Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Big Ride: Beara, Ireland

James Spender
25 Aug 2016

Cyclist heads to County Cork’s Beara Peninsula, a finger of land in the wild Atlantic Ocean that promises some enchanting riding.

The south west of Ireland is a place like no other. On some days it must make for very bleak living indeed – a battered stretch of coast wholly at the mercy of ambivalent seas and capricious weather. But on other days it’s a haven of tranquillity, where even the cows seem to drift atop pastures in dreamlike states.

Today, on the tip of the Beara Peninsula, is one such day. A hazy sky muffles a sun that’s doing its best to turn the plate-glass waters of Coulagh Bay a silvery blue. The air hangs so still that when ride partner Robert and I stop, all we can hear is a tearing sound followed by the rumpf of sheep grazing. It’s enough to make anybody want to down tools but we still have the small matter of 134km of riding before us.

Age and beauty

Like most places on the coasts of the Emerald Isle, Beara is built predominantly on sandstone, fishing and folklore. The cliffs rise up from the Atlantic like lost jigsaw pieces, appearing square-sided from the beaches but jaggedly cut when viewed from above. The good fishing is down to Beara’s serendipitous geography, reaching out as it does into a vast ocean rich with sealife, and thanks to neighbouring peninsulas providing one of the world’s biggest natural harbours in which fleets land their catch and shelter from storms. The folklore is entirely man-made, developed over millennia by inhabitants trying to make sense of the world.

Best known in these parts is the legend of An Chailleach Bhéara, the Hag of Beara, who now stares back across the bay at us from her perch near Kilcatherine. It’s said she appeared to heroes and knights as a decrepit old lady looking for love, which if requited transformed her into a ravishing beauty. Consequently she married seven times, and populated the west coast with her descendants. Sadly, though, the Hag eventually turned to stone, becoming fossilised as she stood on the Kilcatherine cliffs waiting for the return of her last husband from sea.

The tale is said to be allegorical of Ireland’s struggle to reconcile its pagan roots with the influx of Christianity: the Hag’s youth figurative of kings who embraced Ireland’s traditions, her age representing times under rulers when the old ways were suppressed. However, as we pedal away from the Hag’s gaze, I can’t help musing what a familiar tale that last part must be to anyone whose partner cheerily says, ‘Just popping out for a spin!’ only to come back six hours later, full of apologies. Today, though, we’ve got that six hours and then some, which is lucky as our route comprises 1,800m of climbs and the first has just reared its head.

Our initially meandering coastal road has taken a sharp left-hander through a group of houses before zigzagging off over the horizon between outcrops of rock. Standing on the pedals for the first time, Robert nods towards what looks like Sanskrit painted on the tarmac, then towards a solid, whitewashed wall on the outside of the turn. It takes me a few moments to realise it’s actually upside-down and reads ‘Slow! Brakes!’, and is obviously intended for anyone travelling in the opposite direction down the hill. One wonders how many Wile E Coyote-style` splats occurred before someone annotated the road.

Though steep, the climb is short, and over the top lies a resplendent patchwork of scrubland annexed by lichen-covered drystone walls. The road slithers down past a small inlet, on whose slipway, I’m told, often stands a local resident in nought but an undone dressing gown. There’s
a bracing scene to avoid on a windy day.

Golden ratios

A few more clicks and it’s time for a stop in Cluin, a brightly painted town in Allihies parish where pubs seemingly outnumber houses three-to-one, a hangover from the days when Allihies was a busy copper mining community. Today all that’s left are sinkholes and abandoned engine houses, the most prominent of which, the Mountain Mine engine house, cuts a beautiful if ghostly shape in the hillside above us.

In its shadow is the Allihies Copper Mine Museum, which even if you’re not into the beneficiation of chalcopyrite or froth flotation (both stages in the extraction of copper from ore, as it goes), turns out to be worth a visit just for the excellent cream teas. Or even cream coffees.

The road around the headland is as pretty as it is undulating – that is, pretty undulating. Dotted yellow lines flank the deep grey tarmac as if the road has been cut from the quilted landscape by giant scissors, and what with the total lack of cars, my mind is free to wander off from the dull fatigue in my legs. Full respite nearly comes again when Robert suggests the cable car to Dursey Island, Ireland’s only such contraption, and one of only a few in Europe that crosses the sea. But alas, the cable car’s timetable would make squeezing in a visit rather tight, and considering there are no shops or pubs on the island, neither of us likes the idea of getting stranded. So it’s onwards to Beara’s main town, Castletownbere.

Like Allihies, Castletownbere has a beguiling array of pubs, the most infamous of which is MacCarthy’s Bar, a pub-cum-grocers where you can get Spam and tinned beans to go with your stout and whiskey. Robert tells me he once heard of an American tourist complaining about the lack of a lock on the toilet door. ‘The landlord said, “Look here, my dad had this pub before me in 1945, and my grandfather before him in 1900. And in all that time no one’s ever stolen a shit out of that toilet, so you tell me, why do I need a lock now?”’ Definitely one for a post-ride pint. 

The subsequent stretch towards the towns of Adrigole and on to Glengariff is by Beara’s high standards a more muted affair. The road widens, fauna grows high and there’s the occasional car, but even then the riding is wonderful. High up to our left Hungry Hill dominates the skyline – the highest peak in the Caha Mountains that form the spine of the peninsula. 

Depending on who you ask you’ll get a different story as to the origins of the hill’s name. One commentator described how a local had told him it was so called because ‘it is hungry for bodies’, but a more likely one seems to be that the Irish name Cnoc Daod translates to ‘Angry Hill’, and that the ‘hungry’ was an appropriation of the name by British sailors stationed in Castletownbere, who if they stepped out of line had to run up the 685m peak and down again without sustenance. 

Although our jersey pockets are well stocked, the only way up Hungry Hill is by foot, so we’re spared being consumed by the irascible mound. Instead our plan is to follow the coastal road along Bantry Bay and swing inland to take on what Robert says are the two best climbs in these parts, the Caha Pass and Healy Pass.

Heights and holes

Each year the peninsula plays host to the Ring of Beara sportive, a 140km loop pinned to the coast that starts and finishes in Kenmare, a popular tourist spot and winner of the Tidy Town award in 2013 for being the tidiest small town in Ireland. However, eagle-eyed Tidy Towners will remember that year was mired in controversy when the Tidy Town committee in overall winner Moynalty went ahead and installed a commemorative statue without planning permission.

Luckily the Ring of Beara goes ahead each year with little such fuss, save for that which entrants must endure along the stretch of tarmac we’re on, the R572 up to Glengariff from where the Caha Pass starts. The road swoops across a tight range of gradients that while never truly testing, never seems to achieve actual flatness either. 

By the time we arrive in Glengariff I’m feeling like a stop might be nice, but Robert has other ideas. The top of the climb will be worth the ticket price alone, he tells me, so we crack on and join the N71. Over his shoulder Robert points out a pub that, for the sake of libel, will have to remain nameless, and explains the proprietor ‘doesn’t give a bollocks! He prides himself on bad Trip Advisor reviews’. I’d still be happy to stop there for a bit of feet-up time.

The initial few kilometres of the Caha Pass have me slightly bewildered, one because Robert intimated this would be quite hard, and two because I’d been promised good views. As it stands, the going is relatively easy at around 3%, and bar the Ewe Sculpture Park, replete with a statue of a sheep wearing glasses poking her head out of a Ford Popular’s sunroof, there’s little to entertain my senses. Then all of a sudden the road bucks, the treeline breaks and spread out before us is the great expanse of the Caha Mountains, rolling gently down into Bantry Bay. 

By the time we reach the summit I’m almost disappointed the climb’s over. Ahead is a tunnel that joins County Cork with neighbouring Kerry, and which although we’re up against the clock, we can’t help but roll through just to see what’s on the other side. As tunnels go it’s a short but extremely eerie one, with a steady trickle of water illuminated by a shaft of light coming from a hole in the roof. Robert explains that one Halloween someone ran a rope down the hole and hung a fake body off the end. 

Rolling back down the Caha Pass is a fast, simple pleasure, and with heads down and the wind in our favour we’re soon back at Adrigole and ready to take on the Healy Pass. ‘We like to think of it as Ireland’s answer to the Stelvio,’ says Robert with a twinkle. Yet, once more, we’re off to a rather inauspicious start when the road seems to all but disappear in tall scraggly hedgerows. But if the Caha Pass taught me anything it was to suspend judgement, and as if on cue, like someone changing a slide on a projector, an entirely new landscape clicks into place. Hedgerows are stripped back, replaced by plains of grass and cavalcades of greying rock, as if the Hag herself was pushing her stony fingers through a vast swathe of baize.

Going slowly enough to savour the moment but fast enough hopefully not to lose face, I round the early slopes, unable to really make out where the road is going next. There are no cars on the horizon to indicate the path, and the only safety railings are drystone walls made from the same rock as the hillside. In fact, it’s not until a few hundred metres from the top that I can really appreciate the climb. It’s simply stunning.

There are definitely elements of the Stelvio, the scarcity of anything else but the road and the hills being one, but beyond that the Healy Pass is an entirely different beast. From here it looks almost languid, tracing a non-committal path to the summit with few concessions to haste. Mind you, as the sign on its lower slopes commemorates, it was built as a project to keep the poor in work during the Great Famine, and expediency probably wasn’t what it is today.

We seem to be suffering from a similar sense of non-urgency ourselves, and the light is threatening to fail. If we were true to our plans we’d forge ahead, but with the descent back down the way we came looking so enticing, and the wiles of MacCarthy’s in Castletownbere so much closer from our Cork county border perch, we opt to turn tail and beat as fast a path south as we can, to a well-earned pint and maybe even a whiskey. Hold the Spam, though.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

The rider’s ride

Giant TCR Advanced Pro 0, £3,799, giant-bicycles.com

Although not quite at the top of the TCR pile – that would be the Advanced SL 0 – you’d be hard pressed to notice. The Advanced Pro 0 shares the same blueprints as its more expensive sibling, differing only by a few extra grams in the frame due to slightly lower-modulus carbon fibres and a traditional seatpost compared to the SL 0’s integrated seatmast. For strictly practical reasons I’d therefore take this TCR over the seatmast option, as a removable seatpost makes it that much easier to pack, and at 6.65kg for a medium it’s light enough already. That means when you get to where you’re riding you’ll have an adept climbing machine offering plenty of comfort for long days in the saddle. 

I used Hunt 4Season Aero wheels as I was pre-empting some tough, potentially wet terrain and wanted some robust wheels with alloy braking surfaces. Just do yourself a favour and make sure you fit some decent 25mm tubeless rubber – Schwalbe Pro Ones are currently top of my list.

Do it yourself

Travel

Flying to Dublin or Cork and driving cross country is a perfectly good, if lengthy, option, however the closest airport to Beara is Kerry, around an hour and a half away. Expect to pay under £60 return. Alternatively, take the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin for around £180 for a car and two adults, or £50 per foot passenger with a bike. A train then bus journey to Beara from Dublin costs around £70pp and takes six hours.

Accommodation

We stayed in Casteltownbere, a small but bustling fishing port with plenty of good restaurants and wonderfully esoteric pubs. There are a number of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the area, but one of the best has to be the Sea Breeze B&B (seabreez.com), where Noralene and Aidan are on hand to cook delicious Irish breakfasts and provide expert knowledge of the area.  

Thanks

A big thank you to Tara O’Sullivan and Tadgh O’Sullivan (bearatourism.com), who helped plan our route and ferried our photographer about for an entire day without losing patience. Thanks also to Robert White, who generously gave up his time to guide Cyclist around the Beara. Last but not least, thanks to Cathy Kapande at Tourism Ireland (ireland.com) for her help with logistics.

Read more about: