Staycation inspiration: Northern Ireland
With its lockdowns and travel restrictions, 2020 will long be remembered as the year of the staycation. And who knows? Perhaps 2021 will follow suit? While we may not be allowed to ride our bikes abroad where we’d like next year, there are benefits to staying in Northern Ireland.
Granted, the weather doesn’t always play ball, but you can’t deny that our countryside offers some astoundingly beautiful biking opportunities, whether you choose to stay on the road or venture off it. There’s the added bonus that, by travelling in Northern Ireland, you’re cutting down enormously on your carbon footprint and saving yourself money in the process.
Of course, domestic travel restrictions are as tough to predict as international ones. Next year we may still be cycling in groups of six. Whatever the rules, there are countless routes for roadies, touring cyclists, gravel bikers and mountain bikers to enjoy, whatever their level of expertise and fitness. Here are some suggestions for all types of trails in Northern Ireland.
Kingfisher Trail (Northern Loop) 160km/100 miles
Head away from Northern Ireland’s major cities and you’ll quickly discover some gloriously traffic-calmed country roads over rivers and rolling hills, and alongside beautiful lakes – or loughs. One of the best is the Kingfisher Trail, a 300-mile or so route (depending on which turns you take) through the border counties of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. One of its prettiest sections is the Northern Loop, a 100-mile circular ride in the south west of Northern Ireland, around Lower Lough Erne, mainly on quiet country roads.
Most cyclists start in the town of Enniskillen but unfortunately there’s no railway station here. You can choose to tackle the Northern Loop clockwise or anti-clockwise. This description assumes the former.
After heading southwest out of Enniskillen you’ll soon wiggle past Florence Court Hose, and then to the north of Gortmaconnell Rock, up to Lower Lough MacNean. Now you briefly dip into the Irish Republic as you pass through the towns of Blacklion and Belcoo, before heading northwest past Ballintempo Forest and then along the northern edge of Lough Melvin. At Belleek you make a tiny loop into the Irish Republic’s County Donegal, before crossing the River Erne, then north of Lough Scolban, to the edge of the mightier Lower Lough Erne. Now you follow a long, circuitous route around this lough, south back to Enniskillen.
A loop around loughs
Sights along the way include the Marble Arch Caves – a vast system of limestone caves accessed via a subterranean boat trip – and Ireland’s oldest pottery in Belleek.
On the return leg there are the wonderful forest parks at Castle Caldwell and Castle Archdale, as well as some pretty islands on the eastern edge of Lower Lough Erne. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the brilliantly coloured birds after which the route is named.
Martin Hughes is a touring cyclist form Cork. He and six friends rode much of the route one year in June. “You need to keep your wits about you, especially in towns,” he offers by way of advice. “We found that it was good to keep the map to hand while cycling so you would be expecting the next place to turn. It is very easy to miss turns, especially when tired after a long day. The signs are often partly obscured by vegetation.”
Castlewellan Castle trail 4km/2.5 miles
The gentle, circular green Castlewellan Castle trail, on well maintained forest paths, skirts the shore of the lake and passes by the pretty Victorian Castlewellan Castle. Even though it’s off-road, it offers an easy gradient and is only 2.5 miles long. Perfect for total beginners to off-road biking or even the smallest of cyclists.
Loughshore Trail 182km/113 miles
Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles. The 113-mile Loughshore Trail (Route 94 of the National Cycle Network) uses quiet country lanes to circumnavigate the lough, taking in nature reserves, parks, marinas, castles and islands
along the way.