Life in the fast lane not all it's made out to be
Published 22/07/2014 | 00:00
Somebody once described driving on a motorway as being akin to having a lobotomy.
That is just about the best description I have heard yet of the boredom that sets in when we travel at a steady 120kph for hours on end with no scenery, no cattle, sheep or horses, no bicycles or tractors. It's just an endless stretch of tarmacadam punctuated only by the signs at each exit, and even these have a monotonous similarity.
On a motorway your brain feels like part of it has been removed for there is nothing to stimulate the senses.
We do however have the option of choosing an alternative route that has the downside of taking a bit longer. But it is one way of avoiding toll charges and it makes a journey far more interesting.
Please don't think that I am anti-motorway, because I believe our new roads that link towns and cities across Ireland are wonderful. However, when we have time to spare, it is hard to beat the pleasure of wandering down our network of regional and local roadways.
Most of them have ancient origins and started life as rough tracks for foot and horse traffic, curving around obstacles and matching the contours of the landscape.
Over the centuries they became wider and the surfaces were upgraded but the bends remain, as do the wild flowers and greenery that fill the verges.
Rather than miles of concrete walls and crash barriers, the boundaries of our rural roads are alive and endlessly changing.
The colours and shapes of the hedgerows reflect the passage of the seasons and there are numerous twists and turns with trees whose crowns often meet midway, creating an arch to drive under.
You cannot travel at speed on a country lane - not unless you are bent on suicide, for around each corner you could meet a tractor, a milk lorry or a flock of sheep or cattle being moved to pastures new.
Cow parsley, guelder rose, fuchsia, foxglove, meadow sweet and honeysuckle, to name but a few, fill the air with summer scents. In autumn you can pause in a gateway and gather blackberries, sloes and rose hips, or just relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural world.
Having spent the midsummer weekend in Dromineer in Co Tipperary, I can honestly say that when the weather is kind, there is nowhere nicer to be than in rural Ireland.
I stayed with some friends in a holiday house that we had rented as part of a fund raising exercise for that worthy charity, One in Four. The house and the activities we enjoyed were all donated by local people, including our meals and an exciting ride in a rib around Lough Derg.
The highlight was undoubtedly the hour or so we spent sitting in two pony traps, walking and trotting along the narrow lanes around Ballycommon and Dromineer.
It reminded me of happy childhood days, hitching a ride on the horse-drawn hay bogy when the cocks were drawn from the hayfields to the haggard.
This kind of slow travel is a true delight and makes one yearn for years gone by when everything moved at a gentler pace, and horses and bicycles were the principal means of transport. Lorries were scarce and only the doctor, the priest, the bank manager and a few wealthy cattlemen could afford cars.
There was a lot of real poverty then, and it's easy to forget that the lorry traffic and speeding silage trailers we meet on the roads nowadays are an essential part of the huge rise in the standard of living we all now enjoy.
But we can still slow down. The poet Paul Durcan wrote an essay on the route between Ballymahon and Mullingar and described how "the sides of the road are lined with thousands upon thousands of souls waving in the wind- the white souls of cow parsley".
To fully appreciate this, and following on the advice of none other than Christy Moore, he drove at a leisurely 35mph. This is similar to the approach of another lover of slow travel, Dan Kieran, who wandered across England in an electric milk cart. He wrote in his book The Idle Traveller of how the slow pace and the silence of his choice of transport allowed him to blend in to his surroundings.
"I was now travelling at the pace required to acknowledge that the countryside itself was not a backdrop, but vitally alive".
At one point he even found himself being overtaken by a bumble bee. What a lovely image.