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Published: June 10th 2018
Ireland – Only for the Brave 4
2nd May 2018
Continuing the Grey Haired Nomads’ 2,200mile journey by motorhome, clockwise around Ireland The Giant's Causeway to Belfast
Our overnight camp, only a few minutes from The Giant’s Causeway, gave us a fresh window of opportunity. Rising from our slumber at 06.05, we were showered, fed and ready to leave in watery sunshine by 07.00. By ten minutes past, we were kitted up in hats and waterproofs (rain was forecast for 9am), cameras charged, and through the arch at the side of the visitor centre before opening time. We could flash our National Trust membership cards in the car park later.
Scattered cloud and an optimistic sun allowed for good light on the rocks and out across the crashing waves. This picture has been etched on our minds since the first sighting in school geography books and many a magazine photograph, but we truly had no idea of the scale of this geological phenomenon. It’s a relatively tough walk up and over sheer cliffs, and down 163 steep steps, along to
the most easterly lookout and back into the bay. But for a quick peek, as one might be allowed if on a busy tour, there’s a shuttle-bus to the main attraction: the broad expanse of some 40,000 interlocking basalt columns stranded along the dramatic shoreline and high into the soaring surrounding cliffs, the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. Our added bonus was to be there before the crowds. There were few people about at that time of day on our wonderful, and most memorable, two-hour walk. The first tour bus arrived as we left after coffee.
It’s many a year since we were there, but we last saw these basalt columns way, way out across the sea, at Fingal’s Cave, on the uninhabited Inner Hebridean island of Staffa, off the Scottish west coast. You might recall that Felix Mendelssohn recounted his visit there in his Hebrides Overture. It clearly impressed him too. That’s one place I would return to one day.
If you’re happy with just a view of a castle, it’s possible to stop by the roadside, not far from the Causeway, to see the delightful Dunluce Castle, a ruin to match anyone’s vision of
That's Janice in the middle!
a medieval castle: pretty princesses with long golden hair, the handsome prince on his white stead, blood-curdling battles and horn-headed Vikings - just close your eyes and imagine. Imagine anything.
A few people might turn around when they arrive at Carrick-A-Rede. There’s a guy at the gate checking tickets and chaperoning small groups through the turnstile. Carrick-A-Rede is noted for its rather wobbly 20m rope bridge across a 23m deep chasm between the mainland and a small island. In times past this was a simple rope bridge for local salmon fishermen. Today it’s a touristy ‘must do’ and you pay for the experience of walking the rickety tightrope, stepping momentarily on the tiny island to look at the cliff-nesting birds and then go back again across the bridge and on the long walk back up the hill. Yep, it’s National Trust property. Put your hand in your pocket again. Dig deep. Another £5.50 each. It would most certainly pay to join the National Trust before popping on the ferry to Northern Ireland.
Talking of ferries, there‘s a small island with the promise of a few puffins just a short ferry ride out of Ballycastle.
200 year-old beech trees featured in Game of Thrones
Rathlin Island is home to thousands of sea birds: Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, and Puffins in particular. Right up our street. The ferry office was open and we reserved our seats for early the following day.
But then it rained. Again. Come morning, the weather had deteriorated once more. The ferry was running as usual despite the strong wind and sleet, but there was little point in us going to the island to get soaked and frozen on the long walk out to the island’s cliffs. We can see puffins somewhere else later in the year. We were back at the ticket office again at opening time. “I don’t blame you,” the young lady responded, when Janice pulled the plug.
For those of you with a passion for The Game of Thrones, there are tours available to some of the dozens of films locations hereabouts. One caught our eye and we took off for a short tour of our own. I have to admit this was all news to me, I have no idea whatsoever what the films are about, but Dark Hedges, (Breragh Road) an avenue of distorted, ancient beech trees,
is a true spectacle and an inspiration for anyone with artistic aspirations - witches, howling wolves ......bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Fantastic!
We chose to meander inland from delightful Ballycastle, leaving behind the thundering waves on the bay, up through Armoy into the rugged hills of Slieveanorra Forest and the serene green pastures of Glendun and along the coast towards Belfast. Mid afternoon we decided to call it a day and camped at Jordanstown, a few miles north of Belfast.
Bus seemed to be the best option into the city, taking us into the busy centre in less than half an hour, through suburbia and past the usual malls we associate with all our towns and cities these days. Belfast is doing OK. There are many ongoing new building projects and some quite stunning modern buildings, particularly along the smart waterfront, much of historical architectural merit on the streets and the magnificent limestone and marble City Hall endorses the city’s statement. Ireland’s history: industry, shipbuilding, art and literature, troubles and all, is told in City Hall’s many anterooms off the main entrance with its wonderful white staircase and circular gallery.
care has been taken to avoid political statements in the extensive Street Art in the Cathedral Quarter on the fringes of the city centre. Much of this fascinating art is tucked away in narrow side-streets and it was well worth the diversion; there’s a lot of talent on display and the initiative has clearly helped to keep graffiti at bay. Congratulations, Belfast.
There is no shortage of pubs in Belfast. This is Ireland after all. Janice spotted The Crown Saloon in the National Trust brochure we picked up recently. It’s the only pub owned by the NT apparently, and it’s certainly worth preserving. Lunch there was excellent (and good value, I hasten to add), just Janice and I, shut in a delightful cubicle made for six: comfy upholstered seats, mirrored walls and chandeliers, and the long brass-railed bar completes the true feel of dark mahogany Victoriana. Janice observed that If you were to take away all the pubs and tattoo parlours in Belfast, there would be almost no buildings left.
Belfast has its grand Opera House, built back in1895. It is jammed in tight between modern buildings (town planners should hang their head with
shame), and there’s not much to see if you just poke your nose through the door while no-one’s looking as we did. I have a feeling they might do tours, which could be more enlightening.
St George’s Market provided an hour of delight, pottering about, chatting to stallholders, fishmongers and butchers, greengrocers and bakers, and admiring much of the art on display. There’s also a take-off for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Albert Memorial Clocktower, built in1867, and a long line of dancing water-fountains for the kids to muck about in.
A short way to the south of Belfast is Mount Stewart, another of those National Trust properties and the home of the Marquis of Londonderry. The house contains some beautiful furnishings and a fine art collection, including a stunning Stubbs. We spent some time in the many surrounding gardens: the Spanish, Shamrock, Italian, the Sunken garden......all quite delightful. Be sure to take the guided tour of the house too when you visit - it’s all included.
Before heading into the Mountains of Mourne, we passed through Newcastle. Newcastle? No, not the one on the Tyne, - this is the one in
Inside the house. National Trust
Ireland ‘where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’. And this one is rather nice in many ways. It’s the picture-book family seaside resort: the sandy beach, candy-floss, slot machines, ice cream parlours, buckets and spades, mums and dads hand in hand, with their screaming kids in pushchairs - and those spectacular mountains in the background. It’s very different from anything we’d seen since arriving in Ireland more than three weeks ago. They all seemed happy enough, despite the rather nasty sea mist, which persisted all morning.
The sun finally broke through later that evening as we drove inland, elated to see the breathtaking Mountains of Mourne across bright green pastureland festooned with tiny farmsteads, their sheep and cattle. Finally too, there were signs of tilled fields. Cyril opened the gate for us as we arrived at our next campsite. He leaned on his stick and told us that local farmers were complaining. “Winter started here last August,” he said. “It's been too cold and too wet to sow potatoes and it’s now mid- May.” Evidently grass was doing well for silage and barley was coming through at last. Half an hour later we knew
all about his ankle operation, his age, his brother in Northampton who is five years older, the state of the Irish economy, and the pain in his right knee. That’s Ireland for you. Quite delightful.
It didn’t rain today. That’s a first.
Next day it’s got to be The Mountains of Mourne. Let’s hope the sun shines for us.
David and Janice
….and Todd came too.
Scroll down for more pictures and don’t miss the panorama slideshow at the top!
Bushmills: Ballyness Camping and Caravan Park. Lovely. Coastal bus handy. Best ever!
Belfast: Jordanstown, Loughshore. Municipal. Good access to City by bus or train. Facilities OK
Belfast: Dundonald International Touring Caravan Park. Municipal. Very good access to City by bus. Facilities OK.
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