As I buy my return ticket to Castlerock from the small, dimly lit kiosk inside Londonderry Waterside station and grab a typically dire cup of coffee from the vending machine, it occurs to me that this may not be the best preparation for undertaking one of the world’s great train journeys. According to RGS–IBG president Michael Palin, the trip between Londonderry (or Derry, as many prefer to call it) and Coleraine (the stop just after my destination) is ‘one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world’, but I must admit, I’m a tad sceptical.
Eventually, I board the short, near-empty train, and, as I settle into my seat beside a large west-facing window, it slowly makes its way out of the historic sixth-century city – Ireland’s only completely walled city – and the visual display begins. Londonderry straddles a wide bend in the River Foyle, and travelling along its eastern bank towards the Atlantic, a spectacular riverscape gradually unfolds, sloping down into the broad grey-green waters of Lough Foyle, which forms the boundary between County Donegal in the republic and County Londonderry in Northern Ireland.
After passing the first stop, the small 19th-century station of Bellarena, the tracks skirt the market town of Limavady and then wind around the north coast, offering beautiful views over the estuary, where locals say you can regularly spot waders and seabirds, and even the odd porpoise breaching the water’s surface.
From here, you can also see the fertile coastal plains, used predominantly to grow turf that’s favoured by sporting venues such as Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. Farther north, the sand dunes of Magilligan Point mark the boundary between the lough and the North Atlantic, and the tracks pass the broad, unspoiled sands of Benone Strand. In stark contrast, the view inland is blocked off by the severe wall of inland cliffs and rocky crags of Binevenagh Mountain.
Binevenagh (pronounced ‘ben-ev-en-ah’; ‘Foibhne’s peak’ in Irish) is part of the northernmost outcropping of the Antrim Plateau, which was formed around 60 million years ago when molten lava poured out over the land surface. The basalt crags and cliffs that tower above the flat coastal plain of Magilligan are an impressive sight, extending for more than nine kilometres and dominating the skyline over the villages of Bellarena, Downhill and my destination, Castlerock.
This rugged landscape forms the heart of the Binevenagh Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which encompasses a 16,500-hectare band that wraps around the coastline, from where my journey began to Portstewart, as well as a large inland chunk. Formerly known as North Derry AONB, it was renamed in 2006, when its area was also slightly extended.
‘The thing about Binevenagh AONB is that you have just about every habitat that exists in the British Isles,’ says Gerry Bond, a local wildlife guide and retired field centre warden. ‘You have those fantastic cliffs towering above us, you have coniferous woodland, deciduous woodland, grassland, farmland, sandy shores, sand dunes, mudflats and rocky shores. It has it all.’
Just north of Castlerock, the Downhill Estate overlooks a large part of the AONB. ‘From this lovely ruined estate, on a clear day if you look right around, you can see the Donegal coast and the Inishowen peninsula,’ says Mike Jones, chairman of the Castlerock Community Association. ‘And there’s the mouth of the River Foyle, which flows to Derry, the major city on the river. Then we can see the Binevenagh, which forms the core of the AONB and its tallest point.’
Now in ruins and managed by the National Trust, the mansion at Downhill was built by the Bishop of Derry, Earl Frederick Hervey, during the 18th century. It’s surrounded by beautiful gardens and offers spectacular walks, particularly along the clifftop, where the earl built the iconic Mussenden Temple, modelled on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, as his library. As fortune had it, the cylindrical structure, now teetering worryingly close to the edge, was open on the day we were there, offering shelter from the brisk onshore winds and a view along the length of Benone Strand through its huge windows.
Hervey himself clearly loved the area, and he’s credited with creating another of the AONB’s viewing points. ‘The Bishop’s Road is regarded by many people here as the eighth wonder of the world,’ says Jones. ‘When you get to the top, you get a magnificent view of Derry right down the River Foyle, right across the Inishmore peninsula. You can see the mountains of Donegal, which in winter always have snow on them – it’s just beautiful. The whole area is totally unspoiled.’
The road is believed to have been the bishop’s preferred route when travelling to and from Londonderry. Today, visitors can park their cars and walk to Gortmore viewing point at Binevenagh Mountain’s summit, from where it’s said that the Scottish islands of Islay and Jura can be seen on bright days.
The dramatic landscape of contrast and diversity that defines Binevenagh AONB has also blessed it with a wealth of wildlife, birds in particular. ‘There’s an enormous amount of food in the estuary mud,’ Bond explains. ‘It might look like dirt to you and me, but it’s a gourmet table for the birds. We get something like 200 species here. Where we’re standing now, we have peregrines above us, there are buzzards nesting over here, kestrels up on the cliffs and, in the winter, Lough Foyle is an area of international importance for wildfowl.’
Yet, according to Bond, the local authorities are failing to capitalise on the great potential it has to draw in birdwatchers. ‘The powers that be don’t seem to promote the wildlife here at all,’ he says. ‘About four or five different authorities have been arguing for the past 30 years about putting up a hide on the Foyle, but there’s conflict between the wildfowling people, the birdwatchers, the Irish Society and so on. They don’t seem to realise that this could be a fantastic tourism asset.’
The area’s other problem is that it’s overshadowed by the jewel in Northern Ireland’s tourism crown, the World Heritage-listed Giant’s Causeway, which draws in more than half a million people a year. Richard Gillen, countryside recreation officer for Limavady Borough Council, thinks that everyone involved in the management of Binevenagh AONB, which is only 20 kilometres away from the famous geological site, just needs to do more to tempt them here.
‘The Giant’s Causeway is a “tick box” type of place – it’s a different kind of experience because people are always going to want to go there,’ he says. ‘But we have so much to offer – geese and swans coming down from Iceland and Baffin Island, the trip out to the Martello tower on Magilligan Point, kite surfing, the Mussenden Temple… There’s plenty to do – we just have to draw people in off the Causeway Coast and make them more aware of this area.’
Last year, there was a noticeable increase in the number of visitors here, he says. ‘Just looking around the car park at Benone Strand, there were a lot of foreign car registrations. We realised that part of the reason is the strength of the euro – it’s cheaper to stay in Northern Ireland and use sterling.’
Maxime Sizaret, heritage manager of the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, agrees that more could be done to encourage the crowds visiting the Giant’s Causeway to follow the coast road around to the west a bit more. ‘Most people coming from Belfast go straight to the Giant’s Causeway,’ he says. ‘They stop on the way at different places, but after they’ve seen it, they don’t tend to carry on exploring. We’re working with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to promote this area much more strongly.’
Perhaps Michael Palin’s seal of approval will help to tempt them.
Sunset over Lough Foyle
‘I love the drive over the Bishop’s Road for sure, but I also like the view between Coleraine and Limevady on the main road when you’re looking towards Lough Foyle at sunset in the evening. It’s spectacular.’
Richard Gillen, countryside recreation officer for Limavady Council
Gannets diving for dinner
‘Benone Strand, which has just been awarded a Blue Flag, is a great spot to watch gannets feeding. They dive into the surf like arrows. It’s fabulous looking out and seeing them coming down. It gives you an idea how close the fish are to the shore.’
Mapping the nation
‘The Irish Ordnance Survey completed the world’s first large-scale mapping of an entire country by 1846. The maps were based on a framework of triangulated points and the first leg of the first triangle, known as the baseline, was drawn along the eastern shore of Lough Foyle in 1824. They came back in the 1960s to resurvey it using electronic equipment and the new measurement differed only by an inch. The mapping of Ireland started right here.’
For feathered friends
‘Best spot for seeing birds? Anywhere on Loch Foyle during winter. You just need to go down to the shore, get settled and let the spectacle begin. Just make sure you wrap up. We get an icy wind off the Lough, but stick it out and you’ll definitely be rewarded.
Gerry Bond, local wildlife guide
For more information on Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com