Dingle to Fenit, via the Connor Pass

Day 115, Sunday 23 April
With just one more day of the ups & downs, and ins & outs of the long and rugged coastline peninsulas of the southwest of Ireland, I’m already beginning to feel nostalgic and reluctant to move on. This being a coastal cycle ride, I haven’t really been able to fully appreciate the inland challenges of the Caha Mountains of Beara, or MacGillycudddy’s Reeks inside the Ring of Kerry.
But, having already been around the western end of the Dingle peninsula and back to Dingle town, an inland treat lay in store for me today. Up and over the Connor Pass, on the high road to Tralee.

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Some very helpful road signs clarified the challenge ahead. With no luggage, Chris Froome’s legs and being just 32 years of age, I would be over this pass in under 30 minutes. In my dreams. Re-load the bags, halve the leg length, re-double the years…
I still enjoyed the long, slow grind to the top. The views, even on an overcast day, were well worth the effort. As for the dash back down to sea level, as a responsible parent and grandparent, I refuse to reveal my average or maximum downhill speed. When the force of gravity is on my side, I’ll never grow up.
This morning’s coffee stop was (quite accidentally) well chosen. I had the pleasure of meeting Michael O’Neil, landlord of the old Railway Tavern at Camp, on the Tralee road. He is a well known local character, an official Man o’ the West. But not as famous as his now demised dog Bobby, the À list celebrity singing Jack Russell. His live performances included a perfectly timed “woof woof” in a performance of “How much is that doggy in the window” and very tuneful backing vocals to Elvis Presley’s “Ain’t nothin but a hound dog”

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Michael is now a little older than when these postcards were first on sale but his now silver beard is still a very distinguished full set. The three famous postcard beards are: the late Pecker Dunne, travelling minstrel; Michael O’Neill himself; and local hero Denny who, in pre mobile phone society was the self appointed village phone attendant, on costant standby to answer incoming calls and pass on mesages to local no-phoners. To this day, he still sits outside the now unused phone box, waiting… Also in today’s photo is Bobby’s successor, a less vocal but very alert and sociable Jack Russell, plus two leather clad motorcycle tourers, Dubliner Gerry and Irish-Ozzie Tom Dooley. You couldn’t make it up. Thank you all for such a memorable coffee break and your generous RNLI contributions.
I did eventually reach today’s destination. Fenit All-weather (and Inshore) Lifeboat Station. With over 100 years of recorded Lifeboat history (minus a mid 20th century temporary lapse of service), this Station now has a Trent Class ALB and Aqua-docked D Class ILB, based in the unusual end-of-pier harbour. This allows them to respond to calls for help way out in the deep Atlantic Ocean and around the shallow waters of Tralee Bay. Many thanks to full-time Station Mechanic and active crew member Kevin and Fundraising Chairman, retired teacher, local sailor and great storyteller Mike O’Connor.

Kells Beach to Dingle via Dunmore Head

Day 114, Sat 22 April 

Sad farewells to Kells. I loved the Beach Pod. The right shape to put on wheels and steal away behind a cart-horse or two. But not with a thoroughbred race-bike like Fondo.  First stop Killorglin, a lovely little town where I couldn’t resist a photo of King Puck himself, central character of hundreds of years of tradition, standing proudly on his stone plinth. Then another meeting with Mick from Kells, working in the same town today, who insisted I joined him for his lunch break as I was passing through, then insisted I had one of his sandwiches. What a great new friend I have. I tried to refuse but I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve never had a roast duck, avocado and beetroot pickle sandwich before. Delicious. Typical lunch fodder for a hard working Irish landscape gardener.

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Less than an hour up the road the fuel tank was empty again. Next cafe, must stop. O’Brien’s of Castlemain, a general store which really did seem to sell everything, including hot snacks of any description, made to order. Many thanks to the lovely Sinead at the deli counter for quickly producing the less adventurous sounding, but still very nourishing, classic bacon & egg sandwich, along with a kind donation to the cause.

Did the Romans ever reach here? The road from Castlemain suggests so. After the typical rolling, winding roads of the Ring of Kerry along the east-bound south side of Dingle Bay, the first 12 miles heading back west on the north side of the bay were as straight as an arrow. Not really monotonous, but my mind did wander, along those straight but bumpy miles, about the confusing use of units of distance. Most signs now show kilometres, but the occasional old cast iron signpost still displays miles. Curiously, the huge sand spit beach now on my left, perfect for horse racing, stretching more than half way out into the bay, is called Inch. 20170422_140505After a winding inland climb and downhill dash, I found myself in Dingle Town ahead of schedule. A quick decision needed. Is there enough fuel in the tank to extend today’s fifty-two miler by another 20? If so, I could do the Slea Head Ride around to the most westerly point. Check in to local B&B, bags unloaded. Sun still shining. Away …

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A significant five minutes of fame for Fondo. At Dunmore Head, looking west, the most westerly bicycle in Ireland! And probably Northern Europe.

A longer day on the road than planned. But that’s good. Fewer miles tomorrow.

Valentia to Kells Beach

Day 113, Friday 21 April 

What’s the best way to spend a scheduled catch-up/rest day when you’re on schedule and the sun is still shining? Easy. Cycle the short distance from Valentia Island to Kells Beach, where Eileen and Mick have kindly offered the use of one of their Beach Pods. Come on, all you glampers. Check out http://www.kellsbeachcamping.com

This place is perfect. Next to a beautiful beach with views across the water from the Ring of Kerry to the Dingle peninsula in a solid, stormproof, insulated ‘tent’ with real beds and 13 amp sockets, an immaculate kitchen/dining/shower/wc building about 25 paces away, run by the salt-of-the-Kerry-earth hosts, Eileen and Mick (who explained his Valentia/Kells-Lowestoft link via the band Darkness). Thank you both, for your kind hospitality and RNLI support, great company, plus sharing your very tasty Thai takeaway from just up the road, courtesy of Billy at Kells Bay House, another good RNLI supporter.

Sneem to Valentia

Day 112, Thurs 20 May

A shorter cycle today, just the 40 miles around the western end of the Ring of Kerry. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the awesome beauty of the South West of Ireland.

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Valentina Island has one of the earliest Severn Class All-weather Lifeboats. Being moored on the Atlantic Ocean 24/7 means that the 22 year old is beginning to mature a little, with fading orange paint on her superstructure. Nevertheless, on closer inspection she still looks the business, clearly very well maintained by full time mechanic Leo. Today, for maintenance reasons the boat is secured alongside the more accessible Knight’s Town harbour floating pontoon, making her easier to photograph on this glorious, calm spring evening.

Many thanks to Richard (Cox’n), Leo (Mechanic), and Liam (LPO and Paramedic) for the kind welcome, tea & biscuits and stabling for Fondo overnight. The immaculate boathouse is as clean as my spotless hotel room at the Royal Valentia, who have kindly put me up for a greatly reduced fee in support of my RNLI fundraising efforts. Which, incidentally, reminds me – if any one you know is looking for a most worthy cause to support, please pass on this link:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=stevenmcallister1

Mizen Head to Castletownbere

Day 110, Tues 18 April

From the end of the long Mizen peninsula, back eastwards along the northern edge, with views of the other side of Mount Gabriel, around Dunmanus and Bantry Bays, via Bantry Town and Glengarriff, then west again along the Ring of Beara to Castletownbere.  The geography is becoming more like the north west of Scotland. Dramatic views ahead and to the right, with the dark and rugged Slieve Miskish mountain tops slowly disappearing into thickening cloud. My climbing statistics are increasing impressively, along with a slight drop in average speed! The reward of each climb seems to improve in proportion to the height gained and effort needed to crest each brow. Thankfully, the cloud-base is still too high to obscure the stunning views back across Bantry Bay towards Sheep’s Head.

Castletownbere Lifeboat Station is relatively new to the RNLI, established in the late 1990s with on old but well loved Arun Class Lifeboat. This was then replaced in 2004 by a brand new Severn Class, the Annette Hutton and a fine new Shore Facility was built in 2014.

Many thanks to Brian (Cox’n), Marney (Mech) and Michael (RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager for Cork) for a great welcome.

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Thanks again Brian and all at the Castletownbere Lifeboat Station for the extremely kind and generous insistence in arranging my accommodation at a fine local hotel.  Thanks also to Michael, Brian, Marney, Tony, Paul, Felix, Martin and Dave for the invitation to sit in on the ALM’s evening meeting. More later, on this unique opportunity to understand the many elements of running a modern Lifeboat Station.

But for now, I’ll end with one of the local tales from Brian & Marney’s repertoire:

An American tourist sitting in a Castletownbere bar, sipping his first pint of Guinness, watches a couple of local fishermen approach the bar after a long day at sea. They pick up their beers and knock them back in just a few seconds. Down in one. “Gee!” says the American. After a brief chat about the beer and their thirst, the visitor lays down a challenge. “If you guys can drink 10 of those in 30 minutes, I’ll pay for the beers and give you €100 each.”    The two local lads have a quiet consultation and reply “Ok. We just have to nip out for half an hour first”

Half an hour passes, they return in good spirit, ready for the challenge. The beers are lined up. Ten pints each, knocked back well within the time. The American, in awe, pays up. “Gee fellas, I’m impressed. But tell me, where did you go for the half hour before you returned?”

“Well,” one of them replied “we just went to the pub away down the road to be sure we could do it.”

Baltimore to Mizen Head

Day 109, Mon 17 April

No Lifeboats to visit today. Just a 50 mile scenic detour via a significant land mark. Mizen Head, the most southerly point of the Irish mainland. The often used description as the most south-westerly point is a curious one. It is not the most westerly.  Land’s End in Cornwall and John O’Groats in Scotland are on none of the south, west, north or east Cardinal points of GB, but at least the Mizen IS a true Irish Cardinal. My next one will be the most westerly at Dunmore Head. Not quite as well known but an equally important one to tick off a few days up the road.

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Meanwhile, back to Lifeboat Station visits tomorrow. The planned routes for the first few days along the southern Irish Coast was based on how many I could manage to visit each day.  As found in parts of Scotland last year, as I begin to turn north, the distances between RNLI Stations has now increased to the point where I have to count how many days between each Lifeboat Station.

Courtmacsherry to Baltimore, via Union Hall

Day 108, Sunday 16 April 

So much to say about the great number of lovely people I’ve met today at Courtmac, Union Hall and Baltimore; the stunning scenery and killer coastal climbs; incidents en route (some scary, some very funny) … but right now, my head is as tired as my legs, so for now I’ll just let some pictures do the talking ….

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Today’s credits go to:

Brendan and Richard at Travara Lodge in Courtmacsherry for their excellent bed & breakfast and very generous support of the RNLI. Top quality breakfast. Highly recommended. I only wish I’d had time to stay for the day to sample those delicious cakes above.

Garry/Elvis, Courtmacsherry Harbour Lifeboat crew, for taking time out to meet me and sign my chart. A flat calm, tranquil setting this Easter Sunday morning, for the photos taken by Elvis (and me). Not like the typical conditions expected off the wild Irish south-west Atlantic coast when this All-weather Lifeboat is called to service.

Pamela at Union Hall Lifeboat Station, for arranging such a big welcoming committee and preparing an excellent lunch hamper! Thanks also to Peter (DLA), Michael (Helm), Anthony & Johnny (crew), Mick & Carmel (Fundraisers’ and very kind heavy bag carriers) for making my visit to your quite new ILB Station so enjoyable. An extra thank you to Mick & Carmel for lightening my load and easing the climbs on the last leg of the day to Baltimore.

Tom the Baltimore LOM, who also runs the very busy and popular Bushe’s Bar, for providing a room for the night on one of the busiest days of the year and introducing me to several crew members. This included Kieran Cotter, one of the most distinguished, decorated and respected Coxswains still serving, who gave me the most interesting, informative and thorough guided tour of his Lifeboat Station. Modest Kieran did not tell me himself, but he has been involved in several rescues in the Fastnet Rock area, including the famous Fastnet Yacht Race drama in 1991. Read the brief history of this Lifeboat Station  here!  Later, after a major carbohydrate refuelling session, I was introduced to other crew members, past and present, back at Bushe’s. This included the senior Mr Richard Bushe, former long-term Cox’n and father of Tom the LOM, Cathal (Station mechanic), Thorsten(ex-crew) and Pat Collins, son of the 1960s-’80s Cox’n, Christy Collins. I’m still not sure how much a pint of Guinness costs in this country, thanks to the aforementioned characters, who forbade me from opening my wallet. How humbling is that?

Ballycotton to Courtmacsherry, via Crosshaven and Kinsale

Day 107, Sat 15 April 

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Looking out over the harbour towards Ballycotton Island Lighthouse at high tide this morning before departure, the glassy sheen of the sea and the deep green of the island backdrop reminded me of last night’s words of wisdom from young Saoirse. When I asked her what she could tell me about Cork, her home  county. “Well,” she said, “Ireland is like a beautiful bottle floating in the sea. But without Cork, it would soon sink.”

From here, towards Cork City, Cobh Island ferry, then the first port of call: Crosshaven Lifeboat Station. The crew had just finished a training exercise on their B-Class Atlantic lifeboat. Thanks Patsy (LOM), JP(DLA), Ian (Helm), James, Warrren, & Chartai (crew) and Philomena (SHELL).

Across the road to The Oar, a great pub run by the Lifeboat DLA, JP English. Thanks JP, for the home made soup & bread lunch, just what I needed to help me up the climb out of Crosshaven. Good luck and best wishes to all the crew here for a safe season ahead in this busy leisure boating harbour.

Next stop, Kinsale. A relatively young Lifeboat Station by RNLI standards, in the scenic and rich historic setting of Kinsale’s natural harbour. Thanks so much to two long serving, senior Lifeboat men, Robert Acton and Kevin Gould (both DLAs), for turning out on a Saturday afternoon, plying me with gallons of tea, several thick chunks of coffee & walnut cake and a good hour of fascinating and sometimes hilarious debate.

One more leg on this long day to make it a total of 65 miles/ 108Km to Courtmacsherry. After another hour and a half of heavy going and a fast, winding descent, the beautiful Courtmacsherry Harbour was reached. The bright orange lifeboat was tantalisingly close, just a few hundred metres across another long, narrow natural harbour. 20170415_183133But there were a few more miles still to pedal… up, across and back down to Travara Lodge, my bed for the night. But first, refuelling time in the busy Lifeboat Inn, just two doors down. After so much good meat, fish and potatoes over recent days, I thought a more balanced diet is needed this evening. So I went for a salad starter. Warm Clonakilty black pudding and bacon salad, washed down with a pint of something cold and black, followed by code & prawn buttered crumble with chips and more salad on the side. Enough to replace some of the 3,800Kcals that Garmin tells me I burned off today.

And so to sleep.

Helvick Head to Ballycotton via Youghal

Day 106, Friday 14 April 

Having already been down to the remote Helvick Head and back last night, this morning’s departure was from Dungarvan, where I had spent the night in the Park Hotel. Many thanks to the management and staff for their kind support of the RNLI. A great place to stay, with great food and almost every conceivable leisure facility. Alas, no time to indulge.

Today’s first rendesvous was with a few keen cyclists from Youghal Lifeboat Station. John (LTO) had already insisted on arranging for all my baggage to be picked up, so that unladen Fondo and I could breeze through Dungarvan and up the long climb out…   8 miles later, we were still climbing, into a gentle but cold headwind! Thanks be to Laura, on this Good Friday, that I was travelling light today. John(crew training co-ord), ‘Tuck’ (Helm), Liam (ILB crew) and young Jason (future crew) met me, as planned, about half way to Youghal, turned back into wind and set a cracking pace, like a mini peloton, all the way down & around the coast to Youghal.

20170414_113624An unexpected and impressive reception had been arranged for our arrival at their ILB Station, where lunch had been prepared. And that’s not where the Youghal hospitality and support ended. A very generous contribution to the fund plus continued company on the road all the way to Ballycotton ALB Station. If I had cycled solo, as normal, fully laden, into wind, I might have arrived just about on schedule. But with the Youghal effect, we were there about an hour ahead of time.

Many, many thanks this time, to Derry (LOM), Mark(DLA), Brendan (DLA), Seamus (mech) and Laura (catering & transport) plus the aforementioned intrepid cyclists. On arrival, it was immediately clear that the crews of today’s two flanking stations get on very well, sometimes meeting out at sea on a joint exercise or combined call to service.20170415_092709

Ballycotton Lifeboat Station overlooks the harbour, with a good range of small fishing boats and the tall Trent Class all-weather Lifeboat proudly taking centre stage on it’s mooring at the harbour entrance. More crew to meet here, including Eolan (Cox’n), Peter (Mech), Sìla, Clare, Stephen & Barry (crew). The early arrival allowed more time for shared refreshments and Lifeboat banter. Where does the time go? Many thanks Eolan, Nessa and Saoirse for the warm welcome and invitation to join you at your family table for a very Good Friday fish supper.