The short B-road looping round the north-easternmost point of Northern Ireland looked innocuous on the map. On bikes it was anything but. We laboured up mighty hills, gasping for breath, hearts thumping, thighs aching, before coasting down the other side to begin the next excruciating ascent. Even the Giro d’Italia avoided this detour when the race came here in 2014.
It was worth the effort though. Torr Head is one of the most challenging rides in the province, but also the most sublime. Our slender ribbon of tarmac was fringed by yellow gorse, red fuchsias and lush green fields filled with frolicking lambs. The great hills, empty but for the occasional remote farmhouse, fell away to the placid Sea of Moyle far below. Twelve miles across that expanse of silver water loomed Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre.
I had been here before. In the late 1990s I was Belfast correspondent of The Times. Unaware of the terrain, I once brought my three young children up for what I thought would be a pleasant summer’s evening bike ride. It ended with them sitting exhausted in a pub, refusing to cycle another yard, while I fetched the car. Years passed before they got on bikes again.
I remembered Torr Head’s majesty, however, and I had longed to return - just as I had always wanted to return to Northern Ireland.
My Belfast years were punctuated by bombs, sectarian killings and tortuous peace talks, but I also discovered a Northern Ireland far removed from its dire international image – a province of great natural beauty and old-world charm, of warm, witty and welcoming people, of rich culture and history.
This time, therefore, I came as a tourist. I came to cycle 200 miles from Belfast to Londonderry around the gorgeous Antrim coast with several British and American friends. In no time they were equally enchanted.
We started, appropriately, at the blue plaque-site near Belfast’s preposterously magnificent City Hall where, in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop invented the inflatable tyre to make his young son’s tricycle more comfortable.
We then rode on our ultra-slim modern tyres up the loyalist Shankill Road, down the nationalist Falls Road, and through the great steel ‘peace wall’ that divides them. Both are still festooned with flags and murals proclaiming their rival allegiances, and the loyalists were building the bonfires with which they celebrate William of Orange’s 1690 victory over Catholic King James every July 12, but the sectarian hatreds that I remembered seem largely spent.
The murals are less belligerent, more commemorative, and painted by publicly funded artists. Tourists inspect neat memorials to slain ‘volunteers’, and visit the Republican plot in Milltown cemetery where the hunger striker Bobby Sands and other IRA ‘martyrs’ are buried. A few Republican dissidents fight on, but the Troubles are now history, not current affairs.
The rest of Belfast has changed hugely. Gone are the fortified police stations and armoured Land Rovers of the security forces. Foreigners, rarities in the 1990s, are now common. We rode out of the city along the cleaned-up River Lagan, past new hotels and shopping centres, yuppie apartment blocks and fancy offices, the trendy ‘Cathedral Quarter’ on our left and the impressive new Titanic museum on our right. For most of the past century the Titanic was airbrushed out of Belfast’s history, its sinking a terrible blow to the Protestant workforce that built it.
The weather has improved too. I remembered overcast skies and endless rain, but we rode past the villas that line Belfast Lough’s north shore, and Carrickfergus’s 800-year-old castle, and Kilroot where the scenery inspired an Anglican cleric named Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver’s Travels, in warm sun. A few brave children were even swimming off the stony beaches.
There was much to divert our American friends. The lough witnessed one of the first skirmishes of the American War of Independence, when a privateer attacked a Royal Navy sloop called the Drake. We passed Bonnybefore, the village from which the parents of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president, emigrated just in time for him to be born on American soil in 1767. In Larne a statue commemorating the departure of Ulster’s first emigrants to the US in 1717 justifiably proclaims: “There is no other race in the United States that can produce a roll of honour so long and so shining in distinction”.
By 1775 those Ulster-Scot emigrants accounted for a sixth of America’s population. They produced a dozen early presidents, several signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and frontiersmen like Davy Crockett and Kit Carson. Followers of King William who settled in the Appalachians were dubbed ‘hillbillies’.
Beyond Larne the traffic vanished. In the gentle light of a seemingly endless summer evening, the first of several punctures mended, we bowled along a lovely coast road, past flowering hawthorn trees and rhododendrons and meadows full of wild irises, skirting the headlands and sandy bays where Antrim’s nine glens run down to the sea. At the top of one, Glenarm, the 11th Earl of Antrim demanded to be buried upright so he could enjoy the view.
We stopped that night at the Londonderry Arms, a former coaching inn in Carnlough once owned by Winston Churchill. Little had changed since I last visited in 1998 – the same warm welcome, the same prawn cocktails and Chicken Maryland, the same bar dedicated to Arkle where we admired hairs from the great steeplechaser’s tail and one of his horse shoes over restorative pints of shandy. In one way only had the 21st century intruded. In the harbour opposite a scene from ‘Game of Thrones’ had recently been filmed – one of several locations for the television blockbuster that we would pass.
Fuelled by a hearty Ulster Fry breakfast, we tackled Torr Head in a soft Irish rain the next morning, then free-wheeled down into Ballycastle for a 30-minute ferry ride to Rathlin Island – a seven-mile stretch of largely treeless moor ringed by fortress-like cliffs. In a cave beneath those cliffs Robert the Bruce allegedly saw the spider whose web-weaving labours inspired him to resume battle with the English.
Apart from glorious views of various Scottish islands, Rathlin boasts one shop, bar and primary school, two nurses, three lighthouses, 140 residents and tens of thousands of sea birds. We saw most of the latter by peering gingerly over Rathlin’s western extremity. The rocky outcrops below were carpeted with cacophonous puffins, razorbills and guillemots - and their pungent excrement.
We ate steak, kelp pasta and mountains of chips at McCuaig’s Bar, and woke the next morning to such thick fog that Rathlin had vanished, like a dream, within minutes of our departure. Back on the mainland we headed west to see the peace dividend made flesh.
Carrick-a-Rede, a small island reached by a wobbly rope bridge strung across a deep chasm, was heaving with tourists from China, North America and Europe. So was the famous Giant’s Causeway, despite its exorbitant entrance fee. So was the 400-year-old Bushmills whiskey distillery where you could become intoxicated on the vapours alone. Mass tourism is manifestly good for Northern Ireland, but I mourned the days when I visited these places alone.
Some of our group went on to Dunluce Castle, Ballintoy harbour and an avenue of ancient beech trees known as the Dark Hedges, which all appear in ‘Game of Thrones’. I fled inland, away from the crowds and traffic, through villages that scarcely bother to broadcast their allegiances any more. The flags are tattered, the painted kerb stones faded. “Aye, the heat’s gone out of it,” one man remarked. That evening we played golf on a delightfully empty course, and dined off local fish and lamb, at Aghadowey’s charming Brown Trout Inn. A solitary faded photo showed how an IRA bomb wrecked the place in 1973.
Our last day’s cycling began at Downhill Demesne, the shell of an 18th-century mansion built by Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry, who sprinkled flour in the upstairs corridors at night to show who had visited whom. The ruin is now surrounded by acres of rolling grass, buttercups and daisies that end in vertiginous cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Perched dramatically on their edge stands the Mussenden Temple, a Romanesque folly which Hervey named after his own lover.
We swooped down to the great white beach at Downhill, then slogged up Binevenagh mountain for a breathtaking panorama of land, sea and sky. Far to the north was Islay, the southernmost island of the Hebrides. To the west, beyond the mouth of Lough Foyle, was Donegal’s Inishowen peninsular. Behind us was open moorland, beyond which we enjoyed another exhilarating descent into a great green valley flanked by the Sperrin Mountains and covered with the patchwork fields of tiny farms.
We stopped to rest our tired legs in a somnolent farming village called Claudy where, one July morning in 1972, three large IRA car bombs killed nine innocent inhabitants including an eight-year-old girl and a mother of eight. A priest, Father James Chesney, was widely suspected of involvement. Today a statue of an anguished woman is the only obvious reminder of that atrocity, and it is hard to believe that such things happened amid so much bucolic loveliness.
Our last 20 miles took us through tranquil valleys, along country lanes filled with the sweet scent of cow parsley, past freshly cut hay meadows and over tiny streams. Weary but triumphant, we rode into Londonderry along the River Foyle and checked into a splendid Georgian bed-and-breakfast called the Merchant’s House.
Londonderry, one of the finest walled cities in Europe, was where the Troubles erupted in 1968. It now leads Northern Ireland’s renaissance. A curvy new pedestrian ‘peace bridge’ now spans the Foyle, linking the Catholic and Protestant communities on either side. We walked across it to dine at the Walled City Brewery which recently opened in a notorious former army base, Ebrington Barracks. “We’re unshackling ourselves from our past,” James Huey, the brewery’s owner, said.
The next day Christy Kyle, a former IRA paramilitary who spent four years in the Maze for ambushing British soldiers, gave us a tour of the Bogside, where British soldiers killed 14 unarmed civil rights marchers on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972. Tellingly, Kyle now works to consolidate the peace.
Another genial Derryman, Garvin Kerr, showed us the mile-long city walls that enabled 30,000 Protestant settlers to withstand a 105-day siege by James’s Catholic army in 1689 - though they were reduced to eating cats and rats. He showed us the house where Cecil Frances Alexander wrote ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, and the factories through which Londonderry became the world’s leading shirt manufacturer, supplying both sides in the American civil war. He explained how the allies hunted U-boats from Londonderry during World War Two, and how the German submarine fleet surrendered there in 1945.
He ended at the Fountain estate - a tiny, fenced-in loyalist enclave below the walls with a defiant ‘No Surrender’ mural at its entrance. It, too, now seems like a vestige of a banished past, just another historical curiosity in a province moving on.