Buncrana, Lough Swilly to Portrush

Day 135, Mon 15 May

It’s no good putting it off. The rain is not going to stop. On yer bike.

Well, it did stop. After just 20 miles, across the pre-Brexit invisible border, over the Foyle Bridge on the Coleraine road, the sun shone for over a minute. No more rain. Just as well. A mile later, all was not well with Fondo. A flat tyre. Rear, of course. Always is. I use the term “always” quite loosely. This was Fondo’s first puncture on this trip for well over 4,000 miles. And today, I think I know why.

With no border markings, it’s still easy, from a cyclists perspective, to know when you’re back in the UK. The cycle-friendly margins or designated paths/tracks don’t exactly disappear, but they become either useless or just dangerous. It’s as if bicycles must not, under any circumstances, be allowed a smooth tarmac surface to themselves. Only loose, broken, potholed, surfaces may be provided.  The dedicated lane must be interrupted at least once every hundred yards by 8″ sharp-edged drop kerbs or a raised grass verge. Manhole covers must be loose or missing. All stones, broken car mirrors, plastic trim, broken glass, nuts, bolts and other assorted debris must be brushed into the bicycle margin and left there. Perhaps this is a careful, safety-conscious ploy to prevent cyclists riding at dangerous speeds above 5mph. Well, today, it worked. After rumbling to a sad stop, Fondo was hastily unloaded, upturned, rear wheel released, tyre levered off, punctured tube extracted, offending item found (a needle-like shard of steel, like a headless pin) and discarded, new spare tube inserted (puncture repair is a kitchen or bathroom job at home, not on a busy main road-side), tyre re-seated, tube inflated to 95 psi, wheel refitted, Fondo righted, bags reloaded and back on the road.

Why, you may ask, was I cycling on a busy main road? Given a choice, I rarely do. Alas, there are occasions when the only coastal route is the main road between a large urban sprawl and the tide-line. The rest of the route was a lot more civilised, improving by the mile, via Coleraine and up to Portrush.

Today’s was one of the easiest-to-find types of Lifeboat Station. Into town, down to the harbour, there it is. A clearly flagged, blue & white Boathouse. Just in case you weren’t sure, centre stage, afloat in the harbour, another mighty Severn Class – the Portrush All-weather Lifeboat.


And now, tucked up in the cosy Lifeboat Station in the backgound are two major RNLI workhorses. A trusty D Class Inshore rescue boat and Fondo.

Please click or tap Here to read the abridged history of one of the most distinguished RNLI Lifeboat Stations, including proud references to a couple of McAllisters. There are a good few of the clan to be found in the broader Lifeboat community. From Alderney in the Channel Islands, more than a few in Ireland and more in Scotland.

Many thanks to Judy (LPO), Anthony (mech), Des (Cox’n) and all the crew for the very kind gesture in sorting out my bed for the night, including the morning pre-fuelling!

To be continued tomorrow, after the planned morning visit to Portrush Lifeboat Station  …

Buncrana, Lough Swilly to Malin Head

Day 134, Sunday 14 May

Just a short & sweet post today (unlike the recent mileage of the past 48 hours) as I have to confess to slight weariness.

A great start at the Lough Swilly Inshore Lifeboat Station, there in time for their Sunday morning exercise, launch & recovery practise for the ILB crew on the Atlantic 85. A very impressive display of skill, from a very cautious launch in windy, choppy conditions to some very confident handling of a beast of a machine.

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20170514_104139Many thanks to Eamon and Alan (Helms); Danny, Francis & Patrick (ILB crew) and Willy (shore crew/ tractor driver). Most of these ILB crews have regular exercises once or twice every week. Not the kind of emergency skills and equipment you can allow to get rusty. Less chance of that in the summer, when Lough Swilly is a much busier place.

The rest of my day was just the formality of collecting another important Landmark. Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland is not in Northern Ireland as such. We’re  still in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. Wet, windy, very hilly North East Donegal. Still stunning scenery, some images of which I managed to capture in sunny spells.

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Alas, at the crucial moment on approach to the Cardinal point, the heavens opened on me and my wet camera played dead. This very wet and windy moment, combined with the impending doom & gloom of having to turn south and head into the weather and back over some crazy climbs, was not my finest hour. I did manage to get some blurry images on my Garmin road-cam, but neither Fondo (sticky rear deraillieur in need of a good clean, lube & tweak) nor I (cold, wet, stiff legs in need of a hot bath, massage and sleep) was at our best.

We’ll just have to come back one fine day and find someone to smile at from the other side of the lens.20170514_184034

Thanks be to The Drift Inn, where Sunday roast and the black stuff were still available, in no short measure. Drift Inn, stagger out.

Arranmore to Buncrana, Lough Swilly

Day 133, Sat 13 May 

Before pushing any pedals today, I must add a little more Arranmore Island detail. An extra credit or two. I mentioned the famous 1940 rescue of the crew of the Stolwijk, and gave a link to the Arranmore Island Lifeboat history, where a brief account of the heroic actions of the crew can be read. It transpires that my host last night, Jerry Early, ex Lifeboat crew and DLA, local fisherman, landlord of Early’s Bar and Irish folk singer, was so moved by the Stolwijk rescue story that he wrote and recorded the song I’ll Go!  Available on iTunes plus several YouTube videos of Jerry performing his song. Here’s one for you. Also, a few videos of the Arranmore Severn class Lifeboat, Myrtle Maud in action, like this one. A very challenging coastline!

Meanwhile, off Arranmore and back on the Irish mainland, it’s chucking it down. The news that the short-cut ferry route across Lough Swilly to Buncrana is not available, means a revised plan, involving a big detour via Letterkenny and right around the huge Lough. To cut the route back down to about 70 miles, a little of the Donegal coastline (mostly shrouded today in cloud and heavy rain) had to be traded for a very scenic ride around Errigal Mountain and through the Glenveagh National Park.

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By the time I reached the highest point of the day it had stopped raining. After a long, cool, downhill dash it felt like I’d just had the best ever natural blow-dry. Better than time spent in a gigantic tumble dryer at the launderette.

Thanks John, (LOM) for the help & support that began before we met, with the bad news about the ferry and the good news about accommodation. Thanks also to the three members of Lough Swilly Lifeboat team, John (again), Mark (Cox’n) and Paddy Murphy (crew) for the kind welcome in the harbour alongside your pride & joy,  Ireland’s first and so-far only Shannon class ALB.

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With another sudden downpour under way, the very conveniently placed Drift Inn, directly opposite my home for tonight, became the agreed venue to re-convene our meeting. An excellent place for a full refuel and a great place to hear a lot more about Buncrana’s history.

As a young lad, sailing with his family on Lough Swilly, Peter Eyre was saved when all aboard had to be rescued, after getting into difficulties, by the predecessor of the current Lough Swilly Lifeboat. Years later, Peter became a very successful Naval/maritime Architect. He went on to design the amazing new Shannon Class All-weather Lifeboat, the eighth of which is now Ireland’s first, based right here and now in Buncrana.

Amongst many other gems I heard this evening was that this is Amazing Grace Country. Many more years ago, John Newton, a wealthy slave-trader en route to Liverpool, got into difficulties in stormy conditions off the north Irish coast, eventually managing to seek shelter in Lough Swilly and came ashore here. He was so grateful for his survival that he “saw the light”, quit the slave trade and joined William Wilberforce as a powerful abolitionist campaigner. He once was lost and now is found, here in Buncrana, where his gratitude led to his penning of Amazing Grace. 

Thanks also to Tommy, local character and historian, for many other pearls of wisdom about the military history of 20th century Buncrana.

This is a split site, two-boat Station, with an Atlantic 85 ILB a mile up the coast. That will be tomorrow’s first port of call.

Killybegs to Arranmore Island

Day 132, Friday 12 May

A month of Irish miles. Thirty days since coming ashore at Rosslare. The rainy start this morning is not enough to dampen my spirits. Only three of the thirty have actually rained on me and only one of those was heavy enough to remember. A very different outlook for today’s ride but the Atlantic Way is still more mild than Wild. Damp Donegal is quite atmospheric. Not a breeze.

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The ferry from Burtonport to Arranmore Island was gratis. Thanks to Dawn Marie of the Red Ferry, I didn’t even get to find out how much the ferry should have cost. Glassy, still waters around the many rocky inlets, islands and sandy coves. Jimmy (Cox’n) was waiting on the Arranmore slipway with the Station Landrover. Not to carry Fondo and rider, but to lead the way. “Follow me. There’s just a bit of a hill first.” Off we set at a modest pace. A sharp right, then the road kicked up a bit, away from the harbour around a left hander and up. Quite steep, low gear selected, another bend and the incline did not ease. Up on the pedals, pushing hard to catch the crawling Landrover. Another bend. Where’s the top of the climb? I’d set off much too vigorously from the bottom. Oh dear. Come on legs.  “That’s ENOUGH!” they screamed. Forward motion, an essential part of making progress, ceased. I had been beaten by my first Irish Hill. Within just a few hundred yards, we had gained what seemed … a few hundred yards altitude. Fondo & baggage had to be pushed around the next bend, until the incline eased just enough to get some momentum. The rest was a doddle. Half a mile of gentle ups & downs then back down to sea level at the Lifeboat Station.  “We don’t have flat roads on the island. Just ups and downs” said the grinning cox’n. That’s probably why there are no bicycles to be seen on Arranmore. Except Fondo.

Many thanks to Jimmy, Tony (LOM), John (ast.Mech), and Séan (crew) for a great couple of hours of good humoured sharing of tales, from the famous rescue of the crew of the Stolwijk in December 1940 (click Here for the full acount), to the many superstitions of sailors and the occasional “sighting” to this day of Myrtle Maud, the daughter of the original Arranmore Lifeboat benefactor of the first Lifeboat to bear her name, still seen on the current Severn Class, now motionlesss on its not-so-swinging mooring. In fact, if you zoom in on today’s misty image, towards Myrtle Maud‘s stern, could it be ..?. 20170512_170930-1The view from my bedroom would be stunning on a clearer day. On this evening’s damp gloaming, it’s still pretty good. Many thanks to my hosts for tonight, Pat & Jerry Early, who also run Early’s Bar in the harbour, where I’m now heading to refuel and sample the local fayre. On foot.  Fondo can stay tucked up in bed, in the shed, with peat.

Carry Bridge to Killybegs, via Enniskillen Lower Lough

Day 131, Thurs 11 May

I hadn’t allowed for the extra mileage to yesterday’s visit to the newest RNLI Station in Ireland, so today’s ride back to the coast at Ballyshannon and around Donegal Bay is likely to be one of the longest legs, if I intend to stay on schedule. Not essential, but simpler if I can.

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After just 14 or-so miles, today’s visit is to the Enniskillen (Lower Lough) ILB Station, to be found within the Lough Erne Yacht Club. What a beautiful setting on yet another gorgeous May day. As with yesterday’s visit on the Upper Lough, all is quiet here today. Quite deceptive.  This Lifeboat Station is often the busiest in all of Ireland. And this Lough is vast!

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There was also something else about the setting of this place. Something familiar and quite atmospheric. The concrete approach road, large areas of concrete hard-standings and a very typical 1930s large brick and steel structure with huge doors. It was the abandoned aircraft hangar that finally gave the game away. That familiarity of a number of RAF Stations that were my home as a child and later as an RAF airframe technician. But this one is a bit different. It turns out that this was a major base for flying boats during WW2. RAF Coastal Command Sunderlands and USAAF Catalinas took off from and landed on this very lake, right here! Take a look at this old BBC NEWS link.

Thanks to Neil (acting LOM) for the appropriately punctual and military style of opening the security gates on my well-timed approach. Many thanks also to Jimmy (ex DLA, Station Mech) for sharing so much fascinating local history, both “ancient” (WW2) and modern (RNLI), plus the added treat of being invited a little way along the shore for a cuppa and high energy fudge chunks (thanks Mary) at their lovely 1920s Dutch barge, now their home. Coincidentally, the barge was high & dry on the flying boat hardstanding, having just had its six-yearly inspection and bottom-scrub & re-paint. Apparently the 90 year old steel hull, originally 6.0mm thick, is now down to 5.7mm at its thinnest! I think that’s a “pass”. Back in the water tomorrow.

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The next 40+ Northern Irish miles, along the East and North shores of the Lower Lough Erne, were particularly green and pleasant. Idyllic scenes of anglers competing with Mayflies to tempt the fish to bite.

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Another important land mark on today’s route, between Belleek and Ballyshannon, is the famous hydro-electric power station on the dammed and locked stretch of the Erne. Why don’t we make much more use of nature’s powerful forces?20170511_142625

Back on the coast road, the last stretch up to Donegal and along to Killybegs was a little slower, with more climbs rewarded with good views across Donegal Bay, back towards yesterday’s Benbulben and Truskmore Mountains of Counties Sligo and Leitrim.

Killybegs was a big surprise! I had no idea that this was such a busy fishing harbour, on a massive scale. Excellent evening light used to best advantage for a complete change of scenery here in Killybegs Harbour.

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A longer blog than usual, to go with one of the longest day rides so far. A couple of circuits of the harbour would have pushed Garmin’s total for today to 80 miles.

Time for bed. Arranmore Island Lifeboat Station tomorrow, via some big climbs on the long and winding roads.

Bundoran to Carry Bridge, Enniskillen

Day 130, Weds 10 May

Just a short way up the coast from Bundoran I had to show real courage once more. At Ballyshannon, my route plan shows a turn to the right, away from the coast. But that’s not all. Not only will I have to leave my sea on the left comfort zone but today I have to leave the country. Well no, I’m not leaving Ireland but I am temporarily leaving the Republic and entering the UK. Another pair of Loughs, above and below Enniskillen to visit, in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. No border, just a polite reminder that speed limits are now in miles per hour. Long may it remain that simple.

Upper Lough Erne and Lower Lough Erne. Let me explain: From a North-South oriented map-reader’s perspective, Upper Lough Erne is of course the large body of island-packed water below (south of) the even larger Lower Lough Erne. From a boating perspective, if going with the flow of the mighty River Erne, the southernmost Lough is clearly the Upper Lough Erne and the northernmost is the Lower Lough Erne, being the one nearer the sea.
All clear? Good.

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Today’s visit was to the brand new Carry Bridge Lifeboat Station. The Atlantic 75 is a reassuring, familiar sight but this is the first time I’ve seen the RNLI liveried Jet Ski Rescue Watercraft. 20170510_134054A very fast, neat bit of kit, as already used by some of the RNLI Lifeguard volunteers at some coastal resorts in the UK. Today, midweek in early May, all is very calm and peaceful. Holidays and weekends are a different matter, with a huge number of leisure craft, from kayaks to big motor cruisers, often hidden from view behind one of the many Islands or along one of the many alternative courses of the split channels of the River Erne. This is a very challenging and disorientating navigational expanse of waterways.

Many thanks to Peter (Ed/Visits) and Archie (ex DLA, FR chair) for the welcome and full tour of their new pride and joy. They now have to keep up a host of new initiatives to raise funds to maintain this great new facility!

More  on this and the partner station on the Lower Lough to follow later ….

Sligo Bay to Bundoran

Day 129, Tuesday 9 May

With Sligo Airport, Sligo City, Sligo Bay Lifeboat Station and brother Phil’s choice of “B&B in Sligo” all being very well spaced, it became necessary to call upon the good services of Vincent and Joe, the good-humoured, patient local taxi drivers with The Sligo Knowledge. I could get used to being chauffeured around. Here’s a thought: work out the value of your car, add the running costs, including tax, insurance, service & repairs. Divide that figure by the cost of the average taxi fare. How many taxi rides would you get?

Better than that, get on yer bike more often.

Many thanks to Thomás and Ash at the excellent Red Lodge B&B for the help, advice and local contact information, and to Phil for finding the place!

The two Flybros joined me for today’s first Lifeboat Station visit at Sligo Bay. No, they didn’t cycle down to Rosses Point. Taxi for them, Fondo for me. Another beautiful setting on another fine day.

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Thanks Dermot, ex Lifeboat crew and now all important shore crew and chairman of the Station fundraising committee, for the full tour and loads of useful information. The Station’s beautifully maintained Atlantic 85, fastest class on the fleet, was one of many boats involved in last month’s extended search for the missing crew members from the recent Rescue 116 Coastguard helicopter tragedy.

Onwards and upwards. Farewell to Neil & Phil. Mind the sheep and the mountain on take-off. There’s almost always a bit of a climb up, away from a Lifeboat Station. They’re usually found at the useful altitude of sea level, or a few feet above.  And so to the next port of call today, via the beautiful setting of Drumcliffe, where W.B. Yeats is buried.

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Bundoran ILB Station has an identical Atlantic 85 to the one seen a few hours earlier in Sligo Bay. Luckily for me, this visit coincides with this evening’s regular exercise and crew training.

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It was a privilege to meet so many of you and to see the launch and recovery of the Lifeboat, watching an Atlantic 85 effortlessly motor out of Donegal Bay and head out towards its name-sake Ocean, then return at sunset.

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Many thanks to crew members Killian (Helm), Rory, Mark, Hugh, Chris, Fergal, Oisín and Shane (PO & Comms). Good luck for a safe and successful summer.

Enniscrone to Sligo

Day 128,  Monday 9 May

Today I have the pleasure of handing over the controls to brother Neil, aviator extraordinaire, who has just flown in to Sligo with co-pilot brother Phil, and kindly offered to write today’s blog. Take it away Neil.

The Truth?

There I was, expecting a quiet day at home. A phone call.  Steve was in trouble. He’d lost a cycling glove and, with just the one, was in danger of cycling round in circles.  No problem.  I had a spare pair.  Quick phone call to my other brother/co-pilot, Phil and, quicker than you could say ‘another pint of Guinness’, we were winging our way from North Oxfordshire, via Haverfordwest, over the Irish Sea and up through the lovely Irish countryside to Sligo with a pair of red and white Bontrager cycling gloves.

Steve had successfully cycled up the coast one handed and was waiting anxiously at the airport for his glove. Imagine his dismay when, after a blue and white Sportcruiser landed and taxied in, he went out to greet his brothers only to find it wasn’t us!  It was John and Gwerfyr, a couple from Sleap in G-CGIP. We landed soon after and presented him with the gloves. IMG_2203

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It would have been rude to jump back in the plane and head straight home so we dug out the tie-downs and secured the plane for the night before heading for the first of two pubs and then to Rugantino’s in Sligo town for pasta. Off back home tomorrow, secure in the knowledge that Steve will be back on the straight, albeit not so narrow, road (N15) to his next RNLI Lifeboat Station.

Fair winds, Steve”

Thanks brothers. You were quicker than Royal Mail but might have cost a little more. Bleddy Baby Boomers. All cash and no sense. Next time just give it to the RNLI. But it was great to catch up (they tried to tell me there’s another General Election soon in the UK, but I’m not that gullible). Very decent of the good people of Sligo Town to organise such a jolly post-pasta welcome.20170508_204743 The Sligo Bay Lifeboat visit will have to wait until tomorrow.

Belmullet to Enniscrone

Day 127, Sunday 7 May

The last thing I expected to see from my bedroom window here in Enniscrone, County Sligo, miles from the nearest airfield, was a Boeing 767. 20170507_163844Have a look at http://quirkyglamping.town.ie/  I promise you, you won’t be disappointed. Watch the videos on the Our Story page. This place, Eagle Heights B&B, was a lucky find.

Earlier, the ride from Belmullet via the North Mayo coast road was one of the quietest journeys to-date. The fingers on one hand would almost suffice if keeping count of cars passed between Belmullet and Ballycastle. Some scary cliffs around the top of County Mayo today. 20170507_121836No Lifeboat visit until Sligo tomorrow, where brothers Neil & Phil are flying in to say hello, cheer me on my way and drink Guinness. As you do. Who’d have thought, 60 years ago, when we three boys were three wee boys, that we’d still be sharing such Boys Own adventures. There is of course, another dear brother. But John agreed that we four boys … didn’t scan as well as it does with three. So, being a stickler for creative writing as a teacher, he agreed to stay at home and look after my allotment. Besides, it’s only a wee two-seater plane. Am I making all this nonsense up? We’ll find out tomorrow.20170507_210953

Yes, another lovely Irish sunset tonight. Towards County Mayo from Enniscrone beach, County Sligo.


Achill Island to Belmullet and Ballyglass

Day 126, Saturday 6 May

Yesterday, I made little reference to any recent Lifeboat activity at Achill Island. There was much discussion, from their perspective, of the recent tragic loss of life of the crew of the Irish Coastguard helicopter, Rescue 116.rescue116-752x501

The incident occurred very recently mid way between Achill Island and the Mullet Peninsula, at Black Rock. With Achill ALB more than 20 miles to the south and east and Ballyglass ALB a similar distance to the north and East, both Lifeboats were called to assist in the search for the missing helicopter and crew. The recovery of the bodies of two Coastguard colleagues, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick and Mark Duffy would have been traumatic enough. The fact that the other two, Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby, are still missing, must be even more distressing, especially for the families concerned. There are a few suggested theories as to the cause of the crash, but this is neither the time nor the place to speculate.  As I write, search initiatives continue. No doubt a thorough, expert analysis will be completed before a report is published. With the great advances made in maritime rescue equipment and procedures over the decades, a multiple loss of the lives of volunteer crews is thanfully, now very rare, with the last loss of an entire crew being that of the Penlee Lifeboat in 1981.20170506_162725

Today, the RNLI flags, as witnessed here at Ballyglass, still fly at half mast. I don’t envy the person who has to make the decision to re-hoist them aloft, whilst Ciaran and Paul are still out there, somewhere.

My thanks today to the good people of Bellmullet and Ballyglass Lifeboat. A great welcome and kind support indeed, from Padraig Kelleher (crew), who rescued me in Belmullet, Marie, Mary (Fundraising Committee), Tony, Dan (DLA) and Eddy (ex crew and now Fundraising committee, for the full tour, including the ALB Station). Thanks to you all for sorting my accommodation for tonight, with Tommy, landlord of The Talbot in Belmullet. A more than kind gesture. The Talbot is truly an amazing place!

Meanwhile, the sense of loss here still hangs heavily..  but the crews of these two flanking Lifeboat Stations are still up & running, the crews’ pagers attached to belts, ready to treat the next “shout” as important as the last.

Don’t forget, you can show your support for these volunteer crews by clicking HERE and donating to the RNLI on line. You’d also help increase the chances of me reaching my RNLI  fundraising target!