Making a return to Northern Ireland for just £5...
After our memorable 2014 cycle tour along the Causeway Cycle Route to Portrush following the Giro d’Italia with my fellow cycling weekend adventurer – Scott, I had been looking for an excuse to get back over to the province with my bike again as Northern Ireland is one of the best places to ride in the British Isles.
Amazingly, Stena Line pulled out one of the best travel deals of 2017 and was offering £5 each way sailings on their Liverpool to Belfast route for ALL departures! This was an incredible deal and one that had to be taken advantage of.
I emailed Scott a copy of my £10 return ticket and asked him to 'get involved'. We decided to ride to Lough Neagh which is the UK’s largest freshwater lake and spend time exploring the city of Belfast on our bikes.
After spending the past couple of months focusing on my house move, it felt great to be back where I belong - 'on tour'.
Cycling through Northern Irish history...
I have been to Belfast a couple of times before and have always found Irish history fascinating. After the long, hard years of the ‘Troubles’ and post-industrial decline, the city has reinvented itself as a tourism hub and one of the main draws is the ‘Black Taxi’ tours that go around parts of the city that were previously no-go areas for decades such as the Falls and Shankhill Roads.
This blog isn’t the place to be going into the politics of Ireland nor to offer an opinion, but I’ve always been interested in the significance of flags, political murals, the 'Peace Wall' and the cultural differences on both sides of the Unionist/Republican divide.
Following the Lagan and Lough Cycle Path...
After a short ride around Belfast city centre, we picked up the excellent 21-mile Lagan and Lough Cycle Way from Belfast City Centre to Lisburn. This is a flat and smooth cycle path that is ideal for all types of bikes alongside the River Lagan.
We arrived in Lisburn a couple of hours from leaving the ferry and had breakfast (apple pancakes and a double espresso) outside a very retro supermarket called ‘Green’s Food Fayre’ that harked back to the shop styles of the nineties.
Lisburn will be remembered for me as a place showing a stark and unexpected reminder of Northern Ireland’s past in the centre of the city. There is a large and controversial memorial statue dedicated to the soldiers that have served in the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) since 1970.
I would normally associate war memorials with the World Wars, but seeing a 19ft high soldier carrying a modern assault weapon was a bit surreal. If anything, this shows how recent the ‘Troubles’ were and how little I know of this part of the country.
A puncture outside the former HM Maze Prison...
We left Lisburn and followed the Sustrans Route 9 towards Lough Neagh combining on-road and off-road cycle paths. I rarely get punctures, but today I had a visit from the puncture fairy. Whether you are riding in the Tour de France or just heading to the shops, getting a puncture is always frustrating.
Without realising, I was repairing my deflated tyre outside the site of the former HM Maze Prison that once held some of Northern Ireland’s most dangerous and notorious figures.
Not so long ago, I probably would have received a visit from the local police patrol asking what I was doing outside one of Britain’s highest security areas and told to move on or worse. Today, the site has been demolished and local politicians battle over what to do with the historically important area.
Limping onto Lough Neagh...
I limped onto Lough Neagh on my deflated bike with rubbing V-brakes and was immediately struck by how similar the area is to Lake Constance in Southern Germany. The lough is 392 km in circumference and a cycle route exists around the picturesque lake which is a popular challenge for cyclists in this part of the world.
At the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, we enjoyed a superb scone and pot of Irish tea for only £2.50 that was so hot and plentiful that we didn’t really need to eat anything else all day!
As we were taking photos of the Lough to mark our arrival, we also nearly had to save a canoeist that became stuck underwater after trying to perform a barrel roll. Quite a morning of mishap and challenge!
The weather continued to improve on our way to Portadown as well as the performance of my bike after a quick repair job at the Lough. We didn’t spend long in the town except for a pit-stop in a local bike shop to buy a replacement inner tube.
The dark, black clouds reformed to deliver the mother of all deluges over the whole of County Armagh. We were desperately trying to avoid getting a soaking as we needed to wear the same clothes on the ferry! By this point, we were back on the Translink train to Belfast and had a few hours to explore the city and cycle around the regenerated Titanic Quarter.
Exploring the Titanic Quarter in Belfast...
The centrepiece of this vast new quarter is the impressive and modern Titanic Museum that is drawing in tourists from all around the world fascinated by the history of the ill-fated liner. This is probably one of my favourite buildings anywhere in Europe and I like the combination of symbolism and historic relevancy.
The iconic yellow cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard still dominate the skyline and create a dramatic entrance to the city. Interestingly, the docks have gone full circle and now break-up ships instead of building them and put together wind turbines for green energy. This is a great place to ride and get to know the shipbuilding history of Belfast.
In true post-industrial style, there was also a huge ‘rave’ going on in the disused dockside warehouses bringing in people from all over the city. Before we left, we headed out to Windsor Park a couple of miles from the city centre to tick off the last of my national football stadium visits in the U.K & Ireland.
Catching the night boat back to Liverpool...
We left the city centre and rode back out to the ferry port in Lough Belfast to catch the return sailing back to Liverpool at around 2000. The Champions League final was on the TV and it was great watching the game on-board the ship as we enjoyed the excellent Stena Line food. However, the night was marred by news of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and we spent most of the sailing watching Sky News and the unfolding events.
We arrived back into Liverpool before 0700 and were allowed to ride through the Queensway Tunnel under the River Mersey. This is always an exhilarating experience and the highlight of any cycle tour by ferry to Liverpool.
This visit to Northern Ireland was probably my most in-depth and was the one that allowed me to see more of Belfast and understand its varied history.