Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Four Counties Ride

Yesterday I cycled for 80 miles across four counties. It was a grand day out, with plenty of interesting places en route. I spent six and a half hours in the saddle for my longest bike ride of the year. The old body is still going well, despite all the surgery I’ve had. There is a legacy of aches and pains, particularly across my pelvis, but I’ve found ways of coping with them. Given my current tiredness, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be keen to get back on the bike again this afternoon, but by tomorrow I think I’ll be ready for another wee ride.

I started off in Scarva, Co Down, and cycled up the canal towpath towards Portadown. The morning was overcast with a cool NW breeze. I’d consulted three weather forecasts: the BBC, the Norwegian Weather Service and Met Eireann. There was not unanimity. Met Eireann gave a warm and sunny day. The other two forecast a cool and overcast day. I decide to wear shorts and my versatile windproof top with long-sleeves, which could be zipped off to form a short-sleeve. I hoped the sun would come out, but like so many days here recently, I was prepared for cooler conditions.

The towpath was quiet until I got to Moneypenny’s Lock, then the normal groups of dog walkers were out and about. Dark clouds rolled in from the west and I felt the temperature go down until I began to chill. I stopped to put my cap on under my helmet and to switch my road lights on (one front, one rear). A good thing about Portadown, Co Armagh, is that the towpath brings you right into the centre and then it is just a short ride up the Garvaghy Rd to escape into minor roads and green fields. After about a mile you are out of town, past the dark spire of Drumcree and away.

Around the southern edge of Lough Neagh is pleasant cycling through undulating country. The settlements are very small and well spread out. The place names all seem to have the stem Derry, so assumedly there were plenty of oak groves here at one time. The main businesses now seem to be market gardening with polytunnels. At Maghery there is a footbridge over the River Blackwater that takes you into Co Tyrone. The small roads on the other side head across peat fields until you get to Brockagh and Mountjoy Castle (built during the plantation).

There is a shop here and, at 23 miles, I made it my first stop. I bought water and a banana and sat on a bench in the graveyard and ate my snacks. In my saddle-bag I had slices of malt loaf, snack cheeses and cereal bars. A graveyard is usually a peaceful stop and is always a good place to contemplate. In front of me were the graves of Michael, who was ‘everyone’s friend’ but died aged 18, and baby Ciara ‘born asleep’.

I carried on around the Lough taking all the smaller roads I could. The land is a bit hillier here and you get some excellent views of the water. But the best viewpoint by far is at Ardboe, the hill of the cow, where you can sit on a bench besides a ruined church and see the Mournes and Slieve Gullion across the Lough on the horizon. It also possesses one of the finest high crosses in NI, sited at a place where a magic cow reputedly emerged from the Lough.

Eventually I was forced to return to the main road that goes around the Lough. At this point I turned west towards Cookstown until I reached Coagh, a wee village which looks very down on its luck. It sits at the border between Cos Tyrone and Derry. I stopped for a snack in the picnic area beside the River Ballinderry. No-one was about. I’d travelled 42 miles and I was feeling pleased with myself. It was early afternoon and time to head back. I’d return using a variation of my outward route. The weather had warmed up a little, but it was still windy and overcast. It certainly didn’t feel warm enough to zip my long sleeves off. You needed sunshine for that. It was another typical summer’s day in NI.