Seeking solace in Ulster’s hidden gems

Rita Fitzgerald
Rita Fitzgerald

To kick off our new series, Your Ulster, LAURA MCMULLAN talks to some local politicians, presenters and broadcasters to prise out of them the places in Northern Ireland that are special to them

‘Driving past Kinbane brings a smile to my face’

Kinnegar Strand by Paul Deeny

Kinnegar Strand by Paul Deeny

Ian Paisley Junior is the MP for Northern Antrim, and is rightfully proud to represent a corner of the Province that is world renowned for its stunning natural beauty and appeal.

“When Members of Parliament speak about their constituencies, they often boast about how beautiful a place they represent,” says the DUP minister.

“For me, it is not an idle boast. North Antrim is unmatched by any other part of the entire kingdom for its spectacular and accessible beauty. From the vista of the Bann Valley to the rugged coast, with Slemish mountain right in the middle, North Antrim is by far the most spectacular of picturesque constituencies.

“Growing up I spent most of my summers with my parents touring all parts of the area, and seeing it in sunshine, rain and snow, and every such occasion was unique.

Rita with husband John and their daughter Ellie in Rathmullan

Rita with husband John and their daughter Ellie in Rathmullan

“It is hard to select a favourite place, but I have some special memories. One of the first places Fiona (my wife) and I visited before we were married was Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The north coast has always been a special place for both of us, filled with happy memories.

“Just between Ballycastle and Ballintoy is a little hidden cove called Kinbane Castle. It’s a long and narrow limestone headland, projecting into the sea. In the 1500s it was the location of a garrison castle for the local chief and was sieged. Driving along that ribbon like coast road, blink and you could miss it. Nineteen years ago, Fiona and I went there for a picnic and enjoyed a quiet weekend with Emily who was a little toddler. There Fiona told me she was expecting our next baby. So it is a place of fond and happy memories for us both. Every time I drive past the entrance to Kinbane it brings a smile to my face and a wave of happy memories.”

‘This beach is my special part of Ulster’

One lady who has plenty of experience in seeking out some of the most scenic places in Ulster is UTV presenter and broadcaster Rita Fitzgerald - she recently fronted the popular series Ulster Unearthed, which explored different locations in Northern Ireland.

“In terms of areas of outstanding beauty, Ulster has much to recommend itself,” she says.

“From the Lakes of Fermanagh to the winding coast that leads to the Giant’s Causeway, we are truly spoilt for choice. But if I was asked to pick one place that draws me back again and again, it would have to be the rugged beauty of Donegal, and in particular, the quiet coastal village of Rathmullan.

“Famous as the departure point for the flight of the Earls, Rathmullan provides me with every excuse to return; the stately Rathmullan House hotel, with its kitchen garden supplied restaurant, is a welcome respite from the ardours of the modern world, and Belle’s Kitchen in the centre of the village provides arguably the best cakes in Donegal (and ice-cream if you ask my four-year-old daughter).

“Despite the village’s earthly temptations, it’s the nearby beach at Kinnegar that is my special part of Ulster, and one that always makes me smile. Wrapped up in my coat and wellies, it’s just me and my thoughts, the occasional walker trying to retrieve an excited dog or a horse trainer putting his mount through its paces. If you walk long enough you will arrive at Rathmullan village - but I seldom do. I just love this stretch of secluded beach that takes me everywhere and nowhere all at once. As the wind picks up, the darkening cloud gives promise of a storm overhead. I’m reminded of the crackling fire and ever changing view of the Swilly and it’s back home for me.”

‘Portrush was our Las Vegas!’

Sea, sand, somewhere to kick a ball about and play - for the young Jackie Fullerton, that was all he needed for idyllic summer holidays.

And thankfully the seaside town of Portrush supplied all three; indeed it is here that the popular veteran sports broadcaster long happy summers as a child.

“Being a Ballymena boy, much of my youth was spent in Portrush,” he says. “We stayed in caravans, and the beaches up there are fantastic.

“I have been to a few places in the world, South Africa and America and so on, but there are few better beaches than you find in Northern Ireland. Sadly we don’t have the climate to match.”

The presenter says he has many happy memories of playing football and cricket on the beach, “and all that sort of stuff, and getting candy floss.”

He adds: “We would have gone to Portstewart beach, where you could take the car on, and Castlerock, but mainly I loved Portrush as a young boy.

“We had it all there - Barry’s, Morelli’s, Phil’s Amusements and the White House. This was our Las Vegas! When you’re 11 or 12 what more do you need? A sea, a beach, somewhere to play, and then a few shillings to go to Barry’s and have a ride in the bumping cars.

“There was Morelli’s, which just always seems to have been there, and when I was a child, Knickerbockerglories were the big thing. It was only later in life when I was a teenager that I could afford one!”

Jackie continued the tradition of a love affair with the coastal town when his own three sons came along.

“My boys spent a lot of time as children up there too,” he says.

“We used to have a caravan in Juniper Hill, which is located on the North West 200 course, and always having been bike fans, they loved to see the bikes up close and, enjoyed the excitement of that and so on.

‘We’re spoilt for choice in Northern Ireland’

As presenter of BBC Radio Ulster’s Gardeners’ Corner programme, Cherrie McIlwaine has seen some of the most beautiful parts of the Province during her career.

However from a personal level, she also holds dear to her a number of less obvious retreats, places in Northern Ireland which have their own special place in her heart.

One such example is the monastic site of Nendrum Abbey near Comber, where Cherrie is herself from.

“We’re all a bit spoiled for choice in Northern Ireland, aren’t we, because there are so many beautiful places to go,” she says.

“But one place I used to go to during the summer, on a Sunday morning, was Nendrum Abbey. You head for Castle Espie and meander your way round those lovely twisty roads around the inner shores of Strangford. It’s an old fifth century monastic site, and it’s just a very simple place, yet it’s very peaceful and atmospheric, and I used to sit there propped up against a stone wall, read the Sunday papers, and just soak up the fresh air. It was lovely.”

Her regular experiences at the Abbey, which is thought to have been set up by St Machaoi in the 5th Century and consists of three round dry stone walled enclosures, also, she admits, encouraged her to “try and think what life must have been like for the monks who lived there, and then what it was like when the Vikings came.”

Cherrie continues: “Another drive that I very much love which would have been something we would have done as a family, is the Antrim Coast Road, and more recently I would have been up that way fairly often, because we were recording pieces in the beautiful walled garden at Glenarm Castle, where they just had their annual tulip festival last weekend.

“You drive into Larne via the coastal road, and if you’re lucky, on a good day, the light will be good, and it will just hit you beautifully how gorgeous it is. If it’s early in the year and it’s not a holiday day, you nearly feel as if you’ve got the road to yourself.

“I’m also really fond of Rowallane Garden in Saintfield - as you drive in through the gates, especially when the rhododendron are all in full flower, it really does stop you in your tracks.

“I think it really is a particularly atmospheric garden; it’s unusually quiet and there are so many places in it that invite you to explore. I think it’s a wonderful garden for children because they can run hither and thither, and I love all the rocky outcrops. And you somehow feel as though the Mournes aren’t that far away.”

There’s a final place - this time located in Co Londonderry - that Cherrie regards as one of her favourite, less ‘obvious’ places in Northern Ireland.

Ness Country Park, near Claudy, lies in the steep, wooded Glen of the Burntollet River, and is home to 55 hectares of mixed woodland and over seven km of stunning riverside walks.

Again, what appeals to Cherrie about this beauty spot is the fact that it’s off the beaten track.

“It really is lovely if you want a tranqil rural walk where you’re not going to see too many people,” she adds.

We want to hear from you!

Is there somewhere in Northern Ireland that holds a special place in your heart?

Perhaps it’s spot along the North coast where you spent a lot of time as a child, or somewhere that you have wonderful childhood memories of.

Maybe it’s a beach, a forest, or a park that you love going to for long walks, alone, or with family and pets.

Or perhaps it’s a place of historical interest or scenic beauty that you’ve always loved to visit.

Wherever it is, we want to hear all about it.

Please send your pictures and your memories to us by emailing features@newsletter.co.uk, or calling 02890897700.

You can also tweet us @NLFeatures