Travel: Derry – a town I, and tourists from all over the world, now love so well
After a 16-year absence, Roisin Bonner returns to see if all the new-found fuss about her home town Derry is deserved
AS THE basis for 2018’s first hit television sitcom, Derry – a city I know well, having grown up on its outskirts – has never been so on trend. And although I enjoyed my formative years there, it could be difficult – Erin Quinn, the main character of Derry Girls, accurately describes it a place where “everybody knows everybody knows everything about everybody”.
I made my break for freedom 16 years ago and I can count the number of times I have been back to my home town since. However, when an invitation for a journalist to sample the 'tourist offering' of the Walled City recently arrived at The Irish News, I decided to take the opportunity to return and see what, if anything, had changed.
Prior to arrival in Derry itself, our itinerary included a morning stop-over at Beech Hill Country House in Ardmore, just outside the city (beech-hill.com). This lovely hotel has attracted guests including Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Ed Sheeran, Will Farrell and Jude Law, to mention but a few distinguished guests, pictures of whom adorn its walls.
We were greeted by proprietor Patsy O’Hara and manager Conor Donnelly, who provided the warmest of welcomes in front of a roaring fire, before we indulged in a taster menu created from some of the finest home-grown ingredients, and a tipple or two (it was noon somewhere, right?).
From there it was on to the city and check-in at the Bishop’s Gate Hotel (bishopsgatehotelderry.com). The building, which is nestled within the city’s walls, was previously home to the Northern Counties Club, formed by local gentry who had served during the Crimean War (Winston Churchill was among the club’s visitors), and the hotel has maintained much of the original character from this time.
Upon entering my clean, contemporary room I discovered a delicious cake and personalised welcome note, but it was the bathroom that really won me over. Almost the size of the room again, it contained a massive shower that would persuade even the most fervent bath soaker to go vertical. Pure luxury.
However, before I had a chance to enjoy it, it was time for a tour from the historic walls.
City Walking Tours (derrycitytours.com) was established by the late Martin ‘Mr Derry’ McCrossan. Upon revealing his plans for a tour company more than 20 years ago, he was told it would never be a success, with the words: “The walls are a noose around our necks; tourists will never come to Derry.”
His response? “From a noose to a necklace.”
Of course, his vision has been vindicated, the number of visitors to the city having grown steadily since.
Now, while an expert tour of the town-I’m-supposed-to-love-so-well was an exciting prospect, I must confess to having had some nerves beforehand. You see, what I hadn’t told anyone was that my sister is a guide with this very company, so I was faced with the prospect of spending an hour walking around my home town chatting with her.
As much as I love my sister, I wasn’t sure this would fly with the editor.
Thankfully (though I really do love her, honestly), we were met by the truly inimitable Garvin Kerr. To say this man is passionate about his city is an understatement, and what we experienced was less tour, more one-man comedy performance. Along with historical facts, there were jokes, songs, stories from the city, stories from Garvin’s youth and stories from his mother-in-law’s youth (and her fancy for American soldiers). It was worth the trip for this alone.
From here the mood changed as we made our way to the Museum of Free Derry (museumoffreederry.org) via the famous Bogside murals. A sign outside the building reads: "Civil Rights to Bloody Sunday – The People’s Story". The museum really is the people’s story, being run and staffed entirely by relatives of those killed by British soldiers on January 30 1972.
Our guide for the multi-media experience was John Kelly, whose teenage brother Michael was murdered as he sheltered from gunfire at a rubble barricade on Rossville Street. As John met us in the foyer he pointed to the spot we had just walked over at the front door where his brother lay dying.
The museum uses images and sounds to totally immerse the visitor in the human tragedy of Bloody Sunday in a way books and television reports can’t. While it couldn’t be described as an enjoyable experience, it is more than worth a visit.
After this it was a quick dinner at the Craft Village (derrycraftvillage.com). This reconstruction of an 18th century Irish street and square, complete with thatched cottage, is a hidden cultural oasis in the city centre.
We dined at Harry’s, where delicious food was served by very attentive staff. The only complaint was that while the ladies of the party were handed gin lists, the men were asked what beer they would like. I kept my inner suffragette quiet by chomping on a bread stick and ordered a gender-neutral vino.
The rest of the night was literally danced away with tiny troubadour Neil Hannon and his Divine Comedy bandmates at the Millennium Forum (millenniumforum.co.uk). While it’s considered the north west’s leading entertainment venue, a design flaw was discovered by Mr Hannon.
Wanting to get up close with his audience during one ditty, he jumped off the stage, only to discover there was no way back up on to it. This resulted in the comic image of him being given a fireman’s lift by a particularly large fireman from the crowd.
It was an early start the next morning as we enjoyed a quick trip to the Apprentice Boys Siege Museum (thesiegemuseum.org). This excursion was actually recommended by staff at Free Derry – the two sites make a point of actively promoting each other, believing all visitors to the city should leave with a truly balanced account of its history.
The exhibit, conveniently situated across the road from our hotel, is dedicated to the story of the Apprentice Boys and the Derry siege, which took place from 1688 to 1689 and in which thousands are thought to have died.
Audio visuals, touch screens and artefacts made for an informative experience; however, our host Billy Moore proved an invaluable source of knowledge. He was friendly, passionate about his subject and endlessly patient in the face of a barrage of questions.
As we prepared to leave the city, there was just one stop left, and it was a perfect way to end the trip.
Home baker Melanie Breslin and her butcher husband Ciaran established their Primrose food business in late 2011 (primrose-ni.com). Since then their company has expanded across several premises. In their bistro we were treated to a selection of savoury and sweet treats so fresh they could almost be described as guilt free. I could happily have stayed until the staff were forced to roll my expanding person out the door but, alas, it was time to return to the big smoke of Belfast.
Trundling back over the Glenshane Pass I thought of how my once claustrophobic home town had become a fun, vibrant tourist destination, full of top-class food (as evidenced in it being shortlisted in Foodie Destinations Ireland), culture, history and the kind of craic that forms the basis of a hit sitcom (honestly, the storylines are more factual than anyone would believe).
Garvin articulated my newfound feelings about the city best: “The first question I always get asked by tourists is what on Earth is this place called,” he told us at the start of our walk around the walls.
“Well,” he said, “it’s called Derry, Londonderry, Doire, Doire Colmcille, the Maiden City, the Walled City, Stroke City… but the people from the place will only ever call it one thing – LegenDerry!”
:: For more see discovernorthernireland.com