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A Cycle on the Celtic fringe … Part 31

I cycle into Ferry Ports often enough to know that there is nothing to worry about in taking a bicycle across the sea, but not often enough to stop me worrying. I’ve actually got a host of emotions. The first is simple relief that I’m there, the second is also relief, but this time because I don’t have to contend with any more lorries for a while. The third feeling is one of immense regret that I’m leaving Scotland behind. I’m soaked and seeped in Scottish culture and beauty and friendliness, and I haven’t seen a single kilt or heard the swirl of a single bagpipe. The fourth feeling is a bagful of worries;  will there be a place on the sailing? Will it arrive in daylight? Will there be anywhere to stay in Larne? Will I go to the right place to get on the boat? Will I be able to afford it?

Cairnryan is a small town on the eastern shore of Loch Ryan. It’s had a significant role to play in British maritime history and played a key role in the second world war. Much of the current port owes its structure and existence to military operations from that time, and though the three piers of the forties have been reduced to one redundant and fenced off pier, the terminal is largely as it was. Mulberry harbours for the D Day landings were built here and the German U boat fleet was brought into the loch before being towed out and scuttled at sea. Much of the surplus ammunition from the war was also taken from the port for sea burial. The ecological case for this means of disposal is now seen to be much weaker. Those who scoff at health and safety issues may wish to contemplate the many who died in disposing of the ordnance. An entire pier was destroyed in one unintended explosion.

Today it is a simple and efficient port. It’s the quickest of the sea routes to Ireland and is popular with lorries and cars alike. There are even enough of us foot passengers to almost fill the minibus that drove us right onto the ferry. The ticket man sold me a ticket for £30 and told me to wait for the bus. The security man asked me to wait on the side. A second security man then waved me through and the bus driver helped me to strap the bicycle to the rack provided for bicycles and the next thing I know, the ferry is making good headway up the loch towards the open sea.

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I always look forward to travelling on ferries but rarely find the journey enjoyable. Those who travel regularly have lost the joy and magic of a sea crossing between two countries and spread themselves and their boots across five seats of the lounge. The bar is crowded with coach travellers knocking back industrial quantities of beer and cider. Women gather round the tables while men stand in clusters, and usually in the way, and hold forth in that way men do in bars. Not a great deal of listening going on but an awful lot of posing and joining in with the bursts of over-loud laughter and jokes that don’t deserve it. There are also easy pickings for anyone entering a spot the Van Morrison lookalike competition.

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Neglected and out of place children get up to things you might expect neglected and out of place children to get up to and then get loudly rebuked by careless and increasingly drunken parents.

I go out on deck to watch Scotland fade and Ireland take it’s place. The views are stunning. The decks have their share of pint holding pontificators and a whole band of smokers. There is almost as much cigarette smoke trailing the ship as engine smoke. I cannot quite get my bearings but know that various lumps may by Ailsa Craig, the Mull of Galloway, the distant Isle of Arran and various parts of the Antrim coast. At one point I notice a pod of marine mammals but am not expert enough to know if they were porpoise, dolphin or whales. I do know it was quite a thing to see.

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Within two hours we are all being called to our vehicles. A big power station marks the start of Larne Lough and the sun is beginning to head westwards as the ferry docks. Getting off the boat is as easy as getting off a bus. I’m on the island of Ireland again, tired, hungry and wanting somewhere to spend the night. I make the mistake of satisfying the hunger first.

There was nothing wrong with the fish and chips I bought in the town. I was as sober as three of the other people in the queue. The fourth had been to a funeral and was more drunk than you’d expect a mourner to be. He was drunker than he had any right to be. It transpired that he barely knew the deceased but had been locked out of the house by his wife. I ate up the supper by my bicycle feeling increasingly out of place as the Friday night crowd began to take over the streets. I headed in a vaguely northerly direction.

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The woman at the B&B was very helpful. She was full, “But, if you’ll take a seat, I’ll see if I can find you somewhere.”

I was glad of the assistance. I’d already wasted most of the remaining daylight finding this guest house. I sat for a while and studied a very colourful map of Canada. I could hear her in the background. “Oh, hello Julie. We’re full tonight. I was wondering if you are full as well… oh, you are. That’s fine. No. Yes. We’re full tonight and we’re full tomorrow night, and Sunday night as well. No. Don’t worry. I’m pleased you’re full as well… Young fella… he’s on a bicycle … well I would but I’ve had some very bad reports from there. Oh, I have. Really quite shocking. I wouldn’t like to send anyone there… and it’s up such a big hill and himself on a bicycle.”

I’m really grateful for the effort she is making on my behalf though I couldn’t help thinking she was using it as an opportunity to let people know her little hotel was doing very nicely and there are others who are no better than they should be. My concern is that she is taking an awful long time over it and night is falling outside. She makes five calls and the loud clock in the residents lounge ticks. She has one last suggestion. It’s a B&B by the harbour called The Manor. She can’t get through on the phone “She’s not after answering. She’ll be having a gas so she will”.

I’m relieved to be riding again but I’m getting seriously worried what I’ll do if this guest house is full. I don’t have lights on the bike and have no idea how far it is to the next town. I contemplate asking at the police station and even consider bunking down at the ferry terminal. This does’t exactly appeal and it being Friday night makes it appeal even less.

I try to follow the lady’s instructions but soon become hopelessly lost. Larne isn’t large so getting lost was quite an achievement. I’m heading straight back towards the ferry when a mirage looms up in front of me. A warm, welcoming hotel called The Curran Court. Why hadn’t she mentioned this?

“Rooms from £55” blazons at me. The car park is busy but not full. The girl at the desk is welcoming and patient. Of course they have a room. There is no worry about the bicycle. “You can leave it at the bottom of the stairs.” The room is big and smells of new carpet and clean linen. The bathroom is bigger than any bedroom I’d stayed in so far on the trip. I double check the price. Yes £55. It’s luxury. It’s more than welcome. After contemplating a night on a bench it is the bargain of the month.