Touring Ireland - The £500 tour
And how you can do it too. Great country, great roads, great people, motorcycle friendly, nearer than you think. In short, go for the craic...
Ireland. The last great beyond. Or at least for me anyway. A place of beauty, steeped in history with pubs on every corner. Not to mention the best racetracks in the world. Even though they’re really everyday roads.
But roads that were absolutely made for motorcycling, according to the tourist guide book I’ve been reading. It sounds like heaven on earth and I’m still pinching myself as the missus and I finally finish packing the BMW K1600GT we’re about to set off on for our 1500 mile adventure of Northern Ireland and the west coast. I’ve never done anything like this before and neither has my girlfriend Anna. In fact, she’s only ever been pillion on a bike twice before and the furthest of those journeys was to the shops for a pint of milk. We’ll do that distance 15-times over just getting to the ferry alone. Sat nav says it’s 250-miles away. Anna tells me we’re running late. And, with that, we’re off.
The route to Stranraer from Hull’s pretty easy. A1 to Scotch Corner, across towards Penrith on the A66 before a stint on the M6 up to Gretna, followed by a left turn onto the A75 directly to the port. It really is that simple. The computer said it should take about five hours, but we’re only at York and it’s already been an hour and a half. Bugger.
The weather’s scorching and, because it’s a bank holiday, everyone’s out for a slow lap of the historic Viking city. Including us – albeit against our will. Eventually, we make it through the hustle and follow a twisty, rural route towards Leeming. There are loads of bikes out and we join onto the back of a group rammed with 80’s classics. Most of them are strokers, including the Kawasaki H1 directly in front. It smells amazing and I’m gutted when the swarm turns off down a country lane in a new direction. I’m tempted to follow but the thought of missing the ferry keeps me towing the line and munching away the miles.
We eventually get on the A1 and it’s not long before we see a sign for Scotch Corner service station, which draws us in like a moth to the flame. My legs are aching, so I’m guessing Anna’s must be too? We’ve pulled back a bit of time and decide to celebrate like rock stars with a cup of hot chocolate and some cold pizza left over from last night’s dinner. It gives us a chance to recalibrate our plans and make the most of the weather. We’re a matter of miles from Richmond and Anna convinces me we should take a quick detour.
She’d been there as a child and wanted to retrace her footsteps, as it were, if
only she could remember where she’d left them? In the pursuit of finding her family’s holiday cottage, we end up travelling just about every street in town, before stopping alongside the River Swale, to admire the overlooking ‘Riche Mount’ castle.
The journey from Richmond to Penrith flies by and as soon as we get on the M6, cruise control and the bike’s radio quickly bridges the gap up to Gretna where we pick up more fuel and a middle-aged Scottish woman – quite literally. It’s Anna’s turn to get the drinks and while she’s away contributing to Starbuck’s welfare fund, a drunken Scottish woman comes over and parks up next to me on a grass bank. “How ya doin?”, she slurs. “Av ye got a girlie”? These words echo around in my head like a ping-pong while I try my hardest to keep a straight face and figure the best way to escape. But there’s no quick fix. We’ve got a stalemate. She’s staring at me, I’m staring at the ground, both of us confused by the other party’s actions or, in my case, lack of.
And that’s about the time when Anna reappears and saves the day. I’ve never been so happy to see her. With that, my Scottish sweetheart ups and leaves for her hen-filled minibus headed for Glasgow. We finish our drinks and follow suit some 10-minutes later. Traffic alerts tell us the A75’s clogged up with traffic, so we take a slight detour up the M74. The road’s empty and the scenery surrounding it is absolutely stunning. I’m tapping Anna on the leg and pointing at random features nearly every minute of the way. She just nods along and wonders why I’m pointing at a cow in a field and the empty milk bottle at the foot of the hedgerow.
An hour or so later we pull up in Stranraer at the Stena Line terminal. Our boat’s not in yet, but we’ve had a text to tell us everything’s running on time, so we can relax.
We get checked in and head down to a holding line waiting to board the HSS destined for Belfast. Eventually, it arrives and after a speedy unload we get the go ahead to board the enormous catamaran-style ship, along with a dozen or so other bikers. Strapping the big bike down is about as much fun as it sounds and I’m paranoid that when we come back down to disembark, we’re going to find it on its side in pieces. We go up on deck and by the time we’ve played a game of cards and I’ve betted away my life’s savings it’s time to head back downstairs. We’ve made it to Belfast.
Leaving the docklands, the first building to note is a real Irish pub. I’ve seen a million of them dotted around the world in the most bizarre of places, but I’ve never seen the genuine article up until now. The temptation for a nice, cold pint of Guinness is overwhelming but we’ve got a date with my friend Geoff Hill and his lovely wife Kate. They’re kindly putting us up for the night and the thought of sleep is king at this moment in time. Sat nav’s on the ball and takes us straight to Geoff’s front door where it’s a combination of hugs and unloading, before a proper catch-up with our good friends.
One of the best things about having an award-winning, Belfast-born travel writer for a friend is his knowledge of Belfast and travel, funnily enough. A few minutes with Geoff in the morning sorts out the day’s agenda. And the next two days’ while we’re at it. Today’s fun starts off with a ride into town for an open top bus tour. It seems the most logical way to see the sights and considering it only costs us £18 for two hours of viewing, makes perfect sense.
From Stormont to the Titanic dockyards, the infamously Blitz’d Percy Street to the patriotic Shankhill area of Belfast, we see it all. And get back in time for lunch at Geoff’s before departing for the west coast. We’re headed for a hamlet called Muingmore, just over 250-miles away. The M1 south leads us out of town and after a while everything turns green and countrified again. We rattle off another hundred miles before pulling up for fuel in a filling station/butchers/grocery store/coffee shop. This place has got it all, including a cash register for every eventuality. The locals obviously hate queuing.
Back on the road, it’s not long before we cross into Southern Ireland. And there’s no mistaking it. Even if you miss the welcome board, you can’t ignore the instant difference in road markings, or that the signs are now in kilometres and the fuel’s in Euros. We’re travelling on a national status roads until we reach Balina, where country lanes worthy of challenging a 4x4 come into play.
The scenery’s got a lot more rugged with bogs and gauze bushes on the left, bush fires and fire engine’s on the right. Ireland’s in the middle of a drought and pretty much everywhere you look’s smoking away merrily. By the time we reach the coast, it’s getting dark and we’re not having much luck finding the cottage we’re staying at. All we know is it’s white, it has no name and it can’t be seen from the road. Apart from that... in desperation, we ask directions at the nearby garage where they not only guide us to our home for the night, but insist we buy their finest, home-made potato bread and local bacon before leaving.
It turns out potato bread and bacon’s not that bad a meal, so we have another portion in the morning before setting off for Portrush. Overnight, the first rain in three week’s hit the area and brought a storm with it. The K1600 feels like a ship’s sail in the wind and it’s only by the time we get into Donegal that the weather’s perked up.
We stop and investigate the traditional port that’s reminiscent of Lynmouth in Devon, working our way through the local attractions like the stereotype tourists that we are.
There’s a castle near the old harbour and a little further along the quay is an old Abbey’s ruins. Turn’s out it was built in 1474 and is famous for being the site where Ireland’s most historic documents were created, the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’.
The N15 takes us to Lifford where we cross the border back into Northern Ireland.
We continue heading north until we find ourselves on the Causeway Coastal Route, headed for Colleraine. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a huge fan of the Northwest 200 and I’m in disbelief that we’re now headed towards Church Corner on the track’s back straight. It’s even tighter and twistier than I imagined. We follow the painted kerbs to complete a lap of the circuit before checking in at our hotel in Portrush.
Lunch is followed by a trek over to the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge. It’s a kilometre walk down to the attraction, which gives me just about enough time to pluck up the courage to cross the 18-metre wide gorge. Anna’s in her element, but the way the bridge bounces under your feet does nothing but scare me even more by the time we’ve reached the other side. And then it hits me I’ve got to do it all again to get back.
Bridge escapades complete, we reload the panniers and head over to the nearby Giant’s Causeway. It’s an overwhelming sight with six-sided basalt columns ranging in size from surface level to over 40-foot up in places. The spectacle’s swarming with fellow tourists and guides, who talk us through the natural process that formed these columns millions of years ago. Walking back to the car park, I’m torn between believing their version of events and the folklore story my mum told me as a child. For some reason, fighting giants seem far more appealing.
After a slap up three course meal at £10 a head, we hit Portrush’s arcade and spend money like it’s water on the 2p machines. We’re five-pounds down and reeking of copper by the time we call it a night.
We’re used to early starts by now and today’s no exception. The schedule’s rammed and kicks off with a trip along the coast road to Ballycastle. The combination of sheer-drop cliffs and crystal clear, turquoise coloured water makes you feel like you’re riding through a virtual postcard. It’s intoxicating to the eye.
Heading inland from Ballycastle, we divert to see the Armoy race circuit before picking up the main roads back to Belfast. We’re off flying with Geoff in his microlight and need to beat the stormy weather that’s moving in.
His aircraft’s powered by a horizontal-twin, rotax engine which looks like it’s been robbed straight out of a motorbike. The wings are made from a special nylon material and look as though Geoff’s sewn the fabric together himself. “It’s perfectly safe”, Geoff tells me as we’re taxiing onto the runway. A matter of seconds later we’re up in the air for a sightseeing trip like no other around Belfast. Twenty-minutes is enough for me but Anna takes things to the next level, doubling my flight time and taking control of the aircraft for a few turns.
With both feet firmly back on the ground, we say our farewells and trade air for sea as we head over to the docks to catch our ferry back to Stranraer. Four days in Ireland’s come and gone in an instant, but what we’ve seen has been worth waiting 24-years to experience.
Words: Bruce Wilson Photography: Bruce Wilson / Anna Lenton
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