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Taking a walk on the wild side; Mike Wood finds his back-to-nature adventure weekend is much like a duck to water.

Byline: Mike Wood

xplorer, my fellow traveller's business card clearly stated.

EWhat had I let myself in for? I had rather rashly signed up for "a wild and wet weekend" in Northern Ireland, but this was ridiculous.

Especially as the bearer of the card, Antony Jinman, is listed on Wikipedia as a "polar adventurer", who has walked (or rather skied and snow-shoed) to the North Pole, and who is even now organising an Antarctic expedition for 2012 to mark the centenary of Captain Scott's ill-fated race to the South Pole. Before I had a chance to get straight back on the plane, he explained that he was there to make a film for our hosts, the Wildfowl And Wetlands Trust - the idea being that you don't have to travel to the frozen wastes to discover the wonders of the natural world.

The WWT, founded by Captain Scott's son Sir Peter, was holding a weekend of events to show off the new pounds 4 million visitor centre at its wetland nature reserve at Castle Espie on Strangford Lough, a short drive through pleasant rolling countryside from Belfast's George Best City Airport. While the reserve's avian stars - the thousands of dark-bellied brent geese and other rare wildfowl that flock to the reserve in winter time - were themselves away spending the summer in the Arctic, there were plenty of other things to see.

Not least, its 320 million years of history. Fossils of nautiloids (an ancestor of the giant squid) dug up during the building of the new centre are set into the floor of the building; a reconstructed Stone Age roundhouse sits on the site of a crannog (a prehistoric dwelling built on an artificial island in a lake); and the reserve's spectacular new glass-sided bird observatory sits above lime kilns that provided many of the bricks that built Belfast. An actor, dressed in Victorian artisan's clothing vividly described the working conditions for 19th century brick-makers.

The wetland centre also has a collection of 44 geese and ducks from around the world - including Hawaian geese, which Sir Peter saved from extinction, and the charismatic whistler ducks, which, because of the way they wander around and stop, stretch their necks up and stare off in different directions, are like the meercats of the bird world.

Visitors can buy a cup of grain and feed these delightful creatures.

There are plenty of other activities laid on for families. A recent pond-dipping event apparently became a competition between the dads. "We had to take the nets off them and give them back to the children," revealed education outreach officer John McCullough, as he showed us around the reserve. The WWT also held a Father's Day badger watch, with dads and their sons and daughters camping out near a sett and getting up at 5am to watch its inhabitants.

The WWT is particularly proud of its new signs in the Brent Hide. They give the names of the birds in three languages - English, Irish and Ulster Scots, to keep all sections of the community happy.

"Do a lot of people speak Ulster Scots," I asked.

"About three," replied John, only half joking, I suspect. "It's more of a dialect really." Language or dialect, it throws up some wonderfully idiosyncratic names. A cormorant is translated as a black skart, a pinkfooted goose is a peenks, and (my favourite) a redshank becomes a kitteryweary.

Castle Espie provided the "wild" element of the weekend. The "wet" bit came the following morning, when canoe instructor Martin McMullan, of adventure holiday company Life HQ, took five of us out on to Strangford Lough in a makeshift catamaran made of two canoes strapped together with metal poles.

Strangford Lough (from the Viking for "place of strong currents") is the largest inlet in the British Isles, and, because it is tidal, has currents, whirlpools and flows that a landlocked lake doesn't, Martin told us.

The inexperienced would be unwise to venture out alone, he added, as conditions can change dramatically in an instant.

"It'll be interesting," he promised, somewhat ominously, as we lowered the craft into the water. In fact, "interesting" turned out to be his favourite word.

After manoeuvring around a buoy to ensure we were working together better than the England football team, we set off to explore a few of the 120 or so islands that are dotted around the lough. Not before long the water became distinctly choppy, waves splashing over the sides of the canoes and leaving us with wet bottoms.

At other times, we were able to gather our breath, sit back and literally go with the flow, enjoying the scenery and watching oystercatchers (garrabracks) poking about amongst the rocks. The lough is a wonderful adventure playground, with 80 sq miles of water to paddle in. It has a canoe trail all the way around, with access points where canoeists can come ashore and find a B&B or pitch their tent. Martin admitted that, in terms of adventure activities, the area is operating at about nine per cent of comparable areas in England. There was, he said, huge scope for expansion. Until that happens this area will remain a largely undiscovered jewel on our doorstep.

Our final stop was in the peaceful surroundings of Nendrum Monastery - the best preserved of its kind in Northern Ireland and, with the earliest known tide mill anywhere, we were informed. Situated on one of the lough's many tidal islands, it was a bustling community in the 7th and 8th centuries, with a school, workshops and agriculture.

An archaeological dig in the 20s uncovered a mass grave. One theory is that the monks were massacred by Viking raiders, but site warden Norman Patton said it was now thought more likely to have been the work of Normans establishing a rival Benedictine monastery. With the sun warm on our faces and the lough calm, it was hard to imagine the hard lives those monks must have lived, hounded by pagan chieftains, Vikings and even other Christian communities.

One shaven-headed "monk" remained, though, demonstrating how to mill corn using an old rotary quern. In real life, Dominic Egan is a retired museum curator who comes up from Cavan at the weekend to play the role.

And his austere haircut? The result of a charity head-shave, he TRAVEL FACTS Mike Wood stayed at the four-star La Mon Hotel in Gransha Road, Comber (Tel: 028 9044 8631); and dined at the award-winning Balloo House at Killinchy (tel: 028 9754 1210) and the Dufferin Arms in Killyleagh (tel: 028 4482 1182).

Castle Espie Wetland Centre, Ballydrain Road, Comber. Adult pounds 6.10. Family pounds 16.50. Tel 028 9187 4146. www.wwt.org.uk/castleespie Life HQ offers canoeing, kayaking, rock-climbing, abseiling, hill-walking and bouldering. Tel: 0844 770 5477. Log on to www.conoeni.com Nendrum Monastery, Mahee Island. Visitor centre opening times: to end September, daily from 10am to 5pm; October to Easter, Sundays only, noon to 4pm. Admission free. Tel: 028 9054 3037. www.ni-environmental.

gov.uk

CAPTION(S):

Dominic Egan uses an old rotary quern to mill corn at Nendrum Monastery. Inset: padding on the lough Strangford Lough and a whistler duck
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 12, 2010
Words:1199
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