Richard Purden

The Antrim Glens have a notable reputation around the world for their natural beauty. The famously rugged coastline is at its most beguiling in the late winter as the green shoots of Spring begin to appear.

I opted to spend some time in Carnlough staying at The Londonderry Arms, once owned by Winston Churchill. Arriving, a warm welcome is offered by Raymond Hunt who has made the most of the Churchill connection with various artefacts honouring the subject of the Oscar winner Darkest Hour. I sit at the hearth under a framed portrait of Churchill with an Irish coffee while Hunt explains some of the area's Second World War connections. Across the road is a plaque honouring another war hero for his contribution to the Normandy landings. Paddy, an Irish carrier pigeon, served in the RAF during the war and won the equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

A hero of a different sort, this time sporting, who frequents the hotel is local boy Brendan Rodgers. The former Liverpool and current Celtic manager’s childhood home is nearby. Pigeons and Celtic went hand in hand growing up here, he says. “If Celtic lost and the pigeon didn’t come home it wasn’t great. My uncle Kevin, who is a massive Celtic supporter, would race the pigeons. What amazed me was they would be away out in the morning and go to Larne or Belfast and then they would appear back in the shed – it was unbelievable. Growing up you would be listening out for the Celtic score and he would be waiting on the pigeons coming in as well,” he told me.

“Its like a lot of Irish villages and small communities. You probably have the same in Scotland. It was very much community based, and was a predominantly Catholic area, but with a mix of Protestants in there that all got on really well. It was obviously in that period when The Troubles was at its height but I felt I had the safest childhood.” Twenty years on from the Northern Ireland Act there are new narratives flourishing as well as reasons to visit. The US fantasy drama Game of Thrones has brought high numbers of tourists to The Glens due to the production’s use of its dramatic natural locations. Some locals seem frustrated that holidaymakers will miss out on the famous coastline favouring a Games of Thrones checklist. Others seem to appreciate the attention but few here have yet to watch an episode. While this is easily the most popular tourist drive in Ireland and has been voted one of the top five road trips in the world, it's best experienced with some stops along the way rather than a straight drive from Belfast to the Giants’ Causeway. The Dark Hedges is a stunning avenue of beach trees planted in the 18th century and is perhaps the biggest draw for Games of Thrones fans. The appearance of a bright green “Paddywagon" bus full of backpackers featuring a leprechaun gives some indication of how the HBO series had made Antrim attractive to a younger generation as well as post-retirement holidaymakers. Beyond fantasy television this part of Northern Ireland is steeped in ancient legend such as Slemish Mountain. Folklore suggests that this is where St Patrick found God.

Typically the day’s weather was varied and despite the morning’s azure skies the eventual journey to Slemish featured more inclement conditions. Turning back seemed the best option but my local guide was for persevering. When we reached the area where Ireland’s patron saint once apparently farmed pigs, a grey miasma of thick damp mist wrapped itself around the mountain. When you experience this kind of silent remoteness there’s an almost eerie and unforgettable atmosphere. The weather improved for a further journey to the famous Giant’s Causeway where children were read aloud the mythical story of the Irish giant Finn MacCool who was challenged to a battle by the Scottish colossus Benandonner. Capturing the imagination they jumped from stone to stone as the guide pointed across to Scotland. The unspoiled views live up to their reputation and it’s soon apparent why the Causeway Coast and Belfast was voted the top region to visit by Lonely Planet in 2018. Cold enough for a drop of something strong I gave the nearby Bushmills distillery a flying visit. After enjoying the smooth taste of Ireland’s oldest whiskey it was enough to persuade me to take a bottle back across the water.

Northern Ireland’s second largest city Derry/Londonderry has enjoyed a swell in visitors since it became the UK City of Culture in 2013. There are excellent rail connections along the coast for a trip that Michael Palin described as “one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world”. Fellow train buff Michael Portillo added that it was simply “breathtaking.” The coastal views of vast beaches and the countryside are one of the few to rival the East Coast line from Edinburgh to London on these islands. On arrival it’s a short stroll from the railway station to the now defining Peace Bridge built in 2011. The stunning walkway takes you across the River Foyle uniting both sides of the community. Straight away you gather a sense of this post-industrial working class city and its almost unimaginable recent history. Like Belfast, and to a lesser extent Glasgow, it’s famous for a sectarian past. Perhaps for economic reasons more than anything else The Walled City has perhaps taken longer to shake off that image.

The Everglades Hotel has a stand-alone reputation in this part of Ireland which looks out onto the River Foyle on one side and Donegal’s mountains on the other. It’s a reminder of how close the border is with the Republic. The contemporary but informal complex is a short distance from the city centre and I decide to stop in at The Library Bar for an exemplary pint of Guinness and a sandwich while reorganising a walking tour after a downpour. Instead I opt for a taxi guide which can be negotiated for around £20. We drive past a string of closed-down shops which suggest the boom of 2013 has already subsided before our first stop. The Derry Walls of “No Surrender” were built in 1619 and still stand to this day. As we look at the ancient structure my guide suggests that Brexit is a new border concern which threatens progress in a time of further high unemployment and economic uncertainty.

The rain continues to fall as we walk through the Derry City cemetery and arrive at the grave of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (who died a year ago), war graves and the graves of hunger strikers. From here we head to the Bogside where backpackers saunter around the famous murals, being guided by the local artists who painted them, or visit the Museum of Free Derry. It’s 20 years since Northern Ireland was demilitarised but it’s a past that feels very close.

A large bus arrives packed with tourists from Europe and America reminding us of the strange dichotomy that while Derry tires to re-invent itself the city's new economies are driven by a fascination with an ever present and dark past. In some ways it reminds you of that other walled city not long after the Berlin wall came down. Perhaps the most striking image of all is the Free Derry Corner where the words: “You are now entering Free Derry” are painted in black, over a white background on the gable end of a house. The image which featured on violent television news reports in the 1970s and 80s is now a national monument and features on Channel Four’s biggest hit comedy in five years, Derry Girls. The comedy set in 1994 saw 2.5 million viewers tune in to watch the launch episode in January leading to an immediate recommission. The slice of life stories as well as local banter and vocabulary offers a Celtic flavour of comedy that has gone down well in cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool. The local tourist board has not been slow in talking up their hopes that the popularity of the series will attract new visitors.

Various parts of Northern Ireland are confidently highlighting other aspects of its past in innovative and exciting ways. CS Lewis Square in East Belfast is one of the most recent and magical examples which brings to life one of the Belfast born writer’s most popular works, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Visitors follow the trail which leads to other-worldly bronze monuments of characters such as Aslan, the White Witch and Mr Tumnus. Nearby there is a Legends and Luminaries mural which honours Lewis as well as other sons of East Belfast such as George Best, Van Morrison and guitarist Gary Moore. Northern Ireland has reasserted itself through celebrating fantastical, mystical and popular narratives that have helped move the culture beyond The Troubles but dealing with the past remains a complicated business. Its current success as a modern tourist destination has taken no small amount of determination and imagination – something this part of the world seems to have in abundance.

Travel notes

P&O Ferries fares start from £84 each way from Cairnryan to Larne for a car and driver. Foot passengers fares are £27 per adult/student each way, £10 per child and £22 per senior citizen. Visit or call 0800 130 0030.

Flybe operates flights to Belfast City Airport from Edinburgh up to five times daily, with fares starting from £34.99 one way. Visit

Everglades Hotel offers a Dinner, Bed & Breakfast Package, which includes overnight accommodation in a Superior Room, 4 course Table d’hote evening meal with a full Irish Breakfast, complimentary WiFi, from £105 per person sharing. Visit

For more information on The Londonderry Arms Hotel call (0) 28 2888 5255 or email: