Wednesday, 28 May 2014


I discovered some strange tracks across my lawn this morning; neither sheep nor cattle, both of which had wandered in through the gate before. I followed the tracks towards the back hedge and looking over saw two stags in the field behind my house. I stared at them and they stared back. We eyed each other for several minutes then they sauntered away up the hill - a truly magnificent sight.

The stags are fallow deer, they are still in their dark winter coats which will soon become dappled with light spots. Their antlers are growing, covered in velvet, until Autumn when they become unsheathed for the rut. The stags had loped across my lawn as I was sleeping - almost a Narnia experience (no lamp-post in sight).

The most common wild animals I see around my home are rabbits, which live in burrows under the hedge and delight in digging up the lawn for their favourite roots to eat. Because of this we have a love-hate relationship, but I cannot bring myself to harm them. Next are a colony of wild cats that live in an old graveyard nearby and forage the land around my house. They will eat whatever they can, recently I saw one munching a small rabbit it had killed. The wild cat spotted me, picked up the rabbit carcass in its jaws and scampered away.

In the old graveyard is also a badger's sett and at dusk they can sometimes be seen out foraging. I once saw five together beside the hedge. From time to time a fox comes by, sometimes in broad daylight, it follows a route around the perimeter keeping near to the hedge. Overhead are a good cross-section of country birds, the most spectacular flyers being buzzards, ravens and red kites.

I'm a country kid who left home for the city at eighteen, vowing never to return. After decades of city life, I moved here thirteen years ago as an experiment. It's been great to live in the country again, I won't be leaving now.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

A New Girlfriend?

Does Tesco have an aisle where you can find a new girlfriend? I glanced again at the shopping list that T had prepared, below 'Milk' and 'Bananas' there it was - 'New Girlfriend'. Perhaps I needed to look somewhere between 'Seasonal Goods' and 'Tastes of the World'.

Instead of visiting at weekends, T had come to stay with me for a week. The day she arrived she asked to stay for two weeks. I, of course, agreed.

When I told my brother about it, he said, 'she deserves a medal!'

'And what about me?' I replied.

'Oh yes,' he said somewhat belatedly, 'you deserve a medal too.'

I wondered what sort of medals might be awarded. Distinguished Service? Two weeks seemed a bit short for this. Bravery? No frying pans had been raised and no household utensils appeared to have been secretly sharpened.

It wasn't an ordeal. Our couple of weeks passed pretty smoothly with plenty of happy, normal life. I found myself, quite naturally, thinking for two. I'm going to really miss her next week when she's gone.

And about that new girlfriend - there's no vacancy.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Giro d'Italia Stage 3

The riders ignored the fake road sign in Keady, offering a 'short cut'
to Dublin, and sped to the start of the Category 4 climb that would take them over Windy Gap to Newtownhamilton. It was sunny and fairly warm inbetween the heavy showers. A big improvement on the almost continuous rain that had dogged their progress around the North Coast the previous day.

After forking out 5 million Euros for the first three days of the Giro and hoping that tourist numbers would dramatically increase after 170 countries had seen the sweeping panoramas of the Causeway Coast live, NITB must have been worried that the international viewing public would spot the relentless downpour and put NI on a list of destinations to avoid.

Whatever the weather, thousands of people had turned up to watch and encourage the riders. Supplies of pink paint had all but run out and pink balloons, ribbon and all sorts of home-made decorations bedecked the roadsides. I stood at the edge of a long slope that wound uphill between trees in the soft green of new leaf. After plenty of cars and police motorbikes cruised by, a breakaway group of four riders came into view followed by their team cars with spare bikes on top. The four made light work of the gradient and raced away trying to gain as much time at the front of the race as they could.

Five or more minutes passed and then the peleton came into view, 200 riders closely bunched together with a phalanx of team cars following behind festooned with spare bikes. They came up the slope quickly but they weren't sprinting, they were riding tempo in their teams chatting to each other. Then one rider stopped just below me, the team car braked and a mechanic rushed out with a spare front wheel, changed it and pushed the rider back into the road. He was on his way again in under 30 seconds, sprinting to rejoin the pack.

More cars and motorbikes followed on behind, then a series of ambulances and finally a truck and police car with the legend 'race end'. The whole caravan had taken less than 10 minutes to pass. The Giro was gone, over the pass and down to Newtownhamilton and across the border towards Dublin where today's stage would finish. Sadly for NITB the sunshine across the leafy lanes and drumlins of Armagh would not be televised. By the time live coverage resumed, the riders would be travelling through Louth and Dublin and Bord Failte would be rubbing their hands with glee. Perhaps in the end this would not matter too much, as the majority of the international televison audience would not be aware that this small island was subject to two jurisdictions. Indeed, the flag-saturated local audience itself could not fail to notice that the tricolours flying everywhere were those of Italy.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

In the Pink

I began cycling regularly some twenty years ago. I took it up because a back injury forced me to stop running. But soon I became besotted and was riding through the Yorkshire Dales and Wolds in all weathers on my trusty Dawes Galaxy. I'd bought the bike secondhand some ten years previously and it took me up hill and down dale, enabling encounters with lovely places such as Thixendale, Filey, Rievaulx, Masham and Swaledale (amongst many others).
Then I moved to NI and began exploring the island by bike. Alongside many day rides with CTC Belfast, I did solo summer tours following the coastline in Donegal, Connaught, Munster and Leinster. Moving to South Down gave me lots of new roads to explore, through drumlins to the Mournes and Cooleys then across the Pale. It wasnt long before I had visited every county by bike.
I began to do tours overseas. At first I did solo tours to France, Spain and Italy. I flew with my bike in a padded bag and took a taxi to a nearby hotel where I stayed the first night, then I toured for some weeks on my bike, returning to the same hotel to collect my bags and fly home. These were great adventures, I enjoyed leaving all my normal stuff behind and relying on what I could pack in two panniers. I have particularly fond memories of my tours of Puglia, La Mancha and Castile.
Then I went further afield on organised CTC tours. Sri Lanka was my first, the tour took place a month after the Tsunami. I expected it to be cancelled, but we were persuaded to go by the Sri Lankan authorities. On the plane from London we were the only tourists, the rest were aid workers. We explored a fascinating and beautiful tropical island the size of Ireland. At the end of the tour we each bought a bike and donated it to a village that had been devastated. There was a touching handing over ceremony where we and the bikes were blessed. I returned determined to get involved in development work and within a few months I'd joined the Board of Concern Worldwide.
A series of overseas cycle tours followed - to Thailand, Laos, Southern China, Patagonia and Vietnam. There is something compelling about cycling in a developing country: you travel at the pace of the local people, stay at local guesthouses and eat at local restaurants. You feel more part of the culture. My most vivid memories: staying with a family in a Lao village, we ate and drank with them then slept on the floor of their stilt house; the striking traditional costumes in a village in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas, people not dressed up for tourists but because it was market day.
All of this stopped when I became ill. Last summer I began cycling again tentatively. After a winter of hillwalking, I'm feeling much stronger and am now back on the bike again. Admittedly I'm a fair weather cyclist these days, it has to be 14 degrees before I'll get the bike out. Over time the Galaxy has been replaced by several others: an Audax (for day rides), a Sardar (for laden overseas tours) and a Bontrager (for supported overseas tours). But my trusty steed is still there in the garage, I'm not able to part from it.
And so to the Giro d'Italia, here for the next three days. I'll go and watch it for sure, I'm scouting out the hills near Armagh for a good vantage point. Professional cyclists go so fast on the flat that all you often see is a whirring blur of colour. In 1992 I saw an alpine stage of the Tour de France (the year that Miguel Indurain won), here you could make out individual riders as they sped by. I shall wear a healthy glow, shout and wave.