Lough Neagh Eels: There is life beneath the surface of Lough Neagh, and lots of it. As well as freshwater fish including salmon, trout, perch and dollaghan, the lough is the largest producer of wild caught eels in Euope – and the story of how they get here is one of the wonders of the natural world. Displaying astonishing tenacity and endurance, the eels travel from the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic over a distance of 6,000km to Lough Neagh, where they stay for 10-15 years before making the journey back again. Now with EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, most of the eels are exported to the UK and Holland, but they are intrinsic to the food culture of the Lower Bann and can be tasted on menus around the area. Drop into The Crosskeys Inn during the summer and you might be lucky enough to happen upon an eel supper – a wonderfully relaxed way to enjoy a taste of this local delicacy.
Church Island, Lough Beg: Sitting between the Toome Canal and the Lower Bann on the border of Londonderry and Antrim, Lough Beg is one of the area’s undiscovered gems. Here, amongst low-lying wetlands teeming with geese, ducks and swans, you’ll find Church Island. Once only accessible by water, the island can now be reached on foot from the Londonderry side, and it’s a place with an unexpectedly rich history. Sewn into the ruins of the church which rests beside an 18th century spire are tales of St Patrick, who it’s said came here to meet with Taoide, patron saint of the island. Keep an eye out for the bollán, too – a stone that gathers water that is said to have miraculous properties. Pilgrims have been drawn to the island since pagan times, and on the first Sunday of every September, people still make the 20-minute walk across the marshy land to gather here.
The Second World War: Look carefully and you’ll find, hidden in drifts of sand and on leafy riverbanks around the Lower Bann, reminders of the Second World War. With the threat of invasion hanging in the air in the summer of 1940, the Lower Bann was considered a strategic location and precautions were taken to repel a possible enemy attack. Structures known as “pillboxes” – concrete bunkers with long narrow openings for machine guns were built around the area and you can still see these eerie relics of the mid-20th century around the locks at Portna, Barmouth and Portglenone. A fascinating glimpse into the past…
Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey (Portglenone Monastery): The peace, serenity and tranquillity that the Lower Bann is renowned for is encapsulated in the Portglenone Abbey, a Cistercian monastery on the banks of the river (monks are part of the “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance” otherwise known as “Trappists”. Guests are welcomed, both on a day basis and overnight, and the monastery boasts a gift shop, beautiful leafy grounds and a tea room.
The Bann disc: Was it lost accidentally or was it placed in the river as an offering to the water gods? No one quite knows how the Bann disc ended up where it did, but in March 1939, during the dredging of the river south of Coleraine, it came to be in the hands of humans once again. Dated to between the first and third centuries, this delicately decorated bronze disc of just 10cm is one of the most precious finds to come from an area with a history that stretches all the way back to Mesolithic times. Described as one of the finest examples of Irish Celtic art styles anywhere in the world, the disc is currently on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.