After learning to ride a bike on Richmond racecourse, I recall that my first act when let loose on public roads was to cycle the wrong way round the roundabout on the main road which skirts Richmond town centre - fortunately cars were fairly thin on the ground at the time!
My first cycling memory - indeed one of my earliest memories of any sort - however goes back well before our time in Richmond to the beginning of the War. In 1941, my father was posted to Northern Ireland. It's no good asking why - I know it was in completely the opposite direction to where all the action was taking place - but no doubt the Army (as ever) had its reasons. Unlike most families during the War, my mother followed the drum, and with me and my brother we endured a long and circuitous journey by train up to Stranraer made all the longer by bomb damage on the West Coast Main Line. We eventually arrived at Coalisland in County Tyrone to be informed by my father that he was being posted again - back to England! We did however stay long enough to enjoy a few months of life in the tranquil rural backwater of western Northern Ireland.
To return to my earliest cycling memory. I have the most vivid recollection of being carried precariously on my father's bike on a seat on the cross-bar (as top tubes were called in those days) whilst my younger brother rode on a child seat behind my mother. We rode down a long reed-lined lane beside a canal to picnic on the shores of Lough Neagh, with an island out in the bay. My parents have absolutely no recollection of this event, but at the age of 89 perhaps they may be excused for being a bit forgetful. My mother can't imagine how I can remember something so far back, as I was only four at the time. My father is even more dismissive; as he puts it - "I didn't have time to go on picnics, there was a war on". All I know is that I remember it distinctly.
In the year 2000, I returned to Northern Ireland to undertake a survey for the proposed Lough Neagh Cycleway. I found that Lough Neagh, although occupying a central position in the Province, was in fact a rather negative sort of feature. There are few points where you can even see the Lough, and even fewer where you can get down to the shore. Apart from a couple of boating marinas, the Lough Shore Park at Antrim and the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at Oxford Island, there was no tourist trade to speak of. Whilst in early summer, the already limited delights of the Lough are further diminished by the countless hordes of the infamous Lough Neagh fly. Nevertheless, the route had considerable potential, as the lanes round the lough are mostly level and very, very quiet.
I totally failed to locate the crumbling country house where we lodged - it had probably been knocked down many years ago, so I concentrated on trying to find the spot where we had picnicked sixty years ago. In fact identification of our picnic site did not prove too difficult. A simple study of the map revealed only two possible access points to the shore at the south-western corner of the Lough which were within easy cycling distance of Coalisland. One glance at the desolate shore at Washing Bay immediately eliminated that from my search, so Maghery Bay was the only remaining alternative.
I spent one day with Matthew Bushby, the Countryside Access Officer for Craigavon Borough Council, who took me round the various bits of Lough shoreline within his patch. Maghery Bay lies next to the mouth of the River Blackwater, which up to about ten years ago had been the site of a ferry, although I have no recollection of that part of my childhood journey. One of the main components in the Lough Neagh Cycleway proposals was to be the construction of a foot- and cycle-bridge at this spot. This was a somewhat controversial proposal, as the locals feared that construction of such a bridge would prejudice their chances of getting a road bridge subsequently.
The bay had changed a lot in sixty years and it has now been remodelled as a small country park and caravan site. But Coney Island still stood out in the bay, and I sat by the lough shore for a long time with my binoculars watching the teeming bird life for which Lough Neagh is famous. Great crested grebes, mallard, widgeon, goldeneye and swans rode the water. Innumerable swallows skimmed the surface scooping up beakfuls of the Lough Neagh fly for their afternoon tea. A number of terns rested on the posts which marked out the navigation channel across the bay, whilst over to the right a dozen herons stood fishing in the shallows.
Meanwhile Matthew disappeared to chat with the Park keeper. When he came back, he was accompanied by Colm, who had been born in Maghery and had lived there most of his life. Colm assured me that it had all changed, but that yes, this was the place I remembered - there had been a reed-lined lane, and it ran alongside a canal, now just a creek, which had served as a short cut for the barge traffic across the corner of the Lough between the Upper River Bann and the River Blackwater.
I felt a lump in my throat. I had received the confirmation that I had needed. I had rediscovered the site of one of my earliest childhood reminiscences. It was a powerfully emotional and poignant moment for me.