Celebrating the British countryside. Ellie Harrison visits Comber, follows the Antrim coast, joins an archeological dig and enjoys folk music in a Portrush pub.
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Today I'm travelling along the east coast of Northern Ireland, discovering the agriculture,
landscape, history and culture
of this unique part of the British Isles.
My journey begins in the potato fields of Comber
before heading to Newtownards.
I'll drive the spectacular Antrim Coast Road from Larne to Glenariff
and visit Dunluce Castle
before ending my travels in the seaside town of Portrush.
Along the way I'll be looking back
at the best of the BBC's rural programmes from this part of the world.
This is Country Tracks.
Between 1845 and 1851, Ireland was blighted.
A potato famine killed over a million men, women and children,
while over a million fled the country.
But despite its grim history, the potato has remained an important staple food to this day.
Garth Horner's family have grown potatoes in the fields of Comber for over 300 years.
Today I'm helping out on his rather noisy harvester.
So, Garth, what are we doing here?
Well, Ellie, potatoes are going to come up this elevator here
and we're going to pick the potatoes into this one, all the good ones,
and leave all the rubbish to go out this elevator here.
-Have you got to work quite quickly?
-We have to. They're too expensive to let over into the soil.
Yeah, yeah, you're not kidding.
These are no ordinary spuds.
The potatoes from this area are so sought after that the earliest harvested can fetch up to £50 a bag.
What is it about these potatoes that are so special?
Northern Ireland people pride their potatoes.
These are the first potatoes out in the year. They're full of flavour.
I'd say they're the best. I've travelled all over the world
-and I'd say that these are the best potatoes I've ever tasted.
Garth isn't the only one to think that Comber spuds are the best in the world.
Some local farmers are campaigning for recognition under the EU protected food name scheme
so that their potatoes can enjoy the same status as champagne or feta cheese.
It's quite fast work.
Oh, aye, you get used to it.
-Got to work quick.
With such a reputation, I want to taste these Comber potatoes for myself.
Local chef Stephen Taylor-Winter has offered to cook them up for me in the farm kitchen.
So Stephen, what are you making here?
We're going to make you a nice pot of champ, which is a good, Northern Irish traditional dish.
It's spring onions, potatoes,
which you've just seen, and some butter and some cream, of course.
Traditional champ would be lumpy or smooth or however?
It would probably be lumpy because traditionally they wouldn't have such,
the modern appliances we have to spin it,
so there would necessarily have been a bit of lumps to it, you know?
-Irish people aren't too fussy.
-It's a bit of texture, after all.
-Yeah, a bit of texture.
In here we've got a wee bit of spring onions,
some butter and there's not cream in this one, but there's milk.
You can put cream, because the cream is richer, more flavour, and what we've done is literally
brought that to boil, a little bit of flavour of the scallions comes into the cream and the butter.
-So what are scallions?
-Scallions are spring onions,
which again are coming out of the ground at this time of year, which are perfect.
-Are they local, too?
They're literally 100 yards down the road.
This is why it tastes so good.
We just gently mix that through.
You only want to put a wee bit in at a time.
It's really lovely colours as well.
So what is it about the potatoes here that in your opinion,
as a professional chef, are the best for the job?
I think it's the ground.
It's the nutrients in the ground.
We're very close to Strangford Lough, the soil tastes good,
it tastes good for these spuds, and the farmer here, Garth, he has every different type of potato.
So if I'm cooking, I'll tell him what I need and he'll either pick them for me or he has them.
-Personally, I think this is one of the better regions in Ireland for growing spuds
and that will possibly translate to one of the better regions in the world.
The potatoes which you picked this morning would give Jersey Royal potatoes a good run for their money.
-They're absolutely... Well, you'll taste that in a minute.
-So we'll just finish the champ.
There's not too much butter and there's not too much cream in that.
You can put more in. The French equal quantities of butter to potatoes into their mashed potatoes,
-but in this day and age you can't be having any of that.
What we're going to do is finish with the tops
of the spring onions because these are nice, green things.
I usually just throw those away.
No, no, no. Slice those through because that will give you a nice bit of crunch and more flavour.
Very, very beautiful. Very traditional Northern Irish dish.
-The smells in here are making my stomach rumble.
-Well, that's a good thing
because we've got very, very simple food here.
Simple food can sometimes be the best.
It's interesting because as the potatoes came out of the ground the smell was amazing and, in here,
you've carried that wonderful smell on.
You've got, with the potatoes picked this morning, the natural vitamins,
the natural sweetness, it hasn't got time to dry out.
Sometimes the potatoes that we'd buy in the supermarket have been there up to six months.
Of course, to finish the champ...
..in Ireland, we just need a wee bit of butter...
-..and I'd just put some salt and pepper into that.
That looks absolutely amazing.
-Who says vegetarians have got a short deal?
-That's a good point!
That's fantastic, you know.
That's just to die for.
Stephen, you're killing me. Please can I try them?
-Of course you can. There's a spoon there.
-A spoon here.
This bit, I'm looking forward to.
Here we go. Dive in.
-I've got a whopping bit there.
-Mmm. That's fantastic.
You just, to be perfectly honest, for a wee supper dish, you could just have a bowl of that.
Salt and pepper, job done.
To read your face, you're enjoying that. That's all I need. Thank you.
Fresh, local produce at its very best.
If that's got your taste buds going, nearby Strangford Lough is renowned for its sensational seafood.
Local people have lived off marine life in Strangford Lough for centuries.
Now sea farming is being brought right up to date with new research into aquaculture.
Basically, that's underwater agriculture using the latest
scientific techniques to farm the lough in a sustainable way.
One such example is seaweed, which people have used for centuries in a huge variety of ways.
Dr Lynn Browne of Queen's University Marine Laboratory took me out to collect edible seaweed.
What sort of seaweed are we looking for today?
We're looking for a seaweed
which is called dulse,
the Latin name is Palmaria palmata
and it's a red seaweed which grows in Strangford Lough.
People have been gathering it for hundreds of years.
They have. The fleet from Portaferry was known as the butterfly fleet
because here were lots of little, brightly coloured punts which were rowed down the narrows
on the outgoing tide and these multi-coloured boats looked like butterflies going down the lough.
It can be eaten but there are other uses as well, aren't there?
Yes, seaweed actually has lots of different uses.
It's been used in the past in glass-making, soap making,
in bleaching linen, and also it has medical uses.
Dulse has been shown to have some anti-viral properties.
It's effective against herpes.
Also, seaweed is used in making ice creams and toothpaste and lots of very familiar products.
Gus Heath from Dolphin Sea Vegetables still harvests seaweed off the rocks in the traditional manner.
How much have you collected, Gus?
About 10 bags.
That's about all for this morning.
-How long did it take you?
-You're very much governed by the weather, are you?
Very much governed by the weather and the tides. This is the dulse, the most popular one.
-Can you eat it raw like this?
-Yes, yes. It's crispy.
-It's quite tasty.
-Without it being treated? Let's have a look.
I haven't actually tasted that before.
Mmm, it is.
-It is good.
On the banks of the lough in Portaferry is Queen's University Marine Laboratory,
where they're working to develop aquaculture as a sustainable industry.
They want to enable Gus to harvest seaweed all year round.
The team have experiments bubbling away. They're growing seaweed
and shellfish from seed with the aim of expanding sea farming in Northern Ireland.
Lynn has helped find a way to commercially farm dulse seaweed for the first time
by nurturing spores from the wild and then putting them out to grow on strings in Strangford Lough.
Is there any seaweed growing on the lines yet?
There's thousands of microscopic plants on these lines at the moment.
You can't see them because we just put them out there about a week ago, but in about two months the plants
will be 10 centimetres long, and after about six months the plants will be approximately this size.
You can see this lovely, clean material that we harvested earlier on.
This is what we'll find on our lines. We've done this over several years and it works successfully.
One of the big aquaculture success stories around here
is this oyster farm on Sketrick Island which is on the western shore of Strangford Lough.
It produces 40,000 oysters every week.
It's run by John McElreavey over here who's harvesting the oysters at the moment.
John, you've been here for 20 years.
You supply all the big retailers, don't you, in the restaurants?
-Yes, we do, yes.
-I love oysters but I didn't realise collecting them was so mucky.
Well, as you can see, it certainly is.
They're growing here in as near as possible to a natural environment.
We've just put them out.
-This is actually matting. You can see there.
-Oh yes, I can.
The mud underneath is very soft, and if we lay the oysters in the mud
they would just bury into the mud and smother.
So we lay down this matting, we put the oysters on it and leave them there to happily grow.
And when the tide comes in, it covers them?
Yes, we're at low tide here now.
In about 6 hours' time there will be 12ft of water over here.
Obviously that helps to nurture them, bring them on?
Yes, there's a good flow of current here.
Good food and water, so they're quite happy here.
How long does it take for them to get to the required size?
With us it takes somewhere between two and three years.
These are all come out at the same size about four or five months ago, and you see the difference there.
-Why is that?
-It's just the way they are.
Very variable rate of growth.
When you've picked enough and you bring them in, you wash them all off,
but there's another process you put them through, isn't there?
Yes, we do. We could take this oyster, simply wash the outside of the shell,
clean it up and sell that to anyone, to a restaurant or anyone to eat straight away.
Because of the quality of the water, the water classification is such
that these are fit for human consumption straight from the sea.
-Because it's so clean?
You can't get much fresher than this.
Six of John's oysters from the waters of Strangford Lough, and on the side,
some seaweed bread, also from Strangford.
So here goes.
And even more delicious
because I've seen those lovely, clear waters that they were reared in.
Overlooking Strangford Lough stands the impressive Scrabo Tower with a history linked to the potato famine,
so I've travelled on to get a closer look.
This turreted tower stands at around 150 metres above sea level.
Its walls are over a metre thick and it's built entirely out of stone quarried from this hillside.
Erected in 1857, the tower was built by local people
as a monument to Charles William Stewart, the third marquis of Londonderry.
He was held in high regard for his attempts to alleviate suffering during the potato famine.
His generosity and kindness to his tenants gained him a level of respect
which wasn't commonly given to the landed gentry. The tower was built in his memory.
The views up here are stunning.
Just over in that direction is the huge expanse of the sea and, on a clear day like today,
behind me you can see right out to Scotland.
The rest of my journey is going to take me up this coast past the town of Hillsborough,
where Ben Fogle ate more than his fill of oysters.
The Hillsborough Oyster Festival is in its 12th year,
and its oyster eating championship has attracted competitors from 11 different countries.
This is it, the main event of the day,
the World Oyster Eating Championships.
Last year, they managed 187 in three minutes.
Is he swallowing them all?
Six, five, four...
Yes! Well done, well done! Give them a round of applause,
-ladies and gentlemen. That's fantastic.
-How did you do on that?
-How many did you get?
How is that compared to your normal sort of eating?
Normal? I've never eaten that many.
You get to a level where your body just says, "No more."
When did it say that to you? After roughly how many?
Here they go.
Ben is doing all right, I think.
I detect signs of weakening.
I must say, Ben is very polite.
He's cleaning his fingers after every one.
The fellow had his lunch before he came up here.
The stout is coming up. Always a sign of weakness.
He reaches for the stout.
What's the time like there? How's the time?
A sign of good taste when you reach for the stout. Two minutes to go.
-Two minutes to go?
-One, one minute to go.
You don't know how horrible this is.
-There's a man up there at the end.
-Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four,
three, two, one, zero.
No more, no more, no more!
That was horrid.
-Ben, how do you feel? Do you feel OK?
-That was horrible.
-You didn't do...
-I finished a tray.
That's about 40... About 40, I'd say. About 42, 43.
Has he eaten those or did you regurgitate those?
That was horrible.
Ben Fogle has scored 52.
Give him a round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. 52, yes.
How great is that?
-Excellent, well done.
-Absolutely brilliant. There you are.
Go one, give him a big round of applause, please.
'This year's winner guzzled an astounding 171 oysters
'and took the cup home for Wales.'
Well, what a brilliant day at the Oyster Festival here in Hillsborough.
Though I have to say, I think I'm going to leave oyster eating to the professionals.
I'm going to go and have a little lie down.
Leaving the oysters of Hillsborough
and Scrabo Tower behind,
I've headed north to Larne.
For the next leg of my journey
I'm going to travel
along the Antrim Coast Road,
said to be
one of the greatest
tourist attractions in Northern Ireland.
'And with petrol prices on the increase, I'm going electric.
'I'm joined by Olivier Vander-Elst, whose company promotes the use of electric cars in Ireland.'
-And off we go! As quiet as a mouse.
-That's it. Just a whizz.
So, Olivier, this is a bit of a departure, isn't it,
to take an electric car out of a city and on to the country roads?
It certainly is.
In London you have all the cars, 1,200 of them, in the city.
In Ireland we've had pioneers from all around the country driving the cars in a rural environment,
as long as the distances are kept short.
Absolutely. From a practical point of view,
how easy is it to have one of these cars when it comes to refuelling and recharging, rather?
In truth, we've never had anybody run out of juice
because most of the charging happens at night in your house.
It's a problem when you have an apartment and you don't know
where to charge, and running cables through the windows,
but in a countryside environment, most people have their own driveways,
and they can just have an extension lead and charge up every night.
'The Antrim Coast Road was built in the mid-19th century following the potato famine.
'It was primarily designed to make the glens more accessible, but thanks to the skill
'of designer Charles Lanyon,
'it also became one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the British Isles.'
I'm having a great time here. It really is very quiet, isn't it? I love it.
This is such a beautiful drive we've got here.
You've got plans with your company to allow tourists
to hire electric cars and come and enjoy these types of drives?
That's definitely a plan.
We just think it's a beautiful way to enjoy a natural, scenic environment like this.
There's many other coastal routes in Ireland that we'd like to explore with electric vehicles.
It goes really hand-in-hand with the landscape, without being an intrusive, big, combustion engine.
-That's it. It's peaceful, it's really peaceful.
It's quieter from the outside than it is inside.
That's the funny thing about this specific car, anyway.
Does that mean people step out in front of it like they would maybe a quiet milk float or a cyclist?
Do they not even know you're coming?
There can be a problem there. It hasn't been a problem so far
but because they're seeing a lot of cars coming in that will be electric,
they're going to put some fake sounds, engine sounds on those cars.
So far we've just been putting some additional noise
that you can trigger when you're in a pedestrian zone or something.
-And you have always got the horn.
-You always have the horn.
That's great. I love that.
'As our journey continues up the Antrim Coast Road
'we pass through the fishing village of Carnlough,
'where competition in the annual gig race is fierce.'
How long has the club been here, Alan?
We're at this club now present, probably been in 1950s, 60s.
It had been stopped during the war years, but they started to decide
it would be worthwhile bringing the club back into existence again,
so this is what we've done and we're still going now in the present.
And how long have gigs been used?
When did the rowing of gigs get started?
The rowing itself, they've been rowing from the late 1800s,
probably right up to the current day.
-Rowing has been a long time in existence, particularly along this coast.
-These are very different.
-Tell me about them.
-This basically is our traditional Antrim coast gig.
It's actually one of the oldest boats on the Irish coast.
It was 1903, it was built.
We've rowed that right through. The club, this really is
what our heritage is built upon, these boats here.
There's not so many of them on the Antrim coast nowadays,
but still they would be the main boat for the club to row.
But now we'd had to evolve into a design of boat which would accommodate
all the areas of our Irish coast and this is the boat they came up with.
It's easier to row. Any rower can row with this boat,
whereas this boat takes a lot more sort of skill and training to row it.
-It's beautifully made, isn't it, of wood? Wooden oars, too?
-Wooden oars would have been the original oars.
We even sort of moved on to carbon fibre oars, as you see here.
-This is what we use nowadays.
-Light and strong.
but it wasn't so long ago that we did use these oars, maybe in the 1990s we'd have used these oars
which was a nice thing.
It would probably be nice to go back to that style again and restore these boats to their original style.
So there's a huge amount of heritage involved. Something you sound quite proud of?
There's a lot of heritage. You think, the boat's over 100 years old
and the crews that have rowed this boat over the years, hundreds of crews have rowed in this boat.
It's an honour to get to row a boat like this.
'A highlight of the gig racing year on the Antrim coast is the Round The Rock Challenge.
'Local teams race against the clock, rowing out to Black Rock in the bay and then back to Carnlough.'
-What's the record for going round the rock?
-15 minutes 45 seconds.
And how far is it?
It's about a mile and an eighth.
That's quite a way, isn't it?
About two and a quarter mile.
-And when was that set, that record?
How come people haven't beaten it since?
People must now be bigger and stronger and better boats?
That's the problem. People are much heavier, much stronger.
But if you were over eight stone at that time, the coach
would have put you out. The boat was sitting on top of the water.
What was it like going back a few years, then, with the competition down here in the races you have?
They were fantastic.
There were boats on every village right up the coast,
from Larne to Cushendun
and the competition was really tight. Even within the village
we had a boat which was out there, and the village boat,
and the competition between them was powerful.
'Today there's still an element of rivalry between teams, but it seems that it's all pretty friendly stuff.'
It's friendly rivalry but you want to beat them and they want to beat us. It's good fun out of the boats,
but when you get in the boat
and you're looking across the start line at them, you definitely want to beat them.
I've been invited to have a go with the Carnlough team,
and this boat is over 100 years old so it's quite an honour.
With my farming physique it shouldn't be too much trouble,
although I've never rowed a boat before in my life, so let's hope we don't sink.
'I'd wanted to try and race to the rock, but choppy waters out at sea
'meant that it was just too dangerous, particularly for a first-timer like me.
'Instead, we went for a spin a little closer to the coast of Glencloy
'while Arnold gave me some much needed tuition.'
OK, guys, the conditions aren't too good for rowing,
but if you can try and get your timing good, and just keep the oar in the water.
I know it's not easy to feather, but if you could just try and watch the stroke in front of you.
Watch Niall's oar in front and try to get the timing with him.
'After a few tips, it was time to get up a bit of speed.
'I was having a great time.'
It's just wonderful when you get it right, but when you get it wrong you feel such a twerp.
I can understand how you can get the bug for this.
I'm tired but loving it.
Leaving Carnlough behind, we've turned off the coast road
and into Glenariff Forest Park, where my journey with Olivier comes to an end.
Leaving him to charge up his car, I'm heading off for a walk into the woods.
Glenariff is considered by many people to be the most beautiful of the nine Antrim glens.
Bisecting the park are two small rivers - the Inver and the Glenariff,
containing spectacular waterfalls tumbling through rocky, steep-sided gorges.
The wooded glen is too steep to have ever been cultivated,
so its natural beauty has been enjoyed by visitors for many years.
This wooden walkway was originally built in the Victorian era, and it's afforded visitors since then
the most wonderful views of the waterfalls.
The spray from these waterfalls provides
the perfect moist atmosphere for ferns and mosses to thrive.
All along this wall is great scented liverwort, and I'm told that it has a smell that's a combination
of mushrooms and liquorice, so I'm just going to give it a try, rub it between my fingers.
Ew! Mushroom and liquorice.
A vile combination.
But what I'm really interested in seeing is Semilimax pyrenaicus
which is a really rare snail that lives only in the Pyrenees
and a few places in Ireland, and this is one of those places.
It has a really small shell that it can't retract into
so it gives it the appearance of a snail and a slug,
and I've looked all over for it.
But it's very rare, it likes to live in the tiny cracks between rocks
and it's nocturnal.
I've got no chance.
This part of Ireland has a deep-rooted connection with the west coast of Scotland.
In fact, the shortest crossing is only 12 miles,
and, at one time, both coastlines were part of the same kingdom.
It was called Dalriada
and it came into being in the third century,
encompassing quite a large area of western Scotland
and the northeast coastal area of Ireland.
Strong cultural and economic links were formed between the two halves of the kingdom,
and these continued for 500 years or so
until the Irish side of Dalriada went into decline.
But the early Irish influence still remains strong in Scotland.
I hate to say this, John, and I hope the Scots won't take it wrong,
Scotland received its language from Ireland.
It received its political and legal system from Ireland
and it received much of its culture from Ireland, from these early dates.
-And what about whisky?
The whiskey was brought over by the Irish and adapted by the Scots.
You're only talking about 12 miles, John, just across there.
It was easy for them to go across by boat
either into the Isles or on to the Mull of Kintyre.
And when they went over there, they stayed there, didn't they?
There were indigenous peoples living there, but the Irish had a great influence on the area
and pushed the indigenous peoples back.
So they became Scotsmen?
The first Scotsmen were actually Irish.
In fact, John, up until the 12th century, if you were speaking
about a Scotsman, you were referring to an Irishman.
The Scots called themselves Caledonians, and all the culture
which was there on the western seaboard was actually Irish.
Over the water in Campbeltown, there's disappointment
that the ferry that used to link it to Ballycastle here has stopped running.
It means that businesses in Campbeltown can't cash in
on the tourist boom that's going on right along the Antrim coast.
In Ballycastle alone, visitors are bringing something like £12 million a year into the local economy.
One of the biggest draws is the Lammas Fair,
which has been held in Ballycastle every August for many centuries.
These pictures of the fair were taken back in the 1960s by Stanley Matchett who lives nearby.
The fair was originally a pagan festival to mark the end of summer
and the beginning of the harvest and, among other things on the stalls,
there's dulse - a dried, edible seaweed - and yellow man, a kind of cinder toffee.
The Antrim coast has lots of ruins for visitors to roam around,
like this place, Bonamargy Friary, with its legends of the Black Nun, Julia McQuillan.
Apparently the entrance to the friary used to be here and it was the Black Nun's dying wish,
round about three centuries ago, to be buried right here.
This headstone marks the spot.
It was an act of humility
so that people could walk on her grave for evermore.
She met a grisly end and became known as the Black Nun
because her dark ghost is said to haunt the friary outside Ballycastle.
Golf is one of the big attractions in the town which also has a newly developed marina.
Although it's quiet at this time of year, during the holiday months the streets are filled with tourists.
Last year, close on a million people came to the Antrim coast.
It's not hard to see why. There's one feature in particular which has made this area world famous.
This is it. Northern Ireland's number one tourist attraction,
the spectacular rock formation known as the Giant's Causeway. But how was it created?
If you imagine sitting here something like 60 million years ago,
in a river valley, and you've volcanoes
and eruptions of lava behind us, as they flowed into this
they formed a big, thick layer, about 300 metres deep,
and if you think of the top of a mud pool,
as it dries it gets cracks and they form regular patterns.
When you have lava that thick, those patterns go right down through as it cools slowly
and you get these columns formed.
-How many are there? Anybody ever counted them?
-Oh, 400,000, 5 million, who knows?!
The strange thing is, they're so perfectly formed, aren't they?
They look as though they've been hand carved.
The crucial thing is this slow cooling which gives you this columnar structure.
It happens elsewhere, but is particularly good here in the Giant's Causeway.
Of course, it looks hand carved and some of the early legends reflect that.
What sort of legends?
The most famous one is Finn McCool, who was a warrior chief and a giant in this area.
He heard about another warrior chief in Scotland, Benandonner,
decided he'd build the causeway across to have a battle with him.
The trouble was, when he got to the other side,
Benandonner was bigger than him so he ran back across the causeway,
went up to the missus and said, "What am I going to do?" She dressed him up as a baby, put him in a cot
and when Benandonner got here, he said, "Where's Finn McCool?"
She said, "He's out for today but the baby's here in the cot."
When he saw the size of the baby, of course, he decided, "I'm out of here."
He headed for Scotland, and broke the causeway up after him.
Lovely story, isn't it?
How many visitors do you get here now in a year?
We're looking at 500,000 visitors this year coming to see the causeway and the World Heritage Site.
Now that peace has returned to Northern Ireland, has that made a big difference?
Yes it has. Gradually, the numbers have been building and, as I say, it's at around 500,000.
Along with agriculture, tourism is vital to the economy of this region,
and it's likely to become the most important source of income in the future.
That sets up some challenges.
To cope with the growth in tourism, you're planning a brand new visitor centre here at Giant's Causeway.
But this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. How do you square the two?
There has been a long-standing problem
to get the balance between tourism and environmental protection.
We feel... Given our past history here, John,
we've had our troubles, there hasn't been over-development.
Our tourism industry hasn't grown at the same rate
as our colleagues in England, Scotland, Wales
and in the south of Ireland, so we're now in a position where we can look to their good practices.
Not make any mistakes that they might make.
Look at the good things they've done
and hopefully use those good practices to develop our facilities here.
The present one does stand out quite a bit, doesn't it? Will the new one blend in much more?
The new facility will be highly camouflaged, even the car parking won't be that visible.
So we have an integrated scheme
that, by and large, marries into this very sensitive environment.
The problem is that many visitors just come for the day to the causeway and Ballycastle,
and now the target is to persuade them to stay for a few days.
But certainly things are looking good for the future.
Just a few miles further north from the Giant's Causeway,
the dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle loom into view.
A prime location for any aspiring warlord, the ruins have sat on the North Antrim cliffs for centuries.
It was originally built by Richard De Burgh,
but is best known for its long association with the Scottish MacDonald clan.
But for the first time ever, a scientific archaeological dig is taking place here in the grounds
to reveal more of Dunluce's remarkable history.
Would you like a bucket and trowel?
'Archaeologist Dr Colin Breen has invited me to help out.'
OK, we're going to start down here on the main surface of the road,
probably the most visually exciting part of this site at the moment.
So if we step around the trench...
The excavations at Dunluce have caused great excitement amongst archaeologists
by uncovering the beautifully preserved remains of a 17th-century deserted town.
I've never done archaeological work before, so you'll have to tell me what I do.
-We'll probably destroy some of the glamour of it.
-I'm sure not.
It's not exactly Indiana Jones explores the remote North Atlantic.
If you take your kneeling mat
and you take that and you just kneel on both legs,
normally what we'll do is we'll take about a metre of area ourselves.
OK, so that's my area.
So you're going to trowel from there and I'll trowel from here.
You take your trowel, but we're going to move it back like that,
rather than digging into the surface.
There's always the potential, if you dig into the surface, to break material,
and there's a huge amount of artefactual material coming up from the site, so we need to be gentle.
So it's kind of a scraping action?
It's a scraping. You're essentially breaking up the sediment.
I see. Why has this site never been dug before?
There's a lot of reasons.
It's probably the most iconic site in the whole Northern Irish coastline, as you've seen.
-It's incredibly important.
One of the reasons why nothing's ever happened on it is because of its importance.
Archaeologists will firmly believe in conservation.
We know that once we start the process of excavation, it's essentially destruction.
You're essentially breaking down through a site.
When we've got the site as important as this, we tend to try and preserve it in situ.
The incredible thing about this area
is that the whole landscape we have around us is essentially a deserted town.
So we've focused in on one small area of that deserted town
and begun excavating it and unravelling its secrets.
Has what you've found here been what you expected to find?
Even more so.
We knew from the survey that we were going to probably find house sites and remnants of the deserted town,
but we never thought it would be as well preserved as this.
Look in front of us, that's a beautifully preserved 17th-century cobbled surface.
That surface was essentially abandoned in the 1660s, and it hasn't been used since that time.
The house next to us was abandoned probably in the 1680s and it hasn't been touched.
It's very rare within archaeology to come across a site which has been so well preserved.
Remember, we're only looking at a tiny fragment of the site.
We estimate that we're probably excavating something like 0.5% of the whole of the town.
If you opened up this whole area, across this whole landscape,
you're essentially looking at the very well preserved remains
of a 17th-century town, which has just been abandoned,
deserted, almost like a Northern Irish Pompeii.
It is incredibly painstaking work.
I think I've revealed about a centimetre of a stone.
Yeah. I think people underestimate the sheer quantity of work that actually takes place.
Absolutely right. Absolutely.
Smaller excavations around the castle have unearthed
even earlier material, dating back as far as Anglo-Norman times.
As work continues, more and more of the history of Dunluce could be uncovered.
This rope bridge which links one of the most northerly parts of Northern Ireland
to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede
was originally built by salmon fishermen.
Not sporting types who used rod and line
but working fishermen earning a living.
They crossed this bridge to reach their nets.
Every year for the last 400 years, fishermen have come here to set their nets.
What happens is that one end of a large net is fixed here,
and the net itself is dragged out to sea a few hundred yards.
Migrating salmon are caught in it before they get the chance to spawn in the rivers.
Now this kind of salmon fishing could soon be coming to an end.
Basically, there's nothing wrong with catching salmon in nets,
except in this case, they are catching huge numbers of fish.
They are catching fish not just going to rivers that have healthy stocks,
but also to rivers that have depleted stocks or are seriously threatened. We can't have that.
The campaign to save the wild salmon started here in the glacier-fed waters of the River Laxa in Iceland.
Orri Vigfusson, millionaire owner of a vodka factory in Reykjavik,
began to notice that in his favourite place to fish there wasn't as much to catch.
Like many other sports fishermen, he puts everything back alive into the river.
But he knew that commercial netsmen were catching thousands of wild salmon
and were threatening the stocks, so he decided to take action.
We saw the resource dwindling away,
disappearing before our eyes, so we decided to set up
the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and use commercial methods,
and offer compensation to the netsmen which they couldn't refuse.
Initially, we started negotiating with the fishermen
on the winter feeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
They co-operated and we won that.
We then had to target the netsmen in this part of the world
before the salmon were able to go back to their native rivers
in Ireland, in the UK and European countries.
Netsmen in Norway, Wales and south-west England have already been persuaded by the crusading Icelander
to give up their fishing licences. Now he's turning his attention
to Northern Ireland, where rivers like the Bush are seriously depleted.
Already the fund, which has financial backing from anglers and landowners with an interest in salmon fishing,
as well as from his own deep pocket, has paid out nearly £15 million in compensation around Europe.
How much does it cost on average to persuade one of these netsmen to give up?
We figure out how long they've been in business, what their catch records are,
how many more years of active life they've got in the industry
and how easy it is for them to get other jobs.
Here in Northern Ireland, what's the ballpark figure?
I think it could be anything from...
..£2,000 up to £200,000.
The life-cycle of the wild salmon is an extraordinary one.
They spend the first two years of life in fresh water, in rivers like the Bush.
Then, they begin a long and hazardous journey which takes them first downriver to the sea.
They swim for 1,000 miles or more to their winter feeding grounds around Iceland and Greenland.
Then, in the spring, they return to spawn in the exact spot where they were born.
But on the Bush, as on scores of other rivers all around Europe,
far fewer are making it back home.
At the government research station on the River Bush, scientists are carrying out a long-term survey.
Young fish are micro-tagged on their way downriver.
When they return as adults, they are counted.
The results confirm something is seriously wrong.
Ten years ago,
about a third of these fish, 33%, would have made it back to the coast
and tried to enter freshwater to spawn.
Now in the last four years, that has dropped to about 10% to 12%.
Where do the salmon netters come into this?
Whatever fish are being produced, some are taken by salmon netters
and are taken again when they come back, by anglers.
When a stock is healthy, it can sustain a high level of exploitation
wherever that happens to be.
When a stock is under the pressures we see on the River Bush, you have to scale back on the exploitation,
or you are chancing to drive the stock further down towards destruction.
Salmon fishing has endured for over 2,000 years.
Initially, it was mainly to sustain the families who settled
all the way along our coastline in ancient times.
Bertie McKay's family first began salmon netting here many years generations ago.
He retired when catches began to dwindle.
Now nearly all of Northern Ireland's 40-odd netsmen are taking the compensation and following him.
Those who have sold out, there was no other alternative for them.
Stocks have declined so much.
The industry was grinding to a halt.
It just wasn't viable any more.
The campaign has also been targeting netsmen in north-east England,
who intercept salmon on their way to Scottish rivers.
Talks have been going on with 52 netsmen there,
and an announcement is expected this week, buying them out at a cost of more than £3 million,
raised by Orri Vigfusson's fund and the government.
A great success, but the biggest battle is still to come.
I'm on a ferry crossing Lough Foyle, the border between
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Lough Foyle has the biggest run of salmon anywhere in north-west Europe,
and many of the fishermen in the Republic are not at all happy
about the prospect of having to give up their licences.
These fishermen spend much of the year catching shellfish.
But for two months in early summer, they switch to salmon.
Gerard Kelly's family is one of the oldest in this fishing community.
It's a way of life for the people who live in this area.
It's what they've done for generations before this.
They are only custodians of the right to go to fish
and they hope to pass that right on to the future generations.
The salmon they take is not just going to the Irish rivers,
it's going to Scotland, to Wales and all around the English coast.
And the salmon is also going to the rivers of Spain, France and Germany.
Why shouldn't these countries or regions also be allowed to restock their salmon stocks?
For this project to succeed all around Europe,
it needs all netsmen to say, "I'll call it a day," doesn't it?
I think that's a sign of failure of management, when you have to give something up.
We have spent a lot of time reducing our fishing effort, areas,
access to stocks.
We think we've got a happy medium now.
We've got a stability in the stock and with a bit of management
upstream in the nursery areas, it can definitely improve in this area.
Orri Vigfusson accepts there's room for a few well-managed netting operations,
but there are 1,400 netsmen in the Republic.
It's the last remaining stronghold.
He insists they can't continue on that scale.
The objective of the fund and all my collaborators throughout the world is to fill the rivers.
We want abundance, we want every river, every pool, filled with salmon, like we had 100 years ago.
But in Ireland, the government has yet to show any support, so it looks like being
a long final battle for the Icelander who could well be remembered
as the saviour of the wild salmon.
Since 2003, Orri has continued his work to preserve salmon stocks
and there are now only 14 drift-net licences in operation in Northern Ireland.
He hopes to have bought out the remaining nets in the next two to three years.
I've left Dunluce Castle behind and travelled on to Portrush,
where I end my journey, in a pub and with music.
The music of this part of Ireland has a strong connection with the traditional music of Scotland,
and indeed, this regular session here in Portrush
is organised by Scotsman Dick Glasgow.
What instruments form a traditional Irish band?
The standard ones, you would get
fiddles and accordions, you would get banjos.
Whistles, flutes, pipes.
-Sorry, I'm miming everything!
-That's all right, I'm getting the gist.
And of course, the bodhran is very popular as well.
The fiddle is one of the main ones.
Especially up here. The fiddle was very popular in Scotland
and it's hugely popular in Donegal,
and we're sort of in-between the two spots. It's been popular here.
The numbers of fiddle players have died down a wee bit unfortunately in this area,
but, um, partly to do with the Troubles and things, which is a shame.
That's the sort of range of instruments you get. And the harp.
Not often you find a harp, but in this part of the world a couple of people play the harp in sessions.
They're expensive and awkward in sessions. Small ones are grand.
You can sit back with them on your knee and play away.
It sounds like an awful lot, a huge variety of instruments.
Does that mean there's loads of people in a band playing at any one time?
This idea of the band, it's not actually a band.
The session is made up of whoever feels like coming out on the night.
There are usually two or three core musicians who tend to be there every week.
Then other musicians will come in and out
depending on what they're doing, what's on the telly, or they have to walk the dog or whatever.
You could have a session one week with three people,
the next week there might be a dozen playing.
This is one of the magic things about it. You don't know who's coming, especially in summer here.
We're on the tourist run in Northern Ireland and you never know
who'll walk in with something under their arm.
That must make a really different sound, depending on how many people show up each week.
It is. It keeps the whole thing alive and fresh.
Why has quite traditional Irish music stood the test of time? We are in 2009 now
and traditional music is still being played and enjoyed.
Because it's so good.
-It's very lively music.
We had a young student staying with us for a few months from Sweden
and she brought a fiddle, and she was keen to learn Irish music.
Of course, when she came to the sessions, she played some Swedish music.
I'm sure it's very charming music, but in comparison with Irish music,
it's kind of dour. It was very melancholy.
It's lovely music, but it's different, the sort of music you'd sit back and listen to and reflect.
Irish music, some of the areas you can do that with,
but it tends to be you tap your foot and you get involved and, "Here we go, this is great!"
It's a lively, friendly sort of music
and that's part of the magic and charm of it.
That's what gets people excited
and they really want to join in.
They would come along to a session, never playing an instrument before, but captivated by what's going on.
They see the bodhran being played with a little stick, and they think, "Anybody could do that."
The number of people that say, "Can I have a go on the bodhran?"
And they want to play along with it.
-Is it as easy as it looks?
-I bet it isn't.
My journey around the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland began
in the potato fields of Comber before I headed to Newtownards.
I drove the spectacular Antrim coast road from Larne to Glenariff.
Then I visited Dunluce Castle
before ending my travels here, in the seaside town of Portrush.
I've come to a traditional music session
where Scotsman Dick Glasgow has offered to give me a lesson on the bodhran.
I've got a couple here. There's a little one here
with a spar on the inside which is nice and easy to hold.
-Can you hold that?
-Hold onto the bar?
-Yeah, that's it.
-Just rest it on your leg.
-Rest it on my knee.
-You're right handed, I take it?
Then, if you hold on to the beater here.
It's just a standard beater that comes with it?
-It's just a double-ended stick.
-Hold it a bit like a pencil.
-And then hit down and up against the skin, like that.
-Sort of brush it?
That's it, brush it up and down.
Oh, I'm not doing them both at the same kind of loudness.
The trick is to hit the one going down louder than the one up.
Then you're getting a bit of rhythm.
-That's 2-4 rhythm, so you could play all night.
If people are playing polkas, you could join in all night long already.
You've just learned how to play polkas.
That's not too bad. What other rhythms are there?
The main rhythm in Irish sessions is 4-4,
so that's 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4.
Obviously it's a lot faster than that in a session,
but if you're learning, that's what you would start with.
-So one out of the four is the loudest?
-One is the loud one, yes.
1, 2... Oh, I missed the second one.
1, 2, 3, 4.
If you think of those black and white cowboy movies, and the Indian drums.
-That gets you going.
I think I've cracked it, but Dick shows me that I've still got a lot to learn.
Does this instrument dictate the tempo of the whole tune?
No, some bodhran players think it does, and that's where they get sticky.
-There's a love-hate relationship between musicians and bodhran players.
-Even the fact that I'm saying musicians and bodhran players would annoy them.
Of course, they class themselves as musicians, too.
So the problem is, to be honest, they get a bad press.
And a good bodhran player is worth his salt in any session.
-But if you get too many bodhran players, they're conflicting rhythms.
This is a loud drum. If you battered that without putting your hand on the back to control the volume,
you'd drown people out and they couldn't hear the melody properly.
-And obviously the melody is key.
-The most important thing, the tune.
If you have 12 musicians playing, unlike other music
where you might have harmonies and counter melodies going on,
in Irish music everybody plays the melody.
-So it doesn't matter what instrument they play, they're playing the melody.
You can sit at home and listen to your own wonderful playing,
but the point of going to a session is I'm sitting beside you,
you're playing a flute, the fellow this side of me's playing the pipes.
I want to hear how my fiddle sounds with your flute and his pipes.
-And that's the magic of it, the blending of it.
If you've got some eejit sitting on the other side of the table
knocking seven bells out of a bodhran the size of a barn door...
-That's not teamwork.
-It's not teamwork, no.
Fantastic. Well, I will make a complete fool of myself,
but I wouldn't mind having a go a bit later.
-If that's all right with you?
-It should be good fun.
-It's a good fun instrument.
-Great, thank you.
-You're very welcome.
How do we know if it's a two or a four, Dick?
-How do I know if it's a two or a four?
Any polkas, Kieron?
-1, 2, 1, 2...
As fast as that?
I might not be the most technically proficient musician ever to join a session,
but I don't think I'm putting the musicians off, and I'm having fun.
The East coast of Northern Ireland is not unknown to many tourists,
but I feel like I've got under the skin of it on my journey.
I've eaten its food, fresh out of the ground.
I've indulged in some of its history.
I've even had a go at joining in with some of its local culture
and to top it all off, the weather has been amazing.
I'm going back inside for a bit more.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Ellie Harrison goes on a journey around the eastern coast of Northern Ireland.
In Comber, Ellie visits a farm to find out what makes the famous Comber potatoes so special. Next she takes a tiny electric car on a classic drive along the Antrim coast. At the spectacular Dunluce Castle she joins an archeological dig, before ending her journey with a traditional Irish folk session in a pub in Portrush.