Where are you from?
13th of August (98km)
Where are you from? I was asked again and again. Over time I came to understand the significance attributed to my answer according to different enquirers. In Cork for instance, when I said ‘London’, the friendly engineer with long white hair told me he’d lived in Camden in the seventies and then reminded me of the sacrifices made by the Irish who built the railways. In Belfast, a few days later, my guide the taxi driver, another amiable chap, indirectly admitted to censoring the tour according to my perceived sensibilities as an English woman. A few hours later as I was interviewing a young woman waiting for a lift near Castle Street, I encountered a vaguely more menacing attitude. A young man, approaching on crutches asked if I was German. When, unthinking I’d breezily told him where I was from, he’d muttered a few inaudible words, before threateningly saying, ‘only joking’ and limping away. Others I met had shaken my hand.
Looking back, during those first few days on the bike, I suppose my growing awareness of the unpredictability of people’s responses increased my sense of isolation. It did not help, that the day before, one of the women I met outside the café near Lisburn had asked with interest– ‘What’s it like travelling as an English woman on your own? How do people react to you?’ After a few days I did relax, as I grew more accustomed to the situation, but on this particular day I had felt on edge.
It was a grey, overcast morning and I took my time getting ready. Added to my general sense of unease brought about by weariness, I had the overwhelming impression I was looking into circumstances more entrenched and difficult, than I was equipped to tackle. When I did eventually set off, I had no sense of pleasure. I pushed the bike down the hill towards the town centre, noting a shop with blue and gold signage in the window saying ‘European Food Store’, then passed the bus station. At the junction I turned right and reluctantly climbed onto the bike.
Slowly I left Cookstown behind. After struggling up a long, steep hill, I lost my way and found myself on the main road. I turned around and retraced my route. My progress was frustratingly slow. My body was unwilling and feeling anxious I repeatedly stopped to check the map. My mood remained glum for some hours and it wasn’t until I reached the hills and I moved away from habitation that eventually the cycling seemed easier.
Silently, I went over the previous night’s conversation. The three young famers had been outgoing and unabashed in sharing their views. As I have grown older I have become more reserved about disclosing my opinions, and their honesty and directness, as well as being insightful, made an impression on me. I realised I was not as open minded or objective as I had imagined. Neither had I consciously acknowledged I’d already accepted the idea of a united Ireland. The conversation encouraged me to re-examine my approach. Alone on the road I realised I had some sympathy for them, deservedly or not, and wondered what it must be like to associate with a group, once a dominant majority, but about to become a minority. I realised I wanted to know more about what loyalty to the mainland meant to unionists. Later as I passed the flags declaring alternative allegiances or the occasional signpost in Gaelic, I also became preoccupied with the idea of how devotion to different national ideals, amongst people living in the same village or town, could order their lives differently.
The tarmac of the sustrans North West cycle route was surprisingly smooth. I saw few folks that morning, but those I passed often waved. After a couple of hours, I decided to deviate from the planned route thinking the road would be quicker. I soon discovered the narrow lane ran along the upper side of a valley, undulating as it crossed various tributaries, but I was content, and now my muscles had woken up I was making good progress.
I stopped in Plumbridge a small village in Country Tyrone for lunch. It was still damp and overcast. I chose a bench opposite a children’s playground and ate one of the jacket potatoes I’d saved from the night before, as well as a tin of fish I’d been carrying since Roscoff. Behind me I could hear the Glenelly River. I watched a young family enter the shop opposite, and afterwards the children playing in the park. A tractor drove by and stopped. The mother greeted the driver warmly.
On the road again, I began to climb the low-lying hills of the Sperrin Mountains, one of the largest upland areas on the island of Ireland and a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. It wasn’t long before I decided to get off and push. I enjoyed walking along the desolate road, with the brown mountains behind me, passing the occasional sheep. But somewhere in Omagh, I came across some recruitment posters for the young IRA and I admit I was intimidated. At moments like this, I had taken to imagining if asked where I was from, how I would answer. Looking for reassurance, I’d gone over my background: although I am English, my grandfather emigrated from Ireland when he was a boy, my mother is Anglican and my stepfather is a Catholic. Looking back, it’s not clear to me in what circumstances I envisioned having to go through the different components of my identity, for I realise my fear was largely of my own making. But the process of silently reciting these anomalies, almost as if they were a mantra instilled in me, for the first time really, a more personal and real understanding of the limits of relying on national, or generic stereotypes.
I already had a sophisticated knowledge of how people draw on different aspects of their identity in different circumstances owing to previous research I’d undertaken. I’d also looked into, in some detail, how racism works and how it can effect a person’s sense of themselves as well as their opportunities. But, as a white woman seldom had I had cause to ascribe these ideas to myself. Cycling alone through the wild landscape of Northern Ireland I developed a keen awareness of how our ideas about ourselves are mutable and contradictory. I also realised that up until then my research had largely been remote and detached and unconsciously I’d been inadvertently recreating the sense of ‘otherness’ I was attempting to deconstruct.
Looking back I still wonder what prompted my sense of disquiet. I think now it was largely owing to my ignorance of the situation there. But my apprehension was also partly down to being a woman travelling alone and feeling vulnerable. It might also have been because I was steadfastly ignoring but still processing the death of my son’s father and was deeply worried about the impact on our son. Or it may have been more simply that I was exhausted and hadn’t eaten enough and my body and mind were in a continuous state of flight.
Why dwell on this now? I have just returned from cycling from Paris to London, and on that trip, and particularly in Kent I observed over and over, how people’s detached understanding of knife crime, of the situation of migrants in Calais inflamed by a provocative media, has served to create, sustain and inflate people’s fear. This observation has since impressed on me the importance of being honest about my own worries. Not only to demonstrate how disconnection combined with imagination can affect a person’s outlook of the world but also more reassuringly, because I have come to appreciate how my own concerns more often than not are unfounded.
I reached Strabane with a sense of relief, knowing the toughest cycling was over and I was nearing my destination. But as I freewheeled through the outskirts of the town I was confronted by a series of murals and abruptly reminded of the circumstances there. When I reached the centre my anxiety intensified. The town was run down and felt deprived. I had the overwhelming sensation of not wanting to speak, in case my accent gave me away. That morning I had put on a favourite, and comfortable pair of woollen shorts, with the word Britanica stitched into both legs. Realising my inadvertent political declaration, I quickly rolled them over exposing more leg than decent. As I tried to make my way out of the town, I hurriedly stopped to check the map on my phone. When I crossed over the Foyle and entered Ireland I was overcome by an immediate sense of relief.
I cycled north towards Derry/Londonderry. By then it was late afternoon but it was summer and I still had a few hours of daylight. Stopping in a layby I looked up a campsite, and after a wrong turn, I eventually re-joined a newly laid cycle path running alongside the wide and wild river, the same blue-grey as the sky above.
A couple walking their dog greeted me. The path flat and smooth ran through a corridor of trees. I was alone again but soon I saw two men ahead. One was standing astride the path. The other was in the verge. In his hand he held a large stick, which I saw him raise above his head and strike something in the bushes. From a distance, I could not make out what they were doing. I was tired and did not want to turn around. I decided I had little choice but to keep going. I increased my speed and tensed my body. As I drew nearer, the standing man walked across the path and seemed to be inspecting a nearby tree. Closer still, I saw the man with the stick pull a trainer from the bushes. Later I passed a group of volunteers, carrying out an official search and the following day I read in one of the local papers about a young man from the town, who was missing, presumed murdered. I realised then the two men must have been undercover policemen looking for the body.
Quickly I cycled into the town along the waterfront, passing people jogging and out walking in the drizzle. I stopped at the Lidl to buy supper and then took the main road towards the border. Cycling along the pavement I passed a pile of old tyres, before turning onto a country lane. A camper van drove by. I was tired now. I climbed up slowly towards the campsite. For a moment the fields were lit by the evening sun. Soon I arrived at my destination and there I was met by the welcoming sight of twenty or so middle-aged Italian campers preparing their evening meal. I suddenly felt enormously grateful. They had set up tables and chairs in one of the barns because of the rain, while two men were outside cooking on a fire.