Starting mileage: 19040 km
Day started: 11:00
Day ended: 21:00
The short strip of the Causeway Route between Ballycastle and Portrush contains probably 90% of everything an average tourist wants to see in Northern Ireland. As such, it’s also one of the most affluent parts of the Six Counties, with towns such as Ballycastle full of good pubs and cafes. At last we were able to sample a few Irish beers (Smithwicks being the all-time favourite) as we watched the ferries departing for the nearby Rathlin Island – a place with far more history than the town itself, being a large island half-way between Ireland and Scotland; it’s seen its share of Viking raids, Scottish and Ulster clans vying for supremacy, and several massacres inflicted by the English.
Not far north of Ballycastle, still along the Causeway Route, we started seeing signs pointing to an attraction which merited – in the eyes of the sign-makers, at least – as much attention as the Causeway: the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge. The huge and full car park in front ensured us that this was going to be something big.
Carrick-a-rede means “a rock in the road” of salmon, being set in the middle of apparently the richest salmon catchings in the area. The rock was connected to the shore with a rope bridge, 30 m high and 20 m tall, and it was this rope bridge – or at least, its modern version – which was the source of all the commotion.
Two things jumped immediately to my mind when I saw the bridge up close, as we moved slowly in the long line of tourists trying to cross there or back to mainland: one, why would the fishermen need to cross the bridge at all, when it seemed they could simply row the few dozen meters from the beach? And two, the whole thing seemed rather over-hyped. Perhaps if you suffer from extreme vertigo, crossing the relatively wide and safe bridge over the “chasm”, which doesn’t seem neither all that high or that wide up close, is an adventure, but if you’re relatively fine with heights, this is just a crossing from one place to another; the stairs up Tintagel Castle, for example, were a lot more challenging than this “blood-curdling” passage.
The islet itself gives superb views across the sea and over green cliffs and to the even smaller rock further into the sea, where there’s a colony of sea birds including fulmars and a pair of black guillemots – a rarer variety, which lives mostly in Ireland and western Scotland.
Setting up the rest of the day required a bit of logistic juggling, and still we weren’t sure if we’d manage everything we wanted to see before dusk; this was a slow-moving day on the map, but a hectic one on the ground, as we jumped from one attraction to another. Luckily, we weren’t the only ones in this situation, and as we discovered, the opening times of all the places were adjusted to the busy schedules; along the way we continued passing coach-loads of international tourists: Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and of course dozens of Americans searching for their roots.
The Bushmills Old Distillery (possibly world’s oldest distillery, operating since 1608), normally open until 4pm, was today open until 6pm, so unlike in Plymouth, this meant we could take part in the tour of the place, led by the girl with the most astonishing Northern Irish accent imaginable; the distillery tours are always fun, not just because there’s always free tasting of the local product at the end, but because the guides try hard to explain why the particular whisky – or whiskey – is different from others, and it’s usually fairly educational.
The main difference between Irish and Scotch, as we’ve learned, was the drying process: the Irish whiskey is dried with clean air instead of peat smoke. This is what creates the difference in taste; Irish has none of the smokiness and dryness of Scotch: it’s a lot more mellow drink, sweet, almost honey-like, much better suitable as base for drinks and desserts (Irish Coffee is just not the same with Scotch). We sampled 12 year-old Distillery Reserve and Black Bush.
We didn’t stay long in Bushmills; it’s not that it didn’t look nice, but you could tell from the overwhelming smell that the main trade of the town is not just the whiskey, but cattle. Indeed, as we headed towards the Causeway, we passed by a huge herd of cattle led back from the pastures. It was getting late; the Giant’s Causeway was supposed to be the last stop on our itinerary, the long-awaited climax of the strenuous day. We rushed through the new – very impressive looking – National Trust visitor centre and down the long coastal avenue, straight towards the famous wonder of nature.
If Carrick-a-Rede was over-hyped, the Causeway is almost under-hyped, even despite all the focus around it. Sure, it’s not the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls; but I’ve read some say that the actual sight is underwhelming when up close and let me tell you it is anything but. In fact, it’s the human scale of the monument that makes it so mind-boggling; the hexagonal slabs of frozen lava, of which there are thousands, are perfectly foot-sized, and set together better than most civic pavements. It’s little wonder the place had given birth to so many legends, not least about Finn McCool, the Irish folk hero.
There are three causeways altogether, jutting out to sea in various lengths and heights; a closer look at the tall cliffs surrounding the monument reveals that there’s plenty more such columns all around the Causeway, some carved into the rock face, some standing freely on the cliff top. The sea smashes against the slabs with great fury, stirred into frenzy by more columns that remain underwater, and the sun reflects off the tiny pools in the concave stones; the place is magical, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, even with all the tourists crowding it daily.
We were already trundling slowly further up the coastal road towards the campsite, when we saw the signs marking the Dunluce Castle. We were planning to see this place the next day – it was now getting really late, and we were quite tired – when suddenly the castle rose up straight ahead of us, in its full ruined glory. There was nothing else to it – we had to stop; even if the entrance was already closed, the view remained.
The castle (now under NIEA care) is more famous in its afterlife than when it was in use, due to its spectacular position and picturesquely ruined state. Originally the seat of the powerful clan of MacDonnells of Antrim, Dunluce was a large settlement surrounded by the castle walls; the town was burned down in the Irish Uprising of 1641, and never rebuilt, and the castle fell into disrepair, with parts of it falling into the sea. It is now perched right on the cliff, and is one of the most photographed views of Northern Ireland.
And that was really the last thing we got to see that day – apart from the campsite.
The Maddybenny is a large farm and equestrian centre, with a fairly tiny camping ground attached; the farm has plenty of strange poultry roaming freely among the tents and caravans, including a couple of peacocks and a family of guineafowl. The facilities are rough, and what you’d expect of a working farm; the farm’s main accommodation are self-catering cottages, with the running of the campsite delegated to the owners’ brother-in-law – who in the movie of our journey would be played by Jason Watkins.
The place has remarkable night views, if you’re lucky with the weather. As it happened, the night was cold but perfectly clear, and the result was the most starry sky we have ever seen, the kind of sky our ancestors must have been taking for granted. The Perseids were in full swing, too. Amazing stuff.