Consecutive weekends found us in Scotland, Wales and then Northern Ireland, with England in between. I didn’t write a blog for any of the others but feel like Northern Ireland deserves one; it being on a different landmass and requiring a plane to get there. And if you agree with the republicans/nationalists/catholics and think the “Northern” in Northern Ireland should not be capitalised then I haven’t previously written a travelblog for Ireland so here it is.
We only had a long weekend and hadn’t heard great things about Belfast so intended to spend most of the time on the Antrim Coast; which we had heard great things about.
Seems we had heard wrong – Belfast was great. We were very fortunate with the weather and spent the day strolling about in the sunshine. St George’s Market cannot be recommended highly enough for great scran and homemade goodies that you may actually want to buy. Great coffee too, friendly people, all to the soundtrack of a decent musician in the middle.
We then wandered west to see the murals in the (in)famous Falls Road and Shankill Road areas. The Troubles were
a period of history that I grew up with, though I can’t really say I was particularly directly affected by. But IRA and paramilitary bombings and assassinations are what I remember from the news as a kid before we started inflicting the same on the Middle East. We walked down streets past murals commemorating people remembered as terrorists by my own government during a conflict that stopped rather than got resolved. Then you walk through streets on the unionist/loyalist/protestant side and see murals commemorating military and police killed by those who are commemorated on the other side who they killed. And these streets are adjacent though with an enormous wall in between. The wall shocked me as it dwarfs the walls put up by the Israelis in East Jerusalem. There are open gates between the two though these still must be closed when the frequent and provocative “parades” turn nasty during the April to August marching season. On a sunny day like we had these issues seemed distant; though Brexit, specifically what will happen to the UK-Irish border, is threatening to bring the issues to a head once again.
Anyway, the Antrim Coast. Two buses
took us to Ballycastle, a nice little town with a lovely beach, good views across to Rathlin Island and beyond to Scotland, and apparently one of the best fish and chip shops in Northern Ireland that’s right on the harbour (we preferred to go for two massive bowls of seafood chowder at a nearby pub then two ice creams on the front).
Our plan was to walk the 51 km Causeway Coast Way over two days, stopping overnight somewhere around the Giant’s Causeway, which is about two-thirds of the way along. The evening prior to setting off we noticed on our map that the first 8 km are along a road. Having already experienced the haste that rural drivers have in these parts on our seasickness-inducing bus journey, we took a bus over this first section. It was a good decision as the road had no pavement. Therefore, our walk began at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. £8 to walk across a bridge to a rock and back didn’t appeal to us, though the full car park suggested we were in the minority. I think people just want something else to do after driving all the way from
Belfast and taking a photo of the Giant’s Causeway. Instead, we turned left and had the clifftop path to ourselves. The view was remarkable. Firstly, the sea was a clear Mediterranean turquoise, enhanced by the limestone cliffs, flat calm conditions, and bright blue sky. Off to the northwest, Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre was closer than I expected at about 20 km. Beyond this, about 50 km beyond this as I just check Google maps, we could make out the peaks of the Isle of Arran. Even more surprising was how close whisky-drenched Islay appeared and even the mountains of Jura beyond that were clearly visible despite being 75 km away. This was a thoroughly alluring view as I still haven’t made it to Scotland’s west coast islands. They are as high on my list of places to visit as more obvious locations like Madagascar, Bhutan and Mongolia.
The Causeway Coast Way is a mixture of cute little fishing villages, long sandy beaches, castle ruins and high sea cliffs. The path gets higher and higher above the sea until you pass a sign welcoming you to the UNESCO recognised Giant’s Causeway Coast. The cliffs here are dizzyingly high
and you start to see the bands of jointed basalt that make this area distinctive. Unfortunately, the clouds also came in meaning what should have been the highlight of our walk was looking a bit drab.
A lot of steps took us down the cliff and on to the Giant’s Causeway itself. Here we were joined by a lot of people for the first time since the rope bridge. Many take a thoroughly unnecessary bus down from the visitor centre, snap a selfie, then take the bus back to the car. As we were carrying our entire long-weekend’s stuff on our backs, and as we knew that Ireland is famously green for a reason, we had waterproofs with us. This seemed an unnecessary burden during the blue sky and sunshine of most of the day. Upon arriving on the spit jutting out into the sea that is the causeway, the building clouds became suddenly greyer and a light patter of rain suddenly switched to marble-sized hail. The novelty was quite agreeable, especially watching all the tourists in their shorts and t-shirts fend off the icy bullets using whatever they had to hand (there is zero shelter). Newspapers
and ipads seemed popular shields.
I have seen a fair few such geological features around the world, though this one is nice. The structures seem particularly straight from a textbook and the little flowers peeking through the joints, waves bashing against the rocks, and green cliffs beyond, not to mention the apocalyptic hail, added to the drama of the place.
The story is that the Irish giant, Finn McCool, was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. Thus, he built the causeway across to Scotland so they could scrap (a similar structure can be found on the Scottish coast at Staffa). There are two versions of the continuation of the story, each with a different winner, and in both cases the loser ran off destroying the causeway behind them.
The alternative story is that the basalt erupted about 50 million years ago when this part of the British Isles lay somewhere near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. As the basalt cooled it contracted into hexagonal columns.
I believe both stories.
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