Giant steps for Mankind

Monday 27th July 2009, Ballycastle, County Antrim continued
As Ian has a better grasp of Irish history than me I'm handing the next bit over to him.

Along Ireland's northern coast the remains of Dunluce Castle cling precarious to the top of a basalt stack, linked to the mainland by a wooden bridge. Most of what can be seen today was constructed in the early 17th century by the MacDonnel family, an offshoot of the MacDonald clan, Lords of the Isles, who had made the short hop across from the Scottish mainland and married into, and often fought with, the major families of the north of Ireland. Sorley Boy MacDonnel was actually captured by his brother-in-law in 1565 and held prisoner for two years. In 1588 he was able to salvage three cannon from the wreck of the Armada galleon Girona, the better to defend his castle. His son James was knighted by James VI of Scotland and proceeded to rebuild the castle as a Jacobean manor house, well furnished with chimneys and with a massive kitchen quarter. They clearly lived and entertained in some style on this remote cliff-top. In 1635 Randall MacDonnell married the widow of the Duke of Buckingham, a lady who detested the sound of the sea. Not the best location for her, remote from London society, and her fears were confirmed in 1639 when during a banquet the end of the kitchen wing fell into the sea and several servants were killed. The little town on the mainland was fired by Cromwellian troops a couple of years later and the family moved elsewhere, leaving the castle to the elements. Ruins cost as much to maintain as roofed buildings; the warden told us that last year half a million pounds had been spent consolidating the cliff face – that's a lot of £1.00 visits by pensions like us.

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim

Reconstruction of manor house at Dunluce Castle, County Antrim

Dunluce Castle, County Antrim

A few miles further along the coast is the Bushmills whiskey distillery, its licence to distill granted in 1608, making it the oldest continuously operating whiskey distillery in Ireland. Its large vats and distinctively shaped roofs dominate the little town. Not being fans of the drink and having recently been given a tour of a similar manufacturer in Porto we decided not to explore in detail but looked at the exhibition in the entrance hall and examined the bottles of whiskey, some aged for up to 14 years in old sherry casks. Unlike in Scotland the liquor is distilled three times instead of two. The malted barley is also dried in closed kilns thus avoiding the taste that comes from the peat smoke in many Scottish distilleries.

Oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world! County Antrim

Bushmills whiskey, County Antrim

Vats for mashing barley at Bushmills whiskey distillery, County Antrim

Orange Hall, home to three local lodges, Bushmills, County Antrim

With so many places of interest to detain us, it was already late afternoon before we eventually reached the Giant's Causeway. The expensive car park and the paid shuttle service to the beach decided us we needed exercise. Parking Modestine in a side lane a kilometre outside the area, we walked back, continuing on foot to the beach and then climbing the high cliffs behind for a view down. By the time we later returned to Modestine we'd walked some seven kilometres and felt fitter for doing so.

Samuel Johnson claimed that the causeway was worth seeing but not worth going to see. It's true that similar formations can be found in other parts of Europe such as the Auvergne, but the setting here is unsurpassed, the hexagonal basalt blocks washed by the sea while soaring hexagonal columns form the cliff face behind.

First view of the Giant's causeway, County Antrim

The beach was crowded with happy visitors climbing the natural staircases or jumping along the strangely formed pavements. Then of course the rain returned with a vengeance and everyone huddled beneath the cliff columns seeking shelter. Once it eased we climbed to the aptly named Organ Rocks, half way up the cliff face. Beyond lies the Amphitheatre, where the full splendour of the towering columns can be viewed, though few people seemed inclined to struggle up from the beach. Here the path has been closed off as there is a real danger of cliff falls, so we returned, taking the higher path, the rocks that had seemed so huge from below looking quite small from up here, crawled over by hundreds of brightly coloured ants. It's definitely the "must-see" place in Ireland and was included on Unesco's World Heritage list back in 1989.

Giant steps for Mankind, Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Beach of fractured basalt, Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Jill shelters from the rain, Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Ian at the Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Naturally formed columns, the organ pipes, Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Natural amphitheatre, Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway seen from above, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway - nothing but the tops of thousands of hexagonal columns, County Antrim

Clifftops above the Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

By the time we rejoined Modestine it was too late, and we were too weary, to visit the other attraction along this stretch of coast at Carrik-a-Rede A beautiful walk along the cliffs leads to a rope bridge linking an off-shore island to the mainland. It would make an awesomely beautiful walk on a warm afternoon.

Carrik-a-Rede and the rope bridge, County Antrim

Instead we set off in search of a campsite, stopping on the cliff top to gaze out across the stretch of sea that lies between Ireland and Scotland. Out to sea lies the Irish island of Rathlin while in the distance it was easy to make out the Hebridean island of Islay with its many whiskey distilleries. Beyond, hidden from view lie the Paps of Jura, a place I've long fancied visiting. To the right the coast of mainland Scotland with the Mull of Kintyre was clearly visible a mere 24 miles away! With islands as stepping stones, trading, raiding and fighting, as well as cultural and linguistic links, have existed between the Irish and Scottish clans since man first discovered how to sail a boat!

Mull of Kintyre and the Isle of Islay with Rathlin Isle in the foreground seen from the cliffs of County Antrim

Medieval graffiti at Dunluce Castle showing a Viking style vessel used to sail the waters between Ireland and Scotland

Wednesday 29th July 2009, Antrim
Yesterday it rained. We went into hibernation and spent the day catching up on the blog and answering emails, working on photos and watching a trivial dvd in the evening. At one stage we went for a brief walk down to the fishing lake belonging to the campsite in the hope of seeing otters, which we were reliably informed were there. Like us though, they'd decided it was too wet to do anything and had retired indoors with a bag of crisps and a bottle of Otter ale.

The campsite is attached to a cliff-top restaurant and this morning the owner let us use the bar to connect up to his wifi for a couple of hours. It took longer than it should though because he couldn't stop talking and we couldn't understand what he was saying! Honestly it's easier to understand French than the Irish they speak in the north! He told us how expensive he found Southern Ireland; that salaries there are higher and rates are lower. He said he'd been shocked to pay 13 euros for chicken curry on a recent visit south when he served the same meal in his restaurant for £6.99. He told us how unpopular the National Trust is with land-owners and country people on the north coast. Friends of his had been taken to court for continuing to whittle shillelaghs once the land on which they'd lived and traded for generations had been acquired by the Trust. (National Trust versus shillelagh whittlers! Only in Ireland!!)

Once we eventually got going we had a very pleasant day, stopping at various little seaside towns, hardly more than villages really. Marconi established the world's first commercial wireless station at Ballycastle in 1898 to send messages between Rathlin Island and Lloyd's station on Torr Head. We strolled in the attractive seafront gardens and checked out ferry prices to Rathlin Island just off-shore but decided against a trip with the weather so dodgy and probably not much to do when we got there. Instead we drove through a maze of tiny lanes through a switchback countryside of red fuchsia hedges and fields of browsing cattle to Torr Head, the nearest point on mainland Ireland to the Scottish mainland. From our cliff-top vantage point we could see strong tidal currents surging around Rathlin Island while the Mull of Kintyre was a mere 12 miles across the water! The coastal scenery here is as magnificent as any we've seen – and we've seen a lot!

Mull of Kintyre from Torr Head, County Antrim

Rathlin Island and the basalt cliff of Fair Head from Torr Head, County Antrim

The next six miles around the coast were difficult. Frequently Modestine was struggling with the hills and sharp bends while there were few places to pass oncoming traffic. Eventually we reached sea level again at Cushendall.

Dramatic skies as we approach Cushendell, County Antrim

A more cheerful mural, Cushendall, County Antrim

We now had to decide whether to cut inland through the renowned Antrim glens or follow the coast road round towards Larne. We decided to stick with the coast, mainly because we were intrigued that the road was built back in the 1840s as a famine relief project. The authorities funded all sorts of projects in Ireland at the time to enable men to earn enough to avoid starvation. Many of the projects were downright stupid – such as a drystone wall we saw recently stretching for miles over barren hillside, serving no useful purpose other than to make men toil in the most difficult of conditions rather than simply to give them relief aid. The coast road today though was something else. It was well engineered, level, following right beside the water's edge and offering very attractive views of the sea. Before it was built the area would have been pretty well inaccessible. The newly discovered craze for sea bathing around that time made constructing the road an attractive possibility and the village of Carnlough developed as a seaside tourist resort. Before this part of Ireland built its road infrastructure it was frequently cheaper, safer and easier for the people of the Antrim coast to trade with Scotland than with the rest of Ireland.

Coast road near Garron Point, passing beneath basalt outcrop, County Antrim

Carnlough is a really interesting little place that has seen better days. The major seaside hotel was closed and in ruins but the harbour is very attractive. Being school holidays the local boys were jumping off the quayside fully clothed and swimming amongst the moored boats. In the village shop we discovered plastic bags of dark red dulce, which we were told was seaweed and that we should buy some as it was full of iron. All we had to do was open the bag and eat it. It turned out to be very salty indeed and according to Ian, rather like chewing knicker elastic! How he knows this was not explained but he's probably right. This evening though I cut it into shreds and cooked it mixed in with peas in the Remoska and it was fine. It goes a long way so it looks set to be part of our regular diet for weeks now.

Harbour at Carnlough, County Antrim

McAuley's Hotel, Carnlough, County Antrim

Dulce – edible seaweed. Tastes as good as it looks!

A couple of kilometres up behind the village are Cranny Falls, a pretty woodland waterfall. It gushes dark brown from the peat looking like the flow from the spout of a gigantic teapot! To reach it we followed a disused railway track which, towards the end of the 19th century, carried limestone down from nearby Gortin Quarry to be loaded onto ships in the little harbour. Ingeniously, the full trucks coming down were linked to the empty ones going back up. The gradient meant the full ones rolled under their own momentum, the empty ones acting as a brake while being pulled easily back up the slope. The quarry is now disused but there are still waste tips of fine tufa and shards of flint as well as abandoned caves cut into the limestone cliff face. Higher up the cliffs are composed of extruded basalt magma.

Cranny Falls, Carnlough, County Antrim

Gortin Quarry, Carnlough, County Antrim

Looking back along the tramway towards Carnlough, County Antrim

The rain returned as we turned to drive inland up Glencloy towards Ballymena, home of the Michelin tyre factory. The glen was pleasant countryside but if it was typical of the Antrim mountains we definitely did better following the coastal route. In Ballymena it was pouring with rain, the town did not look particularly impressive and our guidebook didn't even bother to mention it. So we continued to Antrim, where we knew of a campsite and the possibility of reaching Belfast by train. We will explore our new surroundings tomorrow.

Decked out for the Orange marches, Broughshane, County Antrim – even the kerbstones are painted