"Time I visited............." Northern Ireland by leics

Northern Ireland Travel Guide: 2,134 reviews and 5,878 photos

Way past time, really. I'd long wanted to see the Giant's Causeway, and to explore the prehistory of the northern counties.

My visits to Eire were consumed by driving and exploring there; I'd never made it over the border. And, to be very honest, for many years it was not somewhere I would have chosen to go anyway. I am old enough to remember the Troubles very well indeed.

I'd thought about visiting earlier this year, but decided the weather would have been against me.......being from the UK I am tolerant on wet and chilly weather, but it does limit one's exploring, especially when daylight hours are fewer. So I put it off until mid-July, entirely forgetting that I would be visiting during marching season (mainly fortnight or so leading up to the 12th July, but the effects lingering for a while afterwards).

I'd planned a round-trip taking in a couple of my personal 'must-sees' but leaving a large chunk of the Province untouched for another visit (Downpatrick, the Mourne mountains, the Ards peninsula). So: a quick flight into Belfast, pick up the hire car (a very whizzy Renault Clio) and onward to the beautiful Causeway coast.

After a grey start with a very heavy spell of rain I was blessed with a beautifully sunny and clear day to explore Ballycastle, Carrick-a-Rede and the Giants' Causeway (unfortunately over-run with coachloads of squealing teenagers) , before arriving for the night at Portrush. And stepping back in time, it seemed, to the UK seasides of my childhood.

Next day, I drove further along the beautiful Causeway coast, stopping briefly near Castlerock to explore Downhill Demesne. I eventually decided to miss out Derry on this visit because the traffic was dreadful and I had made an awful discovery: I still had the guesthouse room key, and the guesthouse (just like those at the seasides of my childhood) had not only a lot of rules but also a rather scary (although very pleasant) landlady. So my priority was to find a Post Office and get the key sent back pronto!

I'd not thought of visiting Strabane (in truth there is little reason to do so) but it had loads of free parking and a Post Office (inside its supermarket, strangely), so I was able to send the key by Special Delivery. Cost me 5GBP, but worth it for my peace of mind!

The weather was still lovely (although not very warm) so I decided to explore the Sperrins more than I had planned to do. It's a wild, empty and less-visited area with much prehistory and truly beautiful, although signage isn't brilliant and there are many, many tiny lanes in which to get lost. I didn't find several sites I quite fancied seeing, but I did find the superb Beaghmore Stone Circles...and had the silent site (not even a breath of wind) entirely to myself.

In fact it was the almost total silence which amazed me in the Sperrins, so much so that I took a video just because there was absolutely nothing to hear except the trickle of water. But a bleak place indeed in the winter, I think.

By now the sky was darkening, so I pushed on to my next b&b, near Omagh. Set into a hillside with a vast panorama of fields and farms and valleys and hills sprawled out beyond it, it is a most wonderful spot to stay........and, again, almost entirely silent except for the very occasional car or tractor passing by on the road above, the lowing of cattle and the wind in the trees.

Warmly welcomed by the owner and his Uzbekhistani wife (not something I expected in rural Omagh, I have to admit) it was my base for further explorations. That evening to Omagh itself, because visiting the memorial garden was essential for me (I remember too well the appalling scenes following the Omagh bombing of 1998, when 29 people died).

The heavens opened at 7pm, rain hammering down the streets and flooding the tiny lanes which led to my b&b......an early night with a good book was essential.

Next day dawned grey and chilly, but at least dry. Onward to Boa Island, to seek out (difficult, but I was successful in the end) the ancient carvings placed in a tiny churchyard there......and then to Castle Archdale, for the ferry to White Island with its early monastery and even earlier stone carvings. I was lucky: the ferryman had just one customer (me) and we had a most pleasant jaunt across Lower Lough Erne to the island, and back again at my leisure.

I'd wanted to go to Devenish Island too, further round the Lough and also with an early monastery. But that ferry wasn't running, although my ferryman didn't know why. He just knew it had been moored in its overnight spot for the past two days, and its presence meant he had to make a hugely complicated 12-point turn (plus jumping off in despair and heaving my boat around by its rope) to get me & our boat out onto the lake. So he wasn't very pleased about the Devenish Island ferry not running, and nor was I ...but for different reasons.

So I decided to explore Enniskillen instead, but after an hour or so there the rain was insistent, the wind chill and the light increasingly gloomy. So there was nothing for it but a (slow, because of considerable traffic jams in Enniskillen) return to Omagh for something to eat, a quick wander around their Asda (yes, I was that desperate!) and then a very early bed & book.

Next day, cool but thankfully dry again, I decided to visit the rather good Ulster-American Folk Park (an outdoor 'ethnographic' museum) just outside Omagh. A good place, not as 'touristy' as I'd feared and well worth its entrance fee for the cabans and old Irish cottages alone, although the recreation of an emigrant ship was impressive and the log houses (originals bought over from the US) equally interesting.

And then onward for a long, meandering drive back to Belfast to drop off the car at the airport and go back into the city for my last night. A good hotel at a good rate, a hot shower and an evening wander around what turned out to be a really rather interesting city (more so than I'd imagined) followed by far too much to eat ensured that I slept long and well.

My flight was late afternoon, so there was time to take a bus tour...not something I've ever done before, always preferring to walk and use public transport to do my own explorations. But this one was worth it, a local company (Allens) with a knowledgeable and amusing guide and a sunny, breezy morning to make the open-top deck a feasible spot to sit. It reminded me of much I had forgotten about the Troubles: an odd, slightly disturbing feeling to see those names so etched into my memory..the Divis Flats, the Shankill, the Falls, Sandy Row, the Peace Wall, the Europa.......coming into clear reality. I shouldn't have forgotten so much; it was good to be reminded, not least because the scabs are still new and much rawness remains underneath.

Belfast is surging forward now, as best it can in the current economic climate. It has kept much of its wonderful Victorian and Edwardian architecture (probably a beneficial by-product of the Troubles, for in the 70s brutalism reigned in many UK towns and cities and too much elaborate architecture was destroyed, replaced with blocked concrete and sheet glass). It was pleasing to see active renewal and restoration of the older areas, although I am a little dubious about the 'Titanic quarter' being constructed on the disused dockyards. I'm sure the new Titanic museum will be superb.....I just hope the planned hotels, restaurants, bars etc are all in keeping. But if it brings works to what it still an area of high unemployment, then it must be a good thing.

So......an interesting an enjoyable visit, which taught me much about many things and reminded me of many more. I'm glad I finally visited, and I'll definitely go back at some point to 'do' the rest of the Province.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:History, landscape, coastline
  • Cons:Do not discuss its recent history.
  • In a nutshell:Well worth exploring this lovely province
  • Last visit to Northern Ireland: Jun 2010
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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