Insider View on Northern Ireland

Lucy & Johnny Madden - Hilton Park

This month Lucy Madden says it will be a sad day when Mother Nature is not enough, and a place must be theme-parked to attract visitors

A perfect day. They so rarely occur, but imagine sitting under a cloudless sky, sharing a picnic with loved ones, perched on a hillside and watching the little fishing boats as they chug around Strangford Lough and the lazy trawl of the ferry as it makes its way, to and fro.

Behind us is a castle and the view takes in woods and fields and distant hills. Suddenly the quiet is broken by a group of young people who have come across the field and are approaching the castle. Nothing wrong with that but one of them is curiously clothed in a cloak that swirls and from beneath the folds a sword gleams in the sunshine.

What, we enquire, is going on? The cloaked one explains that they are plotting out a route that will be marketed as ‘The Game of Thrones’ Way, or some such and the young ones in our party gurgle with joy, all interest in the natural world abandoned.

As we are all expected to know, ‘The Game of Thrones’ is a very popular television series that is filmed in the north of Ireland, so it seems obvious that ‘the brand’ should be used to attract visitors? But will it?

The north of Ireland is without doubt a beautiful and relatively unspoiled area, underappreciated and well worth visiting, but do we want our countryside to be re-branded as some sort of medieval fantasy? Admittedly, it ill behoves one who is addicted to Coronation Street and who would like nothing more than to visit Manchester to dilly dally in the Rovers Return, to criticise attempts to capitalise on successful television programmes, but sometimes pastoral serenity is all that is required on a holiday. Sword-wielding Goths are not going to improve the scenery.

Earlier this year we visited Derry/Londonderry (the nomenclature is enough to put one off) to see the short-listed Turner prize entries displayed in the city. On leaving the gallery we were asked to fill in a questionnaire with our impressions of the visit. All of these were most positive but I couldn’t get out of my mind remarks made by a friend from the south which I know are felt by many outside the north and which the politicians would do well to take on board.

“I just don’t want to go there,” she said of Northern Ireland. “Not until they stop squabbling.” This view is often echoed and no amount of slick marketing is going to overcome the exasperation and alienation felt by people outside about the obsession with flag-waving and marching and general nose-rubbing that we see regularly on the news.

Living as we do in Borderlands we are in and out of the north all the time, and have come to appreciate its diverse scenery and beautiful coastline; Michael Palin identified the train journey between Coleraine and Derry as one of the most breath-taking in the world.

Belfast is a great city to visit with a vibrant cultural life and excellent restaurants but during a recent visit to one of the best, Ox, we were surprised to see a man walk along the pavement outside waving a large Union Jack.

His aggressive body language seemed so incongruous and jarred with the otherwise sophisticated surroundings. I’m afraid it is going to take a lot more than the identification of a place with a television programme to convince many people to visit the north of our island.

Recent statistics have shown that more of us are holidaying at home, and I clearly underestimate the lure of fantasy; the popularity of the Disneyworlds have already shown that. But it will be a sad day when Mother Nature is not enough, when a place must be theme-parked to attract visitors.

We can leave the idylls as they are, allow the truly wild to flourish while concocting different experiences for those who want them. Some people’s appetite, however, for the bizarre and the lurid has not changed that much. It is worth remembering that Bedlam was once London’s main tourist attraction.

Hilton ParkTogether with her husband Johnny & family, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.





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