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.
The train takes an hour to travel from Ballymoney to Belfast, which we have not visited for several years. On arrival, we walked down to the riverside and crossed over to the Titanic Quarter. There are several art installations along the way. This one is in Thanksgiving Square
and another, Big Fish by John Kindness in Donegal Quay.
The Titanic Experience is well-presented. You can join a tour or view it independently which is what we did. After wending your way around the first floor of exhibits you take a lift to the fourth floor and hop into a car which moves fairly rapidly in three dimensions with sounds and low lighting depicting the building of the ship and all the different trades.
The remainder is devoted to the launch, journey and sinking of the ship, the survivors, the inquiry and the depictions of the story in the media. I used to work in Stoke on Trent and Captain Smith hailed from the city. It now has a brewery called ‘The Titanic’. Outside is SS Nomadic, the sole surviving ship of the White Star Line. It can also be visited with the same ticket.
By the time we emerged, it was lunchtime so the nearby Dock Café which operates with an honesty box filled us up. It has a small art gallery and a prayer room for anyone who needs one. We then wandered back into the city centre and found Keats & Chapman, a secondhand bookshop at 21 North Street. There is only a small front on the street but the shop extends a long way inside with a large selection on many subjects. James found a 1930s Ward Lock Guide to Belfast & Northern Ireland. There is another secondhand bookshop opposite the Linenhall Library but it is not so well-stocked. We had no intention of seeing all the sights on one trip so the library will wait for another time as will some of the other buildings despite walking six miles in total. Here are the exteriors of the City Hall and the Municipal College of Technology.
The Crown Bar is well-known, dates from 1849 and fantastically decorated inside and out.
We could not resist a cold beer. You could spend a whole day just looking at street art and graffiti for example and we did not get as far as the Botanic Gardens, the Museum and Art Gallery, the cathedrals. It was soon time to get our train before the mass commuter exodus.
On Saturday morning we were almost first off the ferry and made it to Ballymoney in good time. After breakfast we wandered into town for a caffeine fix and to use the wifi in a local café. Every time we come, a few more shops have closed. It is still the marching season here and several flute bands walked through the high street before getting on their buses to Derry. Shortly afterwards, some heavily armoured police Landrovers from Belfast followed them. In the afternoon we drove to Portstewart which has renovated the promenade since we were here last year. There is a wider path by the beach, curved street lamps and a sculpture entitled ‘The Fishing Boat’ by Niall O’Neill.
We visited the Art Shop; the proprietor is someone we have bought antique maps from in the past and we had a look through his collection but did not find anything we wanted. He told us that he was now getting into movie posters and I overheard him saying to another customer that he had about 600.
On Sunday evening we took James’s parents and other relatives out for a meal at a hotel on the coast to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. This morning we drove along part of the Causeway Coast and popped into the secondhand bookshop there where I found another two volumes for a natural history series I am collecting. We continued past Dunseverick, Ballintoy and on to Whitepark Bay with Islay and the Mull of Kintyre on the horizon. The bay has a four-star Youth Hostel which might be a stopping off point when we walk the coastal path at some point in the future. We are looking forward to James retiring and we can have longer sojourns over here. There is now a day passenger ferry over to Islay which includes lunch at the distillery. The beach is backed by wildflower strewn cliffs, the ruins of the old youth hostel and pasture for cattle. It is somewhere to go hunting for fossils: belemnites, a relative of the ammonite, can be found in some of the stones and rocks on this beach and I have a small collection accumulated over the years, on my mantelpiece.
On our way back to Ballymoney we passed the Dark Hedges which were relatively unknown outside Northern Ireland until they featured in ‘Game of Thrones’. Now you can hardly move for tourists, a new hotel has sprung up and they are finally on the map.
We are now in a queue at Belfast Docks waiting to get on the ferry.
On Friday we set off for Portstewart and the art gallery. We had a coffee and a chat with the proprietor who had been a social worker in a previous life. The conversation ranged from social work, politics, old maps and books to his wife’s health. We eventually settled on a sixteenth century map of Ireland. Unusually it is not orientated north to south as back then, maps were orientated towards Jerusalem.
After a saunter along the seafront and another coffee we visited some relatives and then set off for Portrush. We had a look in the secondhand bookshop there but found nothing of interest on this occasion. We then carried on along the coast past White Rocks Beach (for exploring on another trip) and Dunluce Castle, a ruin.
It was then time to turn inland to Bushmills where the bookshop has closed and take the obligatory photographs of the distillery. In the evening we took James’s parents out for a meal at one of the coastal hotels. Despite the calm sea, there were some people trying to body board on almost non-existant surf. We spotted a sign for coastal trail which requires further investigation as a possible walk at some point.
On Thursday we managed to cover several of our passions in one day. Visiting a new place, antique maps, bird watching, walking and beachcombing. On our last visit to Northern Ireland we had discovered a gallery in Portstewart that sold antique maps. The proprietor had said that he had more in his warehouse and to call him on our next visit, so this time we rang up and arranged to meet him on our way to Ballycastle. His warehouse was in the Glens of Antrim and on the edge of Breen Wood nature reserve. He told us that this was the oldest oak wood in NI (although there is another which also makes this claim) and that it has a fairy ring. However, this will have to be explored on another trip as we had a boat to catch. We did buy a small print of ports on the north and west coast of Ireland, which is similar to one I have of ports in the northeast of Scotland and agreed to visit the shop and see some of his older maps of Ireland the following day. A few miles further on we arrived at Ballycastle and after a coffee caught the ferry to Rathlin Island. Surprisingly, we had never been there before despite James growing up in County Antrim and us having visited at least once a year for the last thirty years.
The sea was calm and we were soon there and set off to walk to the West Lighthouse and Seabird Centre. The roadside verges and fields were full of wildflowers and at the highest point of the island, is a cairn. The Puffin Bus, ferrying people to and fro passed us several times. At the lighthouse, there are steps down to the viewing platform overlooking the cliffs and stacks, which are covered with birds. Guillemots and fulmars are everywhere and on a grassy slope at the bottom of the cliff are the puffin burrows which they return to every year. We saw some although they were too far away for a good photograph even with the telephoto lens. We had never seen them before as on a trip to Staffa several years ago, they had left the week before.
We had our packed lunch, with a visit from a racing pigeon that had flown off course and then set off on the return journey.
Back at the harbour, it was time for an ice cream from Jack whose shack was at the back of his van and then a spot of beachcombing.
On the beach I found five tiny coloured periwinkles but was horrified by the amount of plastic waste deposited there by the tide. It was then time to catch the ferry back to Ballycastle and head for home.
We woke to a still foggy day and after breakfast wandered into town for a coffee and wifi fix and then a visit to the local museum. It had a good selection of Celtic and other early artefacts, a few medieval items and then a huge leap to the 1798 rebellion and subsequent history. A bit of a gap there. One good find in the associated shop was a book written about the old Kilraughts churchyard with all the memorial inscriptions and some history about the people. It will be a huge help for the family history research. We got soaked on the way back to the house and spent the rest of the day getting organised to return home.
This evening as we were driving down to the Belfast docks, we noticed a strange light low in the sky on our left. It was too high to be on a building and the wrong shape for a mast. We were well past the airport but as we were on the motorway, could not stop for a photograph. With a few hallucinogens or enough alcohol on board, I am sure it would resemble a UFO but a little further on, it became clear that it was a section of the moon, sandwiched between clouds which were reflecting the light. As I could not take a photo, I have grabbed one from a website which claims to have the best UFO shots. Now we are tucked up in our cabin for a short night.