Starting mileage: 19183 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 22:00
The beaches at Portstewart and Portrush are some of the best in Ireland, but with the weather turning fully Irish, spending any time on the beach was out of option. We drove straight on to the city which is fairly important: it straddles the Irish/NI border, is the second largest in Northern Ireland, and yet nobody is sure how to call it properly. I’m talking of course about Derry~Londonderry.
The confusion and split in the naming comes of course, like all the differences here, from the split between Loyalist\Protestant\Unionist and Republicans\Catholic\Nationalist. When the English took over the ancient monastic settlement of Derry and surrounded it with walls, they found it necessary to rename it Londonderry, for reasons known only to themselves – probably to have yet another thing to tell Catholic and Protestants apart.
“Stroke City” as one BBC journalist affectionately called it, was divided from the start, and nowhere in NI is this division stronger; it resulted in the untold tragedies, from which ultimately spawned the dreaded Troubles – but it was also the first to try and breach the divide. These efforts become obvious the moment you enter the city, crossing the River Foyle: at the head of the bridge stands a grand peace monument showing two young men shaking hands over a chasm: Hands Across the Divide.
Another thing you can see from the moment you cross the river is how young and active the city is, compared to the hinterland. There are bars, music clubs, cafés aplenty, both inside and beyond the famously unbreached (in the Irish siege of 1641, Royalist siege of 1649 and Jacobite siege of 1688) walls. We drank Guinness on the Protestant side (at the Badgers), and Smithwicks on the Catholic side (at the legendary Gweedore), and nobody batted an eyelid. The shopping centres are new and modern. And, most importantly, the city is UK’s first City of Culture in 2013. It’s easy to believe that all is good, and the terrible events of the past are forgotten.
And we would have come out of Londonderry~Derry satisfied with the state of things, had we not made a wrong turn (something you shouldn’t do anywhere in NI) and ended up in the Protestant district under the walls, where on one side was a black mural saying “Still Under Siege”, and on the other rose an odd towering construction of crates and wood pallets, topped with an Irish flag. It wasn’t until a few days later that we discovered what the tower was: the bonfire, burned traditionally every year in memory of the Jacobite siege; there would be a lot more tricolour flags on top, all destined to burn to satisfy the crowds.
For the sake of balance – and historical justice – we crossed the walled town and entered the Bogside, the Catholic district, famous – and infamous – because of what happened here in the late 60’s and early 70’s: the Free Derry, the beginning of Troubles, and their culmination of Bloody Sunday.
The house gable on Free Derry Corner still stands, bearing the old sign “You Are Entering Free Derry”; everything started here, on this very corner. In 1968 – as part of the world-wide struggle for human rights – the Catholics of Londonderry~Derry started marching for their own rights. The brutal pacification and the subsequent series of fights with the police and Protestant marches resulted in “Free Derry” – a barricaded-off part of the Bogside, free from the Unionist government.
It was through defending and supplying Free Derry that – for better or worse – IRA found its strength and purpose anew, after decades of increasingly failing and surreal madcap schemes; and it was here that the army finally came down on the civilians in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The local museum tells the story in much detail, and leaves little place for ambivalence; whatever your political beliefs, when on one side you have paratroopers and armoured cars, and on the other – young civilians marching for their rights, it’s obvious which side at this particular moment is in the wrong. (It was difficult not to see a parallel between that event and the Polish 1970 protests that also ended up in a massacre).
These days the Bogside – always the poorer, more neglected quarter of Londonderry~Derry – becomes the hip zone, with some very good pubs and clubs; many people arrive here to see the Free Derry Corner – with its murals, monuments and bloody history – but still more come to sample the great beer and music. Across the wall lies a trendy Craft Village bringing still more attractions to the area, As we were leaving Ireland a few days later, we heard on the news that while the marching season in Belfast turned sour, with battles with police and throwing fire-bombs around, at the same time things in Londonderry~Derry were peaceful and calm; the city was more busy with preparation for the upcoming All-Irish Music Festival – Fleadh – than remembering the painful past.
On our way to the campsite we actually crossed the Irish/NI border back and forth; the only visible difference between the two was the road signs in kilometres instead of miles.
We wanted to camp at another Forest Park campsite in the mountains of Sperrin in County Tyrone, but it turned out it was only for groups, by prior arrangement. The look at the map showed that another campsite was just around the corner, and so we headed there; what followed was a surreal experience to say the least.
In normal circumstances, Sperrin Mountains CP would be perfectly normal site, well laid out, with plentiful facilities and even a games room; however, when we arrived the site was completely empty. We were the only people there.
The facilities were in good working order, there was light, electricity and water everywhere; just not a living soul to be seen.
The owner finally showed up late in the evening to get our £18 for the night, but once he left we were all alone again, with the entire campsite to ourselves, in the middle of a deep forest, at the side of a mountain; a perfect horror setting.
I’m glad to say we survived, even though at night we were attacked by the terrible monsters: the Irish midges; we were taken unawares and suffered greatly, but in the end we prevailed to see another day.