Life

Tony Bailie's Take on Nature: In my father's footsteps, along the Quoile, at Ballyhornan and Struell Wells

Struell Wells, close to Downpatrick

THE Atlantic Ocean crashing into the Irish Sea off the Co Derry coast creates spectacular tidal patterns with huge troughs and hummocks constantly rising and falling into frothing waves.

Plunging into those waters from the beach at Downhill was an exhilarating childhood experience as the churning, freezing water enveloped you, sucking the air out of your body, the waves knocking you flying.

Even in the summer months the sea off the Irish coast never really warms up and now as an adult I will stand splashing myself for 10 minutes, trying to acclimatise, before allowing the water to immerse me.

But as a child it was straight in and, while my memory has probably been distorted over the decades, it seemed to be something we did at all times of the year, including winter.

Childhood now seems as if it was filled with journeys off along the coast for open-sea swims, cliff-top rambles, poking through rock pools and plunging into forests along the Co Derry and Antrim coasts, close to Coleraine where I grew up.

The instigator of these adventures was my dad, Hubert. He was a native of Newcastle and so we regularly travelled back to Co Down where we spent a lot of time making forays into Tollymore Forest, walks along the Shimna River, up through Donard Forest and into the Mourne Mountains, as well as hikes on the beach and fishing for mackerel off the harbour.

He knew the landscape intimately and was always seeking out some secret coastal inlet or trying to rediscover an unused forest path that took us out on to the side of the mountains, high above Newcastle.

His love of nature was not intellectual – he was not someone who could name an obscure bird he had seen, identify wildflowers and shrubs or some subspecies of butterfly or moth – it was simple and instinctive, a pleasure of being in the outdoors, taking things for what they were and not having to necessarily know what they were called.

When it came to berries and wildflowers, however, he knew which ones to pick, along with his family of young foragers, gathering blackberries, hawthorn berries, elderberries and even nettles to make wine at home.

A simple walk into a forest became a jungle adventure and trees were objects to be climbed, low-slung boughs to be hung from or swung on like Tarzan. Huts were made from fallen branches and covered with twigs and leaves, frogs and frogspawn gathered in jars to be watched hatching into tadpoles at home before being released again, and wounded birds occasionally rescued and brought back to be fed – none of them ever seeming to survive.

In more recent years our roles reversed, and it was me who took him out for drives to wild places close to Downpatrick where he and my mum lived. With his dog Cara, we walked along the beaches at Ballyhornan, Tyrella and the rocky shore at St John’s Point.

The River Quoile also became a regular destination, stopping to watch the herons fishing on the opposite bank, listen to the sound of woodpeckers and on a couple of occasions seeing otters splashing in the water.

As Hubert got older his mobility became more limited and we had to seek out less-challenging walks, but ones which he still seemed to relish, sighing with satisfaction when we got back to my car.

The path along the shore at Lough Money, close to Downpatrick, was a recent discovery, but his favourite walk was at Struell Wells where early in the morning Cara could run free as he walked at his own pace.

We waked many paths together over the years, our last one at the end of February to Struell Wells.

Tá Hubert imithe ar shlí na fírinne an tseachtain seo caite. (January 16 1938 – April 3 2020).

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