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A Cycle on the Celtic fringe … Part 38

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The Hotel Carlton is welcoming on the front desk, has a fine looking dining room and a garden/lawn that goes down to the River Erne and looks across at a castle, an old fashioned fire engine and an Irish tricolour fluttering from a white flagpole. The hotel looks out on four sides and has taken great care of its appearance on three of them.

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I may have been given a large, comfortable double room for the price of a single, but I don’t think I would have been given this one if I’d arrived in a big car wearing a flash suit. “It’s a cyclist, bless him, in quaint cycling clothes. A double room you say? Oh well. Shove him in the one overlooking the midden.”

If you’re staying in a hotel from 7 o’clock in the evening until 9 o’clock the following morning, the chances are that the curtains will be closed for most of that time. The view, therefore, is redundant. For most of the residents of the Carlton, this is a pity as the view they have is of a majestic river which forms the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, an ancient bridge, a famous pottery and the hills and fields of Eire stretching out beyond. My view is of a way out west or way up north waste land. There are points, geographically, on these islands, further north or west you go of, that nothing is ever thrown away. It is simply put out the back so it is there if it ever becomes of use again, or in the hope that it will disappear in the night.

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Two half built breeze block back yards, gas tanks, forgotten empty barrels; the hotel’s dumping ground. It is a haunt of twenty feral cats and those cats are there for a reason. I make a comment to the hotel housekeeper who is putting the finishing touches to my room as I get there.

“It’s not much. But sure, you won’t be after looking out of the window too much, will you?”

It was a glib remark and one that both made and missed the point. The hotel is where it is because it is in a beautiful location. It’s right on the border by a strategically important bridge. I draw no conclusion that the terrible view is on the Ulster side of the hotel.

I suppose I should be content that the housekeeper has kept her logic to the view from the window. By the same thinking, she could have said. “I haven’t bothered cleaning your toilet because you’ll only be using it for defecation purposes.” “We didn’t bother with wallpaper as you’ll be asleep most of the time that you’re here.” “We’ve not washed the cups out for you’ll only be making them dirty again.”

On the other hand, it has a fine deep bath and, once I’d been back up the road to a shop that sold me some imperial leather bubbles, I filled it full and soaked brain and brawn while trying to lose myself in a Susan Hill novel.

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I’d been told there was live music in the bar from 9 o’clock. I wandered down at 9.30 and found no live music but an awful lot of old English people telling each other what they didn’t like about Ireland. “Killybegs! More like Smellybegs!” The musicians, who were slowly setting up, looked more like Esther and Abi Ofarim than de Dannan. I went back to my room, and without looking out of the window, went straight to sleep.

I slept well and woke fully refreshed at 5. A wander through the streets of Belleek confirmed my opinion of the night before. It is a thriving little town. No more than two or three streets with a good range of pubs and shops. You can buy fine porcelain at the world famous pottery, you can get a good pint of Guinness in a number of hostelries and  even get a massage at discount rates on the high street. I wasn’t aware of the significance of the bone china produced at the pottery but I was taken by the handsomeness of the main building. I was also tempted by the massage.

A further deep bath and the second half of the Susan Hill novel took me up to breakfast. The novel got left behind. I had now given away three books on this journey and was to leave another four before I’d done. I was turning into a latter day Gideon, leaving behind a good read in hotel rooms wherever I stayed.

My memory of the morning meal is strong on wanting to finish to get away from a room full of whinging British pensioners and light on what I actually had to eat. I’d be very surprised if I didn’t have the Ulster Fry but I honestly cannot remember. I was keen to get away. I was about to physically cross a national frontier for the first time in my life. Previously national borders had been traversed while on a ferry or in an aeroplane. This time I was actually going to have one foot in one country and one in another. It was also the fourth country I’d travelled to in the ten days since I left home.

My first two impressions of the Republic were not good. The road surfaces took a turn for the worse once Fermanagh became Donegal and  the promised 30 miles to Sligo (I fancied a gentle day) suddenly turned into 49. I panicked a little before realising that the signs were now in kilometres.

The Republic stayed neutral during the second world war. It is known as “The Emergency” in the south. There was one exception to this neutrality and that was in the Battle of the Atlantic. It was a significant exception and one that turned the course of that longest of battles.

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German U-boats had been wreaking havoc with British shipping in the North Atlantic. My own father served on ships that plied this route and knew of the extreme peril that all ships were in. The British stationed flying boats on Lough Erne and were allowed to fly over the river for the few miles between Belleek and Ballyshannon. This became known as The Donegal Corridor. At least 9 U-boats were sunk by planes using the corridor and many more were damaged to the extent that they had to return to port. Belleek is the most westerly village in the United Kingdom. The Donegal Corridor allowed air cover for shipping hundreds of miles further out to sea than would otherwise have been the case.

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The Germans were assured that the flights were only for rescue purposes. In the true sense of the word rescue, there is no deceit. The agreement was kept quiet for a long time. In 2007  plaques were unveiled on both sides of the border recognising the significance of the air space. I stopped when I saw the plaque. It was the first I’d heard of it. My father survived the Battle of the Atlantic. If he hadn’t I wouldn’t have been riding through Donegal on my way to Ballyshannon.