Slow Adventure is a new tourism concept for the Derry and Strabane district in the North West of Northern Ireland. Slow Adventure is about connecting to the surrounding environment, nature and landscape through gentle paced activities. There are a number of tours and activities on offer including, canoeing, cycling, mindfulness walks and foraging. Invited to have a little taster of Slow Adventure I opted for the horse riding experience and Irish walking tour.
My Slow Adventure weekend began in the foothills of the Sperrins at the City of Derry Equestrian Centre with proprietor Pauline. On a Sunday morning the centre had a lovely buzz about the place with the kids of the pony club setting up for lessons and looking after the horses. Pauline took me through all what the centre has to offer, from pony clubs to team building to leisurely hacks through the neighbouring woods.
I’ve always enjoyed the occasional hack, walking, trotting and even a little cantering, but Pauline will cater to all abilities, including beginners. My horse for our tour was Mickey Finn, he was an absolute beauty and a complete gent, such a joy to ride.
Exploring the local area, Pauline told me of the industries through the ages. While the land today is predominately used for farming, you can still see remnants of the rope making industry, mills and workers cottages.
Here though it’s all about the characters and families that have lived and worked here over 400 years. Pauline is a wealth of information, her passion for this area and its people came through in abundance as she told me of the families who have owned the land including the Skiptons who built the nearby Beech Hill Country House Hotel in 1729. The social and industrial heritage of the Sperrins was really brought to life for me here and no better way to learn about it and take in the beauty of the landscape than on horseback. A truly wonderful morning, I am already planning a return visit!
After my day with the horses and in keeping with the equestrian theme it was on to the Best Western Plus White Horse Hotel where a warm welcome awaited. I stayed in the Donnybrewer Suite complete with jacuzzi bath, the combination of that and the sauna, steam room and pool was just the ticket to soothe the muscles. I decided to forego the use of the gym but full leisure facilities are at your disposal.
Dinner was served in the 68 Clooney Restaurant, all three courses of it, and it was delicious. The service was impeccable, the waiting staff were attentive and friendly making for a wonderfully relaxed dining experience. My gluttony continued at breakfast, I sampled pretty much everything -healthy muesli, nuts, fruit, natural yoghurt and of course the full cooked breakfast, the potato bread was particularly good! It didn’t end there. To fuel my day ahead I was presented with a packed lunch full of goodies. To say I was very well looked after is an understatement.
The fuelling was preparation for my Irish Walking Tour of the Sperrins with Martin Bradley of Landscape and Countryside Tours. Martin is a paleoecologist with a vast knowledge of the botany and ancient peatlands of the North West. Taking me to places of archaeological and historic interest we started our day with a visit to a sweathouse dating back to at least the 15th century. Sweathouses were used like a sauna or steam room to cure aches and fevers and this one at Ballydonegan is a well preserved example. Over bridges, through fields and trees we came to a stone mound with an opening to the side. A fire would have been lit to heat the stones and the entrance sealed with the patient inside, water from the nearby stream would be thrown on the stones to create steam.
Then it was on to the uplands of the Sperrins to appreciate it’s meaning – Spurs of Rock. Evidence of various geological activity can be found in this region, outcrops of volcanic basalt and valleys formed from glaciation are covered in a thick blanket of peat. We explored the ancient peatlands where mounds of freshly cut peat were drying out, readying to be sold. Here Martin showed me fragments of trees from over three thousand years ago – preserved by the lack of oxygen and acidity of the peat bogs.
Continuing on I marvelled at the picturesque views to our next stops, unfortunately some of the countryside has been marred by recent landslides but this in itself was a reminder that the landscape is forever changing and it will be interesting to see how the land will recover in months and years to come. Amongst holy wells and recapitulatory Irish place names was a real gem waiting to be discovered. Stepping back in time to the early Bronze Age Martin took me to Goles Stone Row. A row of stones in almost perfect alignment were put here for ritual purposes around 4 thousand years ago. Unfortunately it was a bit of grey day but when the clouds clear and you stand at the top of the row and look over to the opposing hill you’ll see a natural cup in it’s ridge. Every so often the full moon will appear to sit in the cup aligning with the stones. Just to add a little extra atmosphere a Mountain Ash, or faerie tree has been planted in line with the stones.
A very special place indeed. To finish up the tour we arrived at Tamnagh Foods for a little taste of locally made cheese inspired by the Sperrin mountain range. Established in 2010 by Julie Hickey the artisan Dart Mountain Cheese range includes an alpine style cheese and my particular favourite, Banagher Bold which is washed in a Northbound Micro Brewery ale. It smells divine. Taking me through her process Julie showed me the various stages and her commitment to sourcing locally and supporting the local community. Perfect end to fabulous day adventuring through the uplands of the Sperrins.
This particular slow adventure was a great combination of discovering the scenic beauty of the Sperrins, enjoying delicious food and pure relaxation, all with the most welcoming of local people. I came away with a much deeper understanding of this area and why sometimes it’s best to take things slow.
The various adventures are all catered to you, your ability and what you wish to obtain from your break away from it all. Slow Adventure NI is part of the Slow Adventure in Northern Territories programme (SAINT). Participating countries include Scotland, Iceland and Norway. A full list of the packages on offer in the Derry-Strabane area can be found at www.slowadventureni.com