Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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(The Guardian, 2010)

I’ve long known that Benone Strand has supernatural qualities. That became evident one autumnal night in the early ‘90s when myself and two pals, one gent, one gal, arrived on the beach at 3 am. As we contemplated the icy mist wafting above the lapping waves, the moon crept out from behind the cliffs of Binevenagh Mountain, swathing the beach and the Magilligan peninsula beyond in light. My eyes were drawn to a black silhouette on the sands to our left. Benone (pronounced "Ben Own") is an exceptionally flat beach, seven miles of golden sands with n’er a tangle of seaweed, a slice of shingle or a toe-stubbing rock in sight. So what could this strange shape be? I approached gingerly, my bare-feet padding through sands that felt like powdered velvet. Good God, I said, prodding the lump. I followed a beam up to the moon which appeared to wink by way of reply.

‘So’, exhaled Rusty. ‘That’s that then. No more excuses.’

‘No more excuses’, agreed Annabel and I, staring at the three towels I had found. They weren’t any old towels. They were swanky, super-size hotel towels, just sitting on the beach, neatly-folded, waiting for some young bucks to trip up on them some frosty night and think, ‘oh, three fresh towels … okay, so I guess that means it’s time for a skinny dip?’

Five years after we roared our naked bums into the arctic waters that night, I made the first of many return visits to Benone. It was broad daylight, a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the waters as calm as a bathtub, myself in company of fair wife and toddling daughter. Barely a sinner in sight. Perfect. We picnicked on tartan rugs, constructed lop-sided sand-towers, read trash while the baba snoozed and swam for at least 18 seconds.

Benone is truly a spectacular setting, as good a beach as I’ve seen. Its one of the longest in Ireland, stretching from the mouth of Lough Foyle and Magilligan Point in the west to Downhill in the east. The sands are sheltered from the Atlantic winds by a rugged ridge of sand dunes. To the north it’s choppy seas, to the south the mighty escarpment of Binevenagh looms above.

It’s no surprise this is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or that the beach has been consistently honoured with European Blue Flag and Seaside Awards. There’s plenty to do on Benone. The waves gets steeper as you head eastwards so that by the time you get to Downhill, long-boarders are staying up for 150 metres plus. And while the beach seems to be permanently, deliciously empty, it is well known to those with kayaks, kite buggies and sand yachts. The ideal way to arrive on the beach is on one of the Ulster Gliding Club’s two-seater dual-control gliders which cruise down on the rippling wind currents beneath Binevenagh. (www.ulsterglidingclub.org)

Back on land, botanists and entomologists are occasionally spotted shrieking with delight as they nose through the sand dunes but focus, don’t stroll too far west because eventually the nature reserve turns into a British Army shooting range with one of HM’s prisons nearby.

I’m a historian so that’s the bit that grabs me most. This is one of those places where you instinctively know humans have been camping out for an awful long time. The west facing slopes of Binevenagh are riddled with raths, standing stones, cairns, crosses, holy wells and ruined shrines to long gone gods. Close your eyes and you can still hear the echo of the last howling wolf to live in yonder cliffs.

History is all around. I’m particularly taken by the ruins of Downhill Castle, upon whose lichen-stained walls great works by Vandyke and Raphael once hung. On a nearby cliff edge stands Mussenden Temple, a folly built by one of Lord Bristol’s eccentric forbears, the Earl Bishop of Derry, and dedicated to the lady he loved. The inscription around the temple by Lucretius reads “Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore/ The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.” The Earl Bishop reputedly made portly members of his clergy run along Benone Strand and swim in the sea. I wonder what they did for towels.