Tag Archives: Londonderry

On This Day – The Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland

While the current travel restrictions are in place I have no new stories to post so what I thought that I would do is to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

On 10th June 2015 I was in Ballymoney in Northern Ireland visiting a filming location for the TV film Game of Thrones…

The Dark Hedges Northern Ireland

The dark hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted in the 1750s in the grounds of Gracehill House a Georgian mansion built by the Stuart family, descendants of a cousin of King James who had been granted the land but who had died in a shipwreck. They wanted to create a compelling landscape to impress visitors who approached the entrance to the mansion.  The Manor House is still there but a private residence and the Stuart legacy is this fascinating avenue of spooky interlinking tree boughs.

I say spooky because of course, such an ancient stretch of road is bound to have horror stories linked to it and visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘Grey Lady’. Local legend has it that she haunts the thin ribbon of road that winds beneath the ancient gnarled beech trees. She is said to glide silently along the roadside, and vanish as she reaches the last tree.  I couldn’t help thinking that I wished some of the tourists might disappear so that I might get a decent picture, but I suppose this stubborn couple do help provide a sense of perspective.

Dark Hedges 03

It was a fascinating place and maybe we were lucky to see it because Beech trees reach maturity at no more than two hundred years and those making up the Dark Hedges are well past that.  The Dark Hedges came under threat a few years ago when highway authorities proposed to fell many trees for safety reasons but the avenue was taken over by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust – and is now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to protect the popular landmark but I suspect that there is only so long that they can remain on an environmental life support machine.

We might have stayed longer but to perfectly coincide with our visit a neighbouring farmer decided that this was the perfect agricultural moment to apply an evil silage cocktail to the land and the smell was truly awful and penetrated the interior of the car even through the closed windows.  I was concerned that we could get charged for this later under the car rental small print conditions of contract.

Game of Thrones Dark Hedges

Brittany, St Malo

Dinard Brittany France

Our hotel had a perfect location right on the sea front and the price to be paid reflected that but sadly the breakfast didn’t match up.  Hard bread and selections that disappeared and weren’t replenished left us feeling mugged!  That’s the Hotel de Vallée by the way.

Never mind, the sun was shining, the disappointment was soon left behind and we set off for a walk around a coastal path until we reached a boat trip booking office and we immediately changed our plans – we were on holiday and impromptu decisions are quite acceptable.  So rather than explore the town of Dinard we bought tickets for a fifteen minute boat taxi ride to the city of St Malo instead.

The water taxi negotiated a busy route to avoid the boats bobbing about on the water and the up market yachts streaking across the surface of the sea and brought us closer to the medieval walled city.  Christine wasn’t impressed, she thought it looked like a prison with its imposing grey granite walls rising directly out of the sea but we persuaded her to hold her final judgement and wait until we got inside.

St Malo Brittany

She was glad that she did because St Malo is an absolute gem.  In 1944 it was almost completely destroyed by American bombers and a British naval bombardment and by the time they had finished with it 80% was in ruins.  The French didn’t rush to restore it however and took twelve years from 1948 to 1960 to put the city back together again stone by stone, brick by brick.

And this is an important point – in France war damaged towns and cities were rebuilt in a traditional way with buildings that recreated the spirit of the old communities whereas in England our heritage was swept away by the town planners of the 1960s who approved the destruction of anything of value and replacement with concrete and ugliness which condemns English towns for the next couple of hundred years or so to all look the same whereas in France they have recaptured and preserved their individual identity.

In 2015 this seems to be a feature of our travel destinations – cities that have been bombed and destroyed.  In February we went to Warsaw in Poland, in April to Malta and to Londonderry in Northern Ireland in June all of which, have at some point been virtually destroyed.

We walked through the labyrinth of streets where shops and bars met at the pavement edge and walked straight through to the walls on the other side where restaurants lined the city walls, so many because it is estimated that St Malo has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in all of Europe with most of them specialising in oysters from nearby Cancale.

Sea Defences St Malo Brittany France

Outside of the walls we walked to the sandy beaches and the rows and rows of timber trunks firmly planted in the sand to provide defence against Winter Atlantic storms that sweep in along this coast and frequently deluge the city under a barrage of high water.  Not today however because the sun was shining and if anything we had to frequently seek shelter of shade to get away from the blistering midday sun.

After walking for an hour or so we rested for a while at a bar in the sunshine and then walked some more just to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything.  First we arrived at the cathedral which was much like any other cathedral but had an interesting plaque outside commemorating a previous citizen of the city, a man called Jacques Cartier.  Now, this is a name that probably won’t mean a lot to most people unless they are Canadian because Jacques Cartier let me tell you is credited with being the explorer who first navigated inland from the North Atlantic Ocean and allegedly gave the country its name.  Lots of people had been to what we know as Canada before Cartier of course but none had ventured so far into the interior before him.

In 2004 the Canadian Broadcasting Company ran a competition to choose the greatest Canadian, when the votes were counted three of the top ten were Scots, Tommy Douglas, John MacDonald and Alexander Graham Bell but despite this achievement the Breton Jacques Cartier did not even make the final fifty.

St Malo was a genuine surprise, I had always thought of it as a ferry port where people arrived from Portsmouth and left the boat blinkered, looked for the green Toutes Directions sign and hammered south, perhaps they do, there weren’t many English tourists here today.

After the lunch stop we walked back to the walls and walked along the western bastions looking out over several island fortifications cut off by the high tide, one containing the tomb of François-René Chateaubriand, politician, diplomat, author and the man who it is popularly supposed that the steak dish is named after.

By late afternoon it was time to take the water taxi back to Dinard and by four o’clock we were back on the seaside promenade.  With the sun still beating down we walked to the beach with the lifeguard championship games and had a drink at the water’s edge before the girls went into town to the shops and to find somewhere for evening meal and I declined the opportunity to join them and had a second beer instead.

If you are from Canada who did you vote for in the ‘Greatest Canadians’ competition?  If you are not from Canada who would you have voted for?

Hotel de La Vallee Dinard Brittany

Northern Ireland, A Walk on The (Wild) Bogside.

Londonderry Wall Mural

It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  The view from our room was over the Catholic Bogside area which looked peaceful enough today but has had a recent bloody and violent contribution to the Troubles.  Indeed some historians identify Londonderry/Derry/Stroke City as being the very crucible of the civil war.

In the 1960s Catholic Derry considered itself to be suffering religious and political persecution and the city became the flashpoint of disputes about institutional discrimination. Despite having a nationalist majority the city was permanently controlled by unionists due to the partisan drawing of electoral boundaries. In addition the city had very high unemployment levels and very poor housing. Overcrowding in nationalist areas was widely blamed on the political agenda of the unionist government, who wanted to confine Catholics to a small number of electoral wards to effectively restrict their influence.

In August 1969 following the annual Protestant Apprentice Boys Parade Nationalists clashed with police in an incident remembered now as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ which directly led to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and the intervention of the British Army.

Worse was to come on Sunday January 30th 1972 when during a Catholic civil rights march thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers, another thirteen were wounded and one further man later died of his wounds. This event came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

This incident remains an open wound between the two factions and the British Army but the current official verdict was delivered by the Saville Commission which was published in June 2010.

The report concluded, “The firing by soldiers on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control” fatally shooting fleeing civilians.  The report states, contrary to the previously established belief that no stones and no petrol bombs were thrown by civilians before British soldiers shot at them and that the civilians were not posing any threat.  Not the British Army’s finest hour!

Londonderry Bloody Sunday Wall Mural

Just outside the city walls and only a short walk from our hotel was the very place where the Bloody Sunday confrontation took place so walked down the hill from the fortress walls and saw three famous monuments, ‘You Are Entering Free Derry’, a message painted on the gable end of a row of terraced houses, long since demolished, the Bloody Sunday memorial itself and a third monument remembering the Maze prison notorious now for internment without trial, hunger strikes and the death place of the most famous hunger striker of all, Bobby Sands.

As in Belfast there are guided tours of the Bogside but we choose to do this by ourselves and although it felt quite safe on the busy main road I do admit to  becoming uneasy whenever we strayed into the side streets where signs invited the British to ‘Get Out Now’ and others encouraged local people to join the IRA.

We weren’t put off by this however because we wanted to see the murals, works of urban art really and quite different from those in West Belfast.  These were less political statements but a visual telling of the story of the Bogside troubles.  The political statements were there too but these were smaller information boards which told a sectarian and one sided story.

I am glad that I walked down to see this but after thirty minutes or so I was happy to leave and walk back now to the old city.

There was still an hour to spare before our check out time and ninety minute drive to the airport so while Kim returned to the hotel I took advantage of these final moments by walking the walls for a second time and having visited the Catholic Bogside took a detour into the Protestant Fountains estate where I found the murals and the political slogans a great deal more sectarian and aggressive and I didn’t stay long.

Londonderry/Derry Wall Mural

Our drive back to Belfast International Airport was slow going but uneventful and eventually we arrive back at the Sixt car rental office.  Now, if you remember my first day post about this trip to Northern Ireland you might recall that I had paid for fully comprehensive insurance and was confident that I had got everything covered.

Not quite!

A member of staff examined the car and satisfied himself that there were no bumps or scrapes, no chips in the windscreen and that the tyres weren’t flat and punctured, nothing  that is that he could charge me for, and we turned to walk away but were staggered when he called us back and said that there was some sand in the carpets and that there could be a £60 cleaning charge.  Now, I am not disputing that we had walked on a beach and transferred some sand from our shoes to the car but the quantity was minute and you really needed a microscope to find it.

“£60” I protested and almost choked and he defended this bit of daylight robbery with an explanation that this sort of sand was especially difficult to deal with.  I noticed that there was funny smell and I remided him that I am Sixt Platinum custumer and he backed down and said not to worry because  the quantity was on the margins of acceptability and he would not charge us this time.

Just as well because if he had I would have asked for the keys back and taken it to a vacuum machine in the next door garage and sucked it up myself for £2 no matter how difficult it might have been (not).  In case he changed his mind I actually thanked him for not mugging me but I quickly returned to the car and wiped the steering wheel just in case there was a charge for removing fingerprints!  These thieves will try anything to generate additional revenue.

So we made our way to the airport and the departure lounge and in the time we had to wait I started to think about the few days away and began to compare it with the previous year visit to Southern Ireland…

Northern Ireland, Stroke City (What’s In A Name?)

Londonderry Walled City

“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist” – Mahatma Gandhi

The city might be Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry and we were confused about what we should call it because we didn’t want to offend anyone.

The name Derry became the accepted name of the town around the sixteenth century but it was also at this time point that it acquired the prefix of London. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population. The various lands were handed over to different guilds of London traders to develop and manage and in recognition of their efforts and considerable financial investment the city was renamed Londonderry in 1613.

The names of the city, county, and district of Derry or Londonderry continue to be the subject of a naming dispute between nationalists and unionists. Generally nationalists favour using the name Derry, and unionists using Londonderry. Legally, the city and county are called Londonderry while the local government district is called Derry.

Confused? We were. My favourite solution to this problem is the name given by a Northern Ireland radio broadcaster called Gerry Anderson who christened the city with the alternative name Stroke City and residents have increasingly embraced the unofficial name thus neatly circumventing the linguistic minefield of whether it is Derry or Londonderry.

We found the underground car park of the Maldon hotel without any difficulty and after we had checked into our fourth floor rooms with good views over the city we met in the bar for a Guinness before beginning a walking tour of the walls of the city.

Londonderry has the distinction of being the last walled city to be built in Europe and it is one of the most complete with an uninterrupted walk of just about a mile completely enclosing the old city within.  It is one of the few cities in Europe that never saw its fortifications breached, withstanding several sieges including one in 1689 which lasted for one hundred and five days, hence the city’s nickname, The Maiden City.

Our hotel was conveniently located near Butcher’s Gate so we climbed a staircase to the top and decided for no reason to take an anti-clockwise stroll starting at the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, protected by rails and wire mesh from any missiles that might be thrown across from the Catholic Bogside opposite.

The walk took us along the battlements, past fortified bastions and over the various gates of the city where carefully restored cannon still posed threateningly at every corner.  We passed by St Columb’s Cathedral and came across the Protestant quarter called the Fountain surrounded by brick walls and wire fences in a part of the city where it is definitely wise to call it Londonderry.

It was at about this point where the wall descended almost to street level and seeing a shopping mall Kim and Pauline were sucked inside so Richard and I retired to a pub for a second Guinness.

We had only been there an hour or so but already I knew that Iiked the place.  I was expecting it to be rather more like the cities of Southern Ireland, I thought it might be like Galway or Killarney but it wasn’t.  It may not have had street entertainers and brightly coloured buildings but it had a unique identity which made me regret the fact that we weren’t staying longer than one night.

The city suffered badly during the troubles but in 2013 it became the inaugural UK City of Culture and as a result has benefitted from considerable investment.  The best example of this was the Guildhall which has been lavishly restored and is now a superb tourist attraction which best of all doesn’t charge for admission.  In fact it was so good that I felt obliged to make a voluntary contribution and that’s not like me at all!

We had visited the Peace Wall in Belfast and now we crossed the Peace Bridge in Londonderry, which is a snaking structure which crosses the River Foyle and connects the east and west banks in a symbol of hopeful fraternity.

It was late afternoon now so we split up to go our separate ways for an hour or so.  I choose to visit the Tower Museum which had a useful walk through history of the city and the province.  It was here that I learnt of the plantations and the settlement of Ulster by protestant Scots, the displacement of the native Catholics and the possible root cause of the centuries of tension that culminated in the troubles of the 1970s and 80’s, but I sensed a whiff of optimism here and I hope it is a beginning rather than an end.

The Hotel Maldron advertised Irish music in the bar tonight so we didn’t have a long debate about where to take our evening meal. Unfortunately the musicians didn’t turn up and the hotel staff didn’t respond well to my complaint.  My food wasn’t very good either although everyone else declared their choice of meal to be a great success.

Deprived of music we left the hotel and went looking for entertainment elsewhere.  The burgundy coloured Tracy’s Bar looked promising with a picture of musicians painted on the wall, but it was empty and lifeless inside and two women who had obviously had too much to drink and were standing smoking in the doorway asked what did we expect, it was Tuesday!

So we walked a section of the wall, found a pub (without music) and had a chat about the meaning of life and a final Guinness for the day!

Londonderry Guildhall

Northern Ireland, Castles and Hedges

Dunluce Castle Northern ireland

At seven o’clock in the morning the Giant’s Causeway was magnificent and as the sun struggled to break through the crazy paved cracked clouds we wandered  across the magnificently moody rocks without any interruption, until that is a quartet of men appeared who were obviously trying to walk off a big boozy night and even now had not fully regained complete volume control.

After Richard and I had returned to the  Smuggler’s Inn from the causeway we had an excellent breakfast (full English or full Irish I am not sure, I was going to ask but promptly forgot) and then we checked out and headed west.

Our intended destination was Dunluce castle but somewhere in Bushmills I missed a signpost and it was soon clear that we were going in the wrong direction and we had to turn back.  It was well worth it though because once on the right road we approached the castle along a twisting route that dropped dramatically down to the cliffs and showed it off to its best advantage.

Even though it was early it was already quite busy and the car park was full and there were a couple of tour buses out of Belfast disgorging their passengers.  On account of this it was rather overcrowded so with natural skinflint tendencies kicking in we declined the opportunity to take the internal tour of the ruins and satisfied ourselves instead with a wander around the exterior.

Actually I am not sure that the £5 entrance fee was really worth it because without doubt the best views were from the surrounding cliffs and that is what I always tell myself when I have been too mean to pay the admission fee.

The Dark Hedges Northern Ireland

Our next destination was a last minute adjustment to the planned itinerary and was made in response to something that we had seen in the local guidebooks – the dark hedges of Ballymoney, famous all of a sudden for being featured in the TV film ‘Game of Thrones’.

Game of Thrones Dark Hedges

From looking at the road map I was sure that this would be a place that was certain to be difficult to find but I was practically speechless when the normally not entirely reliable SatNav found it without any difficulty at all.

The dark hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted in the 1750s in the grounds of Gracehill House a Georgian mansion built by the Stuart family, descendants of a cousin of King James who had been granted the land but who had died in a shipwreck. They wanted to create a compelling landscape to impress visitors who approached the entrance to the mansion.  The Manor House is still there but a private residence and the Stuart legacy is this fascinating avenue of spooky interlinking tree boughs.

I say spooky because of course, such an ancient stretch of road is bound to have horror stories linked to it and visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘Grey Lady’. Local legend has it that she haunts the thin ribbon of road that winds beneath the ancient gnarled beech trees. She is said to glide silently along the roadside, and vanish as she reaches the last tree.  I couldn’t help thinking that I wished some of the tourists might disappear so that I might get a decent picture!

It was a fascinating place and maybe we were lucky to see it because Beech trees reach maturity at no more than two hundred years and those making up the Dark Hedges are well past that.  The Dark Hedges came under threat a few years ago when highway authorities proposed to fell many trees for safety reasons but the avenue was taken over by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust – and is now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to protect the popular landmark but I suspect that there is only so long that they can remain on an environmental life support machine.

We might have stayed longer but to perfectly coincide with our visit a neighbouring farmer decided that this was the perfect agricultural moment to apply an evil silage cocktail to the land and the smell was truly awful and penetrated the interior of the car even through the closed windows.  I was concerned that we could get charged for this later under the car rental small print conditions of contract!

We left the Dark hedges and returned to the coast road that we picked up a mile or two beyond the Coleraine by-pass but in truth the coast road never really threatened to become anything like as dramatic or interesting as the Antrim coast the previous day and with nothing of any great interest to detain us we carried on directly to our next overnight stop in the city of Londonderry/Derry.

Dark Hedges 03