Friday, May 19, 2006

North Antrim Coast Road (N. Ireland)

I was born in the small town of Ballymoney (pop : 9,021 in 2001) in N. Ireland, a lifetime ago. From as early an age as I can remember, I hated my life there. I won't go into the reasons why - lets just say when I left to go to college in England, I was in no rush to go back. In fact I rarely did.

Over the next 30 years I kept to that way of thinking and then something very strange happened. I started to like parts of it again. I'd not go so far as to say I liked the whole country, but parts of it. I guess with advancing age, comes nostalgia.

One part that I've loved from day one is the famous Antrim Coast Road which runs from Larne northwards to Portrush. Many web sites say the road only goes 22 miles to Cushendall but although at that point it does go inland a bit and so cannot be classed as a coast road anymore, I'd argue that the road is just as beautiful all the way to Portrush and so is 60 miles long.

Construction of the coast road started in 1832 and took 10 years to complete. Due to it running so close to the water on one side and steep cliffs on the other, the road requires more maintenance than normal due to flooding and subsidence.

It passes several stunning bays and beaches and mostly due to the small population of the country, these beauty spots are mostly free from the crowds that tend to 'spoil' similar locations on the UK mainland.

It would be easy to compare the road to California's Route 1 between LA and SF but that would be both. I've experienced both these unique roads and their close proximity to the water is about all they have in common.

One of my reasons for loving the scenery brought close by this road is the constant contrast between the green of the land and the blue of the water. Who wouldn't love a house here ? Can you imagine waking up every morning to a sight like this ? Ok add about 20 degrees to the temperature and I would !

But this road leads the visitor to much more than bays and beaches - especially on the 'extra' stretch from Cushendall to Portrush - the Glens Of Antrim. I'd encourage anyone reading this to do a search for these glens as I don't have the space (or the photos) to do them justice here.

People talk about 'the forty shades of green' in relation to Ireland and I've often felt that the glens contain most of those shades. There are few more lasting memories than seeing a rainbow over any of these glens and I've had the good fortune to have had many such memories.

This view is close to the boarding school I went to for 7 years. I may have hated the school and my time there but I always loved the scenery and the drive to and from the school. I vividly remember my mixed emotions when being driven there at the start of every term.

I'd look out the car window and be so anxious about going back there and yet be overwhelmed once again by the views before my eyes. It would only take an hour to drive to the school, but most of the trip was through countryside like this and then down to the waters edge to meet the coast road.

If visitors feel a bit more energetic while in the glens, they can walk to some of the many waterfalls within a short distance of the road. One of the spin offs from the numerous cliffs, hills and mountains which make up the glens, are the existance of these waterfalls. Often they are

hidden secrets, known only to locals and those who are intrepid enough to go off road and explore on foot. But most are well signposted and arrived at by way of well maintained forest paths which themselves are worth a visit.

Even in high summer you will have these paths and waterfalls mostly to yourself as this is not a highly populated area of an already underpopulated country. You'll have plenty of time to stand, or sit, and relax in the presence of one of nature's most wonderful creations without having to avoid other tourists who would break the spell.

By their very nature, most waterfalls require walking up or down (or both) to get to them. In my experience it's very rare to be able to drive right to the top or bottom of them.

There are one or two such waterfalls along the roads which lead off the coast road and you don't even have to leave the comfort of the car to see them up close and even be soaked by their spray.
It's often not easy to stop the car and see them up close (given the narrowness of the roads), but you can at least see them up close as you crawl slowly by.

But I think part of the joy of waterfalls is having to put some effort in to getting to them. I love hearing them long before seeing them and this is never more evident than in the glens. The increase in blood pumping round the body and into the ears due to the exertion being expended seems to merge with the increasing roar of the approaching waterfall and adds to the childlike excitement that builds within.

As paths go, the ones here are a pleasure to walk along. Once again you normally have them to yourself and this adds to the overall feeling that you're the first person to actually discover the area. There is no evidence of human development apart from the occasional signpost and even those blend in with the surroundings.

It's so refreshing to come upon a tourist attaction with no tacky souvenir stands or small huts or buildings with leaflets or guides. You turn a corner and there it is....a waterfall as nature intended it to be seen.

But it's time to leave the glens and take the short drive back onto the coast road.

Another 15 minutes of driving along this road and we come to the private road up to the school. Now who couldn't love a school built on a plateau part way up a mountain and with a castle as it's front building ? Yes this IS a school.

Take away the 7 miserable years I spent there and look at it as just a location and it's beautiful. I even love bringing friends up to it and almost showing it off.

In winter the road to and from it would often be closed as it was impossible to get up it. Sadly as we boarders were 'captives' there, classes went on.

Thankfully it stopped being a boarding school many years ago and it's even co-ed now. The times they have a-changed.

But I've digressed both geographically and descriptively. Back to the coast road and before it gets to my old school, it passes through a few small villages. One of these is called Waterfoot and as a family, we used to spend many summer holidays here.

I've added this photo of Waterfoot Bay as it shows perfectly the stunning layout of the land in this area - the cliffs sweeping down to the sea. The photo was taken from the road and if you look across the bay to the row of houses and the church on the right, the road is actually in front of these buildings. That's how close it gets to the water.

It weaves it's way round the bottom of the cliffs which form the coastline of this part of N. Ireland and my old school was built part way up one of these cliffs about 5 mins drive from here.
You can imagine the views !! This part of the Waterfoot Bay has no sandy beach as you can see but if I'd turned the camera the other way, there was such a beach.

One of the most stunning of the many bays along the coast road is White Park Bay. Again it is mostly uncrowded but this is as much due to it's huge size as to the lack of people on it.

I've always fancied the idea of living in one of the houses nestled at the base of the nearest cliff face but I'd have to think that getting to the shops would require a boat more than a car !! I'm sure large deliveries are a nightmare for the companies involved.

The coast road takes the visitor past many such beautiful bays. I remember when I drove northwards on Route 1 towards San Francisco, I would come across views that I knew would look better if I'd been driving south. I was constantly looking over my shoulder and stopping to get a photo pointing south. This doesn't apply to the Antrim coast road as the distance is so short, that you can simply drive back and see it the other way for a 120 mile round trip.

One of the criticisms about driving along most of the picturesque roads in the UK, is that there is just no room to have created a viewing area to pull off onto for that special photograph. Not so along the coast road. Sure there are stretches of the road where a pull off is not possible - given it's proximity to the water, but for the most part, laybys and even large car parks have been built with tourism in mind.

Most of the photographs here were taken by simply stopping the car in a layby and leaning out the window. It's that easy. Of course I'd advise a first timer to spend a few moments taking in the scene before them but at the time, I was simply on a mission !

When the coast road reaches Cushendall (and some would say it ends here), the visitor has a choice of how to progress further. They can go well inland and drive through some of the 7 glens which make up the previously mentioned 'Glens Of Antrim' and take in their mixture of valleys, steep mountain climbs and waterfalls. The other option is to continue close to the water and this takes you through the town of Ballycastle and on to N. Ireland's most popular tourist attraction and sole World Heritage Site, the Giant's Causeway.

The Causeway proper is a mass of basalt columns packed tightly together. The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. Altogether there are 40,000 of these stone columns, mostly hexagonal but some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about 40 feet high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is 90 feet thick in places.

The Causeway is a geological freak, caused by volcanic eruptions, and cooling lava.
The ancients knew differently and legend has it that it is the work of the local giant, Finn MacCool, a warrior and commander of the King of Ireland's armies. When he fell in love with a lady giant on Staffa, an island in the Hebrides (Scotland - across the water), he built this wide commodious highway to bring her across to N. Ireland.

My head says volcanic activity but my heart will forever say - lovetorn giant wearing a construction hat !!

It can be a taxing walk down to the rock formations but thankfully in the last few years, a coach takes the strain and for a small fee, will take you down and back up again - leaving you fresh to walk over the stones and enjoy this unique location.

Just be careful as the stones get covered in spray from the sea and so can be very slippery underfoot.

I've not mentioned any of the towns along the coast road where you can pause and find a cafe, tea room or restaurant and get refuelled. When I say towns, I really mean villages and often the sheep population greatly outnumbers the human population. This is active farming country and sometimes even a village consists of a few houses, a small store and a church. Ok maybe a pub as well !!

All in all, if you drive the 60 miles of the extended coast road and take the odd excursion along a forest path to a waterfall or two, you will have had a more than satisfying day out in part of a country which is still trying to rebuild it's tourist industry after the bad press of several decades of sectarian in fighting.

Take my advice. If you get the oportunity to visit the UK, don't just stop in London and fly home thinking THAT'S the UK. Get out of that metropolis and explore the countryside and when making your plans, include a 90 minute ferry crossing from Scotland to N. Ireland (or any of the other ferries from other parts of England and Wales) and treat youself to a drive along the Antrim Coast Road. You'll never regret it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall............

My friend, Ken, came round yesterday and helped me put up the mirror in my living room - well actually he put up the mirror and I fixed coffee for us both. That's about as much DIY as I can manage. A mans gotta know his limitations !! I'm still playing around with the bits and pieces as I really don't want clutter to have to move and dust and yet the room is a LIVING room and not some sort of sterile hospital waiting room. I've got a ton of items I've brought back from my various trips to the US (every state visited except Alaska) and it's tempting to plop a load of them on top of every surface.

No, no , no. But some have made their way out on display. On top of the tv are 6 little oriental budda type figurines which I got on a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco many moons ago. Each one represents some facet of life like health, finance, wisdom etc. They have a specific order

but I lost the box with the layout so sadly they are in whatever order they go back up after dusting !!

Hanging colourfully from the left side of the tv stand is the artificial lei I picked up in Hawaii. I decided it was far too exotic to be left in a drawer somewhere and heaven knows, with my memory, I need all the visual reminders I can get. There are a couple of soft animals over on the 3rd shelf of the bookcase (to show my softer side) and one is a moose from can I not have that on display ???

Apart from about 100 fridge magnets from every state in the union and more, that's about it for souvenirs - so I think I've downsized quite a bit really.

Spring Into Summer

Sometimes I take this country for granted. Sure it has it's problems, but then what country doesn't ? I love the scenery for one thing and I'm very lucky that I live on the edge of a city and yet only 15 minutes walk from the countryside - see previous entry.

I've also been lucky enough to have visited a few other countries and the one thing that I notice most as I fly back over the England, is the unique landscape below me. Many countries have green fields. Many have walls and fences. Many even have shorelines. So what is so different about England and the UK ? I think it's that we have it slighly different ! Our irregular shaped fields are greener. Our stone built walls contain nothing but stones. Our shoreline............surrounds the whole country. Ok so we're an island and you'd expect that !!!

Springtime can be wonderful here. The colourful flowers are in such contrast to the green fields. For some reason, graveyards are great places to see flowers of all descriptions. Most are wild but many more have sprung up from flowers planted by visitors to the graves. Go figure - life from death.

Daffodils are such beautiful flowers - simple in construction but so complex in the feelings and memories they evoke.

They are spring. Pure and simple.

I love seeing well maintained gardens and public areas - be it large municipal parks or just areas
off the side of the road. I came upon this profusion of flowers and had to stop just to check they weren't artificial !

You can see the road going off into the distance on the right hand side but to come upon a blaze of colour like this is not that unusual here. There is still a fierce pride in English village life and some of my best days out have been driving to, and walking around, the Yorkshire villages on my doorstep and many others further afield.

The buildings themselves have a charm all of their own and in this age of high rise skyscrapers and conformist city buildings, they stand as a symbol of a bygone age and of a simpler and dare I say, more respectful time.

Obviously every village can't have jigsaw lid houses, but there are plenty to go around.

Some even have thatched roofs to keep the tourists cameras clicking. I imagine it's a mixed blessing living in such houses - how many times a day in the spring/summer would you get a knock on the door and find some foreigner asking if they could come in for a look around ?

Mind you, just charge a fee each time and you're laughing all the way to the thatched bank

This particular cottage is in the charming village of Thornton-le-dale, just in case anyone wants to go there and knock on the door.

Goood luck.

Going back to churches and churchyards, many countryside ones can be worth a springtime visit even if you're not into daffodils !! They are usually in beautiful locations and the peace and solitute of the grounds is so refreshing for a city boy.
This one is in the village of Collingham, about a 15 minute drive from my house. Thousands of people drive past it on their daily commute to Leeds and have probably never even thought to stop sometime and have a look around.

Our fast paced lives allow little time for such 'luxuries' but one of the benefits of retiring early in life is that I do have time now...........and when I come across somewhere as beautiful as this church, I try and stop and if nothing else, take some photos so that I can enjoy the memory of it over and over again.

Another feature of the English countryside is the great British pub ! I'm not going to try and extol the virtures of pubs as most people know about them already. I'm somewhat unusual as I rarely go to one for the food and drink they serve - but love to come across one in a beautiful
location like the one here. There are few better ways to spend a warm spring afternoon than sitting outside in a pub beer garden, or even just on the grass, enjoying a refreshing drink or a freshly cooked meal. Best to get a table for that meal though !

The cheap and cheerful type pub meal of yesteryear (pie and peas or similar) has been replaced by excellent fayre for the whole family and ranges from bar snacks to a full blown 3 course meal at a very reasonable price. Children are encouraged to join their parents and thankfully this doesn't always condemn them to a life of drunken debauchery in their teenage years - although for many this IS the case !

As well as stunning scenery, the parks and open spaces also boast their share of wildlife and spring is a wonderful time to get up close and personal with many varieties of birds, ducks and other critters.

Maybe they are still half asleep from some sort of winter ennui, but I find it is at this time of year that you can practically bang your camera lens up against their beaks before they'll move off.

This one was a bit wary and kept one puzzled eye on the heavy breathing human crawling towards it like some overweight commando who failed boot camp a long time ago. Thankfully it stayed put just long enough for me to take the photo and roll off with some shred of dignity intact. Not much......just a shred.

There is one 'truism' which I've had re-enforced over the years and that's the one about the eyes being the best lenses in the world. How often do we come upon some stunning vista and take a photo of it and expect it to come out like we saw it ? Yes it can happen, but rarely does. Maybe I'm just a crap photographer ! I make no claims to be gifted or even above average but this is one area where I could, and should, do much better.

Bare scenery is my achilles heel, if you like. I need a building or a person or a nearby tree/hedge/bush to successfully capture many sights I come across in my travels. When these are missing, I tend get a photo that, although it accurately captures the scene, somehow lacks soul. Ok the daffodils help this one, but the valley beyond them was breathtaking - sorry but you'll just have to take my word for it

Right at the start I mentioned shorelines and the fact that we're an island race. Yes we have many splendid beaches and seaside resorts but they are not where I would choose to go on a spring weekend.........sunny and warm as it might be. When it is such a day, these places are packed and crowds I can do without.

Thankfully the UK coastline is dotted with hundreds of picturesque fishing villages which could be used in any movie - assuming said movie was set in a picturesque fishing village !

This one is called Staithes and sadly for me, I got to it when the tide was out and so it's not as 'pretty' as it could be. It's main claim to fame is it's connection with Captain James Cook. He was born 25 miles south of the village but moved to it when he was 16 and gained a love of the sea. He moved on to Whitby 2 years later and the rest, as they say, is history.

I'm sure he'd be proud to know he's given his name to the next series of Survivor. World's greatest ocean explorer ? Well yes, but come on..........having a motley bunch of Americans spending 39 days on one of the islands named after you has to be up there with discovering Australia and New Zealand !!! Hmmmm the jury is out on that one !

So, springtime in jolly old England ? Is there anywhere to match it ? Probably. Almost certainly. But it'll do for me, yes it will. I've leave the last word, or words, to someone who is slightly better than me ( and just a bit more famous than me ) at expressing what we Brits may take for granted and not shout about ( except during the upcoming World Cup), but are really quite proud of........our country.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare "King Richard II", Act 2 Scene 1

Way to go, Bard.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Walk In The Countryside

After my 7 mile walk out in the countryside yesterday, I wanted to do most of it again today and take some photos along the way.

All my walks have to start by going through my estate (or subdivision as the Americans would say) and most houses are very pretty now with the lawns and flower borders bursting with spring colour.
This is the time I build up my pace from my starting pulse rate of about 60 to around 75 as it's totally on the flat so not very taxing.

After 10 mins, I'm on the edge of the countryside and onto a lovely lane which goes past a golf course. There are a few upscale houses on the right side of this lane with electronic gates to keep out all but invited visitors.

After only a few hundred yards, the houses end and it's pure countryside. It's not uncommon to see wild rabbits scurrying across this lane and at this time of year I love the smells as well as the sights and sounds - newly cut grass being the strongest smell at this early point of the route.

20 minutes into the walk, the lane splits one of the local golf courses with signs warning walkers, cyclists and even drivers to stop and check for members who could be teeing off from the right of the lane.

Considering I only do this walk when the weather is dry and pleasant, I'm amazed that I've still to be stopped by any golfer being anywhere near the hole that the lane crosses. Maybe it's not a very busy golf course during the day.

After passing the golf course, the lane pushes deeper into the countryside and the sounds become richer and more sustained.

Often the trees on each side meet in the middle and form a green canopy which allows some welcome shade on a warm sunny day like today.

There are a few farms along the lane which have long since ceased being farms in the real sence and have been modernised and become very attractive and exclusive residences. All are stone built, of course, and blend in well with the scenery.

I had a bonus today when I came upon a field that in the past was just that - an empty field. Today it was hosting that most English of games, a cricket match.

I waited for a bit of action - which isn't easy - and the photo shows the bowler hurling the ball towards the batsman. The bowler is the one with his right leg still off the ground. Hard to see I know but it WAS a fair distance away and the camera is let down by having a pathetic zoom.

But no time to spend watching cricket..................

The lane meanders on getting further and further away from what I'd call 'civilisation'. There are no car noises, no construction noises and the peace and quiet are only broken by birdsong and the movements of the tree branches.

I usually stop the MP3 player and just walk for a while taking in the sounds of the countryside. It's very relaxing and makes the walk even more enjoyable.

At this point in my walk, about 25 minutes timewise, the paved path becomes an even narrower path - just wide enough for a car but only just.

Thankfully few drivers would risk using this path because as well as being very narrow, it also leads down to a main road and it's a very dangerous entrance/exit. You'd be risking a serious accident by trying to go out onto the road. As a result, I've almost always got the path to myself.

After crossing the main road, my route takes me down to the local reservoir. It's not the most photogenic place in the world but it continues the mood of peace and quiet as cars are not allowed around it - although that doesn't stop a few from trying.

It's an oasis of calm and beauty so close to the bustling city and is a favourite place for cyclists and joggers. It gets it's fair share of wildlife and today there were a few cute ducks enjoying a paddle to keep cool.

And then it's back into the real countryside and the farms and animals that you'd expect to see. I came upon this little family group in the trees and although the lambs were quite old, they were still cute - especially the one with the black eye. I think I'll call it Jenny !!! Hope it's female.

They're not the easiest of critters to get close to and if a lamb did stray from the group and come closer to me, mom would give a warning bleat and Jnr would scamper back to the fold.

It's still best to find a mom and one single lamb. Somehow it has a feel of being 'just right'.

This little fella had just had a good old drink and was happy to pose for the photo. You can see that mom is still keeping a wary eye on me and I knew that any sudden movement on my part and they'd both be off.

It was quite hot by now and mom was shaking a bit under her woolly coat. She's ready for shearing and will certainly feel a lot better for it.

Up till now, I'd been on lanes and paths which cars COULD drive along but few do. From this point onwards, my route involved taking one of thousands of public bridleways which allow serious ramblers and weekend walkers to see some of the most beautiful parts of our country.

Many of these bridleways are actually farm paths but are exclusively for walkers and mountain bikers. In different parts of England they take you through forests and dales, valleys and mountains and even along coastal routes.

This one just took me past farm fields but that was fine too.

I'd taken much longer to get to this point today as I'd been stopping to take photos but when I walked non stop yesterday, it took me 50 mins of brisk walking to get here.

To make it a full hour yesterday, I walked on for another 10 mins before turning round and walking home to make a total of 7 miles in exactly 2 hours. Not a route to do too often, but once a week would be good.

I came upon loads of whin bushes (officially called furze) which are often called gorse bushes. These bushes flower from March - August and the bright yellow buds have a strong coconut smell and as I love that smell, I love whin bushes.

They will always remind me of my childhood in N. Ireland as I spent a lot of those years on relatives farms so whin bushes were everywhere. They are found in remote areas with dry soil and that's where my route had taken me.

And so I came to the field of friendly cows from yesterday. They weren't near the fence when I got there, but a few whistles and claps brought them running towards me as they are such inquisitive creatures.

I liked this one in particular as I'm a sucker for a big pair of eyes and even a white face doesn't put me off. I also liked her choice of ear accessories -very fetching.

Once again they all let me stroke their heads but many of them were dribbling and oozing drool and so that's as much touching as I wanted to do.

I also liked the colour of this one although he (the little horns were a giveaway) wasn't impressed with my opening greeting of 'how now, brown cow' ? The humour went over it's head I fear.

I think there were nine of them in total and at one point they were all lined up facing me waiting their turn to be petted - very cute. If only they knew how much I really like them - medium rare with a baked potato - i'm sure they'd not have been so happy to be close to me !!!

And that was as far as I went today. I headed back and tried to take a few more photos of the sheep but my camera battery ran out and I took that as a sign to get off home. I'd had the makings of a blister about 20 mins after I set off so I decided not to take the same route back and this meant I walked 5.7 miles instead of 7.

It was still enough and almost 13 miles in 2 days is good for me. My feet are sore so I'll probably take the bike if it's nice tomorrow. Think the cows will miss me ?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Gardening, Walking, Playoffs and Entertainment Stand

Totally missed a unique time yesterday morning and I wasn't even in bed !! Just after 1am, if you had a digital clock with just the right display, it would've read 010203040506. Nothing like that line up will happen again in my lifetime so I was pissed i missed it.

Did some gardening today - trimmed the hedge and cut the lawn. I do NOT like gardening. Was a stunning day weatherwise so went for a 4.25 mile walk. Awesome.

Leeds drew 1-1 at home to Preston in the first leg of the playoffs so not looking good. Second leg is on Monday with the overall winner going to the Millennium Stadium for the final. Guess we're in for another season in the Championship. Sighhhhh.

I finally downloaded the photos I took of the new entertainment centre setup. This one shows the left front speaker very close to the fire but it's now on the other side of it - some cable was stuck behind the unit. I just KNEW it should be able to move further !

Hope the image on the tv isn't copywrited. Anyway from left to right (top shelf) we have the tv, the modem, the router, the dvd player and the vcr.

Next shelf has the center speaker, the digital cable box and the dvd recorder under it.

Along the bottom, we have the surround sound amp and finally the 300 cd player. The sub woofer is hidden behind the unit which is great. Everything is wired so I can record a dvd or video to the dvd recorder and no matter what the source, it all comes through the surround sound system. Was quite a job to both find something big and sturdy enough to take all the units and to then do the wiring. It weighs a ton so anything behind there, stays behind there !!!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

First Entry - Picked My Flight Seat For US Trip

My first blog..........I've entered the Twilight Zone for sure.

Selected my seat for my next trip to the US. This was the first day I could do it so I actually made an entry in my diary as seat selection for an 8 hr 35 min flight is VERY important.

I got the seat I wanted, which is near the back (thank you seat guru) so apart from the extra risk of getting bumped a few times by the drinks/food trolley, I should have plenty of leg room and can easily go the short distance to the rear area to have a good stretch now and then.

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