Take the long and winding road to Northern Ireland’s most spectacular vistas
PRETTY, BIJOU, white-washed cottages pepper the shoreline, as if they have been washed up by high tide and left stranded along with the seaweed and flotsam. Some are in exquisite locations, boasting stunning views across the North Channel. Sometimes, envy runs deep.
I am driving the Causeway Coastal Route in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. It does not take me long to realise that this has to be one of the most spectacular roads in all of Europe. The Antrim Coast & Glens AONB is one of eight scenic areas designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Three of these, Causeway Coast, Binevenagh and Antrim Coast & Glens AONBs, and part of another, Sperrin AONB, are within the Causeway Coast & Glens area. The Antrim Coast & Glens AONB includes Rathlin Island, the Glens of Antrim and the coastal area between Larne and Ballycastle. Follow the A2 northwest from Larne along the coast and, like myself, you will quickly become spellbound by some of the most beautiful and varied scenery in Northern Ireland.
Let me back pedal. After my arrival at Belfast City Airport, I picked up a car rental and followed the A2 out of the city to my first stopping point at Carrickfergus Castle (www.doeni.gov.uk/niea). There is free parking alongside the harbour, and the castle is in front of you.
Founded by the Norman Knight John de Courcy in 1180, the castle was completed by Hugh De Lacy in 1205. FIve years later, King John arrived at Carrickfergus, expelled Hugh De Lacy and took the castle into royal authority. It has survived various alterations over the centuries, having been besieged in turn by the Scots, Irish, English and French marauders, and was a garrisoned property as recently as 1928.
Only twenty miles from Belfast, I next arrived at The Gobbins Visitor Centre (www.thegobbinscliffpath.com) on the outreaches of Islandmagee. The Gobbins are towering cliffs which rise dramatically out of the sea. I had a scheduled appointment to walk a dramatic new cliff-side route. At the time of my visit the walk had only been opened a month, and had proved so popular that bookings had been solid for weeks in advance..
Justin Macartley has been guiding for twenty-five years, and what he does not know about this area, is not worth knowing. Without doubt, some of his tales are both humorous and apocryphal. I enjoyed his company immensely on the three-hour outing, as did the rest of the group.
Each walking group takes a mini bus to a drop-off point, followed by a 250ft steep descent, including a hundred steps, to The Gobbins path entrance at Wise Eye, followed by a 2km walk along the cliff path. The route follows a narrow, uneven stone path, with plenty of steps and short, steep climbs. Running at a height of fifteen metres above water level in places, it contains a dark tunnel and entrance feature where conditions are cramped, to say the least, for taller visitors or those of a larger build.
Bear in mind at this stage that this is a linear route, so you will have the steep ascent to contend with at the end of the three-hour walk. Trust me, if you have a moderate level of fitness, then it is most definitely worth the work-out. If not, do not worry, because you can visit the free interpretation within The Gobbins Visitor Centre, or you may wish to consider taking a boat trip to The Gobbins (www.northirishlodge.com).
My first overnight stop was at the Ballygally Castle Hotel (www.hastinghotels.com/ballygally-castle), which is situated right on the North Channel foreshore.
I was working to an itinerary, but with so many inland side shoots tracing across the glens, it is so easy to become pleasantly side-tracked. Just to prove it, I took a diversion off the Causeway Coastal Route to follow the ‘Scenic Route’ to Torr Head (www.discovernorthernireland.com/Tor-Head-Ballycastle-P12589). Up hill and down dale I drove along the quiet, narrow road. As the destination became ever closer, so the stopping places ran out, so should you follow my journey, take every opportunity there is to absorb the ever-unfolding panoramas. The headland was important in the 1800s for recording the passage of transatlantic ships, relaying the information back to Lloyds of London. It was also often the last hope for Scottish clans beckoning aid from allies in Argyllshire.
It had been suggested that once in Ballintoy village, I stop for lunch at the Red Door Tea Room on Harbour Road. I found it, and a ‘Closed’ sign hung from the board. So I carried on downhill to the harbour, and am I glad I did.
I drove back through Ballingtoy and followed the sign for the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Carrick-a-Rede, from the Scottish Gaelic Carraig-a-Rade, means the ‘rock in the road’, the road in this case being the sea route for Atlantic salmon on their westward journey past Carrick Island. The problem over the centuries for fishermen was how best to catch them. The solution was a 20m wide rope bridge over a 30m deep chasm which separated the mainland from the island. Today, thousands of visitors are happy to experience high thrills on the swaying bridge. To access it, you take a 1km scenic walk around the limestone headland that is Larrybane Bay from the car park, tea room and ticket office, operated by the National Trust.
Fishermen kept a bridge here for over 250 years, allowing them access to the best places to catch the migrating salmon. Carrick-a-Rede is on their westward migration route and the fish, returning from their ocean feeding areas, would swim westwards close to the coast seeking the rivers of their birth, including the Bush and the Bann. The problem was that the small volcanic archipelago obstructed their migration route, forcing them to swim around it rather than pass through the shallow gap and its churning waters, above which the rope bridge swung.
Commercial salmon fishing continued here until 2002, only ceasing due to the decline in fish populations. The salmon fishery operated only during the summer months, the rope bridge being dismantled and stored during the winter. Today’s visitor can walk the coastal path and cross the bridge throughout the year, although during windy weather the bridge may be closed to the public.
I was staying the next three nights at the Causeway Hotel (www.thecausewayhotel.com), which is situated on the outskirts of Bushmills, and next to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway), both of which are run by the National Trust. Recently refurbished, the hotel offers 28 well-appointed guest rooms, several with stunning ocean views with private terrace, although I hasten to add, I was not in one!
The hotel enjoys an idyllic location, and is the perfect place to stay for a short break, as it guarantees easy access to some of Northern Ireland’s top visitor attractions including, of course, the Giants Causeway World Heritage Site, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and Dunluce Castle, my next visitor attraction.
The historic monument is perched precariously on a rocky basalt promontory to the west of Bushmills. Today a magnificent ruin, it was the MacQuillan family who, around 1500, began construction of the castle we see today. The Scottish MacDonnell clan seized Dunluce from the MacQuillans in the 1550s, and after a generation-long struggle amongst the Scots, Irish and English, the MacDonnells finally staked a permanent claim at Dunluce in 1586.
The castle reached its zenith in the early 17th century, with Randal MacDonnell rising to the title of First Earl of Antrim. During this period, the buildings of the mainland Outer Ward were erected and Randal established a small town at Dunluce in 1608. However, the town was burnt in the aftermath of the 1641 Irish Rebellion and was ultimately abandoned.
I carried on around the coast, through Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock, to arrive at the Bishop’s Gate, the magnificent start of a walk to Mussenden Temple, in the splendid surroundings of Downhill Demesne in County Londonderry (www.nationalktrust.org.uk/downhillestate). I walked past a small, gothic-style gate lodge into the Bishop’s Gate Gardens, and went along a woodland path, before following signs for Mussenden Temple up a grass track.
It was not long before I saw the sprawling ruins of Downhill House, which was built in the 18th century for Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol at Downhill. Following a fire in 1851, the huge property was rebuilt in the 1870s, but fell into disrepair after the Second World War.
The house makes up part of the National Trust property of Downhill Demesne and Messenden Temple. The latter was built as a summer library, stands proud on a 120ft cliff top, and offers spectacular views eastwards towards over Downhill Strand towards Magellan Point and County Donegal.
I left the Causeway Costal Route to follow the Bishop’s Road to Limavady, because I had been advised that the route offers spectacular views over the north coast, and the islands of Jura and Islay. Although the sun had long since disappeared behind cloud, I was not to be disappointed, and I only passed a couple of other vehicles along the way.
At the entrance to the beach is Harry’s Shack, serving freshly caught fish of the day in a rustic setting. The restaurant was opened in August 2014, having previously been run by the National Trust as a shop, and is now rented off them. That evening, I enjoyed a starter of spiced whitebait in Marie Rose sauce (£5), followed by a fresh whole plaice with smoked bacon butter, fennel, cockles, bacon and mash (£17). Dessert was a lemon and elderflower posset with raspberries and shortbread (£5).
I had arrived at 6.30pm, and already it was full of diners, being served by bustling, trendy staff in tees, jeans and trainers. Harry’s Shack is set in a rare location, with an extremely relaxed atmosphere. It is open all year, with the occasional closure on a Monday during the winter. At the time of my visit there was no alcohol licence, so diners bring their own beers and wine, and pay a reasonable corkage fee. I would certainly advise you to book (028 7083 1783). There is no website, but you will find them on Facebook.
Saturday, and the Giant’s Causeway beckoned. I was already aware that it was steeped in myth and legend, having read about how the giant, Finn McCool, had carved the causeway from the coast, and that there was magic between the extraordinary hexagons carved out in the rocks.
It is easy to let one’s imagination run wild, but then science takes over, and you realise that this UNESCO World Heritage Site owes its status to a sixty million year-old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows, in turn creating a magnificent geological wonder with over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns.
From the Visitor Centre, it is possible to take one of four trails to the Causeway. All are colour-coded, and choice depends on one’s level of fitness, and whether you are pushing a pram or wheelchair, or fancy a challenging coastal hike. In the morning I opted for the ‘difficult Red Trail’.
About thirty minutes after leaving the trailhead I arrived at the Shepherd’s steps, which offer panoramic views. From here, it is possible to walk down the steps and join the ‘moderate’ Blue Trail which will take you to the Causeway and back to the Visitor Centre. Instead, I opted to follow the ‘challenging’ Yellow Trail further around the headland, as the trail interlinked with the Causeway Coast Way and the Ulster Way, a pleasing section of coast with spectacular views and rich in biodiversity, and which leads to Dunseverick Castle.
Ater a brief lunch, I took the Blue Trail back to the Causeway, a road used by a constant flow of shuttle buses throughout the day. I watched for the district formations of the Camel (spotted), the Wishing Chair (not spotted) and the Harp (spotted), and even picked out the facial profile on the rock face of Finn McCool’s son.
Dinner was at the Bushmills Inn on Dunluce Road in the town (www.bushmillsinn.com). This is one of Ireland’s most well-known, luxurious four-star hotels, with warming peat fires, nooks and crannies, and a secret library. The menu was mouth-watering. I went for the Innkeeper’s Choice of specialities created daily, so only a limited number are prepared. My starter was Oysters Rockefeller, baked in spinach, garlic and pernod cream with bacon and toasted pin head oatmeal (£9.95). My main was roast saddle of Kerry Lamb, crispy belly, Jerusalem artichoke, morels, peas, tender stem broccoli, hazelnuts and a lamb jus (£22.00). The Kerry Hill rare breed lambs are only grass fed and slow grown, and roam in the fields of Ballydivity, two miles from the inn. I opted for a Shiraz from the Wyndham Estate (£5.10), a deep crimson red with vibrant purple hues. After dinner, I popped through to the Gas Bar, which is still lit by gaslight. Traditional Irish music was just striking up, and both locals and visitors were pouring through the door. The atmosphere, as expected, was brilliant.
The next morning I headed inland to visit the Dark Hedges and, upon arrival, was spellbound. A row of beech trees, thought to be three hundred years old, have created a natural phenomenon, so much so that they have been featured on the television show Game of Thrones as The Kings Road.
They can be found on Bregagh Road, across from the entrance to Gracehill Golf Club off the A147, around 2.5 miles from the village of Stranocum, between Derrick and Armoy. This amazing sight was nominated for British Woodland Trust’s award for Best Tree in the UK and Landmark of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards for 2014//15.
It would be hard to think of a more special way to end my tour of the North Antrim coast and a very special part of Northern Ireland. The Causeway Coastal Route runs between Belfast Lough and Lough Foyle, and you can take as long or short a time as you like to take in so many areas of outstanding natural beauty and visitor attractions.
All images © Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys
FOR RELATED ARTICLES, SEE:
Carrickfergus Castle, Marine Highway, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim BT38 7BG
T: +44 (0) 28 9335 1273 W: www.doeni.gov.uk/niea
The Gobbins, Visitor Centre, Middle Road, Islandmagee, Larne Co Antrim BT40 3SX
T: +44 (0) 28 9337 2318 W: http://www.thegobbinscliffpath.com/
Ballygally Castle, Coast Rd, Ballygally, Co Antrim BT40 2QZ
T: 028 2858 1066 W: www.hastingshotels.com/ballygally-castle/
Red Bar The Red Door Tea Room, Harbour Road, Ballintoy, Co Antrim
T: +44 (0) 28 2076 9048 F: www.facebook.com/thereddoortearoom
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, 119a Whitepark Road, Ballintoy, Co Antrim BT54 6LS
T: +44 (0) 28 2076 9839 W: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carrick-a-rede
Mortons Fish & Chip Shop, Ballycastle. Bayview Road, Ballycastle BT54 6BT
Causeway Hotel, 40 Causeway Rd, Bushmills, Co Antrim BT57 8SU
T: 028 2073 1210 W: www.thecausewayhotel.Com
Dunluce Castle, 87 Dunluce Road, Bushmills, Co Antrim BT57 8UY
T: +44 (0) 282073 1938 W: www.ni-environment.gov.uk
Mussenden and Downhill, 107 Sea Road, Castlerock, Co Londonderry BT51 4RP
T: +44 (0) 28 7084 8728 W: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/downhillestate
Harry’s Shack, 116 Strand Rd, Portstewart BT55 7PG
T: 028 7083 1783 W: https://www.facebook.com/HarrysShack