Starting mileage: 19261 km
Day started: 10:00/11:00/07:30
Day ended: 22:00/21:00
The lakes of Fermanagh were our last major stop on the tour of Northern Ireland. They stretch the length of the county from north-west to south-east, stretching out into the twisted loughs of the Republic in the south, and connected with the Atlantic to the north.
Before the advent of modern transport, for hundreds of years the lakes served as the major highway to all the people living around them, a route of choice for pilgrims, merchants and Viking raiders alike. As a result a number of historical monuments – especially of monastic nature – grouped all around them, on tiny islands and peninsulas scattered everywher. The largest of these – and indeed the finest in all of NI – is the Devenish Monastery, on an island of Lough Erne.
Now, we discovered a trick about getting there in high season: although the sign at the entrance of the long and winding road to the jetty (turn left on the final, traditionally unmarked crossroad) says the ferry travels only every two hours, it is not so: the NIEA speedboat simply travels back and forth picking up whoever waits on shore. The whole journey takes less than a minute, and costs £3 both ways, so it really is an easy and fun trip if you’re in the area.
The buildings on the island – or rather, what’s left of them – span several centuries of the monastery’s former glory, starting with 12th century – after the whole site was burned down and replaced with new stone-walled church and tower. The round tower of Devenish stands 30 metres tall, and is one of the few you can actually enter (though not while we were there). There is a small 12th century church with an old graveyard.
Further up the island stand two more churches, of increasing size and importance – a 13th century one, and a large 15th century priory with a ruined cloister and naves, surrounded by a more modern graveyard in the middle of which stands a carved stone cross of peculiar, intricate design – its relatively recent age (500 years younger than most others) making it a unique example of this carving style.
Lough Erne is still a busy highway for yachts, motor boats and canoes, a popular destination for boaters sailing in from either side of the Lakeland, and even in the rather rough weather we had we were passed by several vessels – and one flying boat from the nearby airport. During WWII the RAF base on Lough Erne housed the famous Catalinas, the flying boats which made such great impact on the Battle of Atlantic, and there is now a museum here, though sadly without any actual planes on permanent display.
We drove for a bit north along the shore of Erne, passing through small villages and towns with odd-looking petrol stations; this bit of Fermanagh is strongly protestant – based as it is around Enniskillen, which was L/Derry’s twin Williamite city during the 1688 sieges; the main town of the area, Kesh, was festooned in Union Jacks and bunting in preparation for the “Maid of Lough Erne” festival, the highlight of which seemed to be the tractor parade (Harry Ferguson, inventor of the modern tractor being the famous son of Northern Irish soil).
The Boa Island, an elongated strip of land on the northern shore of Erne, connected by causeways to the mainland, was our destination next – a small Caldragh Cemetery off the main road, to be precise. Among the typical catholic gravestones there stand, weirdly and inexplicably, two ancient carved sculptures from late Iron Age / early Christian age. The idols are mysterious in their purpose and origin – all that is known is that the smaller one is older and brought over from another nearby island to ‘keep company’ the first one, larger and more detailed Janus-like two-headed figure. Even though they are so out of place on a Christian cemetery, the locals and tourists alike seem to embrace their mystic presence freely, as evidenced by many offerings of coins and small things before and on both of the statues.
On the way back from Boa we spotted a sign pointing to a stone circle a mere 3 miles away. Thinking nothing of it, we followed; half a mile later another sign said the circle was 4 miles and a half… some five miles of going up and down a narrow country road later we actually did find the circle, and it was actually quite an interesting one: not content with setting up a small circle of standing stones, the builders of Drumskinny topped it off with a line of stones leading off into the marshes, and adding a small cairn just outside. Altogether, it was an example of a complex stone composition for which the marshes of NI are famous: there are more of them in the bogs of central Tyrone, where we didn’t get to on our trip.
The car was slowly dying under us, so we began to look for a place for the night; there were plenty of caravan parks nearby, but none of them suited our tastes, and so we drove around the shores of Erne for far too long before finally stopping at another caravan park on the hillside above the lake.
There is not much to be said of our journey back to Belfast the next day. We stopped at Enniskillen for completion’s sake – that way we ‘ticked’ all six county capitals of Northern Ireland; the local castle was opened from 2pm – which is a very strange custom if you ask me – so we contended ourselves with an outside photo of the wall turrets.
Half-way through we embarked on another futile search of an ancient burial mound, but could not find it anywhere: the last arrow on the route pointed us first to the right, and after a long walk another arrow pointed us right back where we came from; there were a couple side roads jutting out into the forest, and for all we knew it could have been any of those.
In Belfast we first drove up to the docks to see whether we could find the ferry jetty easily (we couldn’t; there are too many docks and ferries leaving Belfast, and the Steam Packet jetty is well hidden among them), and then visited the city centre to drink an obligatory pint in the only working pub owned by the National Trust: the Crown, a former gin palace, lavishly decorated and restored to its original Victorian glory.
We found ourselves in Belfast on the day between riots: on Friday, 56 policemen were injured; on Sunday, a police station was attacked with firebombs; but on Saturday, when we got there, it was hard to tell anything was amiss. The high street was full of foreign tourists. and the Union Jacks and Republic flags fluttered in the wind in their respective districts as they always had.
The ferry took us out of Belfast the next morning, heading fast towards Isle of Man. On the way out we passed one last attraction of Northern Ireland: a mighty, 100-year old ship; no, not the Titanic, on which Belfast seems to be basing its entire economy nowadays, but HMS Caroline: the last survivor of the greatest battleship battle in history, the Battle of Jutland. The only one out of 250 warships that took part in the fight still afloat, it now rusts slowly in the Belfast docks, like a grizzled veteran watching the young whippersnappers whizz past it back and forth.
Drumhoney Holiday Park is, basically, a vast expanse of tarmac, filled with caravans; it has the usual full range of facilities (glad to report both their laundry machines and tumble dryers work well, and we spent £10 on drying and washing) and typical price of £25, but it would be nothing to write about if it wasn’t for a great male red deer which lived in an enclosure right next to our pitch, with a donkey friend. The deer bellowed through the night, desperate to find a mate – the donkey was not interested.
Sometimes when all seems lost, you can find a campsite where you least expect it. It was Saturday when we arrived in Belfast, which meant everything we could find was fully booked and this time we couldn’t stay overnight at the terminal. In desperation we turned to our Sat Nav; surprisingly, it knew of a campsite nobody else on the net knew about: the Lakeside View, near Hillsborough.
The Lake in question was a small local lough, which meant of course abundance of midges, but other than that it was a perfectly normal small site, with good pitches and decent facilities, something we had struggled so hard to find in NI before. And being only half an hour away from the docks, it was ideal to stay the night before the ferry to the Isle of Man.