You can take your Giants Causeway and your Mountains of Mourne. Get away from me with your Fermanagh Lakes and your Troubles Tours in gritty Belfast and give me Bangor. More specifically, the beach at Ballyholme, and the track beyond it which meanders towards Groomsport. But speak of it quietly lest everyone wants a piece of it.
Mostly I walk that way by myself, occasionally with family members but always with my dogs. I couldn’t count the miles and the hours I have walked there, and the words exchanged there. By now the sights and sounds are familiar but always capable of exciting something new. There is Belfast Lough, stained with sky colours, opening to the Irish Sea and the coast of Scotland. Cave Hill and Black Mountain brooding over Belfast. The church-spired skyline of Bangor beautiful when back-lit by the declining sun. Carrickfergus stretching to Kilroot Power Station and the shore by Whitehead, where my wife and I first walked together and grew to know and love one another.
I call it the crookedshore, an adaptation of an old name for Bangor, and on that path between the towns, along the shore, is where I want my ashes scattered when I finally go.
It’s where I mark the transition of the seasons each year, and where many of the founding tales of our family have their origin.
Like that Sunday afternoon one cold wet and windy November. We had walked the beach and the track and we were returning home. The flat slap of the tennis ball marked the intervals of our progress along the sand. I throw and Tobey, my chocolate labrador, retrieves in a continuous loop repeated again and again. He was young then, still learning his strength and growing in confidence in the water. I threw it, but only barely, in to the water and he wades out and brought it home to a chorus of applause.
On this particular afternoon, whilst this was happening, a man approached us. He had a lean, black dog who walked with a swagger. The man would fling his ball as far as he possibly could way out over the formation of the waves to the smoother water beyond, and his dog would power into the water, swim forever, grab the ball in his mouth and return, to do it all over again. I could tell Tobey was impressed as he sniffed the black dogs nether regions. I watched enviously, not the sniffing, but the partnership between dog and owner, feeling somewhat emasculated as my pathetic dog refused to get wet above his elbows.
Thankfully the man and his aquatic canine moved on up the beach, the dog carrying his ball like Michael Phelps wearing his medals.
Feeling the necessity to restore my manhood, I tossed our yellow ball just a little further. Tobey walked out. Stopped. Turned round and looked at me as if to say, “Are you serious?” The ball then got caught on the tide and floated away towards Scotland. I threw my arms in the air in exasperation, turned to my wife and complained “How much money has this damn dog cost us in tennis balls?”
I’m gripped by sudden madness. I grabbed the dog by the collar, lifted him up in my arms and walked out into the grey November seas fully clothed. Out and out we went. The dog, terrified, soon stopped his struggling. Out beyond the waves until the water is chest high, and then I flung the dog further out into Ballyholme Bay.
He briefly disappeared beneath the surface of the waters and I panicked momentarily. Then he surfaced and swam frantically towards the shore. I followed. When he reached the sand he ran around the beach like a demented thing celebrating his escape from mortal terror and the crazy man who tried to drown him. It took a moment to catch him. But I did. And I swept him up in my arms again and headed back out and out. Beyond the waves, till the water is once more chest high. And the action is repeated.
And a third time. My wife hung her head in embarrassment. The kids, shrieking in delight, now follow me out into the water, and the three of us fully clothed, launch the dog a third time into the waters. Then sopping wet the humans sit on coats and bags in the car, which now reeked with the smell of wet dog.
But Tobey had found his lifelong love of water. Which was just as well because water, whether in the sea or from the rain is a constant companion on the crookedshore.
One dark evening in October the wind roared in my ears but Tobey and I were out there.
Back home, the fire burned brightly and the hearth radiated its heat. Tobey had lately been stretched asleep in his usual spot by the fireside, like a big brown bear grateful for his good fortune until, that is, I crept down quietly from the bedroom and lifted my coat from under the stairs. Then he was instantly awake, nudging my right leg in anticipation of a walk, utterly uncaring about conditions outside. I grabbed a warm hat, slip his lead into a pocket and headed out without any particular plan.
In the dark, senses are heightened though it seemed that the dog was less sure. He barely strayed more than 5 metres in front or behind me.
I joined the bright dots of light overhead that formed a plane on a flight path to Aldergrove. Donaghadee lighthouse swept the sky like a giant windscreen wiper struggling against the rain. Then, about half way round, the heavens opened. I pulled my hood up, secured it against the wind so that I could only see through a letterbox shaped hole, but sight is hardly needed. I seem to find my way around the track by memory. Walking round a corner, with high hedges on either side I almost stumbled straight into another man on the narrow path. He wears a red coat and is accompanied by two shining golden retrievers and we stop. Unable to make out our features we exchanged what passes for conversation among two Irish male strangers,meeting one another in an odd place, in horrendous weather. ‘It’s wet’ he said, in typical understatement. ‘Aye’, says I, ‘and are we the only two mad ones who are out?’ I ask. ‘Think so,’ says he. But I wonder. It’s raining and windy, but I’m wrapped up and feeling just great, is it really crazy?
For me though, the best time of the year on the crookedshore is the Autumn.
All along the track the signs of the passing season are visible, gone is the glorious yellow gorse of high summer, gone too the bishop’s purple of the thistles.In their place the pea pods and the seed heads hold in them the promise of new life; but not before the winter. Here too are the bloated wild blackberries which we will soon pick to make the jelly which will preserve the richness of the season for the middle of winter.
On days like this, and there have been many of them, there is a meditative quality about the shore. Perhaps it’s the hypnotic effect of the coming and going of the waves or simply the shushing withdrawal of water down the sand. Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of the game of fetch I play with the dog. I throw the ball out beyond the first rise of the waves, faking it once or twice to fool him. He leaps over the closer in waves and then swims as the shore shelves away. As he reaches the ball his head turns and the hinge of his jaw opens to enclose it, his tail flicks as he changes direction, launching a shower of droplets into the sun lit air and he turns for home.
Meanwhile I wait. Observing the curl of the white foam as it trails away with the retreating wave, sketching curious patterns on the smooth sand. I sneak a glance at my two children who play further up the beach. Then twirling the ball chucker between my forefinger and thumb I turn back to Tobey swimming to the shore while he coughs water from his mouth.
Then almost unnoticed, the beach has emptied of the dog walkers, the joggers and the hand-in-hand lovers. The sun is dropping down behind the rooftops and church towers of the town. And the children, faces reddened from exertion, make their way over and request a return home. The dog is more reluctant, but we leave, trailing conversation behind us about the afternoon, and the ball skills, and the sun, and how the dog refuses to walk a straight line.
I used this piece for a Tenx9 event last summer whose theme was, simply and profoundly, “Bangor.”