For the past few weeks we’ve been doing a lot of walking around the town of Bangor (N.I.) and its attendant bays. One of our favorite routes is the ‘Coastal Path’, a trail that extends along County Down’s scenic shore. Today John and I took a final walk along it before we move to another town tomorrow.
We started from Bangor and headed to the marina. The square outside the marina and a promenade are something like the equivalent of an Italian piazza. There is a big Christmas tree set up there (firmly anchored with ropes to fend off the sea wind), a clock tower and plenty of benches. It’s a popular place for people to walk, friends sipping takeaway coffee and chatting or mothers pushing strollers or couples walking their dog. There isn’t a lot of boating activity at the moment, most of the boats are sitting quietly in their docks.
Beyond the marina is a a children’s amusement ground called Pickie Funpark. It’s been closed until today, its giant swan-shaped paddleboats lined up neatly, waiting, looking on as giant local gulls used the pond as a bird bath.
Around the corner from that is Skipping Stone Beach. This is a sheltered area popular with swimmers, even now (bear in mind that it’s mid-December and that we are on the 54th parallel north, the same latitude as Quebec and Sakhalin).
At the first bend in the path, the landscape becomes a bit wilder. We stopped to look at a plaque sponsored by the local Rotary Club that showed the direction and distance of landmarks such as the Mull of Kintyre, Carrickfergus Castle and Belfast.
Down below us on the rocks and on the sea itself, we saw a number of birds–eiders, gulls, oyster catchers and crows. In the last few weeks we’ve also seen guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, turnstones and cormorants. In the fields nearby there are pheasants, Irish magpies and wagtails. Locals tell us that the local otter population is doing exceptionally well this year, though the bad thing about that is that they eat tern eggs, so the local tern colony isn’t doing so well. Today we were lucky to see three new kinds of birds: a yellow wagtail, a dunlin and a vagrant ring-necked duck (vagrant because these are native to the Americas but occasionally wander over here).
There was also a lot of shipping interest. Every day we see the Stena line ferry, a handsome white boat that crosses over from Scotland to Belfast. There were also two or three container ships waiting to get to Belfast Lough. And closer to home there was a little sailing ship and the lobster boat that does the daily rounds dropping off and picking up traps.
Down the hill, a noticeboard told us we were in Smelt Mill Bay, named for an old lead smeltmill whose powerful bellows were powered by a big waterwheel. Understandably perhaps, there was very little mention of the mill and much more about Saint Columbanus, an impressive monk who lived in the sixth century. He is the first person in literature to have described himself as being Irish. In those days, Bangor Abbey was considered the Light of the World and produced many missionaries including Columbanus. In 590, when the monk was about 40, he set out to sea in a currach with 12 monks intent on travelling to the continent and spreading his monastic light over there. He and his friends established several monasteries in France. Columbanus eventually expired in a monastery in Bobbio, Italy, where the abbey still stands.
A little way along is one of the two new wastewater pumping stations under construction. Along the walls around the construction site, a group called Seaside Revival has put up boards that illuminate aspects of local history with captioned photographs.
In the real world, despite of the lead-smelting history and the not-yet-completed wastewater pumping station, there were a few of hardy swimmers splashing about in the water with their day-glo buoyancy devices, the sound of their chatter and laughter filling the bay.
Further along, everything got wild again. The rocks were covered with grass that John named ‘Viking grass’ because it reminded him of photographs of old Viking settlements in Labrador, Canada.
Further along is Bangor Castle, which is now used as the offices for the local council. It looks like more of a mansion than a castle. Like a lot of places in Northern Ireland, it would make a great setting for a murder mystery.
Last week I was lucky to catch a spectacular sunset in this spot, when the clouds went bright pink. I’m convinced that the intensity of the color was directly related to the coldness of the day. Just as the sun was setting, about 300 crows started croaking and flying around. They then went to roost on some nearby trees, almost one per twig. As they settled down they made a different sound, squeakier and softer as if they were saying goodnight to one another.
Something about the cold air and sea wind was tiring and a warm house seemed even more beckoning than usual. So we turned around and retraced our steps, spurred on by dreams of lunch.