Exploring the Blue

A small white yacht, at some distance, traced its line through the sea that separates Scotland from Ireland. Here on the Northern Irish shore, everything was still. The water was so calm that it merely rippled in a pattern of diamond-like shapes — miniature standing waves. It didn’t look real. It was just a kingdom of blue, gently undulating. The sky above totally devoid of cloud. I’ve never seen such marvellous weather, ever, in Ireland. It was perfect.

We walked the stony path towards a beach, hidden at the bottom of a cliff. A truly tiny beach with just a handful of other people there that Wednesday morning. Sitting on the fine white sand, we stared out and watched for seabirds. A cormorant gliding with razor-sharp precision just above the surface of that idle water. All the life and motion normally simmering in the sea had been tranquilised. Every living thing around seemed so much calmer for it.

Having changed into my trunks, I stepped into the water — freezing, as expected. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, though, I acclimatised and eventually got in deep enough to swim a few strokes. Peering into the shallows, miniscule fish of various species were darting here and there. Stepping further, the occasional flatfish, startled by my intrusive gait, fluttered up and out of its hiding place in the sand on the bottom. It sped away to some safer depth. My wife and I watched these creatures until we had to return to our beach towels and the warmth of the sand.

Because of the orientation of this particular beach, on the northeast coast of County Antrim, it quickly loses the sun in the afternoon. We left knowing that we might never see it in such a beautiful mood ever again. In the car on the way home, I stuck Luka Bloom’s “Exploring the Blue” on and we listened to that, driving through the countryside, dreaming of a time when the rest of life might feel a little better again. On that day, we had already clocked about 18 months of the pandemic, and we were still counting.

I go down into the water

Dive as deep as man can go

Into those dark places

Watch the underwater flow

So much of our time during those 18 months, except during strict lockdowns, was spent exploring the many extraordinary outdoor places in and around Belfast. We wandered energetically, and listened to our favourite music in the car on the way there, and back again.

I was reading a lot about Irish wildlife and ecology at the time, which made me realise that many of these apparently “green” locations were anything but. The whole of Ireland has some big questions to answer about environmental protection and biodiversity. But I have little time for the negativity brigade on Twitter that cultivates retweets and likes by complaining about this all the time. At a basic level, what clings on in this down-trodden landscape is still sometimes awe-inspiring and magnificent. And, for us, it was a reprieve from loneliness, the boredom of four walls, the endlessly unpleasant news about covid and the sense that something structural in the world had shattered, irreparably.

So instead of dwelling too much on all that, we watched a dipper bob and hunt for insects in the river at Tollymore. We climbed Divis in roaring wind and saw a kestrel hovering high above, unfalteringly, while we struggled to keep our balance on the ground. We picked our way through little pieces of native woodland to look across at the miniature islands of Strangford Lough. Eventually, we drove home, looking forward to dinner, and then sleep again.

A lot of the music we listened to on these little trips seemed to fit so well. The songs were full of adventurism and the pioneer, but also, the pensive one, the loner. As Stan Rogers has captured elegantly in “Northwest Passage”.

Three centuries thereafter, I take passage over land

In the footsteps of brave Kelsey, where his Sea of Flowers began

Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again

This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain

During the pandemic I also discovered the music of Dick Gaughan, which I had never heard before. He’s now one of my favourite artists. His version of “A Song for Ireland” was played frequently as we drove away from the latest exhilarating hike through some forest or up some hillside. “Living on your western shore, | Saw summer sunsets, asked for more…”

And his later track “Sail On” can still bring a tear to my wife’s eye, even though we’ve listened to it dozens upon dozens of times.

Walked through storms in shadowed valleys

Sail on through the storm

Asking questions that have no answers

Taking it all back home (taking it all back home)

Seen loved ones born, seen loved ones dying

Sail on through the storm

Rocked with laughter, have shook with crying

Taking it all back home

She is less enamoured of my regular performances of “Beauty and the Beast”, in which I sing along at the top of my voice to the version by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. But in the midst of all the mysticism and bleeding heart stuff (which I love) you do have to have some fun, too, don’t you?

We know that we have been relatively fortunate during the pandemic. We got our vaccines, we did not suffer any noticeable loss of income and we found it easy to access the countryside and enjoy it. While the loneliness was terrible, it did give rise to these experiences that we shared together, just the two of us. For months on end we lived like this, planning the next walk, choosing music to suit the drive, looking up the birds we had seen in my field guide.

I remember travelling up that northeast Antrim coast one afternoon to discover low-flying trails of cloud being blown by the wind, up and over the cliffs. We stood on an outcrop and watched these clouds sail by — like something from a Hayao Miyazaki film. You could have reached out and touched them. When the land feels magical like that, you forget about all the nonsense you’re dealing with in the rest of your life. Revelling in the idealism of certain songs is all you can do to keep that feeling alive.

The pandemic is far from over but the era, if you like, that I have described here is. Since that perfect day on the beach in Antrim, we have moved house and taken on a huge and unexpectedly expensive challenge in renovating our new home. We are able to see people in person now more often than we were back then. We still go walking and bird-watching but we are busier these days — the holding pattern is no more.

Really, it all seems like a dream I once had. A place to which we escaped that eventually, partially, dissolved. But we were so lucky. Turning away from those long pandemic days with no end in sight, we found freedom. A fairyland. Another world.

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Chris Baraniuk

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.