Van's lyrical tour


Over the hill and the crack is good. . .'

Here is an idea that Bord Failte and the Northern Irish Tourist Board could do worse than develop as a novel method of luring tourists to these shores: The Do It Yourself Musical Tour of Ireland. Armed with a good map and specially-chosen compilation CD of songs featuring detailed Irish geographical references, visitors could become their own tour guides. Dublin Can be Heaven and The Mountains of Mourne could all play a part in what would be the ultimate Celtic tour of sound and vision.

A pilot scheme could be run during the summer in Northern Ireland around the Ards Peninsula, the setting for one of the most evocative songs ever written about any part of the world. Van Morrison's Coney Island has brought tears to the eyes of many a homesick ex-pat and touched the hearts of hibernophiles with his beautifully mundane descriptions of a day out in the south Down area.

Along the way he name-checks Downpatrick, Strangford, Ardglass, the Lecale district, Shrigly, Killyleagh, St John's Point and finally, Coney Island, a place which doesn't even register on some maps of Northern Ireland.

Those attempting this Morrison Odyssey should remember that, as with all travel, preparation is the key. First, get to know your subject. Until recently, this writer harboured an irrational but unshakeable aversion to all things Vanthemannish and, as a result, I had never heard the track.

This was redressed by a visit to a record shop, where I was told that Avalon Sunset, the 1989 album on which Coney Island features, is no longer available in cassette format. So unless you are travelling in a car with a CD player, your chances of listening to the dreamy voice of Van as he reminisces about the crack being good and the hills going on and on are scuppered. We settled for bringing the lyric sheet and reading it out loud self-consciously at various points along the journey.

Step two is to plan the route. Van uses considerable poetic licence in the sequencing of his journey and it is useless, not to mention frustrating, trying to follow the 40-odd mile trek verbatim. Far better to make your own route, taking in some of the many other scenic highlights (the ferry across Strangford Lough to Portaferry being just one) the area has to offer along the way.

And finally those who can't drive should enlist the help of a friend who can, preferably one who doesn't mind driving around Van's old rural haunts for the afternoon.

"Anyone I've asked says there is nothing much actually in Coney Island, so I hope you won't be disappointed," warned the bemused Designated Driver (DD), himself a Northerner, when informed of the itinerary.

"Coming down from Downpatrick," begins Van, in his (frankly peculiar) American/Northern Irish twang. So we started the trip proper in the burial place of St Patrick after a pleasant drive along Northern Ireland's Gold Coast. The story goes that Morrison wrote this short poem after he had been living in the US for 20 years and was missing the simpler pleasures of Ulster life. It was penned after a day with friends driving around the western and southern shores of Strangford Lough.

"Stopping off at St John's Point, Out all day birdwatching, And the crack was good," he recites to the strains of haunting guitar and harp music. (Actor Liam Neeson released his own version a few years ago, set to the Belfast Theme.) On the way to St John's, the most easterly point in the county, DD chuckles and says something characteristically politically incorrect about how much he enjoys birdwatching, ha, ha. (He is not talking about the winged variety, obviously.)

On the day we visit the place, like Van on a Sunday, there are few birds of either variety to be seen. After a 10-minute drive down the tree-lined Point Road, we come to a lighthouse and surrounding outbuildings and a sign which reads "Beware of the Dogs".

St John's Point is an unexpectedly lovely spot, all craggy shore, gently lapping water and seaweed smells, and the short walk down stone steps to the sea is almost romantic after sunset, although Van and his mates would have come here closer to sunrise. And apart from the fact that said dogs try to chew our tyres on the way out, it was one of the high points of the day.

According to the song, Van and Co also stopped off at the tiny fishing village of Strangford, just across from Portaferry. Then it was onto Shrigly, "taking pictures" of this village which contains a plastic factory. Killyleagh, in the Lecale District, where Van stopped off for Sunday papers, is prettier and has a fairy-tale castle which would be worth exploring if you had time.

Later we drove past Ardglass, where dance music blared and sunburnt crowds strained their necks over the harbour wall to see long Viking ships being raced. At the nearby golf club, a man was whacking balls into the ripple-free Irish Sea. At this point Van and his friends stopped off for "a couple of jars of mussels and potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner".

Angus Cochrane's fish shop, which also doubles as the kind of supermarket where you can buy Absolutely Everything, have some fine specimens laid out in plastic trays. There are also prawn boats, crab sticks and cockles on offer. But sticking mostly to the song, we buy potted herrings for a pound and leave the mussels for another day.

Then with a last curious look at the modern day Vikings, we go "on and on over the hill and the crack is good heading towards Coney Island". The turning for Coney is a narrow, bumpy track that could do with some tarmacadam. There is nothing to it really; it is not even an island. Inhabitants of a few beach houses sit reading newspapers in their gardens which overlook the sands, the water and the rocky shore.

But you can still see the simple pleasures emigrant Van must have been hankering for when he visited this headland between Ardglass and Killough. Youngsters kicking sand and splashing, parents erecting stripy windbreakers. One small child, resting on his hunkers, was covered in wet sand and wore that look of supreme concentration which is only seen on the faces of those endeavouring to create the perfect sandcastle. He eventually did.

It was potted herrings time. We got through the whole surprisingly palatable portion, managing to spill only a small amount of the foul-smelling juice on our clothes. And Coney Island, with its pebbly beach spread out before us, is like a mini-Brittas Bay.

When it is time to go, there is a certain added satisfaction in knowing that instead of just another weekend drive in the sun, "magnificent and all shining through", we had been following in the footsteps of a lyrical genius. And the closing phrase of Coney Island, justifiably hijacked as a peace process slogan, suddenly makes more sense than ever: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time".