Taking the air

Despite being just 70 miles apart, a rail journey from Belfast to Derry (Londonderry, but more of that later) takes around two hours. Having frequently experienced similar journey times between Nottingham and Birmingham, it’s clear that the term “expresss train” is at least debatable.

However, the link between Northern Ireland’s largest cities is frequent and efficient – with a service every hour during the day. And the line itself north west of Coleraine often hugs the tips of Lough Foyle, and with it a view from the train that reminds me more of the line around South Devon, with fields and flood plains on one side, and vast open beaches on the other. The coastline itself is worth the relatively slow journey, wth the quaintly named Castlerock and Bellarena stations.

Derry acquired its London prefix in 1613 – which remains controversial to this day. A few years ago a decision to grant the local authority the name “Derry City Council” was condemned by the unionists. And in 1972 the city gained yet more notoriety on Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot dead 28 unarmed civilians during a protest.

No wonder, then, that Derry can still seem like a fortress, largely thanks to its wonderfully preserved city walls.

Along the length of the walls are plaques illustrating key moments through the centuries. During the imposition of internment, Derry – like many other areas of Northern Ireland – spawned a powerful yet peaceful sideline in painting prominent murals, often depicting territory.

Now that peace has largely been achieved, some have argued they should be removed. On the other hand, perhaps it’s unwise to try to airbrush the past – and for some communities here, it’s still very much the present; this example outside a local nursery.

The walled city itself is full of character and history, the only surviving example of its kind in Ireland. And while chain names like Nando’s have inevitably established themselves, there are still plenty of independent businesses around small side streets and courtyards, not unlike something you might see in York.

After the Good Friday agreement laid the foundations for the peace process, Derry set about looking to the future rather than the past. The result was the Peace Bridge spanning the River Foyle, opened in 2011..

In 2013 Derry became the European City of Culture, drawing in over half a million visitors. Tourism has boomed in the years since, and it’s easy to see why. A free bus takes people from the train station to the town centre, where almost immediately you’re met by the impressive structure of The Guildhall.

It was built in 1890, but struck by fire in 1908 and a bomb attack in 1972. Today The Guildhall has been lovingly restored. It still contains an active council chamber and the whole building is open for free. Stained glass windows tell yet more of the city’s vast history, while the main hall – complete with massive organ – is available to hire for events.

Since 2018, more recent memories have been depicted in the hugely successful Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls. Firmly set in the early 1990s, it references cultural differences that anyone with Irish roots can identify, along with a splash of nostalgia and an accent that’s as distinctive as the walls themselves. So it’s entirely apt that the girls now have a wall of their own.

Derry gives the impression of rightly standing up for itself – and showing you its past right in your face. The surrounding area is full of beauty and is definitely on my list for further future exploration. From the walls, it’s not hard to see the divisions that still exist here. But visitors are given a warm welcome, and that seems to have helped foster and develop a closer sense of community.

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