07 June 2012
As the 20th day of the London 2012 Torch Relay begins we find ourselves back in Northern Ireland after a brief trip south to Dublin yesterday. And what better way to spend your time after the very early start of the Relay at Newcastle than to take a stroll along Murlough Beach, part of a National Nature Reserve that is only a short distance from Newcastle and Dundrum. This stunning view of golden sand leading up to the Mourne Mountains and the fresh sea air are sure to wake even the sleepiest of Torch Relay enthusiasts after seeing the Torch begins its journey at about 7am. This protected reserve has much to offer visitors tempted to spend the whole day in this varied seaside landscape – from exploring the reserve’s many sand dunes to spotting the area’s abundant species of butterflies and wildflowers.
The landscape of Northern Ireland is famous for its lakes and the hills that surround them. It is in fact home to the largest lake in Ireland and Britain, Lough Neagh, which contains 800 billion gallons of water. The lake is not only a wildlife haven (with everything from migrating birds to wild eels making it their temporary home throughout the year), but also a centre for Irish folklore and Christian heritage. If you don’t get a chance to spot the Olympic Torch as it crosses this huge expanse of water in the afternoon, the local area is worth exploring in the meantime. If you are more of a history buff than a nature enthusiast, you may wish to visit Pogue’s Entry Historical Cottage in Antrim for an insight into a bleaker side of Irish heritage. The Cottage was the childhood home of Alexander Irvine, who became a famous pastor in New York and published a book about his childhood at the Cottage (My Lady of The Chimney Corner, 1913) and the lives of Irish country folk in the years after the Great Famine in 19th century Ireland. Pogue’s Cottage has been preserved as a memorial to Irvine and the tragic past that his writing captured.
Day 20 ends at Moorfields, a town within easy reach of Slemish Mountain, the first Irish home of St Patrick according to legend and a popular pilgrimage point for believers on St Patrick’s Day every year. The views from the top are well worth the 1.5 kilometre round walk, as you can both look out over the Antrim landscape and see the Scottish coast to the east on a clear day.
On Day 21 the Torch makes its way back over the water to Scotland, starting the day at Stranraer on the south west coast of the country. The town has a medieval tower house at its centre, the Castle of St John (also known as the Chapel or Stranraer Castle), standing proudly amongst the high street shops and houses. The Castle has had a varied (and chequered) history since it was built around 1500, having been used as a home, a local court, a military garrison and a prison. It is now open to the public and you can learn about the medieval landowners who built and lived in the castle, the Government troops who used it as their headquarters during the Killing Times in the 1680s, and the criminals and debtors imprisoned in the castle during the 19th century.
As the Olympic Flame makes its way north along the coast towards Alloway it enters the land of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet and lyricist, whose birth date is marked every year by a national celebration on January 25th: Burns Night. To find out more about this world-famous literary icon you can visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum after seeing the Torch travel through Alloway. Near the museum, Burns Cottage and Burns National Heritage Park is Alloway Auld Kirk, a must-see for fans of Robert Burns’ poems. The church has a spooky atmosphere with intricately carved gravestones and the elegant sarcophagi of David Cathcart and Lord Alloway. Another unique feature of the church is a mortsafe – a cast iron shield temporarily buried with a coffin to discourage body-snatchers, who supplied fresh corpses to anatomists.
If you are in need of light relief after these heritage sites of death and tragedy, the Torch’s final stop for the day, Glasgow, has plenty of sights to offer, especially if you are interested in art. A gem of artistic and architectural heritage that is a must-see for fans of modern design and Art Nouveau is House for an Art Lover. Originally designed in 1901 by the famous Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, but never completed, this unique building has been constructed by contemporary artists and crafts people from the designs in the original portfolio. You can spend the afternoon exploring the house, listening to the audio guide as it guides you through room after room of exquisite Art Nouveau features.
For an example of Glasgow’s more grandiose architecture you can take a tour of the Glasgow City Chambers, with its ornate chandeliers, marble staircases and domes covered in mosaics. Overlooking the city’s George Square, it is an impressive symbol of Glasgow’s political strength and historical wealth for more than one hundred years. After a day of discovering Glasgow’s arts and architecture you can join in the evening celebrations as the Torch finishes the day in this vibrant and creative city.
Heading away from Glasgow and the urban environment on Day 22, the Torch will head out into the wilder landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. Before leaving the city behind, it is worth making a detour to the Botanic Gardens and Kibble Palace, a haven of peace and tranquillity that will help ease you back into a slower pace of life and more natural surroundings. The Victorian Kibble Palace is one of the largest glasshouses in Britain, where you can find exotic species of orchids, begonias and ferns from China, South Africa, and South America – another interesting link to the Olympic Nations that will be visiting the UK in the next few months.
The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the UK’s most breath-taking landscapes and historic sites. One of Torch Relay’s most stunning stops is Loch Lomond at Luss. As the Torch travels across this beautiful lake, the visitor has the opportunity to explore its shores in more depth, stopping off at Luss Church for example, whose churchyard offers great views over the lake’s serene waters and the surrounding hills.
As we head deeper into the Highlands area, and the Torch boards the Nevis Range Gondola at Fort William, we have several recommendations for places to visit in the Great Glen area – having designed an exploration game called Discover Explore that allows you to uncover the area’s hidden stories through missions and activities. Just a short drive from Fort William in the foothills of the UK’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, you can uncover the natural sights and sounds of one of Scotland’s most beautiful valleys: Glen Nevis. You can enjoy spotting a variety of wildlife near the trails that lead you through the Glen, or walk up to the Old Nevis Graveyard to discover its moss covered gravestones and trees. Further along the Torch Relay route through the area is the village of Fort Augustus, at the south end of the famous Loch Ness. A village of locks, canals and bridges, it is the perfect spot for an afternoon of leisurely waterside walks or for trying to spot the elusive Loch Ness monster. Or if you need to shelter from the changeable Highland weather, head to the Inverness Museum, where you’ll find displays relating to the area’s local history and traditions, but also more unusual exhibits, such as a stuffed puma called Felicity, who was captured in the Highlands in 1980 and thought to be a local resident’s escaped pet!
If you are travelling with children or as a family group in this area, be sure to check out the Discover Explore website to download daring missions at each of the mentioned locations, and to find other adventurous activities in the Great Glen area.
We move from the Highlands to the Islands on Day 23 of the Torch Relay, starting the day in the Orkney Islands and ending it in the Shetland Islands, at Lerwick. If you are following the Torch to the Shetlands or simply visiting the bustling town of Lerwick this summer you can climb Fort Charlotte for excellent views of the neighbouring island of Bressay and Noss, and to learn more about the fort’s key (but ultimately unsuccessful) role as a way of preventing enemies from using the Bressay Sound in the 17th century.
The Shetland Islands’ relationship with its Scandinavian neighbours, and the Norse influence on local culture, is keenly felt in one of Lerwick’s distinct local features: lodberries, old merchant houses with their own piers. The word ‘lodberry’ comes from the Old Norse hlaðberg, meaning a physical point where boats could be brought alongside for loading or unloading, instead of small ships moving goods between large boats and dry land. One example of a lodberry can be found below the south end of Commercial Street, a jetty with a store and house. The lodberries point to Lerwick’s history as a perfect spot for smuggling, with many barrels, kegs and jars having been found in underground spaces throughout the town.
We hope you have a fun weekend of discovery and exploration along and near the Torch Relay route in Northern Ireland and Scotland. We’ll be back on Monday with more tips for things to see and do as the Torch continues its journey across Scotland.
Post by Susannah, Discovering Places team.
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