First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Londonderry from 1768-1803, was a remarkably broad-minded man. In that intolerant era of Penal Laws against Catholics, 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 that guard the estate’s so-called ‘Lion Gate’. Beyond lay 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 hope he had, and his palanquin and spaghetti-tureen, too.
Start & finish: Lion Gate car park, Downhill Estate, Castlerock BT51 4RP (OS of NI ref C 757357)
Getting there (www.nirailways.co.uk): rail to Castlerock (½ mile), Ulsterbus service 134. Road: On A2 between Castlerock and Downhill Strand
Walk (6 miles, easy grade, OS of NI Discoverer 04): From Lion Gate car park explore Walled Garden, then Downhill Palace ruin, then Mussenden Temple (758362). Return anti-clockwise along cliff. From Lion Gate cross A2 (take care!); right downhill beside road on pavement. Short stretch with no pavement leads to foot of hill. Right under railway; left along Downhill Strand. After 1 ¼ miles, where river leaves dunes, look left for Ulster Wildlife Trust’s Umbra Dunes notice (732359). Follow fence through dunes to descend on Benone Strand. Continue to Benone (717362 – lavatories, Visitor Centre, sometimes ice cream vans). Return along beach and A2 to Lion gate car park.
NB – Online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Pretty Crafty Studio (signed across A2 from Lion Gate) for a cuppa and cakes
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). Whole hostel bookable.
Downhill (NT): 028-2073-1582; www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Coleraine TIC: 028-7034-4723; www.discovernorthernireland.com