Shirley went to Norn Ireland…

Written by Shirley Roberts

I feel I am a lone voice for the Northern Irish Tourist Board.  I have recently returned from an August week’s adventure there, in which I was one of very few visitors.  How was it possible to drive the Ards Peninsular, alongside vast empty beaches and seal colonies and be the only car on the road?  We got to Portaferry and joined a short queue of cars to cross Strangford Loch on the roll on roll off little ferry boat. En route we called in at the picturesque Donaghadee (famous if you ever watched Hope Street on TV).  A charming place with everyone delighted to chat to a ‘visitor’. Norn Ireland has some of the friendliest people I have ever come across, with one exception.

Donaghadee on the Ards Peninsular


I arrived at Belfast International Airport which was an experience.  It was like airports used to be, with no concessions to those who can’t climb stairs or who need help.  Some serious money needs spending here. Got in the queue for the passport control and the questions started, Are you travelling alone? Did you pack your own bag?  Why are you here? All asked in a very unfriendly manner.  The game was up when I said I was arriving for a holiday.  He looked at my passport, saw that I live in Mallorca and just cracked up.  He laughed uproariously at the thought I would be on holiday in Norn Ireland.D

I learnt later that self-image is one of the biggest problems this place has.  The weather is pretty wet for part of 300 days a year. This makes it green, very green and gives the most wonderful cloud formations almost every day.  But, you can have four seasons in one day and this makes planning hard.

The Swans at Pickie Pool in Bangor

Another part of the adventure was exploring Bangor Seafront and reminiscing about the Pickie Pool.  When I was a young mum, I took my baby daughter to visit the friends I stayed with on this visit.  Pickie Pool was a paddling pool in those days and children ignored the freezing temperatures and just enjoyed this fun place.  Today no children in the water, but glorious swans you could sail in, instead.  The Bangor seafront has been a serious beneficiary of EU money and its Marina looks great.

St Georges Market in Belfast
A very busy Saturday maerket

A trip on the Train to Belfast was the excursion for another day and our destinations was St Georges Market. This boasted a sign which said it was the winner of the ‘2023 Best Large Indoor Market’.  This was a serious ‘foodie market’ selling everything from the Belfast fry’ to ‘Paella’.  So very busy with students and hungry people loving the food to local market lovers and visitors, just like me.  A great place, and I can see why it was worthy of the accolade.

The Belfast Fry – the best seller in the market

One ambition of this trip was to visit Derry and have a picture taken with the Derry Girls. I was able to combine this with one of the scenic train journeys worthy of accolades.  It was Michael Palin (not Portillo) who called the ride from Coleraine to Derry one of the best journeys of Europe. Parked outside the station and then made the trip alongside vast beaches on one side and a gentle farming landscape on the other.  The weather was kind, and this was beauty at its best.

The Peace Bridge in Derry


Once in Derry, it was a cab to the City walls and a view of the Derry Peace Bridge.   So much recent history here and people visiting for all sorts of reasons.  The people were universally chatty and helpful.  Everyone I talked to was delighted that visitors come to see their City and all the life the Derry Girls has made it famous for.  The view from the City walls take in the sectarian divisions and names which we remember from the news bulletins of the troubles. A visit to the Museum to see all the settings for the TV series and reminders of the era it was representing was fascinating.

The Mural of the ‘Derry Girls’ in Derry

As my trip was drawing to a close a picnic on Browns Bay and a visit to Islandmagee was last on the list. A visit to Islandmagee is a trip back to less rushed and stressful times. A peninsula on the East Antrim coast steeped in history with cottages, rolling fields, quiet villages and spectacular coastline, it is a microcosm of the Northern Ireland countryside.  We sat enjoying the tea from a flask (not a café in sight) and watched as the ferries headed for Larne bringing their passengers and cars from Scotland. A beautiful day and probably about 10 people of that vast beach in the middle of August.  What a glorious day it was.

The magnificent Browns Bay in Islandmagee

I was fascinated by every place I went to and know that there is so much I haven’t seen.  Years ago on visits, I went to the Giants Causeway and spent time in Portrush and Portstewart.  Another time soon I would love to do that again. Also, the whole landscape and people called me to return for further adventures.

The Ferry from Stranraer to Larne

I have told friends of my trip and sadly some have said that Norn Ireland would not be on their list of places to go because the troubles are still fresh in the memories.  Maybe that’s another reason the obvious charm of this place is not being experienced by the summer crowds. 

I am sure the reasons run deep and have to do with the commitment to bring year round tourism. Belfast is a hugely popular cruise destination with the Titanic Museum and all the film sets for The Game of Thrones bringing thousands to spend time here every year.

The cows in Saintfield

All I do know is that in August 2023 I had the best time.   I loved the gentle countryside and the sea scape. I was welcomed by the friendliest chattering of all the people I met.  I had great extended family moments including a great barbeque in a shed on a dairy farm with rain pouring down.  I found myself, together with my friends, and all that I find good, in this great place.

I will return for episode 2 of this story …

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