Overture and first movement
Fishguard to Wexford
The choice was difficult from the outset. Full waterproofs, or jeans and lightweight oversuit? Ireland’s reputation for rain had preceded the holiday planning and so, on the day, we simply opted for both. Jeans squeezed in the tail pack and waterproofs on the riders. For us, the Oxford Section Ireland Trip was an adventure of an entirely unprecedented scale. 10 days of riding, 5 hotels, close to 2,000 miles, and 2 up. When fully loaded, at trickling pace, our R1200RS was a bit of a ‘handful’ but once underway, with the suspension suitably dialled-in, the bike was still, as ever, a joy to ride.
Although some of the Section’s members were meeting near Chippenham, we would have needed such an early start as to render our participation impractical. Instead, we chose a leisurely first day ride to Fishguard on the Sunday. Riding a cross-country route, we passed through Farnham, Basingstoke, and through to Newbury, opting for the A4 instead of a thrash along the motorway. The weather was favourable excepting a couple of small showers and a nagging, blustery wind, that seemed to follow us for most of the holiday.
Our Welsh accommodation, close to the ferry terminal, was comfortable and gave us the opportunity to relax with an enjoyable evening meal and a cheeky G&T at the ‘local’ before the adventure started for real.
Monday 12 June
The ferry sailing was booked for around 13.00 leaving us a morning to explore Fishguard with its Victorian industrial heritage and architecture, and views across the picturesque bay. This was an ideal way to ‘chill’ before Mrs. M faced her nemesis, the Irish Sea with its millpond-like swell.
Wending our way down to check-in, we found ourselves close some earlier arrivals and, as with all BMW Club events, we soon got to know each other. George and Ruth, and Tim, on their respective RTs, and Ray on his GS. Following a comparison of bike notes, and the arrival of further members of the Group, we were soon ready for embarkation. This was all new for me with my prior experience only being the melee of loading for the TT. Manx veterans will be familiar the cattle herding process, the vast numbers of bikes, and the loading ramp with its steep, challenging hairpin ramp. I’ve seen too many riders come to grief simply trying to start their TT holidays. In contrast, the ramp onto the Stena Europa was a straight run with a right-hand turn onto an open, if rather greasy, car deck.
We were treated like customers instead of an irritation to the deck-hands, with the bikes strapped down with some care. Although windy, the gentle, undulating crossing was made bearable with the usual banter being exchanged, and time for us to get to know the rest of the party.
Disembarking in Rosslare, we headed, en-masse, to our first hotel. First impressions of Ireland as we rode away from the port’s hinterland was both the contrasts and similarities with the UK. The architecture and ‘feel’ was UK and yet, European influences in such things as the road layout and signage were quite marked. The roads were wide and well maintained, with many drivers willingly pulling aside into the yellow marked, peripheral lanes, allowing us to pass.
After negotiating the evening peak traffic, the ‘Mustard Monolith’ that is the Talbot Hotel hove into view. Paul Fitzgerald of WildIrish Motorcycle Tours, agent for tour, had arranged reserved parking in an otherwise limited space, allowing us to check in with the minimum of fuss. The bar proved a strong attraction before enjoying one of the more formal dinners for the now 18 members of the party for the trip.
Wexford to Ballyvourney
Tuesday 13 June
Acknowledging the impracticality of not only riding in such numbers, but the varying interests of each member, Tuesday saw us splitting up into various sub-groups, each with its own preferences. Mrs. M and I teamed up with Geoff, Rob, Clive, and Tim for this ride. Our agreed agenda was to make Waterford, with its famous cut-glass crystal factory, our first port of call.
Loosely following the GPX on the satnav, with Geoff taking the lead, the first part of the route took us along the major ‘N’ roads, through the gently rolling, green, countryside, but somehow missing the turning to our destination. This minor error left us to the mercy of a section of toll road, over an impressive, modern suspension bridge, directly to the toll booths, just to turn-off immediately after payment. Vaguely following the signs, we made our way past the contemporary industrial developments to the heart of the City with its associated congestion.
Stop-start, we turned onto the quayside road and, in a controlled wobble on our heavily laden bike, for some distance before the decision was made to make enquiries as to where the factory was. Our slow progress did allow us time to appreciate the varying architecture, some dating from Georgian times, and through to the heritage structures along the, now largely ornamental, quayside. Somehow, 5 of us had managed to ride right past the well signed building without seeing it. Nothing to do but turn around and fight our way back!
Finally parking in the Waterford Factory courtyard, the coffee shop was a welcome sight. Unfortunately, it was the unofficial parking that was our undoing, being asked to move-on just as we finished our refreshments. Let’s face though, we couldn’t practically have bought anything – nowhere to put a piece of lead crystal on the bike, and for another 8 days.
Picking up the GPX route out of town, we soon found ourselves in the stunning Irish countryside, heading for the Copper Coast. This is not only a beautiful area of coastline, but is recognised for its geological importance being a UNESCO Geopark. Following the undulating, curvy, coastal road, not only did we have a superb ride, but saw some spectacular views of inlets and deserted sandy beaches. The historical working of the minerals was further highlighted by abandoned mine buildings.
Our original plan had been to head toward the Cobh Heritage centre, last port of call for the ill-fated ships Titanic and Lusitania. This was however, our first education in Irish touring. On the map, without deviations, the route was ‘only’ 157 miles but these are winding, country lanes with many photo stop opportunities and, some time before Cobh was even on the horizon, a comfort break and lunch was called for.
The closer alternative was a break at the Jameson Distillery Visitor Centre, Midleton. The full Distillery tour, it turned out, was too long for our schedule and sampling would be even more inappropriate than buying Waterford Crystal. Lunch in the café however, was very welcome and gave our journey renewed impetus.
Following a car park conference, we headed for a pure tourist spot; Blarney Castle, home of the eponymous Stone. The scenery continued to impress as the afternoon’s ride progressed until we reached the Castle car park where we were able to dismount and get relief from numb bum. The Castle gardens were worth a visit in their own right, but the Castle itself, although swathed in builders’ film, was spectacular.
The queue to reach the Stone was disguised by a 600 year-old, spiral staircase, that fortunately, only took us about 20 minutes to negotiate. After a circuit of the Tower parapet, the kissing was a slightly unceremonious process. The guide helps to position you on a mat before being pushed, upside down, through a gap in the tower wall and promptly being pulled back with the ubiquitous photograph ticket being thrust into your hand to exchange, with payment of course, as a memento of you discomfort.
Meandering back through the gardens, Rob suggested it was ice cream time. This was the first time on the trip we saw his prowess at negotiation.
Rob: ‘Do we get volume discount?’
Young lady serving (YLS): ‘Oh, no.’
Rob: ‘Discount for pensioners?’
YLS (with giggle): ‘No, but I’ll give a slightly bigger one.’
We sat under a tree eating until Rob managed to drop the ice cream off the cone.
Rob: ‘5 second rule – it’ll be OK.’
Seconds later, he managed to crush his cone, nearly repeating the earlier drop.
Rob: ‘I’m going back to complain.’ (with a cheeky grin)
2 minutes later he returned, not with a new cone but, with a complete new ice cream.
Rob: ‘I’ll never eat all of this.’
Moral: Be careful what you wish for!
Tired from the events of the day, we finally headed off to the Mills Inn Hotel in Ballyvourney.
Ballyvourney to Spanish Point.
Wednesday 14 June
Following the procedure from the previous day, we split into our touring parties and headed off. Although breakfast seemed only a blink away, our first stop was the beautiful, natural harbour of Kinsale, in the mouth of the river Bandon. On advice from Wild Irish Tours, we parked in a corner of the local pay and display car park without paying (rebels? BMW Club? Surely not!) before setting off in search of refreshments.
Reinvigorated, we headed for the hills following the now sign-posted Wild Atlantic Way (WAW). The roads were a riders’ delight. Bends, climbs, drops, and a few straights, all against a backdrop of stunning views across the hills, which, at times, were an inappropriate distraction. As we progressed westwards, so the cloud cover increased until we reached another notable natural harbour at Bantry. The weather was becoming muggy demanding, and finding, another delightful watering hole for lunch.
The promise for the afternoon was the Healy Pass. There wasn’t much detail but the name should have been enough. Setting out from Bantry, we headed north along the N7, along a good wide road with plenty of sweeping curves to keep it interesting. After a series of tighter bends around Glengarriff, we turned onto the R572, a lower class of road. At this stage of the tour, I had no maps or information except what was on the sat nav. That said Healy Pass. It definitely wasn’t!
We had been moving-on at a good pace, overtaking some of the HGVs that had to take this route by necessity, before turning down a narrow country lane and there it was, set out before us. The Healy Pass, climbs 335 metres into the Caha Mountains. This is a road that was originally conceived as part of an initiative to improve the Country’s infrastructure and create paid employment during the 1845 Potato Famine. But, like so many Government initiatives, even to this day, failed to meet its original goals succeeding only through the drive of Cork politician, Timothy Healy. This was a challenging climb with multiple hairpins, adverse cambers, and not a lot of Armco. The view back down the valley from the peak was stunning, and was equalled by the view down ‘the other side’. Sadly, the descending cloud base encouraged us to move on before being fogged in.
Rob lead the ride down from the peak with many more wonderful views and still able to see the coast, to the north, in the distance. Passing the hamlet of Lauragh, Rob followed his satnav (not always a good idea) joining one of the network boreens, the single track, metalled roads, that go on for many kilometres, often without any passing places or turnings. This route was ‘entertaining’, riding 2 up, close to any hedges or brushwood, with grass in the middle, but still definitely enjoyable. After what seemed like 10k, we finally came back to civilisation, heading back to The Mills for a welcoming shower and refreshment.
Thursday 15 June
After a post-breakfast, campaign meeting, it was agreed that the famous Ring of Kerry circuit was good, as per the GPX route for the day but in reverse, allowing a visit to the picturesque Gap of Dunloe as the first stop.
Having got away quite early, the car park at Kate Kearny’s Cottage, the entrance to the Gap, was deserted. The local pony ‘wranglers’ were preparing their stock for a day’s trading, (fleecing?) offering tourists pony and trap rides up through the narrow valley in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountains. Rob stepped forwards with his Chief Negotiator hat on. The wrangler had an opening bid of E22, Rob haggled down to E20 but wanted E18 based on 5 passengers sharing but failed and withdrew. (We weren’t bothered about going, saving us E36 altogether.) There was a suggestion of riding up the road on the bikes but were ‘discouraged’ by the ‘wranglers’ who pointed to nicely weasel worded signs that the road was ‘predominantly’ for the use of the ponies and traps. Instead, we walked about ½ mile to the first peak in the road to see deeper into the beautiful, tree covered valley before returning for refreshments.
Returning to the bikes, the weather was beginning to deteriorate with a light shower. The roads remained dry for a while but the weather then closed-in, with the blustery winds blowing rain horizontally. This was a popular route and, in addition to the rain, we had coaches, caravans, and cyclists, all making sightseeing difficult. The clouds finally descended onto the mountains, generally making this a less pleasant part of the expedition. Descending through Cahersiveen, the rain eased and by the time we got to Portmagee for our lunch stop, the sun was starting to peep through the clouds. Portmagee is a small, widely dispersed, fishing community with its pretty, low level houses, set into the gentle, grassed slopes that descend into the Portmagee Channel. To me, this was a picture that almost seemed to be set in a different time and place.
After lunch, we continued along the coastal road, through to the Coomanaspic Pass,stopping for a photo opportunity from its peak. Looking to the North was Portmagee and, to the south, the shapes of the bird sanctuaries of Little Skellig and Great Skellig could be made out through the mist, the latter doubling as the home of one Mr Luke Sky Walker from the recent, Star Wars – The Force Awakens, film.
The Wild Atlantic Way followed the line of the coast, dramatically rising and falling, rounding small coves and bays, giving us a thoroughly enjoyable, if not tiring, ride. Following a brief tea break, we continued, following the WAW back to Kenmare, before picking up the R569 back to the Mills Inn for a very welcome evening of relaxation. The evening was augmented by a live quartet of accordion players entertaining us with traditional Irish music and song, complemented by some Irish dancers. The keener members of our party were charged E15 for entry to the venue, but those of us more leisurely with our repast, walked in a little later unaware of any admission charges. Result!
Friday 16 June
Bikes packed for moving on, we set off under low clouds and light drizzle. The scenery however, even under these conditions, was more than adequate compensation. Initially riding past hills and mountains, the landscape gradually gave way to the lower lying, coastal plain. Turning along the coast to Castlemaine Harbour, we followed the road around its periphery to the Dingle Peninsula and to Dingle itself.
Although the GPX route allowed for a circular route onwards, to the end of the Peninsula, the rigours of constant riding were taking their toll with the more reserved of us, opting instead, to remain in the town waiting for the return of the hardier riders looking to squeeze every last drop of the Irish roads.
Following advice in an article in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure, we had decided that as a cure for the increasing prevalence of numb bum, we would treat ourselves to a sheepskin seat cover. Dingle, with its shops (and time to look), would surely be able to offer something. We were not disappointed. We found the one. A beautiful colour, generously sized, but a little more expensive than we’d wanted. Even Rob couldn’t negotiate the price down. Hey ho! We are now the proud owners of our own piece of Irish ovine memorabilia, now affectionately known as Dingle. The difference has been significant, especially on longer runs.
Following lunch, and with the murky weather prevailing, we headed North, towards the Conor Pass. Climbing sharply out of Dingle, despite the wind, we soon found ourselves enveloped in a swirling mist and, the higher we climbed, the more dense the mist became. When we reached the summit, the road curved around to the right, with a sheer drop to our left, shrouded in mist, but at least secured by crash barriers, and a sheer rock face to the right. Visibility was down to about 30 feet as we began to descend. Suddenly, we were confronted by an array of car rear lights littered across the road, and worse, some of them were starting to reverse. On a fully laden bike, down an increasingly steep slope, this was not my idea of fun. I pulled over into a small recess in the rock wall to wait for any cars coming up but it was a complete impasse. Drivers incapable of driving their vehicles were effectively locked together in this surreal, swirling mist.
Rob decided to take the bull by the horns, shoehorning himself through the melee of cars, and out of sight. Eventually moving out from our refuge, the car in front of us began to creep forward preventing us from overtaking but not moving fast enough to allow me to either engage the clutch or get my feet up onto the pegs. I had no option but to control a heavy bike, trying to run away on a steep gradient, on the front brake. Tending to snatch at this speed, the ride was both uncomfortable and disconcerting. Eventually, the car scored 4 faults for a refusal at the next hurdle – an up-coming coach, allowing us to sneak through the space and continue our descent. This was probably one of the most frightening rides I have ever had, particularly given how slowly we were moving.
Re-grouping, we continued our run down, out of the clouds, into bright sunshine. The view across the peninsula from this altitude was both breath-taking and reassuring. We continued our run with only a couple of satnav related glitches, through to the Shannon Ferry.
On the crossing, we did catch occasional glimpses of the famous dolphins, but not long enough for any photographs, until we disembarked for the final run to Spanish Point and sanctuary.
Spanish Point to Ballina
Saturday 17 June
The early morning cloud at Spanish Point soon burnt off, leaving a beautiful sunny day for our ride up the coast towards Galway Bay.
First stop on the satnav was the 700 foot, sheer cliff face, that drops directly into the Atlantic Ocean at The Cliffs of Moher. A popular attraction, this natural phenomenon involves an entry fee and a consequent challenge to Rob’s negotiating skills. Declaring us to all be pensioners, Rob managed a reduction from E12 down to E5, and then a further 50 cents. It emerged that, although Mrs. M, who would never pass as a pensioner, had to close her crash helmet discreetly as we passed the pay booth. It later emerged that the E7 reduction was for BMW Club Membership and only the 50cents was for being pensioners. The views from the cliff top were spectacular.
Returning to the bikes, we followed the coast for a short ride to Doolin for coffee, before moving further North, where we found ourselves in the familiar territory from the home counties, a cycle race. The cyclists made riding very challenging on the narrow, undulating, roads when trying to see the magnificent views across to Galway. The precession continued for 6 or 7 miles, through Black Head to Ballyvaughan, with hundreds of participants, each paying little heed to other road users in their quest for the winners’ laurels.
Following the GPX route to the Alliwee Caves and a belated lunch break, we did the tourist bit, and took a guided tour round the caves, finally emerging into the bright sunlight of the afternoon, like mis-guided moles.
Having been a follower to this point, I volunteered to lead for the first time with an agreed destination of Father Ted’s House. Programming this into the satnav, set on curvy roads, we went ‘off-piste’ as far as the ‘official’ GPX file was concerned, through some beautiful country lanes, across The Burren National Park with its stunning limestone pavement landscape.
Being so far off the route, there were twitching sounds from some of the party, but Mr Garmin came good, delivering us to the site of pilgrimage (if you watched the series – to the rest of us it was an anti-climax).
The noises were now growing for a quick return to Spanish Point. Re-tuning Mr Garmin, we were soon underway, eventually re-joining our route from the morning. Bowling along, nicely, Rob overtook us and in what can only be described as a lapse in concentration, clipped a grass bank, catapulting him and his bike into the air, and down with a horrifying crash. He sustained a gashed nose and broken leg requiring the attention of paramedics and hospitalisation. (I only include this episode because it had an impact on the rest of the trip and that Rob is making good progress, anticipating a full recovery.) Rob’s attempt at aviation delayed dinner somewhat, not least because Geoff took on the role of administrator, arranging insurance claims, bike collection, and advising Marrion of Rob’s condition. It would be fair to say that it took some of the polish off the trip going forwards.
Sunday 18 June
Loaded up once again, we had another priority besides the GPX today. A visit to Limerick A&E to see our injured mate, Rob. Another warm day, and I have to admit, the shock of the earlier events had hit me, leaving me and some of our other riding buddies, more weary than perhaps we realised.
Having done 4 laps of the new, but poorly signed, Limerick A&E building, we eventually tracked the lad down. Rob was as perky as ever, recounting his chat with the female paramedic,
Rob: Have we got the blue flashing lights on?
Rob: Have we used the sirens?
Rob: Cor! I’ve waited 74 years for this.
Reassuring him that everything was in-hand, we left Rob in his upbeat mood, with time for lunch. For those of us who are fathers, this must rank as one of the more memorable Fathers’ Day lunches: Sandwiches and tea in the new A&E Reception of Limerick Hospital. As hospital reception areas go, this one was better than most but…
Returning to the bikes, we headed north towards Ballina, with an intended visit to Galway en-route. This was a disappointment, with heavy Sunday afternoon traffic, we got as far as PC World / Tesco before turning back to the road northwards.
Tim lead, eventually taking a diversion to Pontoon for a brief photo opportunity before hitting Ballina, about 5.30, absolutely exhausted from the day’s ride.
The hotel and its location gave us quite a lift, with a beautiful post-dinner walk across the River Moy in the evening sunshine, before turning in for a good night’s rest.
Ballina to Wexford and Home
Monday 19 June
Our riding had been quite intensive up this point and the general view was that today’s ride needed to be less demanding. I had identified Lough Melvin, a lesser known tract of water on the border between The Republic and Northern Ireland but slightly off the tourist trail. This was a totally idiosyncratic choice on my part but I was touched that our riding buddies wished to join us.
Setting off northwards at a leisurely pace, we followed the WAW route along the coastal road, once again, being treated to the stunning scenery. Eventually, following the signs, we took a spur to Aughris Head. This was a delightfully deserted beach, with nothing but a few caravans and a charming pub, and a disproportionately large car park indicating its popularity at other times. This was the traditional Irish pub that we’d all anticipated but not previously found.
Tea and tiffin later, we resumed our run along the coast, offering yet more scenic treats. Ballysadare Bay, Sligo Harbour, Strandhill Beach, and through to Mullaghmore Head, a continuing wealth of riches, before following the satnav for the final run across country to Kinlough, on the banks of Lough Melvin.
I’m not sure what I’d expected, but this wasn’t it. Although beautiful, this was right off the mainstream trail. It was so quiet that even the cafes closed for lunch – fortunately not all of them. We parked up and wandered along ‘Main Street’, past the pub that also offered undertaking services, until we found Giovani’s Café, cum photographers, cum museum, cum formal meeting facility, where the locals all met for lunch. The food was exceptional, home-made, and reasonably priced. Result!
Replete, we agreed that with the loops around the bays, this had become a longer ride-out than anticipated and a direct route back was in order. We returned to Ballina around 4 o’clock with time to wander around the town and relax before dinner.
Our group, the ‘Famous Five’, met for dinner in the reception of the Hotel. The view was eating out was the preference, with Tim suggesting The Lantern, Chinese restaurant, one that we had also seen. Geoff let a couple of the others know where we headed, before presenting ourselves as 5, possibly 7, diners.
Gradually, in dribs and drabs, the rest of the party joined us, swelling our numbers to a total of 15 and having a proper Chinese/Irish hooley. With the Hotel unable to offer Guinness on draft that evening, the hooley then moved to an adjacent pub (cum fishing tackle shop!) where further imbibing took place until all-fall-down, either through tiredness, drink, or both.
Tuesday 20 June
The previous day’s run was ‘only’ 120 miles, but with the final leg of the tour scheduled for Wednesday of 250 miles, and with very few motorways, we really did need to go for a shorter ride-out. Taking the GPX route, we made our first stop at Downpatrick Head with its dramatic sheer cliffs, and offshore stacks. As an author, your supply of superlatives becomes readily exhausted in this stunning countryside, and the vista at Downpatrick Head was another superb example.
Our second stop was a visit to Ceide Fields, a preserved, Neolithic, agricultural community site. Preserved under the peat bog for several millennia, this is one of the most extensive sites of this type in world and includes defined field systems, enclosures, and tombs, dating back about 5000 years. The coffee in the imaginatively designed, visitor centre wasn’t bad either.
Following the GPX route again, we traversed the fantastic moorlands around Creagan Beag. This is a virtually uninhabited area, with rolling hills and mountains, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction, with only a handful of sheep for company. We stopped for a photo opportunity in the sunshine, and all that could be heard was the occasional, inquisitive insect, buzzing past.
With another group consultation, in order to manage the mileage, we agreed a trip along the nearby Mullet Peninsula to Black Sod, before a return ride to Ballina via Bangor. Black Sod lighthouse, with its extreme westerly location, was used as the weather forecasting station to determine the final decision for launching the D-Day campaign.
Today, this area is a sublimely peaceful, headland and quayside, with a few fishing boats bobbing up and down in the natural harbour. It doesn’t take too much imagination however, to realise that it could be quite hostile in different weather conditions.
The run back to Ballina was yet another treat, arriving in time for a dinner in the restaurant, overlooking the River Moy.
Wednesday 20 June
The cross-country ride back to Wexford was always destined to be a challenge, but our detour to visit Rob, made our journey that little bit longer. The weather was changeable during the ride but, finding yet another excellent café with home-made cakes, kept us going.
Transferred to Croom Orthopaedic Hospital for surgery, Rob was now located a few miles outside Limerick, in a hospital that, with its adequate, free parking, tended gardens, and informal atmosphere, seemed to be locked into a 1960s time-warp. Post-surgery, Rob was still very upbeat and reassured us that things were heading in the right direction. The conversation soon turned to repatriation of both rider and bike with great optimism, although, only time will tell what conditions emerge.
Our final stop en-route was Tiperary, just because it’s a long way, before arriving back in Wexford for dinner and, finally, home on the Thursday morning ferry.
Looking back at the whole trip, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience throughout. As interlopers from The Southern Section, we were made extremely welcome by all of the party and were delighted to be able to participate in the routeing and leading of some of the rides.
The GPX files, created and supplied by Paul Fitzgerald of WildIrish Motorcycle Tours, were very comprehensive and a delight to follow. The overall length of the rides however, were often quite ambitious at times, leaving little time for exploring some of the fascinating places we just passed through. In total, we rode around 2,000 miles in the 12 days, largely without motorways to ease the distance. The scenery was amongst the best we have ever experienced.
The hotels were generally of a good standard although, there were a few concerns expressed about some of them, particularly for those who shared rooms (I’m not referring to Clive’s snoring, Rob).
Our thanks go out to Geoff Clough and Frank Butler for arranging the whole trip and to the Oxford Section for letting us join them.
Bob & Susan Melvin