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.
On Wednesday morning, we drove the 12 miles to the Giant’s Causeway. In the last few years the visitors’ centre and entrance has all been re-developed. It was not too busy and we enjoyed a walk along the longer of the two trails looking over the coast. Fulmars were building their nests on the top of some of the columns but the oystercatchers have not yet arrived. The rain had cleared and the Mull of Kintyre was visible in the distance. We would like to walk some of the coastal trail at some point.
Afterwards we continued along the coast to Portrush, had lunch overlooking the bay and then walked along the east strand.
We popped into the secondhand bookshop once he had opened after lunch (many of the other shops were on half-day closing). I did not find anything to buy but spotted a book with limited appeal – a text devoted entirely to knapweeds and their taxonomy. I also heard today of an event which took place last weekend in Scotland and was new to me – the European Rock Stacking Competition in Dunbar. The winner managed to stack 33 rocks on top of each other. I am not sure how long they have to stay up before falling to qualify. A guy from Spain won and can now enter the World Competition in Texas.
Thursday saw us heading south into County Down to visit Mountstewart, a stately home and gardens now under the care of the National Trust. In the morning, you can join a tour (they run every half hour from 11.30) and after 1pm can wander around on your own. I have seen a few 18th century interiors in the last six months but never fail to appreciate them.
The grounds are extensive with a formal garden, a lake and paths among the trees and shrubs. There is a small chapel which is open only rarely and not on this visit. There are red squirrels here but we did not see any.
Out of the grounds and on the shore of Strangford Lough are the remains of the old gas works, the only surviving domestic gas works in Northern Ireland. It was built in 1850 by the Marquis of Londonderry to provide fuel for the estate.
Heading north again we stopped off at Scabro Tower. It sits on a hill now within a country park and was built in 1857 in recognition of the 3rd Marquis’s concern for his tenants during the famine in the mid 19th century.
On a site just below the summit, the remains of huts and a large hill fort have been found indicating people living on the hill around 5,000 years ago. The tower was closed when we visit but when open you can climb 122 steps inside and there is more information and displays about the local history. There is a golf course on the lower slopes and a woodland walk. The views from the summit are over the Lough and the towns with the Mourne Mountains in the distance.
There was a sculpture by the car park.
We drove back into Belfast on the Newtonards Road past some of the Unionist street art in the east of the city, before we joined the motorway and then endured the roadworks before reaching Ballymoney.