A Cycle Around the British Isles … Part 74
Despite it being Sunday, Wexford is busy and the majority of shops are open and doing good trade. I have two priorities; a new cycling shirt and a new novel; but I get waylaid. Buying a takeaway coffee I wander and browse and window shop and just quietly get a feeling for the place. The town centre seems small and compact and mostly on the one street that runs parallel with the river front.
It is the old harbour that attracts my attention. I wander slowly along on the river side and then mosey across the bridge where, quite suddenly, I’m looking out to sea. Or am I? This is a huge natural harbour and, in its time, it has been a port of considerable importance. Once, like Liverpool, the wharves and piers extended for miles but the harbour has suffered a gradual decline over centuries. At its peak it was home to a fleet of over 400 ships. Unfortunately these were largely privateers (in other words, pirate ships for hire), which operated against English shipping using ports on the west coast of England from Whitehaven to Bristol. To be rid of this threat to his merchant fleet was a significant factor behind Cromwell’s choice of Wexford as the second Irish town he laid siege to. He destroyed the harbour, the ships and saw many drowned. Another of his motives for attacking Wexford was to take it as a winter quarters for his troops and to be able to use the natural harbour for his own ships. Such was the thoroughness of the destruction that neither was possible.
Over the centuries, as ships got bigger and drew more water, the shifting sands and silts of the harbour and the river estuary became more of a problem. After 1800 when all decisions were made by a London government, Wexford went into a real decline as a port. The constant dredging necessary was proving a bigger task than it was deemed worth. In 1906 a new deep water harbour was opened ten miles to the south at Rosslare. Wexford is now more of a marina. I sit on a bench and enjoy watching other people just messing about in boats. It’s a perfect afternoon for it.
I’d agreed to be back at the house by five. Time has ticked on. Not wanting to appear rude and ungrateful I rush back through the town finding a bookshop where I grab a copy of The Sea by John Banville (seems particularly appropriate), but shirt shops are closed. The t shirt I’m wearing has been successively dry, drenched with sweat, dried on me, drenched with sweat once more, and dried on me again. It looks like I’ll be wearing it for a few hours more.
At the house my bicycle is being given a impromptu service. Tyres newly pumped, chains and cogs oiled. Even the water bottles are freshly filled. I’m not sure if this never cleaned in thirty years bicycle hasn’t had a hose pipe pointed at it during the course of the afternoon. A huge part of me feels a tremendous ingratitude in not even being able to remember the man’s name. Another part knows that he offered me this kindness because he could and as a good man he did. He didn’t do it for thanks and a once a year card from over the water. Though I would like to send both.
He walks back down to the quay with me to make sure I’m on the right road. The afternoon light has changed the complexion of the buildings and the reflections on the water. Shadows are beginning to lengthen and I know that this next hour will be the last cycling I will do in Ireland for a long time. I take only three of the hundred photographs I should have taken on this day. So much has happened since breakfast. So much had happened since I landed on the harbour side at Larne. So much had happened since I crossed the Scottish border, since I set off with Charlie from home half a lifetime ago. It was with these feelings of nostalgia for my own adventure that I left Wexford and my short-term true friend and slowly rolled on my way.
The views of the coast and out to sea are lovely in the evening sun but once you leave the treelined outskirts of the town you see the sort of modern developments that you’d expect to see on what is the main trunk road not just to the harbour, but to mainland Britain, Brittany and Northern Spain. Where once was countryside two car showrooms are the modern pillars of Hercules, one selling German cars, the other selling French. I pass between them only to see more; Swedish trucks, Japanese cars, Korean cars. There follow a succession of modern, knock them up quickly, steel framed buildings of the type where the warehouses don’t differ greatly from the office blocks and the hotels. For Sale signs are common but not as common as those proclaiming the building is For Lease. The builders have been paid but many of the buildings lie empty. I pass what may be my last Topaz petrol station and I recite from lines learned when in a production of Twelfth Night when I was younger and there was still hope:
Fie, thou dishonest Satan! I call thee by the most
modest terms, for I am one of those gentle ones
that will use the devil himself with courtesy.
Sayest thou that the house is dark?
I went to see David in a delightful production of the play at the little Dell theatre in Stratford last summer. He played a superb Feste and his Feste in turn played a fine Sir Topaz.
And remember that Sir Thopas was the hero of the interrupted Canterbury Tale told so badly by Geoffrey Chaucer the pilgrim that Harry Bailey the host accused him of boring the assembled pilgrims. Telling him
“By God,” quod he, “for pleynly at a word
Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord,
Change quod to quoth or said and recognise that drasty means worthless (from the same root as dregs) and you don’t need too much more translation. Some modern slang words are older than you think.
A line of verse, and old speech from a play I was in years ago, something someone once said. Significant ideas come unbidden to the mind. This is what I most like about cycling. It allows the clearest of thinking and plenty of time to do it. You can cycle for an hour or ten hours at a time and never become bored of your own company; because you are never alone. You’re with the thoughts that you haven’t finished thinking yet. The thoughts from other occasions. You’re with the people who said them, wrote them, thought them originally and you’ve got time and inclination to make them make sense.
It’s no surprise that cyclists; who don’t tend to come from the privileged and educated ranks; write superbly well. Paul Kimmage brought me to reading about bicyclists twenty five years ago and I still look out anything he puts down on paper. There are many others. Matt Seaton, who is educated and could write well anyway, found new heights in contemplation and prose, when he set out on his bicycle. Einstein simply said that he had his best thoughts when riding his bike. It is an exercise for both body and mind. Whatever I have become is a few stages further on from what I would have been if I hadn’t taken to two wheels and the quieter roads.
Little kiosks, like sentry boxes act as mileposts, where bored young people wait to sell potatoes and strawberries to stopping motorists. Fields shared by horses and cattle, motels that smell of new carpets and a constant flow of English cars, packed with families, already grim faced from hours of being shut up together, making their first miles into Ireland and thinking that it looks a lot like the outskirts of Swindon.
And I reach the port and swing down across the flat macadam, up a slope and into the booking hall. I’ve ninety minutes to spare as the day and the Irish part of my journey come to an end.