Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Ireland: Raw energy on the Aran Islands

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The dramatic cliffs of Inishmore. Photo / Jill Worrall
The dramatic cliffs of Inishmore. Photo / Jill Worrall

I'm a fair weather cyclist and I quite like the terrain to be flat as well, so call me a wimp if you like but biking uphill into the teeth of an Atlantic storm is not really my idea of the perfect day out.

I guess "storm" might be a bit of an exaggeration but I was soaked and cold so that's storm enough for me.

Such conditions are not unknown here on Inishmore, the largest of Ireland's Aran Islands.

West of here are simply thousands of kilometres of ocean and eventual landfall in Newfoundland - there is plenty of room to brew up some seriously bad weather.

Cycling is a popular way to tour Inishmore, not only because the island beautiful in a stark, windswept way, but because there's limited other traffic and - to be honest - the topography is pretty benign.

I've been on Inishmore before, on an almost cloudless warm day, which is just as well really as this time, through my rain-lashed glasses I could hardly see the road ahead, let alone the scenery.

Somewhere up ahead in the murk was Dun Aonghasa, one of the most spectacularly-situated and beautifully-preserved Stone Age forts in the world.

I knew it would be worth the discomfort to see it again and in such wild weather I suspected it would be even more atmospheric than last time.

And just when my resolve was weakening, I arrived at that reward for the hill sections - the downhill bit.

I was on one of Inishmore's unsealed road and hurtling down the narrow lane between drystone walls in the wind and the wet probably wasn't recommended, but I did. And it was so much fun I biked back up the hill to do it again.

In a much better frame of mind I jettisoned my bike among a shiny chrome sea of dozens more in the bike racks of the Dun Aonghasa information centre and climbed on foot to the fort.

While the eastern shores of Inishmore have curves of soft sand and - if the sun is shining - turquoise waters stretching towards Galway, the west coast is pure theatre and raw energy.

The land simply stops, 300 sheer feet above the sea. It's as if some Irish giant has taken a huge bite out of the limestone.

Why anyone would choose to live up here is hard for us to imagine now. But about 1100BC a group of settlers built a fort here - three terraced walls surrounding an inner enclosure with a platform perched near the cliff edge.

There was no danger of being surprised by attackers from this side, and to even reach the walls invaders would have to battle their way through an early version of a chevaux de frise - a defensive forest of upright stones jammed into the ground.

Dun Aonghasa is considered one of the most important forts of its kind in Europe. It's a popular place in summer, although acts of daring rather than the historical significance of the site seem to occupy many visitors' minds.

There are no safety barriers, so anyone with a head for heights can stand on the island's brink and stare down at the tumultuous Atlantic.

The edge inexorably draws almost everyone one way or another - the less foolhardy crawl on hands and knees to the precipice, shuffling the last few centimetres on their stomachs.

Not even the plethora of archaeologists who have studied the site are completely sure what the stone platform in the centre of the innermost walls was used for, but it was likely ceremonial.

On a fine day the idea of visiting this site for ceremonies, or even living here, can seem romantic. But on this day, in the driving rain and wind and with the sea hurling itself against the cliffs below the idea of Stone Age life at Dun Aonghasa seemed almost incomprehensible.

The weather relented a little on the ride back into Kilronan but it was still sufficiently unpleasant to make a stop at Ti Joe Watty's bar on the outskirts of the village for a hot toddy. Two to be precise. The final few kilometres of the cycle was a breeze as a result.

Maybe next time I should start at Joe's as well as finish up there.

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