(Synopsis: At this point, 31 August 1998, Alice and I were in the 11th week of our four-month bicycle trip. Germany and England were behind us, Ireland was ahead of us, and halfway between was the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. To continue - )
We arrived in Douglas, Isle of Man, on the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry from Liverpool to a rainy welcome and the sight of hundreds of motorcycles parked along the Loch Promenade and Strand Street. Unbeknownst to us, we had, according to the happy motorcyclists all around us, been one of the lucky few to have room reservations for the start of the world renowned Manx Grand Prix for motorcycles. We had never heard of it. And when we got to our hotel, our landlord had never heard of us. So much for confirmed reservations during the infancy of the Internet.
Yet somehow, on a small island with no vacancies, our landlord found he had a room for us. Nothing too fancy. Not especially nice. In fact, the note Alice made about it was very brief, “AWFUL PLACE.” And she wasn’t the one who had to carry our packs up several flights of steep, narrow stairs. I would have made a nastier comment, but was too tired.
That evening we went to a nearby restaurant overlooking the Loch Promenade, and when my meal arrived I started to eat with great gusto, not unusual for me. After the first couple of bites I started to compare my memory of what I had ordered with what I was eating. As good as it tasted, I hadn’t remembered ordering it. At about that time, a fellow at an adjoining table remarked that his meal seemed wrong. That observation lead me to remark that I might possibly be eating his, and vice versa. A comparison of the two meals confirmed our suspicions, and we concluded that, since neither of us had consumed much of the other’s dinner, and since neither of us looked like a carrier of an untreatable communicable disease, we would just exchange plates and continue.
However, our unusual introduction served to spur conversation, and we found we had met Sam Irwin of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, the Road Manager of Northern Ireland Motorcycle Tours. Unlike ourselves, Sam was happy to be on the Isle of Man when it was filled to overflowing with fellow motorcyclists, or as Alice and I described them, motorcycle nut cases. We told Sam how we were unhappy with our room, and with all the motorcycles roaring around the narrow, twisting island roads, and that we planned to cut our stay short and press on to Belfast, Northern Ireland. Sam agreed that Isle of Man might not be as thrilling for bicyclists as motorcyclists at the moment, and suggested that when we got to Northern Ireland it would be much nicer if we went to the Bed & Breakfast operated by his Uncle Jack’s family in Carrickfergus, instead of one in Belfast. We agreed that sounded like a good idea, and got the address and phone number for Uncle Jack.
We couldn’t leave the next day by ferry, so we pedaled westward across the island to Peel. Along the way we passed through St. Johns and went to Tynwald Hill, which since 1417 has been the Isle of Man parliament's ceremonial home. The island is lovely, its history fascinating, and it all would have been wonderful if the motorcycles had been somewhere else. But unfortunately for us, they weren’t. In fact, it seemed that every would-be motorcycle racer in the world was there on the island with us, and the day we pedaled across was one of the days that anyone who wanted could run his motorcycle on the race route. In the space of just a couple of hours, a couple of hundred motorcycles raced by us. We counted. Alice won our bet. There were a lot more motorcycles running amok than I thought.
Picturesque Peel was a welcome spot of quiet sanity. It is a fishing port, and all the fishing boats were aground on the channel bottom – it was low tide, and in less than six hours the boats would be floating on over twelve to fourteen feet of water, a twice -daily event where the tide change from high to low can be twenty feet. We had lunch in Peel, and visited a castle ruin that probably looked pretty grand when it was new in 1392.
The next morning we boarded the Isle of Man ferry to Belfast, Northern Island, and on our departure were serenaded by the roar mixed with high pitched whines of hundreds of motorcycles doing what they do best, making the rest of us wish they had never been invented.
When we got off the ferry at Belfast, a young policeman spotted us and signaled us to stop. He wondered if we would mind answering a few questions; where we were from, where we were going, what was in our packs, etc.? The single worst atrocity of the IRA terrorist campaign, the Omagh bombing which killed 29 and wounded hundreds, had occurred on August 15, less than a month before our arrival. As soon as we opened our mouths, he knew we were Yanks and stopped worrying about us, and things like plastic explosives in our bike frames (Just a month before, during our week in London, we were lucky our bikes weren’t confiscated and destroyed while we were visiting Kensington Palace). He then gave us instructions to the train station to take us on our way to Carrickfergus.
We got off at Newton Abbey and pedaled towards Uncle Jack’s, just a couple of miles away. When we arrived, we were met by a small, stooped old man, Uncle Jack himself. He apologized that he didn’t have a room for us, but had arranged accommodations for us at his niece Margaret Crawford’s Woodbine Farm B & B. When we asked directions, Uncle Jack told us it was too far to get there on our bikes before it got dark, and that he would transport us in his truck and trailer. When he brought the small truck and trailer around, I started to load our bikes and packs, but Uncle Jack said it was best if he did the loading himself. He did allow me to lift the bikes and packs and pass them to him, but placing and tying them down was all done by Uncle Jack.
When Uncle Jack was satisfied with the load, we got into the truck and he drove us down Carrickfergus Road to Margaret’s house. Along the way he pointed out where his nephew Sam and other family members lived. It appeared that Uncle Jack’s family had not been dispersed by economic necessity like so many other Irish families. When we arrived at Margaret’s, I pulled a few pounds from my pocket to repay Uncle Jack for his gas, and he politely refused with a short statement that has guided Alice and I on our travels and in our lives ever since.
“No, keep your money,” said Uncle Jack. “If you had the chance, you would do the same for me as I have done for you.” After we thanked him, and he chatted with Margaret, he drove off. And Alice and I both wondered, “If it was us, would we have taken the time and helped?” Before we met Uncle Jack, I think Alice and I would have answered, “Well, maybe, if we have the time and it’s not too much of a bother.”
But after our short visit with Uncle Jack, Alice and I agree that our answer would be, “Of course we’ll help, and when you thank us, thank Uncle Jack too.”