For the past few months I have been shooting for an upcoming book on Ulster. I always had a soft spot for the northern part of Ireland, especially the counties Donegal, Antrim and Down. There is however more to Ulster than these three counties and I was especially looking forward to exploring a bit of Tyrone and Armagh.
Armagh is known as the orchard county and produces about 35.000 tonnes of Bramley apples every year. The Armagh apple culture is said to have started with St. Patrick who is credited with planting an apple tree at the ancient settlement of Ceangoba. The Bramley apple was introduced by Mr. C J Nicholson of Cranagill House, Loughgall in 1884 and soon became the principal variety.
Apart from the apples Armagh’s main attractions are the city with its impressive cathedrals and planetarium and the Navan Fort. The latter is located on a low hill west of Armagh City and was once one of the great royal sites and capital of the people of Ulaidh. It is thought that in its heyday the Ulaidh’s territory ranged from the river Drowes in Donegal to the river Boyne in Co. Louth covering all of modern Ulster and Co. Louth. Today the only visible remains of the settlement at Navan Fort are a circular enclosure 250 meters in diameter surrounding the hill and a mound which was dated 95BC crowning the top of the hill. It is what you could call a magic place and the views from the top are stunning but unfortunately my visions of a sunrise or sunset shot didn’t come to fruition and I had to settle for some short lived morning sunshine.
Armagh’s landscape might be perfect for growing cooking apples but for the photographer I found it rather challenging. Once the main attractions are done the photographer is left with a very beautiful but on first impression anything but dramatic drumlin landscape of rolling hills surrounded by the Sperrin Mountains to the west, the Ring of Gullion to the east and Lough Neagh, Ireland’s biggest inland lake, to the north. It’s a landscape that needs some time to get explored and appreciated. The height of summer when everything is just green isn’t really the best time for that and I am looking forward to returning in autumn or winter.
My main target in Co. Tyrone, the largest county in Norhern Ireland, were the Sperrin Mountains. The Sperrins are the largest upland area in Ireland stretching from Co. Tyrone well into Co. Derry. The rocks that make up the Sperrins have been deposited some 700 million years ago and since then the Sperrins have been well worn down by wind, rain and massive glaciation. The highest peak today is Sawel Mountain reaching 678 meters.
The Sperrins are a landscape of gently rolling hills, valleys, forests, lakes and rivers. It is the kind of landscape where Frodo and Bilbo Baggins would feel right at home. I am not sure about the spring weather in the Shire but when I was visiting the Sperrins conditions were rather damp. It turned out that I only had only half a decent day to shoot and was hiding the rest of my trip in the valleys and forest parks and had to ditch my plans for some proper hiking along the many Sperrin trails.
This wasn’t however a bad thing. Especially the Gortin Glen Forest Park can keep a photographer busy even in the rain. The Sperrins are also known for their heritage: Stone circles, standing stones and other monuments are in plentiful supply and pointing to a long and eventful history.
The Sperrins are one of those places that grow on you and much of its beauty is in the detail. There isn’t that big and immediate ‘wow’ effect that places like Donegal or the Antrim coast give you but once you look closely you fall in love with the place.