The A2 is the road that does its best to hug the 185 miles of ragged Northern Ireland coastline. As a result it crosses every major Northern Irish River the Bann, Lagan and Foyle, it also is one of, if not, the most scenic routes in Northern Ireland. It offers views of Scotland, the Isle of Man along its course. It also is a geologists dream overing many points of interest along its route.
It skirts the coast of three counties Londonderry, Antrim and Down. In this first part of our journey we follow the road from the border with Donegal, through Northern Ireland's second city Londonderry, where it crosses the River Foyle. Then back along the coast and along both banks of the River Bann, crossing in Coleraine. Before getting to the boundary with County Antrim on the North West 200 circuit just outside Portstewart.
Muff is not actually on the A2 it is just across the border in Donegal. However, at this part of our journey we are visiting it as many people from Northern Ireland do to fill up the petrol tank, with fuel. Duty on fuel being considerably less in the Republic of Ireland there is an abundance of petrol stations on one side of the border and a dearth on the other.
We enter Northern Ireland from Muff and the northern end of the A2 by crossing Liberty Bridge. A few kilometres later we come across our first Northern Irish village, Culmore with almost 3,000 inhabitants.
Jutting out to the east into the Foyle estuary is Culmore Point, the location of an artillery fort, which was part of the fortifications for Londonderry to the south. The estuary at the point is the narrowest part of the navigable waters into the dock at Londonderry. There is a late medieval tower at the point, and in the 17th Century is was the site of cannon emplacements.
Near the fort is the first of the lighthouses we will encounter on this trip. The station was established in 1848 but the current tower dates from the 1920s. The tower is 7m tall, is white with a green base and is topped by a solar powered light. Just below this is a window from where the previous light was shone.
On 16 May 1600 Sir Henry Docwra with 4,200 troops (4,000 on foot and 200 mounted) landed at Culmore to quell an uprising in Ulster. He marched to Derry unopposed where he occupied and fortified the town, including within a few years the City Walls. For his service he was given 2000 acres and invested with the title Baron Dockwra of Culmore.
Almost immediately after Culmore you come to Ballynagard. Overlooking the estuary to the east is Ballynagard House for a long time the home for the Hart family.
Although only 1.5 km (1 mile) further up the Lough Foyle we come across a second lighthouse at Ballynagard, the twin to the one at Culmore.
At Ballnagard we pass the Lisahally docks. This was the scene of one of the last German involvements of World War II when on 8 May 1945 the 13 remaining subs of the North Atlantic U-Boat division sailed into the docks to surrender to Admiral Sir Max Horton. Admiral Horton a World War I Sub Commander refused to sake the hand of the surrendering German commander. After the war Londonderry continued as an important submarine centre in the role as NATO’s submarine training base.
During the war Londonderry had been the base of the Western Approaches Command as the most Westerly deep water port in Europe it served a vital role in the convoys of ships that brought supplies, both military and civilian, across the Atlantic. Docks a berths continue all the way in along the banks of the Foyle through to the city centre ahead.
Londonderry (Doire in Irish)
As we reach the outskirts for Londonderry you see signs for the Foyle Bridge. However, this bridge was only completed in 1984 and has a new road the A515 linking it to the A2 on both sides of hte river. We carry on following the historic route of the A2 which takes us onwards into the city itself, past St. Columb’s Stone.
However, as we pass the Bay Road industrial estate in the Pennyburn District the A2 performs an amzing feat, it goes off in two directions. The main branch is the one that takes us into the city and on around the coast of Northern Ireland but the spur takes us North West through Pennyburn and Springtown becoming the Buncrana Road. From its exit from the city this is the shortest stretch of road from any UK city to another country.
Shortly after this brief detour the A2 passes close to the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster. Uniquely for a four campus University so far spread apart each campus is within a few hundred metres of the A2. Also the University of Ulster is the only merger in the UK of Higher Educational colleges.
The Londonderry based campus formerly Magee College was founded in 1865 as Presbyterian Christian arts and theology college making it the oldest site of the merged University in 1992. From 1880 until 1909 it was a college of the Royal Univeristy of Dublin. In 1909 it became associated with Trinity College, Dublin. However, in 1953 it severed it links with Dublin and the Theological College broke off from the remained until it eventually merged with Union Theological College in Belfast in 1978. Magee University College as it was known from 1953 hoped to become Northern Ireland's second university after Queen's in Belfast. However, this failed and Magee merged with the New University of Ulster in 1969.
On the West Bank of the Foyle you will find the ancient walled City which is covered in great detail on the entry on County Londonderry. To the North of the City Walls is the Bogside area of the city. It was here on 20 January 1972 that a peaceful civil rights march turned into what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Just off our route ad the foot of the walled city is Harbour Square the home to Londonderry's Harbour Museum, which catalogues the importance and signaficance the sea and port had to the city's development. Close by in Union Hall Place is the Tower Museum which tells the story of Derry from the geological formation to the present day.
The A2 takes us across the Foyle on the Craigavon Bridge, the only double-decker road bridge in Europe. The current bridge is the third at this point and was completed in 1933. However, the lower deck originally carried trains serving one of the four railway termini that used the serve the city, going North, South East and West. Just beyond the bridge on the west side you can find out more of this railway history at the Foyle Valley Railway Museum.
Before joining the bridge if you look up you will see 'Hands Across the Divide'statue by local sculpture Maurice Harron. The statue is two men in bronze on stone plinths reaching out to each other with their right hands but not quite touching although from many angles it appears that they are. It was unveiled by Minister of State Robert Atkins M.P. in July 1991. Its location is supremely chosen for the subject matter, not only is at the bridging point from the predominantly Catholic west of the city with the Protestant East, but it is also at the foot of the Fountain, the only remaining Protestant enclave on city side of the river.
Turning left off the bridge we come upon the only remaining railway station in the city which links to Belfast by rail.
You have also entered the Waterside area of the City. Over the hill to the southeast you will get to Altnagelvin where the city's hospital is located.
On our left as the road leads out of the city is St Columb's Park in which the remains of the oldest building in Derry St. Brechin's Chapel lie. The walls date back to the 6th Century. We leave the city by following the A2 through the Caw and Kilfinnan districts of the city. The A515 rejoins from our left on the edge of the city with the traffic that has taken the Foyle Bridge.
Just on the edge of town is the Gransha Hospital thet main psychiatric Hospital for the North and West of Northern Ireland.
On the left of the road are the two Lough Enaghs, Eastern and Western. There are two Neolithic Crannogs, stone dwellings on the water, on Eastern Lough Enagh which were discovered in excavations in 1945.
Maydown may only be a small village with 270 residents but it is a major industrial estate. It is the site of the first DuPont factory in Europe, as the inventors of Kevlar the Maydown DuPont plant is one of only three locations in the world which produce this tough aramid fibre.
Maydown continues the military presence in this corner of Northern Ireland with its former air base RAF Maydown which opened in 1942. In May 1943 the RAF handed it over to the Fleet Air Arm when it was renamed HMS Strike.
Campsey is another small village on the outskirts of the city. Although there are only 195 residents it is the site for a business park.
The village of Eglinton formerly shared the name of the first stop on our tour of Muff, there is still a Muff Glen just to the south of the village, and the Muff Riveer runs through the village. The village was renamed Eglinton and established by the Worshipful Company of Grocers between 1823 and 1825.
While the village lies to the south of the A2 to the north lies the airport. RAF Eglinton was opened in 1941 and like Maydown was handed over to the Fleet Air Arm in May 1943 being renamed HMS Gannet. The airfield is still in use as the civilian City of Derry Eglinton Airport.
Greysteel is a village with 1200 residents and sits on Gresteel More, so at some point the y was added to the name. While it is a largely Catholic community on 30 October 1993 6 Catholic and 2 Protestants were killed in, or as a result of, a gun attack on the village's Red Sun Bar by the Ulster Freedom Fighters during a holloween party.
Just to the east of Greysteel the A2 bridges the Faughanvale River. The woodland along the banks of the River is an ornithologists treat and further up stream there are some impressive waterfalls.
The Ballykelly Forest sits between the townland of Carrickhugh and the village of Ballykelly. Carrickhugh is the site of some 19th century watermills. The forest was the first state forest established in Northern Ireland being established in 1910.
Ballykelly (Baile Uí Cheallaigh)
The village developed by the London Company of Fishmongers in the 18th and 19th centuries is situated on the Ballykelly River. To the north of the village there is the Broharris Canal which was constructed in the 1820s towards Limavady along the banks of the Foyle it served both as a drainage canal and for navigation of goods brought in from the port at Derry.
Ballykelly is infamous for the 1982 Droppin Well Disco bombing which claimed 6 civilian and 11 military lifes. The Irish National Liberation Army had targeted the premises as it was frequented by personel from the nearby Shackleton Barracks.
Shackelton Barracks was previously RAF Ballykelly and was opened in 1941. It was used as a base for RAF Coastal Command during hte war but was closed when peace arrived. It was reopened in 1947 as a RAF Joint Anti-Submarine School in conjunction with the Submarine Training base in the Foyle. In 1961 three squadrons of Shackletons were based at Ballykelly when the current name stems from. In 1962 some Fleet Air Arm units used it referring to Ballykelly as HMS Sealion. When air ops ended in 1971 it was handed over to the Army, its third branch of the services, and given its current moniker. The Army Air Corps and RAF still both use and maintain the runway although no aircraft are currently stationed there. The high level of maintainence came in lucky as on 29 March 2006 when a Ryan Air flight from Liverpool mistook it for nearby Eglinton, its intended destination, and landed on the airfield.
The Bessbrook River is roughly halfway between Ballykelly and Limavady. While not directly on our route 1.5 km south of hte bridge upstream is the current Tamlaght Finlagan Parish Church. This church with its tower was built by the Earl Bishop of Bristol the Hon. John Beresford in 1795. More of his building in the area is further along our route. However in the grave yard is the grave of Blind James McCurry, a fiddler, who introduced Jane Ross of Limavady to the tune he knew as O'Cahan's Lament which thanks to her publication of it in 'The Ancient Music of Ireland' in 1855 is now better known as The Londonderry Air the tune of 'Danny Boy'
Tamlaght Finlagan means 'The plague monument of St. Findluganus', St. Findluganus was a friend of St. Columba who establihed the first Abbey in this area in 585, however this old church was in ruins by 1622. The fishmongers arrival in Ballykelly meant they re-established the church building it on a new site to the north of Ballykelly on the Walworth estate. It was burnt down in 1641 rising to be rebuilt in 1664. However, the Irish Army passing by from the seige of Derry in burnt it down again in 1689 but it was sucessfully rebuilt in 1692.
Just past the there are two historic locations. The first just to the south of the A2 is the Rough Fort. It is a rath an earthwork fortification into which lifestock would be herded in times of emergency. It is over 1000 years old and now the property of the National Trust.
Not far away on the northern side of the raod is the Sampson Memorial Tower, in the Farlow Wood. Constructed in 1860 in a gothic style is was a memorial to Arthur Sampson who was agent for the fishmonger's guild.
Limavady (Léim An Mhadaidh)
As we come to our next bridge to the south is Mullagh Hill it was here in 575AD that Saint Columbkille (AKA Columba or Columb) presided over a convention to determine the future of the Irish Colony that had settled in the South West of Scotland.
Moving on we cross the Roe River and enter the town of Limavady. The predominent clan of the area from the 12th to 17th Centuries was the O'Cahans and the remains of the castle are in Roe Valley Country Park. The name of the town in Irish means 'leap of a dog' legend says that the name devived from one of the O'Cahan chief's dogs leaping the Roe upstream of the Castle to get help during an unexpected attack. There is ecidence of settlement in the area since the 5th Century.
Limavady is a town steeped in sporting tradition most of it stemming for the Crisket Club which was founded by John Alexander who died in 1872. The Cricket team were the first winners of Northwest Senior Cricket Club League in 1888.
The current football team Limavady United can trace its history back to the 1870's when memebrs of the cricekt club set up an amateur footall team. The team Limivady Alexander were one of the seven founding members of the Irish Footballing Association in November 1880. In 1882 they played town rivals Limavady Wanderers in the first round of the 3rd Irish Cup. However, two year later the two team merged as the town could not support two clubs and the name Limavady United was chosen.
The Rugby started with a friendly match against Londonderry's Foyle College in 1922. It was played at Carse Hall the home of the Drennans the family that were instrumental in establihing Rugby in the town and almost for it early demise when from 1926-31 Matt and Wallace Dreenan moved away to New Zealand. However, this time is immortalised in the club colours the same all back as the Kiwis.
Limavady however had previous New Zealand connections being the birthplace in 1856 of William Ferguson Massey who was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1912 to 1925. His name is memorialised in Massey Avenue in the town.
Artikelly and Ballycastle
Just to the north of Limavady is 36.1 square miles of land that was given to the Haberdasher's Company in the Platation of Ulster. They created Ballycastle as their main town and also established Artikelly. With 360 residents Artikelly is the largest hamlet in the Limavady area.
The two settlements are now separated by Aghanloo airfield, another old World War II airfield where most of the buildings remain abandoned.
The A2 now is heading north as we skirt Binevenagh a 385m high mountain with a lake near it peak and heavily forested slopes. Various stream run down the mountain side to the sea only a short way apart. The road leads through the hamlets of Drumbane, and Glebe. Crossing the railway we enter Oughtymoyle and coastward lies a gliding club. The on through Ballymultimber, Ballyscullion and Lenamore, on the shore behind these townlands in the Magilligan which stretch the whole way up to Magilligan point with its rifle ranges and its Martello tower. However the A2 turns east through Clooney and Aughil.
Having cut off the Magilligan headland the slopes of Binevenagh still push the A2 shorewards and we come across the Benone tourist complex, a caravan park and holiday centre. It is situted adjacent to Benone Strand which is a multiple recipent of hte European Blue Flag as a quality beach.
The road skirts the cliffs and the dunes and comes into Downhill. The draw of Downhill is the ruins of the grand house, its landscaped gardens and the Mussenden Temple. The house was built for the flamboyant Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, by Michael Shanahan. It was one of the most renowned in Europe and was started in 1776 and housed treasres from all over Europe, but a fire in 1851 destroyed most of the contents. The house was rebuilt and lived in until after World War II when the roof was removed and the house was left as a ruin.
Hervey also built the Lion Gate next to the double wall garden which contain a dovecote and ice house. Also there is a Mausaleum errected to the Bishop's brother the 2nd Earl in 1778 but its top came down during a storm in 1839.
However, the treasue of the estate is the Mussenden Temple built on the cliff tops it was the personal library of the Earl Bishop. Modelled on the Temples of Vesta is Italy is is one of Northern Ireland's iconic images.
Just off the the north lies the town of Castlerock situated just to the West of the mouth of the Bann. It is a resort and fishing town. However, it is home to one of the few surviving buildings from before the 18th Century in Northern Ireland. Hezlett House is a thatched 17th Century House and farmyard which is owned and maintained by the National Trust.
However, while our route is attempting its best to skirt the coastline of Northern Ireland and although the strand at Portstewart is tantalising close just across the Bann we have to make a 25 km detour to end up on the other side of the River and end up heading inland.
Inland toward Coleraine
Just outside Castleock is the exotically named Exorna. Right next to it is Articlave which in the 1930s had the most fanous poltergeist in Ireland. JP Donnelly a reporter was sent from Dublin to cover it and witness Laura, the daughter of a Presbyterian family in the village, being pinched by the Articlave Poltergeist and having her bed shaken. Drumaquill is the last village before we reach Coleraine and while it was 2/3 Protestant in the 1830s it did not have any Protestant mneeting house but had a Catholic Church top serve it 24 households.
Coleraine (Cúil Raithin)
Coleraine is 50km (30 miles) East of Londonderry and here is the lowest bridgable point of the largest and longest river in Northern Ireland, the Bann. The river at Coleraine is 400m wide but has evidence of occupation in the area dating back to the Mesolithic period, St. Patick also has connections to the town dating back to the 5th Century. But like Londonderry it was during the Platation when the London companies developed it along with its neighbour on the Foyle into the urban community it has become.
On the way into town from Castlerock the A2 takes us past Loreto Convent and its Grammar school and the a few hundred metres later Coleraine Academical Instiution.
Loreto College started out as a girls school in 1906 run by nuns of the Ursuline Order, however being French when education changes in the 1920s came in they withdrew from Ireland and called on the Sisters of Loreto in Omagh to take over the running of the school. This they did in 1930 and the school became Co-Educational in 1977.
Coleraine Academical Instiution or Coleraine Inst as it is known is a boys Grammar school that was established in 1860. They have a proud sporting tradition being the most sucessful Rugby playing schools outside of Belfast. Both schools have a high reputation of education excellence in the North West.
The regular street plan of the town centre around the diamond on the East bank is evidence of the London companies early exercises in urban planning.
University of Ulster, Coleraine
Heading North out of Coleraine we come across the Coleraine Campus of the University of Ulster. Established in 1968 this was originally the only campus of the New Universtiy of Ulster, nicknames the plate glass university due to the preponderance of glass in its architecture. It overlooks the Bann and has the fine Riverside Theatre on campus, which puts on professional productions.
On the other side of the campus from our route is one of the point of the triangel that make up the North West 200 motorcycle road race. After the long straight drag out of Portstewart it turns just to the North of the university towards the Ballysally roundabout when it heads towards Portrush.
Portstewart (Port na Binne Uaine or Port Stíobhaird)
Returning to the coast we come to Portstewart which takes its name from Lieutenant Stewart who was leased the land on whci hte town is built in 1734 by the Earl of Antrim. Although the town is relatively new being little more than a fishing village at that time there is neolithic evidence in the area. The oldest parts of the town are actually very close to the A2 as we enter the outskirts.
Right beside the road is the remains of the Old Agherton Parish Church. The local family for a long time were the Ohatheran's and the townland is listed as Bally O'Hatheran on some ancient documents. The church was built on the remains of a bronze age ritual site from before 1000 AD and forther towards the coast is a court grave c. 3500 BC and an ancient signalling mound.
The town of Portstewart was largely developed as a Victorian seaside resort. So the houses along sea front are only on the inland side allowing for a wide seaside promenade, sea water lido and open air amphitheatre. At the end of the Crescent at the southern end of the prom there is a path that rises for Portstewart's cliff top walk along the outside of the walls of the Dominican convent and college, however it you do this in the late evening watch out for the midges.However keep walking around and you will reach the Strand 2 miles of golden beach leading up to the Eastern bank of the Bann
Along the prom there is the famous Morelli's ice cream palour as well as numerous shops and hotels. At the far end is the harbour and behind it a blow hole created by the Atlantic surges on the rocks that jut out at Portstewart point. There are three courses that make up Portstewart Golf Club offering one of the few 54 holes complexes in Europe. To the west of the town there is the Championship Strand course which butts up to the dunes behind the strand, and it neighbour the Riverside Course which runs along the banks of the Bann. To the East is the Old Course where the club was founded in 1894 which the A2 will pass through on its way East out of town.
Just after the Club House on the Old Course is the junction of the York Road with the Portrush Road is the site of the old York Hotel. Every May it becomes the hairpin corner known as York on Northern Ireland's most fomous motorcycle road race circuit; the North West 200. From here to Portrush we are heading the wrong way along one of the fastest motorcycle circuits in the world with speeds of over 200mph being reached on closed public roads.
Near where the A2 changes from being the Portrush Road into the Ballyreagh Road is the most famous house number to motorcycle fans No. 45 is the house on the corner that lends its name to the first corner on the circuit. Further along we encounter the grid and a bit of road off to our right which operates as the pits during race week. Then a sweeping corner next to Juniper Hill caravan site. This was an inviting uphill slope near the line in the race and was the result of many crashes some fatal. To slow the bikes down a seemingly pointless bit of road was added before this bend to act as a chicane to slow the bikes down as they approached this bend.
Just after this chicane is the country boundary but the A2 continues on into Antrim.