July 2021 : Cruising Northern Ireland



Greetings from Aremiti now on Rathlin Island at the end of the Northern Irish phase of our tour of the UK nations.

We had originally planned to include a visit to the Republic of Ireland and were especially looking forward to visiting Dublin. However, the requirement to quarantine for two weeks on arrival in Ireland made this not feasible, so we headed further north straight to Northern Ireland.

From Holyhead we crossed the Irish Sea on a north-westerly course – a stretch of water which involved checking no less than three sets of Inshore Waters forecasts and working out the strange tidal regime. This is the area where the tide flooding in from the north meets the tide coming in from the south, resulting in a large area of permanent slack tide with random eddies. Having waited out a day of complete calm, prospects for a good sail looked better when we left Holyhead at 6am. We were looking forward to views during the 68 mile passage – of Holyhead and Wales fading behind us, a sideways glance at the Isle of Man as we passed 20 miles to the west, and our approach to Ardglass, just north of where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the Sea! However, neither the good sailing nor the views were to be, as after about 3 hours the wind dropped and fog closed in. We were very glad to have transmitting AIS as we passed through a group of fishing boats – apparently - not that we could see them. After 5 hours of visibility ranging from 100 metres to around half a mile, the fog started clearing - from above giving us warm sunshine but still only about 2 miles visibility. Land finally appeared 3 miles out of Ardglass and we entered the rock strewn harbour just as a final fishing boat emerged.

Ardglass is a delightful gem. The harbour itself is very scenic – not to say scary - with numerous rocks revealing themselves at low water. Divided by an island, half of it is a busy fishing port and the other half a marina. The village, surrounded by gentle green hills, is mega-sleepy but welcoming. A small stone-built Victorian bathing house embellishes the rocky beach, and the village boasts four medieval tower houses, and a much-vaunted golf club, whose clubhouse is a castle dating from 1405. The main fishing harbour is a serious concern with around 40 large boats, whose main catch is herring and prawn. We bought a couple of lobsters hot off the boat – cheap ‘one nippers’ - delicious

Among highlights of our stay of a few days were a walk in the Mountains of Mourne – which finally became visible. We took local buses to the seaside resort of Newcastle a little south of Ardglass passing en route the tomb of St Patrick in Downpatrick, and Dundrum Bay, where the SS Great Britain spent a year aground following a navigational error in 1846. This very scenic walk took us up to the spectacular 'Mourne Wall' - a dry stone wall running from the top of the highest peak for 35 km across the summits of 15 peaks. In perfect condition, it was built in 1922 to stop livestock reaching the catchment areas of two rivers – but looks far more important than that.

We finally managed to sort out our wind generator in Ardglass - the harbourmaster there having a somewhat more 'can do' attitude than his counterpart in Aberystwyth. This involved taking the boat round to the fishing harbour to tie to the harbour wall, where a JCB and driver were provided by a construction company on site, and a cage provided by the harbourmaster. Under the eye of the harbour master, Chris was raised to the top of the mizzen mast, removed the wind generator, replaced a blade and was then taken up again to refit it. All went perfectly – thanks all concerned – all for the cost of a tip to the JCB driver. It now purrs away smoothly keeping our batteries nicely topped up though unfortunately since then we have had very little wind for it – or for anything else we might want wind for!

While in Ardglass we witnessed a second medical emergency within a week. A yacht arrived into the marina with a crew member having succumbed to a probable heart attack about an hour out of Ardglass. An ambulance had already been called but before its arrival a couple from another yacht – a nurse and a lifeboatman - offered their services, and a defibrilator was brought from the village. After the ambulance and two fire engines arrived a helicopter was called in to air-lift the casualty to hospital. Both sobering and heartening to witness the high level of response available.

Time to move on – we left on a rather misty evening for Strangford Lough to catch the start of the flood into the Lough. The entrance into the Lough – the Narrows – is 400 metres wide and 3 miles long through which the tides race, up to a speed of 8 knots. The shoreline on each side – pastoral, low lying and green with a distinctly rural smell - is incongruously gentle, giving no hint of tidal menace. Our calculations were spot on and, only an hour into the flood, we shot through with up to 5 knots of tide under us.

Strangford Lough - 2 miles wide and 12 miles long - has a geology unique in Europe, caused by debris left from the last great ice age. Its western shore is fringed by humpbacked islands – called drumlins – over 70 of them, and the eastern shore where the drumlins have broken down into stoney spits above and below water, called ‘pladdies’. Despite the navigational hazards, this is considered Ireland’s finest sheltered cruising area – home to no less than eleven sailing clubs.

We spent 3 days lazily exploring the Lough - delightful passages and anchorages surrounded by gentle little hillocks of green pastures, pale gold hay fields and woodland coming down to the water’s edge, with a smattering of monuments, grand houses and farms - and the Mourne Mountains appearing from time to time to the south of us. The navigational challenges kept us busy with falling tides revealing seaweed covered pladdies. We passed through patches of water quietly seething - obviously highly agitated in its depths.

We were in Strangford Lough on 12 July and caught the Orange Parade in the village of Killyleagh. These parades, started in the late 18th century, celebrate the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). Last year they had been cancelled due to Covid, and this year, rather than holding the traditional gigantic parades, a larger number of smaller, more local events were held.

The Killyleagh parade was led by a little troop hauling a small cannon followed by 6 local bands each with their huge banners and large numbers of drummers plus their large ‘lambegs’ beaten with enormous gusto, and one other instrument – flutes mainly, but also accordians and bagpipes, plus the dignitaries and officials of several local Orange Lodges with their orange sashes, some bowler hatted. We like a good parade and this was reminiscent of parades we have seen all around the world. However, while parades elsewhere involved the whole community - these don’t. This one certainly appeared harmless and jolly but while seen by Protestant loyalists as an important part of their culture, they are provocative and offensive to others and we know only too well that the sentiments they express are barely under the surface with sectarian violence having flared up quite recently and vulnerable to any spark.

The population here has appeared to us outstandingly friendly, welcoming, and laid-back with a sparky sense of humour. Invariably everyone we pass says hello - the other day we passed a group of dodgy looking youths who said something to us. We avoided eye contact and scuttled past – as we’d do at home – before realising they’d just been saying hello! We find these impressions very difficult to equate with the hard, dour, intransigent and uncompromising image of Northern Irish politics as seen on the news ….

Our departure from Strangford Lough did not go quite as well as our entry. Calculations taking into account tides and winds also had to factor in catching an Orange Parade and the Euros Final, not to mention a regatta taking place at the inner end of the Narrows! Northerly winds are preferable for exiting the Lough so as not to face potentially dangerous wind over tide overfalls, while southerly winds are desirable for progress northwards towards Belfast. Which to chose? We had both over a two day period, but frustratingly, the initial southerly was too strong for exiting the Narrows safely and we had to opt for the later northerly and the slog up the coast. Despite all our calculations, we found ourselves stemming adverse tide for most of the passage – although advice in our pilot book suggested that the north-going tide lasts for 9 hours and the south only 3!

After a night in Bangor marina we made the final passage into Belfast, up the buoyed channel through the busy commercial docks to Abercorn Basin in the ‘Titanic Quarter’ – an excellent location for exploring the delights of Belfast. Highlights of our visit included the magnificent Titanic Experience – an extraordinarily comprehensive exhibition in a very exciting building, a taxi tour around the Falls and Shankill Roads to view the political murals and the ‘peace wall’ – shocking that this wall, put up as a temporary measure in 1969 is still there – having outlasted the Berlin Wall, and even more shocking that gates are still locked early every evening. A good walk up Cave Hill gave us views of the whole of Belfast and much of the Lough. Overall we found it a friendly, though not particularly lovely city – some portentous Victorian civic buildings and some unsuccessful modern architecture.

On with the remainder of our passage up the North Channel it was exciting to have clear views across to Scotland – especially the sight of Ailsa Craig guarding the Firth of Clyde.

Glenarm was a delightful little village of Georgian houses and a castle. Along this part of the coast a high plateau has been dissected by a series of U-shaped glens carved out by the retreat of glaciers at the end of the last ice age. We took a walk in Glenariff - known as the 'Queen of the Glens' – Thackeray called it 'Switzerland in miniature'. With its forests, rivers, escarpments, and numerous spectacular waterfalls – and stunning views out across the North Channel to the Mull of Kintyre, it was indeed very scenic. However, as the Lonely Planet points out, one does wonder whether Thackeray had actually been to Switzerland!

Our final 10 days of July were marked by extraordinary weather. While we enjoyed gloriously clear blue skies and hot sunshine on some days – the like of which was evidently extremely unusual in Northern Ireland - these days were interleaved with phases of dense fog. Advection fog typically arises from warm moist air flowing over colder water and the water in these parts is certainly very chilly and the land was extremely hot. We were joined for our final week by our friends Trudy and Geoff, for the northern coast of Antrim - the 'Causeway Coast'. This spectacular coastline has World Heritage status as an outstanding example representing major stages of the earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms ….. also containing superlative natural phenomena and areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. It also, apparently, provides the backdrop for 'Game of Thrones' which is filmed here!

We travelled this 20 mile stretch of coast both by sea and on land – in varying conditions of bright sunshine and thick fog, passing tiny harbours, the glorious long Whitepark beach, 500 ft headlands with sheer drops to the sea, rock formations of white chalk and black basalt, and dramatic stacks. It was spectacular walking, culminating in the truly awesome Giant’s Causeway – an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns the top of which formed natural, mainly hexagonal, stepping stones, formed by a volcanic fissure eruption 60 million years ago.

Finally, again in fog, we continued westwards to the mouth of Lough Foyle – a shallow lough surrounded by a bright green rural landscape in the clearing fog. The well-marked channel took us 17 miles to the River Foyle and into the city of Londonderry. We were never quite sure whether to call the city Londonderry or Derry – not wanting to make any political gaffes. This dilemma reflects the turbulent and violent history of the city – and indeed the whole of Ireland. We learned something of the older history and in particular the divisive foundation of the city, walking the well maintained and intact 17th century walls containing the earliest Irish example of town planning. The more recent history was graphically explained to us by our guide (a former political prisoner) around the murals and memorials of the Bogside.

We have now retraced our steps back eastwards to Rathlin Island – an L shaped island with a lighthouse on each of the three points and harbour snug on the inside corner, 6 miles from Ballycastle and 11 from Scotland at its nearest point. It has the endearing ambience of small islands – somewhat reminiscent of the quieter of the Scillies – though without the agapanthus and white beaches!

From here we are poised to take off for Scotland for the final stage of our journey!

Julia and Chris