Monday, December 9, 2013

Last Ride Out of Castlerock

Sweeping Descent
Moves can take place in stages, and as I moved from the village of Castlerock to the village of Bellarena some miles to the west down the coastal road, there was a period defined by a constant stream of going back and forth - of moving things into the new house bit by bit while working to make it livable. Sometime in the midst of this, I made the mental switch and began to think of the new place as home. It happened not the first time I spent the night there, but on the day I brought over my roadbike - by means of riding it from the old house to the new.

Setting off from the small seaside cottage where I had stayed - with its beige pebbled walls, its slate shingle roof and its cramped front yard - I felt a keen awareness that this would be my last ride out of this place. This stunningly beautiful, windswept place I could not wait to leave behind. Clipping in, I took one last look at it all as I pushed off into the wind that never seemed to subside.

The tiny house was an old one - built as a residence and not as a holiday cottage, unlike most of the others nearby. And unlike the others, it was built at a slight angle to the road, with complete disregard for the sea that spread out across it. Of all the windows, only a single one in the livingroom faced the water. And mystifyingly, the layout of the room was such as to discourage its occupants from facing that window - the fireplace on the wall opposite serving as the focal point. Stranger still, even should they turn around to look through the sea-facing window, their view would be mostly obscured by the fence enclosing the yard out front.

On countless occasions I've wondered why the house was built this way - almost willfully snubbing the dramatic seascape that ought to be a home-owner's dream. Could it be for the same reason the scenery made me uneasy? Could it be for the same reason the relation I'd been house-sitting for had picked up and left abruptly after less than a year there? Some believe that places can have a "bad vibe," and that is an apt description for what I've felt here. I felt it not from the house, but from the area. The house's layout almost seems like evidence that the architect had felt it too, and tried to protect the inhabitants from it. 

For some, to say that you live in Castlerock has a certain caché to it. It is a "posh" place - the village center dense with old Georgian houses, the train station almost toy-like with its wrought iron latticework. The local coffee shop - its atmosphere chic and worldly - is said to be among the best in Northern Ireland. The butcher shop next door delights passers-by with its old fashioned window display. There is one pharmacy. There is one small grocery store. There are two pubs - one with a weekend disco. There is a fish and chip shop with a mural of a grinning fish serving customers. There is a pedestrian culture, with tweed-clad residents strolling up and down the hilly lanes as ocean waves crash picturesquely in background. Crowds of young surfers flock to the beach in vans covered with sponsor logos. 

In comparison Bellarena is perceived as isolated and rural-rough, my delight over moving there often met with some bewilderment. But there are those who understand - those who shake their heads and even let out a slight shudder at the name Castlerock. "I could not live there either," they say simply, and we leave it at that.

To describe the daunting feeling of cycling "out of" Castlerock toward the main crossroads is to concede there is a strong psychological side to going out on the bike. There is a heavy, dead sensation to that barren 1 mile stretch that separates the village from the main coastal road and the network of mountain roads beyond it. This sensation can only partly be explained by the fact that this stretch is entirely uphill and nearly always supplemented with headwinds. But this alone cannot fully explain the overwhelming tediousness of it, the emotionally draining effect this mild ascent has on me by the time I reach the crossroads. As I stall my bike waiting to turn right onto Seacoast Road, Castlerock feels like a led blanket I am desperately trying to claw my way out from underneath of. The knowledge that this awaited me at the start of every ride, dampened my enthusiasm for roadcycling more than I would have thought possible. 

Some time after I moved to Castlerock, a policewoman friend told me the story of the murder at the 12 Apostles - a row of refurbished stone cottages scenically situated at the edge of the woods. Some years ago, a man who lived there and his mistress - each married and with many children apiece - made a pact to kill their spouses. They went through with the plan and got away with it, until, two decades after the fact, the man walked into the local police station and confessed to it all, unable to live with the guilt. This was all over the local papers at the time, the Castlerock population shaken. To think, that for all those years the pair was living here, harboring their secret. As I make my way past the cottages, I cannot help but remember this. 

The village of Bellarena is not really a village as such, but more like a scattered rural settlement on the Magilligan Peninsula - on the other side of Binevenagh Mountain from Castlerock. The best way to get there is via the Seacoast Road that runs along the mountain side. The first part of this route is ludicrously scenic - a seemingly endless sweeping descent with postcard views of the sea framed by tall cliffs and the famous silhouette of Mussenden Temple. No matter how many times I cycle along this stretch of road, I have never been able to warm to this descent and this view. It feels unreal, in the cold detached sense of the word. It feels as if it's designed for paintings and postcards rather than real-life enjoyment. The view cannot be connected with, it can only be observed from a distance - as if it's meant to feel unattainable. 

As I plummet past the picture-perfect sight, I feel a rush of relief at the next, comparatively monotonous stretch of the road. I cycling along the steepest part of Binevenagh Mountain now - a vast cliff streaked with occasional slender waterfalls. To my left, this horizontal wall of rock creates perpetual shade, while on my right the sea is becoming obscured by fields and clumps of woods. I should feel claustrophobic here, but instead I feel pleasantly sheltered. And I feel as if I've crossed some invisible border that separates the stark, gloomy aura of Castlerock from the cozy, bright one of Bellarena, which I continue to cycle toward.

As the road curves along the Magilligan Peninsula, the mountain on my left grows less steep and more colourful with the remnants of Autumn foliage and heathery clumps. On my right, miles and miles of farmland spread toward the sea - which is about to narrow dramatically and become the Lough Foyle as I pass the peninsula's tip. I can see this happening in the distance, along with the hills of Donegal looming beyond. This last stretch is completely flat now, and I pedal at the highest cadence I can manage along the main road, vigilant so as not to miss the hidden narrow lane that will take me across fields toward the house where I'll now live. This was my last ride out of Castlerock and I breath a sigh of relief - overcome by a sense of escape. Escape from the stunning, cold, haunted beauty of a place that is not for me.

30 comments:

  1. Lovely writing, Veloria. You may enjoy "Need For The Bike", by Paul Fournel. "In his attention to the pleasures of cycling experiences, and to the inscription of these experiences in the body's cycling memory, Fournel portrays cycling as a descriptive universe, colorful, lyrical, inclusive, exclusive, complete."

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  2. Is a return to Boston in the bicycle cards or is that yet to be decided?

    Looking forward to your Ireland adventures and experiences. Imremember stopping at a store asking the owner if he knew of a place to stay the night.

    "Just a second lad" he says after asking where I am from.

    A bit of conversation follows and he makes a call and I hear him say: "Thomas I need you to open your b&b and put up my new friend from the states."

    There was some form of sunshine every day I was in Ireland.

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    1. I'll be back in Boston end of February-March

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  3. I am glad you are posting these "slice of life" articles about you transition to ireland. I enjoy reading about your new setting just as I have your more bike-centric exploits. lovelybike is constantly growing and evolving with your journey though the world of cycling, I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on ireland, be they about lovely bikes or no.

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  4. Love this post. You have a talent for psycho-geography. More please!

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  5. Some places just get a bad name, for no reason anybody could fully explain. Crymych in Pembrokeshire is a friendly enough place, yet the small village of Blaenffos just a mile up the Cardigan road had just such a reputation when we lived in the area. We were warned never to buy a house there. As for picturesque views from old cottages, I think that notion belongs squarely to our time and our sensibilities. Life must have been hard when some of these old places were originally built, and the inhabitants probably had little time or inclination to admire the scenery. I once lived in an old place in Carmarthenshire, with the most stunning view you can imagine, yet I can testify that, after a while, that view becomes commonplace and you no longer appreciate it.

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  6. I had a friend who moved a lot. Everyplace he left he hated, everyplace he moved to was perfect. He had a way with words, too.

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    1. Anon 11:55 - Was it Steve Earle? ;)

      Another Town

      V, you've really captured a deep existential sort of feeling here. It's interesting that there is an agreement among some of your acquaintances about the negative "vibe" of the place, even though is is socially desirable.

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  7. Great post, sounds so beautiful. I live in a beautiful area too, and there are areas that just give you the willies. It's grand, gorgeous, but some areas are just strange, have bad vibes. The stunning scenery brings people, wealthy people and their multimillionaire dream enclaves, retirement and escape from the city. People talk of energy of a place, ley lines, history and sadness in a land. I think it's real, definitely. Sometimes it's a matter of elements, what minerals, rocks and gases are in the area. A heavy martime climate can make places feel heavy and dense too.

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  8. Gem-like prose, among your best. So evocative of transition as palpable. Thank you.

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  9. I've had similar feelings where one place can seem somehow tainted with, well, bad vibes. It can pull one down but, ya know, life is odd and cultivating a garden can happen despite the obstacles. We all face it at some point. Good luck.

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  10. Stephen King set several of his stories in Castle Rock, Maine. Coincidence? I think not....

    Rich F.

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  11. on reading this beautifully written post I couldn't help taking note of the unusual name of the place you are moving to. according to Wikipedia Bellarena (Comes from the Italian/Latin meaning "Beautiful Strand" named by the Anglican Bishop of Derry in 18th Century the only town name in the island of Ireland which is not Irish) it is hard to imagine that not a single other place on the island has a name that is not of Irish origin.

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    1. In fairness, I'm sure we could think of many names of Irish towns which are not of Irish origin. How about Wexford? Old Norse, I should think. I used to get over there from Pembrokeshire quite often, and I discovered that, many years ago, the Wexford people spoke in a dialect called Yola (literally "old"), which clearly had its origins in Devon and Cornwall. There's a place you can visit near Wexford, called Yola Folk Park, where you can find out more. The myth of Irish racial purity is just as spurious as that perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany. Ireland was, over the centuries, settled by people from many lands, whose DNA is still there today. One significant strain is the Viking one. Dublin was founded by Norsemen, which explains why so many Irish people have red hair. Another major influx of new blood came from Spain. I once met a chiropodist in Cork, who told me that he could identify his clients' distant racial origins by their feet. There are two distinct types of feet in Ireland, Greek and Roman, distinguished by whether or not the toe next to the big toe is longer than the latter (it is, in my case). Yet modern Ireland has the temerity to compel its children, unless their parents can afford to send them to independent schools, to spend valuable lesson time learning Irish, which they will never use. Until Ireland has the courage to come to terms with its past and its true identity, and the debt it owes to other nations like Great Britain, which provided work for many of its people for decades, its much-vaunted independence will remain a hollow victory. The fact is that Britain left them to it because they simply couldn't be bothered with them any more. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child. The same could be said of many British colonies.

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    2. I am less familiar with the ROI, but the place names in NI are a complete hodge podge of Irish, English, Anglified Irish, Irishified English, Scottish, and various other, sometimes unexpected, language combinations.

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    3. The first comprehensive and definitive maps of Ireland were produced by the Ordnance Survey in, I think I'm correct in saying, the 18th and 19th centuries. This outfit, as now, was based in England, and we can probably assume that the surveyors were from England also, and unfamiliar with the sometimes wild terrain of Ireland. Imagine the scene. Having taken measurements, the men would approach a local person and ask what the place, hill, lake or whatever, was called. The answer, whether in Irish or English, would probably have been unintelligible to surveyors unused to extreme regional dialects. They probably just wrote down what they thought they'd heard, and these corrupted and Anglicised names persisted for many years, until independence brought the confidence and the desire to revert to the correct versions. A similar situation exists in Wales, where the current climate of national pride engendered by the Assembly government has encouraged the demand that place names be regularised. We lived in Cilgerran. The C in Welsh is always hard, and this village appeared on maps as Kilgerran until a few years ago. Interestingly, though, when we got our deeds, we noticed that the Land Registry still uses the spelling Kilgerran. Clearly, it's a lot easier to muck about with road signs than it is with land registration. I think it's sad to lose old spellings, even if they're not strictly correct.

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  12. beautiful writing...

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  13. I think the answer to your question of why your Castlerock house ignored the view to the sea may be found in the fact that it was built as a residence and not a holiday home. Its original inhabitants would probably have spent their days working outdoors with the view all around them. Their home would have been a place to enjoy cosy domesticity sheltered from the often cold and wet weather. To bring that bleak outdoors into their refuge would have made little sense.

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  14. I find it odd that you describe the one mile ride out of Castlerock as barren. Looks fertile and alive.

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  15. The surroundings we cycle, or run, in have a huge impact on the enjoyment of the exercise we are doing and on the amount of energy we can put into it. Cap this with a wicked start to the workout, such as a hill, headwind or both, and it makes the whole thing immeasurably harder. Great writing!

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  16. Wows, lots of crazy imaginings.

    I'm going with wind is why. And cold.

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  17. I listen to my inner "voice". Some places or stretches of road, irrespective of position or beauty, have an unwelcoming feeling - I do not tarry there.

    Sch.

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  18. I'm half wondering if Velouria met some mysterious motorcyclist named Heathcliff in Castlerock who was dampening her spirits by letting the air out of her tyres whenever she when into a cafe to get a cup of coffee. Whatever the case, leaving town seems like a good idea. Just don't go back for anyone's funeral. And if you do--against my advice--go back, definitely don't ask the sexton to scrape the dirt off the coffin and open the lid....

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  19. Maybe the place you go to in your head when you ride is incompatible with grand dramatic vistas.

    I find that my best rides are sometimes the brooding, dark days that bring the edges of things closer, days that allow me to get on with the work of grinding through all my frustrations and set-backs without trying to distract me with bright panoramic views and glorious vaulted skies. The bike is where I can take out some of my hurt feelings and disappointments, be mortified at myself and try to figure out what's what. The last thing I need when I'm doing that sort of maintenance is a daisy strewn field full of gamboling lambs or the frikkin' Grand Canyon trying to make me "Cheer up and get over it". Life is trouble sometimes, I can be sort of an asshole, let me be for a bit so I can come to grips with it, OK?

    Someplace that can't tolerate us looking the other way, in that demanding insecurity of some beautiful people, would wear a bit thin after a bit.

    Spindizzy

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  20. Reminds me of the time when I decided to move from Punto Fijo to Coro, though no bikes were involved, just my sanity.

    Enjoy your posts lately. Interesting comments too.

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  21. something of HP Lovecraft in your writing.

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  22. I don't know of a move I've made that hasn't been in stages. So far I've not been kicked out of a place I adored....All is good.

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  23. Your description of Bellarena as a ‘scattered rural settlement’ put me in mind of a village called Mellon Charles (I think Mellon means ‘pleasant place’ in Gaelic, and it is, although it’s remote), up on the northwest coast of Scotland, in Wester Ross. Believe it or not, there was a ‘Wester Ross Cycles’ in the ’70s – a lugged steel framebuilder in what is now the butcher’s shop in Aultbea, just before Mellon Charles. The area is desolate and, as with Bellarena, the dwelling houses in Mellon Charles are scattered – most are off the narrow, single track road, and few are next to each other. I used to go there with my family when I was a child, and I went back up a few years ago when I still had a car (although the roads up there would be far better suited to the bicycle). I was heading for Greenstone Point, just beyond Mellon Charles, where there are quartz rocks – green stones (in your favourite shade of green!). The village seemed to go on and on – all those bleak, isolated dwellings – until I passed the very last house, and on its wrought iron gate there was a sign...

    NO JEHOVAHS

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  24. So moving from a small village to a remote rural area begs the question of commuting and work....What is it that you do for a living there?

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  25. Not every place is for everyone. And tourist resorts aren't always fun. But I do like nice coffee shops.

    You bring in the murders as you describe the cold, haunted place. I've been unfortunate enough to have been close to 3 people who were murdered. Two of them were murdered in a house a couple of houses down the street from me. Oddly enough, time passed and the house became normal. I wouldn't live there but the house didn't exude anything, except for memories of the people lost.

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