Northern Ireland was the first of the four UK countries to open its campsites last weekend. Having been locked down in Belfast for months, I was desperate to break out of my Covid-19 cocoon and stretch my horizons beyond the TV screen – and my legs beyond the local supermarket run.
A 90-minute drive from Belfast, the Sperrin mountains, in mid-Ulster, are a place where the myth and the majesty of the country’s landscape overlap. It’s a vast, open space, one that Irish poet Mary Montague described as “Ulster’s wildest land”, adding that “the thickest sheets of the last ice age scoured these mountains into smooth undulations that banner the skyline”. “But”, she cautioned, “don’t be fooled by gentle curves – the Sperrins’ heart is vastly bleak.”
Now, however, there’s a corner of comfort in this wild landscape, a place that also aims to capture the panoramic grandeur of the setting. With its upland coniferous terrain of mossy hills and winding trails, Davagh Forest, in the foothills just outside Cookstown, has recently become the first area in the country – and the third on the island of Ireland – to be accredited as an International Dark Sky Park. Within the forest, the OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory is a £1.25m facility with an interactive exhibition linking the landscape with the archaeological and astronomical heritage of the Sperrins, holographic installations, virtual reality headsets, and a state-of-the-art 14-inch aperture telescope. Scheduled to open in April, but delayed by the pandemic until autumn, it promises to be a spectacular voyage through the solar system.
A mile down the road, and just opened, Sperrinview Glamping offers a range of luxury pods that are snug and reasonably priced. In a disused quarry, the four pods are clad in corrugated metal, each a different colour in keeping with the flora on the surrounding hills. From the outside they look a bit like asteroids that have plummeted into the ground: pointing up to the sky with a large triangular viewing window at the fore so that guests can gaze out at the stars from their bed.
The wood-clad interiors feature two double beds and a sofa bed, a kitchenette and a shower room. Each pod has its own outdoor space defined by a circle rocks, with fire pit and barbecue. All the pods were occupied on opening day, but they are set well enough apart to achieve the essential distancing necessary in these times. There’s hand sanitiser on each pod’s exterior, and it’s necessary to bring your own towels and bedlinen. The atmosphere remains relaxed, though. Children ran free and fire pits were lit as the night crept in.
As constellations emerged above us, one group – a civilised hen or birthday party – made the most of the communal hub (a cosy space with kitchen, sofa and tables near the entrance). I opted to stargaze from the comfort of my bed, even getting a peek at what seemed to be the International Space Station passing overhead.
Arriving from the increasingly busy post-lockdown streets of Belfast only served to highlight the appeal of this wilderness sanctuary. Straddling the counties of Derry and Tyrone, the Sperrins weave a mottled tapestry of mountains, bogland and inland tarns, as well as megalithic ruins and prehistoric curiosities. From the court and wedge tombs at Dun Ruadh (Red Fort) on the sweeping curve of Crockyneill, to myriad stone sites and alignments in the shadow of Slieve Gallion mountain, it’s a staggering invitation to reconnect with the land and delve deeper into its legends.
A five-minute walk from the glamping pods and an essential portal into the history of the area is Beaghmore, a complex of seven low stone circles, standing stones and round cairns purportedly predating Stonehenge and even Newgrange, the ancient heart of Ireland. The best time to see them is before sundown, and I’d arranged to meet up with local historian Hugh McCloy, who leads tours through the area. Having the opportunity to delve deep into its history, a few days shy of Midsummer Day, wasn’t lost on me. As a sacred site, it genuinely felt like a gateway to beyond.
Translated from the Irish Bheitheach Mhór, meaning “big place of birch trees,” Hugh told me that the area was once a woodland before being cleared by neolithic farmers; that it was discovered in the late 1930s when the peat was being cut; and that it is a bona fide “thin place”: a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is slight. Hugh builds a heady narrative about those who inhabited the land thousands of years ago, as well as telling the tale of local giant, Callann Mór, believed to be buried at Carnanbane on the west side of Slieve Gallion mountain. At Ballybriest, a neolithic court tomb in the shadow of Slieve Gallion, we stopped for a picnic from local restaurant Apparo and Hugh shared his belief that “giant’s DNA still runs through the local population”.
With the future of far-flung travel uncertain, the opportunity afforded us to explore the wonders on our doorstep is a gift, according to Hugh, a chance for people to “feel the wind in the hair and dream again”. The interconnectedness between ancient sites, nature and the stars above now seems like worthy a priority. And I speak as someone who actually grew up a half-hour from the Sperrins and is only now grasping just how much this world has to offer. Suddenly, Mary Montague’s description of this landscape as “vastly bleak” feels like a towering endorsement.