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27/10/2021

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Surfers, good vibes and laughter in Castlerock

The early summer crowds are bringing a buzz back to the seaside town.

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Surfers, good vibes and laughter in Castlerock

Justin Donnelly of Bertha's Bar.

It would be hard for a visitor just to stumble into Castlerock in the way they might to Portstewart or Portrush.

The town isn't on the Wild Atlantic Way trail, and requires an active turn off the Mussenden Road, away from the heralded gems of Benone, Downhill and Mussenden Temple.

Vertical railway barriers and their level crossing lights frame the sea view on the way down the aptly-named Sea Road as it slopes towards the dunes.

Today there is a haze across the sky, shrouding the town in a consuming heat that offers a vague promise of breaking into bright sunshine.

Hazy cloud over Castlerock beach last weekend.

Sand dunes block off the view of the sea from the parking spaces that line the promenade. The town doesn't give away its jewel that easily.

Hilled gardens slope from ornate gardens towards the sea. Painters work on a set of three modern-looking flats at ground level facing the beach.

Families trail buckets and spades, bags and balls along the pavement towards the beach path, ready to join the occasional excited yelps carrying over the dunes.

A train rattles through the town, weaving through buildings either side of the track on its way along the north coast, the horn scattering a group of seagulls congregated on a nearby wall.

Old-fashioned beach chairs sit on a number of the balconies overlooking the water. Most are empty. A distant aeroplane hums up above, out of sight behind the low cloud.

On the coast, there are black, Causeway-like stones that stagger down to the beach itself, where a lifeguard on a quad is patrolling the edge of the water.

The area is popular with surfers, and there is a steady flow of wet suit clad enthusiasts making their way down the hill towards the waves.

Mark Connolly from Atlantic Kayaks and Leisure.

Up the hill, Atlantic Kayaks and Leisure is busy. A mix of serious surfing aficionados and casual beach-goers after a bucket and spade are milling around when I enter.

Owner Mark Connolly is originally from Belfast, but has been a resident in Castlerock for some time. He says the store opened in April after the pandemic forced him to adapt his original business.

“We have an events business which would have taken a hit during the pandemic,” he tells me.

“We were thrown into this last year, and then this location came up, so it was a case of take it and go with it. We opened just after lockdown, just in time for the bank holiday.

“This is a big change, but it's always been a hobby; I've always been into it. I come from a retail background, so I knew what I was doing from that point of view.

“I stumbled into it by accident on the scale we're in now. It was a case of doing something to carry us through, but we've ended up building a complete business out of it.

“I've always known the village, and had known the wee beach shop that was in here before, so there was a lot of potential.”

Holiday homes sit at the top of the hill in Castlerock.

The sun is starting to break through the clouds and the staggered buildings sloping down to the sea give the village a continental feel.

Mark says it is great to see the shoots of a normal summer beginning to flower in the area.

“It's been very busy. The village has been great, it has been building over the past wee while. Castlerock has been chomping at the bit and ready to fire,” he says.

“The last year has been absolutely mad and busy, obviously with the staycation market. Since we have reopened, people were allowed to travel again and Castlerock has become a real destination.

“Portstewart and Portrush are almost at capacity. People are looking for somewhere off the beaten track, and Castlerock has always been a hidden gem.”

Hidden gems often attract miners, but the gold-rush of potential holiday makers has only been a positive for the town.

“It's like anything, when a place gets busy, there is going to be some negative impact to an extend, from a litter point of view,” says Mark.

“But I've yet to speak to someone from the village who has not been impressed by the fact it's brought real life to it.

“There is a buzz, an atmosphere. There is nobody out there saying they don't want tourists. We aren't saturated with them.

“We have new businesses popping up and there is a real buzz around and the locals know that is helping and bringing money into the village.

“It is a seasonal place, and you have a short time to lift and boost everything. If that's cut short, like it was last year, it causes problems.

“Hopefully we'll continue with this nice, relaxed atmosphere of getting back to normal and the worst is behind us.

“The businesses can start to thrive and we can build back what we've lost over the past 18 months. It has been tough on businesses.

“We have thrived in the leisure industry, but we've been riding the wave, pardon the pun.”

Justin Donnelly

Next door to Altantic, Bertha's Bar is dotted with customers – mostly families – enjoying their lunch and the relative novelty of eating indoors.

Justin Donnelly from the bar says he is delighted to see people back through the doors again after what he describes as a 'tough' year.

“It's good to see everywhere back open and a bit of normality about again. People like coming up here, it's good for the coast,” he says.

“There are friendly, lovely people around here and there is always a good atmosphere. You don't have much trouble around here.

“Definitely, business-wise, it's good to see people out and about again. It's been tough with all the bars being shut and pretty much every industry apart from the essentials.”

He echoes what his neighbour said about the town chomping at the bit to get going again.

Black Causeway-like rocks on Castlerock beach.

“Whatever we can hold, we'll take, but obviously we'll have to stick to our social distancing regulations,” he tells me.

“It's started to pick up a bit now and I imagine with schools finishing up, there will be a few more about Castlerock in the upcoming weeks.

“This time last year, everyone was in a different mindset compared to how we are now. We have the vaccine coming in and everyone is a bit more settled now.

“Last year, everyone was more worried about the virus and people are a bit more settled and comfortable now.”

The surge of the so-called Delta variant has made the waterway to normality just a little more choppy, but with the vaccine continuing to keep hospitalisations and deaths down, there is still optimism.

“I've thought about it a bit. You have to take care of yourself. If everybody does their bit then hopefully we can get through it and beat it,” says Justin.

“We've come a long way since last year, so hopefully it doesn't creep round and send us back into a lockdown situation again.

“I'm just looking forward to seeing more people out, being happy and enjoying themselves, just what we should be able to be doing.

“We haven't had that freedom in ages and it would be good to see a lively atmosphere again, but health comes first.”

Justin encapsulates perfectly the vibe from almost every person I've spoken to since this feature began; desperate to look forward and fearful of a return to the abject misery of April 2020.

The county has pulled together over the last 18 months, which have taken their toll. There have been deaths. Businesses have folded. Lives and livelihoods altered irreparably.

Time ticks by though. People gather their thoughts and move forward with new stories to tell and embellish when Covid becomes a distant memory.

As I make my way back to the car in Castlerock, a squeal of laughter emerges from a family who have just pulled up on the promenade.

That laughter was always there, even when January's dark numbers revived the fear of capitulation.

From the man at the deli in Draperstown to the family of beach-goers on a July day by the north coast, there has always been laughter.

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