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Northern Ireland travel writer whose 3,000-mile cycle across Europe helped her better handle a complex relationship with her Brethren father

Helen Moat, from Lurgan, enjoyed an idyllic but strict childhood in a deeply religious family, but left NI to escape the Troubles. She tells Linda Stewart about her upbringing, what she learnt from her epic trip... and about a relative who is a well-known politician

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Lurgan-born travel writer Helen Moat

Lurgan-born travel writer Helen Moat

Young Helen with her dad on holiday in Cushendun

Young Helen with her dad on holiday in Cushendun

Family pictures of a young Helen with her fathe William and siblings

Family pictures of a young Helen with her fathe William and siblings

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Hungary

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Hungary

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Bulgaria

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Bulgaria

Helen Moat in Istanbul

Helen Moat in Istanbul

Helen Moat with husband Tom and sons Patrick and Jamie

Helen Moat with husband Tom and sons Patrick and Jamie

Edwin Poots

Edwin Poots

Lurgan-born travel writer Helen Moat

Helen Moat freely admits that she didn't feel as close to her late father as she grew older, but the one thing they did share was a love of nature. The Lurgan-born travel writer says she still has fond memories of younger days when he would have pointed out the wildlife abounding around their home.

"The one thing I shared with my dad was this love of nature - he liked to stop in his grocery van and point out a raptor or some other bird," she says.

"Or you'd be going for walks in the fields and he'd say there's the call of a cuckoo. One summer we had a corncrake calling outside the house and he was excited because they were quite rare."

Those memories inspired the name of her latest book, A Time of Birds, a vividly written memoir of an Odyssean cycle trip across Europe with her then 18-year-old son Jamie, tracking the great European rivers until reaching Istanbul, and interwoven with powerful memories of her childhood days and her dad.

Now living in Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District and married to Scottish-born Tom, Helen has two sons, Patrick (22) and Jamie (24). "We gave one an Irish name and one a Scottish name."

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Young Helen with her dad on holiday in Cushendun

Young Helen with her dad on holiday in Cushendun

Young Helen with her dad on holiday in Cushendun

A former teacher, Helen is the author of Peak District travel guides, with an emphasis on slow travel, and regularly contributes to the likes of BBC Countryfile magazine, Wanderlust and regional radio as well as leading travel writing workshops.

Her life today is a world away from her upbringing when she was raised without television in a Plymouth Brethren family on the edge of Lurgan.

"I had quite an idyllic childhood, running around in the fields, building dams, climbing trees and whatever kids did in the Sixties and don't do any more," Helen says. "My dad was called William and my mum was Margaret or Madge, or Mrs Robinson. My dad had an old-fashioned grocery business that was just a converted garage beside my grandmother's house.

"He did a lot of trade with his grocery van at the time, driving through the countryside. Then the supermarkets came in and that killed a lot of his business, but he struggled on and hung on by the skin of his teeth."

Helen says the family was raised in one of the forms of Brethren assembly, a branch that was founded in Dublin at the start of the 19th century.

"They don't talk about churches - they see a church as a group of people, not a building. There's no pastor or minister - there is a group of elders, a bit like the Quakers.

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Family pictures of a young Helen with her fathe William and siblings

Family pictures of a young Helen with her fathe William and siblings

Family pictures of a young Helen with her fathe William and siblings

"My upbringing was quite strict. Lots of Plymouth Brethren don't drink or smoke - they keep to themselves and warn about going out into the world and the dangers of the world.

"But that is your life, that's your existence - you just accept it and take it all in. But in my teenage years I started to question my beliefs."

There were different degrees of strictness, she says. For example, many families wouldn't allow women to wear trousers.

"All I wanted to do was wear trousers, but I had to wear a skirt," she says.

"My father wasn't as strict as other parents - he allowed us to go to other churches which some Brethren wouldn't do."

However, there were small ways in which she felt different from her classmates at school, she says.

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Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Hungary

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Hungary

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Hungary

"I felt a little different because I had no TV and when everyone was talking about TV programmes, I couldn't really join in. I wanted to go to Brownies but my mum wouldn't let me - things like that. I don't know if I felt terribly different, to be honest."

Helen says her dad loved to travel, but the constraints of the family grocery business only allowed for free time on bank holidays and Saturday afternoons.

"On Saturday afternoons in the summer we used to go to places like the beach at Tyrella, the Antrim coast or Donegal. We would all pile into a Morris Minor, head to the beach and play cricket and have a picnic."

Helen admits she lived in a bit of a fantasy world as a child.

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Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Bulgaria

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Bulgaria

Helen Moat on her bike travelling in Bulgaria

"I loved English and books. Because we had no TV, I read and read and read. I left school after getting a handful of GCSEs and I realised there was more to life than this. Becoming a journalist was something I never thought I could be and it was never mentioned by my teachers."

She embarked on an access course at the Ulster University's Magee College in Londonderry to complete her A-levels and then worked as an au pair in Switzerland where she picked up German: "I wanted to get away from the Troubles."

Helen reveals that her mum's surname had been Poots and her cousin is a well-known politician in Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots of the DUP, but she admits her politics would be different from her family's.

Edwin Poots

"When I was growing up, I developed a strong sense of fairness. I always supported the underdog and argued with my parents about politics," she says.

She was opposed to the sectarian segregation that was a feature of Northern Ireland at the time: "I didn't see it as a good thing - I felt it wasn't healthy. I felt that we are all human beings on this planet together and nobody is superior to anybody else."

After Switzerland, Helen returned to Northern Ireland but eventually she moved to England to study German and met her husband who was working with Natural England, which aims to protect the natural environment. She went on to teach for around 12 years, but found the job took a toll on her. "It was quite unpleasant where I worked and I ended up suffering from depression like my dad, who pretty much closed down for the last 20 years of his life," she says.

The big turning point was when she decided to take time out from teaching to go on her European cycle journey with her son Jamie.

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Helen Moat with husband Tom and sons Patrick and Jamie

Helen Moat with husband Tom and sons Patrick and Jamie

Helen Moat with husband Tom and sons Patrick and Jamie

"Suffering from depression, like my father, I found myself leaving my job quite suddenly. The cycle had been my long-term goal and suddenly I was able to do it earlier than planned," she says.

And that trip was the spur she needed for a change in career - after returning from Europe, she turned to travel writing. The pair set off on their epic journey on May 1, taking in 11 countries - 12 if you include the French island in the middle of the Rhine where they stopped for a coffee.

They started in Rotterdam and followed the Rhine and the Danube, cycling through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and finally fetching up at their journey's end in Istanbul.

There are a host of delights - the pleasure of being out in the open air every day and staying with friends.

An Israeli couchsurfing host in the Netherlands drove them down a winding country road to the unexpected sight of a replica of Noah's Ark built to the exact biblical dimensions and housing chickens.

"When we got to Croatia, the effects of the 1995 war were really visible. We saw houses that were covered in bullet holes and we talked about what was happening in Northern Ireland," Helen says.

In Romania, one man came out of his house and handed them some beef tomatoes that he had grown himself.

"Another thing about meeting all these people was the generosity of friends and complete strangers who put us up on our journey.

"You go out there and realise that most people are decent and incredibly generous. They fed us and put us up for the night, showed us around their towns and took us out.

My father found it difficult to ask for forgiveness but he had lots of good qualities. I held this against him for a lot of my adult life

"It was incredibly life-affirming and you live in the moment when you're cycling every day - there's a new sight round every corner."

In Bulgaria, when three spokes broke on one of the bikes, a local man came to the rescue, giving them a lift in his estate car with the bikes thrown into the back.

In Turkey, they stayed with twin farmers and found themselves drinking tea from dainty cups. One of the scariest moments was riding on the petrifying D100 state road into Istanbul.

"It was really dangerous. Dual carriageways were treated like motorways and my son was nearly knocked off his bike twice - it was terrifying but we survived.

"The driving was crazy, really mad and pretty dangerous.

"In Turkey we were constantly given tea for free, because that is what the Turks do - it's part of their hospitality, it's very much part of the Turkish Islamic culture and you don't get that in the tabloid newspapers."

One sleepy Sunday in the Netherlands, they were on the hunt for somewhere to have a coffee, only to discover that everywhere was closed because the village was celebrating the anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands.

"There were signs up in the village which were musical notes cut out of cardboard, with references to the Andrews Sisters and Frank Sinatra," Helen says.

"We were sitting on a wall and a man came out and explained what was going on - he had an army jeep. His wife came out with mugs of coffee and brownies and said to just leave the mugs on the wall when we were finished - nobody would take them.

"We had so many experiences like that across Europe. When you read what's going on in some of the papers, the world seems like a pretty awful place, and people can be so vicious," Helen says. "But if you go into the real world and meet real people - outside those kinds of bubbles, the real people are really decent."

Helen is reluctant to go into detail about one particular incident that ended up colouring her relationship with her father and is revealed in the book.

"My father was proud and found it difficult to express his emotions, as was the case with many people of his generation.

"He was an ambulance driver in World War Two and that affected him," she believes.

"He found it difficult to ask for forgiveness but he had lots of good qualities. I held this against him for a lot of my adult life."

But the self-examination involved in writing her book has given her a new perspective on her father's failings and on her relationship with him.

"In writing the book and thinking about it, I realised I was being as bad as him. I was holding onto those resentments and I could only move on if I could forgive him," she says.

"Those qualities only make up a small part of a person, so my riding the bike and doing this journey made me realise you only end up damaging yourself if you don't forgive and move on.

"I realised he'd had difficult issues in his life - we all make mistakes and it was wrong of me to hold onto that resentment," Helen says.

"Ultimately, the book is an uplifting story, full of characters, the kindness of strangers - and of course the birds we encountered along Europe's rivers - which drew me closer to my father as I cycled over 3,000 miles across a Europe of open borders."

A Time of Birds by Helen Moat is published in paperback by Saraband on April 9, £9.99

Belfast Telegraph