A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 59
My last act in every town I stay in is to visit the post office. For the benefit of my English readers, it is like going to the post office used to be. If there are seven windows, then there will be seven windows open and seven helpful and friendly people waiting to sort you out with your pension, your water bill or even to sell the gormless twit in the baggy shorts an envelope, a stamp and some kindness. I always tell them that it is for England and that there are quite a lot of sheets. They are always able to give me the impression that they care.
I have impressed myself in several ways on this trip. One is not giving up when things were going against me and another is the number of places I’ve got to know that are off the usual tourist route. (I had intended to be much more adventurous but have had to rein back. My illness is now ever present and this means getting home quickly and it means hotels. Hotels eat into my budget. I had given myself up to a month to explore; I’ve had to take at least a week off that.) The main thing that has impressed me has been my diligence as a notetaker.
I haven’t yet got to the stage where I sit and write any reflections and observations as I have them, but I have got up at five every morning and written for between two and four hours. Each wad of notes is written on flimsy lightweight paper, folded into an envelope and sent home. Some people send their loved one poems and billet-doux of tenderness and love. I let her know the road numbers, the hills, the biscuits, the punctures, the bruised knees and the escapades of a middle aged cyclist on the slow roads of Erin.
The Irish postal worker always finds time for me. They carefully stamp up an nice envelope with an airmail sticker and a stamp with a squirrel or a frog and charge me 28cents. It seems ridiculously cheap and I worry about them being surcharged back home. Sometimes they help me with the spellings of places I have been told about but not seen written down, and I ‘m sure they’d deliver some potted shrimps to my aunt on Walney, if I asked them.
Post Offices serve a public service and should not be seen in purely profit making terms. The smile and the kindness are a social service, a health service and a simple and decent thing that comes with every visit to an Irish Post Office. They are at the heart of community, they hold communities together and provide a focal point for local events. They are a meeting place and a centre of communication. They are a very civilising thing and England is currently losing a layer of its best social structure by closing so many and selling the rest off to chancers.
This isn’t a political blog. I make no attempt to hide the fact that I care about social justice, hate greed and love people who care for others. I don’t hide it, but equally, I don’t preach it. I do recommend a visit to an Irish post office though. Do so, and you’ll realise what a bad mistake we have made on the more grasping side of the Irish Sea.
The road is flat and damp from an overnight shower. The Slieve Bloom Mountains get slowly closer. My map doesn’t have contour lines on and the mountains don’t look huge either on paper nor on the horizon. Looks can be deceptive. Let’s face it. They are called mountains. It’s not a word that is easily given away. In Holland it’s a word they only use on L’Alpe D’Huez day on the Tour de France. It’s a little before ten o’clock and I’m on my way to a place called Kinnitty.
On the way out of Birr I pass a cluster of guest houses (an accommodation of guest houses?) and soon find myself out in the countryside. Perhaps I could save a pound or two if I stayed in places like these. I weigh up the benefits. It’s the sort of thing you do as you warm up to pedalling. I like the relative anonymity of a larger hotel. I like the bath tubs and the double beds. I like the central location and the history of places like Dooly’s. I like what believers call ‘the communion of saints’ you get in a place where travellers have stayed for hundreds of years. I’m also dubious about small hoteliers. I have no idea about Ireland. My only experience is a kindly old lady who took me in, charged me at 1975 prices and let me use the family bathroom; while her daughter’s family played poltergeist with me and buckled the back wheel of my bike. In England, if you want to meet a slightly mad person who gives you the creeps, then small hotels are a good place to start looking. Most small hoteliers of my experience seem to have the unusual characteristics (for people in the hotel trade) of not liking people and feeling resentful that anyone should be in their house. Granted my experiences don’t add up to a scientific survey, but they have made me a devoted user of places where you get looked after by people who have actually trained.
The first ten miles are always a special time of the day. Roads in the middle of the morning are quiet and drivers are in a passive mood. Today it is flat all the way with rich pasture on both sides of the road changing suddenly to bog and then back to meadowland again. Every so often a village with delightful older houses and unimaginative new developments. The double garage mini mansion is also in evidence. Here, each one has a summer house or shed where you might quietly entertain a couple of dozen dancing couples. The certainty is that there will be a trampoline in the garden. It’s invariably neglected and almost always on a slope. I think the two facts may be connected.
After ten miles I reach Kinnitty and it doesn’t disappoint. I sit with an ice cream and look towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains and watch the quiet village life pass by. There are houses a plenty, shops and a pub. There are also a couple of buildings that look like they may have been pubs until quite recently. It would take some fine drinkers to support three bars in a village this size. If you delve in deeper you’ll find a castle and a genuine pyramid. None of your Louvre and Centre Parcs sort of pyramid; it’s the real thing.
The castle is currently a hotel but is on the market if you’ve got £16million to spare. It’s got quite a big garden.
The road beyond the village heads upwards. I’m looking forward to a day in the mountains, but I’m in no rush.