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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 54

Ballinasloe had underwhelmed me with its greeting. It sold me a coke and crisps lunch, denied me the use of its public toilet, gave me some bad information about ferries and drenched me to the skin. Which just goes to show how random these trips can be. On another day things could have been altogether better, but as it was, I was pedalling uphill into the slanting rain, with a full bladder and an empty stomach.

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The grey walls of St Brigid’s are testimony to the growing care and kindness of Eastern Galway. Architecturally, and historically they hide the past. Medically and scientifically they enclose a modern, forward thinking hospital.

I’m clear of them and heading for Shannonbridge. I have no idea if I still feel as poorly as I had that morning. My need to pee has outplayed the hands played by chest infections, over-laden stomachs, aching limbs, feverish skin and rasping throat. A five bar gate and an empty field brings relief. My worries flow into the hedge bottom. And, just on cue, out comes the sun.

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The road isn’t a busy one, but it’s busy enough to have a cycle lane until it stops being urban. I’ve never quite got hold of the logic of these. We’ll give you your own lane to safely cycle until you’ve ridden out of town and then it’s every man for himself. You have a cycle lane because we want you to have  a place where you are in no real danger of being knocked off, and then, once you are out of our jurisdiction, we don’t really care.

There are a lot of well tended gardens on the leaving of Ballinasloe. This is a contender for suburbia in bloom. Lawns dominate but there are plenty of colours in the flower beds. Perhaps the residents should take over the presentation of the commercial and shopping parts of the town.

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After the corrugated roads of the morning, a stretch of flat was most welcome. The sun coming out also brought a change in wind direction and I was getting ready to hoist sail. The good news is that there aren’t many cars going past. The bad news is that those that are on the roads all seem to be being driven by David Coulthard. (Incidentally, in Scotland, I passed the David Coulthard Museum. Can there be a duller day out in the whole of Europe? I’d rather do double turns at the national coracle museum in west Wales. I could understand a Jackie Stewart Museum, or a Jim Clark Museum but a whole day out based on being able to get onto the start grid seems to be asking a great deal of success starved Scottish petrol heads.)

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Eventually I meet the Shannon again and it has grown enormously since yesterday morning. It’s joined by its main tributary (The River Suck) here and it becomes the wide majestic stream of song and folk-lore. A battery fort has been converted into a restaurant on one side of a wide, many arched bridge. On the other side a toll building has been converted into a tourist information office. I would probably have stopped anyway but the return of the rain on my just dried out clothes sent me in in search of leaflets and advice. Little did I know it, but my day had just taken a big turn for the better.

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John is in his sixties and has found a job that he enjoys and can do without a hint of the life of stress and strain. He’s personable and kind and patient and knows most things that a tourist may be curious to discover at the point where Counties Offaly, Roscommon and Galway meet. He gives me the impression that he might have known the life where the words hectic and urgent had a greater meaning but that he wasn’t missing it much. He’d found contentment and calm  and a measured stoicism that gave him a certain grace.

I liked him immediately. I tell him I’m heading for Rosslare and that I’d like a little advice over the next forty miles or so. He doesn’t actually know where Rosslare is but he doesn’t let this stop him. First of all he turns to the collection of badly photocopied A4 maps of Offaly. He looks at them twice and recognises that their intent is greater than their utility and offers me a cup of tea. I readily accept. “That would be most kind of you.”

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“Oh, you’ll not go into any houses around here and not be offered at least a cup of tea.’

I go and get my map while he boils the kettle. He produces a pint of skimmed milk. I sip at the tea while he pores over the map.

“It’s a long way that you’re going.” He observes and then repeats it several more times. “You’ll not get all that way without a little bit of help, now would you like a biscuit.” His eye twinkles. He is a master of the comic understatement. A baron of bathos. He knows he isn’t the person to give me serious advice on roads and destinations and that is why I find him the perfect guide. What he can give me is an insight into a slower way of doing things. I’m racing for the ferry port because I feel ill. I’d feel a good deal less poorly if I wasn’t tearing along roads faster and further than I ought to be. What I need is someone to sit me down and point out the important things in life.

“You’d be better off staying here awhile. You’ll not be getting there much faster in this rain. Now, don’t be a stranger to those biscuits. Are they fine? I wasn’t sure if maybe they might be getting a little old.”

“No, they crunch well.”

“Would you be after wanting a bit of chocolate to go with that?” He produces a Yorkie Bar, opens the wrapper and thrusts it in my direction. I hesitate and he pushes on. “No. Go on. Take a half of it. I find a chocolate bar tastes a deal better if someone else can enjoy it too.”

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He returns to the map which he has folded and unfolded in a number of ways. “I can’t seem to find a way to shorten the journey for you and it’s a terrible long way you’re after going. Not that I’m trying to put you off.” He has the gentleness of Private Godfrey from Dad’s Army, the charm of Fulton Mackay without the bite and is altogether a cleverer fellow than many would take him for. We’ve hit a wavelength and we chuckle our way through the rest of the biscuits and a second mug of tea. A car pulls up outside and a man with a suit and a blue tooth attachment in his ear approaches the door.

“Oh well!” he announces, “There’s the boss!”

“I’m not going to get you into any trouble am I?” I ask wondering if providing gentle hospitality to passing cyclists is part of his job description.

“Oh, I wouldn’t think so.” He smiles and there is that in his countenance which suggests that he really wouldn’t mind if I did.