The Palladium

Portrush

circa June 1965

If you are ever in Portrush, on the north Irish coast, and you head down Causeway Street from the town centre, just before the Catholic church you will see St. Patrick’s Hall.  Now the building was not always connected with the church.  In my day, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was called The Palladium and it was a theatre, putting on variety shows during the brief holiday seasons of Easter and summer, when the resort used to be a tourist destination, before the tour companies started offering cheap holiday flights and hotels in the more reliable southern European sunshine.  For most of the year The Palladium was shuttered.

Before its transformation to a variety theatre, the Palladium was a ballroom, with a resident orchestra.  There was also Barry’s Ballroom.  With thousands of soldiers stationed in north Ulster, training for the eventual invasion of mainland Europe, there must have been plenty of trade for the ballrooms and the local girls were very much in demand.  That was how my mother met my father in 1942.

I never heard my father speaking of playing at the Palladium.  He ended his military service in January of 1946 in Lübeck on the Baltic, having been involved in the fighting from the invasion of Normandy through Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.   When he returned to Portrush, he got his professional opportunity as pianist with Ernie Mann’s band, then resident in Barry’s Ballroom.  When Ernie was forced to retire, due to ill- health, my father took over leadership of the band.

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My father on the left, with the Ernie Mann Band in 1949
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And at the piano with his own band during a BBC Radio broadcast in 1951

But by the early 1950’s, musical tastes were changing, with Bill Haley and His Comets and the jive displacing the formal quickstep and waltz and orchestras.  And then came Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Beatles and the avalanche of groups with singer, lead, rhythm and bass guitars and drums.  In Portrush, the Arcadia Ballroom opened in 1953 and Barry’s Ballroom closed around that time.  I don’t know what happened to the Palladium Ballroom, but I suspect that it had already ceased to operate.  My father moved his band to the Northern Counties hotel, and for many years they continued there.  He became very well-known and many times over the years, when they have heard my name, strangers have said to me, ‘you wouldn’t be Harry Blackwood’s son, would you now?’

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The Arcadia, on what looks like a bleak stormy day (photo from internet)

I only ever once went to a show at the Palladium.  I think it was in the early summer of 1965, but I am not sure.  Neither can I remember clearly who I went with.  It may have been Trevor Gaston and Martin Williamson, but again it is all a blur.  You see, we went to a performance of Edwin Heath. the well-renowned hypnotist, and I fell asleep in the first few minutes of the show, when he was introducing his act and the entrancing music was playing in the background.  I was not the only one; those of us who succumbed were led up to the stage and we were the show for the next hour or so.

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Edwin Heath, the hypnotist

I recall nothing.  Afterwards I learned that the ‘victims’ were commanded to react to many different out-of-character situations: acting as we were different animals, believing that a glass of water tasted foul or another strongly alcoholic etc., and in my case to imitate a well-known singer, singing a hit song.

Now singing in front of an audience, hypnotised or not, for me was nothing unusual; I was the drummer in Bill McKeown’s Group, appearing at various local hotels in the area and further afield in Belfast, Red Bay and the Giant’s Causeway.  We even had a six-week, Monday through Saturday, summer booking in a local hotel.  In addition to a full-time day job, it was hard work, playing from 20:00 to midnight and often much later. We were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and there was little competition in those days.  Bill was a talented pianist and saxophonist, his wife had a beautiful voice, his son was competent on the guitar.  In addition to drumming, I sang ballads.  When the client had sufficient budget, we included a bass guitar and trumpet, the latter being Tommy Tinkler, who was formerly in my father’s band and is in both photos above.

And in the Edwin Heath show, I sang the Jim Reeves hit song, ‘I love you because’, as I had many times before.

Today Portrush is but a shadow of what it was in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when the holiday crowds filled the hotels and boarding houses, staying for a week or more, when the beaches were crowded in the rare good weather, the amusement arcades were full and in the evening the centre of the tiny town was one big traffic jam and the pavements crowded.  These days, many of the former boarding houses have shut or have been converted into flats for the students from the nearby university.  And the steam trains that used to shuttle back and forth from Belfast, have long been retired and replaced by a tiny local commuter train, carrying students to their classes at the university in Coleraine.

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One of the steam trains leaving Portrush, just as I remember them (photo from internet)

And all the former ballrooms have disappeared; Barry’s Ballroom was demolished and the area converted to more amusement machines; the Northern Counties Hotel was burned down in an arson attack and eventually replaced by a Ramada Inn; the Arcadia was largely demolished and only a part of the original building remains.

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The former Palladium, as it is today

 

Of the four, only the Palladium still functions, albeit in its new role as a church hall.

Jimmy

James Bankhead was a quite tall slim man with fair hair.  Before he bought his first car, he used to regularly walk into Portrush.  He had a very long loping stride and in a few steps he was over the crest of the hill and out of sight.

He was married to ‘Nan’ Stewart, a childhood friend of my mother.  They lived in the big schoolhouse, next door to our farm, and he was headmaster at Carnalridge Primary school, no more than fifty meters from his front door.

Between the schoolhouse and the school lived a very strange old man.  He had unkempt hair and a long grey beard, and must have belonged to a religious sect, for he had a sign in his garden declaring ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is nigh’, or something similar.

The old man’s house was so small, it could only have consisted of one tiny room.  His garden was a large patch of bog, in which the only thing that grew were rushes.  The old man was rarely ever seen.  As a child I was afraid of him.

Carnalridge school was originally established in 1850 by the congregation of the Presbyterian church.  When I first attended the school in 1953, it consisted of just two rooms, a recently built extension for infant children, plus a dining room and catering facilities.

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Carnalridge Primary School

There were three teachers – Miss Moore, who looked after the infants, Miss ‘Old Biddy’ McCartney, who was my first teacher, and James ‘Jimmy’ Bankhead, who taught the older children, until they left for the secondary schools.  I don’t know how many pupils there were in that era, but my guess is that there were about 60 altogether.

My earliest memory of the school was the morning of my first day.  We had to stand around the room, with backs to the wall and give our names. The little girl beside me wet her pants and stood in a large puddle of urine. I feel sure that she has never forgotten the embarrassment that she must have felt.

In my last year, there were only four of us who took the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination, that determined whether we would go on to a grammar school, a technical college, or to an intermediate school, which was little more than a holding pen, until the children could leave at age of 15.

Three of us went on to the grammar school in Coleraine, all in the ‘A’ stream, which was a tremendous compliment to the teaching skills of James Bankhead.  In addition to me, there was David Hunter, who ended up studying law at Oxford, and who became a barrister in Belfast, and Michael Moore, who ended up as a headmaster, like his father before him. The fourth pupil was Joan Gurney, who went on to the Intermediate school.

James Bankhead was born in Ahoghill, in 1906, the son of Samuel and Jane Bankhead.  He started his teaching career in Clooney Primary School, in the Waterside area of Londonderry, where he was an assistant teacher for 5 years.  He was appointed principal of Carnalridge in 1932, and remained there until his retirement in 1966.

James Bankhead

He was a man of many talents and diverse interests.  He was a renowned horticulturist, specializing in growing and studying daffodils, and wrote many articles on the subject.  He was a local pioneer in the field of radio and television.  He built his own radio in 1939 and took it to the church to hear the declaration of war.  He built one of the first television sets in the area, and invited local people to his house to see the coronation ceremony in 1953.  He was an accomplished tenor soloist and sang with the church choir.  He was a keen golfer and bowler.  He was an accomplished mathematician and read widely.

My years in his class were some of the best years of my youth.  He taught me in arithmetic and I loved it, and my love of mathematics endures to this day.  He introduced me to the classical  books in the small school library and I borrowed and read most of them: Children of the New Forest, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, the Enid Blyton books, Robinson Crusoe, among many others. He talked often about the history and geography of our area.

It was James Bankhead who introduced us to cricket, and in our lunch breaks, when the weather was favourable, we used to play, and he always joined in.

Cricket became a passion with me, especially after he showed me a game being played on his television.  I used to spend hours bowling against a wicket placed against the end of our house, and I made up different ways of keeping score.

In about 1986 I visited him.  He was living in a bungalow on the edge of Portrush, on the Ballywillan Road.  His wife had previously died in 1977 and he had remarried to her sister, Lily, who had been living with them in their later years.

I spent a very enjoyable and memorable couple of hours with them, sipping on sherry, and chatting about old times.  I asked him where he had found all the fascinating historical facts about Portrush and the area, history that used to enthral me.  He remembered the book and the author, but regretted that he did not have a copy, otherwise I felt sure he would have given it to me.  It was not until recent times that I discovered a complete transcript of the book on the internet.

Before I left him, I took the opportunity to do something I had wanted to do for many years.  I told him what a great influence he had been on me.  I thanked him for having given me such a good grounding and fostering my interest in a diverse range of subjects.  It was an emotional moment for me and I suspect it was also for him.  He was already an old man at that time, and shortly after, he had a stroke.

He and Lily spent their last days in an old people’s home in Portrush.  He died in 1992 and was buried beside Nan, just outside the door of the ruined church at Ballywillan.

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Lily died some time later and was buried in the new graveyard, across the road from the old church.  I have always thought that Jim and Nan would have wanted her to be buried with them.

The Causeway Way

The Causeway Way is a long distance path of some 50 km, that starts near Portstewart, at the mouth of the river Bann, and ends at Ballycastle.  It passes through Portrush, Dunluce, Bushmills, the Giants Causeway, White Park Bay and the famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

The North West 200 is a motorcycle race meeting held each May.  It is run over public roads between the towns of PortstewartColeraine and Portrush (the Triangle)  and is one of the fastest in the world, with speeds in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h).  In practice for the 2012 event Martin Jessop was clocked at 208 mph (335 km/h).  The first meeting was held in 1929.  It is the largest annual sporting event in Ireland, attracting over 150,000 visitors for the weekend.

There have been 16 deaths since the event was first held, with three in one day in 1979.

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The path of the Causeway Way follows the northern leg of the NW200.  My father’s farm was on the road,  just south of Carnalridge.

At the edge of the headland at Portrush, between the port and the recreation grounds is a disused quarry, in which is today located a water amusement park.  Originally it is believed that this was the site of Portrush castle which, together with the church, was ransacked and destroyed by the army of General Munroe in the late 1600s.  It was later demolished to create the walls of the harbour.

It was Richard Óg de Burgh who built the first castle at Dunluce, on the cliffs adjacent to the White Rocks, near Portrush.  The castle was first documented in 1513, as being in the hands of the McQillan family. They were Lords of Route from the late 13th century, until they were displaced by the McDonnells in the late 15th century.

In 1588 the Girona, a galleass from the Spanish Armada, was wrecked on nearby rocks in a storm. Of the 1300 men on board, only nine survived, and were eventually transferred to relative safety in Scotland. About 260 bodies were washed ashore.  In 1967-8 a team of divers located the wreck and much treasure and other valuable items were recovered and are currently held at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

Following the Battle of the Boyne and the defeat of James I in 1690, the McDonnells were impoverished, and since that time the castle deteriorated and parts were scavenged to serve as materials for nearby buildings.

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In 2011, major archaeological excavations found significant remains of the “lost town of Dunluce”, which was razed to the ground in the Irish uprising of 1641. Lying adjacent to Dunluce Castle, the town was built around 1608 by Randall MacDonnell, the first Earl of Antrim, and pre-dates the official Plantation of Ulster.  It may have contained the most revolutionary housing in Europe when it was built in the early 17th century, including indoor toilets which had only started to be introduced around Europe at the time, and a complex street network based on a grid system.  95% of the town is still to be discovered.

Bushmills is a village some 8 km east of Portrush, along the coastal road.  The river Bush passes through the village.  It is home of the world-famous Bushmills Whiskey.  There used to be five distilleries in the region, but only one now survives.  The distillery draws its water not from the river Bush, but from one of its tributaries, Saint Columb’s Rill.

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King James I granted a licence to distil in the area in 1608 and Bushmills claims to be the oldest licenced in the world.  In 2005 the company was acquired by Diageo, but now is in the process of changing ownership with José Cuervo.

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Close to Bushmills is the Giant’s Causeway, an area of basalt columns that descend into the sea.  The Scottish island of Staffa has similar rock formations.  There are approximately 40,000 columns, typically with five to seven sides and measuring up to 25m in height.

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When we moved in to the new house at Islandflackey in the early 1950s, my mother bought a load of five-sided causeway stones, to use in her garden as borders.  I cannot imagine that today that they are quarried in the same manner.

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The Portrush to Bushmills tramline was the first in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity, by water turbines installed in a generating plant at Wakemill Falls outside nearby Bushmills.  The service started in 1883, with an extension to the Giant’s Causeway in 1887.  The line ran from Eglinton Street, beside Portrush railway station and the distance to the Giant’s Causeway was about 15 km.

Initially there was considerable mineral traffic from quarries along the line to shipping in Portrush harbour and there was goods traffic to Bushmills.  By 1900 this business deteriorated and the line relied on tourist traffic, supplemented by military operations during WW2.clip_image007

In late 1949, operations ceased, and the line was dismantled.  The section from Bushmills to the Giant’s Causeway was reconstructed and opened at Easter 2002.

From the Giants Causeway, the path follows the cliffs until one arrives at White Park Bay, and a little further on, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.

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There has been a rope bridge there for more than 250 years.  It was used by fisherman laying their nets to catch salmon that used to pass by there, on their way to their spawning rivers.

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The Causeway Path ends at Ballycastle, the port for access to Rathlin Island.  Ballycastle is known for its Ould Llamas Fair, held every year on the last Monday and Tuesday of August.  The fair has been held for at least 400 years and it probably started as a market at the end of the harvest season  These days there are more than 400 stalls and traffic is grid-locked for miles around.

When I was young, I recall being given a packet of dulse from the fair.  Dulse is a reddish edible seaweed, very salty, but allegedly quite nutritious.

I have a long-held ambition to walk around Ireland.  When I finally set out, the first stage will be on the Causeway Path.

 

My Home Town

Portrush is on the north Antrim coast of Ulster, close to the county Derry border.  It was originally a small fishing village built around the port, on a peninsula.  The town was recorded as having been granted to Richard de Burgo in 1305.  There are many spellings of the name of the town – Portros, Portross, Portrossce – all meaning Port on the headland.

Shortly after the ice age, some ten thousand years ago, the headland was an island surrounded by bog land.  Evidence of the bog can at times be found exposed on the West Strand.  Evidence of early settlements have been found where the East Strand car park and Causeway Street are now situated.

Above the Harbour next to Ramore head there used to stand the taller Crannagh Hill but it was quarried away to provide the rock to create the harbour’s pier.  Also around here used to stand a castle known as Castle an Teenie (Castle of Fire), because a light was shone from it on stormy nights to warn sailors of the rocks all around.

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Portrush in the late 1960s

The village of Glenmanus, where I spent my first five years, is less than a mile from Portrush harbour, and just off the road to Coleraine.  Originally Glenmanus would have consisted of a small cluster of houses, surrounded by farm land.  When I was young, Glenmanus was on the edge of Portrush, but today it has been swallowed up by the expansion of the town and the old traditional Irish houses have been demolished and replaced by humdrum modern bungalows.

Portrush remained little more than a fishing village, until the railway between Belfast and Londonderry, via Coleraine, was completed in 1855, with a branch line connecting the latter to Portrush.  With easy access from the industrial cities, Portrush was eventually transformed into a fashionable seaside resort, complete with hotels, boarding houses, golf course, boating, cinemas, amusement arcades, bowling green, tennis courts etc.

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Portrush railway station in the late 1800s

In 1870 the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway purchased the already established Antrim Arms Hotel and renamed it as the Northern Counties Hotel in 1883.  With over 100 rooms overlooking the Atlantic, both at the front and back, it provided luxury accommodation for wealthy tourists visiting the Giant’s Causeway.  It even had an indoor swimming pool in an era when few, if any, existed within many miles   For many years in the late 1940s and 1950s, my father’s dance band played at night in the ballroom during the summer season, as well as the Easter and Christmas holidays, often with an additional session in the afternoon.

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The Northern Counties hotel

An ancient abbey formerly stood on the site of the hotel and its lawn. It was mentioned in a document from 1262. In 1884 portions of the walls were unearthed, with quantities of human bones.

The hotel was destroyed by arson in 1990 and the owner and two others were eventually charged with paying terrorists to burn it down, in order to claim the insurance money.  The owner was Roy Crawford, with whom I used to work at Dalzell & Campbell in Coleraine.

East Strand lies between Portrush and the White Rocks.  In calm weather the water looks inviting, but it is both very cold and dangerous, with strong currents and steeply shelving shore.  Behind the East Strand lies an extensive area of sand dunes.

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The East Strand

About halfway along the strand there is a deep hollow in the sand dunes, between the Strand and the golf course.  Here it is believed took place the Battle of the War Hollow in 1103, in which the King of Norway, Magnus Barefoot, was killed along with many of his supporters.

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The War Hollow

At the eastern strand are the White Rocks, an area of chalk cliffs, with caves, arches and freestanding pillars.

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The White Rocks

North of the East Strand, between one and four kilometres off shore, are the Skerries, a group of seventeen islets which help create a natural breakwater. There is vegetation on four of them. The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it was named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries, and died in his ship there, and was buried on the island.  The place of his grave is unknown. It is said that Tavish Dubh, in 1310, when Edward Bruce invaded North Antrim with the object of winning Ulster, waylaid four English ships bound with provisions for Coleraine, held by an English army, and took their provisions up the river Bann to Bruce, who was in sore straits.  Soon after, Bruce abandoned his attempt.

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The Skerries

On the east side of the largest of these islands there is good shelter, with an anchorage of six fathoms, a place often made use of in later times by smugglers.

In my time, there was a boat that took occasional visitors around the islands, when the sea was relatively placid, but I personally never knew anybody who had ever set a foot on them.

For most of us, they were so near, yet so far away…

Benandonner’s stone

I have vivid memories of some incidences in my early childhood: falling into the stream at uncle Bill’s farm in Glenmanus; aunt Tisha making butter in a wooden churn; Maurice Elliott crashing into the bushes on his sled on Loquestown hill on a bitterly icy winter morning; my father telling me at breakfast that a fox had got into one of his hen houses during the night.

I have no memory of my mother in that era.  For part of the time she was in the sanatorium in Derry, diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and I was cared for by our next door neighbour, Louise Wilson.

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One of only two pictures I have of me as a baby

For my first five years, we lived in a little wooden house in Glenmanus, on the edge of Portrush, one of many basic dwellings around a field, most occupied by destitute families with no work and few prospects.  In Ireland, the years immediately after the war were not easy years.  By day, my father worked on his fledging poultry farm raising a few chickens, and by night he was pianist and leader of a Portrush dance band.

But my mother’s uncle Bill believed in my father’s farming vision and leased him some of his land at Islandflackey, at a nominal rent, a mile from the village, and helped him to obtain a mortgage to build a new house. It cost just over £1,000.

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The original house at Islandflackey circa 1954

And so the poultry farm of ‘Greenacres’ was born.

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The house and farm buildings circa 1960

There was already a ruined Irish cottage on the site, close to the road.  It had been burned down at some time in the past. It was demolished and a new ‘bungalow’ built a little further back, on a freshly levelled site.

Initially there was no electricity, no running water, and only an outside toilet.  At night we used a paraffin lamp, drinking water came from a neighbouring well, washing water from the constant supply from the roof, and the toilet was a tin can in an outhouse, that my father periodically emptied on the midden.  And the sole heat was from the coal fireplace in the kitchen, and on special occasions, a fireplace in the living room.

Although one could tolerate the inconveniences, with livestock, the lack of running water was a major problem.

My father employed a water diviner to see if he could find a source.  I remember the man walking back and forth over the fields, with a forked sapling in his hands, but the only possibility he came up with was just behind the house.

So they started digging a well about 1.50 m in diameter.  When they were about 2 m deep, with no evidence of water, the attempt was abandoned.

I don’t remember how long it took, but finally we were connected to the water and electricity services.  The indoor bathroom took much longer.  I suspect that my father could not afford the expense.  But eventually a cess pool was built, pipes laid and the storeroom was converted into a bathroom.

The other ‘luxuries’ took a little longer; the first television rented when I was perhaps 11, a little second-hand car bought when I was about eighteen, and a rudimentary shower and central heating many years later, long after I had migrated.

My mother never did have a fridge, washing machine or drier.  Her life was never an easy one.

Behind the house, just above where the failed well was abandoned, there was a huge boulder, at least as a child I remember it as being very big.  It was circular and smooth all over, like a massive pebble.  I did not know where it came from, but it must have been in the vicinity when the new house was built.

I used to imagine that it had been thrown by the Scottish giant, Benandonner, missing Finn McCool, the Irish giant, at the Giant’s Causeway, during one of their fights, and ending up on our land.  The Giant’s Causeway is connected to Scotland, and as a child,  I believed that there must have been some basis to the legend. The Giant’s Causeway was not  far from our farm.

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The Giant´s Causeway, looking inland
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And looking across the sea to Scotland

When I was still young, I clearly remember a passing visit from Sam Wilson.  It was his wife who looked me when I was very young.  According to my mother he was a remote relation, but to this day I have never discovered the link.  When he saw the stone, he asked my father to fetch his heaviest hammer and he would break it up for him.

Now Sam was a powerfully built man and the heavy hammer was but a toy in his hands.  He swung and struck the rock with all his power, but the hammer just bounced off it.  He winged and whanged and the sparks flew, but to no avail.  Not even a small chip of the rock yielded.

Sweating profusely and red in the face, Sam eventually capitulated.

Not so long later, when I had just turned 11, Sam dropped dead of coronary thrombosis at the age of 47.

And somewhere on the former ‘Greenacres’, I suspect that Benandonner’s stone still stands intact.

Old Man Watton

Old man Watton was a very old man, at least as I remember him when I was young.  He was grizzled and grey and said very little.  But he was so strong.  In his hands the heavy hammers and pliers of his blacksmith’s trade were like a child’s toys.

When I close my eyes I can still recall the sound of the hammer striking iron, the huge black bellows that he operated with his foot, the intense heat from the coals and the fierce hissing when he dipped the red-hot metal in the water.  I went to the forge may times as a child, usually delivering eggs to old Mrs Watton, sometimes taking a piece of metal thatmy father needed reshaped for the farm.

A typical country smithy

 The forge was on the way from my parent’s farm towards Portrush, past the headmaster’s house and Carnalridge Primary School and just after the honeysuckle bush that my mother loved so much.  When I was young she used to take me there of a warm summer evening to experience that heavenly scent.  When the air was still, one could smell it from quite far away.

A honeysucle bush in full bloom

The smithy was at the end of a narrow lane.  It overlooked the town and was not far, probably no more than ten minutes walk from our farm.  On the right of the entrance was the tiny cottage of the Dallas family with their beautiful vegetable garden and opposite there was a spring, with a metal cup hanging from a hook.  That water was so pure, so cold and refreshing.  And at the end of the lane was the smithy.

But progress and modernization have marched on.  The spring had been covered over and the lane turned into an asphalt road.  The old Irish cottage of the Dallas family has been replaced by a tasteless modern bungalow and the vegetable garden is now a car park.  The smithy has disappeared and the honeysuckle bush has long gone.

These days I know more people in the graveyard than in the street.

And sometimes I feel that it would be better never to return again, just to remember it as it was.