North by North


Angie and Cheryl in Portstewart are chatty and helpful. They provide me with information on how I might approach the Flowerfield Centre for an exhibition.

We talk about the new (ish) borough of ‘Causeway Coast & Glens’ and none of us can quite agree on where the borough begins and ends. My friend from Larne chimes in – doesn’t it start at Larne?

Earlier in the day he was my partner – I’d forgotten my wife’s National Trust family card on our visit to Downhill Demesne so I pretended that we were married to get him in. I don’t think the official in the Landrover really cared about our membership, he was just trying to drive down to Mussenden Temple to open the place up and didn’t seem interested in the guy with the Dublin accent smiling and flagging him down waving a pink National Trust card trying to explain about his fictitious same-sex relationship.

Angie and Cheryl find a map of the Borough; Larne isn’t on it.

The Library on the Cliff – Mussenden Temple

The Bishop had under floor fires burning constantly, maintaining temperature and humidity to protect his library of precious books. From the window on the right: the bar mouth below dividing Castlerock and Portstewart. From the window on the left: Benone strand stretching into the rain flecked distance.

From the window in front of me, where one could once have driven a horse and carriage around this Roman tempietto, a sheer drop to the sea. Extended family lore still tells how my sister-in-law, as a teenager, once clambered round the outside of the temple on a narrow ledge clinging to chamfered ashlar with finger tips alone.

Now the edge is so close I can’t see it from the window, just the vast sea streaked with breakers. A library on a cliff, a building built on a whim, the horrifying power to impose it.

Al’s Coffee

Al owns the coffee shack in the car park of Downhill Demense. Strange noises echo from the forest across the way. He tells me there are peacocks in the woods. ‘Ah, that’s what that sound is…’ (I think, later, he must have meant pheasants…). I look over and am reminded of something my wife once told me – how evergreen forests look somewhat threatening to non-Scandinavian eyes, so in Ireland we hide them by planting deciduous trees on the edges. However, even in mid-April this year the fringe of trees is leafless and small, the evergreens behind towering over them. I ask him if he’s heard the expression ‘I didn’t come up the Bann in a bubble’. He says no, but he’s heard ‘I didn’t come down the Foyle in a canoe. Or the Clyde’. Al’s from Glasgow. The coffee is pretty good.


The Broighter Hoard is a unique collection of gold Iron Age artefacts discovered near Limavady. It is now in Dublin.

The Dunaverney Flesh-Hook is a ceremonial meat hook of outstanding craftsmanship. It dates from around 1,000 BC and was discovered in a bog north of Ballymoney. It is now in London.

Mountsandel Wood is the earliest known settlement of man in Ireland dating to between 7,600 and 7,900BC. No one seems to know about it either. It is still in Coleraine.

I write in the visitors book of Ballymoney museum – ‘get the flesh hook back from London!’  But Rachel, who works there, says ‘no, we’re not getting the flesh hook back from London…’ Some claim that scratches on the kneecap of a stone age bear in another part of the country were made by a knife, and therefore Mountsandel might not be the earliest settlement in Ireland, but that theory has not gained much of a following she says.

So the settlers who made a bend in the Bann their home, in the north of the north, 9,000 years ago, leaving traces of salmon, and hazelnuts, and hides, are the earliest to do so. Frustratingly the Mesolithic site is now on private land and there are no signs and no information she says, but there are plans to build a bridge. Maybe.

Libby of Mountsandel

Harley was adopted at four months of age. His legs are a bit bowed. As we chat in Mountsandel Forest I hear the roaring of the salmon leap in the background:

‘The Cutts’ as its known here. Libby used to do some cleaning in the university. She tells me to walk on, to go ahead, but then talks to me as I walk away, so I wait; I want to talk to her.

She’s a townie, living between Portrush and Portstewart. I tell her what I’m doing and that so far I’ve sketched the town hall in Coleraine. ‘Do you know that they’re selling the town hall in Portstewart?

What will they do with the town hall? I used to go there for the country and western – that was my yearly outing.’

Harley turns to look back at us. Harley’s the last dog she’ll get. I take a photo of him. ‘Imagine that! A town without a town hall…’

You remind me of my dad

It’s freezing as I sketch the town hall in Coleraine. It takes me about three hours, propped against a wall in a corner of the Diamond in duffle coat.

The Christmas lights are still up, it’s bright, cold and crystalline. A man comes up to me and after glancing at my sketchpad tells me that I remind him of his dad.

He could just sit down, take out a pencil and draw you and it would look just like you. He once did a drawing of a wrestler, Noel Loban, a coloured fella, that ended up in a London gallery. Anyway, I just thought I’d tell you that – you remind me of him. Thanks man, I think as he wanders off again in the other direction. It’s time to get the train back to Belfast and I’ve hardly seen anything; but I’ll be back.

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