The hon­esty box at the top of Ire­land

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - PLACES -

THE NORTH 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.

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 re­alis- ing 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-stood­still 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.

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.

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.

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

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