Very Merry in Derry

by Elizabeth Hotson

Bogside Mural credit: Elizabeth Hotson

I needed to get one thing straight on landing in Northern Ireland; is it Derry, or Londonderry?

‘The City of Derry,’ Karen, Visit Derry’s representative cheerfully informed me. So that’s what I’ll go with.

The controversy over the name comes from Ireland’s entangled history with England. The complicated and at times bloody relationship has thankfully come a long way since the decades of violence reduced many buildings to rubble. Nowadays the centre of town feels like an optimistic place to be with a smattering of trendy new restaurants, bars and hotels keen to cater to travellers from all over the world.

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Derry credit: IVANVIEITO

The City of Derry is the second biggest in Northern Ireland but thanks in part to its walls which wrap round the entire circumference, it retains a cosy village-like feel. It’s packed with history and luckily there’s a strong cohort of enthusiastic guides including Garvin from Derry City Tours to do it justice. What you really want from a tour guide is someone with intimate local knowledge and Garvin certainly ticked the box. We were admiring the seventeenth century city walls when Garvin roared a jovial “Hello!” to a passerby who turned out to be Mark Durkan, a senior politician whose constituency office was down the road.

“See, I told you we’re a friendly lot,” grinned Gerry.

A few minutes of impromptu banter followed and we were on our way to the Tower Museum where another font of local knowledge, Gerry Lynn gave us an energetic, fact-filled summary of the city from its beginnings up until the present day. We finished up in the Guildhall, a beautiful Edwardian building in the centre of town which is worth going to just to see the unusual and extremely colourful stained glass windows and spectacular pipe organ.

  • Guildhall & Peace Bridge credit: jcarillet

  • Peace Bridge & Guildhall credit: Joel Carillet

Despite a 5am start, we kept the pace up, crossing over the Peace Bridge to the Walled City Brewery. With its quirky but seriously tasty beers and pintxos menu of homemade pickles, thai pork cakes and baby ribs it was the perfect place to pause in a hot and busy few hours. Derry’s also making waves at the posh end of the culinary scale and we managed to squeeze in a full-on tasting menu at Browns restaurant and champagne lounge. The highlight was a perfectly wobbly lavender panna cotta; a soothing end to an exhausting day.

We were booked into the imposing Bishops Gate Hotel in the centre of town and after a decent night’s sleep in a bed bigger than my flat I was ready for the onslaught of culture awaiting the day. First up was the part I’d most been looking forward to; a tour of the notorious Bogside area and its murals. First though was an eye opening visit to the Museum of Free Derry, also known as ‘The Bloody Sunday Museum’. It charted the period in twentieth century Northern Irish history, known as the ‘Troubles’ - a monumental understatement. As we passed cases showing huge rubber bullets and the blood stained clothing worn by the victims of 1972’s notorious Bloody Sunday, it was hard not to get emotional; especially since we were shown around by John Kelly, whose brother Michael was killed. If you’re into ‘living history’ the Museum of Free Derry should be at the top of your list. But then so should the tour of Bogside’s People’s Gallery, a thought provoking series of outdoor murals depicting the violence and civil rights protests during the Troubles.

  • Bogside Mural credit: Elizabeth Hotson

  • Bogside Mural credit: Elizabeth Hotson

After a morning of rigorous exercise for the mind, the afternoon brought some exercise for the body in the form of long boarding. For the uninitiated it’s like skateboarding but with an (unsurprisingly) longer and easier to control board. Adventure company Far and Wild is based in the idyllic St Columb’s Park where we did our taster lesson. Gingerly rolling down some gentle slopes we were assured that after a few hours of practice most people are skilled up enough to roll around town and up the brewery.

The exertion warranted a rest so we popped down the road for a pint before another mammoth meal. At the newly renovated Craft Village, Donal Doherty welcomed us into his restaurant Harry’s to peruse a menu packed with fresh fish and meat and some wonderfully decadent puddings including a delicious chocolate and peanut concoction and a delicate strawberry and basil cake.

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Nom...strawberry and basil cake credit: Elizabeth Hotson

I slept a bit too well on my full stomach and almost missed our ride the next day to Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an arts and literary centre dedicated to the late poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. With it’s well thought out installations and exhibits it’s equally rewarding for existing fans and those who don’t know as much as they perhaps should do, (me). After lunch and a world class coffee at Lost and Found in Coleraine we drove along the famous coast road to Hezlett House. It’s a hauntingly beautiful shell of a once grand mansion and is only a few hundred metres from the winsomely pretty Mussenden Temple, a cylinder-shaped Instragram opportunity par excellence, the perfect place for some #nofilter photos.

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Mussenden Temple credit: Elizabeth Hotson

Our final stop was fittingly for food; a huge Mr Whippy with bubblegum sauce at local chippy cum newsagent in Ballykelly. Not exactly haute cuisine but the perfect end to a wonderfully eclectic and unfailingly jolly Northern Irish sojourn.

Getting there:

BMI now runs twice daily routes to London Stansted and the flight takes around an hour.

Staying in Derry:

There are lots of options to suit most budgets but for a bit city centre luxury we stayed at the Bishop's Gate where rooms start at £84 if you book in advance.

Visit:

The evocative and emotional Museum of Free Derry

A lively and yomp around Derry’s past at the Tower Museum

Tour the city with Martin McCrossan City Tours

Immerse yourself in culture at Seamus Heaney Home Place

Take some social media winning photos at Hezlett House and Mussenden Temple

Eat:

Beer, more beer and pintxos at the Walled City Brewery

Food with a touch of panache at Browns Restaurant and Champagne Lounge

Local delicacies cooked to perfection at Harry’s Derry

Try:

Long boarding with Far and Wild