I’d been warned about planning early starts by my friend Martina. She told me the story about her father and a man who was not from Donegal, who’d hoped to get a job done early one morning. ‘Can we get an early start?’ The stranger asked. ‘Definitely. We’ll get off at first light.’ Ronnie replied. ‘So, what time is first light Ronnie?’
‘Anytime after eleven.’
Early on the Friday morning before Good Friday, the sun shone brightly between the clouds. Five minutes later, clouds filled in and drizzle fell. Three cups of tea later, and well after 10am we packed the last of the kit onto the bikes and waved goodbye in. The waterproofs were packed in the top of my drybag.
The sun had reappeared and we began to ride The Wild Atlantic Way.
Empty narrow lanes, designated as cycle routes guided us towards the Erne estuary and into Ballyshannon. The town is the oldest in Ireland and home of ‘Donegal Blonde’, a craft beer brewed in the beer garden of Dicey Riley’s pub. It’s also the birthplace of the Poet William Allingham and the blues guitarist Rory Gallagher. A bronze statue by David Annand and an annual festival commemorates Rory’s life.
Swinging left towards the port we pedalled past a promontory fort, towards the rolling countryside. At Abbey Mill and tea rooms the staff were preparing for the Easter opening, cleaning windows and sprucing the walls with paint. I’d skipped a beer in favour of tea and found neither. ‘There’s a Holy Well here somewhere, as far as I remember.’ Dan showed little enthusiasm as I marched up the hill with my bike. ‘C’mon, you have to see at least one holy well. We can fill our water bottles with the Holy Water.’
Navigating the kissing gate, we found St Patrick’s Well down by the kelp covered shore.
An ash tree covered in rags stood nearby. There was a hairbrush, toothbrush and a tattered bra. Jumpers, scarves and strips of cloth fluttered in the breeze like worn out Buddhist prayer flags, each scrap important and meaningful to someone. Founded in the 12th Century by Cistercian monks, the nearby ruins of Abbey Assaroe lay broken beside the graveyard. William Allingham said it all when he wrote the following words;
Gray, gray is Abbey Assaroe, by Belashanny town, It has neither door nor window, the walls are broken down; The carven-stones lie scatter’d in briar and nettle-bed! The only feet are those that come at burial of the dead. A little rocky rivulet runs murmuring to the tide, Singing a song of ancient days, in sorrow, not in pride; The boortree and the lightsome ash across the portal grow, And heaven itself is now the roof of Abbey Assaroe.
Golden whins, dandelions, and lesser celandines, lined lanes bordered by dry stone walls as we trundled towards Creevy. The GPS suggested left, though I disagreed. It seemed sensible to keep the ocean on our left and turn right. A man in his early thirties sauntered towards us. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Rossnowlagh.’ We answered in unison.
‘Ah, well, you’re on a bit of a diversion…’ We explained that we had a dilemma with the GPS. ‘Garmin! Jesus, did no one ever tell you about Garmin? Would you ever throw that yoke in the sea. Get yourself a decent smart phone or an OS map and go up to the main road. That goes straight to Rossnowlagh so it does.’
‘Can we go this way instead?’ ‘Ah yeah,’ he answered, with a puzzled look on his face and pointing left, ‘but don’t go down that road or you’ll be swimming so you will.’
There were bungalows and prettily restored cottages dotted along the undulating route and barely any traffic.
Perched on a cliff overlooking the beach, Smugglers Creek was having new windows installed. There was a feeling that Donegal was emerging from its winter hibernation. The tide was out and the cycle route along the Rossnowlagh beach accessible. (Rossnowlagh, roughly translated means Heavenly Cove).
The Marathon Mondial tyres rolled freely along the beach. The only other people on the beach were from a local Surf School. In the hope of a hot cuppa we approached Finn McCool’s Surf School where two warmly dressed women nursed steaming mugs of tea. ‘Do you serve tea?’ I asked, as the fresh salty air made my eyes water.
‘No, but I can do.’ Said Neil the owner. Whether from pity or kindness, two cups of tea were prepared and drunk hastily. I was expecting a call from Highland Radio, so even though it was only 11.30, it seemed like a good plan to have lunch. Back we went to the Sand House Hotel for vegetable soup and home made wheaten bread with a delicious hint of sweetness. Mid mouthful, the phone rang.
During the interview, my eyes fixated on the soup. It grew cooler by the second. We made towards Donegal Town in search of castles, coffee and cake, rolling along flat strand, whizzing past tall bending reeds and moss covered walls. There was an air of busyness in the Diamond, which is really a triangle and typically the name given to town squares in Donegal.
The Blueberry Tearoom had enough space for the bikes to lean against the shop wall, but was bursting at the seams inside. We opted to eat outside. My squidgy chocolate brownie and single shot latté hit the spot as we leaned against the churchyard wall opposite Donegal Castle.
I chucked half a cup of coffee over myself in my haste to zip up as a squall blew in. A few miles out, we were cruising along long lonely lanes bisected with strips of lush green grass. Edged with primroses, wood anemone and daisies; the Irish Tricolour of green white and gold describes more than just the political landscape. Ireland is more colourful than forty shades of green. Cattle chewed on sweet smelling silage and sheep grazed on rougher ground leaving tufts of rushes untouched.
We pondered at Mountcharles Pier for a while and faced a stiff breeze for most of the day.
Deciding to miss out on St John’s Point and back on the main road for Killybegs, we searched for the track to the coast. A gate with a sign stating ‘Beware of the Bull’ blocked the way. I went to the closest house to ask permission to enter and to check if there really was a bull. The man inside assured me there was no bull but that the track was muddy and only led to a farm house anyway. He told us we could go back a bit, down a different track but we’d be much better going along the main road.
‘The main road’s good and fast,’ He said as my heart skipped a bit with fear. ‘I haven’t been down that old road in about twenty years, but you could try it. Go back to the big two storey house at the top of the hill and turn right.’
My spirits lifted at the sight of the great trawlers in Killybegs harbour at the other side of the bay. With the wind on our tails, the downhill run was fast and fun. Turning southwest at the head of the harbour, the air smelt differently; a hint we had reached Ireland’s most important fishing port. We’d covered 47 miles / 72 Km and taken almost eight hours. We had paused, lingered and savoured the day.
With a final push up the steep drive of Seawinds B&B, Sally, the aluminium ass, Dan’s steely steed and our good selves docked for the night.
You may also like to check out the route, which can be downloaded for your own reference.
Bicycle Hire Companies along the above route Grass Routes – Electric and hybrid bicycles
Rory Gallagher Sculpture image copyright David Annand