Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ireland - Blessington

On the first full day of my first trip to Ireland, back in 1993, John took me out to a lovely tea room called the Skillet Pot in Blessington. Ah yes, I remember it well.

That trip to Ireland was essentially our third date. The first date had been an all day tandem ride followed by a quiet dinner for two away from the PAC Tour crowds near the end of that tour. Our second date, a few weeks later, was a weekend in New York City, where John had a long layover, as he made his way back home to Ireland.

As randonneurs, it appears our dates span the time frame of a brevet! 

One of the many locks on the towpath

Despite late November not being an ideal time to go bike touring in Ireland, we were eager to spend some more time together, and I had some time off work, courtesy of the kick-off-the-shopping-frenzy holiday that is ironically called Thanksgiving. So throwing caution to the wind, I packed some warm clothes, rain gear and the tandem and flew to Ireland.

I remember pedaling away from John's mom's house and within a kilometer, we were out in the countryside on some quiet little lanes. It was glorious, lush and green and just as I had imagined Ireland to be. However, as we descended a steep hill down to the Strawberry Beds, we hit a patch of black ice and quickly found ourselves on the ground. Fortunately it was a slow speed crash and the only harm done was to John's ego. He was mortified about the possibility of a widely publicized article where I would write about our crash [Mortified I was, but not for that reason - FR]. I waited 21 years to tell that particular story. I needed to grow my audience first!

Given the time of year, it wasn't completely unexpected that we might see some icy roads in the mountains, but it came as a bit of a surprise so close to home. We hopped back on the tandem and pressed on, paying a bit closer attention to road conditions.

A short while later, as we were climbing into the Wicklow foothills, we noticed little spots of white along the road and, disbelieving it could possibly be snow, John commented that some farmer must have spilled paint on the road. After a while, it became quite obvious that it was not paint. And then despite the fact that we were climbing and dressed in warm clothing, we both began to get colder!

But then as if to make me feel like a total wimp, some truly badass cyclist came riding down the hill that we were climbing, wearing only shorts and a jersey. The bright red glow from all his exposed skin really made him stand out against the stark landscape. I've actually encountered this type of cyclist many times before and since. They either dress by the calendar, or they simply refuse to acknowledge cold and wear shorts no matter what. Although, sometimes these immune-to-cold riders can be spotted wearing shoe covers. The explanation is that it's only the feet that get cold!

Anyway, with the red glow now in our rear view mirror, we climbed and descended a few more times before making our way into Blessington for a most blessed hot soup and coffee.

We've been back to Blessington many times since. The Skillet Pot changed hands a few times, and then closed altogether. Fortunately Grangecon Café has opened around the corner, and has pies that match my memory of the tasty treats of that first visit. But it's not just the great hot food and drinks and desserts that draw us to this village. Blessington serves as the gateway to mountains of West Wicklow, home of some of John's favorite quiet, narrow, twisty climbs, views and descents, all just a stone's throw from Dublin.

The forecast for the remainder of my solo week was unsettled, a far more typical state of affairs than many of our previous late autumn trips, where we've been so lucky to have loads of sunshine and mild conditions. Luckily for me it the forecast was more showery than constant downpours, and even included suggestions of spotty sunshine. Calling it changeable would be an understatement.

Since the wind direction had returned to the more typical southwesterly, heading south would allow me to work hard in the morning and live in hope of an easy spin home! And I also could daydream about that slight chance of a sunny vista!

Tuesday evening, John and David helped me to map out a few options for heading south, aiming for the West Wicklow hills with lunch in Blessington. I took in a few variants over the next couple of days, refining my route in and out of town, as well as taking in a few different climbs once in the mountains.

A big difference from my first trip 21 years ago, is that it now takes about 20 kilometers to get out to the nice countryside. Back then, it really was just a ride out through two or maybe three round-abouts before we hit the quiet roads. But thanks to the building boom of the Celtic Tiger, the sprawl now continues for many miles. And today motorways bisect the former tiny lanes, cutting neighborhoods in half and turning many old through roads into cul-de-sacs. Thanks to all the construction, sometimes called progress, our nicely laminated and preserved 20 year old Dublin area maps are basically useless.

Fortunately, I've got up-to-date OSM maps on the computer and GPS and John's brother, David rides these roads loads and knows the best options for cycling in and out of town. He was able to tell us where the bridges are and aren't and offered me the least unpleasant way to out to nice countryside... well, short of stealing my sister-in-law's car and driving. Also thanks to the presence of towpaths, there were a few places where I could completely escape traffic. Although one of these paths was so muddy and soggy in places that I ground to a halt as my fenders got packed with mud. I'd had my travel bike modified last spring to take 32mm tires with fenders, but there's only so much clearance that can be added when using rim brakes. Maybe it is time for me to consider getting a new travel bike with disc brakes just for Ireland!

Mud clogged fender

Avoiding traffic on the canal towpath

Anyway, after trying out a couple of different options to get out to the nice stuff on three successive days, I settled on a reasonable route out and back. I quickly learned to avoid Newcastle and Rathcoole when schools let out for the day. Backups and traffic from the school pickup are now as bad as in the USA. School buses seemed non-existent. Mom drives to school and waits in a long line of other moms to drive the kid to the next activity.

Fortunately for me, both traffic and scenery improved dramatically after getting through Rathcoole. It's a shame it took me half the ride to get to and from there!

For the route out of Rathcoole, John sent me up a couple of particularly nasty climbs, but since the point of my ride down to the mountains was to climb, I couldn't actually complain about the climbs, now could I? I did get some sweeping views, and the sun even popped out briefly a few times over the course of several rides. It seems many of the photos I took show sunshine and blue skies, suggesting I had glorious weather all the time, but that's because I tend not to stop to take pictures in the rain!

Capturing a bit of sunshine!

I was climbing up the tiny lane over Sorrel Hill when I spotted this enormous truck headed down toward me. I pulled over to let it pass, but was too slow pulling out my camera and just got this shot after he passed by.  I thought at first it must be someone blindly following a GPS to be driving that enormous vehicle on this tiny path, but then spotted the logging equipment.

Yes, this is the road where I encountered traffic!
John has often described the best roads as being one lane wide with grass growing up the middle. They also seem to come with double digit gradients. But I have to agree with him that these roads were fabulous.

The view out toward the Blessington Lakes on what the weather forecaster called a sunny day!

These two were kind enough to pose for me!

Hot soup to take the chill out of my bones!

I practically became a regular at the Grangecon Cafe, as I kept heading back down to West Wicklow, quickly realizing why it's one of John's favorite places on earth. I should have picked up a coffee loyalty card on my first visit, as I would have earned a free coffee by the end of the trip!

The route back took me past the Captain Tickell Fountain, which gave me a chuckle and Kilteel Castle, where if you know about it, you can stop and ask at the house next door for a key to go in and explore.

(picture from Google Street view. it was clearer than my photo!)
The Captain Tickell Fountain

Kilteel Castle

Sunshine and clear skies - So I must almost be home!


  1. Great post! The Blayleys genesis tale fascinates :)

  2. Poor John, he never stood a chance. ;-)
    Love the photos, btw.