Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.
An admission is in order here: Northern Ireland is not somewhere where I have been very much. A weekend trip many more years ago than I care to admit was the only occasion when I spent any extended amount of time or even stayed a night there. Other than that, travel to and from ferries to Scotland from Larne has been the only other reason for my passing through that part of the world and the last of these was more than a decade ago.
History is of interest to many, even its more traumatic episodes. You only have to consider both of the World Wars in the twentieth century for this to make sense. Auschwitz has garnered a mention in the news not so long ago because of its holocaust associations and the need not to repeat the horrors of history. Knowing your history does have its uses and, if economic history was heeded, these time could have been very different. After all, history should not repeat itself but who was that wise seer who commented that not knowing your history condemns you to repeating its mistakes?
As ever, it is always nicer to look back on dramatic history from more stable times. Whatever about the unpleasant buffetings of an economic downturn and subsequent popular revolt, finding oneself in the heart of violent events is so much worse. That is how life was in Northern Ireland throughout much of that last century's latter decades. The Peace Process has mollified things but memories of violent events reported in television news bulletins remain. The pain for those who lost a loved one or had their lives altered by injury is a much heavier burden to bear, though. Still, there are visitor attractions like Crumlin Road Gaol for those who need to learn why the Troubles should not be forgotten and why they need to be a driving force for ongoing, if imperfect, peace.
Thankfully, that continuous daily eruption of tragedy has eased to almost nothing and Northern Ireland is better placed to offer itself as a visitor destination nowadays. It helps that it has the countryside to draw them in too. After all, there are no less than eight Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Mourne Mountains in the south-west of the region are the first come to mind with their hilly drama and there was a proposal to turn them into Northern Ireland's first National Park too. While it is a pity that this never happened, we have to look after those hills with what we have now unless a new and more acceptable proposal comes to light. There have been times during the past when the appealing notion of trotting into this hills from the nearby town of Newcastle has crossed my mind while both Warrenpoint and Rostrevor may act as alternative access points even if they are not as near. So far, neither of these has been tasked with being starting points for such an incursion but the prospect has not left my mind either.
After that, there are the volcanic basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway and this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site too. It is under the care both of the National Trust and the Causeway Coast & Glens Heritage Trust. Along with the Giant's Causeway and the Causeway Coast, the CCGHT also cares for other AONB's like Antrim Coast & Glens and Binevenagh on the north Derry coast. None of these look anything other than alluring and it is so easy to overlook lesser known spots in comparison to the better known ones too.
Speaking of lesser known visitor destinations, there are more AONB's. Strangford and Lecale AONB is another coastal one that looks out for Strangford Lough and other parts of the counties of Down and Antrim. Lagan Valley Regional Park is another that has a canal running right through it and there is more to see here than that piece of industrial heritage. Finally, there are two more AONB's with hill country at their heart: the Sperrins in the county of Tyrone and the Ring of Gullion in South Armagh. Those may not have the fame of the Mournes but that is not everything and can cause you to miss out on something special.
Even the list of AONB's does not every special place that Northern Ireland has for a visitor. For some reason the Fermanagh Lakelands of Upper and Lower Lough Erne are not part of one. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a reserve around the lower lake and that makes the lack of a specific designation all the more puzzling. Quite what the effect of the 2013 G8 summit's being held in the area will be interesting to see. It momentarily increased the area's profile but news media moves on far too quickly and it may not have lodged in outsiders' memories for all that long.
The largest lake on the island of Ireland, Lough Neagh, is another omission from the list of AONB's. Given that it too has nearby wetlands along the course of the Lower Bann and has a cycle trail going right around it, there is a surprising revelation that I discovered: more than a million tonnes of sand is extracted from the lake every year! With its being home to an eel hatchery and being quite an amenity for folk from the five counties along its banks along with visitors from abroad, that astonishes me in these days of better environmental management. Maybe it is possible to do such a thing sustainably and my curiosity adds another dimension to any possibility of a visit to a very large freshwater lake.
For such a small area, Northern Ireland really is packed with landscape treasures. There is quite a mix on offer too with coastline, inland waterways and hill country to be savoured. It sounds like high time that these got the attention they deserve.
There is more to Northern Ireland than pleasing countryside though even if that is a lot of what you will find on the Discover Northern Ireland website and there are local counterparts too like that of Belfast City Council. The city's nautical history accompanies its more troubled recent past and features more than the ill-fated Titanic. After all, you will find the SS Nomadic here and the city's regenerated Titanic quarter is a sign of hope for the future.
If you fancy visiting other museums, National Museums Northern Ireland has a few offering plenty to see. Down Cathedral is of interest to anyone wanting to see where Ireland's patron saint, St. Patrick, is believed to have been laid to rest while fans of heritage railways may find Downpatrick & County Down Railway to their tastes. Moving west, you will find An Creagán in Tyrone and gardeners should find much to admire on the Antrim Gardens Trail.
From the above, it should be plain that Northern Ireland offers more than its recent troubled past. Of course, that needs retention as a lesson for future generations while the nicer sides of the place get celebrated. There once was a television advertising campaign with the strapline of "you won't know until you go". That could apply to anywhere but memories of more torrid times could blind us to what else is there.