Ardtara House


After a long first day in Northern Ireland, we checked into Ardtara House, the first of the hotels we were to stay in during our short break. On the outskirts of Upperlands in County Derry. The village, located between the Antrim coast and Lough Neagh, used to be a mill town producing linen. Ardtara House is a Victorian house set in 8 acres of woodland that was the residence of the Clark family who owned the linen mill which was established in 1736. There’s still a working mill in the village  today.

We had a large bedroom at the front of the house on the first floor. It was furnished and decorated in a traditional style but had all the modern amenities and a view over the front lawn.

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We had a very nice meal in the restaurant the fist evening. According to the hotel website the restaurant isn’t open Monday and Tuesday but it seems that this isn’t the case during the summer. That was good news as we didn’t fancy having to drive out to find somewhere to eat after a long day.

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The hotel was very comfortable and the staff were extremely nice and helpful. The food – dinner, bar meals and breakfast – was of a very high standard. The only criticism was that service could be a little too “relaxed” at times. But overall a very enjoyable stay

Downhill Demesne


A short drive from Hezlett House brought us to the The Bishop’s Gate, one of the entrances to the Downhill Demesne that surrounds the former home of the Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. The word ‘demesne’ is used throughout Ireland. It indicates the part of the estate that was usually enclosed by a demesne wall and was for the use of the landowner only. Today the house, having been abandoned after the Second World War.

Donning our boots, we set off for a walk around the grounds.


We took the path that led through the Black Glen


A short sharp climb up some steep steps took us to the Belvedere


We continued along the path that runs along the top of the cliffs and were treated to views of a fabulous beach and coastlineDSC09824


A short walk brought us to Mussenden Temple, perched on the edge of the cliff


Built in 1785 and based on the Temple of Vesta in Italy,  it once held the Earl Bishop’s library. It is dedicated to his cousin Frideswide Mussenden with whom he may, or may not, have had a relationship. At one time it was possible to drive a coach and horses around the temple, but not today. Over the years the erosion of the cliff face at Downhill has brought Mussenden Temple to the very edge of the cliff, and in 1997 The National Trust had to carry out cliff stabilisation work to prevent the loss of the building.

Three other people entered the temple at the same time as us – a young man and two young women. They then proceeded to stand motionless staring into space, moving position occasionally but otherwise standing like statues. Weird and a little creepy!




Leaving the temple we took the path towards the remains of Downhill House.


The house was built for Frederick Augustus Hervey, the Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. Hervey’s brother George, who was the Earl of Bristol became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 and arranged for him to become Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland the following year and then Bishop of Derry (a wealthier and more prestigious See). He also became the Earl Of Bristol in 1779 on the death of his brother.


Although the house is in ruins it is still an impressive structure. Built in three main phases, it must have been enormous in its heyday.

Perched on the high ground above the sea, it has fantastic views



but with no shelter would also have been battered by the wind.


Leaving the house behind us we headed back across the lawns to the Bishop’s Gate, passing the Mausoleum dedicated to George, the Earl Bishop’s brother. The very least the Earl Bishop could do to show his gratitude to the brother responsible for his fame and fortune.


There used to be a statue of George on top of the structure, but it was blown off by the “Big Wind” of 1839

Hezlett House


Just outside the seaside resort of Castlerock, Hezlett house is an early cruck built timber frame dating from 1691, making it one of the oldest vernacular domestic buildings in Northern Ireland. Originally built as a parsonage, the house was taken over in 1761  by a Presbyterian farmer, Isaac Hezlett, whose family continued to live there until the National Trust acquired the property in 1976.

The walls are built of uncoursed rubble with roughcast and a core of earth and sand. The house is particularly interesting for its cruck construction, a form not often seen in Northern Ireland at this date. Several areas in the house are left bare to expose the cruck trusses and other structural details.

The original house has been extended and looks like two dwellings. In fact the left side was an extension built for the owner’s widowed mother – a type of “granny flat”. But the Trust has fitted it out as a  single Victorian farmstead. Some of the furnishings are from the house itself while others have been acquired from elsewhere.

The first room visited is the kitchen



The Parlour


Then upstairs – watch your head!


The maid’s bedroom


This windowless room in the rafters is where the farm “servants” would have slept


It’s likely that the farm labourers living here were children – many of them probably orphans who were “farmed out” to work as agricultural labourers. Just like one of my great grandfathers, who was born in 1857 in Liverpool. He was orphaned in 1866 when he was only 9 years old and turns up on the 1871 census in Halsall near Southport working as a “farm servant”.

A view of the rafters in the next part of the building


Back downstairs now. A shot showing the cruck frame construction method


The building doesn’t have foundations and is supported by pairs of curved timber, joined by a cross beam, which support the roof.

One of the two rather small downstairs bedrooms


The nursery


The parlour


Being quite small, the house didn’t take too long to look around, but it gave a good impression of how an Irish farming family and their servants would have lived during the Victorian period.

The Giant’s Causeway



The rain had eased off by the time we reached the Giant’s Causeway – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most well known and popular site in Northern Ireland. We arrived early to try and avoid the crowds, but there were still plenty of people milling around. The coast here is owned by the National Trust and can be accessed free of charge, but most people head for the Visitor Centre. It’s £9 to park and access the Visitor Centre but as National Trust Members we were exempt! So we parked up and stopped for a brew in the café before setting off down the path towards the main attraction.





Tourists have been visiting since the late 17th Century but the site received international attention when Dublin artist Susanna Drury made watercolour paintings of it in 1739. We saw a couple of these displayed at one of the National Trust properties we visited later in the week. Engravings made from the work were widely published, increasing public awareness.

Watercolour by Susanna Drury, 1739



The causeway was formed during the Tertiary period 62/65 million years ago during a long period of volcanic activity.  Three episodes of lava outflows occurred here known as the Lower, Middle or Causeway and Upper Basalts. Lulls occurred between the outflows as is evident in the deep inter-basaltic layer of reddish brown ‘lithomarge’ which is rich in clay, iron and aluminium oxides from weathering of  the underlying basalt.  The causeway area would have been situated in a sub tropical region at that time, at about the latitude of northern Spain, experiencing hot and humid conditions.

The hexagonal columns of the causeway occur in the middle basalt layer…. The fascinating pattern that we see in the causeway stones form as a result of rock crystallization under conditions of slow cooling. This usually occurs when the flow is thick or when it fills a depression such as a river valley (as at the Causeway). (Source here)

There’s a more detailed, but accessible, explanation of the geology here.





Of course, there is another explanation

After spending some time walking over the causeway stones we set off for a walk along the coast following the way-marked route that would take us along the side of the cliffs, past some of the interesting rock formations and then up a steep path to the top of the cliffs and then back to the visitor centre


This formation of massive basalt columns, set into the cliffs above the causeway, is known as the Organ as it’s said to resemble the pipes of the said instrument.


Looking back towards the Causeway from the path


Another formation is visible in the distance, known as the Chimney, for obvious reasons.


The cliffs are susceptible to landslips and we reached a dead end – it wasn’t safe to proceed any further so the final section of the path along the side of the cliff face was closed off


We retraced our steps and about halfway back to the causeway stones took a steep path to the top of the cliffs. This route would have been originally used by women carrying kelp up from the beach. It was processed and then used as a fertiliser, for bleaching kelp and as a raw material for various chemical processes, such as soap and glass making. It could also be used as a foodstuff.



Looking down on the causeway from the top of the cliffs


Views across the bay – looing east


and west


We arrived back at the visitor centre at about 12:30  to be greeted by a heavy downpour so ducked inside.


The visitor centre was packed. The car park was more or less full with cars and about 9 or 10 coaches. However, we managed to find a table in the café and grabbed something to eat. By the time we’d finished the weather was picking up so it was back to the car for a drive further along the coast.

A few days in Ulster


Last Sunday we boarded the overnight ferry from Birkenhead to Belfast to take a few days holiday  in Northern Ireland. It’s probably not the most obvious place for a holiday, particularly given recent history. But things have moved on. Some parts of the region have become popular – the Giant’s Causeway and parts of the Antrim coast in particular, and the region hasn’t been slow in capitalising on the popularity of the Games of Thrones TV series which used a number of locations in Northern Ireland and on the fact that the Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast. However, much of the countryside remains relatively unknown and unexplored by tourists from Britain.


(By Andrein – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’d been to Northern Ireland a couple of times – flying visits, literally – for meetings but had not had much chance to look around. But brief views from the windows of cars and planes made me want to see more. So we booked an overnight ferry out and back and four nights in hotels – 2 north east of Belfast and 2 at the south end of Strangford Lough – which gave us 5 full days to explore. I consulted a friend beforehand to get some ideas when planning our visit but we decided to base the trip mainly around the National Trust sites which are scattered across the region. It was a grey start on the Monday, although it brightened up a the day went on. Tuesday  was something of a washout, but didn’t spoil the day. Overall, we were lucky with the weather with the Wednesday and Thursday being warm and sunny.

We discovered some beautiful country and the visit also confirmed what I already knew – the people are extremely friendly, helpful and welcoming.

Arriving in a grey Belfast at the unearthly hour of 6:30 we disembarked by 7 and set off towards the north coast, intending to visit the Giant’s Causeway . We had some breakfast at a motorway services north west of Belfast before driving up past Antrim and Ballymena to Ballycastle before turning west along the coast road.

First stop was White Park Bay, a section of the north coast owned by the National Trust


It’s a spectacular white, sandy beach between two headlands, backed by ancient dunes. Despite the grey skies it was very attractive. Photos really can’t do it justice. Scotland is quite close and from the viewpoint on the cliffs above the bay we could just about make out Islay and Jura on the horizon. We parked up and took the path through the dunes down on to the beach.


There was a group of cattle that had also wandered down on to the beachDSC09725

and a couple of heavily laden walkers making their way across the sand.


We stopped to chat for a short while. They were a young French couple who were trekking along the Antrim coast.

At the far west end of the bay, huddled in a rocky bay below the cliffs, there’s a small village, Portbraddan, which translates as “Port of the Salmon”.

Dark clouds had started to drift over from the north west so it was time to head back tot he car. The sun in the south east, however, was lighting up the whitewashed houses in the village as well as the cliffs and the sand, making for a dramatic view and photograph opportunity.


The rain came in but we were soon back into the car and heading through the showers towards our next stop – the Giant’s Causeway.



We arrived back in Sedbergh after our walk up to the Calf just before 4 o’clock ready for a refreshing brew (and, possibly a cake!). While we were loading our rucksacks into the boot of the car a couple of coaches drove into the car park.. We’d better be quick, I thought, or we’ll not get in the cafés if we have to compete with 80 so day trippers.

We found a small café in the main street. The Three Hares  turned out to be a good choice. It was very pleasant, a little quirky and the tea and cakes were very good – and good value – I queried the bill as I thought they’d undercharged us, but they hadn’t. Their lunch menu looked interesting and they serve evening meals on Friday and Saturdays with a changeable, imaginative menu. Worth a try if we’re down that way over the weekend I think.

It was a good job we got there quickly as there weren’t many tables and those that were free after we had placed our order soon filled up. After that there was a procession of people trying to find a seat or looking in the window and walking past. We found out later that it was the only café open in the town. There were others, but they were all shut. At least one of them only being open 3 days a week.


(Two cafés – both closed)

After finishing our brew we went for a wander around the small town. There were a number of interesting looking shops but they were all shutting up. They all seemed to only open at 10 and shut at 4:30. Even the tourist office shut at 4. There were a lot of disappointed looking day trippers wandering around the streets and sitting on benches waiting for time to leave! It was a good job it wasn’t raining.

Although today Sedbergh, which is only a few miles from Kendal, is in Cumbria, until 1974 it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire. That explains why it is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Historically, other than agriculture, the main industry was the production of woollen garments. Knitted clothing, including hats and socks was produced in workers’ own homes from yarn produced in nearby woollen mills, and then were sold on by local merchants . That industry is long gone. Today, the main employer is the public school which dominates the south end of the village.

It’s a small town which very much feels that it’s been left behind by the 21st Century.  We were able to walk around almost all of it in about 20 minutes.

The parish church dedicated to St Andrew dates from the 12th century, although, like many old churches it has been restored over the years. We didn’t have chance to have a look inside.


The buildings were predominantly stone cottages, many of them clearly quite old.



Like Kendal many of the older dwellings are clustered in “yards” – narrow lanes off the main street, running more or less perpendicular to it.



The buildings here were both places to live and to work. This is a very typical example of an old worker’s cottage in, appropriately enough, Weaver’s Yard



Never buildings at the north end of town which we passed on our way to and from the fells were also built in stone


or with vernacular features, like the porch on this more modern house


Sedbergh calls itself England’s official Book Town inspired by Hay on Wyre. There are a small number of dedicated book shops, but most other types of shops also had a selection of second hand books on sale.

All in all a very pleasant, attractive little town and it would be worth spending some more time there. It would be a good base for exploring the area and the fells and hills in the vicinity. And it would be interesting to have a mooch around the shops – providing we visited after 10 and before 4 or 4:30 on a day when they’re open!

Among a Huddle of Elephants

IMAG5572 (2)

We’ve been treated to a few days of warm, sunny weather this week – a true taste of summer. So on Tuesday a decision had to be made – stay in the office stuck behind the computer preparing and revising some course notes or take the day off and get out for a walk. No competition, really. The work wasn’t urgent, it could wait. The hardest decision was where to go. The Lake District beckoned but during the peak holiday period it was likely to be busy, so we decided to go for a walk in an area on the north eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales, close to the Lake District – the Howgill fells.

I’ve passed these attractive grassy hills many a time driving up the M6 between Kendal and Carlisle and on the train to Scotland and always felt that I’d like to get up on the fells, so Tuesday was our opportunity.

The Howgills aren’t dramatic mountains like you find in the Lake district. They’re rounded, grass covered hills cut through with deep valleys. But they have their own beauty.Alfred Wainwright in his book Walks on the Howgill Fells and adjoining fells provides an excellent summary of their attractions

“The Howgill Fells ….. are sleek and smooth, looking, from a distance, like velvet curtains in sunlight, like silken drapes at sunset; they are steep-sided but gently domed, and beautiful in a way that few hilly areas are …… The compactness of the group is emphasised by a remarkable concentration of summits, often likened to a huddle of squatting elephants …..”

We plumbed for what’s probably the most popular route, from Sedbergh at the southern end of the fells up along the ridge leading to The Calf, the highest point in the Howgills. Historically in Yorkshire (along with the southern half of the fells), following local government reorganisation in1974 the small town (a village, really) was transferred to the newly formed county of Cumbria.


We parked up in the car park in the centre of the village near to the information centre, donned our boots and set off for the fells.



There was a steep climb up above the west bank of Settleback Gill


but we were soon up on the grassy fells. Other than a fence that crosses the range on Calders there are virtually no man made boundaries on the top of the fells which gives a real sense of freedom. It’s an open access area too, so you’re free to roam and although there are plenty of clear paths many of them aren’t marked on the OS maps.


The route to The Calf was effectively along a ridge punctuated with a series of rounded peaks. We had the option of by-passing the first of these, Arant Haw – at 1989 feet just short of being able to call itself a “mountain” – but decided to tackle it anyway.

From the summit there were superb views of the surrounding fells. Unfortunately there was a heat haze which obscured the main Lakeland peaks although looking south we we could make out the hills of the Yorkshire Dales.



After eating our sandwiches we set off again towards our next objective, Calders. This involved losing some height before climbing a steepish slope up to the summit.


More great views to either side of the path


The view from the bottom of the climb up Calders


We made it to the summit, which at 2211 feet is only a little lower than The Calf itself.


There was a hazy view over the Yorkshire Dales and I could just make out the summit of Pen-y-Gent in the distance


After a brief stop to take in the views and some refreshment – it’s important to keep drinking on a hot day – we set off on the path towards the Calf. Most of the serious climbing had been done now. Again there were views over the nearby fells to either side of the path


It didn’t take too long to reach the summit of the Calf. It was a little bit of an anti-climax as the summit is a flat plateau which doesn’t have definite peak.


but there is a trig point marking the high point – 2218 feet – and a small tarn.


After taking the obligatory photos and more refreshments we set off back to Sedbergh. Although it is possible to work out a circular route this would have extended the walk by several miles and we’d decided to head back by retracing our footsteps – well, more or less as we decided to bypass Arant Haw on the return journey.

The route wasn’t a disappointment as different views opened as we worked our way back towards our destination.

This was the view from the top of Calders, our path clearly visible with the hills of the Yorkshire Dales in the background.





As we approached Settlebeck Gill and the descent from the fells we could see Sedbergh down in the valley.


We spotted a para-glider circling Winder as we descended.


Not far to go to Sedbergh now. A brew awaited!




The bottom of the fell


On the track back into the village we passed these fellows sheltering from the sun


Rough Fell sheep one of the three breeds of sheep native to Cumbria.

Soon we were back in the village. We dumped our rucksacks in the boot of the car and set off in search of a café. Another enjoyable walk, somewhere we hadn’t visited before, but a brew was needed!