Walking across the border for the good of your health

For those of us who live on this small island – and in this even smaller province of this small island – going to the occasional international conference is a good way of opening the mind to new ideas (and I defy the small-minded begrudgers who mutter about EU ‘gravy trains’ to tell me otherwise).

I was at a conference on cross-border cooperation  in Strasbourg 15 months ago when I fell into conversation with a man from Regio Basilensis, the cross-border region in and around the Swiss city of Basel which since 1963 has brought together municipalities in Switzerland, France and Germany to coordinate economic, health, cultural and other activities.

He told me that for the previous four years the region had been organising a community event on the third Sunday of every September which brought 65,000 people out to walk, cycle and skate on car free roads for a day. The 60 kilometre route, mainly along the River Rhine, involved five border crossings and seven river crossings and loops through the three countries.

It made me think that perhaps we could organise an Irish cross-border version of the same event in the so-called ‘East Border Region’ where my weekday home of Armagh is situated. The Carlingford Peninsular, South Armagh and the Mourne Mountains are among the most picturesque parts of Ireland. For too long they were seen as ‘off limits’ to most Irish people because of the Northern ‘troubles’ – with South Armagh, in particular, seen by most people from outside the area as being entirely a ‘no go’ zone.

This lovely border region of hills, mountains, forests, lakes and seascapes has the distinct advantage over more remote scenic areas in the west that it is within 50 miles of the island’s two major population centres, Dublin and Belfast. I don’t think anybody would disagree if I were to say that these two huge ‘home tourism’ markets have never even begun to be tapped by tourism promoters in the border region, particularly in the off season. Indeed, as a Dublin resident (when I am not working in Armagh) I can assure you that most Dubliners would think you genuinely weird if you suggested spending a weekend in Armagh, Newry or Mourne (apart, that is, from the shopping in Newry!).

I believe that such a walking and cycling event on car free back roads – the Swiss call it a ‘Slow-up’ event, because it ‘slows you up’ (or down) after the hectic pace of modern urban living – could begin to introduce  folk in our two main cities to the hidden delights of this almost totally unknown wilderness area a few short miles off the Dublin-Belfast road.

I would suggest a 50-60 mile route for this ‘Slow down’ day ( which could take place in May or September) beginning in South Armagh, traversing the Carlingford Peninsular – perhaps with boats for people to cross Carlingford Lough – and ending in the spectacular southern reaches of the Mourne Mountains.

All sorts of associated ideas spring from this original idea. Irish Rail and Translink could be approached to put on special excursion trains from Dublin and Belfast to Dundalk and Newry, from where buses would bring people to the ‘Slow down’ route’s starting point. Local guest houses and B and Bs would be encouraged to offer special family deals for the selected weekend, and local shopkeepers, market stallholders and caterers would be asked to put up food and beverage stands along the way. Local musicians, entertainers and story-tellers would be invited to participate in related events.

The equivalent event in peaceful Switzerland has another motive, which could be seen as even more relevant in still divided Ireland. The event’s director, Wendel Hilti, says “an important part of our goal is to promote movement and contacts beyond our borders. We want to underline the importance of living together in the three neighbouring countries: Switzerland, France and Germany.”

The Swiss event’s aims are to promote regional tourism, physical exercise and cross-border cooperation, and “to make people happy for the day by persuading them to leave their cars at home and to slow down”. In Ireland such a cross-border event could have a similar double aim: increasing mutual understanding by bringing people from both sides of the border to relax and enjoy a beautiful place in the border region together, and increasing the sum of human happiness by helping people – and particularly city people – to get in touch with our still pristine Irish environment.

This idea has been discussed at several meetings with senior officers of Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne and Down District Councils in recent months and they have been enthusiastic about it. The two former councils see it as fitting well with their commitment to share a tourism officer under the new Memorandum of Understanding signed between them last year, and as something their new joint tourism officer could begin to work on. I was asked to go back to the Basel organisers and find out more about budgets and partnerships and this information has been passed to the councils. I really hope they take this idea and run with it.

Andy Pollak

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.