Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Causeway Coast Way

Starting Point
Firstly with this blog entry let me lay my cards on the table – despite my best intentions I did not walk the whole of this route.  A combination of weather conditions and the terrain of the route put paid to that but I did walk enough of it to get a proper sense of the route and a desire to come back another time and walk it properly.

Portstewart Castle
The Causeway Coast Way is, as you might have expected, a 33 mile walk along the stretch of Northern Ireland coast close to the Giant’s Causeway and indeed that feature among others of note along the way are passed en route.  This was our first ever trip to Northern Ireland and we were immediately enchanted by its spectacular scenery.  If there is a bigger tourist secret in the UK I have yet to find it!  With a penchant for coastal walking this was a path that I was anxious to see some of even if there wouldn’t be time to complete it all.  In the end, rainy and windy conditions did not seem conducive to walking clifftop paths with small children while we were on holiday so we had to content ourselves with bits and pieces of the walk.
Washed Up Jellyfish
Our journey started in Portstewart, a small town of just under 8000 people to the north of the university town of Coleraine.  I am not sure why the path begins here but the starting point is pretty spectacular with a view out across the lengthy Portstewart Strand.  This is a well known and visited sandy beach that seems to stretch far beyond the two miles it actually is.  In the far distance we could see the coast of Donegal beyond the entrance to Lough Foyle.  It serves as a reminder of how small the province of Northern Ireland actually is.

Mill Strand
Before heading onward we of course had to spend a proper amount of time on the beach and we were far from alone, with lots of young families, surfers and other watersports enthusiasts all enjoying the warm sunshine and calm conditions.  Sadly this was not to last very long as away in the distance was a very large black cloud headed our way and that hastened our ongoing journey into the town of Portstewart itself.  From the start the path hugs the coast before heading into town via what is known as the Cliff Walk, which was built in the mid 1800s as relief work for families hit by the famine.  Above the cliffs is the huge presence of Portstewart Castle, which was built as a house in 1834 and then sold to a Dominican Order in 1917, being used as an educational establishment ever since.

Portrush Harbour
By the time we got to the top of the cliff path the much expected rain came and wiped out the rest of that day, much to our chagrin.  We did sample one of the local cafes though which had much to recommend it, especially the sea views out of the window.  The weather also relented enough for us to take a look around the shops, which were largely geared towards tourists but not in the same oppressive way that you find in seaside resorts elsewhere.

Portrush Dereliction
When we resumed our walk the following day it was on to Portrush along the cliff path.  In many respects this stretch of path resembles the North Cornish Coast in that the cliffs are the backdrop to wonderful sandy coves and there are plenty of rocky islets offshore.  We spotted plenty of wildflowers including knapweed in all its delightful purpleness, plenty of thistles, clover and scabious.  The bees and moths loved it and especially burnet moths, which seemed to be everywhere.

Lunch View
As we got closer to Portrush we could see what a special location it has.  Neatly perched on a peninsula between two sandy beaches we approached the harbour side first.  The path continued along a promenade at the back of a sweeping arc of sand before finally reaching the small harbour and lifeboat station.  As we rounded the bay a train chugged out of Portrush Station for the short journey to Coleraine.  Clearly when most of the railways in Northern Ireland were closed down this short branch line did enough business in holiday traffic that it was reprieved.  Most of the services though are just shuttle trains to Coleraine rather than on to anywhere further afield.

Testing the Water
Portrush Harbour was built in 1827 and for much of the 19th Century small boats would leave Portrush with passengers destined for large ocean liners that would take immigrants to the New World.  More local traffic was also popular including steamers to Ardrossan in south west Scotland and Donegal.  Most of this traffic didn’t survive past the First World War.  Now it is mostly leisure craft in the harbour although the lifeboat really stood out from the crowd with its bright orange and dark blue livery.

Curran Strand
Just beyond the harbour the path takes in the small headland of Ramore Head and this offered wonderful views all along the coast back beyond Portstewart and on to Donegal further afield.  I cursed the fact that I didn’t have my binoculars as it would have been good to focus a little on some of the detail along the coast, especially to pick out distant landmarks such as Mussenden Temple, one of Northern Ireland’s most famous landmarks.  As we rounded Ramore Head the view changed very quickly to look east and onwards to Dunluce Castle and the Giants Causeway beyond.  To the north though was a surprising sight – the Island of Jura, the Hebridean island famous for whisky.  I never expected to be able to see that from this vantage point.

Dunluce Castle
As we rounded the headland and proceeded along the eastern side we could see that there were a lot of grand looking buildings that I imagine would have been bed and breakfasts and guest houses.  Sadly many were derelict and boarded up which seemed a crying shame.  Some looked like they had been this way for some time as the windows weren’t just boarded up but breeze blocked in.  We wandered further around the coast to the other main beach, which was a lot more crowded.  Just above the beach we came across a rather pleasant looking café and so stopped by to have some lunch which was both delicious and reasonably cheap.

Tame Stonechat
Our onward journey took us along Curran Strand where my kids were anxious to get their feet wet once again.  Behind the dunes was the Royal Portrush golf course, the venue for the British Open in 1951 (and the only time it has been held outside mainland Britain).  With the interest in Northern Irish golf in the last few years there is every chance that the Open might return here one day and that would certainly be a fillip for the local economy.

Causeway Rainbow
Beyond the beach we didn’t walk as the route from here to Dunluce Castle is along the road and none of us much fancied that even though the road is scenic.  Close inspection of much of the coast of Northern Ireland is that it is followed quite closely by the A2 coastal road, which makes for excellent motoring but less agreeable walking.
Causeway Railway Station

Nevertheless we did stop at Dunluce Castle, one of the great sights of Northern Ireland, perched high up on the cliffs above the boiling sea.  Some of the castle has obviously been lost to erosion over the years although the story behind the castle’s abandonment isn’t quite as it is billed.  Dunluce Castle was built in the 13th Century and abandoned in the 17th Century.  Apparently during a particularly heavy storm the kitchen is said to have collapsed in the sea while a big party was going on, taking all the kitchen staff with it and leaving only a kitchen boy who survived because of where he was standing.  Although this rather gruesome story has carried down through the ages it is pretty certain to be untrue as there is evidence that the part of the kitchen said to have collapsed was still in place some decades after the storm.  Stories like this only add to the mystery of the place though and it was certainly a very interesting place to look around.

We skipped the section of road walking between Dunluce Castle, although once upon a time it would have been possible for us to have completed the next section by tram as the old Giants Causeway and Portrush tram came along here following the line of the road to Bushmills.  Part of the tramway has been opened as a heritage railway from Bushmills to the Causeway visitor centre, although this is a conventional steam railway (3ft gauge) rather than the electric tramway that it once was.

Causeway Sunset
The next stretch that we walked was from the small seaside village of Portballintrae around the bay to the Giants Causeway itself.  As we did this section we walked out in  glorious sunshine but with a dreaded rain cloud ominously heading our way.  This was a beautiful stretch and the bay that we walked around was overseen by the rather impressive looking Runkerry House, once owned by Lord McNaughton but now turned into apartments.  We crossed the small River Bush and headed around the back of the sand dunes where we spotted a friendly stonechat who kept us company for a short time.  Across the way there were plenty of people playing golf; it seems to be more popular an activity in Ireland than any other part of the British Isles I have been to.

Giant's Causeway
We soon came upon the small railway linking Bushmills and the Giants Causeway visitor centre.  The trains were done for the day but it must be quite a memorable way of getting to the Causeway and hats off to the group of people who re-opened the line back in 2002 after a hiatus of 53 years.  Most of the remaining route to the visitor centre took us alongside the railway – more heavy rain precluding the loop around by Runkerry House, which was rather disappointing.  We did however see the most amazing rainbow as a result of the heavy rain and sunshine.

Dunseverick Castle
The Causeway visitor centre is astonishingly big and is designed to cater for the hundreds and thousands of visitors that come to perhaps the most famous natural sight in all of Ireland, let alone Ulster.  Buses ferry the less able tourists down a road for the half a mile or so from the centre to the rock formation.  Being National Trust members we didn’t have to worry about the cost but it is rather steep to get in.  We grabbed the audio guides and headed down for our first visit to the famous formation. 

Ballintoy Harbour
According to legend the columns are the remains of a causeway built by the giant giant Finn MacCool.  He was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. The guide told us that Finn hid from Benandonner when he realised that his opponent was much bigger than he. Finn's wife, Oonagh, disguised Finn as a baby and tucked him in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the size of the 'baby', he reckoned that Finn, must be a giant among giants. He fled back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not follow.  Across the sea, there are identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at Fingal's Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa, and it is possible that the story was influenced by this.

Ballintoy Harbour Sunset
Although the scientific explanation for the Causeway is a lot less interesting (being formed by basalt cooling after volcanic eruptions in the area) it is still an amazing sight.  We were quite lucky with the lighting – the big black clouds overhead rolled away periodically enabling shafts of sunlight to pick out the main features.  Being there on an unsettled evening also helped from the point of view of fewer tourists and enabling us to enjoy the natural splendour that much more.

Crossing the Bridge
It had been our intention to continue the walk from here another day to our holiday cottage at Ballintoy.  However, we were to be disappointed as the day we selected the weather changed from the forecast and we didn’t think it safe or prudent to walk the cliff top route in driving rain and heavy winds.  By the time the weather relented enough there was insufficient time to walk the estimated five hours it would have taken us.  It was a huge disappointment and made me determined to come back and have another go at some point.

Carrick-a-Rede View
Despite this setback we did explore a few points further along the coast without walking to them.  First on the list was the ruined castle at Dunseverick, now virtually obliterated after a combination of neglect, erosion and partial demolition by Cromwells troops post Civil War.  The castle has been here since the 5th Century apparently and was once visited by St Patrick.  Now only remains of a gatehouse can be seen.
Carrick-a-Rede Coast

Ballintoy Harbour further along the coast was delightful and we spent a very happy evening there exploring the coast and having a picnic.  The harbour is famously featured in Game of Thrones apparently although it is a TV programme I have never watched and doesn’t appeal to me.  The view north from here is dominated by Rathlin Island and this will be the subject of a future blog entry.  The path from here to Ballycastle follows the main road all the way and did not appeal at all.  We did however, visit Carrick-a-Rede bridge just outside Ballintoy.  This is the rope bridge that was once used by fishermen to reach an island offshore and the little station they had set up to deal with the fish they had caught.  Now the bridge is overrun with tourists and is far safer than it ever was.  Crossing the wibbly wobbly bridge still generates some giggles even it isn’t truly dangerous.

Ballycastle Harbour
We were disappointed not to complete the route and although there are some significant road sections that might detract from the whole experience, the A2 is not a hugely busy road.  The non-road sections more than make up for it anyway and I shall certainly be back in the next few years to do a proper job of walking this route.

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