As the season of mists and yellow fruitfulness fades to a distant memory and the bleak-mid winter beckons, there’s something comforting about being carried away into the cosy world of words. However, instead of Novel Travel I’m on a poetic journey to find out more about one of Ireland’s greatest poets in County Derry. My GPS takes me on the road less travelled through the undulating hills and winding country roads, into the heartland of Heaney Country. Passing a derelict house that might well have transported Dorothy out of Kansas, my mind wanders past barns, cottages and hedgerows.
Here are ‘the briars that scratched and wet grass that bleached his boots, round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills’ where Heaney went blackberry picking ‘until the cans were full’. I soak it all in because I’m able to envisage him standing as a young boy digesting the landscape and turning it into eloquent words that will live long after those who tread the country lanes.
In fact this corner of County Derry is the perfect location to explore much of the northern coast of Ireland. The Dark Hedges made famous on the set of Game of Thrones and the Giant’s Causeway being a thirty minute journey away. That Lonely Planet has rated Northen Ireland as number one destination to visit in 2018 is no surprise.
The Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy is more than an arts centre, it is a living breathing homage to poetry and inspiration and even if you are not up to speed with work of this Nobel Prize Winning Poet, anyone passing through school in the last ten years will be familiar with his jewel of the English language, ‘Mid-term Break’, written in memory of Heaney’s brother, Christopher, who was fatally killed at the tender age of four.
I’m honoured to meet Hugh, another brother, and current resident at Mossbawn, the farm where the Heaney family grew up and is home to Hugh Heaney today. The source of much of Seamus Heaney’s inspiration, is the pale of water that rippled in the kitchen when the train passed and this imagery is now transformed into the ceiling of one of the exhibits at the Homeplace. This describes the perfect attention to detail that has been lovingly shown in the design of the building. Designers Tandem Partners, worked closely with those who knew Heaney to give the displays this authenticity.
Heaney’s nephew, Brian Mc Cormick, Director of the Homeplace, enforces that this great achievement is a family affair. “Forty-Three-Thousand visitors have passed through the doors in the first year of opening from September 2016” he says. The Helicon, an auditorium with seating for 190, has the intimacy and calm of a church or library, and is about to host an evening with Ardal O’Hanlon in conversation with William Crawley. Speaking to a full house the pair entertain and include the audience in repartee and chat. Throughout the year poets, writers and musicians fill the Homeplace with inspiring events that are usually sold out well in advance.
I continue walking through sentences and rhymes, a picture painted by words and so cleverly echoing the townland that I drove through on my way to Bellaghy.
Tadpoles and frog spawn are represented in many of Heaney’s poems and imagery surrounds visitors to the Homeplace every step of the showing the process from raw materials to finished process. Consciously or not it’s the elements in his poetry that are explained in simple and clear terms to the non-expert like myself and many younger visitors who are encouraged to partake in the interactive displays, that make the experience special.
Putting a star on your favourite poem or drawing a picture of the poet is all part of the experience for youngsters and the free worksheet means that the little ones can enjoy the displays with a variety of activities. I drink in the poet’s voice as he reads the words of some of his best loved works from headphones dotted around the exhibition. ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests, I’ll dig with it.’ The very pen that he took with him to boarding school at the tender age of twelve is encased in a cabinet with a letter to his parents. There’s plenty of time and space to enjoy the homemade scones and goodies at the counter before slipping off to enjoy what else is nearby.
A perfect accompaniment to my poetic pilgrimage is a stay at Ardtara Country House. Part of Ireland’s Blue Book Directory I’m confident that this property will carry me back in time to the days when linen was the king crop in this part of the world. ‘All year the flax-dam festered in the heart of the townland;’ explained Heaney is his poem Death of a Naturalist and once again I’m moving through poetry. With only nine bedrooms this elegant house was once home to harry Jackson Clarke who owned a factory in the village of Upperlands, each has its own character and style.
The grandiose driveway with crunchy gravel is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Blue Book properties with a warm familiarity, like visiting a well-heeled aunt. I wake next morning to a sky tinged with pink and the crunch of tyres on the drive outside. The flames are flickering in the hearth and I feel like I’ve been whisked back in time or woken up in the pages of a book. My room is composed in Victorian elegance with Georgian blue strips and mahogany furniture. The bathroom, a blend of modern shower and vintage stand alone bath, looks out on to the lawn. Ardtara is known for its cuisine and currently in the ownership of Chef Ian Orr and Marcus Rolston. My breakfast is testament to that with Eggs Benedict looking out on to the lawn – I really don’t want to leave.
My homage to Seamus Heaney ends with a visit to his graveside – only a stone’s throw away in the burial grounds of St Mary’s Church in Bellaghy. ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’ the words inscribed on Heaney’s headstone from his poem ‘The Gravel Walks’ inspire rather than mourn the poets passing. Heady with inspiration I reluctantly leave this beautiful maudlin part of the world – ‘A soul ramifying and forever silent, beyond silence listened for’ but Heaney is still very much alive in the land, the air and especially his Homeplace.
Ardtara House is part of Ireland’s Blue Book
Bed & Breakfast from £49.50
One Night Getaway (Dinner, Bed & Breakfast) from £84.50 per person sharing
To find out more about what to do in Northern Ireland go to https://discovernorthernireland.com/
The Seamus Heaney Homeplace https://www.seamusheaneyhome.com/ Bellaghy