Thursday 23 November 2017

Walk of the week: Castle Archdale and White Island, Co Fermanagh

Christopher SOmerville

On a lovely summer morning the White Island ferry, zooming across the glassy waters of Lower Lough Erne from Castle Archdale marina, had me landed on the tree-encircled island in somewhat less than a jiffy.

The wartime roar of Sunderland and Catalina flying boats, the suck and hiss as they took off from the lake, the thump and splash as they set down -- none of these disturbed the stony staring of the eight watchers of White Island, who had been guarding their islet off Castle Archdale for at least 1,000 years when war came to Co Fermanagh in 1941.

Today, exploring the ruined church and the enigmatic figures ranked along its wall, I felt that frisson one experiences in the presence of ancient likenesses of the human form.

Who or what had that Dark Ages sculptor been trying to represent? He certainly carved a saucy sheela-na-gig, legs akimbo, who now flashes her monkey grin at one end of the line. The other end is closed by a sulky face. But what of those others in between? Round-eyed, bearing blank expressions and holding mysterious, weather-blurred objects ... Were these a saintly scribe, a bishop, St David singing with a harp?

Two versions of Christ -- one banging the heads of two gryphons together, the other a curly-haired warrior with round shield and stabbing sword? Or did their creator have something altogether different in mind when he set to on the quartzite slabs he'd smoothed?

One stone he left with only the outline of a figure. What prevented him finishing his great series -- sickness, an enemy raid, death? I sat on the landing stage and waited for the ferry back to Castle Archdale with a head full of speculation.

A Second World War heritage trail loops round the headland where, in 1615, the 'planter' John Archdale, fresh over in Ulster from Suffolk, built a fortified stronghold. The castle is long gone, but its walled courtyard holds a fascinating wartime exhibition.

Lough Erne was perfectly placed (once a secret deal over airspace had been struck with the Republic) for reconnaissance and U-boat hunting trips out into the Atlantic, and the wooded peninsula became home to thousands of youngsters from many corners of the world. I learned with admiration of those flyers from Britain, Canada and the US, their stolid courage on the job, and the high jinks they got up to back at base in order to let off steam.

Walking the trail, I crossed beautiful woodland where the horse chestnuts were displaying the faded remnants of pink and white candle flowers. Under the trees crouched the shapes of fuel and ammunition stores smothered under moss and ivy, as overgrown and ancient-looking as Stone Age huts.

It was strange to walk with so many ghosts -- down on the marina, with its big white beacon and memorial stone to wartime crash victims, and out along the 'Burma Road', a jungly path cut through the forest to reach the isolated explosives dumps.

These days, a caravan park covers the maintenance apron where the flying boats were repaired, and bluebells carpet the glade where Canadian aircrew once roomed in Nissen huts that were nicknamed 'Skunk Hollow', because their sewers gave out an ineradicable stink. From here, the young lads would escape to local bars and dance halls, to laugh and drink and jive and jitterbug like hell.

Down on the lake path the view was of low hills reflected in wide water. Coots honked stridently from the reed beds. A swan came in from the open lake, sawing its wings, as white and lumbering as a Sunderland flying boat. It skated along the water, kicking up a bow wave. A shiver of folding wings, a shake of the neck, and it was sailing serenely to shore. All seemed right with the world under the blue Fermanagh sky; and as I passed ponds shimmering with water boatmen and turned back towards the Courtyard Centre, I could only hope that those young Air Force men and women, at war and far from home, had snatched some precious moments such as these.

Irish Independent

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