Along the Irish waters

Last Updated 21 June 2014, 13:35 IST

Driving down from Belfast on the Great Ocean Road, Tanushree Podder gets a glimpse of the breathtakingly beautiful Irish coastline, dotted with old castles, villages and colourful forests

Just back from an Australian trip, I was swearing by the Great Ocean Road when a friend asked — “Have you driven on the Irish Causeway Coastal Route? It is as beautiful, if not more, than the Great Ocean Road.”

The opportunity presented itself shortly when I found myself testing out his statement and I came back impressed with the splendour of the route. The beautiful North Antrim Coast is known to be the most dramatic and colourful stretch of coast in Europe.

Having earned the fifth place in a list of the world’s most spectacular views, the 80 miles of stunning coastline runs past rugged and windswept cliffs, great scenery, fabulous unspoilt beaches and the coastline is sprinkled with historic castles, churches and forts.

Massive cliffs of red sandstone, white chalk, black basalt and blue clay form the backdrop of a journey where imagination meets reality and where every village and town, castle and rocky shore hold an interesting story.

It is a journey that is not to be hurried because every twist and turn in the road reveals new sights. On goes the road over bridges and under arches, past bays and beaches and strange rock formations.

Legends by the sea

Leaving Belfast behind as we hit the road at Newtownabbey to join the multitude on their Causeway Coastal Route experience, we were greeted by the spectacular view of the countryside.

Our first halt was at the Newtownabbey’s Loughshore Park which provided our keen eyes a spectacular view of ships sailing from Belfast. This is the place from where the fateful Titanic first sailed as she headed out from the famous shipyards of Harland and Wolff.

A host of seagulls screaming with abandon creates a perfect background for the people who stop for a while.

We drove a few miles further to stop at the famous seaside town of Carrickfergus which has a Norman castle that dates back to the 12th century. The mighty stronghold of Carrickfergus, once the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ulster, is a remarkably complete and well-preserved early medieval castle that has survived intact despite 750 years of continuous military occupation.

Traipsing around the well-preserved castle was like stepping back into Irish history.
Leaving the Carrickfergus town, we moved towards Kilroot, where Jonathan Swift (the author of Gulliver’s Travels) held his first job as a minister.

There we halted to enjoy a cup of latte at a small bistro before hitting the highway once again. From here to Larne, which is considered the gateway to the beautiful Glens of Antrim is a hop, skip and a jump.

Then begins a series of glens; a full nine of them endowed with evocative names. Each of these glens echo with interesting folklore (Ireland abounds in folklore we were to learn).

The high undulating plateau is cut by deep glens which open to the sea. Gentle bays are separated by blunt headlands, exposed moorland give way to sheltered valleys; wide open expanses appear dramatically after a tiny village. Slemish Mountain rises abruptly, its wildness contrasted sharply with the neat fields of the Braid Valley at the bottom.

The Glens of Antrim are characterised by lush forests, rushing rivers, tumbling waterfalls. Romantic visions chase the mind as one recalls the names — Glenarm, Glencloy, Glenariff, Glenballylemon, Glencorp, Glenaan, Glendun, Glenshesk, and Glentaiseie — whew!

The coastal causeway passes by the foot of each of the nine glens, passing through some enchanting castles and forests.

With the glens behind us, we made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the name of which means ‘rock in the road’. For more than 300 years a rope bridge has provided the only form of access to Carrick-a-Rede Island for the Ballintoy fishermen. They threw a rope bridge across the scary gap each spring to catch fish on the island.

Suspended over a 25 m chasm, the bridge sways and wobbles underfoot and crossing it requires a strong nerve and a head for heights.

It is a scary walk on the swinging and bouncing ropeway; an adrenaline-pumping adventure for the tourists. And if you are willing to spend 1 pound, you can buy a certificate that you’ve walked across the Ropeway.

Wonders of the causeway haven’t ceased, we discover, as we exchange the coastal causeway for the world-famous Giant’s Causeway. It is a long walk down to the basalt rock formations, but we do it grudgingly. Eons ago, the Irish folklore goes, there was an Irish giant called Finn McCool, who had a Scottish adversary called Benandonner. Finn decided to build a bridge across the ocean so he could challenge Benandonner for a battle.

As Benandonner appeared over the horizon, Finn realised in horror that he had taken on a rival much bigger than himself. He ran back to his wife, Oonagh, who quickly dressed her husband as a baby and put him in the crib.

When Benandonner saw the huge baby, he was terrified. Not willing to fight the father, the Scottish giant took to heels and ran back towards Scotland. While on the run, he destroyed the bridge so that Finn couldn’t follow him back. That is how the Giant Causeway came into being, according to the Irish myth.

Fact or fiction?

The truth is that the Giant’s Causeway is a natural volcanic rock formation. It is a huge mass of basalt columns packed tightly together, which extend into the sea. It is said that there are 40,000 columns in all.

Most of the columns are hexagonal in shape thought there are some in square and octagonal shapes, too. The 55-million-old formations now form a part of the World Heritage Site list.

 Our next halt is at the Dunluce Castle, a spectacular structure standing proud against the horizon. The ruins of Dunluce Castle have sat on the edge of the North Antrim cliffs for centuries, providing one of the iconic images of Northern Ireland. It is perched precariously on a precipitous basaltic rock, standing over a 100 feet above the wild and chill northern sea.

The castle is an essential stop for those travelling on the North Coast. In fact, this is the castle that found international fame when Jackie Chan shot for the movie The Medallion in 2001.

Interestingly, in 1639, a huge chunk of the castle kitchen, which stood towards the rear, fell into the sea after a storm. Seven of the kitchen staff plunged to their deaths even as they were cooking for the royal table.

The Bushmills Village, quaint and quiet, sits a little to the inside of the Antrim coastline, close to the famous Giant’s Causeway. In Victorian times, Bushmills was the last stop for carriages before the final push to the Causeway.

The Bushmills Inn looms up in our line of vision as we continue our journey. The inn quickly became a haven for saddle-sore visitors on their way to the Giant’s Causeway.

It was here they would stop to sample the whiskey that made this charming village internationally famous. Bushmills houses the famous Old Bushmills Distillery, home of Irish Malt whiskey, and the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. A stopover at the distillery proved to be a great respite.

No more could the charms of the Irish Coastal Causeway be denied.

(Published 21 June 2014, 13:35 IST)

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