by Lois Linkens
Northern Ireland will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve visited more times than I can remember on annual family visits and it really does feel like home.
But it’s only since my last visit that I have begun to see more than the places I visit every year, and discover Northern Ireland all over again.
On an average family holiday, we would go to Belfast, the capital city on the Eastern coast. But in an exciting new turn of events, this year we drove right across the country to Enniskillen, which is in the South West of NI.
Enniskillen is part of County Fermenagh, which shares a border with Southern Ireland. So for me it felt pretty strange to be that far from familiarity.
I’ll tell you now, no Linkens family trip is complete without a few visits to National Trust properties. Blame my mum, not me. On our first day, we visited a property called Crom. Here, you could hire out a boat (maximum five people but we got away with six plus a dog, rebellious), and take it down Upper Lough Erne to a town called Belturbet, which sits right on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland. We all got very excited that we had manage to sneak into Southern Ireland without a passport.
After Crom we visited Castle Coole, where there is an 18th-century mansion and a park, and then Florence Court, which has an 18th-century house and an estate. Both properties were fairly similar but very beautiful and had easy woodland walks for families which aren’t too challenging for those who just want a short ramble.
A highlight of our trip was our visit to the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. In groups, you can take a guided tour, and find out some information about the history of the caves and the geography behind the various rock formations. It is a very popular tourist spot, and the highlight for me was seeing what they called their ‘City of Atlantis.’ Here, the stalactites on the ceiling are reflected in the water surrounding the walkway, which is so still it looks as though there are also stalagmites coming up from the ground – and it does seem to resemble an underwater city.
We spent a week back in Belfast at the end of our time in Ireland, which I was much looking forward to until I was told that we were going to be climbing a mountain. Not just any mountain, but the tallest peak in Northern Ireland, Slieve Donard. It is 850 metres above sea level (that’s about a tenth of the height of Everest). Now, I could have refused to go. My sister did, and that was fine. Nobody asked me to go. But a stupid voice inside my head kept saying, “imagine how cool it’ll be to say you’ve climbed a mountain”. Screw you, determination.
So I did it. But I won’t lie to you. Climbing that mountain was possibly one of the hardest and worst things I’ve ever done. Yes, I cried, okay? You don’t have to keep going on about it.
The first third of the climb is completely fine, completely manageable. You follow a lovely forest path, passing streams on your way. When you come out of the trees, there is a rocky path up to the second third, or possibly your second-worst nightmare. That part is tricky. That’s where I had my first breakdown. It’s a steep climb up to the Mourne Wall, which was built in the 20th century and runs down the sides of the mountain. But it’s the final third that is truly horrific. You follow the Mourne Wall up to the peak, that is if you don’t die in the process.
But honestly, the view was worth it. From the top of the mountain, the whole of Northern Ireland is laid out before you. You can stand on a pile of stones and declare yourself the highest person in Northern Ireland, if you want to. Would I do it again? Most definitely not. But will I be telling each and every person I meet that I have climbed the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland? Of course I will.