Achill island

Many years ago, as an undergraduate student at Queens’ University, Belfast I started a bit of an obsession with islands.   It probably was fuelled by Prof Steve Royle who raised my interest in the lives of far-flung places and opened my eyes to the vast array of islands that surround the Irish coast.   In particular, there was one lecture where he talked about the history and life on the Blasket islands.  This stayed with me for many years and eventually (about 11 years later) on a holiday with my family down the west coast of Ireland – I finally managed to visit that place that had fascinated me so much.

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That same year (in 2005), we had trailed my mum and dad’s caravan down to stay for a week in Castlebar and then for a week down in Killarney.   Even with two young kids in the back seat (aged about 1 and 4 respectively) – I was keen to explore some of the less accessible areas of the coastline.   As a Belfast-born self-confessed townie, who has lived and worked in fairly rural areas for most of my life – for some reason the coast and islands in particular have become a particular interest.   I love the sea.  I don’t really like being on it, or in it.  But, I do like looking at it.   I like the roar of the waves; the crash of the pebbles being pulled along a beach; the splash of spray in the air; the wind as it whips around you and does its best to push you backwards.

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We are just back from a short break over half term where we stayed in a cottage close to a place that I wanted to explore more – Achill island.

In 2005, we spent a few hours doing a quick tour to the island but with young kids in tow – it was not long before we needed to hit a play park or beach.   We found the fascinating Slievemore abandoned village and spent time wandering through some of the ancient houses and streets.   I took a load of pictures that were quickly knitted into a oft-used PowerPoint presentation to highlight the impact of overpopulation and the impact of the Irish famine.

This time, I had a bit more time to be able to explore the island and learn more about life in this westerly haven.   Achill is not easy to get to – but then, what island actually is?   It is found in county Mayo and travellers have to keep going as far west as they can – through Castlebar and Newport and then eventually to the small settlement of Mulranny (or Mallaranny on all the maps and roadsigns).   It is an island in the sense that it is completely surrounded with water – but, it has the luxury of being accessible by road bridge – which makes things a lot more straight forward.

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The island is the largest Irish island and currently is home to around 2,500 people.   Sometimes, islands feel like you are stepping back in time.  To more simple times – yes, but not necessarily easier times as life would have been harsh.  Survival was not a sure thing.   Family and depending on neighbours and friends was paramount – you needed to feel and be part of a bigger community.  Life out here on the fringes of Ireland (and of continental Europe) was never easy.   People were quite literally, hanging on by their finger nails.   Life was hard.  Winters were brutal.   Income from farming/fishing/seaweed harvesting was challenging.   In many ways – its not much different today.   The recent COVID epidemic has impacted tourism and many attractions/ hotels/pubs have closed their doors for the last time as they were unable to make it through those leanest of years.

Achill is an island for people who like to explore.  It is peppered with coves, sandy beaches, small harbours with scattered currachs or naomhogs, towering cliffs and an ever-changing scenery.   It feels busier than you might expect.   There are numerous groups of people cycling from one place of interest to the next.  Yet, it also feels empty.   Devoid of people.  Isolated.  Far from ‘civilisation’.  It has few shops and those that it does have keep the strangest hours.   A cafe/bar/ restaurant will be open one day and closed the next.   You always need a backup plan.   There is evidence of people and past attempts at harnessing new sources of income.  Empty guest houses and hotels.  Overgrown drives and derelict buildings that look lost.   I don’t think I have even seen as many run down modern and ancient buildings in my life.   Yes, the ruins of buildings from nearly 200 years ago and the times of famine and emigration are rife.  But, so too is the familiar story of recent emigration – where buildings are left to fend for themselves as owners flee towards better prospects.   Island life continues to be a life built on the edge.   Even with modern communications (wifi and roads), these places still feel like they are on the edge of the world.

 

Top 5 things to do on Achill Island 

5:  Drive round the southern part of the island 

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Also known as the Lub Moll Rothair Acla 1 – this road takes you round some of the more remote parts of the island past some stunning scenery and cliffs, harbours, ancient castles and with views of the smaller Acaill Bheag island.

4:  The Amethyst Bar/Restaurant 

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A lovely, modernised bar and restaurant in the centre of Keel which boasts magnificent views and great food.

3:  Keem Bay beach 

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This sheltered beach is tucked underneath the heights of Croaghaun and alongside Moyteoge Head.

2:  An Mhaoilinn viewpoint 

Its not for the faint-hearted – its a road up the side of a mountain but the view from the top is worth it in the end.

1:  Slievemore abandoned village 

It contains 137 ruined building that remind us of the pressure on land and resources before the famine in 1845-51.  Its a remnant of community life, bathed in poverty where people had to work hard just to survive.

 

 

References

https://whatisarchaeo.wixsite.com/whatisarchaeology/slievemore-village

Top 5 favourite places – No 1: Solheimajokull, Iceland

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View of the Fulikaekur river valley with Glacier behind (2009) 

In 2009 I organised a special field trip for a group of Geography pupils at my school that would in many ways change my life. I advertised it to the students as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ and little did I know the impact that it would have on my life (as well as some of the students).  

That trip introduced me to the absolute joy that is Iceland.   We visited all of the main sites that you see on a 3 day trip to the country – the Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik, Hellisheidi power station, Geysir, Gulfoss, Thingvellir National Park, the Sejlandafoss and Skogar waterfalls, Reeynishverdi, Vik and Dyrholaey.  But, there was one place that stood out and made a big and long lasting impact – the glacier at Solheimajokull.  

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Solheimajokull is a glacier that happens to be one of the outlets from the Myrdalsjokull icecap in Southern Iceland.  It is an 8km long valley glacier that has been gradually retreating since the end of the 19th century.  Scientists reckon it has been retreating at a rate of about 100m/year but that has been accelerating slightly recently.  The river that eventually flows from the base of the glacier is called the Fulikaekur (or foul-smelling stream) and sometimes can smell of hydrogen sulphide.  The source of the glacier begins high up on the Katla volcanic crater. 

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On first time I visited, in 2009, the bus driver took us ‘off road’ and down the most bumpy and pot-filled excuse for a track.  Eventually we came to stop beside a group of pumped up land rovers with massive wheels.  We walked up over a bluff to gaze down upon the foot of the glacier. 

I was stunned by the scale of the place.  Even though my brain knew this was just one tiny sliver of a glacial outflow, I knew that this was one small part of a massive glacial system.   We ventured along the snout of the glacier and carefully picked over the shapes of the ice.  There was not much a glacial lagoon at this time and we could jump up from the sediment onto the ice but as we did not have all the right gear – we did not go too far.  

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Investigating a big ‘erratic’ left in 2009
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One of my favourite pictures that I ever took  . . . I always thought the cloud looked a bit like Iceland

Just standing in this place brought calm.  It was a place that I wanted to stay and explore.  I took hundreds of photos – many of which continue to sit up on my bookcases and on my walls.  They are reminders of this quiet, settled place that drifts by, yet that also threatens to unleash a mighty torrent of ice and water that could almost instantly overcome any obstacle.   That is the thing about Iceland . . . . as you visit and look at the rivers, waterfalls, and glacier icecaps – you are reminded that nature holds sway here.   But, you are also reminded about change.   Every time I visit – it looks totally different.   Some of the surrounding peaks and hills are the only unchanging features in this place.  

This is a place for geographers to breathe and dream.  It is a place to try and understand the variety of processes that have and continue to shape this landscape.   I have promised myself that I will be back every time I come to Iceland  . . . . hoping to be there again next year!  

 

(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author

Top 5 favourite places – No 2: Ballintoy Harbour, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland

Ballintoy Harbour – looking over towards the Giants Causeway

I have lived in Northern Ireland my whole life. I’ve never really seen a reason to leave. It’s got the most amazing scenery, the most amazing people and the most amazing weather. Ok – so I lied about the weather. But – NI really is the best place in the world to live. I happen to live about 15 minutes from the famous A2 – coast road and often will drive up from Larne past Carnfunnock, on to Ballygalley and then to Glenarm and beyond. I will put together some thoughts on this route some time soon on this blog – but for now I wanted to concentrate on what is easily my favourite place in NI. This list is made of the places where I just like to be. They are places that I am quite content just to sit and soak up the atmosphere. To bathe in a place and often just to sit and take in the sights, sounds and scenery.

The landscape is made up of volcanic basalt and limestone rock

Ballintoy is a tiny former fishing harbour that is found between Bushmills and Ballycastle on the North Coast of Norther Ireland. You get to it by making your way down a twisty wee road that gradually brings you down to sea level. Its been made famous for its role in Game of Thrones but I’ve been coming here for many, many years.

My first memory is from when I was a really young lad and having picnics here. Back in those days you could nearly have the place to yourself. Not anymore, the place is hiving with people wanting to paddle board, swim in the harbour or just to park up their campervan in one of the seafront spaces. As a Geography teacher (my day job) – I have taken many, many field trips along this stretch of coast and tried to get lots of pubescent teens to see the beauty of nature. Even today, anytime I am in the area – I just have to take a wee drive down the harbour road for a bit of an explore and just to check that everything is still there.

The harbour itself is close to some of the other NI top tourist spots such as Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, White Park Bay beach and of course – the Giant’s Causeway. The name Ballintoy – means ‘town of the North’. It was built around the harbour which was used mostly for the export of sett stones that were dug out of a local quarry. A lime kiln sits towering over the public toilets at the bottom of the road. Fishing was also an important industry in past times and boats would often have been pulled up into the big cave for shelter and mending.

There are more than a few things that can be done in the local area – as long as you like to explore a bit and to get your feet a little damp and dirty.

The view towards Sheep Island from the ‘wee’ beach

Walk 1: If you park up near the White Church of Ireland church (you can’t really miss it) there is a nice walk up along the top of the cliffs where you get a really good view of the ever-eroding limestone and on a good day you will get the best view of Sheep Island and over onto Rathlin Island. If you keep going on long enough you will get round to Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. When you come back – I recommend the Red Door Cafe for a quick stop – especially their Irish Stew or Seafood Chowder.

Walk 2: Go right on down to the bottom of the Twisty Road and park in the car park. Then, walk back up the road and go to the ‘wee’ beach on the right. There are quite a few limestone features and landforms to explore around the limestone pavement and the massive stack that is surrounded by a mighty wall of Basalt. Look out for what my kids call the eroded ‘murder holes’.

One of the ‘murder holes’ in the limestone platform

Walk 3: In the car park go and explore the big cave and then follow the path on the sea front round past the houses and continue on past the fossil beach, over the styles, through the old seaweed retting beds and the emergent stream (it emerges out of the rock) and then look out for the Ballintoy elephant. Take a few moments to explore the rocks in the sheltered beach and if the tides are ok – you can make it round the corner and onto one of NI’s best kept secrets – Whitepark Bay beach.

I’ve been here in stunning sunny days and I’ve been here on miserable winter days when you could not see 2 feet in front of you and I’ve been here to watch the sea swell and roar over the barrier rocks with such a force that we worried that they would be moving the stones. Its such a special place to explore – yet every time you come there is something new and different to look at.

It is almost better on a stormy day!

One of the things I used to love to do was to bring school groups. We would get the school bus to leave us at the White church and we would walk down the twisty road, stop at the ‘wee beach’, eat our lunch on top of the Lime Kiln in the car park and then make our way round past the fossil beach to the Elephant beach and finish off with a brisk walk along Whitepark Bay until the rather tiring climb up into the car park where the bus driver would be waiting for us. You can do something similar if you time your trip with the timings for the Translink Causeway Rambler.

Take the time to soak in the atmosphere. Sit down and listen for the wildlife, the birds and the gently lapping water in the little inlets -this is a great place to explore and get away from traffic/driving and the busyness of life. Just don’t be there when I am there – if you don’t mind . . . . I don’t want to lose my parking spot.

The Elephant beach

(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author

Top 5 favourite places – No 3: The National Mall, Washington DC, USA

The Reflecting Pool towards the Washington Monument

My favourite city in the world is Washington DC. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the TV series ‘The West Wing’. I love US politics and have come to love all of the famous Washington monuments that are found across this great city. It is an exhausting city – the first time we stayed for a week up near the back of the White House for a week and we spent nearly all of our time just on the National Mall. There was so much to do. However, there is little shelter and I came to appreciate the reason why George Washington himself called it ‘the swamp’ and why he tried to make sure that he was nowhere near during the summer months.

Map of the National Map and central Washington DC

The city was laid out in a very organised gridiron fashion where each of the key aspects all line up – the Washington Monument is a central focus – in one direction you can go towards the White House, in another you can walk towards the Lincoln memorial, in another you can move up the long grassy parkland towards the commanding Capitol building. It is a feat of architectural genius designed by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 and is now a national park run by the United States National Park System.

The first time that I arrived here – we walked down 15th Street and stood at the bottom of the Washington Monument and marvelled at the design of the whole area. You really could see everything of importance and could easily see why this was often called the triangle of power. We got the lift to the top of the monument for a better look but were a little disappointed by the small, green tinted windows that did not offer the best place for photographs.

The outside of the Lincoln memorial

The big issue was with Washington is that we wanted to see everything – and on out first visit we had a young toddler with us who was not really that fussed on going to every museum and hitting the sites at every single opportunity. We wandered around the whole area – getting down to the different memorials and gardens and then back up towards the Capitol building where we could stop of in the much needed air-conditioned museums such as the Smithsonian Castle, the National History museum, the museum of American history and my favourite museum of all time – the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. You could (and I did) spend a whole day in that museum. Not only does it have its own McDonalds but we were able to come back later to watch a film on the amazing 3D cinema screen. I have always had a fascination with planes, space and flying so to see all these different vehicles from the first of the Wright brothers creations to the most modern aircraft and missiles was just a dream come true.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

For a museum freak like me this really is a paradise. There is nearly too much to see. We spend too much time in museums. We do serious amounts of walking to try and get as much done as possible. Our legs are aching but this is an amazing space where history is celebrated, valued and shared so that future generations will have an idea of how progress has been made in our lifetime.

In our first visit, we happened to be in the city for the 4th of July, Independence Day celebrations. Unfortunately there was a lot of rain about but later that evening we managed to get a good spot close to the front of the White House where we could watch the famous fire work display – and we managed to just about stay dry!

I’ve been to Washington DC 3 times now and it never disappoints. So much to see. So many things to do. The last time we visited we stayed in a very different place and were able to explore some different parts of the city and enjoyed working our way through Georgetown in particular. But, we were always drawn back towards all the different attractions and things to see and do along the National Mall.

The Smithsonian National History Museum

(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author

Top 5 favourite places – No 4: Top of the Empire State Building, New York

Empire State Building from the sidewalk

The first time that I was in New York City I did not really like it. It was really hot and sunny and you had to spend most of the day dodging from air conditioned shop to air conditioned shop just to get a little respite from the boiling hot sun. That, and the fact that I had to push and carry and entertain a certain 1 and half year old daughter as well! Even at night, we took a walk down through Broadway and Times Square at 12 midnight to find a city very much buzzing and alive with life but also still stiflingly warm.

However, my responses to the city started to change when we got the ‘elevator’ up to the top of the Empire State Building and a whole new world was opened up to me. I know that there are now many different experiences where you can ride to the top of the city that never sleeps – but this was the one that I went on first and therefore the one that I liked the best. I’ve been to New York four times now and each time – I made sure that I made the trip to the top. I also realised lately that the best time to go was at dusk so that you get to experience the New York skyline by day and then gradually as the light fades, the lights of New York turn on and a very different city is revealed.

Looking towards the end of Manhatten island

The weird thing about being so high up is that the view makes New York appear as some sort of surreal playmat. The tiny yellow cabs, trash lorries and buses honk their way along the streets and avenues and look like tiny hot wheels cars. It is hard to believe that over 1.6 million people live in this small area of space. On a good day, the views continue for miles – across to New Jersey and across to the other 4 boroughs that make up the city of New York. You might be able to make out the small outline of the Statue of Liberty or across to JFK airport as the aeroplanes line up to land.

The safety fence sometimes gets in the way but sometimes helps to frame the shot

A security guard tells me that dusk is his least favourite time as this is when things can get crowded and tempers can get frayed as people push against each other to get the best shot. I’m armed with 2 different cameras and an iphone in an attempt to get some quality images of the before dark and after dark view of the city. The sun does not take its time in going down – the smug people who have timed their visit just right to coincide with the changing of the light are ready and are trying to pick out the iconic buildings. An American man beside me is pointing out buildings to his wife or girlfriend and getting them totally wrong – my son asks me to point some of the places out to him and I loudly make sure that he can tell the difference between Rockefellar Plaza/Comcast tower, the Met Life, Bank of America tower and the One World Trade Centre.

The view towards Central Park and Harlem

Someone near me reckons that Empire state must be the tallest. He has not been reading the wall displays – it was until 1971 and then briefly again after the events of September 11, 2001.

As the night continues to draw in, the lights of New York start to come on and its almost as if a different city is born in the darkness. The noises of the street, traffic and horns drift up towards the viewing area. Its time to try and change settings on the camera to get some nice night shots but sometimes the results are not quite what I want and a blurry picture is all that is found.

The lights of New York are twinkling

We move around all the four sides of the viewing gallery to make sure that we can see everything. It is a warm, balmy night but it is also mesmerising to see the city twinkling in all of its glory. We pick out the views towards Brooklyn and just about make out the Brooklyn bridge but the Chrysler building shines with its art deco arches – yet every time I try to get a good shot my camera struggles to cope and give me a sharp image.

New York is a city that slowly grows on you. It gets under your skin and as you learn to understand its ways and how it works – you gradually start to take real pleasure in all that it has to offer. You could go for a week every year of your life and still only find new things to do and experience. I can’t wait to return.

The views towards the Brooklyn bridge and the famous Chrysler building

(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author

Top 5 favourite places – No 5: Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France

The Pointe

Usually, you can tell how much I like a place when you weigh up the number of times that I have been to a place. I can be a creature of habit. I like returning to places that I like. Obviously, this can be difficult with some of the more far-flung places that I have travelled to. However, there are some places on this planet that I just cannot get enough of and I would happily spend hours just sitting (or standing) and exploring or just milking in the atmosphere.

The gun casements at Pointe du Hoc

Ever since I was a young lad and our family camping holidays often had up stopping along the Normandy beach coastline, I have been fascinated with what happened at D-Day and beyond. I have visited this area many times and each time I have made sure that I have time to explore the various museums and places that have been made famous by the stories and exploits through June 1944. I revel in discovering a new display or place that I have not been to before. But, there is also a list of a few places that I just have to visit again and again. I really could not tell you how many times I have been to the place of Pointe du Hoc on the cliff edge of the Omaha beaches – its probably about 10 times. I went as a child and now have brought my own children to run through the artillery blasted landscape.

The ground still shows evidence of the bomb craters from the naval bombardment

Pointe du Hoc (made famous in the classic war film ‘The Longest Day’) was a major target in the early hours of D-Day due to the location of the massive 155mm German guns that were built into the cliff edge. The guns were protected by 100m high cliffs and the plan was for the US 2nd Ranger Battalion to scale the cliffs using ropes, grapple hooks and ladders (some ‘borrowed’ from the London Fire Brigade’) to scale the cliffs and ensure that the guns remained inactive.

The lookout tower continues to peer out towards the ocean

The area is now preserved as a memorial to the battle for Normandy and many of the bomb craters (from the naval bombardment prior to the start of the battle) have been retained and you can still see many of the fortifications that the Germans had built as part of their Atlantic Wall.

The whole area is now under the management of the American Battle Monuments Commission and visitors are invited to explore the fortifications and casemates that were built for the guns. The reality is that this is one of a number of different battlefield sites that I love to visit including the guns as Maisy Battery and Longues sur Mer, the Omaha beach US cemetery and some of the small locally-owned museums in the area that display different artefacts from the time. Even though I am a geographer, this area has always sparked my interest in history and in particular military history and movements. I have always been fascinated about the decisions that were taken to use the lie of the land (including old holiday maps and more recently taken covert photographs) to decide how to quickly and decisively gain a foothold in Europe that would eventually lead to vistory in Europe.

(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author

and here we go again . . .

Yesterday on my personal blog site I noted that my 25 year old web site called think geography was no more.  That lasted nearly 24 hours.  I hated the idea of not having any sort of online presence so I have decided to try and rebrand things a little.  The reality was that due to my management and leadership responsibilities, I just dont have the same amount of time to teach Geography as I used to.  This meant that I was not developing the content for the site.   My focus on the last few years has been on writing books and not on online content.   So – I thought that maybe for this new change in direction – it was time for a new type of site – one that does have space for my thinking on all things geographical but also one where there is space for my ever-expanding repertoire of travel writing.   Let’s see how this goes  . . . .

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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