Sunday, 31 May 2009

Chapter 8 Travels With Bikes

Charlie in Arran 1984

When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side
When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side

Give her all your spare time, love And treat her right


One of the first trips Katharine & I took in Charlie was to Ireland, in 1983. We’d been to Ireland once before, disasterously – a year or so before. I’d woken up one morning just after we’d gotten together, and smitten by my new partner and a rekindled desire to see the world, had perused a map of (Southern) Ireland cursorily enough to decide that it appeared to be small enough to cycle round. Conducting exhaustive research – well, consulting our friends Janet and Malcolm, who were keen cyclists, revealed that it should be possible to travel about 50 miles a day on a bike. Great, that meant we could go nearly all the way round in two weeks, and still be home in time for cucumber sandwiches and a nice cup of tea. How wrong can you be?

Janet and Malcolm weren’t just keen cyclists; they were fanatical. We had of course failed to notice their equipment was hi-tech enough to launch several Challenger moonshots, their cycles made of such gossamer steel that they weighed practically nothing, and more ominously, that the pair would often disappear on their bikes for days on end, returning with bulging biceps and well developed outdoor tans. They had also perfected the obscure art of map reading, referring to Wainrights and elevations and sea level, kmph and OS maps and other technical mumbo jumbo that we knew would not possibly be useful in our quest round such a tiny country. To give Malcolm his due, he tried to warn us: ‘Listen you two’, he’d said ‘ Ireland has some serious elevations, make sure you can cope with them.’ I pretended this was gibberish to me, and patted him on the head as if he was a slightly errant – but much loved – dog, assuring him in cheery tones that the ‘elevations’ would easily be dealt with.

We arranged to borrow a couple of bikes, studiously failing to notice when they arrived that, in comparison to Malcolm and Janet’s sleek machines, ours not only weighed approximately five tons each, but that they also appeared to lack the requisite 25 gears in each direction, whilst sporting straight out style handlebars, unlike the racing ones favoured by our (soon to be erstwhile) chums. The term bone shakers probably described them best, but to us they were a portal to another dimension, and the promise of delicious adventures to come.

Naturally, it had gone pear shaped right from the start. Owing to some obscure by-law applicable only to English hippies riding bicycles weighing more than a ton, we were forced by the fascists working for British Rail to accompany our bikes in the luggage compartment most of the way to our destination - Fishguard, I seem to remember - thereby having to forego the comfort of the seats in the proper carriages. We eventually took our places on the ferry to Rosslare with the kind of smouldering indignation felt only by the seriously oppressed, and crossed solidarity with BR staff off our list of politically ‘right on’ characteristics to adhere to. This was one of the first times I’d heard the phrase ‘only doing my job’….it seems to be one I’ve heard now far too often.

We had also studiously timed the beginning of our grand adventure to ensure that our arrival in Rosslare co-incided with nightfall. Far too late to pitch our tents, even if we could find a campsite in the gloom of the dwindling day. Similar meticulous planning had also suggested from the comfort of our flat in Croydon that we were unlikely to need to resort to staying at hotels during our holiday. For one thing, we couldn’t reallly afford it, for another only the bourgeous stayed in hotels, for another, we were outdoors people, hardened to the call of the outside, honed to the exigencies of camping and ready to take on anything. Anything, except that is, the driving rain and howling gale that greeted our disembarkation at the ferry port.

So, a hotel it was, and after a thoroughly bad night’s sleep and a major dent in our budget, we set off the next morning to cycle to the nearest big town, Wexford, there further to refine our plan of campaign. We’d cycled only a few miles when we began to see notices advertising a Music Festival at Carnsore Point – not far from where we were. It was an anti-nuclear festival (what more could we ask for), and lured by promises of ‘Christy Moore, Planxty and the Chieftains’ we arrived at the Festival site to find a large muddy expanse of, well, muddiness really, and not much else. In the distance a few disinterested people looked like they might be about to embark on the perilous and tedious job of erecting a stage, once they’d finished their beers that is. ‘The Festival’ said the first person we made enquiries of ‘oh, that doesn’t start till Saturday, but if you like you can camp here and get free admission in exchange for digging the toilet trenches.’ This sounded like a great deal, and we readily agreed.

Carnsore Point

Now, dear gentle reader, I need to take you on a mini-detour within a detour
(yes I do realise this chapter is supposed to be about going to Ireland in Charlie – we’ll get back there, promise). You see, this will come as a shock to the more sensitive of you, but in the days before Glastonbury became world famous, there were no such things as portaloos at festivals. To go to the toilet, you squatted under a canvas awning over a trench, supported only by a rudimentary platform, and went that way. People fell in – a fate much worse than death, but it was all taken in good spirit, and no one had yet realised that they could make fortunes catering to the toiletary requirements of a bunch of unwashed hippies.

Anyway, we made camp, helped dig trenches, and joined the stage hands in consuming the seemingly inexhaustible supply of (free) beer. Somehow the stage got built, amplification arrived, food & beer tents were erected, and a general air of jollity began to prevail. Now, I can’t remember much about the music – I’m pretty sure Christy Moore did play, and possibly Planxty and Van Morrison at some stage, but alcoholic intake and fading memory have erased most of the proceedings after the first night. Doubtless, there will be someone out there with a festival programme and a studiously annoted set of critical reviews pertaining to all the performances (do send me a copy if you have one), but I can provide no such enlightenment. I do have a rather fetching photo Katharine took of me on the nearby beach, wearing just my birthday suit, but I realise that this will not be much consolation to most of you, and its certainly not suitable for publication in this family oriented tale.

There’s Gold in them Hills

The festival duly ended, and we were forced to confront the unpalatable truth that had been nagging away in the dim recesses of our minds all weekend. Namely, that we’d have to get on with cycling round a country which now seemed far larger than it had from the leafy comfort of our pad in Croydon. Also, that the so called ‘elevations’ were really hills. Now, having received a reasonably ‘proper’ education, I had known this all along, but like all obsessive control freaks; and I make no apologies for this, I had chosen to ignore the facts that didn’t fit in favour of my own idealised version. Why, Ireland was a country of thatched cottages, winding country lanes, pubs where musicians were not only welcome, but given free beer by the publican & clientele whilst ‘jamming’ till dawn. It was full of colourful gypsy caravans & emerald wearing characters who were always ‘up for the crack.’ Why should a small detail like hills get in the way of all this?

Well, mainly because the so called hills turned out to be small mountains, which we encountered with monotonous regularity every few miles. What appeared on the map to be a few gentle undulations turned out in reality to be a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs between one anonymous collection of American ranch style houses and the next. Riding bikes which weighed a ton and had no gears to speak of, whilst heaving rucksacks weighing a similar amount up these inclines very quickly became more than we could endure; the first day I think we managed eight miles, and this amount decreased steadly day by day from then on. So of course we started doing what any new couple encountering problems does, we blamed each other and argued ferociously. It was nearly the end of a beautiful friendship – one that fortunately has now flourished for over 25 years!

There were a couple of really low points. One came in Waterford – where we came across a fair and I thought it would be fun to go on one of those rides which spins you round at a hideous speed whilst simultaneously rising and falling in gut wrenching fashion. I’d kinda forgotten that such things do me no good at all, and Katharine said I looked green when I got off, which I think was probably an understatement given how near to death I felt for some time afterwards. It was an experience I vowed never to repeat, but when you have kids, and they’re clamouring for you to take them on ‘California Screamin’ or ‘Space Mountain’ or some other such fiendish contraption at Disneyland, and they can’t go on without an adult, well you have to overcome such fears. This of course happened years later, and you can read all about it in the chapter entitled ‘Dreams Really do Come True.’

The other down point had an upside as well as a downside. We’d been cycling steadily for hours, going uphill all the time, and at about lunchtime we realised thet we would never make it to the nearest sizeable town – Clonmel – before the banks shut at 3.30. In the days before cash machines this meant something, and what it meant for us this day was that we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for a campsite when & if we found one. Sometime after we reached the top of yet another massive ‘elevation’, and the view stretched out before us was truly resplendant. Mile upon mile of sun drenched summer countryside, and our holy grail dimly illuminated by the heat haze, nestling in a valley far below us. It would take hours to reach it, even down hill (as it was) all the way. Seething with impotent rage I threw down my accursed tormentor – bike, not partner that is - and went off for a pee in some nearby bushes. There, twinkling in the sun, but generally hidden from view lay a crisp untarnished £20 note. It was truly manna from heaven and meant that not only could we afford a campsite that night, we might even be able to stretch to a hotel room. In the middle of a jumble of memories, this one sticks out most clearly, maybe because it confirmed my long held belief that, in the words of Bob Marley: ‘Don’t worry, cos every little thing’s gonna be alright.’

Another memorable moment came when, in a town whose name now eludes me, we were confronted by a river which had no bridge over it. Tied up to a small jetty, there was a rudimentary raft come ferry, with a board adverting crossing times as being every few hours. We duly waited for the next scheduled crossing, but no ferry-man was to be seen, and after having waited another hour or so we began to make enquiries. ‘Oh – he’ll be in the pub’ came the reply from the first person we asked: ‘he only crosses when he’s got enough people.’ By now a few other hopeful punters were hanging around the jetty, so we felt emboldened enough to go in search of the pub. Sure enough, that’s where we found him, and he good humouredly agreed that six of us was just about enough to constitute ‘enough for a crossing’, put down his unfinished pint and ambled outside. The crossing itself took a matter of only a few minutes, but the prevailing mist and huge swathes of trees on either side made me fancy that we could well be crossing the River Anduin, or perhaps have journeyed back to Arthurian times to join the court of the King.

I think the furthest we got that holiday was Tralee on the East coast. It was a distance of less than a hundred miles as the crow flies from Rosslare, it had taken us over a week to get there, and bedraggled, angry and humiliated we gave up and caught the train home. It taught me the virtue of proper planning – a virtue I’ve studiously continued to avoid ever since!