Hidden Gems Competition - Highly Commended

Alison Gordon explains her affection for Ballyholme Beach

Places or people remembered fondly from childhood rarely live up to the memory. They are always smaller, less distinguished, fatally flawed…

When I returned to Bangor after 17 years in London, to live 200 yards from my childhood beach at Ballyholme, I was prepared for disappointment. I knew that it would lack the drama of the Antrim coastline, the quaint charm of Strangford Lough. There are no cliffs or sand dunes, no caves, secret walkways or fishing villages. But living here for the last six years, and seeing it every day, I have fallen head-over-heels in love with the place all over again.

Ballyholme Bay sits about a mile east of Bangor Bay at the mouth of Belfast Lough, just 30 minutes drive from the city centre. From its sweeping u-shaped beach, looking north, you can see the town of Carrickfergus directly opposite, with the new-ish M3 motorway distinctive as a long white stripe above the waterline. The headland of Whitehead sits just to the right, before it disappears round the corner and northwards to the Antrim Coast; and the huge chimney of Kilroot Power Station (affectionately known as Errol Flynn to the local ladies) to the left.

Ferries, tugs, huge cargo ships, the occasional oil-rig and increasingly, since the outbreak of peace in Northern Ireland, luxury cruise liners lit-up at night like floating Christmas trees, appear from the Irish sea to the right, and slowly make their way up Belfast Lough, sometimes mooring for a time just in front of Ballyholme Bay. I have no idea why they stop. Maybe they just like to admire the view.

We also get the HSS charging through several times a day – the fastest thing on no legs, that has cut the crossing time from Scotland in half, creating huge waves in its wake, but never, as far as I’m aware, drowning anyone. There are now signs on Ballyholme Beach that warn of freak waves created by the boats – I wait for them with my 5 year old daughter and my 2 year old son, and we cheer them as they crash on the sand, after the HSS has disappeared round the headland and is already passing Holywood.

On a clear day, beyond the headland of Whitehead, you can see Scotland, and the Mull of Kintyre, made famous in the song by Paul McCartney. And also a great source of potatoes, it has to be said. My children shout: 'Auntie Gill lives there. Auntie Isabel lives there.' They live in London, but it’s all 'over there' to them. 'When can we go and visit them?' The pull of the big country across the sea is strong, as it ever has been.

The beach is a long, simple curve of sand, elegant and unassuming. It starts rocky at both ends, with stony patches, sea-weedy strips, coarse sand patches, and the Ballymaconnell-bit covered with soft, fine white sand in the middle. There is the river that passes under a beautiful old stone bridge (the home of dragons, my children tell me) before flowing across the beach and out into the sea. The beach suffers from sand drift – like the river, it is gradually moving itself out into the Irish Sea – so a series of wooden spines have been built out into the bay on the left-hand / westward side to stop its emigration. I can’t walk on this part of the beach without seeing the two green painted wooden diving platforms of my childhood, and the raft, probably woven from hemp rope, and anchored by a chain, that were annually wheeled out for the summer season to amuse the tourists,  who flocked in their droves.

We spent whole summers on that beach; I had my first sunburn and my first sunstroke there (an early heat wave during the Easter holidays around 1970); flasks of coffee and Arran jumpers during dismal Julys; catching crabs in the rock pools; watching seals around Ballymacormick point (round the headland to the right); my first kisses in the old bathing boxes (now long demolished); sitting round fires at end-of-term parties in my teens. We grew up on that beach.

And now here we are again, a generation later. In the evenings I run with my friends on the beach, to keep fit and keep in touch. During the day I take my kids there, rain or shine, to walk, run, make castles with moats and tunnels, carve funny faces that look like Daddy or Granny, that have stones and shells for features and seaweed for hair.

We watch the windsurfers, the para-carters or power-kiters (I’m never sure which). We watch the planes and their criss-crossing trails overhead as they come in and out of the two local airports. We follow the speed boats zipping past, the flocks of sailboats from Ballyholme Yacht Club racing round coloured buoys, with the crack of the starting gun and the sudden magic of thirty psychedelic spinnakers released en masse: plus canoeists, windsurfers, wet-bikers, the local RNLI practising their rescue skills, and hundreds of sea birds – gulls, waders and divers – strutting and displaying, ignoring their audience on the sand.

On calm days when the tide is out, the sand stretches endlessly out into the sea, leaving little pools and ripples and the occasional semi-precious stone for the taking. On stormy days the water crashes up over the concrete walkway and the steps leading down to the sand, and leaves salty puddles in the road.

People still swim at Ballyholme beach, 365 days a year, rain or shine, hail or snow. Some of the local swimming group are in their 80s, and have a ritual Christmas Day Dip. I wouldn’t do it, but I love the fact that they do. Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll join them.

Overlooking the beach is the grand and beautiful Esplanade – a terrace of elegant three and four storey Victorian houses, which has lately undergone a renaissance with an influx of new families and a Ballamory-style paint job. Maybe the thirty-or-so families all got together and planned it. Or maybe it just happened – the zeitgeist. Pink, lemon, mint-green and aquamarine houses, with front gardens of pampas grass, Veronica, Mallow and an assortment of living things that thrive in the cold, salty atmosphere. And in the middle, the Esplanade Bar, Restaurant and Off-sales. The heart of Ballyholme, and the place for a weary traveller to be well fed, watered, filled with local stories, and sent on their way.

I was born within a heron’s spit of Ballyholme Beach and I plan to live within walking or wheeling distance till the day I die. For the record, I’d like my ashes scattered there.

By Alison Gordon