Day 52 – A Land Divided

Starting mileage: 18823 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 21:00

Down

Down

As we sometimes do – a bit too often for our liking – we started the day in a garage at Markethill.

Markethill is a Protestant village. We could tell this by the flags on the streets and a prominent Orange Hall. The division of NI into Protestant and Catholic parts is something everyone is aware of, but it’s not until you actually come here that it becomes a harsh, painful reality – and several years after the successful start of the peace process at that. The big cities, like Belfast and L/Derry are split along districts, but smaller settlement seem to be either wholly protestant or wholly catholic, at least based on flags.

The Unionist mark their territory with a variety of banners: there’s the Union Jack, the Ulster Flag – St Patrick’s cross with the red hand – the Orange Flag with a star, etc. The Republicans, on the other hand, use mostly the Irish tricolor. Even as a tourist, you quickly succumb to the overwhelming paranoia, and we’ve learned to hide our Union Jack pillow as soon as we saw the tricolour, or answer “London” or “Warsaw” to questions about our origin depending on the area.

The “wee garage” in Markethill had no markings and it took us a while to find it – sure sign of its word-of-mouth reputation (in case you need a good mechanic in the area – he’s at a “wee archway” behind the Court Hall); he pointed a failing fuel pump, and as we didn’t have a spare one with us (or rather, we had the wrong type), he had no choice but to let us go with (again) replaced ignition points and an ominous shake of head.

Slowly and carefully, then, we drove on, first to Newry at the end of the road, to do some shopping – as all of Ireland, as we soon learned. Being on the border, and half-way between Belfast and Dublin, Newry turned into Ireland’s foremost shopping destination, with thousands of Southerners arriving here whenever euro exchange rate was on their side; the local car parks are all marked with arrows pointing “Dublin – This Way” in case anyone gets lost.

Not far south of Newry, up on the slope of a steep hill is a viewpoint from which you can see far across the great round valley, the Ring of Gullion – in reality, a massive collapsed volcano. From the book we had bought the day before, we knew there was a well preserved court cairn somewhere near the viewpoint. Court cairns – made of a simple burial chamber and a larger adjacent ritual courtyard – are typical neolithic structures for Ireland and southwest Scotland, but almost unknown in southern Britain, which led to some hilarious misunderstandings when good-willing English archaelogists tried to “reconstruct” the cairn, either by putting stones together in the shape of a portal tomb, or setting the stones up in a henge.

Trying to find the one at Newry was an example of what was becoming a typical exercise on the journey: following the arrows and signs only to find that the last few crossroads have no marking whatsoever, and you have to simply choose a direction at random and hope for the best. Seriously, what’s up with that? Why can’t the arrows just continue until they actually point at the damned thing? And why do the directions always say “3 miles that way” when what they mean is “3 miles that way, then half a mile left, then you need to walk through the bog for half an hour and you should see it in the distance” ?

Either way, with help of a nice couple of Aussies living in Ireland, we found the cairn, made a few photos and went on our way. We were going towards the coast of County Down, across the heart-achingly beautiful and eerily desolate Mourne Mountains, to a town confusingly called Newcastle; National Trust had a beach and some dunes there, and although the weather was not particularly beach-like, we were looking forward to dipping our feet in the sea for the first time since Anglesey.

National Trust membership is by far the best thing to have in Northern Ireland; they have dozens of properties scattered around the six counties, including all the most important attractions like the Giant’s Causeway. They own swathes of coast, forests, bogs, parks, even pubs. Murlough, the place they had on the coast of Down was a vast dune reserve; to somebody raised knowing only the sandy, Sahara-like dunes of the Baltic, British dunes are an odd sight: covered with brown heath, ferns and tall grass, they look more like an overgrown golf course than a “dune” – not that they don’t have their own rugged beauty.

The beach was flat, wide, with grand view towards the Mourne Mountains including their tallest summit, Slieve Donard, and full of razor clam shells; at some point we need to start hunting for these elusive and tasty molluscs, but this day wasn’t it. It was getting late, and we already had to postpone two items of the programme due to the visit at the garage.

We drove past the town of Clough, with its fine Norman castle, and the county’s capital of Downpatrick; the city is the culmination of the St Patrick’s Trail, Northern Ireland’s main pilgrimage route: it is here that the saint is purportedly buried, and here stands “the only permanent exhibition dedicated to St Patrick in the world”, although why you would need more than one, I’m not sure.

Downpatrick is also a place steeped in the brutal history of Ulster – a one-time seat of the kings of Dal Fiatach, until the Normans raided it and killed the Irish nobles led by Brian O’Neill in the Battle of the Down in 1260. It is surrounded by ancient and medieval monuments of great antiquity, and if we weren’t in such a rush to get to the campsite before dusk, it would’ve made a nice side-trip.

Court cairn

Court cairn

Murlough National Nature Reserve

Murlough National Nature Reserve

Slieve Donard

Slieve Donard


Delamont Country Park is the only C&CC location in Northern Ireland. I don’t know what is the reason for that dearth.

It’s a medium touring caravan park with few redeeming features; the laundry machine – usually the one good thing about these big sites – was too small and probably broken. Despite being set on the coast of Lough Strangford, it was surrounded on all sides by an earthen wall and fence, with no view whatsoever, and at £25 per night it was painfully expensive.

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