Fifteen years ago, Will Ferguson set off to walk the Ulster Way. At almost 1,000 km, it was the longest of the U.K.’s National Trails. Beginning in Belfast’s northern suburbs, the Ulster Way looped around the six counties of Northern Ireland before returning to the south side of that city. Like most walking memoirs, Ferguson battles his own unpreparedness, his heavy backpack (he was carrying four changes of clothes!), and the elements–mostly the constant rain, which turned walking across a moor into wading across a bog.
What makes this memoir different is the fact that Ferguson was walking through a country riven by sectarianism, despite the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. He gets to know people on either side of the divide–some are kind, others are frightening–and so as readers we get an outsider’s perspective on Northern Ireland and its troubles, or The Troubles.
The other thing that distinguishes this memoir is the fact that the Ulster Way was, at the time, almost entirely notional. Waymarkers were few (and often incorrect), and his guidebook was largely inaccurate, written by an optimistic soul who had never actually walked any part of the Way. At one point, he finds himself looking for a path that was ploughed under by a local farmer more than 40 years before. The scrupulously accurate Ordnance Survey maps, which record every building and telephone booth, were also useless, because they typically led Ferguson into bogs or farmyards guarded by vicious dogs. So Ferguson often finds himself walking alongside highways–a dangerous activity given the narrow roads and the speed of traffic. It’s not fun.
In the book’s epilogue, Ferguson notes that the Ulster Way was relaunched in 2009–allegedly with better waymarking, although from the maps I’ve seen it still leads walkers into peat bogs. It’s no longer considered a complete trail, either; instead, there are “quality sections” through mountains and hills, linked together by roads. Walkers are now advised to take public transit from one “quality section” to the next. I wonder if the relaunch has made much difference; after all, footpaths have to be used if they’re going to stay alive, and part of the problem with the old Ulster Way, according to Ferguson, was footpaths falling into disuse.
Ferguson is a Giller Prize-winning author, and Beyond Belfast is funny, if repetitive. I’m glad I read it, if only so that I can stop wondering if the Ulster Way is a something I’d like to try. I don’t think so. Too much rain, too much mud, too few places to stay. It’s a pity, really, because according to Ferguson parts of the country are spectacularly beautiful–when the sun’s shining, anyway.