Legendary appeal

25th September 1998 at 01:00
There are some big reasons to take a trip to Northern Ireland, says Isobel Durrant

Elaine Freestone, who teaches in Magherafelt, believes it's important that English children come to visit Northern Ireland. It is only then that may could begin to understand that children from the province have very similar lifestyles and hold the same values and aspirations as they do. Her experience of being met with blank stares, followed by a cross-examination about the political situation, when she says where she comes from, is common.

Safety will probably be a consideration for anyone planning a school journey to Northern Ireland. That can be no more guaranteed here than for anywhere else, but the province has one of the lowest crime rates in the UK, and Belfast is one of the safest cities in Europe. The levels of aggression encountered in London streets every day, for example, just don't occur in Northern Ireland. This is partly due to the size of the towns - even Belfast has just half a million inhabitants living within 10 miles of the centre - and partly to the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality of the people, which is equalled only in Greece.

Visitors will find a country about the same size as Yorkshire with a huge variety of activities and places to visit and study. Outdoor pursuits are big in Northern Ireland. You have a choice of mountains, moors, lakes, rivers, forests and sea to play with. And the Northern Ireland Education and Library Boards have a register of instructors qualified in the nine sports for which they provide a specific set of training courses for leaders in outdoor education. The register is revalidated every three years so you can be sure your instructor is up to the mark.

"We're very well catered for in outdoor pursuits," says Elaine Freestone. "They're used in cross-community projects, perhaps they could now also be used in cross-water projects."

With so much coastline and the vast freshwater lake Lough Neagh, water sports have a high profile. There are opportunities for every type of canoeing, sailing, rowing, sub aqua and wind surfing. Those wanting to study bird and marine life can enjoy bird hides and organised boat trips. Strangford Lough is a great wildlife reserve and bird sanctuary. For those whose interest in fish is more business-orientated or culinary, there are a number of salmon and fish farms, and Lough Neagh is famous for its eels. You can even visit the largest wild eel fishery in Europe at Toomebridge. At the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre students can also learn about the history, ecology and management of the area.

Leaders of Duke of Edinburgh awards groups will find in Northern Ireland a rich seam. There are a number of accredited centres. Climbers and hikers are well catered for. The best known path is the 560-mile-long Ulster Way, which runs all the way round Northern Ireland over a varied terrain. The Mourne Mountains in County Down include 12 peaks above 2,000 feet. The landscape can be wild and remote and the views are spectacular. It's an area suitable for serious hill walkers. The Sperrin Mountains in the west are less well known, but equally interesting. As you climb Camtogher look out for the Emigrants' Cairn. Here people heading for Belfast to escape by boat from the country during the famine, would leave a stone at the last point where they could see Derry. Local tourist offices can give details of guides.

There are many historical sites and centres which schools can visit. Often they have resources ready linked to the national curriculum and it's a question of choosing the places that suit your needs the best. Schools can stay at the Ulster-American Folk Park in County Tyrone, which tells the story of emigration in the l8th and 19th centuries. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in County Down chronicles the history of everyday life and has a residential centre offering full board from Pounds 13.50 per person per night.

There are eight Youth Hostels in Northern Ireland. The five education and library boards each own a number of residential centres where equipment may be hired, with instructors, at reasonable cost, although local schools have priority.

One of these is at Bushmills, a stone's throw from the distillery where teachers and students can enjoy guided tours, and a few miles from Giant's Causeway, the most famous site in Northern Ireland. Geologists say the strange basalt columns are the result of volcanic eruptions, but for those who prefer more romantic explanations legend has it that the giant Finn MacCool built it as a pathway to visit his Hebridean girlfriend.

And who would disagree? Storytelling, poetry and wordsmithing in general have always been important in Northern Ireland.

The most famous living writer from Northern Ireland is Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. In Bellaghy village, County Derry, near where Heaney still lives, a 17th-century stronghold, or bawn, houses the most comprehensive library of his work.

Bawns were originally built to protect the livestock and family of planters, people from Scotland and England who settled in Ulster and were backed by money from the City of London's livery companies. This one is the only bawn with a display and visitor facilities, and just for good measure there's a ghost too, a benign presence apparently. School groups are welcomed.

A CD-Rom is planned and four new educational packs will be available from 1999: a poetry pack on Heaney-influenced themes, an environmental pack, a pre-historic pack and a plantation pack. The latter will be produced in conjunction with the Plantation of Ulster Visitor Centre at nearby Draperstown, where you can see a copy of the seat on which leaders of the clan O'Neill were inaugurated before it was destroyed by forces of the English crown.

At the bawn drafts and redrafts of Heaney's poems can help convince students that a piece of writing is worth working on. Schools wishing to concentrate on the literary angle might also want to visit the Derry Verbal Arts Centre, which is supported by just about every living writer in the province and quite a few from further away.

The centre, which is funded by the Department for Education and Employment, is looking forward to the National Year of Reading of 1999, which actually started this month. Its programme includes workshops, festivals and storytelling sessions. And while you're there students can walk the walls of the most complete walled city in Ireland.

Stories are not the only thing woven in Northern Ireland. The linen business, although currently enjoying something of a resurgence, is a shadow of its former self. Linen is made from the flax plant, which has been cultivated in Ireland for around 3,000 years.

To learn more about the history of the linen-making process - and some handy Scrabble words such as rettling, scutching and hackling - you can take the Irish Linen Tour. It lasts six hours, including a lunch break, and takes you from a scutching mill (don't ask), to a working linen factory via the wonderful Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum. Here visitors can see spinning and weaving demonstrations, maybe try their own hand and ask all the questions they want. Among the objects on display are napkins for Queen Mary the size of small tablecloths and, at the other extreme, tiny monogrammed linen for Queen Mary's dolls' house.

The possibilities for school visits to Northern Ireland are great and varied. Parents' fears will have to be addressed, but there are much more dangerous in places in the world. Go. You won't be disappointed. To borrow 11-year-old Marianne O'Hagan's comments about the Woodhall Centre in Kilrea, "It's brilliant. The best place in the world."


* The Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland 22 Donegal Road BelfastBT12 5JN Tel: O1232 324733

* Northern Ireland Tourist Board St Anne's Court 59 North Street Belfast BT1 1NB Tel: O1232 232221

* National Trust, Northern Ireland Region Rowallane House Saintfield Ballynahinch Co Down BT24 7LH Tel: 01238 510721

* Bellaghy Bawn Castle Street Bellaghy Magherafelt BT45 8LD Tel: 01648 386812

* Plantation of Ulster Visitor Centre 50 High Street Draperstown Co Derry BT45 7AD Tel: O1648 2780O

* The Verbal Arts Centre Cathedral School Building London Street Londonderry BT48 6RQ Tel: O15O4 266946

* Ulster-American Folk Park Mellon Road Castletown Omagh Co Tyrone BT78 SOY Tel: 01662 243292

* The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Cultra Holywood Co Down BT18 OEU Tel: 01232 428428

* Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum Market Square Lisburn BT28 1AG Tel: O1846 663377

* Old Bushmills Distillery 2 Distillery Road Bushmills BT57 8XH Tel: 012657 31521

* Lough Neagh Discovery Centre Oxford Island National Nature Reserve Lurgan BT66 6NJ Tel: O1762 3222O5

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