Starting mileage: 18939 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 22:00
Theoretically, Lough Strangford is part of the Irish Sea, so by following it we’re still following the Irish coast – even if it doesn’t feel like it at all.
The small town of Killyleagh is the first genuinely attractive settlement we’ve seen in NI so far; it’s neat and colourful, with houses painted in merry, vivid colours, if a bit desolate: half the homes have “for sale” signs on them. It also boasts one of the most unique castles in Britain, purposefully designed after the French Loire castles, with a set of fairy-tale turrets and gatehouses. The castle is still privately owned by the same family since at least 19th century, and you can only view it from outside. There’s a good pub in the town – The Dufferin Arms – a rarity until now; somehow we’ve seen very little in the way of proper drinking establishments.
Killyleagh seems to be a protestant town as well, and is either on the up, or a victim of too much development: it’s hard to say from a short visit. There are a few newly built, empty homes on the harbour, and the quay is renewed. The town’s main claim to fame, apart from the fantasmagorian castle, is being the birthplace of Hans Sloane, who not only established the British Museum and gave, inadvertently, name to “Sloane Rangers“, but also was a major proponent of the health qualities of chocolate and gin and tonic, which puts him very high on our list of secular saints.
Following the little book of antiquities, we drove down a series of causeways linking tiny islets of the Strangford shore, to the island of Mahee; the island is guarded by two ruined “castles”, or rather small fortlets, of which this part of Ireland is full of, but it’s not the castles that are the attraction here, but a ruined Dark Age monastery of Nendrum, one of the best preserved in NI, and a site of world importance due to several unique early medieval finds. The monastery spanned the whole of the island once, and formed something of a self-sustaining village, enclosed in three concentric rings of walls; the outermost wall protected orchards, fields, gardens and two tidal mills, one of which was the oldest known anywhere in the world. The medium wall held the monks’ living quarters, school and scriptorium, and the innermost circle was the sacred ground, where the church and the round tower stood. Of particular interest is a sundial standing beside the church, partly reconstructed, one of the few such early clocks known worldwide, proving the great technological sophistication of the Dark Age Celtic monks.
In between spells of rain and sun we drove further north, our route slowly forming a great spiral all around Northern Ireland; we stopped at Castle Espie WWT reserve, but this being summer and midday, all the birds apart from a few ducks were sound asleep on the rocks in the middle of the lough, far beyond the range of even the spectacular all-metal spotting scope set up in the observatory, which seemed to remember the war.
We followed that with another exercise in trying to find an ancient site, driving around the forested outskirts of Lisburn; eventually we found it by deciding to not follow the signs, just using the satellite maps to guide ourselves to what was, after all, a vast formation, easily seen from space.
The Giant’s Ring is decidedly impressive: 5000-year old, 200-meter wide earthen enclosure, with a ruined tomb in the middle, which remains preserved so perfectly it might as well be something from the Middle Ages or later; in fact, a “round enclosure” is a typical feature of NI landscape: from Neolithic henges, through Iron Age forts, to early Christian raths and later monasteries, everyone in Ireland seems to have decided to surround their territory with a round earthen wall, which makes such sites rather difficult to date without thorough excavation. Several places in our little book were described as “unknown” because of that.
We drove around Belfast, still going along the northern arm of our spiral route, towards Carrickfergus, once “the jewel in the Crown” and the largest and oldest settlement in Northern Ireland, far preceding Belfast. There is an old song that starts “I wish I was in Carrickfergus“, although looking at the town now it was hard to believe why anyone would. Apart from the substantial and, indeed, impressive castle, museum and a marina district on the outskirts, there was very little of interest in Carrickfergus. The high street is a shambles, starting with a row of closed shops, charity shops and ending with a dilapidated shopping centre built around an Iceland and a Poundstore. Any glory this place used to have seems long gone.
The grim mood of Carrickfergus perished as soon as we embarked on the long drive up the Causeway Coastal Route. It is advertised as one of the finest car journeys in the world, and it is definitely the best we’ve been on since the start of this journey; the only other comparable road is the bit of Atlantic Highway near Exmoor, but the Causeway Route is not as demanding for the car and driver, winding slowly below the hills instead of climbing to their top. On one side, the Atlantic laps up the banks of the road, with Scotland showing up on the horizon; on the other rise the tall cliffs, opening once in a while onto the Glens of Antrim: broad, sweeping valleys, falling into the sea, somehow even greener than the rest of Ireland – which is no mean feat (Incidentally, if you’ve never been to Ireland you may not believe it, but it really is an Emerald Island. No place in the world is that shade of green). The views are breath-taking, the road is smooth, the people merry, and there are barely any flags flying on the lampposts; the Glens are by far the best bit of Northern Ireland.
The largest and most beautiful of all glens is the Glenariff, and on its northern slope stands the finest campsite not only of NI, but one of the best in all of Britain. The Glenariff Forest Park, one of the Forestry-owned campsites I mentioned earlier, is set in the middle of the forest, high above the glen; the wardens appear once a day to check up on things and get the money, otherwise leaving campers to themselves. There’s plenty of firewood in the forests, and you can make campfires anywhere you like. This is the best of both worlds: the freedom of wild camping combined with perfectly maintained facilities; there are even electric hook-ups. And all that for just £15 per night!