From Downhill Strand, the sight of Mussenden Temple teetering on a blustery cliff edge is an incongruous one – the circular neo-classical building more at home in sun-kissed Rome than Northern Ireland’s wild Causeway Coast.
At its base, trains thunder out of the tunnel to hug the beach before veering away from Magilligan Point to follow the River Foyle into Londonderry.
Benone Beach ©Getty
Downhill and Benone beaches stretch seven glorious miles to Magilligan Point. Here, the wind throws the body off-kilter, stings the lips with its spume-blown salt and fills the ears with the roar of the Atlantic. With waves reaching upwards of five and six feet, it’s a place to surf or walk, not sunbathe.
You can warm up at the hipster-chic Sea Shed with a coffee before continuing along broad sands backed by hills, basalt cliffs and extensive dune systems – including Umbra Nature Reserve with its waterfall and wild orchids. Walking westwards, you can see the weather roll in from Binevenagh Mountain; great billowing black clouds one minute and watery sunshine the next. On clear days, views extend over the Atlantic as far as Islay and Jura in Scotland and, if lucky, you might glimpse a pod of whales or porpoises tumbling through the waves.
Wave lap over the sand of Benone Beach ©Getty
The tempest’s roar
The beach hooks the point before coming to a full stop at the little harbour of Magilligan where the ferry crosses the Foyle mouth to Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. It’s a bird-lover’s paradise of meadow pipits, pied wagtails and ringed plovers in the dunes, and oystercatchers, cormorants and divers on the shore. The 1812 Martello Tower echoes the curve of Magilligan Point, a sturdy fortress emulated across the UK mainland during the Napoleonic Wars.
Ringed plover ©Getty
Back at Downhill, walk up through the cutting to Downhill Demesne, the 18th-century country residence of the twin-titled Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. The Lion’s Gate and long avenue herald the palatial ruins on the skyline, but it’s the Mussenden Temple that steals the show. Beneath the Earl Bishop’s summer library, built in the style of the Temple of Vesta in Italy, the cliff drops to the shore like a plumb line. Take in the sweep of Benone and the pound of the Atlantic as you appreciate the words inscribed around the temple: ‘‘Tis pleasant, safely to behold, from shore, the rolling ship and hear the tempest roar.’
Main image ©Getty