Saturday 14 December 2019

How I'm pedalling away on my own steam

On day 2 of his bike tour Kim Bielenberg finds a lost railway wilderness in
 Waterford, tastes a 
famous blaa, and 
discovers it's a long way to Tipperary...

Kim Bielenberg at Waterford and Suir Railway, Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, with volunteer driver, Stephen Smith.
Kim Bielenberg at Waterford and Suir Railway, Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, with volunteer driver, Stephen Smith.
Kim Bielenberg at Waterford and Suir Railway, Kilmeaden, Co Waterford, with volunteer drivers Noel O'Sullivan (left) and Stephen Smith (right)

It's the second day of my bike trip across Ireland and already I am jelly-legged, disoriented, and sunburnt to a crisp. Dismounting after a few hours in the saddle, I feel like a ship's passenger walking on dry land after a long voyage. It does not feel quite right. Should my legs not be rotating?

On the previous evening, I flagged down a bus in the depths of the Wexford countryside and the driver kindly allowed me to put the bike in the luggage compartment for no extra charge. So, it was on to Waterford.

As a local historian, Jack Birchall tells me: "This is a place where Vikings came to rob and plunder, and then settled down as politicians."

I go for a spin along the quay in the city centre, and it remains traffic-clogged as ever, partly because of road works.

After just a few hours on the road, weaving between buses and juggernauts, I have discovered that Irish cycle lanes are a bit like Green Party governments - they don't last very long and they usually end in a mess.

The cycle lanes in Waterford are no exception.

Having left the road, however, I find the city had a raffish, salty dog seafarer's charm; the people are among the friendliest in the country.

I stop off at Tom Maher's pub on O'Connell Street.

Under the guidance of its present co-owner, Bernard Kelly, the pub has undergone an earth-shattering revolution recently. In 2012, the management finally made the radical decision to serve women.

"I took over the pub from my late aunt Mary. Her husband, Tom Maher, owned the pub for many decades and they did not allow women in at all."

So how did the family avoid prosecution under equality legislation? "Our defence was that we did not have a female toilet," says Bernard. "So we could not facilitate women."

When Tom Maher married Mary in 1969, it was around the time of the first moon-landing. A customer turned to Tom as he read the headline in the paper: "Do you see this, Tom? A man has landed on the Moon."

Tom replied: "That's nothing, there's a woman in Maher's."

Bernard Kelly's decision to open up the pub to both genders has proved to be a wise business move: "Women in the city are mad for the pub, because they are curious to see what it is like," he says.

And when I visit, the customers are mostly women.

After a comfortable stay at the friendly family-run Granville Hotel, I mount the saddle reluctantly and set off for the village of Kilmeadan, 15 km away, at noon. Foolishly, I didn't take the advice of a local man, who told me he used to cycle from Waterford to Donegal as a teenager, camping along the way.

"You should cycle early in the day, and then cycle in the late afternoon and evening.Take a break in the middle of the day."

Setting off for Kilmeadan, I was not going on a hunt for the "fillet of cheddar" that bears its name.

I was hoping to travel on a train that leaves from there and puffs along the banks of the River Suir on a short section of the abandoned Cork to Waterford railway.

But first, there was the bike ride. A long, and apparently never-ending, hill leads out of the city, and I cannot make my way up it without stopping several times to walk.

I pass the closed Waterford Crystal plant that runs like a scar along one side of the road. There is little sign of economic uplift here, and several factories have closed. There are many men of working age walking dogs.

Local people are now pinning their hopes on tourism, and look enviously westwards to the Wild Atlantic Way.

Local TD John Deasy wants Waterford to be included in the Wild Atlantic Way, but that may be a stretch. Where next? Athlone?

When I arrive in Kilmeadan, I am shocked to discover that the cheese is no longer made there. Healthy looking dairy cattle graze the fields nearby, but the factory has closed. The famous fillet of cheddar is made in Co Kilkenny.

The big cheese may have left, but the restored Waterford and Suir Valley Railway has brought new life to the village.

The small engine and carriages travel along the disused Waterford to Cork line through a lost landscape unseen from a car. On one side is a broad stretch of the meandering River Suir - reed beds, mud flats, herons and swans. On the other side of the track, one catches glimpses of the Mount Congreve Estate, home to one of the biggest collections of exotic plants in the world.

Noel O'Sullivan used to be a cheesemaker in Kilmeadan. Now, he is a volunteer train driver on the line.

"You should have been here before the line was restored," says Noel. "It was completely desolate and overgrown."

At one time, this line was part-owned by the Dukes of Devonshire, whose Irish seat is still Lismore Castle.

The railway was at its busiest in the summer months when "bathing trains" brought daytrippers down the line to Dungarvan. But this era of passenger travel came to an end in 1967 when the line closed.

The railway is now run as a charitable company staffed by volunteers.

Maria Kyte, the manager, tells me it is now hoped that it will be part of the new Deise Greenway - a 31-km cycle route that is being built along the disused railway between Waterford and Dungarvan.

I cannot leave Waterford without trying a blaa, the floury bap that is sometimes used as a nickname for local people. It is estimated that up to 12,000 of the rolls are gobbled up by Suirsiders every day.

To non-cognoscenti like me, it may seem like any other bap, but it was recently given the status of a designated food by the EU - similar to that of champagne.

Makers of blaas can only use the term if they are baked in Waterford. So, none of your Belfast blaas or your Berlin blaas from now on.

So fortified with this local speciality, I set off for Tipperary.

It's not a long way to go by car, but by bike it's a long, long way to Tipperary; it's a long way to go.

See tomorrow as Kim heads on to Tipperary

Irish Independent

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