On a recent, glorious Spring day I enjoyed a flavour of the new Cycle Sperrins touring route. Developed by adventure company Far and Wild, these guided or self-guided tours last from one to four days and explore the highlights of this perfect cycling destination, known for its quiet roads and abundance of archaeological sites.
As well as enjoying the beautiful scenery, I got to visit several members of the Sperrins Cycle Consortium, local businesses which cyclists can stop off at en route and get a taste of the local culture and cuisine.
I met the team from Far and Wild, picked up my hire bike and we started our tour from the pretty, Ulster Plantation village of Eglinton. Close to the shores of Lough Foyle, it’s right beside City of Derry Airport, meaning cyclists can set off on their tour as soon as they land.
Our first stop was Rachel’s Kitchen in the middle of the village, a relaxed café where our choices varied from hearty fries to fresh scones and pastries – an ideal place to fuel up for the day’s journey.
We set off and immediately began to ascend into the Sperrin foothills to the south. The going was challenging but manageable, helped by occasional stops and the beautiful views which quickly began to open up: over the main summits of the range and back over Lough Foyle.
Our next stop, the busy village of Claudy just off the main road from Derry~Londonderry to Belfast, was reached in time for lunch. We called into 54 Main Street, a recently refurbished restaurant, café and bar where owner Stephen ensured we were well fed for the next leg of our trip.
Specialties include Sicilian coffee, a range of high quality teas, home baked cakes and pastries and artisan sandwiches. Their plan is to become a hub for visitors to the Sperrins, by providing packed lunches, changing facilities, secure lock-ups for bikes, a range of meal options including speciality sports nutrition, and transport if needed.
Suitably rested and stocked up, we hit the roads again. We followed a short but lovely stretch of traffic-free path along the River Faughan through Claudy Country Park before navigating another series of hilly back roads to our next rest stop, the picturesquely located village of Park. This section, while again tough in parts, was one of the most scenic as we were now in the heart of the Sperrin Mountains.
Our next stop was just a short (uphill) jaunt from the village, and was one of the most unique and memorable of the trip. Tamnagh Foods, nestled in idyllic scenery in the grounds of a 19th century hunting lodge, is an award-winning artisan producer of cheeses as well as granola, relishes and chutneys.
Co-owner Kevin showed us around the cheese production area and explained the different stages of the process. Afterwards we got to try Tirkeeran, a delicious new cheese currently being developed. Visitors are welcome by prior arrangement to see the production area and purchase any of the products.
We said goodbye to Kevin and set off on one of the most anticipated/dreaded parts of the day’s journey. All day my cycling companions had built up the suspense and challenge of Dart Pass – a minor road ascending the side of Dart Mountain to a high point of about 440m.
The climb was indeed long and exhausting, made bearable only by a chocolate bar break and captivating views of Sawel and Dart, the highest and fifth highest peaks in the range respectively. My pride was relieved to find I wasn’t the only one who had no choice but to get off the bike and push, on two occasions. Fortunately cyclists can take an alternative, less tiring route if they wish, marked on the trail map.
It was all more than worth it when we reached the top, however. After a quick stop to catch our breath, we began the long descent into the lush, green Glenelly Valley and County Tyrone. This was easily the highlight of the day for me and one of my most exhilarating cycling experiences, helped by the complete lack of cars on this lonely mountain road.
We then followed the main road as it undulated west through the valley, with views of the Glenelly River below and across to the distinctive glacial cut in the Sperrins known as Barnes Gap.
I was glad for a chance to sit down at our next stop, Bradkeel Social Farm. Our hosts, Mabel and John, treated us to coffee and home-made scones with jam and cream as they told us about their working family farm. Outside we visited the polytunnels (extra hot in the strong afternoon sunshine), got some tips on growing our own fruit and vegetables (some of which I didn’t realise were suitable for our temperate climate) and watched the animals graze on land which clung to the slopes of the valley.
Once again, visitors are welcome by prior arrangement and can stay for lunch to sample home cooking using the farm’s produce.
My day’s cycling ended just a short distance further in the idyllic, crossroads village of Plumbridge. We called into Watt’s (The Glenelly Bar), a friendly and homely pub which is a great place to relax after a strenous day on the bike. While I didn’t stay over, there are various accommodation properties in the local area including Sperrins Cycle Consortium members Ballynsollus Cottage (self-catering) and Gortin Accomodation Suite and Activity Centre (hostel and self-catering).
While I was exhausted, it had been a thoroughly enjoyable day and an experience I’ll remember fondly. It was great to meet the various people living and working in the Sperrins, and a nice sense of achievement knowing we’d started almost at sea level and had cycled up through the foothills and over the main chain of the range – a distance of about 56 Kms / 35 miles (though it felt a lot longer with the challenging terrain).
The suggested Days 2, 3 and 4 of the Cycle Sperrins itinerary take in many more of the region’s highlights (with an option of returning to Ebrington via the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal). These include the impressive Beaghmore Stone Circles and nearby Davagh Forest Mountain Bike Trails, St. Aidan’s Church and Holy Well and Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil économusée. Accommodation options include Consortium members An Teach Glas (self-catering) near Maghera and the glamping lodges at Benone Tourist Complex at beautiful Benone Strand.
As part of the service, Far and Wild provides bike hire and full kit, a map guide, support including pre-arranged end-point pick-up and luggage transfer, emergency call-out, and guiding if required.
To find out more or to book your Cycle Sperrins tour, visit www.farandwild.co.uk/activity/cycle-sperrins/ or www.facebook.com/cyclesperrins.