A welcome sight in beautiful Ards
Serenity of Mount Stewart gardens is a far cry from my last experience of the North during the Troubles
In the late 1970s, I sold 28 bullocks to be slaughtered in the meat factory in Whiteabbey in Belfast. A few days later when they were collected, I followed the lorry and trailer up to the North.
I have always felt that it is a bit silly to feed cattle for six months or more and then not bother to be around when they are weighed, graded and killed.
Being a slightly suspicious sort, I also preferred to have lorry loads of cattle weighed live in order to have a comparison with the carcass weights after slaughter. You can call that suspicious or prudent, I don't really care, because when you are selling something as valuable as a double of 600kg bullocks it seems silly not to spend half a day at the factory to see them weighed and graded. It's too late to whinge about prices, weights and grades when you receive the cheque and the cattle are hanging in the cold room, which surely applies whether you are selling one cow or a load of U-grade bullocks.
In the 1970s, things were not exactly quiet in the North and it was with some anxiety that I drove there, especially given that my number plates and accent clearly identified where I was from. Passing through the Border was quite intimidating in those days, with rolls of razor wire and grilles protecting the customs buildings and sullen-looking soldiers, armed and dangerous, watching everybody's movements.
You could sense the tension everywhere and, despite a really friendly welcome at the Whiteabbey meat factory, things got worse just as dusk was gathering -- when I left to return home. Having a hopeless sense of direction, I managed to quickly get lost and found myself driving down roads with names that were scarily familiar from the scenes of violence on TV. In the doorways of houses, people stood with folded arms, silent and watching. There was no way I was going to ask for directions in that tense environment but, fortunately, just as I was getting really anxious, I spotted a sign for Dublin. Never have I welcomed a road sign as much as on that evening.
The contrast between travelling to Northern Ireland 33 years ago and now is quite remarkable. The Border is no longer marked and you speed along on the motorways without sight of soldiers, helicopters or burned-out buildings.
This time around I was travelling with some friends to visit the famous gardens at Mount Stewart near Newtownards in Co Down.