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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Canoeing Northern Ireland
Although this isn’t a blog about Arran, it is about a place that is not far away as the seagull flies: Northern Ireland. Ties of culture, tradition and language between Northern Ireland and south-west Scotland go back to the days when all the lands around the North Channel made up the Kingdom of the Dal Riata. Ferries nowadays sail regularly between Cairnryan and Belfast, and also between Troon (just a short drive from Ardrossan)and Larne in summer. 

Last week Nigel and I were lucky enough to get time out to travel to Northern Ireland, thanks to Carol and Alan Haddington looking after the campsite for a few days. Specifically, we wanted to reconnoitre canoe trails which had come to our knowledge through Joe Byrne who stayed at the campsite back in 2012, having sailed over in his large RiB boat from Cushendall on the lovely Antrim coast. We were looking forward to the pleasure of back-to-basics camping again, as well as doing a couple of canoe journeys. Arran gives us plenty of opportunities to sea kayak but not so many to open canoe (canoes are most suited to river and lake travel).

A short journey from Belfast brought us to Kinnego Marina on the southern shores of Lough Neagh (pronounced Nay) which is not only the biggest lough in Northern Ireland but the biggest by area in the British Isles. A 90 mile canoe trail circumnavigates the Lough, with the River Blackwater Trail entering from the south-west and the River Bann Trail exiting in the north. Accounts differ as to whether the legendary Irish hero Finn McCool scooped out the hole now occupied by Lough Neagh in order to throw the earth at Scotland or England but he certainly created an inland freshwater expanse so large that, from Kinnego, you cannot see the edges to the east and west, just the broad mauve silhouettes of the Sperrin mountains to the north. Here, we had a rendez-vous planned: a paddle and a picnic with Joe, his daughters Hannah and Joanna, and Paul the site manager, our guide, who in 26 years at the site has gained an intimate knowledge of the nature and history of the area. Swallows swooped around us in the golden evening sunshine as we nibbled strawberries, and the sound of busy distant tractors haymaking filled the air.
Next day we canoed the lower tree-lined parts of the wide River Bann towards Coleraine and the coast- something humans have done for many thousands of years. The pretty rolling countryside was so vividly green it looked like a lovely painting on which the paint hadn’t yet dried.  A kingfisher darted past us in a flash of electric blue.  Further downstream we had another close encounter with a bird: a mute swan imitating a warship. He puffed up his chest and wings like billowing sails as he slid towards us broadsides. He didn’t look ready to parley so we accelerated our paddling thanks to fear-driven adrenaline. Just when we thought we’d left him  we heard the powerful beat of wings behind Nigel’s shoulders: we were being pursued. It must have looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings 4. 

We sought sanctuary at the next lock where a notice warns not to intimidate swans! We considered our options for getting back to the campsite at Drumaheglis Marina, as we definitely didn’t want a repeat performance, when Nigel got talking to a friendly passer-by called Mervyn, who, on hearing of our predicament, offered us a lift. It turned out to be just one of many small acts of spontaneous kindness from strangers that we experienced during our short stay. On our return to Lochranza when we asked Alan and Carol what they had most enjoyed about the week, they unhesitatingly replied “the people”. It seems that, on both sides of the North Channel, however lovely a place may be, the greatest pleasure in any place is the people in it.

If I’ve whetted your appetite to find out more about Northern Ireland’s canoe trails you can find comprehensive user-friendly information about routes, local facilities, campsites, and access and egress points at: www.canoeni.com/canoe-trails/