The landscape of childhood holidays is etched deeply and ineradicably into an early page of memory. Its features -- seashore, hills, a village street -- furnish the landscape of the imagination with archetypes, originals by whose standard all later seashores and village streets are judged. For the outlines of a holiday landscape have sunk into the mind clean, uncluttered by the debris of everyday life.
Not long ago I found that I had to be in Northern Ireland -- where I had not been for 30 years -- and that two spare days would allow me the chance of visiting the coast of County Antrim, where I had not been since I stayed there summer after summer for childhood holidays 40 and more years ago. I drove north over the mild green land from Belfast through Ballymena, assuring myself that I would stop, and go no further, if ever the vaguest threat of a disappointment should show itself, like the peak of a forbidding hill, in the remote country I was entering upon.
After all, such fundamental underpinnings of the imagination perhaps should not be exhumed from beneath the accretions of 40 years of travel amid other scenes; perhaps it is wisest to give the mythologized landscape of childhood holidays a wide berth. If what you find doesn't match what you remember, your integrity sustains a blow, as though you had lied to yourself.
But when I really saw the outline of a bareheaded old Irish mountain materialize out of its mists, it was not threatening but intensely familiar: Its name rushed into my head -- Knocklayd -- and with its name rushed also much that I have known and felt about the high places of the earth that I have seen since I last saw Knocklayd. It was the father of mountains. Its form had presided over our holidays, and its blue steeps and heathery crest had first spelled out the word "mountain" in picture letters in my mind.
We lived in England, and I knew no other mountains. Our journey to Ireland each summer contained every element necessary to my ideas of romantic travel -- it formed my idea of what journeys should be -- and made of the little Irish village of Ballycastle on its curving strand a remote and magical destination.
First we took the steam train to the north out of London, to my English grandparents' house in Cheshire, where we would stay a few days recruiting strength for the real journey. This at last began in an August dusk when the chauffeur (in shiny leggings and peaked cap) brought 'round to the front door the largest car known to us -- it was called "the station car" and was kept for transporting guests with cabin trunks and much sporting paraphernalia to Crewe station -- into which we clambered, children on jump seats, for the drive to Liverpool, to the docks and the Irish boat.
There she waited, gleaming with lights, decks vibrating, the throb of excitement, the smell of salt and coal smoke and warehouses. Through our cabin porthole the black water of the Mersey was like a magic carpet connecting us not just with Belfast Lough across the Irish Sea, but with every port on earth, and with every voyage of adventure since the world began. I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen Ulysses' ship slip out on the tide.
That journey has been my standard for judging journeys ever since. If I wonder for a moment at the intense satisfaction to me of boarding a Black Sea ferry at Trabzon, it is explained by my recognition in this event of the shadow of those long-ago crossings of the Irish Sea. But there are now no real mail boats or ferries 'round the British coasts, so that a boat journey to Ireland must be made in a terrible floating canteen of the lowest class. Knowing this -- that the magic-carpet element of my childhood holiday journeys was gone -- I had feared for all its other elements too.
However, the friendly old mountain of Knocklayd ushered me in upon an unchanged scene. I recognized the gray little town spiked with dark church steeples, and the bowling green, and the curve of the beach -- I recognized the very slats of the wooden bridge crossing the peat river between harbor and beach -- as you recognize the furniture revealed in your bedroom by dawning light. A child's landscape is highly personal, some incident or other annexing every rock, or shop, or sand hill, to his own secret kingdom. I recognized my kingdom, as if I were waking in my nursery bedroom after a sleep of 40 years.
Now, where else but in Ireland would you find this private landscape so little disturbed? Its constancy, the idea of mother Ireland waiting unaltered at her fireside for her children's return, has been the island's strength, in the minds of emigrants and exiles down the centuries. If a man's family had left Ballycastle in the 1840s, on account of the famine times, I believe he would find his inherited idea of the place as unjarred by a visit today as I found my idea of it unjarred after 40 years.
Change has been superficial: What is profound in Ireland, and furnished my unformed mind with so many archetypes of beauty and happiness and freedom, is unaltered. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the decay of the houses and demesnes of the small gentry, a class of Ulstermen that provided a large number of the strong shoulders on which rested the British Empire and army, but a class that appears not to have survived. Its gate piers and walls are thrown down, its windows glassless, its houses unroofed.
Ireland, though, has always concealed its tragedies from a visitor, and smiled. Not a man now will pass you on the road that he hasn't a word of greeting to give you, though the automobiles are dashing by, just as though you were a likeable child in a jaunting car, and the road a track over the moor with no one upon it for miles.
Of course behind him is the dark side of Ireland, terror and bloody deeds; that, too, is unchanged down the centuries.
And the ideas put into my mind by Ireland's wild seacoast when I was a child were certainly ideas of fear as well as of grandeur. Terror is a necessary ingredient -- the cloud trailing storm over the moor, the sudden precipice, the sea crawling at the crag's foot. This Antrim coast bristles with such romantic horrors. There is the rope bridge over an abyss of swirling waters at Carrick-a-rede, the 600-foot plunge of Fair Head into the sea, the ruined castle of Dunluce crowning its fissured rock among the clamor of sea birds and surf.
W.H. Bartlett, who fitted out scenery all over the world with romantic embellishments for his volumes of engravings, had here, on the Antrim coast, less need of invention and distortion to achieve his effects, than in Switzerland, or upon the Danube, or throughout the Ottoman Empire. No crags could be sterner, no rock chimneys more slender, no grass greener than that which caps these cliffs. His engravings of Dunluce, and Carrick-a-rede, and the Giant's Causeway, depict them exactly as they are engraved upon my memory. I was carried over that swaying rope bridge by my Irish grandfather when I was less than 2 years old, and when I look into Bartlett's terrifying representation of the scene, I feel myself to be in the midst of it, and seem to hear the waves roar below and the cry of the gulls about my infant head.
Since those days I have seen many of the world's countries and oceans. I recognize now that, if I have loved the Aegean, I have always kept, deeper in my imagination, a picture of the running blue channels of the sea between the cliffs of Antrim and Rathlin Island, where the breakers leap along the rocks, whilst the dim blue haze of the Scottish mountains hangs far away in the east. For me, it was these seas Ulysses sailed, those hills that King Arthur's knights traveled across. There is the archetype: The rest of the world must match it. The surf at Malibu, the cliffs at St. Vincent, a rope bridge in the Himalayas, if they are to displace my illustrations, must overtop the originals in County Antrim -- and, what's more, they have a man of 50 who is six feet tall to impress, where Ireland had only to carve its features into a baby's mind.
My recent few days on that coast seemed to me at the time all pleasure and profit. Only when I had driven out of Ballycastle, and seen the summit of Knocklayd dissolve into mist behind me, did I begin to suspect that I had paid a price for my visit. Not disappointment -- the place had matched my memories of it -- but a consciousness I had never had before of exile, a recognition of the precise location of that Eden from which growing up expels a child.
Such knowledge, a sunset light of melancholy and mortality that tints the landscapes in which the painter Claude places the childhood of the human race, will now always color with sadness my retrospect of Antrim. Perhaps an increase of melancholy is the price of all self-knowledge. Philip Glazebrook, a British writer, is the author of "Journey to Kars: A Modern Traveller in the Ottoman Lands."