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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 32

 

(Note to self: Add in Amanda Ros: wiki isn’t bad but Robertson Davies (p221-225) is wonderful on her (unintentional)  contribution to humour.)

After worrying about being left  out on the street, the night in a comfortable room is a treat. I close my eyes around ten o’clock and open them again on the stroke of six. Apart from my bicycle, my two happiest travelling companions are my mug and The Old Wives’ Tale. The bicycle has been all over with me. It’s toured to the north of Scotland and around most of England. It’s been a multi thousand mile commuter, it’s been around most of Northern France. Altogether it has clocked up over 25,000 miles. It creaks and groans and shows its age but it has never seriously let me down and it has allowed me to see a bucketful of things I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. The mug holds a happy three quarters of a pint, has some poor slogan to the effect that , like old wine I get better and better. I have no liking for wine but I like the fact that the mug was made by Spode. I lived and worked in Stoke on Trent for a short time in the 1970s and had friends in quite a few of the pot banks. I always liked the colour of Spode ware and though this is earthenware rather than bone china, it is still a lovely blue and white.

The book took me a long time to penetrate but the two heroines have been good travelling companions. I’ve taken every opportunity to read a chapter, reading about their exploits in cafes and lay-bys, outside churches and while leaning on a bridge o’er a brook. That was me. They spent their time in Stoke and Paris.

Between six and eight I write my letter home and have the idea that staying another day here is not the stupidest I’ve ever had. The room is big and the bed is cosy. There’s a real town on my doorstep to explore. I can catch up with sleep and writing and I’ve only 150 pages of Arnold Bennett to go and I’m keen to find out what is going to happen. It took me along time to get to like Constance. I’ve been secretly in love with Sophia for days now. I love her despite her many faults. maybe, like the character Millament from the Way of the World, I love her because of her faults.

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Breakfast is my first real Ulster Fry, and the hotel does justice to the reputation of the dish. It’s basically another (yes another) full fried breakfast but with the addition of black pudding and a soda farl. I recognise a good number of my fellow passengers from the ferry. I continue to see them over the next 24 hours. The breakfast table is the only time I ever saw them without a pint in their hand and a good story to tell. They fed and drank like gannets yet never appeared drunk or less than friendly and courteous. Like me, they have all booked in for an extra night. They catch the ferry the following morning after huge leave takings. They had travelled miles and miles to the bar nearest the ferry port and spent 36 hours knocking it back.

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I book an extra night at reception and go off to walk around Larne. I see my first Orange Hall and walk along main streets bedecked in red white and blue. Where the British flag doesn’t fly, the flag of Glasgow Rangers Football Club flaps proudly in the breeze. Larne has long and strong links with the Scottish mainland and events in the town in 1918, which became known as the Larne Gun Running helped to create the right to Ulster Unionist Self Determination. This in turn was significant in the eventual division of the island and the establishment of Northern Ireland as a country.

In the post office I try to buy two maps; one of the North and one of the Republic. I hand them over and the woman seems reluctant to serve me. She’s studying the maps very closely indeed and I’m fearful that I have accidentally upset some etiquette. In fact, she has decided that I don’t need both of the maps and is only allowing me to buy the one that covers the whole island. I feel nicely looked after.

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I have two sources of knowledge of Northern Ireland. The first is being brought up with constant BBC news stories of the troubles where everything spells danger and discord. The second is knowing a stream of people from the province and finding them the polar opposite. One of the gentlest and wisest men I know comes from Omagh, the best guitar player I’ve ever played with came from the County Down, the funniest man I met  when working in Yorkshire came from Coleraine and the kindest woman in Manchester was from Port Stewart. My first day on Ulster soil bears out the story told by the people I know, rather than the stories told by news reporters.

There’s an Asda and a cinema across the road from the hotel. I get in some simple supplies and plan on seeing The Guard in the afternoon.

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Back in my room I wash out socks and pants and shirts. I think it’ll take me minutes but it takes over an hour to wash and rinse and wring and hang. I give thanks for living in the era of the washing machine. It wears me out and I sleep contentedly through the afternoon and into the early evening. I may have missed the film but I see it later with T in England… it is a very good film to see with someone else. Brendan Gleeson is a comic genius as well as being a brilliant actor.

Larne was where emigration to America began in earnest. There is a statue marking the first sailing. Boston was founded by people who sailed from Larne and owes much of its Irishness to this small town at the head of a loch.

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As I fall asleep on my second night there I wonder if I wouldn’t be better spending yet another day here and resting up fully before venturing inland. I’m very taken with the place. Cycling is addictive; so is not cycling.