Cycling the Border: ‘Seamus Heaney’s senses, words, sounds resonate as I travel farther south’

Daniel Stewart is on stage two of his five-day cycling journey

Daniel Stewart: ‘It’s been a long day: seven hours of riding into a headwind. A pocket of daylight remains.’  Photograph: Lily Duffield

Daniel Stewart: ‘It’s been a long day: seven hours of riding into a headwind. A pocket of daylight remains.’ Photograph: Lily Duffield

 

Drip, drop, drip. Pitter, patter, pit . . . eyes creak open, contracting from black to ice blue, as I begin to gather sense.

I check my watch: it’s 5am and freezing. Sleeping in trackies, T-shirt, a fleece, a coat, and a hat; the blanket is a straitjacket pinning me down, but keeping me warm.

. . . Drip, drop, drip. Pitter, patter, pit . . .

Misting breaths rise from my face. Above is a Velux window; its broken seal, a condensed impression. Stars peak through the clouded pane; whispering, “Sleep! Big stages lie ahead . . .”

The Northern Irish Border: a political headache, a Westminster swearword, but also the source of adventure: to follow it roughly, unearthing its beauty. Day two started in Portstewart. Hugging the coast, I ride through Castlerock, passing by empty beaches; but not for long.

A sharp left, takes me back to the 2014 Tour of Ulster, and the wall. Surging skywards from the seafront, 60 riders start its 20 per cent tilt. Only a handful will reach the top. Years go by, the wall remains the same: this is Bishop’s Road.

Fatter

I am fatter, the bike is too. Smaller chain-rings and bigger sprockets creak and croak up to a lofty summit. Five years on, life flies quicker, this hill does not.

I’ve arrived in mountains of Sperrin.

“Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” – Heaney, S.

Tyres rumble, disc-brakes squeal. Absent are angry thoughts of the vacant hill in Belfast, serving for nothing but embarrassment. Frustration and fear falter, among this nurturing in nature. Fierce headwinds make farm gates whistle and high trees roar. Gusts push me back, but propel my mind forward. Toner’s Bog lies not far . . .

Between my fingers and my feet,

The bike pedals rest, shoe upon cleat.

Seamus Heaney’s senses, words, sounds resonate, as I travel farther south, through Plumbridge, Newtownstewart, on to Castlederg. Born into a homeland baring its ugly troubled teeth, he proved the world wrong: writing everlasting, freeing poetry. Death of a Naturalist might prove to be my favourite poem of all time. Teaching me a lot about bullfrogs, its story grapples with cycle of life. The older I get, the more emotional it makes me feel.

The greatest thing the great man taught me was how to escape. The world is on fire, Ireland is too wet, plastic is barbarian, and the UK will eventually leave the EU. Bury yourself in books, scribble sentences in pencil, cycle away from it all; and create a tranquil nirvana of your own, just for a moment, anyway.

Generosity

It’s been a long day: seven hours of riding into a headwind. A pocket of daylight remains. Quickly finding the haunted school checkpoint – I plan to shower quick, slip out soon, and get some dinner in the town.

Johan has other ideas. Rapping his door, he takes me in from the rain. Magda feeds me fish, salad and potatoes, filling my belly until the daylight is gone. Their generosity adds more letters to their B&B than any review could.

The Dutchman smiles. Many years ago, he took it upon himself to move from Dublin to Pettigo for a life as a livestock farmer. Now with only a few goats to his name, he took to renovating an abandoned school with wood, electrics, and drive. I get the privilege to stay.

Johan leads me to the bed-crammed room, Magda provides hot water bottles.

Heaney gave poetry, Johan warmth, Magda comfort. The Sperrins provided a scene for my bike to float over. Tucking myself into the single bed under the Velux window, I thought, Northern Ireland was always worth fighting for.

Drip, drop, drip. Pitter, patter, pit . . .

– Daniel Stewart is cycling along a well-established hiking route which loosely follows the Border, as well as the north coast.
Stage 1: Belfast to Portrush
Stage 2: Portrush to Pettigo

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