This was another one of those ambitious trips I planned while in Ireland this summer (read more of the Ireland Chronicles Here & Here & Here & Here & Here & Here), and by hook or by crook I was going it get it all done!
I love the north coast of Ireland but rarely opt to drive in that direction when taking trips around the country. It certainly has something to do with that fact that when I was growing up, the political tensions in the North were so acute it was not a place that my father was inclined to take the whole family when going away for a relaxing week of sightseeing. When I though about the North, all I could picture was soldiers with machine guns, bombed out buildings and damning graffiti.
Things have simmered down dramatically since the 70’s, and this past trip I took in August with my kids and sister was probably the best experience of the North I have ever had.
This was going to be our last tour before leaving for the States and back to some sort of routine. I had planned so many trips this year I had become somewhat of an expert. I learned one thing for sure: plan well, but don’t plan too much. It was going to be a two-day trip and we picked three things that were a must, and after that, beaches and picnic spots would be chosen as discovered and as we got hungry respectively!
The morning of our trip while my sister scrambled to get herself ready (It had become very apparent to me that when you don’t have kids, it takes longer to get ready: leisurely shower, not to mention the time it takes to style hair. Then there’s the pondering over what clothes to pack…OMG!), I got the picnic gear together.
I had become addicted to transporting a little single-gas camping stove around and anything else pertinent to dining outside, complete with olive oil, fresh herbs and wine! My sister June came home with it one day to take on our Dingle trip, and I had been carting it around everywhere since. Cooking outside and eating dinner in the open air had added a whole new dimension of fun to our trips, so my standing there in the kitchen carefully packing condiments and pantry items took precedence over any wardrobe angst I might have had.
There was also great discussion that morning about the best driving route between my sister’s June and Mimi. Mimi was the sister who could make this trip and at the risk of getting in trouble for saying this: her sense of direction isn’t the best. To say it more accurately, she is famous for continually getting lost, not just when she is miles from home, but driving on familiar roads doesn’t stop her from taking a wrong turn either (as you can see, I am taking great delight at poking fun at my sister, one of the perks of being loved no matter what!). Did we get lost? Most definitely.
We finally got underway and everyone was very excited to get to our first stop, the Giant’s Causeway. Mimi or the kids had never been, so I was really excited to be there to see their incredulous facing when standing in front of the North West Channel where 40,000 perfectly formed massive black basalt columns stick out of the sea.
The walk from where we parked to the Causeway was a steep cliff road that wound down to the edge of the water, pretty spectacular. There was excited chatter with lots of picture-taking.
There was no way to be prepared for the approaching rocks. We had found out all we could, and, even armed with the knowledge that these columns were formed by volcanic action 50 million years ago, when oozing basalt rock was cooled in perfect horizontal sections to form a pavement of perfect hexagonal stepping-stones, the rocks looked like they were formed more by magic than by nature.
We spent a couple of hours combing every inch of the rocks, from the ones jutting just a few inches above the water to the giant 36 foot pillars. There were people milling about from ever corner of the world from what I could here and they were all as awe-struck as we were by the sight.
Some of the rocks were covered in algae and little barnacles which my son, as always, was the most interested in. When there is the possibility of finding a creature skittering about, Calder is sure to be right there to catch it for closer inspection.
We hated to leave but we had more fabulous things to see on our little Northerly adventure. Climbing back up the hill made us hungry and so began to look forward to the prospect of dinner.
The next morning the plan was to stick to the coast road all the way to Belfast, where we would then make our way home in time for dinner at June’s house. Along the route would be Dunluce Castle and the famous rope bridge of Carrick-a-Rede
Our first stop, Dunluce Castle, was a medieval structure built on the site of an older castle from the 13th century. The ruin we were going to see was 16th and 17th century, and in a nutshell, its colorful history revolved around ownership, being passed from English to Irish hands over the several hundred years it was occupied.
The part of the castle that interested me the most was its location, a cliff face that plunged 300 feet or more to craggy rocks and the ocean below. It was even its own little island and you had to cross a bridge to get to the castle proper. It must have been a magnificent sight when it was complete, sitting on that big outcropping of land surrounded almost completely be the endless blue ocean.
There is no doubt that it was beautifully appointed, (of course, the location being more about defence than about a pretty site to build your house!), but it was abandoned in 1690, the main reason was because parts of it kept collapsing into the ocean below.
There was even one story told where the entire kitchen disappeared, and the only survivor was a small kitchen boy who happened to be sitting on a seat in the only corner that survived.
We walked around the outside of the castle first and it was more than a little scary, with cliff drops right by our path, and possible holes covered by big grassy patches where unsuspecting tourists might wander. The thing about a lot of historical sites in Ireland is that they are left largely without protective barriers or warnings, and its pretty much up to the individuals exploring to use their common sense when off the beaten path.
With that in mind, my son wanted to go down a steep path to an interesting-looking bit of pebbly strand below. The other interest was a group of student divers being instructed on the rocks and in the ocean in a spot a little off the beach head. I told him he couldn’t go, but he got around me by using the argument that I shouldn’t make him afraid of “stuff” just because I was: fair enough, and so off he went.
When I walked through the castle grounds I felt like I was back in Tuscany in a stone-clad Etruscan town like San Gimignano. It is always an interesting feeling when physically walking through history with some knowledge of what happened, but for the most part, I wished the walls could speak. The things I am curious about are quite basic really, like what happened in the evenings in the Great Room, what books were being read, an ear into the conversation between two children, to see the bustle in the kitchen in the morning when fires were being lit and meals were being planned and discussed: the stuff of ordinary life.
Time to go, the rope bridge was waiting on the road ahead. This bridge turned out to be the “stuff” I was really afraid of.
The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge has existed off the coast of Antrim in one form or another for the past 350 years. It connected the little island of Carrick-a-Rede to the mainland, and was used in the late 20th century by salmon fishermen who needed a way over to check their salmon nets.
Today, the bridge exists in its most sophisticated state, but is still a very simple construct of wooden planks, secured with ropes, with more roping on the sides.
It spans 66ft (20 meters) and sways 98ft (30 meters) above the rocky ocean below. The area is part of a natural trust and is home to rare flora and fauna. Nowadays it is a huge draw for naturalists, as well as people like myself and my family who want the experience of walking the bridge and living to tell the tale.
Well as far as coastal views in the North of Ireland are concerned, we saved the best ’till last. The day had become warm, sunny and put us in the mood for the pretty long walk to the bridge. Sheep Island, a small piece of lonely land jutting out of the ocean just off the coast, was the first of many amazing views to be had on the way.
On one side of our cliff path was the green mountain that continued to rise up above us leading to other paths going more inland, while on the sea-side we were kept company by a big grassy bank which disguised the dangerous drop to the rocks and ocean below us. After about a mile of walking by the calmest, clearest and bluest sea I have ever seen I could see the rope bridge dead ahead. People were being allowed cross in parties of about 10 and this was strictly monitored by a person at each side of the bridge.
We had to descend a steeply pitched metal ladder before reaching the bridge and this is where my courage began to leave me, being replaced by large gulps of fear. I said nothing and cheerily walked behind Mimi and the kids. When it came time to cross, I told them to go ahead as I wanted to get a picture of their crossing. They walked slowly and carefully and when they reached the other side I was still frozen in fear on the other side. I just couldn’t do it. I told them to walk on and I would catch up to them shortly.
When they turned and disappeared up a path I stood there deciding what to do. People passed me and as I watched them cross, they snapped pictures and laughed, while I wondered what there was to be happy about. They were walking on a bit of swaying wood 98ft in the air with the mountains and sea raging around them! I knew I had to get a grip and cross or my kids would be scarred for life, so my plan was to cross when the second last person in my group was nearly across making it possible for me to walk across in one swift efficient movement.
It was a good plan, and so with my eyes fixed slightly ahead, I held my breath and did not breath again until my foot found solid ground on the other side. I walked up the hill with my heart rate buzzing and my knees weak from fright. Why was I so scared? I’ve tried to overcome my fear of heights (among other things) and even thought that it was a sign of failure in some way. I’ve decided that there are some things that are just part of me and there is no great shame in being afraid of something. I have been teased on countless occasions about my irrational fears of climbing up ladders and not wanting to go to the edge of sea cliffs to look down, but now I don’t get upset. I just say I’m afraid and I can’t be good at everything (you know, because I just about am!).
The only reason I made the trip was to meet my family on the other side, so, I suppose you do what you have to in certain situations. I calmed down as I climbed up a beautiful hill that appeared to lead to the top of Carrick-a-Rede Island and as I walked I searched for my three companions. I spotted them way ahead. They were looking down (probably wondering where I was) and as they lingered, I took some great pictures of them. I noted how, among all the people milling about, it was so easy to spot the people I loved, where everyone else appeared like a moving part of the landscape.
Carrick-a-Rede was amazing, and we walked around the speck of land marveling at the expansive view of the ocean and the islands dotted here and there on the horizon. There were birds everywhere diving for fish and we would have been quite content to stretch out on the grass and watch them for hours, but for the rumble in our stomachs calling for lunch.
I tackled the bridge on the way back with the same determination an hour earlier and reached the other side none the worst for wear. I will say however I have no plans to repeat the experience.
Okay, where should we picnic? We were on our way east heading down the coastal road to Belfast while on the lookout for the optimum camping spot when it began to rain. We did not like that it was raining but we were not going to eat in some mediocre restaurant either. I had chicken and pasta, herbs and wine in the back of the car and a little water could possibly dampen our food, but not our resolve!
After a bit of meandering, which including breathtaking scenery, we decided on a spot with a couple of picnic tables by a pebbly beach. The rain stopped and we raced out of the car armed with our supplies and got situated. Then it began to rain again, this time a little harder, so we raced back to the car with everything and wondered what to do. As we sat the rain stopped again and we repeated the process. This happened three times, when finally we threw our arms into the air and made the decision to stay even it began to snow!
I cooked a most delicious meal under the protection of an umbrella. Once we decided that we didn’t care everything became cheerful and the mountains around us seem to glow greener in the rainy air. We ate with a fork in one hand and an umbrella in the other and we couldn’t remember the last time something tasted this good. There was a moment when the rain that trickled like a little river from Calder’s umbrella spokes into Mimi’s pasta might have ruined the moment, but we figured it was just changing the consistency of the sauce for the better.
On the way home we drove into Belfast city. We didn’t have a lot of time but we wanted to get a “feel” for the city before we left for the South of Ireland. We stopped in a little cafe and had hot chocolate and wine, and then it was back into the car and home. This was my last big trip in Ireland and I knew a few days later I would be on a plane, flying away from home and leaving my lovely sisters. My consolation was that I was going to be able to write about this 2 days and hopefully relive the moments through the process. I was successful.
A note about getting lost – Taking the time to document all of our aimless missteps would have doubled the size of this post, so all I will say is this: We got lost coming out of Dundalk at a big roundabout (which we circled three times), which took us up to the giant’s Causeway in the completely opposite direction. We got lost finding the hotel. We got lost looking for a supermarket and lost again getting back to the hotel. We got lost (hopelessly actually), when trying to find the famous coastal road after Carrick-a-rede. We got so badly lost leaving Belfast, I don’t even want to think about it. We got lost taking the exit into our county, and lost again about 20 miles from home, taking us through the famous horse racing country of The Curragh. Lost again two towns over from ours, leading us back through The Curragh, and definitely a few other times that have been repressed by my memory.
I’m sure I was partly to blame, but let’s face it: It was mostly Mimi (99%)!