle and bustle from friendly locals, who told us, with gleeful smiles, that Michael D was paying a surprise visit that weekend. A helpful young woman, who obviously was not a cyclist, told us that, if we took a left turn, we would achieve the dizzy heights and excitement of cycling past ‘the highest pub in Ireland, en route to Kilgarvan.
Still sweating profusely in the noon-day sun, and already bowed with fatigue, we did not respond to her enthusiasm and asked, politely, if there was an alternative route. There was indeed – a supposedly “flat” one at that. We mounted our bikes with relief and a secret wry smile. After a long, slow and torturous climb of 4k, and a full hour of stopping and starting, we began to wonder if we should have set-off for that mountain pub, at least we’d have had a pint at the top, and a welcome sit-down!
Nature was calling to us both and not a bit of privacy to be found. It was a busy road with lorries passing by the minute. As you can imagine, it is much more difficult for lady cyclists to find relief than their male counterparts, who can step a suitable distance into the trees, their back to the traffic, look up nonchalantly at the blue sky, and Bob’s your uncle, so to speak. We girls need enough cover to lower ourselves out of sight, whilst also being on the alert for nettles, brambles or any sharp stems of grass.
Squatting without due care could mean that any unwanted shards would cling, determinedly, to our beloved lycra, remaining undiscovered until we are in the saddle again, where there would be no privacy to remove them. A huge pile of round bales came into view. We were off the bikes and over that gate in a flash. Relief was sweet!
Kilgarvan appeared, a welcome beacon to our night’s rest. With fingers crossed we stocked-up on supplies at the local P.O., where friendly staff were eager to help, but had no knowledge of any camping facilities near to hand. Once again, a customer, who beckoned me to join the queue in front of him, happily offered us a spot in his field! As on the previous day it meant we had to cycle two miles back along our route, but, bearing in mind Ed’s concern about shotguns, the offer was not to be refused, even by our now over-tired bodies.
A narrow track took us off the main road, past a few houses, up to the home which our new friend, John, now shared with his elderly mother. He spoke of his plans to resurrect the family farm and showed us the old homeplace where he was born. He was a busy man, a musician too, who had been drawn back home on the death of his father, happy to allow us to avail of what his land had to offer: another very kind and thoughtful person whom we had the good fortune to meet as we journeyed along.
Should we come a second time, we must ring him, he said, so that he could cut the pathways and make our camping easier!! We were taken on a tour of several un-farmed fields, choosing a sheltered spot close to a thick hedge. Bright blue forget-me-nots fought for space with the occasional pink orchid which was barely visible amongst the tall butter-cups and the thick reedy grass. Thunder was expected. There were no tall trees.
Tucked up contentedly by 7.15pm, we woke at half nine to an onslaught of midgies (midgets), those minute ones whose bites seem itch-free but whose swarming tactics drive you insane, as they land in droves on every uncovered body-part, even the scalp, leaving a flat rash resemblant of measles. It was my fault! I had left two inches of the tent door unzipped! Also, I had left the insect repellent in my pannier, in the hardware bag, along with our clothes-pegs and string!
By this time Ed was hallucinating, sleepily. He was peckish and had reached-out, lasciviously, at the large box of matches, hidden amongst a mound of socks, caps and paracetamol (we never know what we might need in the night) mistaking it for our last remaining chocolate bar, which had, very sadly, somehow gone missing that same day. This shared disappointment made the invading insects even more annoying!
Luckily they are a dozy breed, who can be easily caught by hand, in flight, or flattened as they land, so we swung out with great success, while the daylight lasted. (Gone was my usual ethic regarding ‘all of God’s precious creatures!’).
Our bladders were now complaining badly, but we waited for darkness, in the vain hope that our gate-crashers also had beds to go to, distracting ourselves by doing a crossword in the fading light, opening the tent zip was not an option!
KILGARVAN TO KENMARE
Refreshed and well-fed, having enjoyed a much-needed cuppa, made on our tiny but fierce gas stove, whilst warding-off a platoon of early-rising insects, we set off for just a short cycle, planning to reach Kenmare by mid-day. More tea was had as we passed through Kilgarvan once again, our reward for having back-turned two miles the day before.
A team of painters rattled on ladders outside Healey-Ray’s hotel and joked with us as we asked them if they were being well-paid! Indeed they were!
We had been told of Kenmare’s one and only campsite, that we’d easily find it, well-signed, long before we hit the town. A colourful and inviting board told us to take a right, up a pretty little lane and there it was, snuggled in at the far end, a dream of a place, run by a young family and offering everything you could possibly need for a simple, old-style camping holiday. There were ride-on toys scattered about the yard and a small playground peeped out colourfully from beyond the farmhouse.
Ample shelter was provided for wet days, when life in a small tent is not pleasant at all, plus a kitchen, which, to our delight, included an electric kettle, a stove and comfy chairs. Breakfasts here would be very civilized! The showers were piping hot and everywhere was very well-kept. With very few folk there, the two large fields spread-out invitingly but, with thunder still promised, we tucked ourselves in cosily, beside a hedge, very near to the conveniences, looking forward to all the extra comforts on offer.
Tent up, and now smelling sweeter, we pedalled off to Kenmare, less than two miles away and one of our favourite places, where we enjoyed a simple but feastly lunch, whilst catching-up on neglected contact with family and exploring the web for future campsites…..our hot showers that morning and the sight of an electric kettle had whetted our appetites for a bit of luxury! For me, it was the kettle which had clinched the deal!
Back at the tent we poured over the map to plan our next port of call but were, naively, dismayed to see that we had, in reaching Kenmare, settled ourselves within a nest of foreboding hills. It is difficult to read contours when using only a large-scale road map, another lesson learnt, but cutting down on weight meant we had left our more detailed maps at home.
It seemed that the easiest way to head coastward would be to return to Kilgarvan, where a small and twisting road to the right would take us over somewhat smaller hills, and into the town of Bantry, in a much kinder way.
KENMARE TO BANTRY
It proved to be a day to remember in many ways, from the time we left the main road. The scenery was breath-taking. Within a few metres we were drawn by the sound of a gentle cascade, coming from within the woodland, to our right. Resting on a stone bridge we soaked-up the scene. Crystal-clear mountain water tumbled down, through the trees, onto a sequence of terraces…platforms of weathered stone, bringing with it refracted rays of sunshine from the blue skies high above.
Rainbows abounded. Dark pools had formed in shady corners, in contrast to the dazzling light being reflected from the faster-moving water, light which changed the green of the upturned leaves into shimmering silver. The river’s pathway could be clearly seen, tumbling through tunnels of verdant foliage and circuiting mounds of moss-covered boulders, older than the river itself.
As we mounted the bikes a dog approached, barking, from a wooden house in the woods, curious as to the voices on his territory. With a pat from Ed and a goodbye backward sniff in our direction, he left us in peace to tackle whatever lay ahead of us on our way to Bantry.
The people we met, high up on the winding, never-ending climb, were a delight, full of smiles, chat and encouragement, from their car windows and from viewpoints, where they had stopped to take-in the colourful and vast landscapes, as we slowly trudged our way on what looked, deceptively, like a very gentle gradient. The weight on our bikes coupled with the mid-day sun, brought us to frequent rest stops…..when we tucked ourselves in at the roadside, amidst the ferns and brambles, but this time we did not walk!
Much later, thinking we had reached the top of the mountain pass, we cast the bikes aside to enjoy the moment, when a four by four pulled-up, a chubby smiling face leaning out to greet us, asking where we were off to, where we had come from and keen to share his own excitement. He was retiring from forty years of farming, with the rewards of a compulsory purchase order in his pocket and planning to travel over to Europe, so as to buy a luxury camper van at low cost.
He would then leave Ireland to explore the whole of the continent, by land and by sea, taking whatever time he wished, carefree and satisfied with his dramatic change of circumstances. He passed out a punnet of strawberries, fresh from the market and, on seeing our faces, as we closed our jaws on the exquisite red fruit, juice dribbling from our over-dry mouths, while we groaned in ecstasy, he took an empty paper coffee cup from the passenger seat and filled it with more berries for us, wished us well and sped off downward towards Kilgarvan, having called back to us…. that we still had more climbing ahead of us!
As we crossed from Kerry back in to Cork, we neared the summit, an insignificant bend bringing us to the breath-taking view of an extremely steep descent. What a change of focus! At least our poor old legs were now resting, as we free-wheeled the many miles of slope, towards Ballylickie.
Arms, shoulders and the hands now took the strain, with brakes constantly pulled and our weight thrust forwards onto the handlebars, rather than the saddle (always a relief!) whilst pins and needles settled in the upper limbs and our fingers,, as we sped, child-like, but with great caution, down the exhilarating route, keen to reach our campsite and very proud of our day’s achievement.
(Part 2 to be continued in the New Year)