I’ve had two holidays this summer: one week covered in glitter among half-clad party people at Soundwave in Croatia, and one week on a bike in Ireland. The first holiday was lazy in the extreme and spent indulgently, entirely in the pursuit of pleasure. In among the boat parties and late-night bouncing to drum n bass, I managed to read the whole of The Handmaid’s Tale, which offered a sobering antidote to the week’s hedonism.
The second holiday, by contrast, was more about simplicity and endurance – rising before 8am each morning and spending between five and seven hours on a rented hybrid bike, festooned with Ortlieb panniers and dry-bags, on the undulating roads of the Connemara. With my mum.
Now, I don’t want to broadcast my mother’s age here, but let’s just say that our ages added together make a nice round 100, a fact which prompted the cycling trip in the first place. I don’t know too many people her age who would easily tackle 50 miles a day on a trajectory including some serious altitudes, in weather that was, well, Irish. I definitely struggled more than her, particularly on the first day when we cycled from Galway to Roundstone (‘You’re cycling to Roundstone? Today?’ in the words of the owner of the B&B where we had stayed the night before). Granted, I hadn’t really cycled any distances for about four years and she had just returned from a four-week cycling holiday in Denmark – but, still. Respect. She was usually in front, turning round occasionally to ask ‘Everything ok?’
Th Connemara isn’t one of the world’s easiest places to cycle, although, I have to say, the road surfaces were excellent in all but one or two places. Oh, but it is beautiful there. Like, 360° unbelievably stunning. On some of the roads, you see only sheep for miles on end, and the only sounds you hear are those of the wind, of rushing water, the whirr of your wheels and the click-click of constant gear changes as you go up and down, up and down, up and down.
And sometimes you look back at the top of a steep hill and you think, ‘Did I really just come up all that way?’ It’s strange, because I was slightly daunted by the height differences beforehand, but the climbing was one of the things I enjoyed most: it’s not about speed, so you go very slowly and have all the time in the world to take in the views and study the small waterfalls and mossy rocks and clumps of heather by the side of the road as you go up and up and up. I have a renewed awe for the human body after this trip – it can do much more than we give it credit for.
We crossed the Partry Mountains and Sheeffrey Hills; we rode the Bog Road and the Sky Road; we went all along the Killary Fjord; we skirted Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. We stayed in Roundstone; Leenaun; Westport; Cong. I drank Guinness in the pubs in the evening; my mum, a variety of Irish craft ciders. I looked increasingly like some kind of wild animal as the week went on, my unshaved legs covered in road dirt; strange patches of sunburn where I had forgotten to apply sunscreen; my hair blowing in every direction. Zero fucks given, and not a hashtag in sight. For lunch, we’d find a flat stone or picnic bench to eat soda bread and sliced cheese. We’d stop off to eat and a banana and I would think, this is the best banana I have ever eaten in my entire life.
The Irish weather gods were obviously having some kind of domestic all through last week: it was changeable in the extreme, with plenty of torrential rain and strong headwinds. On the second morning, as we were due to set off from Roundstone, the rain poured harder and harder outside with no sign of a break in the clouds. We put all our waterproofs on and prepared to set off. ‘Rather you than me, ladies!’ said the owner of our B&B. Yes, at first the raindrops were hitting us straight in the face, and hard too, which I can’t pretend was extactly pleasant. But as soon as we turned left into the Bog Road, which in the rain and mist looked even more mysterious and haunted than it probably usually does, the wind changed and the rain eased off a little, light appeared in the sky and we were fine. As I know from many childhood holidays spent there, you don’t go to Ireland for the weather, and you never let the weather influence your plans.
As soon as we were on the coach back to Dublin, we made plans to return next year, when we will have reached the collective age of 102. We’ll leave the tent at home this time, as we didn’t use it once – one concession made to the weather gods. And we’ll book ourselves into a spa on the last day. Indulgence where indulgence is due.