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The Celtic Cycling Circle: Eastern Ireland and Western Wales

10 Apr 2023
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Ireland and Wales have long established cycling routes that once completed are rarely repeated. The Celtic Cycling Circle meets a long-awaited need for a brand new route suited to touring cyclists, e-bike riders, fundraisers and culture vultures that is unique in three distinctive ways: Firstly the route introduces touring cyclists to some of the historic bonds that connect Ireland with Wales. Secondly there is no designated starting point or end point; being a circle, cyclists can join or leave at a point that is most convenient to them. And with no set destination to race towards its attraction is all about the journey and let's face it, this is what touring on a pedal bike is all about. Thirdly cyclists social media forums regularly comment that established cycling routes in Ireland and Wales are somewhat challenging for novice cyclists. The Celtic Cycling Circle strives to overcome that drawback by dividing the route into stages that match the ability of many novice riders with the added bonus that each stage is worth stopping at to explore, savour and enjoy. For cyclists using basic e-bikes an average stage distance of 35 miles is comfortably within the range of most fully charged batteries.

This route visits the 5 Celtic port towns connected and intertwined by ferry routes serving Holyhead, Dublin, Rosslare, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard. The landscape and history of those areas can be viewed on the ‘Ports, Past and Present‘ suite of YouTube films. The journey covers a distance of 592km / 368 miles that can be travelled in one go which is great for those seeking a fund-raising challenge, or at a slower pace to suit the circumstances of individual cyclists ; in the Spring of 2022 my cycling journeyed at a very leisurely pace 259 miles / 416km along the West Coast of Wales. Then six months later I cycled 176km/ 109 miles along the East coast of Ireland.

To witness sunrise I boarded an overnight ferry to Rosslare Europort located in the south east of Ireland. The more popular alternative is the 14:45 ferry from Pembroke Dock which arrives in Rosslare Europort at 18:46 allowing ample time to reach and stay overnight in Wexford. For those arriving on the night ferry who do not want to cycle in complete darkness I strongly recommend staying in one of the many guest houses or hotels that can be found just outside the Port and in Rosslare town who with an advanced booking arrangement will accommodate passengers arriving in the early hours of the morning.

Stage 1 Port of Rosslare to Wexford 27km / 17miles: This morning my journey followed the east coast of Ireland and began by using a local cycling route numbered 3, a magical network of traffic free country lanes which at this time of the morning was in total darkness. As all you can see is limited to the distance of the front light’s shine other senses, particularly smell and hearing are heightened. The cold night air smelt surprisingly refreshing. Rustling noises coming from trees and hedges combined with occasional squeals from the undergrowth to betray the presence of wildlife. To dispel a myth that nothing can be seen at night my bike light shone firstly on a mother rat crossing the lane with her young family – I guess she was visiting friends , then a stealthy red fox whose beautiful slit green eyes glowed, sparkled and beamed back at me like a pair of precious emeralds. Knowing I would be cycling in complete darkness during the early hours and semi darkness at the end of the day, I fitted two headlights; a 3000 lumen headlight with sufficient power to last 3 hours would be used in the morning and a smaller 1000 lumen light would be used for the end of the day. Then to be seen on the road a pair of high intensity rear lights flickered to alert motorists of my presence throughout the journey. 16km/10miles later dark country lanes joined a main road into Wexford town. It used to be the case that only milkmen and people ‘up to no good‘ are out and about at 5am so it came as no surprise to have attracted the attention of the Gardaí. For cyclists visiting Ireland for the first time there are alternative ways of getting the attention of the emergency services. As is the case in the UK you should ring 999 or if you prefer 112. The Gardaí began to follow me, their presence unnerving despite me having nothing to be nervous about. So I stopped by a monument at the harbour-side thinking if they wanted to know anything I would rather be asked than stalked, yet they drove past and accelerated away. By not cycling I began to feel cold so poured a coffee from my bicycle flask then strolled around the monument with the cup warming my hands. I read the monument is dedicated to a locally born man named John Barry who became an American Navy captain fighting the English Navy back in the late 1700s. The English tried to bribe him to abandon the American cause but knowing that they could not be trusted he replied by sinking all their ships. From the harbour I visited Wexford Westgate. During Norman times Wexford was a walled town and this was one of several entrances built into the wall. It is now a Heritage Centre where the story of the Normans in Wexford is explained and aided by guided walks. Wexford is a lovely town with a fine selection of shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Cyclists wanting an overnight stay can choose from ‘Fay the Guesthouse’ with a lockable garage for bicycles and ‘The Amber Springs Hotel’ or ‘The Riverbank House Hotel’ allow e-bikes to be recharged in their premises.

Stage 2 Wexford to Gorey 48km / 29 miles From Wexford town I spent the next 2 hours in cyclists’ paradise with no people, streetlights, traffic or buildings. Solo cycling in complete darkness certainly keeps your mind in the present.By 7am I entered an environment that had been denatured by and for the benefit of people to live, work and move further and faster than simple leg power allows. The trees and hedgerows of mother nature have been replaced by homes for people to live in, buildings for work and shops to provide food and household items. For cyclists seeking an overnight stay, The ‘Ashdown Park Hotel’ is a 5 minute ride from the town centre and has an indoor space to store bicycles and recharge e-bikes.

Stage 3: Gorey to Wicklow 45km / 28 miles From Gorey it takes roughly an hour to cycle along local cycling route number 2 that follows the R772, a fairly level 20km/12mile road towards Arklow. The new day was heralded by a fine mist of light showers, marked by a collective twittering, tweeting and chirps from birds. Autumnal colours looked like a landscape painting that could befit the finest art gallery; canopies of trees that once bore the green leafs of summer were changing into delicate golds tipped with strong surges of reds. As the morning air became less still some gently fluttered down from their branches to lay at rest on the ground. This morning will be a lasting memory. Cyclists wanting to stay in town may wish to book into the ‘Arklow Bay Hotel’ who offer an indoor area to store and recharge bicycles. Joe’s Bike Shop at 49 Lower Main Street is the local go- to place for spares, repairs and recharging of e-bike batteries. From Arklow I cycled a further 27km /17 miles to Wicklow along the R750 which carried very little traffic as most vehicles were using the M11 running parallel to my road. An unexpected feature of todays ride was the arrival of Storm Claudio bringing with it very strong winds followed by heavy rain. When route planning I had calculated an average e-bike speed of 24km/15mph would take 4 hours to cover the 91km/ 57 mile distance between Wexford and Wicklow. This morning justified my decision to journey with, rather than against, the prevailing wind. Storm Claudio propelled me along the roads at an average speed of 32km/ 20 mph that delivered me into Wicklow an hour earlier than I had calculated. By now I had been cycling for 6 hours and had ridden over 70 miles; needless to say my e-bike battery needed some fresh energy and so did I. Fortunately Ciara Kavanagh, owner of ‘The Sports Room’ on Abbey Street, had given prior permission for me to recharge my e-bike battery in her premises and joy-oh-joy, The Sports Room even has its own café . As it would take an hour or so to recharge my bicycle battery I went for a walk around Wicklow town. Whilst most EU countries use a 2-pin plug Ireland uses the 3-pin plug and socket, so e-bike users do not need to use a travel adaptor. After connecting my e-bike to a charging point I enjoyed a lovely leisurely breakfast then looked around the store to appreciate the high quality of bicycles, sports clothing and accessories for sale at affordable prices. This amazing place supports health and fitness in the local community through organised activities including walks, runs, swims, road biking and mountain biking. It even has its own a bicycle workshop where competent staff offer spares and repairs. There is so much to see and do in Wicklow, including a walk along the town heritage trail, that Wicklow is worthy of an overnight stay

Stage 4 Wicklow to the Port of Dublin 56km / 35miles From Wicklow I cycled towards Dublin via Bray along the R761 using roadside cycleways through the villages of Rathnew and Newcastle. I made my way to number 1 Martello Terrace. In the late 1960s my ‘O’ level studies included English Literature and read ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (1916) written by James Joyce. His story includes a Christmas scene based in the living room of his family home . Not wanted to intrude on the privacy of its present owners, I photographed the house from a respectful distance. Martello Terrace was named after several Martello Towers built nearby including Sandycove which now houses The James Joyce Museum. He was known to have lived in the tower and the opening of his most famous book ‘Ulysses‘ (1922) begins here. I then made my way to Dún Laoghaire harbour. For centuries people have left the shores of Ireland to seek work overseas, including my great grandfather who once lived in County Sligo. I then cycled into Dublin alongside the River Liffey. During the last quarter of the 19th century the Liffey needed to be dug deeper to instate harbour walls. The Liffey would then be used for the berthing of deep water boats to bring or export goods from the centre of Dublin. A diving bell was used to access and excavate the river bed which now rests on the North Quay as an educational and tourist attraction. I stopped in Dublin to enjoy a pint of its national drink, reputed to have medicinal qualities – a national legend that allegedly strips away harmful deposits of cholesterol from artery walls -  then wobbled to the  ferry Port of Dublin.

Stage 5: Pembroke Dock to Fishguard Harbour 31 miles / 50km The transition into and from the season of summer reveals natures colours at their very best. This springtime journey through Wales occurred six months before my autumnal bicycle ride along the east coast of Ireland. And to benefit from a prevailing rather than a head wind, both rides followed a south to north direction. I stayed overnight at The Lakeside Guest House who allow e-bikes to be recharged in their premises. Then the following morning I coasted downhill to explore the dockyard road network and make my way to the Irish ferry terminal that stands inside the former Royal Naval Dockyard. Since the 17th century over 260 warships and 5 Royal Yachts were built here as was the Sunderland flying boat. During the 2nd world war the dock was a flying boat base to detect German U boats and destroy them with aerial mines / depth charges. In the spring of 1979 the hangers that once housed Sunderland flying boats were used to build Pembroke Docks very last ship, a spaceship called ‘The Millennium Falcon’. It was taken in sections from here to Londons Elstree studios and then featured in all the Star Wars films. The visitors centre now houses a display to show how the spaceship was made. When Pembroke Dock ceased to have military importance the present ferry terminal was built for crossings to and from Rosslare that now occur twice daily and take roughtly 4 hours. My purpose in visiting the ferry terminal was to see a mural by Pembrokeshire artist Robert Jakes. Called ‘The Sea of Stories’ it is a ceramic mural that hangs on the wall in the ferry terminal café area. From here I made my way to Fishguard along a traffic free former railway track named the Brunel Way that led to Haverfordwest from where B, C and unclassified roads took me to Fishguard.

Stage 6 From Fishguard to Newcastle Emlyn 28m / 45km  Fishguard and Goodwick also offer a ferry service to Rosslare and the town hall of Fishguard displays a tapestry  records the very last invasion of Britain made by the French. Over 200 years ago they landed along the sea front I had just walked along with an army of 1,500. It is said that a local heroine named Jemima Nicholas captured several soldiers single handedly with nothing more than a pitch fork. The French surrendered at the nearby Royal Oak Pub. The table where the surrender was signed can be seen together with a wall plaque commemorating that event. There is no shortage of accommodation that allow e-bike owners to recharge their bicycles battery. For cyclists needing any running repairs or spares Pembrokeshire cycles is located in the town on Hamilton Street from where I set off towards Newcastle Emlyn using a mixture of B roads and unclassified single track roads that carried very little traffic. Here I witnessed the pure joy of springtime cycling – new leaves growing on trees and the blossom of Hawthorn and Blackthorn hedgerows. I even crossed a ford, a rare find these days. My 3 hours journey to Newcastle Emlyn entailed steep hills and lengthy free-wheeling descents punctuated by the joy of riding along glorious traffic free lanes.

Stage 7: Newcastle Emlyn to Lampeter 20m / 32 km Newcastle Emlyn is a town that developed in size alongside the river Teifi where a weir used to harness the potential of river water to power a woollen mill and a corn mill. For a short while a turbine was fitted that provided the town with electricity. With the current fuel crisis perhaps that scheme ought to be reintroduced. The towns attractions include its castle, independent shops, places to eat suiting every taste and a wide variety of accommodation. Bikes can be accommodated in a former Coaching Inn called Gwestyr Emlyn where e-bikes can recharged. From here the next stage of Lampeter is 20 miles / 32km away. The journey takes a little over 2 hours and involves short sections of a busy ‘A’ road and quieter ‘B’ roads.

Stage 8: Lampeter to Aberystwyth 35 miles / 56km  Lampeter is home to the oldest University in Wales – Trinity Saint Davids – who host the occasional peoples market. Other attractions include a gold mine and Lampeter’s Victoria Hall. If time allows visit Strata Florida ( The Vale of Flowers ) Abbey that has stood on lush meadows beside the banks of the river Teifi since 1201 and is the final resting place for generations of medieval Welsh princes. You can still see some of the incredible decorated tiles that at one time covered all the ground. From Lampter the miles to Aberystwyth followed fairly level ground along a velvety smooth ‘B’ road that I found extremely comfortable, safe and speedy. Then I descended along the traffic free national cycling route 81 and wrongly assumed it would be equally smooth going. Sadly the cycling surface quickly deteriorated into a dirt track with pot holes and sharp stone that risked punctures. To make matters worse a drift of 50 or so sheep were marching towards me. I was later informed this section of NCR 81 is an ancient drovers route known as Ystrad Meurig. Wheeling my bicyle into a hedgerow I waited for the sheep to pass by. This took ages and when the occasional sheep stopped to look at me so did many others. And there they stayed until the physical force of followers pushed the flock forwards. After they passed by I checked myself for ticks and continued cycling until the next delay – a single track that was so narrow it is best suited to walkers not riders. With the benefit of hindsight I would have stayed on the quiet and comfortable ‘B’ road rather than this time consuming NCR detour which actually rejoined the ‘B’ road I was taken from inorder to reach Aberystwyth.

Stage 9 Aberystwyth to The George III at Penmaenpool 35miles / 56km  Aberystwyth has no shortage of hotel or guest house accommodation to suit all budgets that allow access to a plug socket where e-bikes can be recharged. For bicycle repairs and spares Summit Cycles can be found in a prominent position along the North Parade. Before its status as a hugely respected University town Aberystwyth harbour was a major employer with over 300 ships registered here and sailings crossed to harbours along the east coast of Ireland. An early morning start took me along quiet ‘B’ roads to the seaside resort of Borth. Thankfully my e-bike reduced the effort of cycling up a 25%  hill to avoid the distance I would otherwise need to cycle along a busy ‘A’ road . Yet exiting Borth I had no option so stopped for a rest in a village called Furnace. From here I had to rejoin a busy road to reach Machynlleth was a mere 3 miles away. On the outskirts of town a patchy arrangement of bicycle paths provided respite from passing vehicles. Machynlleth is signed as being the ancient capital of Wales from where Euro-Velo 2 can be accessed. EV2 received mention earlier in this story, it starts in Dublin and ends in Moscow. This morning I followed the route along single track roads and by-ways to reach Dolgellau, 15 miles / 24km away. Dolgellau offers numerous places to stay to suit all budgets and most allow bicycles to be stored where e-bike batteries can be recharged. For spares and repairs Dolgellau cycles is located in a prominent position in the town centre on Smithfield Street. An alternative to staying in the town is to make an advanced booking at the George III in Penmaenpool. The George is reached by following National Cycling Route 8 along a cycling path known as Morfa Mawddach which is clearly signed from the centre of Dolgellau. The George allows bicycles to be stored overnight and allow access to a plug socket for the recharging of e-bike batteries. In years gone by this section of NCR 8 was a railway track used by trains that journeyed here from Deeside. The signalling is a reminder of its heritage. After an evening meal at the George consider taking a leisurely stroll along the Morfa Mawddach Trail towards Barmouth and read the public information boards that record an interesting history of that particular area. On a clear evening watch the sun as it sets beyond Barmouth Bridge. It was from this vantage point that William Wordsworth once wrote: ” The gentleness of heaven is on the sea“

Stage 10: Penmaenpool to Tremadog 30 miles / 48km: When leaving the George a 2 mile cycle ride along the Morfa Mawddach Trail to reach Barmouth and beyond is sheer joy. The terrain is flat and the mountainous surrounds contrast with sea views have been painted by JMW Turner and is displayed in Londons Tate art gallery. Pigots Commercial Directory lists the trades, tradesmen, professionals and transport links in the 19th century. Conveyance by water included regular sailings between Barmouth and Dublin. From Barmouth ten miles of safe cycling along the A496  provides cycling paths for large sections of the route  to the outskirts of Harlech and the picture-postcard hamlet of Llandanwg. Here the church in the sand dunes dates back to the 5th century, a period in time when Druids in Wales were being challenged by peoples conversions to Christianity by monks sent here by St Patrick. This particular church is written to be one of the oldest Christian foundations in Wales. In those days a place where a church stood was known in the Welsh language as Llan, hence the name of this hamlet of Llandanwg. In due course a small collection of homes would gather around churches and over the passge of time some of those settlements have become towns including Llandudno. When cycling from the churchyard to rejoin the Harlech road cyclists can top up their water bottles at the Morlyn Guest house who are part of the refill revolution, so your fresh water will be supplied without cost. If your ride coincides with Irelands national holiday on March 17th – the date St. Patrick is reputed to have died, floodlighting saturates Castell Harlech in emerald; Ireland is often identified as the Emerald Isle due to climatic conditions that colours the countryside emerald green. Harlech is famed for its castle that has ancient links with Ireland through a Welsh book called The Mabinogi. The Mabinogi was written during the 3rd century and includes a collection of mythological stories told under 4 branches. The second branch tells this story of a lady called Branwen who married a King of Ireland. A few years ago a road in the centre of Harlech named Fford Pen Llech was judged to be the steepest street in the world with a gradient of 37.45%. More recent evidence proves that Baldwin Street in New Zealand is the steepest street in the world. Nevertheless Fford Pen Llech is the undisputed 2nd steepest street and cyclists from Éire have participated in time trails to reach the top. From Harlech a gentle descent through the villages of Penrhyndeudraeth and Minnfford leads into the town of Porthmadog, twinned with Wicklow.

Stage 11: Tremadog to Menai Bridge 28 miles / 45km Apart from A.E. Lawrence ( of Arabia) being born in Tremadog this village holds further historic interest; Tremadog was built in the early nineteenth century as part of a visionary idea from the mind of William Maddocks. His plan was to create road scheme carrying parliamentarians and mail between Dublin from London. Tremadog would provide a staging post where horses would be exchanged when making their way to or from a packet boat service operating from a natural harbour in Porthdinllaen, roughly 20 miles away. He was so confident in his plan that two of the streets in Tremadog were named London Street and Dublin Street. And as his proposed route was due to the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland he intended to name its total length ‘The Union Road’. Then in 1802 he opened a tavern in the village square and named it ‘The Union Inn’ which still stands today.  His proposal very nearly succeeded. A casting vote by the speaker of the House of Commons kept the Dublin packet boat service at Holyhead. Thomas Telford was then commissioned to build a road from London to the Port of Holyhead ( the Holyhead Road) and the respected Irish surveyor William Dargan to build the Dublin Road between Howth Harbour and Dublin Castle, known as the Dublin Road. From Tremadog I followed National Cycling Route 8 to join Lôn Eifion, a well used cycle route covering a distance of 12 miles / 19km between Brycir and Caernarfon. Mid-way along the track is a cycle friendly cafe named Inigo Jones. It is worth stopping here as the complex that it sits in includes a slate workshop that celebrates the heritage of local slate mining. Arriving in Caernarfon the first sight is its castle, one of several that were built some 600 years ago by order of King Edward 1st who wanted to ensure Wales was kept under English rule. In 1969 the now ‘King Charles’ was crowned Prince of Wales here; over the past 50 years that event is responsible for generating millions of tourist pounds. For cyclists needing spares or repairs Beics Antur is located in the High Street and those needing places to stay will be spoilt from a choice of 10 hotels or guest houses, most of whom accommodate bicycles and allow batteries to be recharged. Those not wishing to stay in town can cycle to a Premier Inn at Menai Bridge who allow bikes in bedrooms where e-bikes can plug into a power supply.

Stage 12: Menai Bridge to the Port of Holyhead 31miles / 50kms Two bridges cross the Menai Strait from mainland Wales onto the Island of Angelsey (Ynys Môn ) to reach the Port of Holyhead. The first bridge you come to, Britannia Bridge, is too dangerous for crossing by bicycle. Continue towards Bangor and use the Menai Suspension Bridge. The Menai Bridge was the worlds first suspension bridge that is best viewed from a lay-by a mile or so along the A5 in Ynys Môn. The bridge was originally built for Mail and Stagecoaches to-ing and fro-ing from the Port of Holyhead. This is evident when looking at its arches that were built to accommodate their width and height. When the bridge was completed in 1826 it became the worlds first major suspension bridge bridge from where National Cycling Route 8 follows a winding route that 20 years ago kept cyclists safe from large goods vehicles and hostile traffic. These days most vehicles heading to Holyhead use a purpose built dual carriageway, the A55. For that reason this route follows Telford’s original road to Holyhead the A5. The road is not particularly busy and allows cyclists to follow a reasonably straight road. When reaching Holyhead to simply board a ferry to Ireland or from Ireland to journey into mainland Wales, would miss seeing a multitude of historic attractions. These include the Breakwater Country Park and Holyhead Maritime Museum. The Breakwater Country Park nestles into Holyhead mountain. The reception area includes information signage with suggested walks and there is a small complex of buildings where local art is displayed and refreshments supplied at an outlet staffed by volunteers raising funds to protect North Wales Wildlife.  The second of many attractions in Holyhead is the maritime museum, based in Britains oldest lifeboat station. Before entering the building a former air raid shelter (the brick building visible beyond the grass bank on the right of this photograph) is well worth a visit; firstly to experience being inside an air raid shelter and secondly to view an exhibition of local war time memorabilia kindly donated by the people of Holyhead. Their generosity helps to offer a glimpse of life during those traumatic years. Inside the former lifeboat building the museum contains an extensive display that tells a story of Holyheads’ maritime history, its people and the hazardous work they undertook. For cyclists wishing to stay in Holyhead for a day or so, most hotels and guest houses have space for bicycles to be stored and allow e-bike batteries recharged. For those arriving in or departing from Holyhead by train, there is a direct line to major towns in the north west and midlands of England along its route into London. This story was introduced with an invitation to watch the golden glow of the sun setting from the West coast of Wales. So there is no better place to end than with view of the setting sun taken from Holyhead mountain.