Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Through the Hedge Backwards

Lambs, Near Armoy
On Monday morning I went on a scouting ride to the Dark Hedges. The site is just outside the village of Armoy, about 10 miles inland from where I am staying. The inland roads here are flat-ish by local standards. The weather was looking good. It would be a nice and easy ride. And of course, I would finally see the mysterious old trees. I had elaborate photographic plans for them.

I set off after having breakfast in town. As a reader has astutely noted after a previous post, every exit from Ballycastle is uphill. I picked one that was relatively mild - though not the mildest, as I wanted to avoid the congested main road that leads out of town. The climbing began straight away.

Ballycastle to Armoy
The terrain in Antrim is difficult to describe to someone who has never been here. Coming from New England, it was a jolt to my system. We do have hills in New England of course, but they are "rollers" mainly - relatively short, if steep, ups and downs where the momentum from a descent can be used to get up the next hill fairly easily. If we want more serious hills than that - either steeper or more sustained climbs - we have to seek them out. And almost any route involves plenty of flat stretches as well, providing opportunities to rest from climbing and descending. 

Here in Antrim it is rather different. Most routes I have ridden so far have consisted of long climbs at a mild grade, punctuated by shorter but steeper climbs. There are almost no truly flat stretches, along the central part of the coast at least, no opportunities to rest. It is either a long up or a long down. Even at a mild grade, sustained climbs are draining for someone who is not accustomed to them. Being used to New England terrain, I have learned to "attack" hills, but that approach does not work here. When there is no end in sight, attacking just saps energy - it is far better to relax, get into a low gear, settle in, and spin while enjoying the view.

Ballycastle to Armoy
The landscape en route to Armoy is pretty enough. But on the coast of Antrim one soon gets spoiled with astonishingly dramatic views, and these were fairly plain in comparison. Farms mostly, stone walls, lots of adorable lambs basking in the sunshine.

The morning was a sunny one, but the skies were a dark slate-gray. The combination created a moody landscape that I kept wanting to stop and photograph. But I decided against taking photos until the return trip, because I wanted to make it to my destination while the weather was good. You never know here from one hour to the next.

Ballycastle to Armoy
Still, half way through I was seduced by a particularly fetching view of heavy skies over a dilapidated farm house. I could not help myself and stopped to take a quick picture. 

No sooner than I took out my camera and composed the shot, the sun disappeared. Now it was just the dark sky, and the scene looked rather dismal. As I debated whether to wait for the  sun to re-emerge or get back on the bike, it began to rain - so suddenly that I barely had time to shove my camera back inside the handlebar bag. 

And then I felt something sharp on my face. What the...? 

All at once, it was hailing. Hard. The morning light disappeared entirely as shards of ice pelted the earth - and me - with violent force. At first I was too stunned to do or even think anything. Then I began to panic. I had stopped in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest settlement 5 miles away in either direction. There was no shelter here - no trees, no canopy of any kind. The dilapidated farm house was separated by a barb wire fence, so I could not hide out in it. The temperature kept dropping. The hail kept falling. "Am I going to perish here?" I thought. I did not know what to do.

But then I realised... that I didn't really need to "do" anything other than pull up the hood of my raincoat. I had dressed warmly. I was wearing a waterproof coat and shoes. Everything was fine. I could simply enjoy this natural phenomenon... and hope there would be no lightning. 

Armoy, Northern Ireland
Thankfully, there wasn't. The hail soon let up and it was just the rain now. I got back on the bike and soon reached the village of Armoy. The Dark Hedges would only be a few miles from here.

I should mention that I had seen no other cyclists on this route up to this point, and very few motor vehicles had passed me outside of settled areas. It was just me, all alone, in what was now almost comically terrible weather.

Armoy, Northern Ireland
When I reached the village of Armoy, it looked eerily abandoned. Houses on the main street boarded up, shops and pubs closed. Finally I passed a small grocery store that was open and came in to get a hot coffee from the machine. Nine Inch Nails played on the radio, contrasting wildly with the quiet shuffle of the two elderly patrons. 

The pale, lanky teenager at the cash register (ah that explained the music) took an interest in my "wee folding bike" and confirmed the directions to the Hedges. He then refused payment for the coffee - which I have found happens here often. I left the money on the counter anyway, in case one of the other shoppers was short on change.

Ballycastle to Armoy
It continued to rain, though less violently, as I turned onto Gracehill Road, then finally Bregagh Road. On the corner an old man was sitting inside a bus shelter - a solitary figure in an otherwise desolate landscape. Simultaneously we waved to one another as I cycled past.

Now the road grew narrow and the vegetation wild. I began to climb a tedious hill as rain obscured my vision. I thought that I'd be able to see the famous trees in the distance by now and that this sight would at least encourage my progress, but the top of the hill blocked my view of what lay further. I realised how exhausted I was at this point from all the climbing I had done on this "flat" route, and from the rain, and from the cold. Honestly, I just wanted to get it over at this point and was no longer even excited about the Hedges. 

But just then, at long last, I crested the hill. And at that exact moment the sun came out. And the rain turned into hail again. And that is when I saw them.

Dark Hedges, Hail Storm
The Dark Hedges - in the hail, fog, and sunshine simultaneously.  Descending under the canopy of twisted  branches was like passing through a tunnel. I then turned around, propped the bike against a tree, took out my camera and spent the next hour taking photos - about 500 of them, capturing the ethereal sight in a variety of weather conditions. "Four seasons in  day," as they like to say here. 

I've since visited the trees again, and I might write about them in more detail later. But on this occasion it was really a matter of the journey more than the destination. The experience of seeing the long-awaited Hedges as I crested that hill... no photo can capture it. 

At the Dark Hedges, After Storm
It was not the weather for tourists, but at some point a car drove past and pulled over on the side of the road. Just as the rain finally stopped, a couple jumped out to take pictures. Seeing me there, they asked whether I could take one of them both. I did, after which they took one of me. Rather appropriately, I look like I've been dragged through the hedge backwards. What a ride this turned out to be.

45 comments:

  1. Danm Veloria you do some great writing now!

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    1. This is one of the best "Ireland" posts so far. I am always struck how a good writer can turn a brief ride into an enthralling read while a bad one can make a world tour epic into something you have to skim through to get through (I am thinking of two cycling world tour books).

      Why the black and white?

      Long, mild inclines: the best terrain for fixed gear riding!

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    2. I like the black and white

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  2. It has been unseasonably cold but hopefully your visit to the Dark Hedges was worth it. I can relate to the weather as our V-CC Ride to the 'Hedges' was in October, which turned out cold and wet. Your images of 'wur wee patch' are excellent. I hope the warmth of the local welcome has in some small way made up for the cold miserable weather.

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  3. So much drama for a wee 20 mile ride :) You are a good writer.

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    1. Hey, I'll have you know it was a 35 mile ride! Took the long way home for more "flat" climbing practice : )

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    2. So what keeps you going, soda bread?

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    3. Potato bread and pancakes! My God, they know what they are doing with that stuff here. I could probably eat warm potato bread all day.

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  4. Sounds like you are having the time of your life!
    Same weather here by the way. Three rounds of hail this morning. Before the last one ended a bright sun came trough.
    Looking forward to your next posting.
    badmother

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  5. I am enjoying your posts from Ireland (Republic and NA)immensely! Thanks for taking the time to write these up. I could not imagine a better time could be had!

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  6. Velouria, I've read this twice now, each time with a mixture of vicarious pleasure that you're having such wonderful experiences in such a lovely place and envy that I'm not there myself.

    I'm so pleased you're enjoying Antrim. I've always been frustrated at how often this part of Ireland is overlooked in itineraries... seeing you enjoy your visit and genuinely "get" my people is a source of joy.

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    1. A part of me is glad that there aren't many tourists here, but I am not glad at how much the area is suffering economically. Sad to see so many businesses closed now.

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  7. Peppy (I can has give chase)May 16, 2012 at 5:36 PM

    mmm tasty lambs

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  8. I can see why those trees were worth the trip... great photograph!

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  9. Your description of the long climbs requiring patience and low gears is revealing. I had wondered at the low gearing employed by a British writer in Bicycle Quarterly.
    What's the story on the blurry, black and white images? I rather like the abstract black and white but am wondering about the look of having been 'taken with my phone'?

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    1. I felt black and white images worked better here. They were not taken with my phone.

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    2. They're not all blurry, maybe a couple missed ideal focus, or had to be opened wider than ideal due to lack of light?

      The blurriest is the one of V, that's the trouble with letting others touch your camera :)

      Overall, I think they're very very lovely photos!

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    3. Anon, on the low gear point, most of Britain, unlike Antrim, is not v hilly, and hills are pretty small. But for reasons I don't understand, a lot of the roads go pretty straight up, rather than winding up, so the roads can be steep, even over unimpressive hills. Devon and Cornwell (SW) have lots of 20% hills, and quite a few 25% stretches. In any of the remotely hilly areas, you can get some surprisingly steep stretches. When I cycled in France, I really noticed that climbs weren't that steep, but seemed to go on for ever.

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    4. Anon 2:31 -My camera is particularly hard to use, so when others take pictures of me with it they almost never come out in focus.

      To me photographic style is a very personal thing. There is more than one style, more than one approach. I take pictures to communicate the feeling of having been there; I am not interested in technical perfection. Sometimes things like tilted horizons and non-standard focus enhance the shot in this respect.

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    6. Posted as Anon (2:31) before, trying to quit that anon business now, I really enjoy your photographic style, and besides that, who cares what I think! I take photos to put up on my own wall, I am no where near daring enough to post them online!

      I can definitely sympathize with "hard to use", after proposing to my girlfriend (now wife) on a trail in Yosemite a hiker passed by a bit later and offered to take a photo with my camera, I handed over a micro 4/3rds with old adapted 35mm/f2 Nikon lens and asked if he could focus manually. He replied "of course!", but the photo turned out terribly out of focus...

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  10. Well done, you got the picture. For rolling hills you need to go to County Down, south of Belfast and cycle over the drumlins. These largish mounds give the landscape the nickname 'basket of eggs'. I love them for precisely that sensation you describe of having the momentum from a descent take you up the next hill. Unless, of course, the wind saps it. Thanks for the link. I'd love you to come to my book launch next week.

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    1. Thanks for the invite, I will have a look at when it is.

      Basket of eggs - evocative!

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  11. Absolutely, brilliantly, amazing. Well done you. Thanks for sharing

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  12. I remember being caught in a violent hail storm whilst walking the dog through vineyards with no cover in sight. Whilst cowering next to a 3ft fence post, bent double to protect a shivering beagle, I suddenly realised - hail hurts!

    I'm loving your wonderful photographs since you've been in Ireland. Thanks :-)

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  13. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this; thanks for such a well-written piece! Is this your longest trip to-date on the Brompton? How did it manage the grades?

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    1. It was only marginally longer than my previous longest Brompton ride to date (26 miles), but it was far more challenging. It manages the grades fine with the lowered gearing. I will write about this soon in more detail.

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  14. There are rollers, then there are hills, and then there are mountains. All take a bit different riding technique. I was a climbing specialist in my day the low gear grind is way too familiar :P

    Glad to see you made the Dark Hedges. It is on my short bucket list.

    Aaron

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  15. Wonderfully written post! Your latest posts form Ireland have been especially good.

    Funny thing about the hills and it being a jolt to the system. I grew up riding in Florida, and it does't get much flatter than there. When I moved to Colorado it took months to really get used to the long climbs. Like you said, the attitude was one of trying to attack the climb. But there was no way to maintain such a pace when the climb was 30 or more minutes.

    The solution for me was largely mental. I just had to learn to pace myself and get into a rhythm. Maybe that isn't too hard to do here in Colorado since the grades tend to be fairly consistent? In the end it seems that it is not too different mentally from riding into a strong headwind. In the back of my mind I seem to be telling myself that I must accept what I can't change. Borrowed psychology...

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  16. The Dark Hedges: That alone makes me want to get on the next flight to Ireland!

    What you say about the terrain reminds me, in a way, of the first time I cycled in England. Somehow I had the idea that all of Albion was flat. However, much of the countryside has terrain of the sort you've described. You can't "attack" the hills; you can only ride them as if they're the normal terrain--although, of course, you ride more slowly.

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  17. More distracting words and images. I'm going to be drawing those "Dark Hedges" in my sketchbook for a couple of days at least...

    Spindizzy

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  18. V,

    which coat and shoes were you wearing ?

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    1. Nau raincoat (review here), La Canadienne ankle boots with 2" heel.

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  19. I'm interested in your use of Black and White. Did you choose the monochrome setting on the camera or change them in the software? Do you have thoughts on which approach gives best results?

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    1. Technically, with digital capture BW is software regardless. When you are capturing in BW, what you are essentially doing is getting the camera's software to eliminate the colour info for you, as opposed to doing it yourself in post processing, if that makes sense. Personally I use post processing, since that gives me more control.

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  20. Low gear, sit back, relax and enjoy the view is the norm round here in North Yorkshire. Billy Connolly once said there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing choice! You must have heard him because you look so elegant as well as weatherproof. My wife and I ordered two Bromptons a few weeks ago (with lowered gearing)to give us exactly the flexibility you are so brilliantly showcasing. I have sent her the link to this page as it is so inspiring. Great stuff thanks. Swislon

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  21. Ok, it's Ireland, but I had to smile at your suprise at the capriciousness (capricion??) of what is very typical 'British weather'. Now you know why we talk about it all the time :D

    Re: Terrain - Scotland is similar but much steeper, England is similar but MUCH more traffic. Wales is simply the wettest most miserable ride you will ever have, should you venture over the Ditch.

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    1. Steve, I've lived in England for years and have fond memories of sunbathing on the riverbank with my friend in July ...wearing our winter wool overcoats.

      I am not surprised by sudden weather changes. Just didn't plan on being pelted by shards of ice that day is all!

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    2. wales can be odd (unless being stared at by sheep and natives is up ones street), and even odder then, but also very underrated and astonishingly beautiful

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    3. Wales is lovely. I rode the Lôn Las Cymru in October, had a fantastic time and reckon it as one of the most beautiful and evocative bicycle tours I've ever done - and I've done quite a few in all parts of the world. Coming over Gospel Pass, in the Brecon Beacons is a particularly fond memory

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  22. It really sounded like you were going to end up kidnapped or turned into a werewolf. A very Gothic tale from the old country.

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  23. Ah, Irish weather. I find it absolutely hilarious how people complain about the 'changeable, unpredictable weather' here in New England. Coming from Ireland I'm enjoying the predictability and stability of it! I don't even need to look at the weather forecast to know if it will rain, if you see people armed with umbrellas and boots you know they've checked and it WILL rain. The thought of that in Ireland is laughable (although it probably will rain anyway!).

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  24. All at once, it was hailing. Hard. The morning light disappeared entirely as shards of ice pelted the earth - and me - with violent force. At first I was too stunned to do or even think anything. Then I began to panic. I had stopped in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest settlement 5 miles away in either direction. There was no shelter here - no trees, no canopy of any kind. The dilapidated farm house was separated by a barb wire fence, so I could not hide out in it. The temperature kept dropping. The hail kept falling. "Am I going to perish here?" I thought. I did not know what to do.

    But then I realised... that I didn't really need to "do" anything other than pull up the hood of my raincoat. I had dressed warmly. I was wearing a waterproof coat and shoes. Everything was fine. I could simply enjoy this natural phenomenon... and hope there would be no lightning.


    Do you happen to write copy for J. Peterman? :)

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  25. Did you see the Grey Lady?

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  26. Glad your hailstorm was not of the "baseball-sized" variety such as we occasionally experience in the Mid-west! I truly enjoyed reading of your adventure and viewing the lovely monochromatic photographs you shared. Looking forward to reading further of your exploits. :)

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