Islands of peace: Northern Ireland's beautiful Lough Erne is still way off the tourist trail
Saturday 25 July 2009
Swifts dart over the soft green water, a moorhen splashes among the bulrushes and cows serenely graze on the shore, but of the Lady of Lough Erne, there is no sign.
This is no bad thing, you understand. I am floating solo in a canoe, the slow rise and fall of the paddle dripping dark fronds that glint back the lowering sky above. The sudden appearance of a mythical heroine would be more than a little disturbing – and besides, I am enjoying the solitude.
I passed two men in sleeveless T-shirts a while back, sipping from two-litre plastic bottles as they prepared to fish from a dilapidated jetty in the reeds.
"Are you having a good paddle, there?" called one, across the water. We discussed the likelihood of their fishing success as I floated past. Not high, not on this hot, humid day. "See but we're fishing, and we're drinking," shouted the other, happily, as I moved off down the current. And then, as if by way of helpful explanation, "We're Irish!"
Since then, I've been alone; no shortage of solitude here. Together, Northern Ireland's Upper and Lower Lough Erne comprise one of the largest freshwater bodies in the United Kingdom. Up country, wide open Lough Neagh takes the crown for size, but County Fermanagh's Erne wins it on the islands: 154 of them, give or take a rock or two, dappling 300 square miles of water.
A few of these islands, or inish, are farmed: Inishcorkish is home to Fermanagh's Black Bacon – or at least the herd of pigs that precede it. A handful of islands are home to curios, such as the Victorian mansion turned Hari Krishna temple on Inish Rath, or the award-winning Belle Isle cookery school and castle. Seven stone figures and a 13th-century church stand on White Island; on Devenish, a round tower looms over the remains of a monastic settlement dating from the 6th century. And in the centre of the two Loughs is the busy island of Enniskillen, by far the largest town in the county.
Yet for the most part, the inish are uninhabited outposts of green woods and leafy marsh, of yellow buttercups and purple wild orchids. Forty on the lower Lough make up an RSPB reserve; as I paddle, the soft slap of water against the canoe's hull is accompanied by the pretty gargle of curlews and the "peewit, peewit" of lapwings. Sandwich terns dive for dancing mayflies; two kingfishers dart out of the trees in a streak of burnt orange and iridescent blue. I spot a swan coming in to land, still high, an elongated V of perfect white. By the time it passes the boat, it is skimming the water: quiet beauty for a privileged audience of one.
A positive legacy of the Troubles for adventurers and the ecologically minded is the lack of tourist development in Northern Ireland. Travellers from England, Wales and Scotland are relatively rare. And new projects here are blessed with the hindsight gleaned from development gone wrong elsewhere. "Peace and Reconciliation" funds go to leisure facilities that benefit the community as well as visitors; to green buildings and to architects with a feel for the lakeland.
Yes, there are a handful of tour boats, offering Lough tours and dinner cruises. High summer weekends can hint at crowds, and prime mayfly season sees the descent of the fishermen, casting from wooden boats for brown trout. But midweek, mid-summer, I'm only occasionally disturbed by the sputter of a motorboat, leaving me safely in the shallows, bobbing in its wake.
Landing restrictions are almost nil. There are a few on the Lower Lough during breeding season; a couple where cows graze. In general, though, even on those islands under private ownership, visiting paddlers are free to roam.
The award-winning Loch Erne Canoe Trail is the first of its kind in the British Isles, and a template for four others in Northern Ireland. Imagine Swallows and Amazons acted out in the Canadian wilderness.
At the Life Adventure Centre in Enniskillen where I rent the boat, they tell me that it takes two to three days for a group of beginners to navigate a route through the narrower, more sheltered Upper Lough; four to five for the initiated to complete a tour of both.
They also suggest short lessons for the uninitiated. Mine, earlier that morning, was with Declan, a man of infinite patience, who showed me how to trail the paddle to achieve a straight(ish) line; why leaning over the gunwale improves the turning radius; how to work with and against the wind.
Once out in the Lower Lough, blissfully alone, I'm cursing the lack of a tent. But home for the night is not damp canvas, but a yoga retreat further up the shore.
After drying off, I stretch in the studio, another Peace and Reconciliation beneficiary: wooden floor, wooden ceiling, quiet colours and windows overlooking the water. Time for a swim before the wholefood supper? The rain has stopped, and I splash slowly over to their private island, disturbing dragonflies darting through the lilypads.
Back in the studio, I see a flyer advertising the Lady of the Lake festival, an annual event during which a maiden once again walks through the mists from island to island, flowers in her hand. There's no mist this evening, and no lady, either. But there is, undoubtedly, magic.
By sea, Dublin and Belfast are good gateways for Lough Erne. The nearest airport is City of Derry, but there is a wider choice at Belfast International and George Best Belfast City.
The Life Adventure Centre, Fermanagh Lakelands (0844- 770 5477; onegreatadventure. com) is one of the few canoe centres in Northern Ireland that will rent boats based on the discretion of the instructors, rather than requiring canoe certification. Canadian two-man canoes from £45 per day; tents £18 per day; stove and cooking kits, £5 per day.
Weekend breaks at the Blaney Spa and Yoga Centre/Innish Beg Cottages, Blaney (028-6864 1044; yogaholidayireland.com) cost £260 per person based on two sharing, full-board. They include yoga classes, use of sauna and hot tub, and one spa treatment; midweek, group packages and holiday cottage rentals are also available. Dorm beds at the Life Adventure Centre start at £19 per person; camping from £6 per person. Rough camping, basic beach sites and commercial camp sites with full facilities are all available around the Lough; see canoeni.com for more details.
The story of the Lady of the Lake will be recreated today at Castle Archdale. See the Tourism Ireland website, discoverireland.com, for more details.
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