Our main reason for going to Northern Ireland at peak holiday time was to visit relatives before we head off on our trip down under. As usual we took an overnight ferry from Birkenhead to Belfast. A rainbow in the sky promised some improvement in the weather.
We spent the first couple of days visiting family members but then started to get itchy feet so set off down the coast passing the hordes of people visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a Rede Rope Bridge. Our first stop was at the Portanaeevey viewpoint which gives views over to Rathlin Island and the mUll of Kintyre.
Our first destination was Carfunnock Country Park which is north of Larne. It was formed from two country estates and has several facilities for children and young people as well as a campsite. I was most interested to see the garden. This was formerly the kitchen garden of Cairncastle Lodge which was gifted to the local council in 1957 with the estate. By the 1980s it was in decline but grants enabled its restoration in the 1990s. It is now called The Time Garden and has numerous sundials giving GMT, BST and local time.
Heading north again along the coast our next stop was the garden at Glenarm Castle. This was a more traditional walled garden with pleached lime trees, beech hedges and many beds of flowers, fruit and herbs.
There were several sculptures among the plants.
There is a fudge factory in the grounds and the castle, still owned by the local aristocrats is occasionally open to the public. On our last day we popped in to the Bookcase, a second-hand bookshop in Portrush. He has a good selection of Irish books as well as general fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.
We dodged the showers on one of our favourite beaches at Whitepark Bay. There were a few dog walkers but it was pretty quiet.
The cliffs here are chalk in contract to the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway. You can often find fossils on the beach, most commonly belemnites (we have several on our mantelpiece) and occasionally, ammonites.
On the path down to the beach you pass a building and some ruins of an old ‘hedge school’. This was for young gentlemen and dates from the 18th century.
The beach is now under the care of the National Trust. There is a Youth Hostel here. Occasionally sheep and cows graze on the grass next to the beach under an agreement. Keeping the grass low, encourages wild flowers. There were some cows when we arrived but they quickly departed when a heavy shower arrived. If the tide is not high you can walk along the beach to Ballintoy harbour. It was soon time to head home again and after another night on the ferry we arrived in Birkenhead dock just as the sun was rising over Liverpool.
It is now officially winter and after several years of mild winters probably due to climate change, an approaching snow storm was forecast. The lack of snow probably had nothing to do with the fact that I had found a book on snowflake photography just after our last snow in 2010. I have not been able to try any macro photography of snow or ice since, not even on the Iceland trip. We had decided to stay in Birkenhead the night before our morning ferry as problems on any of the three motorways we use to get there could have delayed us. We did not anticipate any problems getting there in the afternoon. However, while we are all too aware of the problems satellite navigation systems can have in rural areas, this was unexpected in an urban setting. It kept trying to send us down the Queensway tunnel to Liverpool, not to the street in the next block we needed to get to. Once on the tunnel approach you cannot turn around. A very helpful member of staff at the toll booth (who has probably experienced this before), let us out and we reached our destination. The following morning the sailing was delayed and we eventually boarded in the midst of wind and sleet. That had already put paid to any shots of dawn over Liverpool and I had thought that I would be wandering around on the very cold and wet deck taking photographs. Fortunately there was a brief lull in the weather south of the Isle of Man and I was able to watch the sun going down before the next front approached.
We arrived in Belfast only an hour later than scheduled and were in the car ready to disembark when we were told to go back inside as a broken down truck was blocking the ramp. This took almost two hours to sort out. Fortunately we could go back into the lounge (it’s worth paying a bit more for Stena Plus on long daytime sailings) and I had a couple of brandies courtesy of Stena. James had to stay sober as he was driving. Someone told us that thinking it had run out of fuel, they brought some more diesel but found out that there was some air in the fuel system. This would have locked the brakes. Some engineers from Merseyside we were chatting to were amazed that in a port, there was no means of dragging the vehicle away that could be found quickly. At least once we could leave the roads were quiet, there was very little snow and we arrived about 11.30pm.
James had never seen the Irish Rugby team play at home so Friday morning saw us on an early train to Holyhead under blue skies and sunshine. I was trying to remember whether I had ever been west of Chester by train as we are usually driving to Anglesey to visit friends or to take the ferry to Ireland. The railway soon meets the coast and the tide was out on the Dee Estuary so lots of birds were feeding on the sand but we sped fast too quickly to identify many. At Holyhead there is a seamless transition from the train to the ferry terminal which is at the end of the platforms. It is also a short walk over a modern bridge to to the town centre.
I had hoped that as we were sailing west and sunset was around an hour before we were due to arrive in Dublin, that I might get some sunset shots but the advancing weather front brought dense cloud which put paid to that idea. Taxis were in short supply at the port despite two ferries arriving within a short time but one arrived eventually and we were soon ensconced in our quayside hotel. That evening we met some friends from Dublin whom we had not seen for several years and returned to the Winding Stair Restaurant. I have still not managed to be there when the bookshop on the ground floor is open. On Saturday morning we walked along the quayside and crossed the river to Trinity College. Several hungry gulls were looking hopefully at passers-by.
Rowan Gillespie’s 1997 sculpture ‘Famine’ also stands by the river.
Our destination that morning was the Book of Kells exhibition which was over-booked on our last visit. Near the college we passed a pub which had been open since 7am. I later learnt that this was originally to serve the market traders. There was no market that day but several people inside. There is an explanatory exhibition about the Books of Kells, Armagh and Durrow, the old manuscripts on display and then you can visit the old college library.
It is a fabulous building, housing around 20,000 of the library’s oldest books and lined with marble busts. On our visit there was also a display of ephemera relating to Oscar Wilde. There is Ireland’s oldest harp which dates from the 15th century and a copy of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic. The rest of Saturday was spent meeting up with friends and enjoying the rugby match which Ireland won. We had planned to spend Sunday morning visiting a few more places in the city in a leisurely fashion before catching an afternoon boat back to Holyhead. However, a text received during dinner changed our plans as the afternoon ‘swift boat’ was cancelled due to bad weather and we had to take the early morning one. Some time ago, catamarans were introduced on several of the Irish Sea routes to reduce the time of the crossings. However, their movement meant that they were rapidly dubbed ‘the vomit comet’ and were also said to create waves big enough to wash fishermen off the walls of Dun Laoghaire which was the port ferries from the UK previously came into. As we boarded the ferry, the police were escorting an Asian man onto the boat. However we later saw him wandering around unescorted and he disembarked with the rest of us. I hope that they had not had to protect him from harassment. I read today that hate crime rates have now overtaken sectarian crime rates in Northern Ireland but I do not know if this is the case in the Republic. In addition to cancelled boats we also had cancelled trains. The person in the rail ticket office in Holyhead did not seem to know which were running and which were not. The first train was a relatively new, warm Arriva train which only took us as far as Llandudno Junction but with views of the mountains in Snowdonia with a dusting of snow. After that we were squashed onto a bus to Chester and then a very full Virgin train home, determined to make our next visit somewhat longer.
We spent our last morning in the south exploring Kilkenny and Carlow before dropping our friends off at Dublin airport and heading north to spend a few days with relatives in North Antrim. Kilkenny has a lot of history with a medieval mile starting at the castle. The castle dates from 1192 having been constructed on the site of an earlier wooden structure but has been remodelled several times, most recently by the Butler family.
We did not tour inside but walked around the park surrounding the castle and the garden around the Dower House.
The park was busy with the Saturday Fun Run so we walked over to the Castle Yard which hosts the Design Centre and several craft studios. One display in the Design Centre Gallery called ‘Lustre’ was of jewellery produced by students based on the Faberge egg concept. They explored this theme and produce their own works encased in the egg. I also looked at some copper plate etchings as this is something I have planned to do at some point.
We looked in at some of the studios and found some ceramics we liked. After a coffee in the restaurant upstairs it was time to leave the tourists gathering outside the castle and return to the hotel for a cocktail (non-drivers only) and to digest the Irish Times before beginning our drive northeast to Carlow.
This is another town I had visited many years ago while working but I could remember little about it. Just as we were getting out of the car I met an elderly gentleman walking up the hill who paused just to take a breath. He told me that he was 88 and knew everything that there was to know about Carlow. He was keen to tell me that the river used to be bigger and have ‘really big’ boats on it. Now rowing seems to be the main waterborne activity. We walked over to the ruined castle
and then along the river path to the Millennium Bridge. Swans and a rook were keen to befriend us in case we had any food for them.
In the park ‘Bridging’ an installation containing works by teenagers on a 14-week project exploring life as a teenager in Carlow was on display.
This is one of the panels.
Carlow does have an art institute and walking back to the car, we passed some street art entitled ‘Wall R Us: is it a wall or is it us?’.
Having dropped our friends off at the airport we continued on the motorway to the border. Just north of Dublin we noted that we had driven 700 miles on this trip so far. There were still tractors on the motorway and the six-lane road it becomes across the border. Summer seemed to be ending as we made our way to North Antrim in rain. Fortunately this did not last and the sun and blue skies returned for the remainder of our trip.
Before leaving to complete the Ring of Kerry we had another walk around Kenmare. the shortcut into town from our hotel is along a very short stretch of the Kerry Way a 200km long distance walk. Cromwell’s Bridge is a little further downstream from the current bridge over the Finnish River. Oliver Cromwell never visited the town although he gifted the whole area to the scientist Sir Thomas Petty in part payment for his mapping of Ireland. The name is thought to be a corruption of an Irish word. It was a single-arch rubble-stone stilted bridge built about 1700. The parapets were removed around 1900 and visitors are advised not to attempt to cross it as it is probably unsafe.
We purchased a couple of books in the local bookshop and after a coffee it was time to drive the last stretch of the Ring of Kerry: the portion between Kenmare and Killarney. The road first winds up to the Molls Gap, a pass named after Moll Kissane, who ran a shebeen (an unlicenced public house) in the 1820s, while the road was under construction. The summit is 262m and there are views of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountains.
There is a shop here and it is a popular stop off on the route. The rocks are formed of old red sandstone. Further on, the road enters Killarney National Park and arrives at Ladies View which is said to be named after Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting. It has views over the nearby lakes. A man was selling prints and photographs from a stall and there is also a cafe 100m further on.
The road descends into Muckross where Muckross House and estate are situated. They were given to the state in 1932 and can be visited. The National Park Visitor Centre is sited here. Available from here and other places along the road into Killarney you can have a tour on a jaunting cart which is horsedrawn. There are also trips available on the lakes and many other activities available around town. We took the road towards Mallow back in County Cork as the first stage of our journey to Kilkenny, the next destination on this trip. Like many towns in this area, Killarney has won a ‘Tidy Town’ award. Mallow is an administrative centre for the region and manufactures sugar (we did see a British Sugar tanker). It has a ruined castle which was burnt down in 1658. In the town centre, there were a number of closed shops like many towns in the UK but we had a light lunch in a cafe and continued on our journey. We reached Kilkenny around 5pm and found the hotel fairly easily. As we walked out for dinner a little later in the evening we crossed over the River Nore in the centre of the town.
On the return journey the evening lights were reflected in the water
and the castle was lit up.
This mornings journey took us out of Cork, past Macroom and over the Derrynasaggart Mountains where Ireland’s highest pub the ‘Top of Coom’ is situated. It is situated just over the border between Counties Cork and Kerry. The scenery around us reminded us very much of Scotland, especially the hills where I grew up.
The road descends through Glen Fesk and on into Killarney which boasts Ireland’s only Lord of the Rings themed pub. We had a coffee and a brief wander around town before taking the turning for the Ring of Kerry. We only had a few hours to drive the road and there are many routes over the mountains and interesting ancient sites around which will have to be explored in a more leisurely fashion on another trip. Our first stop was at the point at Rossbeigh where the tide was just about to start to recede on the rocky shore. A couple of people were trying somewhat unsuccessfully to surf.
There are sand dunes and a beach on the other side of the point and it is possible to explore it on horseback if you wish. We could see the Slieve Mountains across the water. The next stop for a walk was Inny Strand on Ballinskellig Bay just before Waterville. This was a little busier with some people swimming. The water would not be warm enough to tempt me in.
Parking here is limited but we managed to find a space and walked on the beach.
The tide had retreated more since we left our last walk and numerous jellyfish were stranded on the beach.
On the edge of the bay was a derelict concrete building. After wondering what it was, we discovered that it had once been a hotel. We could not help thinking that if someone could invest in it, it could be resurrected in such a beautiful spot. Back on the road we kept stopping at various points to admire the view.
Near Castle Cove, the mist descended and began to hide the islands offshore.
We had a brief spell of rain and passed several signs to standing stones (some people even seemed to have them in their garden) to explore in the future. Eventually we reached Kenmare, a small town filled with places to stay, eat and drink in addition to local services. Its name means ‘head of the sea’ and it sits at the end of a bay. It is a good base for exploring the local area. After settling into our hotel we walked the short distance into town and after eating, found some traditional music in a local pub to finish off the night.
We began our day in Cork with coffee. The aim was to plan our day and this cafe near our hotel was very appropriate for me as a writer, reader and someone who does voluntary work in a bookshop.
It did not disappoint and Having topped up the caffeine levels, our first destination was Cork Old Gaol on the other side of the river. We took a slightly circuitous route along the Mardyke Riverside Pathway which is a tunnel of green. This is the Mardyke Bridge.
This part of path we were on is entirely within the city near the university. It took us past Cork Museum which is situated in a park with sculptures among the trees and plants. The museum is free to visit.
Our next destination was Cork Old Gaol which was closed in 1923. You can go on a guided tour or by yourself with an audio guide or guidebook. We chose the last option.
Some of the rooms have models and furnishing depicting life in the gaol and there are also displays about notable prisoners. If you wish, you can have your photograph taken in the stocks. Caffeine levels were topped up again at the cafe here before heading back towards the city centre. We were aiming for the Crawford Gallery but in the block on Lavitt’s Quay just west of it is Vibes and Scribes, a bookshop selling new, used and secondhand books. We found a few gems in the secondhand store. It also has a book group which meets weekly and an arts and craft store across the river in Bridge Street. At the Crawford Gallery which is also free to visit (donations are invited) we saw Harry Clarke’s drawings for stained glass windows entitled ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and based on Keats’ poem.
The display also included two of his stained glass windows. We also watched Aideen Barry’s 2015 stop-motion film ‘Not to be known’ looking at the role of the ideal homemaker and working woman as she is seen by the media and enjoyed Danny McCarthy’s installation ‘Beyond silence: a bell rings in an empty sky’ is composed of ceramic and other bells he collected at car book sales and is on display until the end of August.
There is also a good collection of Irish artists’ work in both oil and water colours dating from the 18th to 21st centuries. We did not look at everything as we were beginning to flag and so wandered back towards the hotel picking up a late lunch at the indoor English Market in the city centre. One of the fish stalls had this large fish on display.
This evening we are off out for some food, drink and music which should not be hard to find in this great city where there is so much to choose from.