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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 34

Ballymena was damp and grey and mostly still closed on a Sunday morning. I was beginning to wheeze and my throat was feeling rougher but my legs were strong. I’d managed thirty miles without feeling the strain and wanted to keep going. I’m sure Ballymena is a very fine town but it wasn’t holding me this morning. It has a bit of a reputation for purging itself of unshaven corrupters of public morals. Ian Paisley once led a campaign here against the 4 Ds (drink, drugs, devil and debauchery). The campaign had various successes. The town banned Brummie hell raisers and purveyors of perms, beards and fiddlesticks, The Electric Light Orchestra, and Oscar winning film Brokeback Mountain was never shown here. The campaign was so successful that the town is now known as the northern capital of drugs and drink. It goes to show that if there’s one way to promote something successfully, it is to try and suppress it. I’m on Irn Bru and there’s a rush on it. At the newsagents both the customers in front of me  bought it as well. They also sounded quite throaty.

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My newly bought map tells me that I need to find Cullybacky Road to be heading in the right direction for The Sperrins. It’s a wonderful sounding name. There are plenty of these. It leads me past a imposing school and sports fields and quickly into residential parts of the town. Once I’m beyond the city limits its hard to take in the countryside. The rain is now quite steady and slanting into me. I’ve got that urge that all cyclists will know to keep on keeping on until they change their mind. Having 35 miles on the clock and it still being an hour short of noon is a stimulus.. I don’t know about serious cyclists and women cyclists but us pedestrian men certainly get inspired by an odometer. When there isn’t much to look at (no offence to the scenery, it just isn’t very visible to one who has taken his spectacles off because he can’t see through them) the milometer has always got a fresh target; be it a century or half century, or a date from history or a collection of the same digits or a run. In the past day or so I have passed 333 and 345. They please me in their own way.

Cullybacky Road become Garvaghy Road and it’s a name that carries symbolism and fear. This isn’t the famous Garvaghy Road, scene of violent stand offs between Catholic residents and marching Orangemen. That is at Portadown, forty miles to the south on the other side of Lough Neagh. The name is redolent of recent history though. I rather like it. The weather brightens for a short while and birdsong cheers the later parts of the morning.

Ireland has magnificent rivers. England has a fair share but people have heard of most of the significant ones. Here I cross yet another glorious, fast flowing stream called the River Bann at Portglenone.  Churches are emptying their congregations in the direction of Sunday lunch and family time. The numbers are significantly higher than you’d see in England.

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I’m now in County Derry or Londonderry, depending on allegiance, and I begin to see Gaelic Football fields. I slog on and on. The engine (my chest) is rattling but the vehicle is flying along at good pace. I’m wet to the bone and the day is much colder than a July day should be. I’m beginning to suffer but the miles keep ticking over. At Maghera I’ve reached fifty miles for the day and I have a decision to make. Do I try to find somewhere around here to stay for the night or do I press on? It’s only dinner time, much too early to stop, but I’ve only really got one more place I can find a hotel before I get to The Sperrin Mountains. The map shows a stretch of what I reckon to be between 35 and 40 miles without any significant settlement. I presume that in a region of mountains there will be B&Bs, Guest Houses and hostels aplenty.

At the local petrol station, I stock up on the two things I have found most useful when trying to cover the miles; a bunch of bananas and a big bottle of cola which I strap onto the top of my bags and head off towards the intriguingly named, Draperstown.

maghera day

Drapers must be quiet, peaceable sorts. I cannot imagine a draper causing an upset or an argument. I have a picture in my mind of an artisan settlement with independent cloth merchants offering their cotton and linen goods for sale and having a room for travellers and a place by the fireside, a bowl of stew and a steaming mug of tea for those travellers too weak to take on a glass of stout or an Irish Whiskey.

I push on across the Moyola River, through Tobermore and on through the sheeting rain. I would be stupid not to stop here.

When I get to there  the only show in town are boy racers. The wet streets are deserted except for two groups of youths around two powerful cars which would suddenly take off at the speed of dragsters and skid and swerve and almost vibrate their way at frightening speed up and down the main strip. I suddenly feel very vulnerable. I don’t think they would deliberately hurt me but a group mentality of young men can often see a huge source of fun in frightening the bejeezus out of an old fella on an old bicycle. I get a couple of fly bys as I begin to re-think staying in Draperstown. It’s wet and bleak and the pubs look friendly enough, but they look like drinking men’s pubs. Everything else is closed.

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I have to confess that I didn’t take in as much as I would have liked. I’d been warned that both north and south of the border played home to boy racers. Occasionally in England you get some youth showing off his car, or you get four baseball caps in a ten year old Vauxhall Corsa doing forty in a built up area. I’d never seen, or indeed heard, anything like this and I was suddenly very keen to see the Sperrin Mountains.

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My cold was getting colder and I’m coughing most productively. I’m soaked to the skin. I’ve already covered sixty  miles and I’m heading into what looks on the map to be a bigger wilderness than you would expect to find in a small country. It isn’t a wilderness. It is, actually, rather lovely. But it’s going to be a long ride further before I find journey’s end.