If foreigners were to be shown an aerial view of Portrush with calm ocean and relatively blue sky, peaceful harbour, small western and extensive eastern beaches, they would reasonably conclude that it was an idyllic location.  And on a rare perfect summer day, they would be partially correct.  But the water in the North Atlantic is never less than quite cold, there is a steep shelving beach and strong rip tides.  On a rare warm day, swimming in the harbour can be pleasant, albeit bracing.

I never learned to swim when I lived there.  My parents could not swim, few of their generation could, and of my age group only a handful, mostly those who had relatively prosperous parents, who took them away to more temperate climates on holidays.

When I was growing up, there was only one small indoor swimming pool in the area, that of the Northern Counties Hotel in Portrush.  I recall that a small group from my school used to go there for lessons on a Friday evening, mainly those who were from the rowing club; to participate in rowing, the oarsmen had to be capable of swimming a length of the pool, a not very challenging task.  The group was led by Dan Cunningham, our physics teacher, who, when a younger man, was reputed to once having swum from Portrush to the Skerries, a chain of islands off the coast.

Portrush c 1960
Portrush, circa 1960, with the Skerries to the north

When I first migrated to Canada, I stayed for a few days with my grandparents in Brampton, outside Toronto.  The first weekend, they arranged for some older university students, grandchildren of their friends, to take me out for the day.  Unfortunately, nobody told me that their idea of a day out meant a beach and swimming.  We went to a nearby lake, where they immediately plunged into the water, leaving me ‘on the beach’.  The students were quite incredulous that I could not swim and that I was not going to attend a university.

My day brightened up momentarily, when they offered me what I understood to be a beer.  It turned out to be a can of something called Root Beer, a disgusting soft drink.  When they told me that I had to be 21 before I could legally have a beer – I was 18 at the time, I felt quite discouraged.

It was when we were in Hawaii, on our way to Australia, that I decided that I had to learn to swim, at least well enough to survive.  I swore that I would not leave Hawaii until I could swim out to a raft anchored a short distance offshore from Waikiki Beach.

But for day after day, I struggled.  I had no problem with being under water, but I could not take my feet off the bottom.  Sandra, who swam like a fish, tried her very best to encourage me, but to no avail. Both the problem and the solution were in my head.

Finally, I set off for the raft, swimming backstroke, and with no problem, I made it.  And once there, I discovered that I could dive.  It was a new element for me.  Later, in Tahiti, I had the incredible experience of diving in the lagoon, and swimming among the multi-coloured fish.  An unforgettable experience.

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu (photo from internet)

In Australia, I frequently went to the beaches – Bondi, Coogee, Manly etc.  I even spent one Christmas Day on a beach.  And when the waves were relatively friendly, I often managed to bodysurf.  On one occasion I found myself caught in a riptide, and although I had no problem getting back to shore, it was a sobering experience.

Bondi Beach, Sydney (photo from internet)

When we lived in Kirribilli, across from the Opera House, we used to go to the nearby Olympic pool, just by the harbour.  In those days, there was a 10-metre high diving board, and from it I used to throw a coin in the water, dive in and retrieve in from the more than five-metre-deep pool.  I found that much more exhilarating than swimming length after boring length.

North Sydney swimming pool in recent years (photo from internet)

We only once owned a house with a pool, in Miami.  After the initial surge of  enthusiasm, the pool sat empty for month after month.  Sometimes I would jump in after a run or while working in the garden on a hot day; there is not much else an adult can do with a small pool.  I was left with the weekly chore of cleaning it and replenishing the copious expensive chemicals required to keep it relatively pristine.

I did once swim in the harbour at Portrush, during one of my fleeting visits.  I tried to go into the water at the Western Strand, but the water was so cold that my feet pained me within a short time, before it was up to my knees.  I went to the harbour and the water seemed to be more inviting, at least to tips of my fingers.  In those days there was still a diving board near the harbour mouth and from it I dived in.  I will never forget the shock of the cold water.  I got out as soon as I could, and I have never been back.

As with the weather, I don’t do cold.

That’s why I follow the sun…  🙂







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.

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.

Untitled picture
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.

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.

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.

The War Hollow

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

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.

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…