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25 May 2022

Travel Tales: 'The city has great history but what I loved was the welcome from the people'

In this week's Nationalist

Tipperary Tipperary Tipperary

Hit TV show Derry Girls

“Our city is called by many names. Some call it the city, stroke city or the walled city, others Londonderry and just Derry but we like to call it legenderry”.

My guide Charlene McCrossan told me to much laughter at the start of my trip to Derry last month.

Appropriately we were starting the Martin McCrossan walking tour of city walls beside a huge mural of the Derry Girls, painted across the side of a building, which was paid for by Channel 4 as a thank you to the city for the hugely successful television show.

The Derry Girls’ mural has become a symbol of the city like all the famous murals on the Bogside. If the murals on the Bogside are symbols of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday and the campaign for peace then the Derry Girls is a symbol of the new Derry which is full of fun, energy and optimism for the future.

I would recommend the Martin McCrossan City Walls Tours as a “must do” to get your bearings of this wonderful historic city before you do anything else.

Martin McCrossan set up the tour over 30 years ago and locals told him at the time that he was mad as there was no way tourists would come to Derry amid the Troubles.

But Martin was evangelical in promoting the city he loved so much. Martin, who was a Catholic married to a Protestant, became a symbol himself for a progressive city with a bright future.

Martin was named Mr Derry when he passed in 2015 and his effervescent daughter Charlene now runs the tours with great wit and passion on the only fully walled city in Ireland or the UK.

Charlene takes you through 1,500 years of history from the 6th century to the plantations and all the way from the Siege to the Troubles to the peace process.

As we walked the city walls and passed the Bogside below us, I asked Charlene if tourists still found it emotional hearing about Bloody Sunday and she told me “Often and I even tear up myself sometimes”.

Charlene was candid about the divisions in the city in the past but what really shone through for me was the commitment to never return to the dark days of the past and a positivity about a bright new future for the city living in peace and prosperity.

I had never been to Derry and it is such a novelty to go to a new place that is both very familiar but also very different to my experiences of other holidays in Ireland.

It is a different country but there is no worrying about airport queues. I could not recommend Derry enough as the perfect weekend away. The city has a population of over 120,000 people but the ancient and old, walled centre feels much more compact, and I loved that.

It is easy to walk around to see all the sites.

For lovers of history and entertainment, it is the perfect city for a break.

By day you can visit the many great museums like the Guildhall which has a great exhibition on the history of the plantations and the Siege of Derry museum run by the Apprentice Boys.

By night there are great restaurants and bars all clustered together to create a vibrant nightlife buzz. It feels as if everyone is on the payroll of the tourist board as everyone is so welcoming and friendly.

My favourite places to visit are those where you feel the pride locals have for their town.

It is an intangible thing but when locals exude their love for home it makes the holiday so much more special.

Everyone wants to get the message out that Derry is looking forward not backwards. An example was when I parked in town, and I was running late for the walking tour.

I had no change for the parking ticket. A parking warden passed by and saw I was struggling, without Wi-Fi, to download a parking app to pay the ticket.

He said to me: “Don’t worry about the ticket, no need to pay. I’ll keep an eye on your car for you. Now go enjoy the tour.”

Another place I would highly recommend is the historic Brook Hall estate which is a 140 acre 18th century demesne on a picturesque site on the banks of the River Foyle with over 25 acres of beautiful gardens that have just been opened to the public for group tours.

Just 5km from the city centre Brook Hall is owned by the Gilliland family who have developed the gardens and arboretum into one of the finest private collections of plants and trees in Ireland.

I was brought around the stunning gardens by the owner David Gilliland whose family originally came to Ireland during the plantations and have been here for six generations.

The garden features plants and trees from all over the world so it is a tour through history as much as nature where every tree and plant have a story.

David brings his family’s history to life through the gardens which made it the most enjoyable garden tour I have ever done.

There was a tradition of trees and plants becoming fashionable in the gardens of the great houses like the 100-year-old American Redwood or 400-year-old Oak tree from the time of the Siege of Derry.

Brook Hall had a major part to play during that siege as it hosted King James’ army.

The front of the house has old cannons all along the front of it and when I asked about them David told me his ancestor Sir George Hill captured Wolf Tone on a French warship off the coast of Derry as Wolf Tone tried to flee capture from the English.

Wolf Tone was dressed in a French uniform and spoke fluent French so he could not be picked from the other sailors on the ship.

But Sir George had been to Trinity College with Wolf Tone, so he was able to point him out for arrest. David told me with a twinkle in his eye that the cannons were trophies from the captured warship.

That story summed up why I loved my trip to Derry so much.

The city is steeped in the history we know so well but brought alive by locals passionate about sharing the area’s stories.

The city has great history, architecture, bars and restaurants and hotels but what I really loved the most was the welcome from the people.

For more information on Derry go to https://www.visitderry.com. 

To hear my Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast episode out now with all those interviews go to www.traveltaleswithfergal.ie .

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