It’s all gone a bit trendy, this cycling lark. Recent times have seen several excellent Mountain Bike Trails open across Northern Ireland along with a fantastic new BMX jump park in Barnett Demense, Belfast. (visit mountainbikeni.com for details). Earlier this year the exciting announcement that numerous lyrca-clad Italians will be coming to Northern Ireland for the opening stages of the Giro d’Italia 2014 caused quite a stir too. With Belfast and Armagh both set to host stages of the race before it moves onward to Dublin, Northern Ireland is fast becoming a mecca for all types of pedal power enthusiasts.
Its not just the competitive bicycle types who are being spoilt for choice in Northern Ireland either; there are several annual cycling ‘sportives’ (non-competitive cycle events offering various durations and levels of challenge) which are as much about the day or weekend away experience exploring the scenery as they are about the activity of cycling. The 82 mile long ‘Lap the Lough’ cycle challenge event, named so as its mostly flat route circles Lough Neagh (Europe’s largest enclosed inland expanse of water) takes place in August and the Giant’s Causeway Coast Sportive, set against the backdrop of the stunning Causeway Coast scenery takes place in September and offers three different routes.
The UK and Ireland have for a long time had one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership per capita in the world, so its not a huge surprise that people in Northern Ireland are taking to pedal power more than ever before. For visitors to Northern Ireland, exploring by bicycle can be one of the best ways to really get to know the place and meet people. Cycling offers a different pace to discover the detail you can easily miss out on when you travel by other forms of transport – which is exactly what I realised when I tried out the new ‘Mourne Foods Cycle Trail’ .
From farm to fork…. by bike! The Mourne Foods Cycle Trail
When I first heard Enniskeen Country House Hotel just outside Newcastle in County Down were planning to launch a cycling food trail, I asked “where do I sign up?” Two of my favourite things; finding good local food and exploring by bike combined into a single experience, offered within the stunning landscape of the Mourne Mountains and the picture postcard Dundrum Bay. What’s not to like?
My next question was “Do I need to train for this and is a refresher cycling proficiency course in order?” The answer to this came swiftly as I read the invitation to the launch and first run of the trail which said “…..cycling will mostly be downhill or across flat off-road trails with plenty of foodie stops to punctuate the route. There are even a couple of electric bikes available – so no excuses!”
I set off from Belfast, eager to meet the group and swap my four wheels for two. Arriving at the Enniskeen Country House Hotel, its regal appearance and turn of the century architecture sitting perched atop a river bank sweeping down to the Shimna River with the imposing Mourne Mountains standing guard adjacent, I was reminded slightly of the Von Trapp family residence nestled somewhere in the foot hills of the Austrian Alps.
Resisting the urge to burst into song, I met Ellie from Newcastle Bike Hire who introduced us to Eileen from the Enniskeen Hotel. Over a quick cup of Thompson’s Tea Ellie showed us around our bikes; gleaming new comfortable Vitus bikes and offered us the choice of a hybrid electric bike, by US company Giant. To be honest I had been expecting a clunky, perhaps slightly noisy and tricky to control contraption, but the Giant hybrid electric bike is far from it – a sleek, silent relatively light-weight modern bike which just gives a gentle push along with the momentum you chose to generate yourself, easy to control and comfortable.
Shuttle bus from the hotel transported us to the trail beginning at the stunning Spelga Dam from which we set off on our bikes, fully equipped with front pannier for collecting and storing goodies! Meandering downhill, taking in the sweeping mountian views our first stop was Dessie Patterson’s sheep farm – a source of a lot of the delicious ‘Mourne Lamb’ we find proudly offered on menus and in local family butchers. Dessie’s wife Jeanruns the Meelmore Lodge and cafe which overlooks the fields were Dessie’s flock graze. Dessie explained how the breed of his mountain sheep make them particularly suitable for uphill grazing where they consume not only grass but Mourne mountain heather, giving the meat they produce a distinctive fresh, sweet flavour. Introducing us to the flock, including the gentle spring lambs, Dessie explained the ‘circle of life’ that takes place on his farm and that while he watches over his flock with a great deal of care, farming is ultimately about the production of quality food.
Onward from Dessie’s farm, the brief downhill run brought us back to the Enniskeen, where we were greeted by the sight of the hotel’s signature ‘Mourne Honey Afternoon Tea’. While we sampled dainty Mourne honey ham sandwiches and indulged in airy homemade buttermilk scones with the hotel’s own Jams, a local bee-keeping expert, Joe Thompson joined us and talked about how his bees produce honey with such a distinctive flavour – you guessed it, due to the pollen they consume from the Mourne mountain heather.
After this sweet interlude, it was back on the bikes again for the short downhill ride passing Royal County Down golf course via Newcastle promenade, stopping off en route to try the Cookie Jar Bakery’s famous local wheaten bread spread with scrumptious Abernethy butter. We couldn’t resist nipping into Café Crème where they sell little bags of delicious Abernethy fudge, just in case we needed an energy snack to get us to the end of the trail!
Leaving Newcastle and heading east towards the picturesque village of Dundrum, the trail brought us off track and while surface through Murlough Nature Reserve was course and rubbly in places, our trusty trail bikes with front suspension coped effortlessly, guiding us to Murlough Farm, where the we picked up fresh free range eggs from the honesty box, pausing briefly to scatter some corn for the chickens who roam freely here and happily lay their eggs!
The brief ride from Murlough into Dundrum village takes about 15 minutes on a quiet off-road lane way which skirts around the edge of Dundrum Inner Bay. It’s just enough cycling to work up a healthy appetite for the great eateries in this village. The Bucks Head, The Mourne Seafood Bar and the Dundrum Inn all do great things with local produce. The Bucks Head presented us with samples of Mourne Lamb Terrine, reminding us of our earlier stop at Dessie’s farm – an absolutely delicious final product. The Mourne Seafood Bar’s menu reads like a catalogue of local seafood and the Whitewater Brewery Oyster Stout they serve with their local mussels went down a treat.
Its easy to see why the trail ends at Dundrum village; the opportunities to sample great local produce executed by talented chefs and keen local restaurateurs make it a stop worth spending time at. Once we had our fill it was time to give the shuttle bus a call and return to our meeting point.
The Mourne Foods Cycle Trail will be open daily from mid May 2013 and advance booking is essential. For further information or to book call +44 (0)28 4372 3933.
To find out more about short breaks in the Mournes and our fabulous local food visit discovernorthernireland.com