Wednesday, 26 June 2013


I followed-up the anniversary bike tour with a week's holiday in Shetland. I'm just back from that fine trip.

Shetland has a beautiful and dramatic coastline with great walking, loads of wildlife (Otters, Seals, Great Skuas, Puffins, Guillemots, Fulmars, Gannets, etc), well preserved neolithic settlements and at this time of the year it doesnt really get dark (the locals call it the Simmer Dim).

Shetland feels somewhat Scandinavian, its nearer Norway than Britain. There is an odd mix of very traditional lifestyles and the cosmopolitanism that comes with the international oil industry.

Surrounded by all that sea, the weather is extremely changeable. And different parts of the islands can have quite different weather. Over the week there was lots of fine sunshine (like New Zealand, the sun is very strong due to thin ozone and clean air) and several heavy storms. You can see how all those dramatic cliffs and sea stacks got sculpted.

This was my first holiday for over two years. All in all, it went very well. I gained a great deal (e.g. extended my boundaries) and managed the few setbacks OK. One of which was being attacked by the Shetland pony pictured below - they may be small and look cute but they are also vicious.

Here's looking to the next holiday - not arranged yet, but very soon.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Anniversary Tour

Saturday 8 June was a significant anniversary for me: two years since my big operation and two years free of the disease. I decided to mark it with an adventure. I would rent a motorbike (complete with clothes, boots and helmet) for the weekend.

I had passed my motorbike test in my twenties (before I gained a car license) but in those days, being a very poor mature student, I could only afford a cheap East German bike. On my trusty, but rather agricultural MZ I did plenty of trips to the mountains of Wales and Scotland (whilst also lusting after better bikes that were impossible for me to afford). In my early thirties came regular employment and cars. And in the years that followed I never returned to a motorbike.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up the Kawasaki 650cc Versys (the bike shop had recommended it as a good all-round machine). Nervously I circled the little industrial estate beside McCallen's bike shop a few times. Then I headed for the open road. I managed to stop and start without stalling at the first traffic lights. Before long I reached the dual carriageway and began to get up through the gears. Finding that 50mph felt alarmingly fast, I turned off onto side roads for the rest of the trip home.

After lunch I packed a small bag with maps, a change of underwear and my toothbrush. Strapping it to the pillion seat, I set off on my adventure. I hadn't a firm plan. I wanted to revisit some of the interesting places I'd found on my many cycling trips; I also wanted to explore. But I wasn't sure how I would get on with the bike and thought I might just do a day trip.

I headed off through backroads and down the dual carriageway into the Republic. I turned off to visit Monasterboice and Mellifont (the first Cistercian monastry in Ireland), then on through backroads to Kells and Trim, with its huge Norman castle that I first saw on my first trip to Ireland (shortly after I became a car driver). Feeling a little more confident, I rode on to the splendidly situated Fore Abbey and through Loughcrew to Oldcastle, where I found a room for the night.

Sunday was another fine sunny day. I headed cross-country through Cavan and over the Glenroy Pass to the Cliffs of Magho above Loch Erne. There I sat on a rock and lunched, whilst car-fulls of out-of-town police (here for the G8 summit) came up to photograph the views. After it was on to the coast at Mullaghmore (bunged with day trippers) and then back through the side roads of Donegal and Tyrone into the Sperrins. I was certainly getting more confident on the bike (despite the sore bum) and found some of my old skills returning, especially on the very winding and scenic backroute through the Owenkillew Valley.

Early in the evening I arrived at one of my favourite places, the stone circles at Beaghmore (built some 5000 years ago). I've visited this wonderful complex of stone circles and stone rows deep in the Tyrone moorlands many times and never found more than two other people there. Today in the warm evening sunshine I was completely alone. I wandered, reflected and took pictures. Then it was into Cookstown for food and petrol, and an hour and a quarter's ride home (with 65mph on the motorway feeling fast but just about okay).

I arrived back at dusk, very satisfied with my big weekend. Over 400 miles in a day and a half of touring. I had become a motorbike rider again. I decided that I'd rent a different bike another weekend and go away again. I all likelihood, I'd end up buying one of these bikes.