Winding down

I don’t know if Belfast has an inferiority complex about Dublin, but it probably should. From what I have seen of the city, it lacks it’s southern neighbour’s charm, confidence and vibrancy. In fairness, I’m sure I have not seen the city’s best.

I am just back from dinner, in a restaurant housed in the basement of an old prison, or ‘gaol’, which is now a sort of museum. I thought a couple of the other buildings nearby were jails, but it turned out they were all part of a hospital. It seems strange to see a hospital with all that fencing and security around it. But that is part of my spoiled North American privilege, probably. Car bombs have never really been a thing in Canada. They haven’t been here for a long time, either, but you wouldn’t know it looking around. The police still drive around in armoured cars, and prominent buildings (i.e., churches) have crash guards in front of them. It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but the place feels on tenterhooks.

It was fitting that I had dinner in a disused jail, since my room at the most regrettable B&B I’ve encountered is about the size of a cell. I’d be surprised if it were much more than 2 m wide. I can stand beside the single bed (occupies the length of the room on the wall with the window), and stretch my arms to either side, and nearly touch both walls at once.

Worse, when I arrived, there was no one to greet me or check me in. The proprietor was ‘in town’ shopping with her gran. She’d be back when she could. She had sent an email with the front door code, and told me where I could find the key for my room. Only it wasn’t there. I called to say there was no key, and she said it must be in the door to the room, no worries. I checked, and it wasn’t. She said she’d be by within the hour. She wasn’t.

I spent about an hour working to get the blinds shut. I finally did, and used my things to block the door, so I could have a shower. Eventually she arrived, young, blonde, and I think Australian, and tried every key should could find to no avail. At last she said, ‘I’m going to give you the skeleton key. Please don’t rob us.’ What would I steal? Some people shouldn’t try to run a business.

If it weren’t all but impossible to find another place on a Saturday night, I would have done so.

But before all this, I had risen early back in Moffat, and packed my things on the bike, and had breakfast before taking off on the two hour ride to Cairnryan to catch the ferry. I had to arrive no later than 11 for the 11:30 sailing. Luckily, I made good time.

The ferry ride was pleasant an uneventful. When we docked, I made my way down to Lisburn, got briefly lost trying to find the bike shop again. (The GPS really doesn’t like Lisburn, and who can blame it, really?) I brought the bike back. They had a quick look, decided everything was in order, and drove me to the train station once I’d transferred everything over from the panniers to my duffle bag. (Note to self: in the future, either bring a suitcase with wheels or a backpack.) I caught an express train to Belfast, and grabbed a cab to the B&B, where I now sit. And wait. Wait for morning and the return to Dublin.

Dublin will be more relaxed (I hope and expect), and I’ll have part of Sunday and a full day on Monday to explore at my leisure. And then it will be time to return home.

One of the great things about traveling is how it makes you more appreciative of what you’ve left behind, what you get to return to. I’m looking forward to being with Adele again, to having her presence bring so much warmth and meaning to my days. I’m looking forward to being in our place. To cooking for us. To our everyday lives. And to the next time we step out of those lives for a short time. Next time, together.

M roads, Lake District diversions, and toffee

I’ve been riding around Britain and Ireland for the past nearly three weeks, and for the first time today, I encountered an asshat. Not once, but twice he rode up behind me and lurked, and then when I decided to overtake the car in front of me, passed me in the same lane as me. Anyway, I came to no harm, because one of us knows how to drive. And that one of us muttered a string of expletives inside my helmet and then did my best to let it go.

I think that was just before I reached Chester, so I’d probably left Wales. It’s funny. When you enter Scotland or Wales, they put up signs. The English, well, they think the whole thing is theirs, so why bother.

It was still fairly cool when I set out this morning. My weather app said 11 C, and predicted only a few degrees better in Scotland, so I dressed appropriately. The thermometer on the motorcycle told me it was 14.5 C when I set off, and I worried I’d dressed too warmly, but once on the highway, going 70 mph, I was fine. At least for the first while. Eventually, I stopped to get coffee and delayer, as the bike’s display screen told me it was 19 C, and not even noon.

It was mostly M road again today. In these last days, there’s more of a sense of urgency about getting to places. Still, when I got to the turnoff for the Lake District, I took it, and I’m glad I did. While the towns (especially Windermere, the former home of Beatrix Potter) are chock-a-block with tourists, there are long stretches of winding mountain road with relatively few other vehicles on them. They were a very welcome diversion. Sadly there were very few places to stop along the way where a decent picture could be taken, although I did get a couple.

Stone walls meander along the mountainside like rivers of rock

All good things come to an end, though, and soon I was back on the M6 heading north. On the plus side, I was heading back to Scotland for the night, before taking the ferry back to Belfast and returning the bike tomorrow. And while I was riding up the M6, with signs starting to announce that SCOTLAND (their emphasis) lay ahead, I looked up and – no word of a lie – two long, thin streams of high cloud were crossed in the mostly clear blue sky, making it look like a Scottish flag.

And so now I am in Moffat. Because I have two friends named Moffat, and Valerie told me I had to come here, and I had to bring her some Moffat Toffee. (I have no idea what’s special about it, other than it shares her name. Maybe that’s it. What more do you need? If there was a Milner whisky, I’d probably buy it.)

Moffat is a small place. Not really much more than a village. It has more than its share of B&Bs and Guesthouses, one of which I’m staying in, as well as a Best Western hotel, it’s own police station, a “general surgery”, and of course a shop that sells nothing but toffee. There are other things, too. A church whose tower dwarfs every other building in town, a handful of pubs, a couple of gas stations, grocery stores, etc. It’s a nice enough place to spend the night.

They’re having a classic car show here this weekend. I’ve seen Rovers, MGs, Jags, Singers, sadly not a Morgan. The pubs and restaurants are full of the English. The pub I ate dinner in was full of Manchunians watching football, shooting pool, playing the jukebox too loud.

One of the prettiest Jags I’ve ever seen.

Now I’m back at the B&B. To say the WiFi is dodgy is an understatement. I’ve had a lot of dodgy connections on this trip. Half the time here, though, I cant find it at all, no matter where I stand in my room. Luckily I have lots of unused data on my Irish SIM card.

Tomorrow I’ll say goodbye to Scotland for the last time on this trip. I’ll have a last few days in Ireland, and then I’ll fly home. I’ll be bringing a lot of good memories home with me. Oh, and some toffee, of course.

Lastness

This will be a week of last things. Today is my last in Wales. Tomorrow I’ll ride through English countryside for the last (foreseeable) time, and spend a last night in Scotland. Saturday will be my last day riding the Tiger. And then it’s down to Dublin, and more last things before I return home to my everyday life.

I’m looking forward to that return, but I also want to savour what’s here, what’s now.

Here and now is presently a pub comprising the main floor of a small hotel in the town of Llandudno, in the county of Conwy, on the north coast of Wales. I have a pint of Welsh ale. There is tolerable music playing at a tolerable volume. My room is upstairs on the third floor. It’s a nice room, spacious.

Getting here was more interesting than the past two days’ rides had been. Wales is beautiful. Lush and green like Ireland. Untamed and uncrowded like Scotland. It reminds me a lot of home. My road here wound between high hedgerows and low stone walls, between cows and sheep, small villages and tidy towns, along the seashore and between mountains.

My first stop of the day was in a seaside village. I parked near the beach and climbed atop the mounds of rocks they’re using as “sea defence”. The wind was whipping around me. If Wales is anything, it’s windy. I took some pictures of (to borrow an image from Joyce) the snotgreen sea with its whitecrested waves.

I didn’t stop often. It was cool – between 10 and 15 C – and blustery, and the constantly changing speed limits (which almost no one drives up to) kept me engaged. The Tiger purred and whirred, and only growled when it was time to overtake someone driving 20 or 30 mph under the limit.

There were churches in most villages, often the tallest buildings visible from the road. Occasionally an old castle was visible from the road. Stone bridges that only allow one direction of travel at a time.

In the mountains of Snowdonia I passed a town whose business was clearly centred around a shale quarry. The buildings, still mostly made of stone, took on a more alpine expression.

Now that I’m here in Llandudno, I don’t have anything much I want to go see. I’m happy to sit here with my pint and savour the lastness of it all.

Laugharne

It is a beautiful evening in southern Wales. I’m sitting outside a local pub in Laugharne (rhymes, sort of, with yarn, but with a bump in the middle) drinking Welsh ale. Unfortunately all the pubs stopped serving food at 3, so I had to settle for fish & chips next door (the first place on this trip to serve it with mushy peas!). Life’s hard, but I’ll adapt.

The sun is shining, the birds are making bird noises, and every so often a car comes past.

Laugharne is a sleepy town, very small, even by Welsh standards. Dylan Thomas called it “the strangest town in Wales.” He should know, he lived here. He’s buried less than a mile from where I’m sitting. I’ve been to his grave (this is turning into the graveyard tour of Britain and Ireland), and to the old boathouse he lived in when he wrote some of his greatest work, from “Fern Hill” to Under Milk Wood; I’ve even walked the path that is said to have inspired his “Poem In October”.

No tour buses here. A simple, wooden marker, with his wife Caitlin’s name and dates on the other side.

The B&B I’m staying in is less than a mile from each, and just around the corner from the pub I’m at now. It wasn’t much to look at when I rode up, and I was afraid I’d mad a terrible mistake, but once inside my fears vanished. It’s an old, stone and plaster building, with wooden beams in the ceilings. The room is enormous compared to most B&Bs. The bathroom is almost the size of the room I had in Lisburn at the start of this trip, and is strangely modern. You can see the ruin of Laugharne Castle from my window.

Not the view from my room. I know, I said I don’t like what castles represent. I don’t. But this is a nice old ruin, and I thought it was a good picture.

Dylan Thomas is the reason I’m here. He was one of the first “serious” poets whose work I fell in love with, back when I was getting ready to begin my first university degree. The summer before I began my studies I went to Canterbury Books in Calgary, now sadly defunct, and bought a copy of his Collected Poems and Collected Short Stories, both of which I still have on my shelves more than 30 years later. I still love his pulsing, alliterative rhythms.

The day didn’t begin here. It began in a little village near Bath. The landlady of the place I stayed left me a small loaf of homemade bread and some homemade gooseberry jam, which I ate when I got up. A little later, I rode to the Hartley Farm Market & Cafe, where she said I could get a good cooked breakfast. The eggs Benedict there was excellent.

After breakfast, I rode around Bath looking for Solsbury Hill, the place that inspired one of my favourite songs. I eventually found it (I think), riding up a narrow lane (Solsbury Lane, so it sounded promising), in places walled with stone on either side, in other places bordered by hedgerows, and still others by simple fences. The hill comprised sloping enclosures for sheep and cows, mostly. I’m guessing that either I was in the wrong place, or Peter Gabriel hopped someone’s fence, or was staying with someone there, or the place has changed since the 1970s. I think, based on the rest of Bath, that last option seems the least plausible. At any rate, there was no place to stop, and although in places I could see the city, it wasn’t nighttime, so there were no lights. No eagles, either, but I didn’t really expect that.

Bath is like a museum piece. Nearly everything is as it has been for at least a century, and often much longer. There are a lot of churches. It’s pretty, but in a museumy sort of way.

The ride here from there was mostly unremarkable, except for a detour necessitated by the police having closed the A46 to Stroud, likely due to a crash, and the GPS occasionally not keeping up to itself, so that I zipped past exits I should have taken requiring me to backtrack. It also meant I missed the turn off to avoid the M4 toll bridge to Wales. I got to pay £5.60 to nearly get blown off the bike by the strongest wind I’ve experienced on this trip next to Hector. This might have been worse, though, since they’ve used cable barriers down the centre of the bridge that would have sliced me like cheese if I’d hit them.

Otherwise, it was dull, efficient mile munching, until just outside Cardiff I saw another vehicle on the shoulder with its front end completely engulfed in flames. I’ll have to look into that in case Adele and I do a road trip here someday.

Everything is closing up in Laugharne. The pubs, which aren’t serving food, will still serve beer a while longer, but they’re not busy. The convenience store won’t close for another couple of hours. But it’s sleepy here.

Tomorrow I’m going to follow the coast north and then east, and stop for the night in a town whose name I can’t pronounce. For now, I’ll wander back to room and read for a while.

Excerpt from Under Milk Wood

Bath time

Today’s ride was really just about endurance. A seven hour motorway slog from Scarborough to Bath. Or close to Bath. I’m actually staying in a little cottage in the little – I’m not sure it even qualifies as a village – outside Bath, called Limpley Stoke. I’m currently waiting for the local pub to open. Happily, it’s no more than a 10 minute walk to said pub, The Seven Stars, which is in the adjacent (and actual) village of Winsley. The pub closes each day between 3 and 6. I’m told it’s a good pub with excellent food.

So… So far nothing much has happened today, except for the Tiger hungrily eating up miles, just under 300 of them. It felt like more. Still does.

So… As nothing much has happened yet today, I’ll begin with last night.

Scarborough is the kind of place that’s pretty without being beautiful. Filled with Victorian architecture, and crouched along a picturesque coastline, which it tries it’s best to spoil with arcades and small casinos, a beachfront fairground modelled on Coney Island, it feels…. faded. As if it hasn’t quite found a way to live up to its potential.

It does have an old, partially ruined castle, and large church, in whose churchyard Anne Bronte is buried.

(Admission: I don’t know how she ranks in relation to her sisters, as I haven’t read anything by any of the Brontes. Or Jane Austin, for that matter. The earliest woman novelist I’ve read was Virginia Woolf. Come to think of it, I don’t read enough novels by women of any period. I read some Atwood in university, and I’ve read some of Louise Erdrich’s books, and Nancy Huston. Alice Monroe, for short fiction. I should probably try to rectify that gap in my reading.)

Anyway, I wasn’t really looking for much from Scarborough. A place to sleep, a pub, dinner, maybe a a laundrette. I did well enough on every count except dinner. That was a bust.

I made it an early night. After Edinburgh, my liver needed a break! My hotel room was small, and a steep climb up three flights of stairs, but it was comfortable enough, and quiet, too. I ended up falling asleep to the sound of the waves.

Now I’m in this quiet little village in southern England. Tomorrow I’m heading a short distance to Bath proper, and to Solsbury Hill nearby, where Peter Gabriel had the epiphany that led him to quit Genesis. Afterward, I’ll be on my way to Wales. Laugharne, in particular, to visit the grave of Dylan Thomas.

I think the pub’s about to open, so that’s all for now.

South

It’s probably a good thing I walked over 28 km yesterday. I slept like a log, and didn’t wake till seven.

After my solo wandering yesterday morning I met up with Gillian at her flat in the Stockbridge neighbourhood. Fantastic but spendy area. Lots of cool little shops, pubs and cafes; a Sunday market in a public garden; old, winding, narrow cobblestone streets. The sidewalks were buzzing with people.

We set out first to Dean Park, and walked past Saint Brendan’s Well, and along the towpath by the Leith until we reached the section the Council (pronounce it coontsul) closed down for repairs five years ago, and hasn’t worked on since.

We wound our way past churches and monuments, through an old graveyard, and stopped in at the National Gallery of Scotland. I really enjoyed the sculpture garden outside, the modern masterpieces inside. After a while we were feeling hungry. As luck would have it, the gallery has an excellent cafe. A sandwich with two salads, americano and a slice of cake layered with marscarpone and pistachios for me. Two salads, black velvet cake and coffee for Gillian. We left stuffed.

We headed back to one of Gillian’s locals and had a pint before exploring further. Then we made our way to one of the better viewpoints in the city.

We walked to the top of Calton Hill, where the 18th century philosopher David Hume is buried. He left instructions for it in his will, including a stipulation that it not cost more than £100. “Typical Scot,” Gillian said.

We descended the hill, and walked round toward the Royal Mile, which was thick with tourists, and then down past the one-time house of John Knox, the father of Scottish Protestantism. Looking at the plaque outside, I noted a striking similarity to a friend of mine, and sent him a picture of the dour old bastard. “He didn’t like women much,” Gillian said. “I’m sure it was mutual,” I added.

It started raining, and we stopped in at a pub to get out of the rain. We timed our wait with a pint. As you do.

We walked down to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. It’s a spectacularly modern building, designed by a Spaniard who has since died, and decorated in places with quotes from Scottish poets, from Burns to Hugh MacDiarmid. Across the street is the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh. I looked, but couldn’t spot the MI5 watchers. Maybe it’s all done remotely now

It was getting on, so we started back toward the west end of the city, ultimately finding ourselves at the Cambridge Pub (just a few doors down from the Oxford, where we’d been the night before). Gillian said they have the best burgers in Edinburgh, and based the venison burger I had that seems like a credible assertion. This was accompanied by another pint. And one more for good measure.

Afterward, we said goodbye for who knows how long. I’m hoping Adele and I get over again sometime soon, but who can say? I told Gillian she’s welcome to crash at our place if she comes back to visit Vancouver.

This morning I discovered some enormous and possibly prehistoric bird shat all over the Tiger’s gas tank, and I spent about twenty minutes cleaning it off, and another five minutes oiling the bike’s chain. I’ve put more than 1,500 miles on the bike since picking it up what seems like a lifetime ago, but is really just over two weeks.

I rode south , once bike was cleaned, along the dull and efficient A1 for most of the way. I’m in Scarborough now, and the weather is… fair. Okay, fine, that was a bad pun. Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be off again, this time down to Bath, before exploring Wales.

The end of my journey is approaching quickly now. I’ll be flying home again in just over a week. But I have many miles to go before then.

Edinbrrr

I arrived in Edinburgh cold and wet after a nevertheless brilliant ride. After a shower to stave off hypothermia, I met up with my friend Gillian near Haymarket Station, and we walked through the last gasps of the rain showers to a fine pub nearby called Au Bar for a pint.

I haven’t seen Gillian in about five years (give or take), since she moved back to Scotland from Vancouver. We caught up over pints and then set out to the Oxford pub, famously the haunt of Iain Rankin and his equally famous character DI John Rebus. The author wasn’t in attendance, which is just as well since I haven’t got round to reading any of his books yet. I’m told, by several people, that they’re excellent, so it’s something I’ll get around to correcting soon.

Gillian’s friend Gavin joined us at the Oxford. He’s an excellent fellow, quiet for an engineer, with a sharp wit. The three of us talked for the time it took to finish a couple more pints, and then we set off toward Edinburgh Castle and Old Town.

We had dinner at an excellent Nepalese place called Gurkha. Karai Lamb, rice pilau, naan and a good, light Nepalese beer. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and the service was excellent.

Justin, Gavin and me at The Bow.

We walked deeper into Old Town after we’d stuffed ourselves, and wound up at The Bow, where we stumbled on Gillian’s pub quiz partner Justin. He has family back in Surrey. Small world. The four of us talked and sipped our beer until they rang for last orders. None of us had realized it was as late as that. Gavin, Gillian and I ordered a whisky each. Caol Ila is a nice, medium-peaty Islay malt, very smooth, with just enough smokiness.

The whisky helped for the walk home. To say it’s been cool in Edinburgh would be an understatement. It was almost autumnal in the walk back to the hotel. The faint glow to the south reminded me just how much further north I am than Vancouver is. Even at half twelve, as they say here, it’s not completely dark.

I woke this morning at half past six, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up and breakfasted in the hotel, then set out to acquaint myself more with the city and take some photographs. The architecture is beautiful in every neighbourhood I’ve walked through.

I’ve wandered around a fair bit, and wound up in a cafe on George Street, where I’m writing this. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Edinburgh today, and wish I had another week or more just to spend here. Adele and I will have to come back here someday.