David Michell is Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. You can follow him on Twitter.
I’d always assumed it was the weather, or the fact that for large parts of the year in Portstewart and Portrush, there are simply no people.
But the truth was staring me in the face: it’s the buildings.
I began to suspect this, funnily enough, not in one of the Ports, but in Iceland, where I discovered terrible ‘architecture’ alongside a general atmosphere of desolation. The combination was worryingly familiar.
Still, over the last few summers of good weather, I’ve been preoccupied with the natural beauty of the Causeway Coast, finding new little places to visit, taking cliched photos of sunrises and sunsets, and desperately seeking dolphins. But this year on our holiday there was no sun, so the conditions were perfect to appreciate, and photograph, the man-made misery in all its glory.
In fact, there is so much grimness that I have split it up into six categories below. To avoid getting arrested, I didn’t photograph private dwellings and schools, meaning that some exquisite ugliness is sadly not reflected here.
You’ll be glad to hear this was all very therapeutic. If only I’d known about the emotional influence of the built environment when I was a child, sensing the eeriness of Old Coach Road in Portstewart where we stayed on holiday. Or when a student, and friends and I joked about the Portstewart Blues that came over us in mid-winter. Or on all the recent holidays and daytrips, where even relentless family fun-stress couldn’t hide the menace coming out of the ground and walls around us.
My targets are Portstewart and Portrush. The other main ‘resort’ on the north coast, Ballycastle, doesn’t seem to be as bad, for reasons unknown. I should also warn you I had a lot of fun doing this, so this goes on a while.
1. Derelict buildings
With so many abandoned houses, hotels, residential homes and guest houses, the north coast really should be a Hollywood for crime TV (‘Protestant noir’?) and low-budget horror movies. Here is a selection.
2. Strange structures
Strange doesn’t necessarily mean depressing, but combined with age, dilapidation, and brooding skies, various unusual structures in Portstewart and Portrush are troubling.
Take Barry’s, recently reopened as Curry’s. Many people have fond childhood memories of this place, but it can’t escape the well-known creepiness of all fun-fair/circus-type venues. Its surrounding of shivering grass and weeds doesn’t help.
Then there is the old Portrush Playhouse cinema, now a pub. I went to see Fight Club here in early January 2000 on my own, an experience I would not describe as uplifting. It seemed unnaturally frozen in time then, as does this odd façade now.
What could be foreboding about a castle-like convent perched on a black wind-swept clifftop, with a skeletal ruin just below?
This bandstand thingy nearby – which is literally called The Witch’s Hat – is too shabby to be spooky. Still weird, though.
Then we have Waterworld at the harbour in Portrush, another source of happy family memories, now left to degrade into this intestinal nightmare.
3. Terrible steps
Both Portrush and Portstewart are hilly, meaning that there are quite a few public access steps. Here are some of the loveliest.
This is Morelli’s steps, beside Portstewart’s famous ice cream shop. Thankfully, back in the day, the prospect of a Coke float at the end of them distracted me from how grimly claustrophobic they are.
4. Signs of decay
As well as buildings, a variety of helpful signage helps create the perfect vibe of despair.
In this one, an abandoned hotel in the middle of Portrush continues to announce its ghostly, reasonably priced wares.
5. Sad surfaces
Above all, I put the grimness of the North Coast down to the surfaces and finishes on buildings, pavements, and walls. The main culprit is pebbledash, which covers Portrush and Portstewart like a malevolent moss. Below are some exemplars of the genre. Ugh!
On some surfaces, the awfulness is relieved by a kind of dystopian artfulness.
6. Miscellaneous misery
I could have focused only on church halls. There’s plenty of material – here are a few.
Or lighting – no, this charming fixture is not in a prison yard, but the kiddy play area at the front of Portstewart.
Rest your weary legs here.
What even is this?
And so ends our grim journey. Portstewart and Portrush have undergone many improvements over the years, but with every new pebbledash-free apartments, re-landscaped walkway, and hipster café, something else seems to fall into disuse. The overall direction of travel is unclear.
In any case, hopefully now that I’ve pinned it down, the grimness will lose its power, and I can get on with enjoying all the chips, ice cream, and sunny intervals in peace.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.