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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review: Biking Ireland in Rain, Sleet, Snow, and Gale Winds

Round Ireland in Low Gear
By Eric Newby. Viking, 1987, 308 pp.

It’s doubtful that you’re planning to bicycle through Ireland in the winter. But if you want proof that it’s not a good idea, you’ll certainly find it in Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear.

In 1985, Newby and his wife, Wanda, remembering Ireland in the 1960s as “idiosyncratic and fun,” decide to return. Their aim is mainly to enjoy themselves. But this is Eric Newby, former Travel Editor of the Observer and travel writer par excellence, so of course there will be a book.

The trip shapes up with a logic of its own, as trips tend to do. Since the requirements of their extensive gardens prevent them from leaving their Dorset home in summer—the obvious time to go—they decide they will set out in winter. Most modes of transportation don’t suit, for a variety of reasons, including Ireland’s poor bus and train service in winter, Wanda’s rejection of walking, and their agreement that in a car, as one drives and one reads maps and guides, no one sees anything. So they settle on mountain bikes, though neither is an expert rider.

In all, the Newbys make four jaunts to Ireland, in December, January, June , and October. During the earlier trips especially, in what Newby calls the “dead season,” the weather is beyond horrific. The couple confront torrential rain, sleet, hail, snow, and gale winds so strong that at one point Wanda—a long-suffering travel companion in other Newby books—is blown into a ditch. The constant rain turns paths and roads muddy, hardly ideal for bikes, and often creates a shield blocking out what they came to see.

As ever, Newby finds humor in the rough times, though not, I think, as well as in some of his other and better books. Sometimes he seems grumpy, the humor forced, the result no doubt of being constantly wet, weighed down by gear, finding stopping places closed for the winter, and being frequently lost, misled by native directions or misconstrued maps.

Newby, who appreciates information, is a knowledgeable and thorough guide—a bit too thorough, I think, for those with less interest in historical anecdotes and detailed descriptions. I especially enjoyed his visit to the Aran Islands, and his encounter with the virgin statue at Ballinspittle, seen miraculously to move by a host of visitors, including, surprisingly, the author.

Maps accompany each of the book’s sections, enabling us to follow the couple’s journey as we read—the best way to track it, as I can’t imagine this story tempting anyone to actually follow in the Newbys’ bike paths.

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