Day 17 Moville in Donegal to Ballycastle in Antrim, Northern Ireland. (94km 1170m)
We stayed overnight at Moville on Lough Foyle and before leaving Donegal we cycled out to Inishowen Head where Lough Foyle meets the Atlantic. Shroove lighthouse is situated at Dunagree Head, 1km south of Inishowen Head. Originally there were two towers, east and west, but only the west tower remains active.
We crossed Lough Foyle from Greencastle to Macgillgan on a car ferry.
Once we were in Northern Island we had a tail wind and were soon at Port Stewart. Northern Island felt quite different to the republic and we concluded it was because our immediate environment on the roads is like the rest of UK. I had not realised that road markings and road signs are quite so exact and universal in the UK. Red post boxes and familiar chain stores like Boots the Chemist reappeared. It was very odd.
We followed the coast that became the Causeway Coastal Route which is highly rated as a road trip. At Portrush preparations were well underway for the Open golf championships which at that time were a month away.
Next up was the Giants Causeway which is owned by the National Trust. It has over 1 million visitors a year and too many for comfort were there at the same time as us.
We enjoyed the coastal scenery as we continued along the Causeway coast.
We spent the night at Ballycastle in a sea front hotel. The Mull of Kintyre in Scotand looked very close from there.
Day 18: Ballycastle to Carrickfergus (96km 1200m)
The forecast was for a dry sunny day. We should have known better – we set off in shorts and it started to rain about 10 minutes into the long climb that started the day. It was just a heavy shower which soaked us through but after that the day was dry and sunny.
The descent was about 5km and gradually returned us to sea level at Cushendun which had much needed coffee and pastries.
The promised dry sunny day came upon us while we enjoyed our coffee at the picturesque harbour at Carnlough.
The next 40km were right beside the seaside following a flat, quiet picturesque coast road all the way to Larne. There were even a couple of lovely little tunnels to keep the road going. The proximity to the west coast of Scotland was very apparent with views across the North Channel towards the Mull of Kintyre, Rhins of Galloway, Islay and Paps of Jura.
Larne has been used as a seaport for over 1,000 years and today with a population of 18,000 it is a major passenger and freight port. We entered on a cycle path along the promenade which brought us to The Chaine Park which is the burial site of James Chaine. Chaine developed Larne’s short sea route to Scotland as well as establishing the town as a transatlantic port.
The cylindrical stone tower lighthouse with a conical roof, situated on the west side of entrance to Larne Lough, is a memorial to James Chaine.
We left Larne on the A2 which wasn’t great and at Whitehead we headed out to Blackhead lighthouse. Unfortunately we couldn’t get very close as the access along a promenade was being repaired and even we couldn’t climb the fence.
We continued to Carrickfergus where we stayed the night. Carrickfergus Castle is one of the most famous landmarks in Northern Ireland. When we were there it was closed as the great tower roof is being replaced.
Day 19: Carrickfergus to Portaferry (88km 1089m)
Today it did not rain at all – not one drop!
One of the great things about touring is the unexpected and how everything changes so quickly.
The ride from Carrickfergus into the centre of Belfast was not one we were looking forward to but it was an unexpected pleasure. We had expected it to be noisy and busy but the cycle route is right beside the Belfast Lough and follows the waterside. It was very quiet and scenic.
Our quest in Belfast was to find the Great Light which we knew was on the Maritime Mile near the Titanic Quay.
The Maritime Mile is a linear waterfront trail that was developed to encourage people to explore Belfast’s maritime & industrial history.The Great Light is one of the largest optics of its kind ever built in the world and is around 130 years old. It weighs 10 tonnes and is 7 metres tall. It produced one of the strongest lighthouse beams ever to shine. The Great Light’s lenses were originally made in 1887 for Tory Island Lighthouse which we had seen a couple of days earlier off the Donegal coast. In 1928 a similar light was constructed at the Mew Islands off Donaghadee to aid navigation into the southern entrance of Belfast Lough.
The optic was used until 2014 when it was replaced by a solar powered LED.
The optic was removed from the tower and was restored and rehoused in this new interpretive structure designed to last 100 years and made to resemble a lighthouse lantern room.
The route out of Belfast on the A2 was quite busy and although there was a cycle lane it wasn’t separated from the fast traffic. We were pleased to get off the main road and headed on to Bangor which is a busy seaside resort on the opposite bank of the Belfast Lough to Carrickfergus. We had a great view back to Black Head and across to Portpatrick in Scotland. Once in Bangor we were back to rural quietness again after a busy, bustling morning.
We had decided to ride around the seaward side of the Ards peninsula which is the most easterly point on the Irish mainland. This added another tick in the box for our tour. In addition to Mizmal and the Wild Atlantic Way, we would also visit the extreme (in order) South, West, North and East points of Ireland.
Donaghadee is on the North East coast of the Ards peninsula. It is a small town with a population of about 6,000. Donaghadee is best known for its harbour and lighthouse.
Donaghadee was used in the 1759–1826 period by couples going to Portpatrick, Wigtown, Scotland to marry, as there was a daily packet boat. During this period, Portpatrick was known as the “Gretna Green for Ireland”.
The lifeboat station at Donaghadee harbour, founded in 1910, is one of the most important on the Irish coast.
The tower is built of cut and fluted limestone, and in its early days was unpainted in natural grey. Today the tower including the lantern and the dome is painted white with a black plinth. Conversion to unwatched electric was effected from 1934. Donaghadee thus having the distinction of being the first Irish lighthouse to be converted to electric. Chaine Tower at Larne followed the next year.
We followed the Ards coastline to the most easterly point on the Irish mainland near Portavogie and then continued down the peninsula and had a look at Strangford Lough which is a magnificent marine nature reserve. Portaferry is situated on the eastern shore at the head of Strangford Lough’s narrows. The tides at the narrows are very fast and careful tidal timing and navigation are needed owing to the exceptional currents. We enjoyed watching vessels who hadn’t been careful enough being given a hard time through the narrows.
Day 20: Portaferry to Blackrock near Dundalk. (112km 663m)
Another warm, sunny day without any rain.
We began the day crossing the Narrows of Strangford Lough from Portaferry to Strangford. The ferry was used to the tricky currents and we enjoyed a super fast ride on the ebb tide.
We enjoyed riding along really lovely, quiet roads (didn’t see a car for over an hour) to Ardglass, Coney Island and Killough. We were moving towards St Johns point.
St John’s point lies down the peninsula from Killough and is one of the places mentioned in Van Morrison’s song ‘Coney Island’.
As we rode away from Killough we gradually felt the narrowing of the land towards our next landmark which was St. John’s Point lighthouse in County Down with its strikingly tall tower with vibrant bands of yellow and black.
These vivid colours which distinguish it from other lighthouses are known as its daymark. The light was first lit in 1844. The original lighthouse was painted white. In 1902 three black bands were added. Its current markings of black and two yellow bands have been in place since 1954. Originally the tower was only 14m tall but was extended to 40m in the 1880’s and is now the tallest lighthouse on the Irish coast. (Fastnet is the tallest offshore lighthouse). The tower was automated in 1981.
Fog signals have been in use for hundreds of years but are no longer considered reliable or accurate in navigation and have gradually been shut down. With a fog signal you can’t tell how far away it is or what direction the sound is coming from. St Johns Point foghorn was silenced forever in January 2011.
We also visited St John’s Point church.
The building itself dates from around the tenth century and replaces a much older, yet smaller, wooden structure. The granite used to build it is specific to the Mourne Mountains which were now coming into view and providing a wonderful backdrop.
The coastal scenery was great as we cycled along the coast behind the dunes that back a linear beach at Minerstown and Tyrella which extends for several kilometres. The beach is home to a seal colony and conservationists have been successful in restricting use of the beach during the breeding season by getting byelaws passed. Tyrella and Minerstown have been declared as an ASSI because of its intertidal sand and rock communities, sand dune systems and the associated flora and fauna.
As we approached Newcastle the road became quite busy and there were increasing numbers of people walking towards Newcastle. It turned out to be the annual Newcastle Festival of Flight. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and light winds, perfect for iconic WWII aircraft and top display teams from throughout the UK & Ireland. The displays included the Red Arrows and Aerosuperbatics wing walkers as well as a Battle of Britain memorial flight.
We were drawn to the Cone of Light sculpture on the sea front which was commissioned by Down District Council. It links Newcastle to the surrounding mountains, as its apex is in Alignment with the cairn on the top of Slieve Donard.
We couldn’t linger too long as we had a ferry to catch at Carlingford Lough from Greencastle to Greenore. There was only one ferry an hour, on the hour, as this was a seasonal sightseeing service. We wanted to catch the ferry at 3pm as there was a further 40km to ride at the other side to our intended night stop the other side of Dundalk.
The ferry took us back into the Republic of Ireland in County Louth.
The border area was nice enough but as we approached Dundalk we rode through an area that I can only describe as ‘dodgy’. We knew nothing about Dundalk and expected it to have the same ambient atmosphere as all the other small towns we had cycled through. For the first time on the tour we both felt the need to hasten on and clear the town. A few clicks on a Google search while writing this shows we were not alone and our first impression was accurate. The Lonely Planet dismisses it as “tough, dour and charmless”.
During the Troubles, it was labelled ‘El Paso’, a no-go area full of Provos and bandits. The Irish Sun describes it as crime ridden bandit country. Wow !
We cycled out of Dundalk to Blackrock a few kilometres away which was perfectly OK.
Day 21: Dundalk to Dun Laoghaire (95 km 1661m)
We were doing well with the weather with the previous few days being completely dry. The wind was light and now it had become northerly again it was actually behind us. Fantastic!
We had juggled our route a little to even up each day and so it worked out that we were riding through Dublin on a Sunday afternoon. This was extremely fortuitous as I doubt we would have made it through alive in a Monday morning rush-hour. The traffic in Dublin was very aggressive, particularly taxis and buses.
Our morning ride was quite urban . We dropped into Drogheda which is one of the oldest towns in Ireland. It has a population of 41,000 which makes it the third largest town by population in Ireland. It is the last bridging point on the River Boyne before it meets the sea. We were mostly interested in the excellent coffee shops.
We rode on through pleasant but unremarkable countryside shadowing the M1 motorway towards Dublin.
We managed to stay on largely empty rural lanes until quite suddenly we were at Swords which is the closest settlement to Dublin Airport. We found ourselves in heavy traffic which seemed to largely consist of bicycle hating taxi drivers.
We cycled around the airport roads diving off onto cycle paths as they appeared and then disappeared and felt as if we were taking our lives in our hands as we rode towards central Dublin. Part of the problem was that some of the bus/cycle lane were open to all traffic on a Sunday and it became a bit of a free for all. We stopped for a breather and chatted to a couple of Garda who freely admitted that the standard of driving was terrible and to be very careful as there was little regard for cyclists. Thanks guys!
We made it to the centre and crossed the River Liffey.
The onward route out of Dublin was much calmer and quiet with clearer separation for cyclists. We reached the coast at Booterstown and carried on to Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire. (This is the original Irish form of Dunleary which was adopted in 1920).
The harbour, one of the largest in the country, is notable for its two granite piers. It took 42 years to construct the harbour, from 1817 to 1859. We were mostly interested in the lighthouse at the end of East Pier. It had begun to rain which cleared the Sunday afternoon crowds enough for us to ride (illegally) along the harbour wall to the lighthouse.
The East pier light was established in 1847 and fully automated in 1977. We treated ourselves to Teddy’s ice cream – in the rain.
It carried on raining all night.
Day 22: Dun Laoghaire to Arklow (82km 1300m)
It was still raining when we were having breakfast, but the forecast said that it should stop.
The day began with a visit to the James Joyce tower at Sandy Cove on the way out of Dun Laoghaire. The tower is a great example of the network of Martello towers built by the British along the coast of Dublin in the nineteenth century to defend against the threat of a Napoleonic invasion. It is also the setting in which the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses is set and hosts the James Joyce museum.
We continued on a small road hugging the coast passing Dalkey Island to Bray in County Wicklow. Bray is a resort town and being also only 20km from Dublin with good road and rail links it is also a commuter town.
At Bray we left the coast on the R761 which became increasingly rural as we headed south through yet another Newcastle to Wicklow Town.
The weather had improved and we were in shorts so it was not surprising to learn that Wicklow is one of the driest and warmest places in Ireland. It receives only 60% of the rainfall of the west coast. It is protected by the Wicklow Mountains. Wicklow town is built around the harbour. It has good rail and road links to Dublin and is an important commuter town.
We were once again on the coast and the mist had lifted so the views were great.
We cycled out to Wicklow Head despite all the dire warnings about the road being private etc etc.
Wicklow Head lighthouse has overlooked Wicklow’s exposed coastline since 1781. It is an octagonal stone tower which has been developed into self catering accommodation by the Irish Landmark Trust.
Wicklow Head lighthouse was one of two lighthouses built on the headland in 1781. In 1836 it was struck by lightning and the interior destroyed. However it was decided to keep the tower as it was a good daymark.
The lighthouse which operates on the headland was first lit in 1818.
We continued along the quiet coast road to Brittas Bay which is a 5km beach of powdery sand backed by dunes. The dunes are of ecological importance with many interesting wildlife species and rare plants.
The coast road runs parallel with the M11 which takes most of the traffic leaving us with a quiet traffic free scenic ride to Arklow.
Arklow is a historic coastal port at the mouth of the river Avoca, founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. The town is divided by the river which is crossed by the nineteen arches bridge which is the longest handmade bridge in Ireland.
The light tower and lantern from the lightship Albatross are reconstructed on the waterside at Arklow.
We cycled over the bridge and round to the Arklow Lifeboat station. It was established in1826 and was the first RNLI lifeboat station founded in Ireland.
Day 23: Arklow to Rosslare (86km 1375m.)
The last day!
We climbed out of Arklow and turned onto the coast road. It undulated gently and had very little traffic.
The road was not far from the sea and we passed through small villages.
We were anxious to keep going to Rosslare where we were hoping to board a ferry to Fishguard at 5pm. We just hoped our good luck would hold and our bodies and bikes would be able to complete our circumnavigation of Ireland without incident. 2,100 kilometres of riding without any mechanical issues or punctures was very fortunate.
The road got busier as we approached Wexford town which is the county town of County Wexford.
Wexford used to be the main port along this coast but as ships got bigger and Wexford harbour silted up a new port was built along the coast at Rosslare. This is a deepwater harbour unaffected by tides and currents. All major shipping now uses Rosslare and Wexford Port is used only by fishing boats and leisure vessels.
Our onward route was on the N25 to Rosslare.
There was quite a lot of heavy traffic but a wide shoulder which we could ride on until the cycle track began as we approached Rosslare.
We had a great time on our circumnavigation of Ireland. Our chosen 2000km maximum distance meant that we had to be selective about the route and it was a pity that some magnificent parts of the coast had to be omitted. We were delighted to get round with ourselves and the bikes in one piece. We were lucky with the weather – we had expected it to be much wetter. We were pleased to have visited so many lighthouses and lifeboat stations. We liked almost everywhere we went on the island but we loved Donegal and sometime we will go back and explore Donegal in a more leisurely manner.