We’ve been having an unsettled week here in Northern Ireland. The house we booked for December turned out to have an intractable internet problem so we’ve been living hotel rooms for a week. It’s not an ideal situation given the new “70% more infectious” strain of Covid and mind-boggling Christmas crowds. But, after months of practice, we’ve developed a reasonable system: huddle in the room as much as possible, exercise on little-used roads, shop hurriedly at off-peak hours, wash hands regularly, and hope for the best.
The first hotel we tried was in Newtownards (rhymes with ‘cute canards’), a small city about 20 km east of Belfast. The town is a dank collection of brown-brick and pebble-dash houses, spiky churches, thrift stores and bookmakers. It smells of coal smoke and God’s disapproval. Looming over it all is Scrabo Tower, a Victorian folly that looks like a good place to keep flying monkeys. Built to commemorate Carles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, who owned land in the area, it is so distinctive that it is commonly used as a symbolic image of Newtownards.
Our hotel was strategically placed between a large shopping center and the hospital, so you could contract the disease and have it diagnosed in a few hours. I’m only half joking. There were things I saw that made my hair stand on end. Next door, for example, was a popular restaurant where locals were hastening to have their festive gatherings before the next lockdown on December 26. In the nearby supermarket, a large number of customers weren’t wearing masks. One of these was an elderly lady who pointedly hugged a man who was also in bare face. They chuckled and patted each other on the back in a congratulatory manner. In a gas station a couple of blocks away neither of the attendants were wearing masks and none of the customers bothered.
All of this baffling laissez faire was setting our nerves on edge. To top it all off, the hotel’s internet connection was terrible, so it seems we’d taken a big risk for no reason. I decided to burn off the guilt and stress with a run in the countryside.
Newtownards’ main street is called Regent Street. I put my mask on and headed past a handsome church that was crowded with keening gulls, a hospital’s ‘covid hub’, a row of closed-up shops, the town hall and a few banks and shops. On this particular day there was a Christmas market in the town square. OK, it was outdoors but it still increased the pressure in my skull. To be honest, though, with the scarcity of light and warmth at this time of year I can see why people cling so rabidly to the thought of it.
At the end of Regent Street, when traffic had thinned, I took off my mask and trotted right past a bunch of brown-brick apartment blocks. These were decorated with posters. One was thanking the NHS, with the blue sky and rainbow motif. Another was declaring that the area was the jurisdiction of the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist paramilitary group proscribed as a terrorist organization in 1992.
Nearby was a pub sporting the slogan #saveourpubs, an initiative urging the UK government to provide more support to the hospitality industry that has been brought to its knees in the last year.
Turning right and then left, I found myself on the road skirting the north-eastern shore of Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the United Kingdom. At the time, the tide was out. There was still plenty of birdlife, though. I couldn’t see any curlews but there were plenty of turnstones, brent geese and oystercatchers.
On the landward side there were a few little clusters of houses. I saw some sheep of a variety I’d not seen before. John, who sees sheep simply as sheep, says I’m excessively sheep conscious being from New Zealand but they looked really different to me. After some research, I have concluded they are Scottish Blackface Sheep, a hardy and pretty breed. One tiny filling station offered an interesting assortment of temptations: Crisps, Sweets, Ices, all brands of TYRES and Dunbar standard POTATOES. There was also a disused malting factory. This area, the Ards, was known for its malting barley and used to supply Guinness and Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills Distillery Old Bushmills Distillery – Wikipedia is still a popular tourist destination).
Rounding a bend, I noticed parachutes in the sky and realized that several people were parasurfing in the lough. The cold weather doesn’t seem to stop the watersports around here.
At this point I was getting near Mt. Stewart, a nineteenth-century house and garden with an interesting history. It was formed by the Stewart family whose ancestor had won land for his participation in the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-91). Late in the eighteenth century Alexander Stewart (1699-1781) acquired a huge fortune from his cousin and brother-in-law Robert Cowan, who’d amassed it during his term as Governor of Bombay. Thanks to these riches, Alexander bought up a lot of land and used some of the loot to build a big house near Newtownards that he called first Mount Pleasant, then Mount Stewart.
Alexander’s son Robert became a Member of Parliament and was admitted into the peerage, eventually becoming the first Marchess of Londonderry.
Robert’s eldest son (also named Robert) was later to become infamous as Viscount Castlereagh. In the 1790s, when he was busy putting down the Irish rebellion, Robert Jr. got mad at one Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey, author of a satire titled Billy Bluff and ‘Squire Firebrand, or, A Sample of the Times that poked fun at the Irish aristocracy. Robert Stewart senior occasionally appeared as a character called Lord Mount-Mumble. In 1797, after the French fleet was prevented from landing in Ireland to help drive the British out of Ireland, Reverend Porter delivered a sermon that argued only the British government, not the Irish people had been threatened by the French invasion: “it is in consequence of our connexion with England–some people call this connexion subjection.” Porter was finally arrested for robbing a postboy carrying an official military dispatch. His wife walked with her seven children in the pouring rain to Mount Stewart to plead for clemency. This was denied. Porter was hanged in Greyabbey, suspended from a temporary scaffold set up outside his own church, in full ecclesiastical dress. Porter’s son, who was 12 years old at the time, said that Lord Londonderry had ordered all his tenants to attend the hanging, as a lesson to them all.
Castlereagh had a hand in some of the major events of the early nineteenth century. He lobbied for the Act of Union (1801), which brought Ireland under direct control of Westminster and squashed the promise of Catholic emancipation; he was one of the architects of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15); he and an apologist for the infamous Peterloo Massacre (1819), in which cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful people who had gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation. And he was charged with supporting the Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 , whose sole aim was to help the king to divorce his detested wife Queen Caroline. The public vastly preferred Caroline, considering the king a libertine and horribly mean. After a trial in which Caroline was publicly humiliated, she was finally stripped of her title but the public wasn’t happy about it.
At the age of 57, Castlereagh had some kind of breakdown and committed suicide by cutting his own throat. Lord Byron wrote a memorable eulogy:
Oh, Castlereagh! Thou art a patriot now; Cato died for his country, so didst thou: He perished rather than see Rome enslaved, Thou cuttest thy throat that England might be saved! So Castlereagh has cut his throat! - the worst of this is, that his own was not the first. So he has cut his throat at last! He? Who? The man who cut his country's long ago.
Following the death of the childless Castlereagh, Mount Stewart passed to Charles William Stewart, 1st Baron Stewart, for whom the abovementioned Scrabo Tower was built. His second wife was the fantastically wealthy heiress Frances Vane, whose father stipulated in his last will and testament that anyone who married his daughter should take her surname. He obliged and became Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The owner of several coalmines, he led opposition to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which wanted to raise the age of child laborers to ten:
“With respect to the age at which males should be admitted into mines, the members of this association have unanimously agreed to fix it at eight years… In the thin coal mines it is more especially requisite that boys, varying in age from eight to fourteen, should be employed; as the underground roads could not be made of sufficient height for taller persons without incurring an outlay so great as to render the working of such mines unprofitable”
In 1845, at the height of the Irish Famine, he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom. Many Irish landowners were moved to mitigate the suffering of their tenants; he and his wife donated exactly £30 to the local relief fund. At about the same time, they spent £150,000 renovating Mount Stewart.
I’d hoped to be able to jog up to the top to get a picture of the view of Mount Stewart, which is now managed by the National Trust. Unfortunately, the footpath stopped and so did I, reluctant to run on the busy road. Instead, I turned around and got another view of the tower dedicated to Charles, a real blot on the landscape.