Cycling from Armagh to Portaferry: ‘Could there be a more beautiful border?

Daniel Stewart chronicles his cycle around the Irish Border over five days

Daniel Stewart. Photograph: Lily Duffield

Daniel Stewart. Photograph: Lily Duffield

 

Trailed two-hundred-and-seventy miles,
Fought bitter gales hard,
Swum turbulent showers,
Blazed freezing chills,
And now, I awake in Armagh.

Abandoned schools are now safe houses; mountain ranges: climbing frames, and the Northern Irish border: the source of the adventure and the sticking point of Brexit.

Kathleen gets it.

I’ve stayed in her B&B. She dotes me back to life. Slabs of thick back bacon, perfect runny eggs: I’ve burnt plenty of calories these past days, Kathleen wants to give me every single one back.

Inhaling the meal, I’m off again. Back on roads I know. The final destination is Portaferry, around the training routes I grew up on. Time to reminisce.

Leaving through Armagh City, I head towards Tandragee, travelling on roads I dearly miss. Rickety farm roads, with bumps and humps and peaks and troughs. Grippy in winter, stable in sun: these are roads from my cycling days. Not a car in sight, bar a tractor getting on with it, I feel no pressure; I feel no pain. I am at home and in peace.

Grassroots

This is the setting for grassroots racing. Placing well up the sharp, steep finish in Richill. Taking Uncle B’s scalp in the sprint at Annaclone. Losing the Newry Three Day by a handful of seconds in the last kilometres. This is where I learned how to race.

Smelling crisps cooking in Tayto Castle, I take the towpath from Scarva along the Newry Canal. Soon I’m in through the city, cycling on to Warrenpoint.

Cycling is still at the forefront as I hit the dual carriageway, the wind at my back. I’ve averaged 30mph up this straight before, now I plod up it at 16 . . . Greenan Hill passes on the left, Carlingford peaks from the right, on the other side of the water. Could there be a more beautiful border?

Soon I’m on the coast road. Blues of all kinds rise and fall in the foam and slush of the Irish Sea. In my mind I’ve already acquired 10 of the mansions I go past, to retire in now, so I can stare at that view forever.

Alongside the coast I continue, through Kilkeel, Ballymartin, Annalong. I’m in the Tour, the carnival has gone, the fans’ wait to see me is finished. I am the leader in a one-man race, I can’t lose!

Coastal route

The towering Slieve Donard watches me enter and exit Newcastle town, onto Dundrum, turning right to follow its coastal route. It’s the Downpatrick Paris-Roubaix, lumpy bitmac are the cobbles. Snaking roads spring out the secteurs, rivers slice under me, the sea jumps out between trees, I am truly alive. Alive in living the past as a kid discovering the same lanes all over again, and as a man; escaping the rules and consternations of working life.

Stifling through the raw fish of Ardglass, I arrive at Strangford before I know it. Portaferry is only a £1 ferry-ride away. I find myself sitting on a park bench in a daydream, watching the barge wade over from the other side, its generator grunts amongst the seagull choir’s symphonies.

Brexit won’t disrepute Northern Ireland Tourism more than Arlene Foster will. This mystical land has green pastures aplenty, and historical depth. On a grey day, I’ve seen so many colours: there is so much life in so much land. Rocky bays and sandy beaches have peppered my journey to these shores: Northern Ireland, even on a bad day, is paradise.

The ferry arrives, my cleats clop on. One pound poorer, I stare out at Strangford Lough. My homeland might have been riddled with bullets, but its beauty does not let it show.

I finish my second last day of the journey, blessed.

- Daniel Stewart cycled along a well-established hiking route which loosely followed the Border, as well as the North Coast.
Stage 1: Belfast to Portrush
Stage 2: Portrush to Pettigo
Stage 3: Pettigo to Armagh
Stage 4: Armagh to Portaferry
Stage 5: Portaferry to Belfast
Stage 6: Mission accomplished

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