Return to Chapel Island

A trip to 'a little bit of heaven on earth...'

‘Did you bring your waterproofs Joe?’ I asked my friend as we arrived at Mount Stewart, a large Georgian estate on the shore of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. It was midday, overcast with a flick of rain in the air. Typical July.
‘Yes,’ he said.
A wise move I reflected, recalling the walk to Chapel Island at low tide the year before. It is just one of a number of guided walks run by the National Trust to cater to all tastes ranging from history to bugs and butterflies.
On the previous occasion, we were a party of forty who merrily set off in blazing sunshine only to meet rain on the two-mile trudge to the island. However, this was no light summer shower to cool the heated brow, but something akin to a tropical monsoon. We staggered through the sometimes treacherous sands and ankle-deep pools. (Forget the walking boots, I should have brought Wellingtons.) Coming ashore we looked like drowned rats. Strangely, I had enjoyed that visit to the island despite the drenching and the cold and was keen to return.
David Thompson of the National Trust talks ecologyThis time round we were a compact group of ten. Had word spread about last year’s trip? Leading us again was the National Trust’s David Thompson, lean, white-haired and middle-aged, the warden or officially speaking the property manager. David hails from Northumbria and was formerly the head warden of the Lake District National Park. As you might expect he is immensely knowledgeable on wildlife matters and a passionate conservationist. He sardonically admitted that last year’s walk had been a bit of an ‘adventure’.
It is a curious pleasure to walk out over the sand flats at low tide into that great open space, going where few people venture and seeing your surroundings from a fresh perspective. Our figures were dwarfed against the huge expanse of lough and sky. David had told us we had a good ‘window’ to get to the island and back before the tide returned so we wouldn’t have to make a run for it.
He also explained that to get there safely you must follow a course parallel to the island and then veer to the shore; otherwise, you might find yourself sinking into one of the treacherous muddy patches under the sand. He dramatically demonstrated the danger at one point by plunging his crook-like walking stick into the sand up to the handle. We gingerly tiptoed around the area. (A useful tip should you ever find yourself knee-deep and seemingly immovable in Strangford mud: fall down backwards and move your arms in a backstroke fashion. In such a pickle, there is no shame in leaving your boots behind.)
The lough being a Marine Nature Reserve, as well as other designations, is a highly protected area for it is rich in marine and other wildlife. One of the most striking features of the foreshore is the volume of shellfish (and eelgrass) often lying in little clusters, which makes the lough such a Mecca for a diversity of bird life including Terns, Brent Geese and Oystercatchers. There are 120 islands in all (if you include pladdies – a local term for eroded drumlins - low rocky reefs only visible at low tide). They provide habitat for wild animals: otters, badgers and foxes. The lough is also an important site in Ireland for the common seal.
David highlighted the role of the National Trust in managing and protecting its properties. Above all he expressed his fears for the ecology of the lough focusing on the commercial over-exploitation of the shellfish stocks in spite of agreements on quotas. It was clearly an issue he felt strongly about.
Getting to the island this time without being rained upon produced a little glow of satisfaction and relief and gave me a chance to take in the views across the island-dotted lough, to the mistily distant Mountains of Mourne. In such an atmosphere you could readily imagine sleek Viking long boats cutting through the peaceful waters a thousand years before, their crews sharp-eyed for monastic plunder.
Chapel Island, a National Trust property, is one of the bigger islands, uninhabited except for the sheep that are grazed there at certain times of the year. Where we came ashore at the northern tip a bank rises like a spine that curves up to a small plateau at the southern end. It was in the lee of the bank beside the ruined kelp house overlooking the kelp grid on the shore that we sank onto the grass and had a picnic. A time for contented guzzling and contemplation amid the scenic beauty.
Looking south from the Chapel siteAfter our lunch and the briefest of light showers, we followed the sheep tracks up the long back of the island to where I hoped to see the remains of the old chapel, something I hadn’t seen on my first visit. The chapel hitherto is undated for it has not been archaeologically dug though it probably goes back to the pre-Norman period when hermitages were used by some of the Irish monasteries. The chapel may have belonged to the Movilla Abbey being on the southern boundary of its estate.
There are two similar sites on Dunsy Island and near Audleystown. They were places where monks would go for meditation and seclusion. Self-sufficiency was possible at Chapel Island since there were fish traps close by, in addition to the ubiquitous supply of shellfish. The island also has a fresh water source.
If you go to visit the chapel don’t get all excited at the prospect of seeing moodily soaring Gothic remains for you will be disappointed. What remains exist – presumably a tumble of stones­ – are covered by a dense mound of briars and long grass and encircled by an almost undetectable enclosure. What is impressive, however, is the location.
It is perched on the highest part of the island with commanding views in all directions. On a fine summer day it must have seemed to the solitary monastic inhabitants like a little bit of heaven on earth. Even on the cloudy day we visited you could savour the peace and serenity of island life. The only sounds were the cries of birds in the blustery wind. The modern world seemed a long way off.
In the late afternoon, before the tide returned, we splashed out over the sand flats again, tired and quietly exhilarated, and rounded off our day with tea, buns and bonhomie in the welcoming lights of Mount Stewart. 
Maybe next year…..
By Stanley Howes