Eurovelo 1 – Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Way
My original idea was just to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland, catching ferries from Fishguard to Rosslare and from Larne to Cairnryan. But why not follow the Atlantic seaboard from Lands’ End to Cape Wrath and then extend it to John o’Groats too? Part 1 and 2 cover England and Wales, now into the meat of the ride.
After an uneventful ferry journey and nice campsite at Tagoat, I set out for the start of the WAW at Kinsale. Along the country lanes I immediately notice I am getting the finger from local drivers, but not the f’off sign I get back home, but the inverse – a gentle acknowledgement and welcome. This is pleasant cycling as I follow the new Eurovelo 1 signs through gentle remote farmland.
The ferryman at Ballyhack collects €2 and transports me to the opposite bank of the River Barrow and into Country Waterford. The car registrations confirming what the boundary signs tell me. It is a brief cycle to a cafe in Waterford Quay for lunch, before I connect with the Waterford Greenway – a traffic free cycle route along a rail line to Dungarvan. The route is easy under wheel, but hard going into the wind. I have to give way to a tourist train that runs parallel to the cycle path, full of warm cosseted passengers.
The sea comes into view after passing through a tunnel, decorated with pixie like carvings by local school children. I stop to check directions and meet Jack and Sonia again, a couple I met on the ferry. We cycle together to Caseys campsite and are made most welcome by the owner, busily preparing the site for the summer season.
The next section to Kinsale keeping to country lanes is not so easy. It is raining hard too. I see the N25 has a good shoulder and decide to cycle along that to see where it takes me. I switch on all my LED lights and enjoy the draft of lorries. The cycling is mostly safe other than some difficult sections where the planners have in their wisdom removed the shoulder on left hand bends and hills. A few carefully chosen short cuts avoid the worst sections.
I have the ‘hammer down’ in the pouring rain and reach Cobh Cross in good time. I’m soaked and cold as I progress towards the West Ferry. The heater in the passenger waiting area has no effect and I am deparate to stop for lunch. Google Maps offers some suggestions, but I see a sign for an Italian Deli and Cafe. That’ll do. As I enter, all the customers go quiet. After a short pause a couple beacon me to join them. I sit and defrost over a lovely meal and delightful conversation. Ivan and Elizabeth leave to get back to work. I rise to pay, only to find they have bought my meal. Such a touching gesture I will never forget. I wasn’t expecting such a warm Irish welcome.
The hostel at Kinsale hits the spot. Meal, good company and the first round of the Champions League Semi-Final – Liverpool 5 – 2 Roma. I didn’t realise football was so popular in Ireland. Liverpool being a favourite team. The common room is packed with avid supporters. I sleep well, contemplating the start of the Wild Atlantic Way, which I will follow, thereabouts, for the next 2,000km or so, to the Inishowen Peninsula at the very northern tip of Ireland.
I have no fixed destination as I set off in the direction of Mizen Head. I am getting ‘inside’ the journey now on Day 13 and try to relax into a steady pace. But this is a challenge. A familiar pattern of steep ascent (get warm); strong wind at the summit (get chilled); cold micro-storm (free cold shower or hail blast therapy); descent (dry off) repeats as I survey the stunning coastal scenery and powerful breakers around the headlands. I have recoded the Wild Atlantic Way acronym (WAW) to mean Wet and Windy. The dramatic scenery is what I have come for and the weather is a part of that. It is perhaps a notch or two more dramatic than my experience of the coast of England and Wales.
A SPAR attached to a local petrol station serves a great value meal deal, which refuels me for the next 20km to Skibbereen. The previous hostel hosts recommended I stay at Russagh Mill Hostel. It is delightful, wacky and welcoming. Multi-sex dorms are a first for me, but they work well and the conversation is stimulating and entertaining. Such a mixed diverse bunch of hostellers, but all with common interests and outlook.
After a ridiculously large bowl of porridge I set off for Mizen Head. Houses have meteorologically themed names: Muckle Flugga; Rockall; Fastnet as I pass through Schull. Perhaps the Shipping Forecast would be a more reliable weather guide for the day. I sing to the seals in the bays to stimulate their curiosity. They follow me along the shoreline for a while and I slow down to watch them.
The cafe at Mizen Head serves a great fish and chips, where I meet two Spanish gents, cycling around Ireland. They are taking it slowly, 60km a day, staying at B&Bs and travelling light. I have a 100km target to reach and a campsite north of Bantry.
My chain is creaking badly so I seek out Donovans Cycle. Denis says it is not yet worn out and can only offer SRAM 10-speed chains as a replacement, so I will try further up the coast for the HG-X chain I prefer. This is where I learn of Mizen to Malin (M2M), the Irish equivalent of LEJOG. Denis completed this in 2 days a few years earlier. I Google it later – that’s at least 560km taking the direct route. I’ll be there in another in another 2 weeks! Some going.
The roads are busy into the Beara as fleets of white tourist buses pass in the opposite direction, each with their attendant guides holding microphones. Peg’s Shop at Adrigole makes a welcome stop, where she builds me a sandwich fit for a king (of the mountains).
I have to decide to cycle around the Beara Peninsula, which everyone has recommended, or cycle over the Healy Pass, which is also unmissable. I choose the latter, I’ll come back for the former another day. If I explore every estuary and headland on the west coast I’ll be in Ireland all year.
The Healy Pass is sublime. The ascent steady and remarkably pleasant. As I approach the summit, I can hear the exhaust notes of cars racing up the hill. These are not modern cars, but classic MGBs, Triumph Dolomites and a beautiful Mark I Cortina. I stop to video them, a BMW M5 follows up at the rear, just about able to keep up, surprisingly. I chat to the owners at the summit and then set off on a rapid descent into Lauragh. The Thorn Sherpa handling as solidly as usual. I’ve eaten Peg’s sandwich before the fleet arrives a few minutes later, tooting at me as they continue their tour.
It is a long ride around Kenmare Bay to Castlecove and a basic campsite, but well positioned for the following days cycle around the Ring of Kerry. Up early to see and hear my first Cuckoo of the season, there is no other movement or sound to confuse my sighting on a still, clear beautiful day. The views are stunning as the Skelligs come into view, the jagged islands are a famous destination for Star Wars fans. The islands do resemble a crashed Battlecruiser from certain angles, but also a lonely place for Luke Skywalker to retire.
The zigzag ascent leaving Ballinskelligs is brutal, I only just make it to the summit without getting off and pushing. The descent into Portmagee is frightening. I try to resist braking, but the effect of gravity has me reaching speeds I’d rather not be travelling. The Swissstop brake blocks do their stuff until I stop for lunch where, by fortune, a resident tells me the Valentia Ferry is not running. The skies to the east are ominous, full of thunder, rain and hail, with a wind that draws me inland towards Castlemaine.
I head west again to The Strand at Inch, a proper meal and pint of Guiness. The views across a sandy arc towards the Macgillyguddy’s Reeks are straight off a Top 10 landscape photo competition. The tops are in snow/hail, a result of the micro-storms that drilled across the landscape today. This must be one of the best views in Ireland.
Slea Head provides rich possibilities for that photo essay. A gentle circuit from Dingle is a joy to cycle along on another glorious day. The views out across the Blasket Islands to the infinite distance of the Atlantic Ocean are as humbling as you will ever see. If you ignore the tourist traps and hire cars the natural coastline, beaches and sky scape are invigorating. All the more so for being on a bicycle.
I’m soon back in Dingle and loading up with carbs before climbing Conors Pass, a steady 6km, 14% ascent to a stunning viewpoint. The road is wide to the south, but unpassable to anything wider than a VW campervan to the north, so fleets of coaches and land yachts are thankfully absent. I am joined by local lad, Jonathan, on a racing bike, who paces me up the hill chatting away about a land he loves. The views of Mt. Brandon and the Irish coast to the north are wonderful. The descent tucks into the mountainside until leveling out towards Tralee and a comfortable campsite with a great kitchen/communual area. I meet Nouraddin, also cycling around Ireland, and share a ‘fridge clean’ meal made with anything we have left in our food bags.
I pick out quiet lanes towards Tarbert to catch the ferry across the Shannon Estuary, stopping at Ardfert to buy a lovely pie. A quick calculation, considering variables of weather, ferries and accommodation suggests I stay at a campsite in Doonbeg before catching the ferry to the Aran Islands. The campsite is perfect, well run and full of character. I scoff a burger at the local shop, open on a Sunday, passing the time talking to contractors working at the power station during a 3 week shutdown.
The next day I cycle along the WAW, past the Cliffs of Moher, to Doolin to catch the ferry to Inisheer and Inishmore, two of the Aran Islands guarding Galway Bay. Time for a half day break and relax before continuing on the northern section.
My rules for this trip did not mean that I had to religiously follow the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW). Any route by bike or ferry that kept to the Atlantic Coast was acceptable. I also wanted to visit the Aran Islands again, after a 25 year absence, to see what has changed.
I could catch the ferry to Inisheer, then later to Inishmore and stay at the campsite. Question was which ferry to catch, the competition being fierce between the MV Happy Hooker and Bill O’Brien’s Doolin Ferry. The latter won out, giving an opportunity to see one of the smaller Aran Islands.
I had been cycling with a strong westerly wind that morning and the sea state was rough. This didn’t seem to worry the Doolin Express which coped easily with the swell as we left the harbour, much to the excitement of the passengers aboard. You certainly needed your sea legs for this journey.
Safely deposited on Caherard Pier, Inisheer, I set about exploring the island before the later ferry to Inishmore. It didn’t take long, so I settled on the beach to absorb the peace and tranquility of the island. The upturned Currach’s waited patiently to be put to some use, but needed experienced rowers, who perhaps now had turned their attention to providing horse and trap trips for visitors.
It was nice to just sit and reflect for a while, but soon I was ushered aboard the Doolin Express for Inishmore. I was the only passenger, the ferry really making the journey to collect day trippers for return to Doolin. Inishmore has changed significantly in the 25 years since I last stepped ashore. Kilronan harbour has been enlarged and more commercial activities predominate, not least huge fleets of hire bicycles.
I did some shopping and made for the campsite, complete with the now mandatory camping pods. No-one else was camping at this time of year, so vast kitchen block was empty. I cooked a big meal and pitched for the night.
Early morning I made an attempt to visit Dún Aonghasa, the most extrodinary pre-historic fort, a semi-circular construction abutting a sheer cliff face. The rain and the wind defeated me as I had to a ferry to catch, but the ride along the island reactivate my memory. Sadly the Lucky Star Bar had closed and was in a state of disrepair. No more roosters in the garden either.
The Aran Island Ferry, which does not really take bikes unless asked, swiftly took me, along with coach loads of American tourists, to Rossaveel. I had succeeded in crossing Galway Bay as planned. As soon as the coaches had departed I was left alone to finish my lunch before setting out into Connemarra.
I had phoned ahead to stay at a B&B at Carna, after circum-navigating Camus and Kilkieran Bays. The wind was fresh, which made progress difficult, but the warm welcome I received more than compensated. I was sharing the place with a Dubliner, who was here for a week to study the Irish language. This was a Gaeltacht region, which spoke Gaelic as the first language, primarily south of the N59. I received a quick lesson and held on to the phrase “go n-éirigh an bóthar leat” – which means “bon voyage” or more literally “may the road come up to greet you”. More a phrase used when you are leaving the pub after one too many, but I loved it. My hosts and fellow guests are wonderful, and by coincidence, the second leg of the Liverpool 4-2 Roma match was on TV. Subconscious planning again 😉
Up early to cycle to Clifden in a persistent westerly, but I am getting used to that now. The coastal scenery is ancient and dramatic, with scenes that would not have looked out of place 100 – 200 years ago. I tried to visualise the landscape during the period of famine, made all the easier by the occasional graveyard, marked by hundreds of nameless stones. Both of my maternal grandparents have Irish names associated with the emigration that occurred during the 1840s. Had they not moved, I would not exist.
Clifden was busy with commerce. I stopped for lunch and decided against riding the Sky Road, as the cloud base would mean I would see little. So I progressed towards a hostel on the shores of Killary Harbour, Irelands only fjord.
The hostel was busy with school kid ‘mudders’ thoroughly enjoying themselves in the peaty bogs, getting filthy along the assault course. I meet another cycle tourer, Maria, from Germany, hopping around meeting friends and a few other hostellers similarly roaming Ireland. I learn that a fjord is defined by its ecology, a mixture of sea and freshwater ecosystems, compared to a sea loch which retains tidal sea influence and was not formed by glacial action.
I depart early to ascend Doo Lough pass and Lake District like scenery of Murrisk. The descent is lazy and swift into Westport, passing Croagh Patrick, a mountain with a well worn path taken by the thousands of pilgrims that climb it on Reek Sunday in July. A cycle path takes me into town for lunch.
I now start along the Western Greenway, which will take me traffic free all the way to Achill Island. Like the Waterford Greenway, I have a head wind, but the cycling is pleasant along the rail track. I meet a German couple on e-bikes, making easier progress but conserving energy to reach their destination. They are seasoned tourers who have now switched (so to speak) to electricity in their later years. Not a bad idea at all.
After a bit of a slog I reach a campsite in Doogort where I receive a warm welcome and take time for a long chat with the owner. He bemoans the smartphone addiction he sees in young children. Their first question is to ask for a WiFi password and not the direction to the beach. I find the lee of a wall to camp out of the wind and sleep deeply after a long day.
The a fantastic tail wind assists me the following day, more like sailing than cycling, with the occasional gybe to switch the wind from shoulder to shoulder. If I stand upright I can actually maintain a reasonable pace without pedalling. I could spend another week in North West County Mayo but head more directly for Ballina, taking advantage of the wind direction. The campsite has a few other cycle tourists and it is nice to chat for a while. There are also motorcycle adventure tourists on near identical BMW GS 1200s. We all have similar tales of adventure and swap stories and details of the trails ahead.
Mine leads into County Sligo and wonderful section of coast past Easky. The huge waves and breakers are easily visible from the road. This is surfing country and the roads are full of campers and surfers exploring the beaches and lanes to find their fix. I head for Halfords in Sligo, who have an HG-X 10-speed chain which solves my creaking transmission problem. I celebrate with a McDonalds Burger (or two) before finding the campsite a Rosses Point, busy with holiday makers as the bank holiday approaches.
The cyclists in Ballina recommended staying at Killibegs, which is a few miles west of Donegal. The coastal scenery is enhanced by a wonderful light, which illuminates the dunes and beaches as the clouds pass. Bundoran, voted worst town in Ireland, I am later told, is best avoided and followed by very middle-class section towards Donegal town.
The centre is plagued by coach loads of tourists and the prices are high, so I rely on the usual high quality petrol station builders meal to fuel up before heading along the Donegal Cycle Route (DCR) towards Killibegs. The town is a major fishing port with an active Pelagic Fleet, the campsite has superb views south of the route I have cycled over the past few days and is delightful. One of the best so far.
Slieve League requires another visit, whose cliffs I have wanted to walk for decades, so I make directly for Ardara across a moorland country lane. Following the DCR at times, a wonderful route recently established. It forms Eurovelo 1 and follows the beautiful Donegal coastline for some 200km. A mountainous section takes me past Errigal, a cone of scree that is part of the Muckish Mountains. Old peat track roads and rail lines link up nicely and make for excellent bikepacking country near to Glenveagh National Park. Worth a follow up visit for sure.
Creeslough campsite fits the bill, if anyone was around to collect the fee. I learn that Rathmullan ferry is not running yet, so I plan a back route to Letterkenny which is far more pleasant than a busy road route afterwards. But I have no choice. The busy N13 does have a decent shoulder and a nice cafe about 2/3rd of the way to Speenoge. I rest for a while to demolish a lovely homemade Lasagne and spy a route to Buncrana through a Bird Sanctuary. The hostel is industrial in size, but empty, usually catering for large groups. I can park my bike in the dorm and eat and sleep well.
I check that the Loch Foyle ferry is running before setting out towards Malin Head. The wind direction is perfect again and I make deceptively rapid progress for a 40kg touring bike into Carndonagh. Sailing past M2M’ers who have decided to cycle south to Mizen Head in a strong headwind. Malin Head and the surrounding area is dramatic coastal gem. Huge breakers pound the cliffs and shoreline. Inishowen Peninsula is certainly a place to dwell, to explore the hidden beaches and communities. I stop for a superb bowl of seafood chowder, akin to Scottish Cullen Skink, before setting out towards Moville and the Greencastle ferry.
The ferry is infrequent at this time of year, before the full summer timetable kicks in, but the boat sails tomorrow, so I find a B&B near the headland at Shrove, with stunning view towards the Antrim Coast and across Loch Foyle. I’m up early to weather which is quite different from the previous days quiet still clear skies. There is a gale blowing and I am not surprised to see the crew walk towards me to tell me the service is cancelled. The winds are too strong to dock at Magilligan Point.
This is bad news. I have a long 60km diversion and a schedule to keep to to catch the Kintyre Express to Islay from Ballycastle. A service I had to book a few days earlier to guarantee a bike place. The diversion takes me to Londonderry/Derry, south but heading north if your read the WAW signs and straight into the easterly gale. Slowly but surely I reach the end of the WAW and pick up the National Cycle Route into the city, crossing the Peace Bridge to the railway station. I have decided to take the sting out of a long day by catching the train to Coleraine. Otherwise I would miss my ferry, which I was certain to reach had the Loch Foyle ferry sailed.
I cycle along the North West 200 Motorcycle Road Race route to Portstewart and Portrush making slow progress in the strong winds to eventually stop, exhausted and Portballintrae. A week later 200hp motorcycles would travel along the same route at 200mph. A local shop cooks up a greasy tasty burger and chips for me, even though there is no-one else around. I get inside knowledge of a short-cut across the Bush River to the Giants Causeway and a tough coastal route to Ballintoy and Ballycastle. The Antrim Coast is beautiful, even in this stormy weather, but I am glad to reach the hostel. My hosts is out getting her car fixed, but she says the Ice Cream shop next door will let me in. Not before I polish off a calorific cheesecake, home made ice cream and several cups of tea.
I’m now ready to catch the ferry to Islay tomorrow and the gale is forecast to blow out overnight, promising a good crossing of the Northern Channel. The alternative would be to cycle along the coast to Larne and catch a car ferry to Cairnryan and hop across to the Isle of Arran to the Mull of Kintyre, so I am please to take this short cut.
I’m sad to be leaving Ireland and will not leave it as long to return again to explore the many areas I have missed. Now into Scotland.