Getting Away from it All

March 25, 2019

Apologies for the lack of posting in recent days – with my usual excellent timing, I managed to organise my relaxing birthday week away in Northern Ireland to coincide with an extremely unrelaxing editing job (hello 120-page international tax policy document) and POP planning suddenly stepping up a gear. So in the interests of full disclosure, for every relaxing barefoot* stroll on the beach, there has been an equal and opposite period spent chained to the laptop in a position that would make my physio wince.

beach footprints

We also learned that, at least in the UK, if you’re looking for a nice seafood lunch, a proper working fishing harbour is probably the last place you should look, but the cafe on the harbour front will do you a very good value fry up. I suppose if you work with fish all day, the last thing you want to do is eat the stuff. Presumably it all goes straight back out to Europe to be eaten by people who don’t consider seafood to be some sort of an aberration.

kilkeel harbour

Or it did, anyway. For the other thing we seem to have been doing – like approximately 90% of my social media timeline – is watching the numbers tick up on the Revoke Article 50 petition (you have signed it, right?), while the government, opposition, and apparently the entire political system falls apart around us. Not that you’d know about it around here, despite the fact that we’re in the region that will likely feel it the most. Perhaps it’s because it’s the sort of place where you go to get away from that sort of thing (we came here on holiday right through the 80s and 90s and the Troubles barely seemed to touch it either) but nobody’s said a word about it and everything is apparently just carrying on as normal. As long as there’s ice cream to be had, and mountains to climb and the harbour wall to be inspected, and black guillemots sitting in pairs on the sea wall, we might just find a way through this madness and come out the other side.

That in itself has got to have made this week’s visit worth our while.

*OK, I wasn’t the one who was brave enough to go barefoot. The weather’s been nice, but it is still March

Birthday Treat

March 20, 2019

We’re in Northern Ireland for my impending birthday and today, with the weather looking nicer than expected, we decided to spend the last day of my 40s climbing Slieve Donard (I had vaguely planned to do it actually on my birthday, but you take your windows in the weather where you can find them in March).


As we climbed up out of the town, it was sunny enough for us to almost regret dressing for hillwalking in March, with the sun turning Dundrum Bay an almost tropical shade of green.

sunshine on Dundrum Bay

As we turned the corner and looked up, however, it was clear that the blue skies were not going to last and that the clouds were gathering over our destination.

clouds gathering

Normally I’d never attempt any sort of climbing when the clouds were coming down, but the advantage of Donard is that you really cannot get lost even in the fog as there’s a well made path pretty much right to the summit (there was even a band of hardy volunteers out maintaining it today), as well as a steady stream of other people out tackling the highest climb in Ireland.*

climbing into the cloud

So on we went, re-donning the layers we’d shed on the lower slopes, and made it to the top in two hours to precisely no views but a sense of achievement all the same. A nice young Frenchman offered to take our photo at the top and managed to capture two frames of me with my hands over my eyes trying to defog my glasses, and then a further three frames of me looking down and trying to clear them properly, so I’ll spare you our triumphant summit photo. Instead, we were rewarded with the sight of the sun still shining down on Newcastle as we emerged out of the cloud on the way down.

sunshine on Newcastle

We’ve probably both now reached an age where coming down a mountain is at least as tough (and potentially injurious) as going up it, but we made it down with no more than the expected quota of grumbling hips, knees and backs.

And at least tomorrow, even though I will be 50 I know I won’t be feeling my age – because if this evening is anything to go by, I’ll be feeling at least 80 instead.

*It’s not the highest mountain on the island of Ireland, but it makes up for it by starting at sea level.

Turning Left in October

October 22, 2017

So you’d think that cycling somewhere new would be pretty easy this month, seeing as we actually are somewhere different and we remembered to bring our bikes. There’s just one problem with cycling around here though, if you want to go a bit further afield – the map* looks like this:

OSNI map of the Mournes

Note: not a lot of roads, but a large number of contour lines

There are only really 4 roads out of Newcastle, and none of them are a lot of fun to cycle on, and we’ve already cycled to the two nearest places that aren’t too horrible to ride to. Anyway, with a bit of discussion and looking at various maps, paper and digital, we settled on Castlewellan, via some back roads which turned out pretty pleasant for cycling.

Back road to Castlewellan

Even though we were cycling away from the worst of the contours, Newcastle is on the coast and Castlewellan is not, and I hadn’t really clocked just how uphill the whole outward leg was going to be, nor that it was straight into a fairly ferocious headwind, so I was glad to have a little encouragement just before we topped out the climb.

big ring time

(There were slightly less encouraging words on offer for the way down. We did wonder if these get changed seasonally …).

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved

I suddenly realised, looking at the chapter and verse for this, why we talk about ‘jeremiads’.

Still, it was worth it when we arrived – not just a lovely walk around the lake at Castlewellan Park, but the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing you’ve saved £5 by not arriving by car.

beech trees in Castlewellan forest park

We then invested the savings in our ongoing project to sample the cake offer in every cafe in the area (chocolate fudge cake with ice cream plus two bottomless coffees in Bilbo’s Bistro, if you’re interested), and rolled home, very glad it was downhill all the way …

downhill home
* If you were following along in July, you’ll know that this is an OSNI map, not an Ordnance Survey one.

Holiday Snaps

October 28, 2015

An email from a friend mentioning the blue skies of Ulster made me realise that I’d possibly left people with a slightly misleading picture of our week’s holiday – the weather gods did track us down eventually.

Max Depth 2M

Max Depth 2M – it was a bit deeper by the time the sea had finished with it

When we were growing up, Newcastle was were we went on holiday in the UK (we mostly lived in sunnier climes), and October half term was when we went, so as far as I’m concerned you’re not properly at the seaside unless the sea is crashing over the walls onto the front

Tollymore forest and river

And Tollymore Forest is the first forest I can properly remember; everything else is but a pale imitation. Sadly, their excellent system of guided walks following a multiplicity of coloured arrows has been somewhat scaled back to just three. Oh how the mighty have fallen

Tree in Tollymore forest

And a mystery. How is it that Newcastle manages to be a seaside town where the gulls behave like seabirds rather than a gang of feathered thugs waiting to mug you for your last chip? Bigtown, take note.


Seagulls inexplicably fighting over something that is actually in the sea. Mountains of Mourne disappearing in the background

And now we’re home again and happy to be reunited with the Rayburn and our respective sofas. As holidays went, it wasn’t everyone’s idea of a seaside break, but it’s always nice to be be able to return to a slice of one’s childhood, however briefly.

Tollymore forest

Standing Sentinel

October 24, 2015


distant Newcastle

Walking along the beach from Newcastle today, I was struck by the way the wooden stakes (I think put in to stop the Germans from landing gliders on the beach) had weathered over the years.

weathered stakes on the beach

I don’t know why the ones closer to the sea might have lasted better than the ones higher up the beach; perhaps the sand and wind abrade wood faster than the waves (or perhaps they just treated the ones that were going to be in the sea, as the other half suggested)

weathered stakes

Either way, they look less like coastal defences now and more like something an artist might have made.

weathered stakes

Mixed medium, wind and sand and time on wood.

weathered stake with hole


Perfect Day. Well, Almost…

April 20, 2013

The sun came out properly today, adjusted for being in Ireland. I had stuff to do in the morning but just before lunch I was done and we were freed to get the bikes out for a potter down to the shops for lunch and onward for an adventure. As I was waiting for the other half outside the local Laldi or Aldl – I can never remember which one it is – a family of five showed up on bikes: Mum, Dad with trailerbike and sleeping toddler, two boys on mountain bikes. The mother & I got chatting about the need for more bike lanes (I honestly don’t steer these conversations at all, she started it) as we waited for our prospective partners and watched the cars steadily gridlock themselves in their hunt for the elusive Last Parking Space in Newcastle. They then cheerfully gave us directions to a place where we could watch seals, backed up by annotations from the wee boys (‘turn left at the derelict house’ ‘the stinky house that’s all broken down’ ‘go down to your left and there’s a really nice track’ ‘it’s not nice at all it’s really bumpy’) and off we set with the wind for once on our backs.

We found the spot and picnicked high in the sand dunes watching the seals lie on the beach across the inlet like so many sleeping-bagged revellers after a hard night partying. Occasionally one would lollop in and out of the sea and then collapse on the sand further up, or lie on its back with its flippers in the air with every appearance of satisfaction. The mountains were half veiled with cloud and the beach was misted with vapour rising off the wet sand and there was barely a soul about, probably because the red flag* was flying and the beach was technically a free-fire zone. We headed back into the wind having decided that the extremely wide and deserted pavement beside the 60mph road was really a cycle path, they just hadn’t got around to signing it as such. And then we got onto the actual cycle track which is pretty good – wide, with plenty of space for both bikes and pedestrians. Although you are supposed to give way at every side street, in practice the cars give way to you (they also carefully make sure when they park on the pavement they take up the whole of the pedestrian side and keep the bike part clear, which is a little odd) – with one driver who was waiting for a gap in the traffic even reversing so I could get past him easily. It was hard not to take a certain pleasure in whizzing past the queue of traffic waiting to get into town, and in nipping in and out of the gridlocked cars still looking for that elusive parking spot – indeed some of them might actually have been stuck circling the place since the morning.

And then, as it was a sunny day in a seaside town, there was nothing for it but we needed to have an ice cream. And this is where the ‘almost’ part comes in – I was awkwardly manhandling my Brompton down a couple of steps to get to a bench on the promenade when *plop* *aargh* … my double cone (nutella-flavour on one side, chocolate on the other) had broken and was now nothing more than an empty stump and the ice cream was on the floor.

It’s a sign that I’m 44, not 4, that I managed not to have a meltdown then and there. But it was hard won. And as KarlOnSea put it on twitter:

It’s almost as though he was there…

*Army range, not communists

If I was a Proper Grown Up Bike Blogger…

September 28, 2012

I’d have a post full of interesting* cycling infrastructure to show you from our recent trip to Northern Ireland (actually on the drive down there were some interesting bike lanes on the Ormeau Road that were on the pavement most of the time and then hopped back onto the road across the junctions so they had right of way. I’ve not seen anything like that in the UK – or anywhere, come to think of it – I wonder what Belfast Bike Lanes or NI Greenways have to say about those) (Update – thanks to the excellent NI Greenways for finding the Google Streetview link to the ones I mean).

I have actually written about cycling in Newcastle (Co Down, that is, not the other Newcastle) – but for the first time we had two bikes at our disposal, so we cycled a lot more, including places I had only ever been to by car before. It’s revealing experiencing somewhere you thought you knew by bike for the first time, if only because you discover where all the hills are. We used to holiday in Newcastle all the time when I was growing up (all through the troubles) and I remember the ‘Ulster salute’: one finger lifted off the steering wheel to greet an oncoming driver. That reflected a different age, when cars were rare. Now the place feels very car dominated, and there’s a new kind of Ulster greeting – the squeeeeeze by of a car that needs to overtake a bike when there’s no actual room to do so because there’s another car coming the other way. There’s a nice curve on a busy road between the cottage and the rest of town that, pretty much every time I cycled it, a car passed me despite being unable to see the oncoming traffic, whether I pulled out to ‘take the lane’ or not. The only car that didn’t had Dublin plates and left the other half slightly unnerved as it tailed him all the way along the seafront. Sometimes you get to the point where you’d rather they’d just hurry up and kill you and get it over with.

Despite all this, we saw quite a few bikes – more than I’ve ever noticed in the town before – of all shapes and sizes, about 95% of which (including all the posties) were on the pavement. Indeed, cycling back along a nice straight 60mph road with not even a strip of paint for a bike lane, that included us. I’m all for being a legal cyclist but I’m not that keen on being a dead one. And the only person we met on the pavement was another cyclist going the other way and a chap on a recumbent handcycle. Nobody seemed to mind, one way or the other.

Anyway, a you’ll be pleased to learn that a new battery has restored my phone into something resembling life and so, in lieu of all those interesting* pictures of bike infrastructure, here are some holiday snaps instead.

Mountains of Mourne

‘Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’ (it’s compulsory to quote that line in any article about Newcastle btw)

sunny cloudsplantation pines
*insert your own jokes here

And Breathe…

September 20, 2012

It’s been a hectic few days weeks – make that months. Even my holidays have been a bit hectic, to be honest. I have had too many places to be, things to do, emails to read, and documents to write. Not an unusual problem, I admit, although if any of you are thinking about quitting your jobs and moving to the country in order to have time to smell the roses and watch the grass grow, I would caution you to only get involved in, say, two cycling campaigns at once if you want to have time to actually cut the grass and prune the roses.

As it is my poor old garden will have to remain neglected a bit longer as we have finally dug ourselves out from under a pile of work to get away for a week in Northern Ireland (the South West of Scotland is probably the only place in the world whose inhabitants go to Ireland to enjoy the drier weather). I still have a few things to do, but the busyness appears to be returning to background levels at last. Hopefully it means a chance to unwind, relax, and sit on the sea front watching the rain head its way across the Irish sea to fall on Dumfries and Galloway. Even better, we have brought the Brompton and the other half’s bike, so there will be cycling done. And, no doubt, the odd tale or two to tell for the blog…

So it’s Never…

June 5, 2009

… a good sign when you’re trying to navigate down some tiny road in Northern Ireland, and you’re not 100% sure where you are but you’re pretty sure you’re heading north and that you’ll know it if you’ve gone too far, and then your phone beeps and you find you’ve got a text message that says

Welcome to the Republic of Ireland

No, that’s never a good sign at all.

And I’d say, well at least we got lots of mapping done, but frankly, you’re hardly going to trust any maps I draw now are you?

Lost in Translation

June 2, 2009

‘Can I have a filter coffee?’

‘That stuff’s not fresh. You can have some of the other coffee.’

‘What kind of coffee is that?’

‘It’s bean coffee.’

‘Oh, OK, I’ll have some of that then, thanks.’

At least, I thought he had said ‘bean coffee’, which sounded rather nice, until I tasted it. Then I realised what he must have said was ‘It’s been coffee’ – way back in the distant past, before it had turned into tar.

There are some places where Starbucks and its kin come in and trample over a whole unique local coffee-drinking culture with their homogenised American product. And there are places where that would be a welcome relief…