Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Northern Ireland magic

a place of pilgrimage - Slemish Mountain, and old volcanic plug where it is said St Patrick herded swine as a boy

Moving on from my last post - a belated 'second serving' of our June week in Ireland with the Caravan Writers' Guild, I come back in spirit to the part of the visit that covered Northern Ireland. Of course, Ireland is one island and whatever I may think personally of the political and religious divisions that divide the country into two parts, my dual-accounting is simply one of expediency, so as not to make any one offering too long.

You might like first to read what I posted in June (just click on the month-link to the left of this post; and also on my two other blogs. I could not then (in June) recount the whole story, for I only had limited time, and that courtesy of the ferry company Stena Line who offer free WiFi to passengers. Since then, other things have been on my mind, and good intentions frequently fall foul of circumstances beyond one's own control.

The 'Whale' stand at the NEC

Fast forward again, as in my last post, to the here-and-now (actually mid-October when I began writing this post at the NEC in Birmingham: the 2010 International Caravan & Motorhome Show). We stopped by the Whale stand to say 'hello' to Patrick Hurst (MD), steadfast Kate (his PA) and the indefatigable Sarah (marketing). Whale specialise in "heating and water systems for recreational vehicles." Technical subjects are not my forte; but I will never forget the hospitality of Patrick and his staff when the Caravan Writers' Guild was given a conducted tour of the Whale factory, in Bangor (just outside Belfast) during our summer visit.

June 2010: a CWG presentation to the Whale staff outside their factory in Bangor, Co.Down

Whale hosted much of our time in Northern Ireland and took such care of our well-being with much delicious food and a hamper of local Irish specialities when we left at the end of the week. We had arrived late at our campsite, having driven from the one south of Dublin to the Camping & Caravanning Club site on the shores of the idyllic Strangford Lough. We were cold and tired (we had stopped off for a motorhome picnic and dawdled the rest of the way). As we pitched, our first sight was of an on-site marquee alongside, with a number of chaps in white coats and black-and-white chequered pirate-style bandanas cooking the magnificent barbecue that was to be our evening meal. That was the first time we met Patrick and some of his staff. It isn't often that you are catered for and served by the MD and fellow directors of a successful firm, but this first evening was to be indicative of the care that was lavished upon us by Whale and their staff.

Whale directors prepare a delicious barbecue for the Caravan Writers' Guild

(It didn't escape our notice as to just how hard all the staff worked - Raymond spent a whole day at their request photographing their exhibition stand at the NEC; the directors and staff hardly sat down for a minute. A long day and a long week.)

seen from the Antrim coast road

Back to my memories and June notes. We covered much milage in Co.Antrim, and were all shepherded around in a very modern and comfortable coach. One of the coach drivers had a fund of anecdotes: do you for instance know why the cows dance in Antrim? (Because they are fed on potale - the spent grain left over after the distillation process when making Irish whiskey! Or so we were told.) We ate well at Bushmills, and I was asked to participate in a whiskey tutorial. In fact we did a lot of drinking one way and another in Ireland visiting two distilleries and three breweries. Those who were not on the whiskey inspected another caravan park which seemed to meet with everyone's approval.

sampling from these bottles of smooth, soporific whiskey was an education and a delight

The drive down the Antrim coast road was spectacular - 100 miles or so along the high coastal north-facing plateau, past the the Giant's Causeway, then winding in and out of the seaward mouths of each of the Glens (nine in all) and so gradually, seemingly, downhill to Belfast, as if the whole plateau was gently sliding into the sea. I had been blase about the Causeway - and anyway it was raining so pics were difficult, but I was captivated by the wild-flowers growing between the huge hexagonal chunks of stones. Sixty million years old and forty thousand stones; though their geological importance did not seem to impress a party of teenage schoolchildren who spent the time leaning against the rocks in a long line sending text messages to each other!

The NT are funny about journalists taking photos on 'their' properties - you almost have to sign your life away! They will supply stock photos, but then you are using images that have appeared over and over again, rather than ones that are unique to whatever you are writing about. We were only allowed to use a camera if we had the permission of any people we photographed; these fellow photographers said they didn't mind. I took lots, but all the others were of plants and geometric shapes, like a three-dimensional patchwork quilt; a bit cold and heavy! And it was raining.

Belfast had its moments: I posted back in June about the new Titanic museum that is due to open in May 2011. That as you will read (click back) was particularly poignant and we were privileged to be given a preview. But I would have liked to visit Belfast City Hall where in 1966 my father (Maurice Miles) was appointed conductor of the Ulster Orchestra. There wasn't time, and instead the coach drove us around the location of 'The Troubles' - the Falls and Shanklin roads. I felt we were intruding; and it was sad to see two small girls hefting lumps of mud at each other. Perhaps animosity is ingrained from long before birth.

murals in Belfast; there's a whole wall of them, and on the sides of many of the houses as well

Raymond and I have actually been back to Northern Ireland since June, in connection with a magazine commission - a feature that is due out next year. (BBC Countryfile magazine, April 2011: 'Discover the Antrim Coast and Glens').

You can fly to Belfast City Airport with FlyBe, on the site of the old dockyards) from many UK regional airports; they operate jets as well as turbo-props

I promise myself I will return yet again, one day, if for nothing else than my 'fix' of Dunseverick Harbour! Pied wagtails tail-flicking on the slipway; golden and seal-grey lichen clinging to the rockfaces; the pull and pluck of the tide. Memories. Sunshine on the hills, the sea, and flooding down the green and fertile glens. Wherever we have been in Ireland (four visits in five years) in mist, sun or the soft gentle rain, we relish the space, the quality of the light, the peace, and the welcoming and friendly people. North, South, East or West, it matters not, for the "spirit of the past lives on and remains all around us”. 
Dunseverick Harbour, on the north coast of Antrim

a rather indifferent photo I took in 2005 in one of the Glens when I was out 'motte-hunting'. Double-click on the pic so as to enlarge it, and right in the middle you should see the mound upon which Doonan Castle sits (at least I think that's it's name)

Time to leave this magical country. The aircraft climbs away into the setting sun, over Belfast docks and the slipway where the fated Titanic was launched in 1911 from the Harland & Wolff shipyard, one hundred years ago. I peer into the growing dusk, hoping to catch a last glimpse of the uplands and coastal road, but the pilot has turned south, the sun has gone and it is too dark. I can almost feel the tug of the land and the pounding sea willing us back, but know it is purely my imagination. 


  1. Fascinating post, Ann, and lovely photographs.

  2. I love reading of your adventure!

    happy day!

  3. Beautiful photos and wonderful story; we really enjoy your reading about your travels.

  4. We flew over southern England and then Ireland on our way home from Italy last month. England was green, but Ireland was even more so. I can see why you are enamored - not that you don't have plenty to love in your own neighborhood! I love the checkered pants of your Whale chefs!!

  5. Just came over to say hello. I like what I find here and your photos are smashing. Be back again soon- Kath

  6. Greetings Ann, This is just a note to refer you to a webpage with information about your father and his important place in the musical life of Northern Ireland: (David Byers)