Saturday 20 January 2018

The honesty box at the top of Ireland

Holidays in Northern Ireland

The view from Rathlin Island over to Fair Head in Co Antrim
The view from Rathlin Island over to Fair Head in Co Antrim
Mount Stewart house and gardens are a must-visit in Co Down
Fitzwilliam Hotel, Belfast
Rowallane is one of the most beautiful gardens you will see

Shane Fitzsimons

Here's a question for everyone on the island of Ireland. Where does the North begin?

I don't mean official Northern Ireland. Everyone knows that starts somewhere north of Dundalk, where the road signs change from kilometres into miles. But where does an Irish soul's inner compass start to flicker?

I found myself wondering this as we were standing on the edge of a cliff at Fair Head (it's in the top right-hand corner of Co Antrim). And we were standing there because we couldn't go any further, not without leaping off the map into the sea some 80m below. We weren't for jumping. But the views from Fair Head would make your heart leap.

Three miles to the north lies Rathlin Island, 15 miles to the east is the Mull of Kintyre (and from Fair Head you can almost hear the bagpipes and Beatle Paul's languorous chords), while behind us was a turf-covered plateau over which we'd taken an easy walk past the remains of a Neolithic passage tomb and a small peaty trout lake with an island - Lough na Cranagh, where once a crannog stood.

With all these ancient landmarks we knew we weren't the first to stand here, astounded by the natural beauty of the place. Nevertheless it was a journey of discovery for us, as we'd never before set foot in the jewel of Ireland called Co Antrim.

We'd parked in a farmer's car park, putting a couple of euro in the honesty box, and from there had walked to the top of Ireland. The sun was out, the tide was in, and all was right with the world.

Mount Stewart house and gardens are a must-visit in Co Down
Mount Stewart house and gardens are a must-visit in Co Down

Of course once you're in this part of the island you have to visit the Giant's Causeway - by far Northern Ireland's biggest tourist draw, and its magnificent visitor centre has everything you need to educate a carload of kids without them realising that they're learning the basics of magmatic geology.

From the Giant's Causeway we made a quick detour for the town of Portrush, to get our feet wet with the Alive Surf School. It being summer, surfable waves were off the menu - but that meant a chance to get acquainted with the joys of Stand Up Paddling. But the joys of Antrim are to be found in the paths less travelled, and for us that meant the paths south from Fair Head along past Torr Head and on to the headland overlooking Murlough Bay.

If you're a Game of Thrones fan, you'll know it as Slaver's Bay - but if you can tear yourself away from the TV show on a sunny day, you'll love the real thing. To get there you follow some narrow country roads as they get narrower and narrower, with spikes of orange Montbretia lining the ditches. Eventually you reach a meandering single-lane track that leads down a sharp incline, past sheep fields and dense groupings of gnarled oak that somehow cling to hills sloping into the sea. Without doubt this is one of those time-stood-still places, where it's as much about the journey as the destination.

From Murlough Bay the road led us south, to the town of Cushendun where a four arched straight-backed stone bridge brings you into a picture postcard village designed by Clough Williams-Ellis (you know him, builder of Portmeirion, the place in Wales where The Prisoner was filmed?) From there it was on to Cushendall and the seaside hamlet of Waterfoot, our doorway to Glenariff, the best known of the Glens of Antrim.

Fitzwilliam Hotel, Belfast
Fitzwilliam Hotel, Belfast

The glens (there are nine of them) were carved into the landscape by Ice Age glaciers but Glenariff is the most easily accessed - mainly due to Glenariff Forest Park, which boasts marked trails and waterfall walks.

From Glenariff it's only a short drive to Belfast city where we exulted in the joys of valet parking at the Fitzwilliam Hotel. While the rugged nature of the glens is heart-stopping, there's a part of me that loves the plush luxury of hotels like the Fitzwilliam - elegant and stylish, but still the sort of place that feels like home when you shut the door.

Everything in Belfast is a short stroll and that evening we ate just around the corner - at James Street South, where head chef David Gillmore wears the magic hat. With the focus on locally sourced food, we loved the Co Antrim beef fillet (with a shout out to the Rathlin Island kelp pesto). Pride of place went to the smoked chocolate mousse with hazelnut ice cream. If you're in Belfast, this is the place to eat.

Next morning, refreshed by what must be the world's greatest power showers at the Fitzwilliam, we left for Mount Stewart - the high point of our trip. It's a stately house, formerly the 19th-century home of Castlereagh (who, according to Byron, looked a lot like murder), and touring the house is like walking through Antiques Roadshow.Though replete with mementoes from the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the house has been restored to its 1920s grandeur, when it was home to Edith, Lady Londonderry. She was the one who made it magical. It was under her visionary eye that the Spanish and Italian gardens were planted, and the eccentric sculptures designed.

Everywhere you turn there's a joyful explosion of viriditas - that green thought in a green shade that fires growth - from the Spanish daisies on the steps of the house, to the gleeful topiary telling tales from the Celtic Twilight, to the current favourite of head gardener Neil Porteous - the devil's hand trees.

Neil, an informative and gifted raconteur, guided us around the gardens - and every turn revealed gorgeous plants and the stories behind them. Absolutely brilliant, but though it deserved a full day's visit we had to run to nearby Balloo House - the award-winning gastropub - for a quick spot of lunch.

Rowallane is one of the most beautiful gardens you will see
Rowallane is one of the most beautiful gardens you will see

Lunch done, next garden on the garden trail was Rowallane, a 50-acre garden laid out in the mid-1860s where features include a walled garden, wildflower meadows, a large collection of rhododendrons and a farmland walk. CS Lewis was a regular visitor to Rowallane, and the number of plants named after this garden is staggering.

We pushed on to Ballyrobert Cottage Gardens - again, just a 20-minute drive from Belfast. This lovely cottage garden planted by Maurice and Joy was recently included in The Guardian's 'Top 10 secret gardens of the UK' - and after the grandeur of Mount Stewart we got a real sense of an achievable family garden.

Back in the car and heading for Dublin, we found ourselves thinking along a familiar line, asking where does the South begin? I guess when it comes to the outdoor world, we're all living in the same state of nature.

Getting there

Northern Ireland is only a short drive away and the landscapes of the Causeway Coast rival any in Ireland. If you’ve not been, go.

Shane stayed at the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Belfast (fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com) and ate at James Street South restaurant — if you’re in the North do not miss it (jamesstreetsouth.co.uk), though Balloo House (ballooinns.com) is very good and is closer to the gardens of Rowallane and Mount Stewart (both at nationaltrust.org.uk). Alive Surf School does what it says on the tin (alivesurfschool.com) — but for a more detailed overview of the joys of Northern Ireland, you should go to discovernorthernireland.com.

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