West of Portrush the A2 continues to hug the coastline as it traverses the northern part of County Derry, taking in marvellous beaches all the way from Portstewart, near which it crosses the River Bann, to Magilligan Point. On the way there are impressive seascapes visible from the clifftop Mussenden Temple and stunning views from the land around Mount Binevenagh. The land becomes drabber as the road nears the small manufacturing town of Limavady, which retains a few remnants of Georgian times.
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Derry’s largest coastal resort, PORTSTEWART, like its near neighbour Portrush, is full of Victorian boarding houses. Of the two, Portstewart is decidedly more sedate and has always had more airs and graces: the train station is said to have been built a mile out of town to stop hoi polloi from coming. In terms of sheer location, though, Portstewart wins hands down. Just west of the town is Portstewart Strand, a long sand beach firm enough to drive on – which the locals delight in doing – with some of the best surfing in the country. It’s a grand place, too, if you hit fine weather and feel like getting out your bucket and spade. The best way to take the sea air is the bracing cliffside walk, which runs between the beach and the town, passing battlements and an imposing Gothic mansion, now a Dominican college.
Downhill Palace and Mussenden Temple
Downhill Palace and Mussenden Temple
A mile west of the coastal resort of Castlerock, a pair of huge, ornate gates alongside the A2 mark the main entrance to the ruins of Downhill Palace, built in the 1780s by Frederick Augustus Hervey, Anglican Bishop of Derry and fourth Earl of Bristol. Hervey was an enthusiastic grand traveller (all the many Hotel Bristols throughout Europe are named after him), and was also an art collector and great sportsman, once organizing a pre-prandial race between Anglican and Presbyterian clergy along the local strand. His palace, accessed through pleasant gardens, was last occupied by US troops, billeted here during World War II, and was dismantled on their departure.
Across fields at the back of the palace is the diminutive Mussenden Temple, which clings precariously to the eroding cliff-edge and offers stunning sea views. Its classic domed rotunda was apparently modelled on the Temple of Vesta in Rome and was built by Hervey in honour of his cousin Mrs Frideswide Mussenden, who died aged 22 before it was completed, after which it was used as a summer library. Later, with characteristic generosity and a fairly startling lack of prejudice, Hervey allowed a weekly Mass to be celebrated in the temple, as there was no local Catholic church. The inscription on the temple frieze translates rather smugly as: “It is agreeable to watch, from land, someone else involved in a great struggle while winds whip up the waves out at sea.”
Just west from here the A2 curves steeply downwards to reach the appositely named DOWNHILL hamlet, on the edge of the hugely long beach. From here it’s possible to take the Bishop’s Road (constructed at Hervey’s bidding) southwards to reach Mount Binevenagh and its fabulous viewpoints. The land around the mountain is now a conservation park, dedicated to the preservation of birds of prey, in particular falcons and kestrels.
The lyrics for the quintessential “Oirish” ballad Danny Boy were actually composed by an English lawyer, Fred E. Weatherley, in 1912 and, a year later, fitted to The Londonderry Air, a tune collected by Jane Ross, a resident of 51 Main Street, Limavady, from a travelling fiddler in 1851. The song achieved renown in Ireland when recorded in the 1930s by Margaret Burke-Sheridan and has since seen many other tear-jerking renditions (Sinéad O’Connor recorded an idiosyncratically spine-tingling version); it still remains endearingly popular with dewy-eyed expats and Irish-Americans. Limavady holds the annual Danny Boy festival over the first weekend in May (wwww.dannyboyfestival.com), featuring a variety of music.