Monday 27th July 2009, Ballycastle, County Antrim continued
Today we are now well and truly into Northern Ireland. We crossed the border last night on our way to Derry. The only way we realised was that the signboards no longer directed us to Derry but to Londonderry. Familiar British road signs and speed restrictions abruptly replaced those of southern Ireland. Strangely Northern Ireland uses miles while the rest of Ireland uses kilometres. Fuel costs more here too; at least the displayed prices look the same but of course £1.02 in sterling is around 16% more than €1.02 in euros which would be around 89 pence. Other indications that we'd left southern Ireland behind were the flags; gone were the orange white and green of Ireland to be replaced by hundreds of red, white and blue Union Jacks and even more flags showing a red cross on a white ground with the red hand of Ulster. In one village Ian even noticed the kerb stones painted in red, white and blue. Telephone booths and letterboxes had changed their livery from vivid green to bright scarlet while the houses tended to reflect the British preference for two storey brick buildings rather than the pebble-dashed bungalows we'd found so monotonous in Southern Ireland.
Sunday proved to be a good day to arrive in Londonderry (Derry), Ulster's second city. Parking was free and driving through the centre straightforward. It lies on the Foyle River at the point where its estuary becomes Lough Foyle flowing down to the sea. With the shadows of recent history hanging heavily over the city it was with apprehension that we left Modestine down on the banks of the river and made our way past the Guildhall up into the city centre. Londonderry is the last city in Britain to have been built with defensive walls, the compact city safely contained within. It was erected in the early 17th century on the site of an earlier town destroyed by a gunpowder explosion that blew-up the cathedral during Elizabethan times.
When the rest of Ireland eventually achieved its independence from Britain in 1922 and the Irish Free state was established, Londonderry found itself right on the British/Irish border, since when it has been centre stage for much of the civil fighting and cross-border unrest, particularly during the last thirty years of the 20th century.
Passing through the city gate and climbing the steep street up to the centre was similar to the abrupt change of leaving Spain and walking into Gibraltar. Suddenly you step back into Britain with all the familiar companies and banks. Alliance and Leicester, Nationwide, Boots, Primart, Debenhams and, joy of joys, Wetherspoons offering really cheap meals! Prices for almost everything are much lower in Northern Ireland than in the Irish Republic.
Before succumbing to a traditional Sunday roast however, we needed to explore the city. There are four gateways into its compact heart and they converge at the centre known as the Diamond. Here there is a war memorial to Irishmen who fell during the First World War. It replaces the original city hall, pulled down as it was deemed to be too large for the centre.
A stroll around the city walls took in many of the sights. There are two cathedrals. One was locked and the other too far outside the centre to visit. There is also an imposing Presbyterian church.
In Bishop's street is the Irish Society. Back in 1610 this society was composed of representatives of the various London livery companies responsible for building Londonderry's city walls. When the British government partitioned up Ireland, the livery companies had been granted huge swathes of Ulster and were responsible for many of the new towns that were established during the 17th and 18th centuries. These were the so-called "plantation" towns, which were moved or set up regardless of the people living there. There is even a Draperstown named after the Drapers' Company of London.
Also in Bishop's Street is Freemasons' Hall while nearby is the Apprentice Boys' Hall, a rallying place for the Protestant Orange marches through the city. Both the Irish Freemasons and the Apprentice Boys are divided into lodges and to us there seems something secretive and menacing about them both. The marches are named in honour of the hero of Ulster Protestants, William of Orange, while the power of the Apprentice Boys stems from honours conferred on them by William's wife, Queen Mary in recognition of thirteen apprentices locking the city gates against the Jacobite garrison in 1688.
There is an air of disquiet throughout the city. Every shop is fitted with iron shutters, every bar has heavy bouncers on the door and every street is smothered in broken glass. It wasn't a place to hang around in after dark.
Of course nowadays there are settlements outside the city walls of which the most notorious is undoubtedly Bogside. For many years from the 1970s it featured regularly amongst the reports of violence filling the news screens. Barricades, bombs and Molotov cocktails, shootings and sadistic torture, were all part of the civil unrest. Bogside was somewhere we had to see. It turned out to be an uninspiring sprawling housing development at the foot of the city walls. Most Protestants have presumably managed to move out now but even today it looks a dismal and forbidding place to live. It is starkly bare, children play in the streets, huge dogs roam free and the pavements are smothered in broken glass and dogs' mess.
Commemorating the events of the 1970s civil rights campaign, when predominantly Catholic residents erected barricades against the authorities, hurling bricks, flaming car tyres and petrol bombs at the Royal Ulster Constabulary, are huge posters painted on the gable ends of some of the houses. Of particular interest is one of Bernadette Devlin in her early 20s, Member of Parliament for Londonderry and at the time the youngest MP in Westminster. She addressed her constituents in the Bogside during their riots, and was accused of inciting them to violence, earning herself a six months jail sentence for taking part in the unrest. Another mural commemorates Bloody Sunday when on 30th January 1972 fourteen people were killed in the Bogside when the British army opened fire on civil rights demonstrators.
The violence may have ended, but it is not forgotten. Defiantly a sign announces that you are now entering free Derry. As we absorbed the menacing atmosphere and the many painted protests on the walls the rain suddenly returned. There was absolutely nowhere to take shelter and we found ourselves standing huddled against the boarded-up windows of the Bogside pub, soaked to the skin.
As soon as possible we returned to the city centre, glad to have seen such an historic place but shocked to see how real the troubles still are in the hearts and minds of the people of Londonderry.
The Irish have long memories. Events that happened in the 1690s are more vivid for them than events that happened in the 1960s are for us!
We'd realised we would not find a campsite for the night if we were to see the city, but had absolutely no wish to sleep on the streets of Londonderry. So we gave ourselves up to the pleasure of gorging a Sunday roast supper, with Guinness for Ian, in Wetherspoons, and finally left Londonderry around 9pm, heading northwards towards the Giant's Causeway. Just before Coleraine we turned off and found somewhere quiet to park-up for the night where we slept peacefully despite the rain tapping all night asking to be let in. Early this morning we moved on, arriving in Coleraine in good time to enjoy a cooked breakfast that sustained us for most of the day. It's possible to eat out in Ulster for about half the cost of similar meals in the Irish Republic. Our two dinners last night, with a couple of drinks and coffee, plus two cooked breakfasts with coffee this morning cost £18. Less than the cost of a campsite if we'd been able to find one!
At last I may be beginning to convince Ian that we don't have to spend every night on an overpriced Irish campsite where the facilities are usually of dubious cleanliness, the water cold and the rubbish facilities rarely emptied. We've yet to find one with lines for drying washing, but then again, it never stops raining long enough to dry things anyway. We now have an overflowing laundry bag and an empty suitcase. At this rate we'll be raiding charity shops for clothes! It will be easier and cheaper than using camp site washing machines – where they have them!
Tuesday 28th July 2009, Ballycastle, County Antrim
We checked in to this campsite on the cliff tops last night because we needed electricity to catch up with our blog, process over a hundred photos we'd accumulated over the past couple of days, take a shower and cook a hot meal. We also naively hoped Northern Ireland campsites would be an improvement on the rest of Ireland. Too late we discovered the showers run at a fixed temperature - scalding in the gents and stone cold in the ladies. It is also liberally endowed with all the above mentioned "requirements" for a properly managed Irish campsite and into the bargain we are plagued by midges. But to return to yesterday…..
We arrived in Coleraine where, to be cussed, the sun shone the entire time depriving me of my planned blog title of "Cold Rain in Coleraine". The town ignores the obvious potential of its riverside where the Bann flows in a pleasing curve through the town. Instead of walks, cafes and flowerbeds there is a huge scrap yard where, to judge from the noise, apprentice dumper-truckers learn the skill of hurling an entire crunched up Ford Fiesta fifty yards along the river bank at one go before delving the truck's mighty jaws down into the river to retrieve a Honda bike it accidentally dropped there earlier.
The smartest building in Coleraine is the old courthouse, standing surrounded by colourful flowerbeds. It is now used by Wetherspoons and serves excellent coffee. The rest of the town is largely pedestrianised with its attractive town hall in the centre. Coleraine is a pleasant though not spectacular place to browse for an hour or so.
The wet weather returned as we headed around the coast following the designated scenic route towards the Giant's Causeway. In Portrush we braved the squalls for a brisk and wet walk through the Edwardian seaside town built on a tongue of land that permits a view of the sea in both directions where streets cross. There were several buildings of merit, some built with the hexagonal basalt stone common to this stretch of coastline. The town was rather proud of its half-timbered railway station, though most trains seemed only to go as far as Coleraine. There were families wrapped up against the wind trying to summon enthusiasm to browse the countless shops selling buckets, spades, beach-balls and wind breaks. The chip shops were having better success pulling in the customers as the rain teemed down.
Further round the coast we could look back at the headland, Portrush at its tip, and appreciate that together with the offshore little islands known as the Skerries, it almost certainly formed part of the crater rim of a volcano. The cliff face showed that it had initially been chalk - laid down 85 million years ago, but that dark magma had burst through it and settled on top - about 60 million years ago.