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Published: February 17th 2018
Greetings once again from London, and this is my travel blog entry for my second full day in Northern Ireland. As mentioned, I only planned to write up one entry for my four-day trip to Northern Ireland this half-term holiday, but found that my travels and experiences there were just so wonderful that I couldn’t possibly do the trip justice by just writing up one entry. So this is my second of three.
In my last, I wrote up about my first full day in Belfast. In this one, I plan to write up about my second full day, in which I decided to take a full day “Paddywagon” bus tour up north, to the beautiful and seriously stunning area known as the Causeway Coast. I had actually been hoping to visit this area for quite a few years now, and my plan had been to stay overnight somewhere along the coast, as getting there from Belfast seemed quite tricky by public transport, particularly in the off-season. However, it seems that the Irish Tour Company “Paddywagon Tours”, based in Dublin, has recently started a full day excursion to various sights along the northern coast. Another sign I
believe of the up-and-coming tourist potential of the country. Although I’m not a great fan of tour company excursions, preferring to travel and visit independently whenever possible, I am inclined to partake of their services if it seems there is no other option of visiting the places independently. It seemed that this was the case, as the sights are pretty spread out along the coast, the local bus route between them very infrequent, particularly as it is currently out of season, and an (also infrequent) train trip first of all needed from Belfast to the nearest major town in the region, Coleraine. When the coach picked me up on Tuesday morning, I knew instantly that I had made the right decision.
At 10am, right on schedule, the huge Paddywagon tour bus, with its green, grinning leprechaun logo bursting out amongst shamrocks on each side, arrived outside the Europa Hotel in central Belfast. It picked up myself, and around 5 other travellers, and we joined around 30 or so other tourists who had set out earlier that morning from Dublin. I didn’t realise it, but the tour actually starts in Dublin and returns there, calling in at Belfast, along the
way to the Causeway Coast. Given that the driver himself is also the tour guide, and pretty much talks non-stop throughout the excursion (as to me seemed the Irish way – they really do love to talk!), that is a pretty long day for the man, from 8am to 8pm, driving, leading and talking non-stop. I wondered where he got his energy from, and commended him a few times on how well he is doing considering how tired he must be. He mentioned something like “ah, yer gotta jus get ahn with it”, in his lovely, lilting Irish accent. Lovely, although every other word on his microphone ramblings about the region was the “f” word with the “u” vowel substituted by an “e”. This seems to be an acceptable word in Irish English, although one time he did actually use it with the “u”, followed up swiftly by an “oops, pardon…”. What a funny character, he was hilarious, and I enjoyed his commentary very much. It was especially funny since most other people on the bus were from other countries, and probably didn’t understand much of what he said, given that I found it difficult myself at times to follow.
The Dark Hedges
And most comments and jokes were met with deathly silence, I guess people being too embarrassed to respond in front of everyone else. Nevertheless, he still seemed to be enjoying himself, and carried on with his “craic” as the Irish call it, something along the lines of “having a good time”.
So all boarded on the bus, we left Belfast, and drove just over an hour to the first port-of-call. The magical and truly quite captivating “Dark Hedges”. This is a short, 200m stretch of an avenue in the middle of the Northern Irish countryside leading to Gracehill House, which was planted with around 150 beech trees in 1775 by the local landowner, James Stuart. Over time they grew and arched over the avenue, creating a dark, grey tunnel-like effect which is truly unique and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Not surprisingly, there are tales of the trees being haunted – I am quite sure I would find it unnerving to travel down there at night. But most famously, the lane has been used in the TV series “Game of Thrones”, in which it is called the “King’s Road”. In fact, there are many amazing
places to be found throughout the whole of Northern Ireland which have been used as film locations for the popular series. So much so that the tourism board of Northern Ireland has recently begun “Game of Thrones tours” of the country – given the popularity of the TV series, I can easily see the Game of Thrones series doing to Northern Ireland what The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have done to New Zealand. And good on them – the country and countryside is indeed stunning, and a worthy setting for an other-worldly fantasy epic. I have to admit that I am not a big fan myself of the TV series – I watched one episode, after having heard it acclaimed as an adult version of The Lord of the Rings, although I wasn’t a big fan of what I saw to be brutal and wanton violence in it, and a lack of the good side of humanity. However, this is merely my opinion, and also based on watching only one, rather gruesome, episode. My interest in the series has grown however, since visiting Northern Ireland, and I do feel inclined to give it another go. Perhaps
The Dark Hedges
it is indeed for me that Northern Ireland will draw me to the Game of Thrones, rather than the other way round as for most others (I am in fact currently listening to the main theme from the series on continual loop while writing this, very inspiring...!)
After a few quick photos once the other tourists had returned to the bus (it really wasn’t the same taking pictures with around 30 other camera-toting tourists, some wearing brightly coloured puffer jackets which simply did not go with the photo), I ran back to the bus as it seemed they were all waiting for me, a German guy and a couple of Australian girls who had the same idea. We drove on to the next stop – the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
On the way, we passed through the darkest of clouds which was delivering a blizzard of snow, going from bright sunshine one minute, to deepest darkest winter the next, and then all of a sudden again, back to bright sunshine. What a magical country!
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge was our first stop along the famous and truly quite spectacular Causeway Coast, running for around 120 miles in total
The Dark Hedges
between Belfast and Derry-Londonderry (I will explain why I refer to the latter city in this way in my next…). It was actually really quite significant for me to arrive at this point, as over on the other side of the Irish Sea, merely 12 miles away, lies the coast of Scotland, clearly visible in the distance. It was over this same waterway that I was gazing, around 3.5 years ago, on a trip to the Isle of Arran in Scotland, looking in the opposite direction and catching my first glimpse of Ireland. That felt really quite special, that I was now here on the other side looking back again in the opposite direction.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is a really very rickety and scary bridge linking the Irish mainland with the tiny island of Carrickarede around 20 metres off the coast. Apparently, bridges have been built here over the years for the last 350 years, ever since fishermen found salmon-fishing on the island much easier than on the mainland, and even until the 1970s the bridge still only had one hand rail on one side and large gaps between the slats. The bridge which exists today was built
only in 2008, at a cost of £16,000, and is managed by the National Trust. I have crossed many a rope bridge in my time, but this was really quite a scary one, and the walks there and back I found rather hair-raising to say the least! It spans 20 metres in total, and is 30 metres above the pounding waves on the coastal rocks below. On the day of our visit, it was quite windy, and the bridge was actually swinging. It is made up of many uneven planks, with plenty of opportunities to trip, and surrounded by netting on both the floor and up the sides. Although tripping up would probably never cause you to fall the 30 metres, I don’t think it would have been at all pleasant to get caught up somehow in the netting. And the nearer you got to the other side, the more it bounced and swung. I actually found it quite scary, and when I filmed my return crossing on my camera, I couldn’t help releasing a few expletives which you can actually hear on the recording… Hence, why I probably won’t post it here. Apparently, there have been many instances in
which visitors have been unable to walk back again, and have had to be taken off the island by boat!
After the rather hair-raising rope bridge experience, it was time for the real highlight of the trip for me, and a place which stirred up many of my childhood memories, which I hadn’t realised until my visit, and which actually made me feel quite emotional whilst there. It was the world-famous Giant’s Causeway – yay! As our Irish tour guide explained, there is the scientific explanation for the existence of the causeway, which involved volcanic activity in the County of Antrim 50-60 million years ago, and the rapid cooling of molten basaltic lava upon reaching the sea into amazingly intricate hexagonal pillar-like structures. There is also the more preferable “Irish explanation”, which I also preferred very much. A long long time ago, there lived a giant in the area called Finn MacCool (what a name!), who upon hearing of a similar giant living across the Irish Sea on the Scottish coast called Benandonner, challenged him to a fight. To get to Scotland, Finn built a huge “Giant’s Causeway” made of similar hexagonal structures all the way to Scotland, and
upon nearing the country, saw Benandonner – he realised how much bigger the other giant was, so decided to retreat and cool off. However, when Benandonner managed to cross the causeway back to Ireland, Finn’s wife Oonagh came up with the idea of dressing her husband up in baby clothes. When Benandonner saw the size of Finn’s supposed “baby”, he fled back to Scotland in fright, fearing the huge size his “father” must be, destroying the causeway along the way. All that exists today is the coastal hexagonal features on the Irish side, as well as a not-so-famous similar structure on the Scottish side, at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. One can understand how in the past, the people may have believed the two to have been connected at some point. I, along with the driver, definitely found the Irish explanation much more preferable to the scientific one…!
After walking down the kilometre or so from the Visitors’ Centre to the site itself, I spent about an hour or so truly mesmerised by the sheer beauty and wonder of the thousands upon thousands of hexagonal columns jutting out to sea, being constantly pounded by the powerful waves
of the Atlantic. It was whilst sitting on one of these columns watching the waves that a very old childhood memory resurfaced, one that I had forgotten, of seeing the Giant’s Causeway in a boardgame we used to play in my family, and really being filled by it with the desire and wanderlust to see the place for myself. It almost felt like this was my first memory of wanting to travel and see the awesome and exotic world which exists out there, which got me also contemplating the many travels I have done since then, and how now, 40 years into my life, I am actually sitting on perhaps the one world wonder which seemingly started it all off for me. This was when I felt emotional, and actually really quite proud of, and blessed by, what I have done in my life, the places I have been to and the wonders I have seen. I wish I could have stayed there longer in contemplation, but unfortunately the rigours of a tour bus schedule were catching up with me, and I had to high-tail it back to the visitors’ centre and onto the last stop on our journey that
day. It just seemed a little ironic that I have pretty much travelled the whole world, and it is only at this point that I visit the Giant’s Causeway, the place that perhaps started it all off for me in the first place. It also reminds me that there are many more places out there for me to see, and I feel so very much encouraged, and blessed to be able, to carry on and continue seeing more of the wondrous places which exist in our world. Definitely an affirming visit, even life-affirming perhaps.
So finally, onto our final destination for the day, and really it was only a two-minute photo stop which I was a little disappointed with, but in the end didn’t really mind so much as the day was just so amazing so far anyway, and I was already looking forward to getting back to Belfast and contemplating for the evening. It was a two-minute photo stop from a viewpoint overlooking the dramatically-sited coastal Dunluce Castle, apparently dubbed “the most romantic castle in Ireland”. The hilarious driver dedicated our visit to all the couples on board, so thoughtful…!
And so just over an hour later,
we arrived again back in Belfast, approaching dusk around 4.30pm. For myself and the other Belfast tourists, this was our goodbye-time, and I bade a fond farewell to our wonderful driver/guide for the day. The Dublin tourists were given an hour to walk around Belfast city centre and have something to eat, before they were to return to Dublin, scheduled to arrive around 8pm. So for them, it was an 8am to 8pm day – I believe the driver deserves a medal! And to think that he may even be doing the same again the next day, five days a week…?! What a guy!
For me, it was but a short trip to Tesco for another Tesco Finest microwave meal that evening (so much cheaper than eating out whilst travelling!), and a short bus ride back once again to my cosy BnB for the evening and the night.
This was quite a busy day, but highly enjoyable, taking in much beauty and natural wonders which the country of Northern Ireland has to offer. It was also a very refreshing opportunity to see Northern Ireland beyond the history of the Troubles which I had experienced the day before, and
to see the countryside in all its rural beauty and splendour. Thank you Northern Ireland, what an amazing day this was for me!
Until the next time, when I plan to write up about my third and final full day in Northern Ireland, all the best for now.
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