The kids are stripped to their undies and on a continuous loop ferrying water from the rock pools to the beach. They top out castles built with buckets and spades bought hastily at the seaside shop. Parents have been caught on the hop by the outbreak of high summer in April and are sitting shielding their eyes from the white-sand glare next to a pile of discarded coats, hats, gloves and jumpers. This is Portrush on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, where even in summer the average high is a breezy 19C and shapeshifting clouds offer more shade than light.
In celebratory mood, we bundle them off to Morelli’s parlour for scoops of sea-salty caramel ice-cream and giggle-inducing knickerbocker glories. After a spin on the dodgems at Barry’s Amusements and games of “shove penny” at the Sportsland arcade, we sit on the beach eating off trays from Mr Chips on scruffy Main Street.
This was the scene 10 years ago: an Easter weekend spent with family friends at the seaside, and it wouldn’t be unkind to say that Portrush had seen better days. My wife, who lived in the town while at Ulster University in the 1980s, would go further, quoting a line from Morrissey, that this was “the coastal town that they forgot to close down”.
So, on a recent visit, we were saddened to learn that Barry’s Covid-enforced closure has been made permanent and the site is up for redevelopment. The shutters have also come down on Waterworld near Ramore Head and the Dunluce Centre that offered Laser Quest and simulator rides for those all-too frequent rainy days. Gone, too, is the opportunity for any late-night misadventures at Kelly’s LUSH! nightclub.
Perhaps they didn’t forget to close down this coastal town after all.
Except that we couldn’t help notice a frenzy of building work was under way. The centrepiece appears to be a penthouse complex that has risen next to the old Victorian bathhouse that is now a sealife centre. Coastal views from the top floor allegedly come with a £1m price tag, while inland views take in the longstanding fixture of a wall emblazoned with passages from the bible.
We did a doubletake at the facelift on Main Street: once faded and peeling, now born again with a lick of paint and new frontages. The long-suffering White House department store positively gleams, while fresher faces on the block include the Ground coffee bar and Bob & Berts, which serves the Spud Stack, a builder’s brekkie comprising three slices of potato bread, sausages, bacon, fried egg.
Babushka offers brunches of buttermilk pancakes, french toast and barista coffee overlooking the harbour, while on nearby Lansdowne Crescent, the Kraken fish and chip shop delivers a gluten-free take on Mr Chips, with terrace views of the Skerries islands. And coming in September, just a few doors down, is the Elephant Rock, a 15-bedroom boutique remake of the old Royal British Legion hotel Bennet House.
The railway station has been remodelled and the East Strand and West Bay promenade have been significantly smartened up.
What has been the driver for all this? Golf. When it was announced that the 148th Open would be held at Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2019, the Department for Communities kicked in with a £17m fund to help spruce up the town for high-rolling visitors. And while Portrush may never recapture its 19th-century glory days, when paddle steamers brought tourists over from Scotland to “the queen of Ulster watering places”, it has certainly lifted the spirits for domestic holidaymakers in these Covid-straitened times.
The Port, as it’s known locally, has always been a popular destination for day trippers and weekenders, being one of the few seaside towns in Northern Ireland with a rail link to the inland towns and cities. A paddle in the sea, a few drinks in the Harbour Bar on the pretty harbourside, the Londonderry Hotel for live music, and a nightcap at the Anchor while waiting for the last train home, perhaps?
But the real draw in this part of the world is the coastline. The Coastal Causeway route takes in spectacular sights such as Dunluce Castle, the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens, as well as picture-postcard seaside villages like Bushmills, Cushendun, Cushendall, Ballintoy, Ballycastle and Carnlough.
It’s the beaches that keep us coming back – swathes of fine, flat sands so long you can run a horse on them and so wide that you never feel crowded out. They are bordered by marram grass dunes in places and plunging cliffs in others. From the beach at White Park Bay, to the east of Portrush, there’s a coastal walk to Dunseverick Castle; heading west, at Portstewart Strand, Harry’s Shack offers seafood and burgers and wide-framed seascapes if it’s inclement.
Further along at Benone beach, Sea Shed Coffee & Surf caters to the growing local surfing community, renting out gear and offering beginner’s lessons. From the Sea Shed, you can walk the seven miles or so to Magilligan Point and take in the view across Lough Foyle to Donegal. The world feels open and expansive here.
As it does in the framed photographs we have of my daughter making sandcastles on an empty East Strand in Portrush when she was a toddler. That was another Easter when the sun came out to play.