A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe ….Part 60
Leaving Kinnitty the road continues upwards for miles. Not a single free pedal all the way to the top, but what rewards. Every type of slope from gentle patting out of the rhythm to get off and push. Every type of vegetation from rich meadows with abundance of wildflowers to deciduous woodland, to conifers, to wild open moorland to the glory of the mountain tops.
These are not the highest mountains on the islands. By many a measurement they wouldn’t count as mountains at all. At their tallest that are a little over 1700 feet. But if we’re looking for superlatives they beat all but the Massif Central in France at mountain top trumps. They are the oldest mountains in Europe and share that honour with their more celebrated French cousins.
If you draw a straight line between Dublin and Galway and another between Donegal and Rosslare. Then take your pencil and draw a third between Belfast and Cork you will find the lines crossing each other in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. They form a impressive natural barrier between Counties Offaly and Laoise (pronounced Lee-sha). Laoise is sometimes referred to as the forgotten county and Offaly isn’t on many tourist trails. You’d do well to find a place that is more the true unspoilt spirit of the country. This is another unexpected gem in this jewel box of a journey. No-one would put the Slieve Blooms on their Bucket list except people who have been there.
I had the same experience cycling up the west coast of Scotland some years ago. Once I’d crossed the Erskine Bridge it took me seven days to reach Durness and the north coast and everyday I thought I’d seen the best that a country could possibly offer only to find the next day could beat it to blazes. Loch Lomond was everything I hoped; the busy main road balanced by the shuddering height of the mountains as you reached its northern tip. Rannoch Moor and Glencoe made mere memories of the largest loch and then Ben Nevis and the road from Fort William to Mallaig made me wonder if I’d been wasting my film the day before. The fourth day took me onto Skye and views of the Cuillins, before transporting me to the palm treed charm of Plockton. I was welcomed with a seat by the fire and a place on the pool team. I drank too much and swore I’d keep in touch. I planned to return but haven’t managed it yet.
The glacial wildness of Achnasheen, the gorges and waterfalls on the road to Loch Broom. The stunning sea lochs and childhood memories of Ullapool. Nothing could possibly beat all of that. And then I entered Sutherland. I had not seen true beauty til that day.
Since crossing the Shannon, Offaly had given me simple grace and true beauty. It had served me well, offered me a friendly hand and guided me and watered me and fed me of its abundance. Here I was entering Laoise and I was already in heaven.
It is hard to describe just how pleasurable riding up mountains is. It isn’t the physical effort. Riding on rollers isn’t in any way pleasurable, nor is pounding out miles on an exercise bike. But the physical exertion is part of it. It is the terrain, the matchless beauty that is a mountain landscape, the sense of going up, the facts of nature that change the vegetation every quarter hour as you ride out of one ecosystem, one environment and into another.
You’re never far from the sound of water on the road from Kinnitty to the top. Wonderful forests embroider the hills and folds. Nearby they are trees and everything that makes trees wonderful; in the distance they are textures, patterns, folds and shapes and a thousand shades of green and a chiaroscuro of light and shade.
Discretion is the better part of Simon this morning. After shattering myself, back on day one, by refusing to get off and push, I take every opportunity today. I figure there cannot be a deal of pollution up here and make tea with water straight from a stream. At the time I didn’t quite have the nerve to drink it without boiling it. With hindsight I think this is my mother warning the five year old me against infection. The tea tasted great and a good guzzle of mountain water should have been slugged.
My West of Scotland trip was nearly brought to a close by being knocked off the road on Skye by a big black coach from Surrey. Remarkably I’m forced into the trees by another bus, same colour, same county. Do they have driving tests down there in the affluent south? Or have I offended their coach drivers in another life? I certainly offend this one, but I’m not sure he heard as he belches diesel fumes down my throat and disappears over the next brow.
The next brow always seems like the summit until you get close and discover that it is merely the top of the foothills.
These mountains are a real leg spin, and eyeful of pleasure. I’m having a better day with my chest and once in the greenwood I’m almost ready to sing. I’m only stopped by the fact that the quiet music of the mountain itself is unsurpassable. Birdsong that echoes between the boughs, the constant companionship of falling water, and the Aeolian harp of the air moving in the forest.
As broadleaf changes to conifer so does the range and pitch of the chords. Thrush and blackbird change to crow and the water now is softer, peatier and flowing not falling.
The hardest climbing is in the middle sections where there are some hairpins of sorts. Once above the tree-line I sit up and pedal and breathe and I would never tire of breathing this air and never tire of the unexpected beauty of these highlands. I’m only topping 1500 feet. Even by the standards of the British Isles that isn’t high, but there is nothing lacking in this mountain landscape. Granted there are no towering crags or huge cascades of scree or pillars of rock or thousand foot sheer cliff-faces. They wouldn’t suit. This is beauty truly blent. This is very heaven.
From up here on a clear day, it is reckoned, you can see half of the thirty two counties. Discounting the Surrey Charabanc, I don’t see thirty two people all the time I am up there. I just pedal to the top. Stop, find a place to picnic and brew more tea. I see no reason to be anywhere else. I have my sketch pad, I have volumes of Yeats and MacNeice. I have some oatcake biscuits, some apples and half a pound of Irish Cheddar. I’m sure I could find berries if I went foraging. I’m short of nothing I’ve got. I’m on top of the oldest mountains in Europe and in tune with the spirits of those mountains. I sketch the outlines and read verses and eat my simple lunch. I don’t have a bucket list but if I had one it would be to feel the way I felt as I sat in springy grass on top of the Slieve Bloom Mountains.