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.

1 comment:

jen said...

How wonderful to see all this is person. Maybe someday I will be able to do so myself.

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