Helen Moat explores Northern Ireland's wild west coast and asks – 'Why isn't everyone else?'
The surf is rolling in from the Atlantic, wave after wave. The wind blows off the sea, sending spray shooting into the air before pushing it along the line of the breakers. The ocean roars and spits out spume on the shore. I breathe in the January air: sharp, damp, salty. The sea is winter wild here, kicking up dark sediment where it breaks on the beach. Then the tide races unexpectedly towards the shoreline so I have to run for higher rocks.
Across the ocean is Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula. A sea mist hugs the base of the hills, smudging the shoreline like a watercolour painting; then lifts to reveal a littering of white-washed bungalows among sun-splashed green.
I turn my back on Donegal and make my way across the beach in the opposite direction. The tide has carved out lines and ridges through the sand. The sky is reflected in the water-logged grooves: broken blues and purple-greys of bruised clouds. Overhead a striking circular building sits on the cliff edge, its seaward side flush with the cliff: nothing between the building and the drop below. A train curves the edge of the beach before disappearing into the cliff beneath it.
I’m on Downhill Beach on Northern Ireland’s north coast. Could this part of the coast be the UK and Ireland’s best-kept secret? This is a magical place.
I climb the road out of Downhill and make my way to the entrance of Downhill House at The Lion Gates (actually great collared mastiff dogs). The house is a sprawling ruin now, but a long straight lane leads from house to Mussenden Temple which is still intact. It’s a curious building perched on the cliff edge – more suited to Venice or Rome than this wild, northern coastline. Who built it and why?
It turns out the house, surrounding land and temple belonged to the eccentric and extremely wealthy Bishop of Derry. On a visit to Italy, the Earl Bishop discovered a beautiful Roman temple, built in honour of the goddess Vesta at Tivoli. Hervey just had to have the temple - only the Pope refused to sell. Undeterred, the Bishop had his architect sketch the temple so that a replica could be built on the cliff edge near his Downhill home. The temple was completed in 1785 and became the Bishop’s summer library.
Engraved on stone curving round the building is a Latin inscription which translates: Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore, The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.
Only, as the centuries rolled on, Mussenden had become anything but safe. At one time, a carriage could have made its way round the temple. In more recent times, school children would dare each other to circumnavigate the temple with barely a foot between the building and the cliff edge. Coastal erosion had taken its toll. In 1997, the National Trust carried out cliff stabilisation work to save this beautiful building.
Because of the temple’s exposed position, Hervey ordered a fire to be kept alight day and night. None the less, the damp took its toll, and eventually the plaster with its ornate carving was stripped back to bare brick wall. The building is still functional, however, and is used today for weddings. And what a place to get married, with its celling to floor windows surrounded by sea, strand and cliff.
Leaving the temple behind, we walk through Mussenden Estate, with its semi-wild gardens and lake that drops away to the sea, then on towards the little seaside town of Castlerock for a welcome warming coffee and re-energising cake.
There’s so much more to see on Northern Ireland’s Atlantic coast; here's a few of my recommendations...
– Make your way there along the coast road from Larne to Ballycastle – surely one of the most spectacular coastal roads in the world
– The Giant’s Causeway- strange hexagonal rock formations at this UNESCO World Heritage site
– Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge – for those with a head for heights and a sense of adventure
– Dunluce Castle –ruined medieval castle in a dramatic setting –one of the most romantic ruins in Ireland
– Ballintoy – charming hamlet and harbour in stunning surroundings
– Rathlin Island – rich in wildlife, including puffins and grey seals
– North Atlantic beaches – some of the best in the world: Whitepark Bay, Portstewart Strand and Magilligan Strand, Benone and, of course, Downhill Beach
Close to the coast:
– The Glens of Antrim
– The Dark Hedges
Do you agree with Helen? Are there any hidden gems she's missed? Tell us in the comments below.
Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad's Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland: all for a soggy, sandy sandwich and a quick runaround on a damp beach before returning home on the same day. Strangely, it didn't put her off travelling – quite the reverse.
This year she plans to cycle from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul even though she's not that keen on cycling and hasn't a clue how to fix a puncture. And we'll be following her every step of the way. For more information, visit her website.