Late May, Early June 2017 - Islay and Bangor
The Islay Malt and Music Festival is excellent entertainment so we had no difficulty in filling our days while waiting for suitable winds to take us south. On our first day it was overcast and raining all morning, but cleared at lunch time so we set off to the Laphroaig Distillery Open day via several standing stones (see more pictures). We were very impressed to be given a Laphroaig monogrammed lanyard which, instead of an ID card that we have at work, had a whisky glass, and three clips enameled with "DRAM" that we could exchange for suitable refreshment (see more pictures and right). Even better was the fact that they had dram sized bottles in which you could take away your measures so not have to drink a triple whisky in the middle of the afternoon. The distillery courtyard was a happening place with live music, barbeque and various food wagons, perfect for chilling out on the shore.
Wednesday was the turn of the open days at the Islay Ales Brewery and Bowmore distillery. Not fancying whisky before noon, we first went for a walk around the woods near the Brewery at Bridgend, until it was a reasonable time for lunch. The local butcher was doing excellent bacon baps which we washed down with the festival ales. We got chatting to two retired ladies who had lived all their lives on Islay, they had also come for the bacon baps, though they stuck to tea rather than beer. Our favourite beer was "Big Peat" (see left) the festival ale made with malted barley so having an interesting smoky flavour. It was so good we squeezed 8 bottles into the rucksack before catching the bus back to Bowmore.
The Bowmore open day was a repeat of Laphroaig - a free glass, lanyard and two drams. (see above and more pictures), live music in the distillery courtyard, and a lovely sunny afternoon so great to sit on the slipway and soak up the atmosphere.
Then followed a wet day spent listening to cricket on the radio, and a sunny day where we went for a bird watching walk. It was very prolific with sightings of chough, wheatear, winchat, stonechat, (and other unidentified LBJs) red grouse, heron, oystercatcher, ringed plover, redshank, eider, shelduck, and we even heard a corncrake, though of course did not see it. Just offshore, seals were basking in the sunshine and "singing" to each other, a very eerie sound.
The Festival ended with the Ardbeg open day. Again we did not fancy whisky before lunch so went for a walk up into the hills behind the distillery. Our goal was the abandoned farm of Solam (see more pictures). This was close to a crofting community that was wiped out by plague in the 18th century. Local tradition has it the plague was brought by shipwrecked sailors taken in by the villagers. The village was sealed and none allowed to enter of leave. Locals left food at a safe distance until it was no longer collected, at which point the village was burnt to the ground. The open day was well underway when we returned. This time there was a token charge for entry, but along with the glass and dram, it also included an "Arbroath Smokie". This tied in with the "sea" theme of the day chosen as the"standard" Ardbeg is called Kelpie. The smokie queue was considerable, but the wait was worth it, they were delicious and complemented the whisky beautifully. The smokie tent is in the middle of the picture below with the fish smoking in the peat below layers of hessian (see also more pictures), and the queue can be seen snaking off around the building to the left. We were not as lucky with the weather and some heavy showers blew through, but the staff kept up everyone's spirits by liberally toping up glasses from huge (4.5litre?) bottles of Kelpie as the band played traditional and popular songs.
Our final day on Islay was another of dramatic contrasts, the morning dawned with bright blue sky with barely a cloud, rapidly changing to heavy rain by early afternoon. There was just enough time to walk around the bay to the "Singing Sands" (left). The beach of beautiful white sand continues all around the bay, but the only ones enjoying that day were a couple of highland cattle who were snoozing near the sea soaking up the sun (see more pictures). We made a short divertion to a ruined chapel to locate the grave slab carved as a knight (right).
The timing for leaving Islay was not helpful, the wind did not change to a favourable direction until after the early morning tide, so it was mid afternoon before we could set off for St. George's Channel between Northern Ireland and the Mull of Kintyre. The wind was light, but it at least was in the same direction as the tide so the sea was benign as we raced through the narrowest point. By 9pm we had had enough so anchored for the night at Cushendall, a few miles south of the narrows. Gales blew in over night, so we stayed put and listened to more cricket. It was a good spot for shelter from the wind, but the NW wind caused quite a swell which bent around the headland and came at us from the NE - directly on the beam - making us rock continuously from side to side all day - most uncomfortable. But the following morning, the wind had abated sufficiently for us to continue onto Bangor. It was a sparkling sunny day with a F6-7 over our back quarter providing an exhilarating sail and making up for all the discomfort the previous day (see banner).
There is much to do in and around Bangor so we are planning to stay some time. So far we have caught the train into Belfast to visit the Ulster Museum. It was being renovated when we were here last in 2007, so we had been looking forward to it. There are several interesting artifacts, with the cutest being the ~1½inch gold and ruby "Salamander" the was recovered from the Spanish Armada galleas, Girona (see more pictures). This was in contrast to the dramatic wicker flying dragons suspended from the ceiling (right, with Tim in the distance to give the scale, see more pictures).
On our trip to Belfast we saw an advert for the Sunday Rail Tracker ticket - unlimited travel, all day Sunday on the trains for just £7. This was a perfect use for a showery day. Starting at 08:22 from Bangor, we arrived at Belfast Central and were treated to a light engine move of a 2-6-4T steam engine chuffing through the station (see more pictures). From here we went north to Portrush and Derry-Londonderry, seeing the central parts of Northern Ireland which appear to be mostly sheep and cattle, and then along the coast and the shores of Lough Foyle. On returning to Belfast headed east along the northern coast of Belfast Lough to Larne and back, returning to Bangor at 19:15. The route has one of the best views of the Titanic Quarter of Belfast (below) but it is difficult to judge the shot as the train rapidly crosses the river.