Oct 102009

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

10 October 2009

29. Downhill Estate and Benone Strand, Co. Derry

Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Londonderry from 1768-1803, was a remarkably broad-minded man. In that intolerant era of the Penal Laws, the Bishop allowed the local priest to celebrate Mass in the Mussenden Temple, one of the follies he erected around his preposterously extravagant Downhill Estate on the cliffs outside Castlerock. Hervey was also fabulously red-blooded and eccentric, fond of his wine and the ladies, addicted to foreign travel and art collecting, apt to have himself borne around in a palanquin and to drop spaghetti on the heads of pilgrims passing below his balcony in Rome.

Jane and I entered Downhill on a brisk windy morning under the knowing grins of the ounces or mythic lynx-like beasts – superbly restored recently – that guard the estate’s so-called ‘Lion Gate’. Beyond the partly replanted Walled Garden we found the Bishop’s enormous Palace of Downhill in poignant ruin, its grand fireplaces hollow and stark, its windows blank, state rooms carpeted with grass and open to the sky. In the heyday of Downhill this incredible centre of luxury high on the cliffs had an entrance facade flanked by Corinthian pilasters, with a double stair leading to the door. There was a State Dining Room, a State Drawing Room, and a two-storey gallery for the Bishop’s superb art collection, all covered by a magnificent dome. Facade and double stair still stand, but now the interior walls, once beautified with exquisite plasterwork, are sealed with functional Ministry-of-Works concrete, the elaborate mosaics are gone from the chimney breasts, and buttercups and clover have taken the place of Wilton and Axminster. It’s a strange, uncanny and altogether haunting atmosphere in the empty shell of the Palace of Downhill.

Down on the brink of the basalt cliffs beside the domed Mussenden Temple, we looked out on a most sensational view: the sea shallows creaming on seven clear miles of sand that ran west in a gentle curve towards the mouth of Lough Foyle, with the clouded hills of ‘dark Inishowen’ beckoning from far-off Donegal.

That proved a quite irresistible call. Down on the strand we pushed into the wind. Waves hissed on the tideline, sand particles scudded by. Surfers rode the waves like water demons. The black and green rampart of the cliffs was cut vertically by white strings of waterfalls, the falling cascades blown to rags in mid-plummet. All this vigour and movement whipped us onwards to where the preserved sand dunes of Umbra rose between strand and cliff foot. A complete change of tempo here, sheltered among the sandhills, down on our hands and knees among pyramidal orchids of blazing crimson, yellow kidney vetch, lady’s bedstraw sacred to the Virgin Mary, and tall spikes of common spotted orchids of such a seductive milky pink and blue it was all I could do not to take a surreptitious lick at them.

Lying prone in the dunes, looking back through a screen of marram grass and clovers, we saw the dark pepperpot shape of the temple on the brink of Downhill cliff. Had the bold Bishop of Londonderry kept a mistress in there, as stories say? I rather hoped he had, and his palanquin and spaghetti-tureen, too.

Sand yachts were scudding along Benone Strand, chased by the most diminutive of tiddly tiny terriers. The Bishop of Londonderry in his red and raging guise could have swallowed the puppy with one gulp. In another mood he might have made it a curate, or given it the run of the palace Axminsters. What a splendid fellow, for those on the right side of him.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 04; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at www.walkni.com

Rail/bus (integrated website – www.nirailways.co.uk): Rail to Castlerock (half a mile); Ulsterbus service 134
Road: Downhill Estate is on A2 between Castlerock and Downhill Strand

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Lion Gate car park (OS of NI ref C 757357), explore the Walled Garden, then Downhill Palace ruin, then Mussenden Temple (758362). Return anti-clockwise along the cliff. From Lion Gate cross A2 (take care!); turn right downhill beside the road along pavement. There’s a short stretch with no pavement before you reach the foot of the hill. Turn right under the railway, then left along Downhill Strand. After 1¼ miles, where a river leaves the dunes, look left for Ulster Wildlife Trust’s Umbra Dunes notice (732359). Follow the fence through dunes, looking over into Umbra Dunes Reserve, before descending onto Benone Strand. Continue to Benone (717362 – lavatories, Visitor Centre, sometimes ice cream vans). Return along the beach and A2 to Lion gate car park.

LENGTH: 6 miles: allow 2-3 hours


CONDITIONS: Good paths, firm sands

• the strange ruins of Downhill Palace
• Mussenden Temple on the cliff edge
• flowery delights of Umbra Dunes

REFRESHMENTS: Pretty Crafty Studio (signed across A2 from Lion Gate) is a great place for tea and cakes; or take a picnic on the beach.

ACCOMMODATION: Downhill Hostel (028-7084-9077; www.downhillhostel.com) at foot of hill – dormitory (from £12) or private (from £35 dble, £60 for 4 adults). The whole hostel can be booked by one group, if required.

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.walkni.com; www.discoverireland.ie/walking

NATIONAL TRAILS DAY 2009: Sunday 4 October (www.nationaltrailsday.ie)

INFORMATION: Downhill (NT): 028-2073-1582; www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Umbra Dunes (Ulster Wildlife Trust):

Tourist Office: Railway Road, Coleraine (028-7034-4723); www.discovernorthernireland.com)


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