The Giant’s Causeway

As I mentioned in my last post, my family and I went to the Giant’s Causeway with our tour group back in 2011.  As was the case at Dunluce Castle, the views of Antrim’s rugged coastline were spectacular, though because of the Causeway’s nature, we were able to get a lot closer to the water’s edge.

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The Giant’s Causeway is a modern day UNESCO World Heritage site, but its natural beauty has drawn in visitors for centuries.  Its iconic hexagonal basalt stacks were formed by rapidly cooling lava 60 million years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the human imagination from coming up with other theories for their existence.  Some of the first visitors believed it had to be the work of men armed with picks and chisels or even Finn McCool, giant and hero of the Fenian Myth Cycle.

Finn McCool is described in many different myths, but one of the first I heard was of his role in the Giant’s Causeway’s creation.  The story goes that Finn and the Scottish giant Benadonner hated one another, and after another day of exchanging insults, Finn tore up chunks of land to build a stepping stone path to reach Benadonner.  The latter quickly destroyed the path, separating the two countries once more and creating what we know today as the Giant’s Causeway.  Interestingly enough, the same basalt pillars can be seen in Scotland, too, on the Isle of Staffa.

Finn’s folkloric touch on the landscape can be seen in the names of different formations too, from the Giant’s Boot to the Wishing Chair, and the story of his fight with Benadonner is commemorated with a sign post at the main site.

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Of course, the Causeway also holds a special place in my heart due to a friendly argument my eldest sister and I still bring up every once in a while – whether or not to walk on the black rocks.

When our tour group arrived at the Causeway, we dispersed quickly.  I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but my sister and niece ended up well ahead of our parents and me, while the three of us took our time and kept pace with a few other people, taking in the sights and reading over the travel brochure.  The brochure mainly served as a map, for anyone interested in pushing past the main site, but it also offered a warning – don’t walk on the slick black rocks, closest to the water’s edge.  Signs along the path reiterated this – walking on the black rocks made it easy to slip and fall, possibly into the ocean’s hard surf.

Then one of the people in our makeshift group noticed two small pink dots, way off in the distance, right on the black rocks.

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Guess who?

We jokingly pretended we didn’t know who those people could possibly be, though we knew right away from the raincoats it was my sister and niece.  And soon enough they wandered back our way, joining us up on the path to the main site with a laugh about not seeing any signs warning about the black rocks, insisting the warnings just weren’t there.

Even with the warnings though, it ended up being perfectly fine to walk on the black rocks when we were at the Causeway.  The sea wasn’t as rough as it could have been, and we were careful to watch our step whenever we did wander closer to the water’s edge.  But it’s still a fun joke to bring up every now and then when we look back on the trip, especially since she still insists there were no signs.

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Our time at the Giant’s Causeway felt all too short.  We only had a few hours to explore and eat before getting back on the road, so we were confined to the main spread.  Even then, I would have loved to spend more time walking along the stacks, just reveling in what nature can do.

My mom and I both want to visit Scotland someday, to see the Scottish side of the Causeway at the very least.  By the sounds of it, if we went, we’d be in for a very different experience…

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Isle of Staffa.  Image Credit:  The National Trust for Scotland.


The Causeway itself is open from dawn to dusk daily and is free to visit on foot.  However, if you wish to visit any of the facilities or park at the center, you will be charged an admission fee.  This fee is £9 for adults and £4.50 for children, but discounts are available by either booking in advance or arriving by public transit.  The visitor center itself opens at 9:00 am, with closing times varying by season.

A shuttle bus is also available on site, making runs between the main site and the visitor center.  I personally recommend walking at least one way of the trip, both to enjoy a slower pace and to cut down on costs – it’s £1 per adult and 50 pence per child, each way.


Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland: Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway official guide

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 105-107

Ireland.com:  The Giant’s Causeway

Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 34-35

The National Trust:  Giant’s Causeway

The National Trust for Scotland:  Staffa National Nature Reserve

Visit Scotland:  Isle of Staffa

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Dunluce Castle

After getting helplessly lost while leaving Sligo, my mother and I were quite eager to get back to sight seeing.  Thankfully, our bed and breakfast in Portrush wasn’t too far away from our first site of the day, Dunluce Castle.  After a mere 15 minute drive down a road hugging Antrim’s beautiful coastline, we reached the castle before the large tour groups had begun to arrive.

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Perched on one of Antrim’s cliffs, the castle has a very iconic look and has been called one of Ireland’s most romantic castles.  Parts of the castle were first built in the 1200s, but most of what remains today is much more recent – major additions were made through the 1600s.  But by the mid 1600s, the castle was abandoned by its last resident, the second Earl of Antrim, Randall McDonnell.  Story has it that in 1639, part of the kitchen fell into the sea during a storm, taking part of the kitchen staff along with it and prompting the Earl and his family to move first to Ballymagarry, then to Glenarm Castle when it was rebuilt in 1756.

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Our time at Dunluce stood out most for its beautiful views of the ocean and Antrim coastline.  Since we arrived at the very start of the tourist season, the visitor’s center hadn’t gotten any postcards or brochures in yet, leaving us with little to go on aside from signs posted around the site.  I had downloaded a companion app for the site, but we found it more enjoyable just to take in the rugged beauty of the place and wander where we will rather than follow a structured tour path.

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With a clear sky above and cool breezes coming in off the ocean, it was the perfect way to start another long day.  And though it was one of the busier sites we went to, it was easy to lose ourselves in both the moment and memories of our previous trip.  We’d seen a different part of Antrim then, with no idea how close we’d been to the castle – merely 15 minutes away, at the Giant’s Causeway.

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Looking from the castle toward Portrush, where we’d spent the previous night.

Both sites are truly fantastic, and I highly recommend seeing them at the same time, if you can.  Along with the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the Dark Hedges farther inland, they make a fairly nice cluster of sites that give a good sense of Antrim’s beauty.  But as a word of warning, plan on dedicating a full day to see them all – it’s a long drive back to the Republic.  My mother and I learned that the hard way.


Dunluce Castle is open daily from 10:00am onward, with closing hours varying from season to season.  Admission is £5 for adults and £3 for seniors and children.  The site also has a small tea room with bathrooms and souvenirs different than what you can find in the true visitor’s center.


Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland:  Dunluce Castle

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 107, 109

Parks & Gardens UK:  Dunluce Castle

Mountains of Mourne

But for all his great powers he’s wishful like me / To be back where the dark Mournes sweep down to the sea…”

Sometime before my first trip to Ireland back in 2011, I remember stumbling upon Celtic Thunder’s version of “Mountains of Mourne.”  Like many other songs, the words captured my imagination and even inspired my senior quote in high school.  I became overjoyed, then, when our tour guide told us we’d skirt them on our way south from Belfast, quoting the song with a grin in my direction.

Unfortunately, we did exactly that – we skirted the mountains, avoiding the more scenic routes in order to make good time.  So when my mother and I visited again this summer, we made a point to see the Mournes up close.

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Situated in County Down, the granite mountain range provides beautiful views of both the sea and forest protected by The National Trust.  Many hiking trails exist, some gentle enough for a relaxed afternoon stroll versus a more grueling endeavor.  Its tallest peak, Slieve Donard, stands at 850 meters (2,789 feet), making it the tallest point in Northern Ireland and the 19th highest peak on the island.

The Mournes have also served as inspiration for writers for centuries, ranging from Percy French’s song to the well known Narnia series by CS Lewis.

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With time getting away from my mother and me on our second visit, we ended up taking the costal route rather than a road through the mountains themselves.  Shortly after leaving Ballynoe for our bed and breakfast in Carlingford, we found ourselves sandwiched between the Irish Sea to the left and the mountains to the right.  Even when the sea gave way to Carlingford Lough, the mountains remained, dominating the landscape as we drove around their base.

And looking across the lough, at the southern arm of the mountain range, it was impossible to conjure any description better than that first penned so many years ago. 

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Additional Links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland

Down District Council:  Scenic Drives

The Golden Book:  Ireland, pages 123-124

Ireland.com:  The Mourne Mountains

Ballynoe Stone Circle

Anyone who’s followed my blog for a while has probably noticed my mother and I visited a fair number of megaliths on our most recent trip to Ireland. There’s just something about these ancient sites that mystifies me, whether it’s Loughcrew and Carrowmore’s cairns or the portal tombs at Proleek and Browneshill. But in large part due to GPS trouble we only made it to one stone circle, tucked away in Ballynoe.

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Like many other sites, Ballynoe was almost impossible to find. By this time in our trip, we’d learned to question every suggestion our GPS made and were quick to follow road signs, hopeful they’d see us through. Unfortunately, we were wrong – the signs led us in the right direction for a while, but disappeared without warning right when we needed them most. Left with only our GPS’s suggestion to drive through a fence and the field beyond to reach the stone circle, we decided to instead find the nearest house and ask for direction.

A kind woman quickly pointed us in the right direction, and then a man helped us again further down the road when he realized we were lost. He didn’t seem surprised at all, asking with a laugh if we were looking for the stone circle before we could say a word. Still seeming quite amused, he pointed to a small gap in the hedges and told us we’d made it.

Somewhat cautious, we pulled into the drive he’d indicated and sat for a few moments before climbing out, careful to avoid the rampant stinging nettles. It didn’t look like anyone had been through in quite some time, but when we finally found a sign stating this really was the place, we started up a small hill and entered the first field.

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The walk to the ring was an interesting experience all its own – rather than cut directly across the pasture, the path led to a sunken track through a tree tunnel. Evening light filtered in, glinting off of bells and wind chimes left tangled in the canopy. But other than the buzzing of gnats and other insects, all was silent. The path made a sharp turn and we followed, a sense of giddiness hitting me when another sign came into view at the field’s edge.

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Though the ring was somewhat obscured by uncut grass, its size still left my mother and I standing in awe for several moments.  We walked to the circle’s center for a better look, and more of the sixty-some stones became visible, peaking out from lower spots in the periphery.

My mom remarked that she felt this site was special just because it was untouched and left simply as it was – gigantic stones standing in the open, without explanation.  To stand and wonder how they’d got there, why they’d been arranged so carefully…  That was more enjoyable in some ways than listening to even the most knowledgeable guide at other sights could have been.

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We lingered in the ring for a while, soaking in the view and silence before turning back to the tree tunnel and our waiting car.  Our bed and breakfast back in the Republic was still quite a drive away, on the other side of the Mourne Mountains, but the quick break at Ballynoe was certainly worth the time spent searching for it.


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Carrick-a-Rede

“I’ll walk the miles from Ballintoy /No shining moon to light my way/Across the fields of Larrybane/And the rope bridge where my love waits…”

Near the end of my first trip to Ireland, our tour group crossed over from the Republic to the North, following the eastern coast from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway.  Along the way, our guide stopped to point out the Scottish coastline on the horizon and Carrick-a-Rede below us.

Carrick-a-Rede means “Rock in the Road,” a fitting name for an island in the middle of a salmon spawning route.  A fishery was opened on the island’s far side in 1620 to take advantage of the migrating salmon, but the iconic rope bridge spanning the 79 foot gap wasn’t erected until 1755.  In its first rendition, the bridge only included a single handrail and widely spaced planks – surely a frightening trip, with the rough Atlantic 80 feet below!

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Image Credit:  National Trust

The fishery was shut down in 2002 to preserve the dwindling salmon population, but the island continues to draw visitors.  The rope bridge has been changed to increase safety and is supposedly impossible to fall off of, but is still described as a breathtaking endeavor.  The views on the island are said to be some of the best along Antrim’s coast, both for the birds and sea life and for the geography.  It’s no wonder then that so many visitors – about 250,00 are reported each year.

Admission to the island is £5.90 per adult.  In good weather, the bridge is open from 9:30am to 7:00pm during the summer months, and for those able to cross the gap a tea room and souvenir shop awaits.

As someone deathly afraid of heights and prone to passing out, I’m not sure if I’d make it across the rope bridge, but I’m tempted to try.  My upcoming trip takes me within 15 minutes of the bridge, and it feels a wasted opportunity to be there twice and not go when given the chance.  Any words of encouragement would be greatly appreciated!

Additional links & Resources:

Causeway Coastal Route

Discover Northern Ireland

The Golden Book: Ireland, page 109

National Trust: Carrick-a-Rede

The Dark Hedges

About 25 minutes southeast of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland lies the Dark Hedges, a stretch of centuries old beech trees.

Image Credit: World For Travel

The trees were planted in the 18th century by the Stewart family, with the intention of serving as an impressive sight to visitors of their Georgian mansion, Gracehill House.

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Image Credit: Discover Northern Ireland

Over the years, the beeches’ branches have intertwined, creating an eerie and iconic scene that has become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.  Game of Thrones fans may even recognize this sight as The King’s Road from the HBO series.

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Image Credit: Discover Northern Ireland

A spectral Grey Lady is also reported to haunt this road, passing through the trees and vanishing right as she reaches the last each day at dusk.  Her presence does nothing to deter visitors to the Dark Hedges though, as people from all over the world come to see, photograph, and draw these beautiful trees.

Additional links & Resources:

Discover Northern Ireland

Visit Balleymoney