So, we’re up to my second day in Westport, Co. Mayo. Having wrecked myself on Croagh Patrick last Friday, I decided to do something similar the next day on the bicycle. You may remember that I wasn’t able to get a bus from Westport to Achill Island, so I decided to cycle 42km there instead. The sun was still blazing, but I had sensibly bought sunscreen this time, and proceeded to cover up my already bright red arms and neck.
After a check-in with the cycle company, who told me where to start, gave me a map and their phone number so I could call them from Achill and get their courtesy shuttle bus back to Westport, I headed on my way. I was full of enthusiasm, feeling like an intrepid traveler once again, having packed up my panniers with water, food, a jumper (more to ensure that the Irish weather DIDN’T turn cold, as we all know by now that the Irish weather is malevolent and will only ever do exactly what you expect it not to do), books, sunscreen, my map, my mobile and money.
But, then, not even out of Westport, I hit the first hill. Oh, woe is us, my legs cried, do you not remember what we did just yesterday? Why do you hate us so? All my confidence that I would make it alive to Achill Island in a timely manner was now starting to drain away. But, I convinced myself the only thing to do was to try.
This was an excellent choice. The Greenway (part of which I had cycled the day before) has mainly made on the old railway line between Westport and Achill Island. This old railway line is quite interesting, featuring, as it does in a prophecy put forward by an Irish monk, named Brian Rua Ui Cearabhain in the 1600s. Old Brian said that one day between Westport and Achill Island there would be “carriages on iron wheels, blowing smoke and fire, which on their first and last journeys would carry corpses”. Well before the time of trains, Brian’s image would have seemed surreal and terrifying to his contemporaries. For us it is more chilling. Beyond the fact the Brian seems to have imagined trains before such things were beyond the imaginings of most men, the trains from Achill to Westport did indeed carry corpses on their maiden voyage of 1894 and their final journey of 1937. More than a bit chilling and thrilling.
Anyway, the advantage for me is that trains aren’t great on hills and unless you’re in Switzerland and not really able to do so, people who build railway lines tend to do it on a flat surface. Or, as much of a flat surface as they possibly can. The people who had converted the railway line to the cycleway had been mercifully considerate and kept the flat gradient, meaning that the fear the first hill created in myself was completely unfounded.
In fact, with the sun a-shining and the green hills a-rolling in the picturesque distance, it was all I could to stop myself from yelling out in sheer delight that I had happened upon such a country and such a place at such a deliciously wonderful time. I mean, if I had taken my holiday at most any other weekend in the rest of the year, it would not have been nearly so pleasant and pretty. But my sheer chance, I had taken my adventure holiday on the only blazing hot sunny days Ireland is likely to have in 2012, making the water sparkly, the hills shimmer, the flowers sparkle and the landscape seem, on the whole so painfully beautiful that it was sometimes necessary to stop and reach out and touch something, just to make sure it was all real and not some incredibly fabulous, accidental drug trip.
In fact, when I was whooshing down the lovely Greenway, safe in the knowledge that the path was for cyclists and pedestrians only, no cars, I couldn’t help but squealing, ‘Greenway!’ in a strange, high-pitched voice, as if I were a character in MarioKart (‘Ima gonna win!’). I was just so happy that someone had come up with the idea of creating the cycle way and that other people had also thought it was a good idea, and they had given them money, and then other people, whose farms the Greenway cuts across, said, ‘sure, I’m happy to have a Cycleway in between my cows and sheep’ and, finally, that other people had been employed to design and build it.
I made it to Achill Island in record time, even with the amount of stops I required to squeal delightedly at the little lambies eating grass by the side of the road. The lambies weren’t as delighted by my presence and tended to either run away, pee or poo when they saw me. Charmant.
I had initially told myself to take it slowly as I wasn’t sure my fitness would hold up. Also, I was enjoying the scenery. However, two… middle-aged people went past me and… well it hurt my pride just a tad. I felt like as the young, sprightly one I should be overtaking them. I suddenly became very competitive and insisted on pushing myself, making certain that I at least kept them in sight, if not being able to overtake them.
Of course, this resulted in me getting to just outside Achill Island and my body suddenly packing it in. No, no, Jenny, we refuse to go on any further until you provide us with a litre of water and two bananas. At least. Luckily, I had packed just such things and after a brief rest, I managed to get back on the bike and head the final kms to Achill Island. It was 12:30pm and I decided to take a break in the shade and read some of my book (a side note about the book. My housemate lent it to me and it is about the ‘Sack of Baltimore’, where Barbary pirates stole away 107 English settlers from the Irish coast in 1600s. Absolutely fascinating. My housemate is great). After a bit of a break, I convinced myself to try and see some of the island. However, I looked at the map and realised that the loops around the island were at least 20km and the longest was 44km. Deciding I didn’t have the energy to do another 42km, I thought I’d just head off in a flat-looking direction and see what I found.
I found a secret garden, the ruins of Castle Grainne and a shady spot to read my book and look out of the sea.
It was about this time, 2:30pm, that I started to think I should call the bike hire company and get them to pick me up. But there was part of me that was oddly reluctant to do so. Part of me that was thinking, oh, but what if I want to see some more of the island? Or what if I want to cycle back a little of the way to Westport? I’ll just wait a little longer and then decide.
I’m sure you can guess what happened. My brain convinced me that I could definitely cycle the 42km back to Westport again, if I just took it slowly and wouldn’t it be cool to brag that I had cycled 100km in one day and wouldn’t it be nice to see all those pretty places again properly and I could take breaks for food and I’d be really fit after I did 10km and etc. etc. etc.
To be fair, I did make it back to Westport in one piece. It did, however, take me 6 hours, when the initial trip had taken me 3. I also had to stop in every town along the way, drink litres of water and devour large amounts of sugary, carb-based foods. Bags of dried apricots. Packets of salty potato pancakes.
By the time I was outside of Westport, it was 9:30pm and the sun was racing towards the horizon. I was only barely managing to pedal on flat bits of ground and the minute there was even the hint of an uphill slope, I’d jump off the bike and walk it up instead. All the bugs were coming out in swarms and were sticking in great numbers to my sweaty, sunscreen arms, or flying up my nose or into my mouth, or into my eyes and taking up residence. In short, it wasn’t the most pleasant homeward journey. I probably would have enjoyed myself much more if I had just called the blasted shuttle service.
However, I did get to brag to the girls in my hostel room about it and the men I returned the bicycle to in the shop the next door were very impressed. And we all know that my main in life is to impress people I don’t know, so all in all, I’d say it was quite the success.