Around Lough Neagh, 12th of August 2018 (98km)
I leant the bike against the wall of the café and went in. I was close to Lisburn in a place called Lambeg. On nearing the town, I had stopped to pick blackberries opposite the disused linen factory, and soon after, for the first time that morning seen Union Jacks flying above the houses there. I bought a coffee and a sausage roll, and asked the woman behind the counter to fill up my water bottle. The tables outside overlooked the car park. The earlier fog had evaporated. I carried out my daily ritual of scrolling through the headlines of the British papers. They were filled with the Tory Party crisis. ‘Johnson is courting Fascism’ read the headline in the Guardian. ‘Theresa May faces furious grassroots and donors backlash over malevolent decision to investigate Boris Johnson’ said the Telegraph. The Mail on Sunday reported on ‘a secret plot to oust Theresa May in Brexiteer putsch and install David Davis as ‘interim PM’ with Boris Johnson urged to delay his leadership bid until after Brexit.’
I had packed up my belongings and left Belfast that morning. Folding my clothes nervously, and filling the panniers with them first, before organising the coffee, tea, bike tools, spare film, food, maps and books and carefully placing them, in order, into the saddlebag. When eventually I did set off, finding the greenways cycle path following the banks of the River Lagan had been straightforward.
It was a grey morning and raining lightly. The river was wide and the banks fortified with concrete. A rowing boat passed by. Soon the river narrowed. I left the city and joined the towpath. Willow trees lined the route. Nettles, docks and brambles grew wildly in the verge nearest the water. Other cyclists passed me by out on Sunday morning rides.
After noting down the headlines, I made a quick list of my impressions of that morning, writing ‘path-green’, ‘river-canal’, ‘pine forest’, as well as ‘easy’ and ‘comfortable’. At the table next to me, two young women, I guessed in their mid thirties sat down. I overheard them talking about the dance class they’d just dropped their daughters at. I walked over, and tentatively asked if I could join them. When they agreed I pulled up a chair and straightaway asked about Brexit.
‘To be honest I feel really stroppy about it.’ The women sitting furthest away had said, taking off her sunglasses. ‘I don’t understand why. People were so misinformed. To be honest my main gripe is that the referendum was held in the first place.’ She said keenly.
The second woman, who I noticed in my disheveled state had carefully blow-dried hair, had nodded. ‘I have an Aunt who lives in Brussels. She’s an accountant for the EU. She could not believe it when Britain voted to leave. It’s a different situation here, because of the border. We didn’t vote to leave. Down south is still going to be in the EU.’
‘I remember having to cross the border.’ The first woman added. ‘It was around the time of mad cow disease. I was a child then. We were checked for dairy and milk. We just don’t want that again.’
My memory of this particular conversation I have to admit is now faint. The women spoke quickly and I struggled to write down everything they said. In my notes, I recorded some of the benefits of the EU the first woman mentioned. How it had paid for the road between Belfast and where her mother lived, as well as to Dublin. How water quality had improved. But she conceded she didn’t know much about the impact on fisherman. Afterwards she told me how Brexit had already affected the family business.
‘We build signs.’ She’d said. ‘The plastic we use has gone up 40% since Brexit. We used to use a supplier in Holland. It would go to England and then come to us. We’ve had to source another contractor. The quality is not so good and we’ve had to change all the lighting, because the new plastic is not so reflective. I know it seems like a detail but it’s had a knock on impact.’
Earlier that week, while in Cork, I’d met the owner of a hardware store, while looking to replace one of the leather straps on my saddlebag. He was sitting in a forklift truck when I walked in through the back gate. A middle-aged man with long, straight, white hair, wearing a plaid shirt was directing him, while a teenager with a Mohican stood and watched. Later, the owner had told me things had been slow recently, although the reasons were different. He said he was having trouble getting orders from the UK. He said people were stockpiling. I’d asked if after Brexit, he might be better off dealing straight with Europe. He’d thought not – but you know it’s still impossible to tell. He said many of the companies he dealt with were based in Europe, but all the business went through the UK. He thought it would continue because that’s where the money is, and ‘money talks’, but with hindsight and given the recent departure of a number of companies from Britain, I’m not so sure.
Outside the café a couple with a dog arrived. Time was pushing on and I needed to get going again. Before I left I asked the women their views on Europe. I realised up till then, I’d been so preoccupied with getting my head around the complexities of sectarianism in order to understand the implications of a hard border, I’d given people’s ideas on Europe less thought. In my notes the day before I’d speculated that people were less interested in Europe because they were more focussed on local politics. There may be some truth in this, but I cannot tell for certain because my understanding then, was framed by my preconceptions. Despite feeing that I had not investigated deeply enough what people thought, I realise now that identifying as European, given the situation there, is political. And, yet as the women mentioned, and later I heard often, many people on the island of Ireland don’t feel strongly tied to Europe because they are cut off from the continent by the sea.
I’d planned to stop for the night in Cookstown. The distance from Belfast was around 95km. A little after two I had lunch, next to a family playing football on the south shore of Lough Neagh – the largest lake in the British Isles. Afterwards I disrupted a Moorhen as I climbed through the reeds to get a shot of the water. Outside the visitor centre, I had asked a man sitting on a bench, a Labrador at his feet, what he thought about Brexit.
‘They made a hash of it.’ He had said dismissively. ‘What’s the likelihood there is going to be another referendum? I’m not going to worry if it happens or if it doesn’t. There’s nothing I can do about it.’
By the time I set off again it was mid afternoon. I had to navigate the roads around Craigavon, using my phone, in order to pick up the route. At some stage, I passed a woman riding a dappled horse and asked if I could take her portrait. But, I set the aperture wrong and when the film was developed the woman’s features were obscured. I didn’t notice my mistake until I reached Derry/Londonderry and all the photos from those few days are underexposed. Before we parted she asked if I was riding alone.
Soon after I passed an apple orchard. The thick branches of the old trees, curved down towards the ground pulled by the weight of previous crops. Near Derryadd, I crossed a bridge. On the pontoon below a man was fishing in the water between Derrywarragh Island. I stopped to drink a can of coke. In the long grass were old bottles and bits of tissues. I paced back and forth along the bank, feeling wired and unable to rest. On the bridge someone had written the letters IRA and here on a red and white no entry sign the letters were also spray painted in black.
Later riding into Cookstown, I stopped to photograph the police station. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere near Stewartstown and it was evening when I arrived. Riding through County Tyrone, just west of the lough the roads had been quiet. I saw few tourists, and only the occasional flag. The surrounding countryside was mainly agricultural, fields for grazing and crops. Swifts flew and darted overhead, in numbers far greater than I was accustomed too. By late afternoon, dark clouds had begun to gather and while I was retracing the route, heading back from the lake, it started to rain.
I have seen police stations in Northern Ireland before. I remember the first time, because they are still heavily protected. In front of the station in Cookstown, beyond the brick wall and high green, metal fence above it, where a security cameras was attached – was a viewing hut. The men on watch there immediately closed the huge gate when they saw me taking a picture.
I was about to cycle away when one called me over.
‘Where are you from?’
‘London’ I said.
He looked surprised.
‘And you are cycling alone?’
‘Yes.’ I smiled, relieved to have finished the day’s ride.
‘Where are you headed?’
‘Do you have somewhere to stay?’
I shook my head.
‘A friend of mine owns a good hotel called the Royal. Turn right at the bus station. You’ll see a building with a clock tower at the top of the hill. That’s the hotel.’
I nodded and thanked him.
‘Hope you have a good time.’ He said somewhat uncertainly.
‘I already am.’ I said grinning back.