Inspiration at the Beach


Ballycastle, November 2017.

The sea air, bitterly cold, but accompanied by glorious sunshine, one of the few days this autumn and winter where the elements seem to have been in proper harmony to enable a good, stimulating walk in the outdoors, no horrid, freezing rain to soak you through to the bones, no flurry of snow to leave you struggling to walk properly from one end of town to the other, no overcast sky stealing the light, and robbing you of enjoyment of the view before you.

One of the rare days, too, where I got to enjoy the company of a long-absent friend, and be in his company for more than an hour without searching for an escape.


It was really only supposed to be a research trip.  A short afternoon visit to make sure I had the geography of the place all correct, ahead of finishing my novel largely set there.  Not having been in the town for a few years, I wanted to be sure I was referring to the correct street names etc. (and, good job I did, as I did indeed have a couple of roads mixed up in the narrative).  But, instead, with the sun beaming down from above, the seafront largely deserted in the middle of a school day, and an invigorating sea breeze rolling in from the Atlantic, it ended up being one of the most surprising, spontaneous hits of creative inspiration I’ve ever had in my life.

Popping into the coffee shop in the Marine Hotel, I sat and perused local maps for half an hour, before ordering myself a new latte, and heading down to the beach with it in hand, passing a couple of dogs and their walkers, and a local cameraman taking advantage of the stunning views, but mostly alone for the duration of the walk.  Stopping to collect a few stones, wet enough to be reflecting back the sun and sparkling like diamonds from a distance, from among the pebbles for my Mum, I approached the wooden walkway at the far end of the strand, and headed right to the edge, looking out at the sea before me.

And, it happened.

A rush of creativity so strong it almost felt like a spiritual experience.  Ideas, and thoughts, and characters, all rushing to me in one powerful ten-minute period, as though it were always supposed to happen that way, in that place.  The waves crashing against the rocks below, dogs barking from the distance, and seagulls shrilly dipping and diving along the beach, formed the backing soundtrack to this moment of wonder, resulting in me turning back with no fewer than two brand new novels planned out, and ready to write.

But, perhaps the best thing about that day, about those moments, was how good it felt to be in my own company.  How free of anxious thought, how in control of things, how worry-free I felt.  It really did feel like reclaiming a lost friendship.


Christopher Moore


Postscript. The woman in the tourist office all but bit my hand off when I mentioned the book I’m writing.  Apparently, she thinks having a novel set in the town will do wonders for local tourism.

Fingers crossed.


Anything but a Dream


How not to try out Rowing.

Step One: Believe that being accustomed to the Rowing machines in the Queen’s University PEC gym will somehow correspond to you having any proficiency for the actual sport, that the energy and exhilaration caused to your body from fifteen minutes of pulling and releasing in a warm workout room will bear any resemblance to the wind and crowds and unsteadiness beneath your feet of a trip up the Lagan.

Step Two: Leave it until the final year of uni to try out the activity, long after any of your peers who would have been interested have gotten into the sport, and far too late for the three or four-year time period you might otherwise have given yourself to learn and practice and train to become any sort of powerhouse in a boat, missing the best, freest window of your life to really give it a shot.

Step Three: Invite a friend along to the ‘Come and Try It’ morning of your last ever semester at Queen’s, so that not only do you run the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of total strangers, but you expose yourself to the prospect of someone who actually knows you well seeing you flounder.  Ignore the voice at the back of your head warning that this is most likely a terrible, terrible idea, and foolishly entertain optimism that you’ll perhaps surprise yourself, and turn out to be a natural or a pro.

Step Four: Manage to exhibit the worst Rowing prowess known to man once you’re actually inside the boat, immediately put on edge by the buoyancy and unpredictability of the water, instantly uncomfortable with the sheer weight of the oars, and proceeding to be besieged by unpleasant memories of feeling under pressure during team sports going all the way back to primary school, petrified of letting the group down by not performing your part properly, and enduring the shouts and urgings of people who don’t grasp that you are almost literally out of your depth.  Manage to not only fail to lift and release the oars the right way as instructed (repeatedly), but essentially all but capsize the boat with your particular ‘technique’, all the while listening to the payoff of the earlier bad decision to not come alone in the form of your friend’s raucous laughter.

Step Five: Manage to lose your sense of direction and orientation on the way home from the boathouse, having not familiarised yourself previously with this particular part of South Belfast, and your friend having had to go on to work earlier.  Compound your existing humiliation and frustration by having to ring for a taxi, and spend unnecessary money on having the driver find you your way home.  Arrive back to Malone Road, which really wasn’t all that far away in the first place if you’d only known which direction to walk, and hope that someday, at the very least, the experience might serve as an amusing anecdote for a writing exercise.


Christopher Moore


Broughshane to Inverness


I’ve made the same trip to Inverness so often I could probably do it in my sleep.  The same routes, the same bus and train connections, the same airline, the same sections on foot.  And yet, given my love of the destination, it’s a journey I’ve been all too happy to keep repeating.

Up at 7.20 am, courtesy of the alarm on my phone.  I dearly wish for another half-hour of sleep, and unwisely allow myself a few minutes of it.  Springing out of bed in a panic at the tight window of time I’ve left myself, I wolf down a bowl of cereal while waiting for the water to heat up, then shower with barely enough time to get dried, hurriedly pack everything I need for the trip into my rucksack, and rush for the school bus two minutes around the corner from my house in Broughshane.  Mercifully, I make it, and allow myself to relax a little as the bus heads for the Pentagon in Ballymena, where I get off and walk the remaining few minutes to the station, partly to kill time, partly for at least a little bit of exercise- something I get nowhere near enough of.  A purchase of a newspaper in the Kiosk shop proves initially pointless, as I spend the majority of the train ride to Belfast asleep, having made that particular journey more than enough time since starting university in 2007 not to feel cheated of the scenery.

At Great Victoria Street, I unwisely spend a few minutes magazine-browsing in WHSmith, and just about make the bus over to George Best airport.  One particular woman who’s often driving that shuttle must be one of the cheeriest employees Translink has, with a persona some of the drivers back home, often with faces like Lurgan spades, could learn a thing or two from.

The trip through the airport is the usual fare- over to the Flybe Kiosk to print a boarding pass, then straight through security, where it’s always 50/50 whether I’ll be frisked or not.  Getting my belt back on is always the most irritating bit- somehow you feel like everyone else is watching as you do, even though they’re patently not.  Up the stairs in the lounge, I’ve time for a bit of food and a browse-through of the paper, usually containing at least one story daft enough to make me glad to be leaving Northern Ireland for a few days- one example being a protracted dispute at a church in the greater Portadown area over the sermon style of a ‘too-modern’ vicar.  Snore.

The flight is usually about half-full- Belfast-Inverness on a weekday perhaps never destined to be jam-packed.  But that just makes it feel more like my own hidden gem, my secret refuge- the same peaceful retreat it was when I first started making the journey in 2013.  That familiar feeling of affection only increases as the captain announces the final descent about 40 minutes in, and I glance out the window to see Inverness in miniature, temporarily disappearing from view as the plane heads onwards and down towards the airport eight miles out.

The flight arrival coincides well with the connecting bus into the city centre, and in no time at all I’m heading away from the tiny airport towards the retail park just outside the city centre, where my friend will be waiting for me to walk the rest of the way into town from his workplace.  The bus gets closer and closer to the centre, and the familiar landmarks begin to slip into view- Raigmore Hospital, the Beauly Firth, breathtaking as ever, the bridge, and there, in the distance, Craig Phadrig, the hill walk I’ve done several times before.  All of it brimming with happy memory, and hopefully, the promise of more to come.  Nothing perhaps as iconic and grand as London or Edinburgh, or any of the more obvious UK tourist spots, but, for me, much more resonant and significant- it’s mine, an escape I found and made for myself, off the beaten track, home to a best friend and honorary family who’ve made me feel like it’s as much my home as theirs.  Over the weekend, I’ll walk along the River Ness, hopefully catch a movie at Eden Court, enjoy the best hot chocolate I know at So Coco, maybe take the canal walk up to the Firth, savour the quiet beauty of the Crown area, just up and around from Stephens Brae, and probably rush in a panic for the airport bus at Falcon Square on Monday afternoon when it’s time to head home.  And even though I will look forward to getting home, with Northern Ireland, Belfast, and indeed Broughshane still holding a lot of emotional significance for me, I’ll equally enjoy this home from home while I’m here- my idyllic escape from a busy world.


Christopher Moore


Lime and Sapphire


Blue and green are the colours of life.  The colours of our planet, observed from the cold, inky darkness of space, a pulsating orb of energy and miracles spinning slowly in a void.  Blue sweeps the entire globe, the colour of oceans teeming with life, reflecting back the hue of the protective shield that allows us all to exist.  The colour that, on a fine, clear day along the Antrim coast, you can see stretching out before you to the horizon from the shore of the sea, a sapphire purity that feels somehow spiritual.  I’ve been entranced, as I’m sure most people have, by that sight since I was a boy, the breaking waves and the rolling tide almost seeming to call out, to lure me in.  The thrill of swimming in the surf as a child.  To lie back and float in it as a teenager, gazing up at the sky above.  To walk along its edge with rolled-up jeans as an adult, the water splashing over your feet.  There’s a school of thought that says we all long to return to the sea because all life originated there.  During those moments standing on the edge of it, perhaps venturing out to swim, perhaps sailing out on a boat and peering down at its surface as though bewitched, it’s easy to believe that.  The blue speaks to some yearning that’s always there, sometimes dormant, sometimes bursting to life like a wave crashing over a rock.

Then there’s green.  The green of Irish summers, the green that blankets the world in a lime canopy, the green of the leafy suburbs of South Belfast, the sun glinting and dancing through the leaves that hang over Stranmillis and Malone, Botanic and Ormeau.  A green that, like the waters of the North Coast, feels spiritual, as though the very leaves have absorbed the memories of university years, of the sense of excitement and freedom, storing them like chlorophyll, imprisoning part of the soul in one tiny pocket of the world, that some benevolent Horcrux that causes pain when away from it for too long, but nourishes and enriches upon return.  The wind and cold of Autumn semester giving way to the vibrant colours of spring, and by May, feeling almost like an enchanted glade, some otherworldly clearing in the heart of the city.  If those lime-coloured leaves could whisper back the memories they store, they’d whisper of sensations of laughter, intoxication, falling in love, desire, embarrassment, fear, wonder, friendship- the breadth of young adult, and indeed human, experience.  It’s certainly what they still seem to whisper to me.


Christopher Moore


The Traveller’s Guide to Love review


Before commencing this entry, I should first declare an interest: this reviewer is a good friend of author Helen Nicholl, having worked with her for several years during her time co-managing War on Want charity bookshop in south Belfast.  But such was the fun to be had in reading her warm, witty, often quite poignant debut novel ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, that I couldn’t resist writing a review of it for this blog.  If it opens me up to a slightly higher degree of bias than usual, then that seems a worthwhile exception to make on this occasion.

It’s more or less love at first sight for Johanna van Heerden when she meets Albert Morrow while perusing the shelves of the Good Intentions bookshop.  Striking up a fast connection, the couple quickly discover a shared love of travel and appreciation of ancient archaeological sites, and happily start journeying together to various places of interest throughout County Down.  But complications loom on the horizon, not least the misgivings of Johanna’s friend Rita, Albert’s troublesome ex Carmel, and the ambiguous reliability of Albert himself.

A huge part of the enjoyment of this novel is its evocation of place.  It’s immensely refreshing to read a work of fiction set in Northern Ireland that has little to do with the Troubles or any of the other less-than-flattering associations the region enjoys/endures.  Instead, here, in the form of ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, it’s the setting of a rich, funny, modern romantic comedy, one that fulfils all the expectations and tropes of the genre, and yet isn’t without teeth.  Pleasingly, it focuses on an older, worldly-wise couple (particularly Johanna), who have lived long enough to appreciate the absurdities of life and what to avoid, and yet are still subject to its passions.  The pair’s romance is well-written, taking off early on, and remaining believable throughout, the reader invited so intimately into Johanna’s head and her love for Albert that, when crises between them finally arise, we feel for her acutely.  Johanna is a sharp, pithy, well-sketched character, her humour and personality not a little borrowed from Nicholl herself, and the book is packed full of fun little allusions to the author’s own acquaintances and time spent volunteering (this reviewer even gets a nod to his home town).

As suggested already, the story makes rich use of its Northern Irish backdrop, from the student bustle of Botanic Avenue, to the idyllic suburbs of Holywood, to the slopes of the Mourne Mountains and expanse of Strangford Lough.  Johanna and Albert’s travels to all the recommended dolmens and cairns in in-story guidebook ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Ancient County Down’ makes the reader feel like hopping in a car with a companion and setting off on expeditions of one’s own, and their gentle quests provide a lovely, quiet structure to the novel that soothes and reassures- at least until the problems of real life begin to intrude.  The supporting characters earn their stripes too, with glamorous best friend Rita and amorous landlord Sticky Wicket among the most memorable (the latter providing a brilliantly funny twist/punchline at the end of one chapter), while smarmy ex-husband Socrates and eccentric sister Frederika round out the cast nicely.  The fictional pubs and shops of Johanna’s Belfast, meanwhile, provide a fun exercise in trying to match their real-life counterparts, for anyone who knows the city well.

Highly readable and laced through with wit, the book flies past, so that it really is almost a shame to have to come to the end- this reviewer predicts many re-reads to come over the years.  If there is perhaps one, minor structural issue to give pause, it’s the surprising absence of Albert from a very considerable chunk of the story late on, something that, for me, does ultimately work, but perhaps only just.  For some readers, enjoying the novel primarily for the journeys and adventures of the central couple up until this point, the issue could potentially jar.

At the launch of the novel, Nicholl expressed her wish to produce a local piece of fiction that went beyond the tired, disheartening associations of the Troubles, the Titanic and the province’s ‘horrible politicians’.  This book is indeed the perfect antidote to the grim-and-gritty crime fiction one might have associated with Belfast and Northern Ireland in decades gone by.  Enjoyable, humorous and uplifting, this romcom for the no-nonsense, middle-aged, but still-full-of-zest-for-life crowd is an example of the sort of diversity Northern Irish literature and fiction is hopefully on the cusp of embracing.  While there undoubtedly still remains a place for the likes of Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville or Brian McGilloway in local bookshops, this reviewer, for one, hopes to see more work like ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ joining them on the shelves.  A lot more.




Gentle, humorous, but often with fangs, ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ is an uplifting and rewarding read, shot through with the engaging personality and voice of its author.


Christopher Moore


The Dark Hedges


A private little kingdom, cut off from the world.  You can see why they use this place as a setting for the fantastical.  The autumn sun filters through the trees and casts a golden aura around the entire stretch of road, making the wood crimson, the leaves saffron, the grass emerald, and the very air shimmering with a magical hue.  In those few moments as the focus of the lights shifts, you think you can make out tiny shapes, little dancing lights, darting in and out of your vision, concealing themselves just a fraction of a second too late.  You think you can detect a sweet fragrance on the wind, sifting its way through the branches at irregular intervals, as though trying to let something of the outside world in.  And you believe, the longer you pause there, the longer you stop to listen, really listen, that you can hear voices.  Faint, youthful, restless voices, echoing through the leaves.  A strange children’s choir, whispering secrets from tops of trees and depths of earth.  Suggesting a meeting place, a halfway point, a gathering of souls, some patient, some frustrated, all waiting to journey on to somewhere new.

But not all the voices are innocent.  Or childlike.  You can feel that the place is under a spell, an enchantment.  Bestowed with a sense of tranquillity, yes, of peace, of escape from the world at large, but…  The longer stay, the longer you allow yourself to bask in that peace…  What then?  Because there are definitely other voices besides the mischievous chatter of hidden children and restless travellers.  Voices far less playful.  There is something watching you.  Not restless, but focused.  Concentrated.  Interested only in you.  Observing everything you do, every move you make.  You think you can hear it laughing softly to itself the longer you linger and the more the world outside the trees begins to fade from your memory.  Laughter at once as soft as the autumn breeze around you, yet laced with a sharper quality that suddenly makes the crimson of the trees around you take on a more unsettling hue.  You notice that colour, that crimson, with fresh eyes, its vibrancy and its dark purity, and with a trickle of sweat down your brow, you wonder for the first time just where exactly you are.  You wonder what is watching you, waiting.  Waiting for the laughing children to fade away until only you are left, isolated and exposed.  You realise suddenly that you have lingered too long.  You are in a slow, calculated trap.

And yet…

Don’t you hear another voice?  Hovering on the fringes of the leaves, barely a whisper, but a familiar one.  Very familiar.  Growing in urgency and insisting that you listen.  Listen very carefully.

The whisper grows steadily into a call, into a cry, an insistent pleading from outside the trees, that this is a false refuge.  Begging you to listen.  Begging you to turn back.  And you want to.  You want to listen to the call, want to run towards it, away from this place and the other voice that wants you to stay.  But you’re no longer sure if you can.

You decide.  You take a deep breath, and place one heavy foot in front of the other.  Willing the enchantment to break.  And you hope for the best.


Christopher Moore


The Garden Village of Ulster


For a site that purports to be, in part, a travel blog, it might seem odd to begin with a reflection on my home village of Broughshane.  But, as the place I’ve been proud to call home for the last twenty years, apart from long intervals spent living in Belfast and Glasgow, it’s somewhere that’s very close to my heart, and therefore a place I’d like to talk about.

Broughshane is often described as the Gateway to Slemish, and that’s exactly what the village has always felt like to me: a gateway.  Whether to the backroads that lead to Larne (where my Dad’s side of the family live), the roads heading to Carnlough and the North Coast, the Knockan Road leading to Glenravel and the country origins of my mum’s side, or the carriageways into Ballymena or towards Antrim, Belfast and Coleraine, Broughshane has always felt like a connecting bridge to all the other elements of my life.  One of the newest additions to the village, the Barista coffee shop, rests right at the Knockan Road junction, and this feels, to me, like an appropriate microcosm of what the whole place represents.

During a recent breathing and relaxation exercise, I was encouraged to picture somewhere that made me feel peaceful, whose memory brought me a sense of happiness and calm.  My first instinct was to imagine my time in Lake Garda during a family holiday back in 2010, to this day probably the best holiday I’ve ever been on.  But to my surprise, I found another image interrupting and cutting into this memory, like a television set switching from one channel to another: and it was an image of Broughshane.

Specifically, Broughshane at sunset, one of the times of day I seem to find myself in the village most often.  Many Saturday evenings have been spent making the fifteen-minute walk from my house to the local Hot Cha (formerly Happy Villa) Chinese takeaway, and it’s a routine I still like to keep up whenever I’m back home- there’s just something more psychologically rewarding, even in this age of Just Eat and internet orders, about making the trip on foot to collect your favourite food order, than simply waiting for a delivery driver to turn up at the door.  And on the odd occasion we aren’t in the mood for a weekend helping of Honey Chilli Beef, Duck and Orange Sauce, or, in my Mum’s case, King Prawn Curry, it’s a short trip across the street from Hot Cha to the village chippie, The Fish Bowl.  I can never really look at The Fish Bowl without thinking about childhood drives back from Carnlough on a Sunday evening, popping in for a fish or sausage supper to bring back to the house.

Another guaranteed stop on the way home from the coast was always the village sweet shop, for a Pick n’ Mix or some variety of chocolate bar that contained caramel: even now a borderline addictive substance for me.  I’ve been especially pleased to see the sweet shop survive the economic uncertainties of recent years, albeit now brought under the banner of local Ballymena newsagent business McGroggan’s.  There’s something about the charm of an individual sweet shop that’s hard to replicate in supermarkets or brand convenience stores.

Boasting their own individual charm are local butcher’s and fruit-and-vegetable shop McAllister’s and Devlin’s, the staff of the former in particular unfailingly friendly whenever I pop in for an order of vegetable roll or pork sausages.  Right in the heart of the main street, they’re a welcome and clear sign of the surviving character of the village, particularly at a time when so much of the world is becoming corporate and globalised.  I can remember being asked to go to McAllister’s for meats for the Saturday morning fry-up since I was little, and I hope I’m able to continue that tradition for a long time to come.

Also flying the flag for successful local business is James McNeill’s hardware store, towards the far end of the village, a shop that has often solved the frustration of a bedroom light with an annoyingly frequent tendency to pop its bulbs over the last twenty years.  And of course, no coverage of local enterprises would be complete without a mention of the village pub, the Thatch, a drinking spot pretty much as cosy as its name would suggest, and a nice alternative to the sometimes volatile nightlife of Ballymena.

Not that I’m averse to using brand stores or businesses when I need to, and sometimes popping to the local VIVO or Spar is as handy as anything without having to walk into the village itself, with VIVO in particular affording the old-fashioned, but sometimes nicer, option of renting a DVD for the night rather than just switching on Netflix (although it’s sometimes hard to walk into that shop without feeling partial embarrassment at having once handed over my phone number to a good-looking shop assistant among my change- I say partial because I did actually get called back).

Away from the main shopping street, Broughshane is home to some great walks, and it’s places like the Buttermilk Bridge that contribute to its deserved, and frequent, prizes and awards for best-kept village.  Stretching from halfway down the Knockan Road, right around the back of the village and exiting at the top end, and now containing a nicely-kept bird sanctuary, the walk has been a Sunday favourite in my family since my brother and I were kids, particularly suitable for burning off Sunday dinners, and, in more recent times, and on a very personal note, the site of a lot of early emotional bonding in my most serious relationship to date.  By the time you emerge back out into the main street, you feel the obligatory ice cream from McGroggan’s is well-earned.

Sadly, not all the spots that have meant something to me about Broughshane have survived intact.  The Tullymore Hotel was a particular favourite haunt for my family on Sunday afternoons, its gargantuan gardens providing what felt like an epic playing area for me and my brother when we were little, from chasing one another, to stick sword fights, to just generally being kids.  But for a few years now, the site has been occupied by new housing developments- no doubt welcome income and additions to the village community, but it’s a shame to have lost Tullymore- it really was the site of a lot of good memories.

More recently, there’s been a sense of foreboding for both Broughshane and Ballymena with the announced closure of Michelin tyre factory, its plant situated halfway between the town and village having been a bastion of the local economy for years.  The impact of its loss is much dreaded, and together with the closure of Gallaher’s cigarette factory, throws much about the area’s future into serious doubt.

However, call me an optimist, but I believe Broughshane will be fine.  Money and the economy only make up part of the whole story of an area, and, along with the local businesses already mentioned, the stubborn survival of Broughshane Library, tiny as it is, against many threats of closure, and albeit only open three days a week now, stands as a defiant gesture to these uncertain times that some things are meant to endure.  For all I know, I may be lamenting the Library’s sad closure in years to come, but whether this proves to be the case or not, I think, for now, it represents a symbol: that local village life will never wholly be eclipsed by a globalised world and the excitement of bigger towns and cities.  If nothing else, its tourist appeal as the ‘Gateway to Slemish’ will always be a geographical certainty, and having spent many an excited St. Patrick’s Day climbing said mountain in honour of Ireland’s patron saint, I believe I can say with confidence that the joy of that particular expedition will always be a draw to people.

Broughshane is a village I’ve been very happy to call home since I was six years old.  It has a quiet charm and a well of memories for me that nowhere else in my life can boast in quite the same way.  Even if I’m spending a lot of time in other places these days, it’s somewhere I hope to always be able to return to for many years to come.


Christopher Moore