Memorable one night stopover with itinerary of history, culture and cuisine
Today's Roamer is retrospective, from last December, but first I'm going further back, to 30th September 1966.
I was a music-loving 16-year-old schoolboy, and at 8pm on that Friday night over 50 years ago, I watched and listened, spellbound, as maestro Maurice Miles raised his conductor’s baton for the Ulster Orchestra’s first provincial concert, in Londonderry’s Girls High School.
At the end of the concert Miles turned to the audience and announced with a smile “now for something that you’ve all been waiting for”.
The orchestra performed an evocatively beautiful and almost spiritual version of the Londonderry Air.
When the rapturous applause finally subsided I went to the after-concert reception in the Northern Counties Club, abundant with dignitaries, drinks and décor – all rather unfamiliar to a teenage lad in a school jumper!
“I was born in Londonderry, I was born in Derry city too,” sang The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.
His song called Sunrise came at the end of Neil’s magnificent gig in the city’s Millennium Forum (millenniumforum.co.uk) last December.
Recorded in 1998, Sunrise continues with the words “I grew up in Enniskillen, I grew up in Inis Ceathlain too.”
When the Ulster Orchestra was launched in 1966, dark clouds of the ensuing troubles loomed ominously over Northern Ireland.
Hannon’s Sunrise was a poignant postscript to Divine Comedy’s exuberant performance, and to the ending of a tragic conflict.
“A ray of hope, a beam of light
An end to thirty years of night
The church bells ring, the children sing
What is this strange and beautiful thing?
It’s the sunrise.”
When the rapturous applause finally subsided I went to the Northern Counties Club.
It’s now the Bishop’s Gate Hotel (www.bishopsgatehotelderry.com) but still retains the distinctive character, period charm, Edwardian architecture and historic splendour that I remember from half a century ago.
It was my base for a pre-Christmas, one night media stop-over in the city, organised by Tourism NI and their Visit Derry team.
Their busy 36-hour itinerary of cuisine, heritage and culture started with a delicious brunch in the multi award-winning Beech Hill Country House Hotel (www.beech-hill.com) two miles out of the city, overlooking beautiful lakes and gardens in scenic countryside on the Ardmore Road.
The hotel’s Georgian elegance and gracious country lifestyle is enhanced with four centuries of history, some displayed evocatively in the Beech Hill’s museum.
It tells and illustrates the story of the 750 American Marines billeted in Quonset huts around the estate during Second World War.
Many of them have returned on nostalgic pilgrimages and added their names to a hugely distinguished guest list that boasts international entertainers and performers, as well as presidents, politicians, poets and playwrights.
The next item on my itinerary carried a warning: “Please wear comfortable shoes and warm clothing!”
It was good advice for a Walled City Walking Tour (www.derrycitytours.com) on a cold, wet December afternoon.
“Welcome to my beautiful wee city,” said tour guide Garvin Kerr before embarking on a vividly narrated walk along wide historic ramparts that I’d visited before on several occasions.
I thought I knew quite a lot about Derry’s walls but Garvin’s colourful, virtually non-stop commentary, added a completely new perspective.
He brought back Derry’s unique past at the Hangman’s Bastion, at the Grand Parade (the cat walk!), at the city’s most haunted house and at the Church of St Augustine “fondly known as the wee church,” said Garvin, adding “and there’s the green hill far away,” pointing at the inspiration for Cecil Frances Alexander’s oft’ sung hymn.
The next note on my itinerary outlined a “walk through the Bogside to visit the Museum of Free Derry”.
Dedicated to the story of the civil rights movement in the 1960s the Museum (www.museumoffreederry.org) portrays “the impact, trauma and division of the Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Bogside”.
It’s fascinating, gripping, harrowing, tragic – a remarkable, absorbing record of conflict, illustrated with bleak images and sombre artefacts from those dark days.
“I can look out of here and I can see where our Michael was shot dead,” said museum guide John Kelly, whose teenage brother Michael died sheltering behind a barricade on 30th January 1972.
Back at the Bishop’s Gate Hotel my itinerary allowed for a wondrously warming shower in a vast, comfortable suite before patrolling its historic lounges and corridors and noting the ornamentation, countless framed canvases and photographs, and an ancient 15th century well, seen through thick glass in the floor.
Following a scrumptious pre-concert dinner in Harry’s Derry Restaurant (derrycraftvillage.com/shops/harrys-derry) located in the city’s endearingly old-fashioned Craft Village, it was onwards to the aforementioned Divine Comedy gig in the Millennium Forum.
Next morning, after a memorable Bishop’s Gate full-Irish breakfast, expert-guide Billy Moore hosted a whistle-stop tour of the Apprentice Boys Siege Museum (thesiegemuseum.org).
“Even some Apprentice Boys don’t know why they’re parading on certain dates,” Billy admitted.
His museum tells the whole story vividly, with yet more sadness and tragedy to add to yesterday’s tours with John Kelly and Garvin Kerr.
My busy itinerary offered some “free time” for shopping, art and craft galleries, more museums, and (enticingly!) the Walled City Brewery, before a grand finale lunch at Primrose Café (primrose-ni.com).
The family-owned café’s local produce comes from their own bakery and butcher shops.
Noticing fish and chips on their lengthy menu I ordered a deliciously-described “haddock in buttermilk batter”.
Like everything else during the previous 36 hours - it was memorable!
Further information is at discovernorthernireland.com.