Lough Erne: The calm before the political storm
As G8 leaders descend on the remote Lough Erne Resort, Tom Adair explores this green, watery corner of County Fermanagh
Saturday 15 June 2013
The lakes of County Fermanagh incubate silence. However, their reverie is fated to be shattered this week by helicopters carpet-beating the sky as they bring the world's most powerful leaders to the Lough Erne Resort and Spa, chosen hub for the G8 summit, hosted by Britain in one of the United Kingdom's remotest corners.
You might imagine that Lough Erne is a junior version of Lough Neagh, the vast diamond-shaped lake at the heart of Northern Ireland. In reality, the two could not be less alike. Lough Erne is just part of the broad, slow River Erne – or parts, given that the name refers to the two stretches where the river widens. And very pretty it is, too, dressed with a necklace of islands great and small.
David Cameron's chosen venue ("One of the most beautiful places in the entire United Kingdom," he declared) has been selected for its privacy and near-impregnability as much as for its scenery. Planned protests and demonstrations – being prepared for by the erection of miles of steel fence along the lough shore – may grab the headlines. Yet, after the summit has concluded, the images that will linger of the 600-acre resort in its peninsular seclusion will almost certainly also feature a backdrop of watery beauty (one third of Fermanagh is covered in water), studded with islands in shimmering light backed by softly wooded hills and an Irish sky that promises rain.
When my wife and I arrived last week, the security imposition of a no-fly zone for civilian commercial aircraft was already in operation over the reed-fringed landscape. It conjured a heightened sense of otherness, a gift to PR copywriters who call this place "an oasis of tranquillity" and "a hidden gem".
From our bedroom window at the resort, where those same copywriters claim "old world heritage meets new world luxury" and where opulence has been burnished to reflect the full five stars of its luxury suites and taste-bud-tantalising cuisine, I gazed at the golf course designed by Nick Faldo whose statue faced the nearby first tee. There, through binoculars provided for guests' convenience, I saw a solitary falcon, circling intently above the peninsula's inner lough. Clearly no one had told it about the no-fly zone.
Lower Lough Erne is hard to resist. Within an hour of check-in we were back in the car to follow the road towards Enniskillen, the county town, which stands like a stepping stone across the narrow sweep of the River Erne, between the Upper and Lower Loughs. A staunchly Protestant redoubt since early Tudor times, its grandly turreted castle distracted the eye from a warren of busy, hilly streets and pencil-slim spires where cafés and pubs stood cheek by jowl with a butcher and baker and much of the craic was about the summit. "Obama can walk on water they say," joked a diner in Café Merlot during lunch. He slapped my back. "But I wouldn't be trying it myself."
At his suggestion, we took the boat tour to Devenish Island. The MV Kestrel reached its mythical-historical destination in 25 minutes from the Enniskillen jetty, after a potted-history detour, sweeping past Enniskillen Castle.
Stephen Nixon, the Kestrel's captain, set us free to roam the island's grassy hump. In the sixth century, St Molaise founded a small monastic community here. The remains of St Mary's Abbey stood silhouetted above an improbably perfect round tower, a 12th-century refuge built by monks to protect them from Viking raids. Inside its darkened shell, I climbed four ladders before reaching a view through slitted, now barred windows: 360 degrees of brooding landscape. Ninety-seven bosky islands splotch the waters of Lower Lough Erne, their destinies shaped by ice and water. Scattered collections of pagan and early Christian ruins, whittled by wind and contoured by rain, are found on other "holy" islands among the tall grasses, some hidden in trees. They speak of centuries of diligent reflection.
Over dinner at the resort's Catalina Restaurant, we too reflected as we watched the cooling sky turn orange then purple, and planned our day to come. There's more to do in Fermanagh's lakeland than simply contemplate. Soon summer visitors will arrive, bursting with energy, to go golfing, cycling, hiking. Roosters of spray will jet up from water skis. Other people will paddle the islands' shallows along the Canoe Trail, while cavers will disappear like hermit crabs into the fissures that riddle Fermanagh's limestone rock bed. Marble Arch Caves, south of Lower Lough Erne, are their holy grail.
On a perfect morning, too hot for hiking, we drove the handful of miles to the towering Cliffs of Magho, perched on the north-west fringe of the lough. Here, the view swept from the distant, sparkling Atlantic and Donegal Bay to the Blue Stack Mountains. Directly below lay the shimmering lough – a blue-green world of far-flung islands and cow-dotted fields. It was a falcon's-eye view I couldn't help thinking, searching the sky, but I saw only swifts.
We drove to Tully Bay and hired a boat for a few hours, drifting among the islands, absorbing their mysteries. On Boa, the largest of all, I found the Janus Stone, at least 2,000 years old, with two carved faces back to back, giving nothing away of its pagan past. Further south, White Island presented an array of enigmatic, totemic Easter-Island-like figures inside a ruined Romanesque church.
Tomorrow, these islands will be off-limits. Yet, once the presidents and prime ministers have conferred and flown away, the tilt of the world's political axis will swing back to true. In Fermanagh, among the stillness, where atmosphere and friendliness are everything, and where tourism means so much, a breath-held moment will have passed, and the waiting will begin. Will the world come knocking?
Belfast is served by Aer Lingus (0871 718 2020; aerlingus.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).
Lough Erne Resort (028-6632 3250; lougherneresort.com). Doubles start at £180, B&B.
Erne Tours (028-6632 2882; ernetours.com) offers tours to Devenish Island for £10pp. The ferry from Castle Archdaleto to the White Island runs during July and August (028-6862 1892); £4 return. Carrick Craft (028-3834 4993; cruise-ireland.com) at Tully Bay, hire cruisers from £120 a day.
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