Die-hard C.S. Lewis fan Kalpana Sunder looks into a cupboard in Narnia country in Northern Ireland and finds the trip of a lifetime
I drive through wind-blown gorse and rich farmland with sprawling expanses of emerald dotted with weathered stone walls, lethargic cows, gambolling sheep and Shetland ponies under grey skies. In the distance is the glistening Irish Sea pounding the steep cliffs. The landscape slowly morphs into glacially formed ‘drumlins’ (which literally look like a basket of eggs) followed by the heather covered granite foothills of the Mournes. This is a rugged and austere landscape with craggy mountains sweeping down to picturesque harbours and unspoilt beaches. Though Disney chose New Zealand as the mythical landscape of Narnia, C.S. Lewis often said that his childhood in the magical landscapes of County Down and the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland inspired his Narnia. I am all set to explore the Narnia trail with my guide Dee Morgan into the ‘always winter, never Christmas’ land.
Over the next few days the omnipresent motif is the Mourne Wall, a 22-mile ribbon of stone that’s touted as Down County’s own Great Wall of China. It took 18 years to complete and encloses 9,000 acres of land, keeping cattle and sheep out of the water catchments. Dee tells me that thousands of villagers built it to earn their bread in difficult times. It slithers gracefully over the summits of 15 mountains including the majestic Slieve Donard. The Mournes are threaded with trails that hint at their origins: the Brandy Pad is a path that smugglers of yore used to spirit away liquor, tobacco and spices though the mountains; the Granite Trail follows the path of the funicular railway that carried stone from quarries to quayside. This is ancient territory, and prehistoric cairns and stone graves dot the hills.
Our first tryst with nature is at Silent Valley, which used to be called Happy Valley until the dam was started in 1904, forcing the birds out of the valley. I prefer the other romantic version that says the Welsh miners who came in to build the reservoir used to sing in lilting tones and when they left, the valley became silent. The reservoir supplies water to most of County Down and Belfast. But the Silent Valley Reservoir is more than just a reservoir — past the parking lot, I see a vast stretch of woodland and water with mountain ranges forming a stunning backdrop. Two colonial bungalows act as cafe and information centre. Dee tells me that almost 2,000 men worked here for ten years and the site even had its own power station and boasted the first street lighting in Ireland.
It’s a cold and wet day, true to a saying in these parts: if you can see the Mournes, it's going to rain; if you can't see them, it is raining! “I have seen landscapes,” wrote Lewis, “which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.” I believe him when we do a self-guided walk around the dam, with the theatrical backdrop of brooding mountains and soundtrack of howling wind. Veering off the sign-posted trails, we get hopelessly lost until Dee calls for the ranger to rescue us. Our retreat for the night is Glassdrumman Lodge, a 200-year-old country home with ten rooms, cosy library, rich woollen carpets and a blazing hearth, with panoramic views of the Irish Sea from my bedroom.
The next day we drive to Strangford Lough which is almost a lake, cut off from the sea by a strait less than a mile wide, called the Narrows. This was where St Patrick landed in 432 and began to convert the Irish to Christianity. It’s studded with hundreds of little islands and flocks of geese and waders. We spend some time at the harbour village of Strangford and take a ferry to Portaferry just across the waters, watching lazy yachts and curlews wading in the mud flats. Portaferry is famous for its art of catching lobsters in specially constructed pots. We drive to Grey Abbey, a quaint village dotted with small antique shops filled with bric-a-brac garnered from the sales of old Victorian homes in the vicinity. The evocative Cistercian Abbey, after which the village is named, was built by a woman called Affreca who was delivered from the dangers of the ocean. I spend the morning walking in the ruins, imagining the drone of chants and the fragrance of incense.
Back in Belfast, I continue on the Narnia trail to Campbell College where C.S. Lewis boarded for some time and see the gas lamp which probably inspired the one in Narnia. I visit St Mark’s Church where his grandfather was rector, where the author was christened and to which the family has donated stained glass windows. Belfast is famous for its aggressive political murals but the one that makes me happy is the colourful Narnia mural on a wall in East Belfast.
I remember as a child trying to reach Narnia by climbing into a cupboard. Years later, I see a statue of Lewis peering into a cupboard outside the Holywood Arches Library. The other side of the cupboard has some eccentric artwork and inscriptions etched in metal. I peek into the cupboard and see a land of endless possibility...