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Sea of 175,000 sunflowers in Northern Ireland draws visitors

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Karen McAllister in her field of sunflowers

Karen McAllister in her field of sunflowers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The sea of sunflowers

The sea of sunflowers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Karen McAllister in her field of sunflowers

It's the sunflower field that has attracted visitors from near and far.

And now, the Co Antrim couple behind it have told of their astonishment at how the field of 175,000 sunflowers has caught the public's imagination.

Summer may be over but Damien and Karen McAllister from Portglenone are still playing host to many visitors from across the country.

Originally conceived as an idea to raise a few hundred pounds for their local church St Mary's, the family hit the jackpot with their three-acre plot bursting into colour as their sea of sunflowers rose thanks to the summer heatwave.

To date, they've raised more than £8,000 for the church fund.

"It was remarkable to see," Karen said.

"We meet regulations by providing a certain amount of wildflowers every year around the hedgerows at the edge of the meadow, but it means we're left with two acres in the middle where we can't really grow anything to harvest. So Damien thought he'd try throwing sunflower seeds in just to see what would happen."

Damien sowed the seeds at the end of April using an old-fashioned fiddle and it seems the traditional methods are the best.

Karen said: "With a heavy rainfall followed by the long hot summer, we were soon looking up at 175,000 sunflowers.

"We thought we had to do something with it so we decided to open it up to the public for a couple of days over a weekend to raise funds for our local church and were amazed at how many people came along."

That was five weeks ago and the meadow took off from there.

Karen added: "On the following Monday, Damien went off to work, but I noticed cars coming along the road, then a minibus. People were still coming to look at the sunflowers. I called him to see what I should do and he said, 'let them in'.

"And now, for five weeks solid, we've had visitors from all over Ireland!"

The couple and their three children, Cara, Ryan and Therese, watched as their field of sunflowers took on a life of its own and they've even had to take on some part-time workers to manage Northern Ireland's newest tourist attraction.

"It's gone crazy on the internet. We've now had photo-shoots for magazines, couples coming to have their wedding photos taken, a marriage proposal in the field and now we're expecting a rock band from Dublin to arrive to shoot a music video," Karen said.

"The families who have come along are getting back to nature. Kids are running around the path spotting butterflies.

"It's so good that people are getting out into the fresh air and appreciating natural beauty.

"The weather has obviously helped with people wanting to get out into the countryside.

"It's been a little quieter this week as the schools have gone back, but we're still seeing people come in to enjoy the surroundings."

The couple have placed seating around the paths to allow people to relax and take in the colourful scene.

Karen added: "We've had all sorts coming but what's been really wonderful is the respect the visitors have shown for their surroundings.

"I don't think I've ever seen so many photographs of sunflowers. Our Facebook and Instagram pages have been taken over by them.

"We had one woman in her 80s who was almost crying. She'd been in France 60 years ago and never thought she'd see a field of sunflowers again. It brought back so many memories for her."

With the meadow only a few miles away from Seamus Heaney country, Karen said she wondered what the poet would have made of the creation.

"To me it looks like the perfect place to inspire someone like Seamus Heaney. I'd like to think he'd have paid a visit and written about the scene if he was still with us," she said.

Karen thinks the sunflowers have another two weeks before her summer of colour comes to an end, so if anyone wants to pop along to their Gortgole Road attraction they'd better be quick.

She added: "The weather's cooling down now and if we start getting frost that'll be the end of the sunflowers for this year.

"But we've had such a lovely time seeing the smiles on people's faces that we'll think about trying it again next year."

Belfast Telegraph