May 2007– North East Coast of Ireland to Scotland (at last)
We were stuck at Bangor for quite some time while Tim completed a winter work commitment and we waited for the seas to subside after a storm. Thankfully it is well situated for finding things to do and we took advantage of the excellent train service to Belfast and beyond. One of the Belfast stops is at the Botanic Gardens and Ulster Museum both of which had been temptingly advertised in the local tourist information leaflets. The gardens are well laid out with varied flower borders and lawns, and contain not only this stunning glass house, but a second building containing a "tropical ravine" - a deep gully full of lush tropical green plants, flowers, and even bananas. The museum however was closed for refurbishment until Spring 2009, and we had been looking forward to seeing some of the treasures from the Spanish Armada. Instead we walked into the city centre along the river side path through the recently redeveloped dock side. There are several interesting and original sculptures along the way. This fish was made up of ceramic tiles each depicting an historic location, building or shop in the city.
Another of our expeditions by train was to Hilden and Lisburn just south of Belfast. Lisburn has the excellent national linen museum with displays showing the process from growing the flax, right through to weaving the damask patterned cloth. This area was a great linen making region which has sadly declined, with the last mill in Hilden closing only recently (it is now being converted to apartments!). However the local manor house has diversified with the stables now being a real ale brewery with restaurant-cum-pub. Naturally we did the tour and sampled the results which were very tasty, especially Molly Malone's Porter. A young man called Owen was our host, he appears to be the jack-of-all-trades being brewer; bottler; tour guide; floor sweeper and general manager. Real ale is very hard to find in Ireland (both the Republic and Northern Ireland), mainly because of the near monopoly of the Guinness Brewery who do not tend to stock non group products, as a result most of the Hilden beers are sent across to England.
We eventually left Bangor on the 25th May, and had a pleasant sail up to Glenarm. The marina in Glenarm is quite small, but in a lovely location at the end of one of the nine glens of County Antrim. We were warmly welcomed by the harbour master who helped us tie up to the pontoons, and then supplied us with a wealth of tourist information including maps of local walks. Our evening constitutional was to walk up by the Glenarm river. This is a bubbling brook teaming with wildlife, and we had an enjoyable time watching grey wagtails flitting between the rocks, and dippers diving into the mini rapids.
The Ulster Way, one of Ireland's long distance footpaths runs south from Glenarm to the hills above Larne. All the way along there are spectacular views, north to Islay and Jura, east to the Mull of Kintyre and Ailsa Craig, then south east to the Mull Galloway. What made it more dramatic was the frequent heavy showers, as shown in the picture above over Larne Lough. They passed north, south and west of us, but surprisingly we managed to miss them all until we were nearly back at the boat.
From Glenarm we had a very unpleasant passage up to Ballycastle, beating into lumpy seas with two reefs in the main. Thankfully it is a relatively short distance so we were in port by early afternoon. The following day we took the ferry across to Rathlin Island, we should have taken the boat as there is now a superb pontoon for visiting yachts. The ferry was the Cal-Mac MV Canna (previously used for the small isles), it is long on vehicle space but short on passenger accommodation. However, the Rathlin run is just the opposite and the vehicle deck is arrayed with rows of plastic seats for the passengers to sit on - Cal-Mac clear plastic ponchos are issued free of charge! The puffin bus was ready for us once we left the ferry, this runs to the West Point lighthouse where there is an RSPB observation platform overlooking the nesting puffins, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills. The bus driver stopped along the way and pointed out all the interesting sites on the island. We walked the 3 miles back to the harbour and crashed out on the beach with our wind up radio to listen to England finish off the West Indies in the second test at Headingley before taking the ferry back to Ballycastle.
To avoid the crowds we caught the 07.30 bus from Ballycastle to the Giant's Causeway (only runs during school term times). We were there by 08.00 and had the place to ourselves for over an hour. We got some very unusual pictures with no one but ourselves in them! The Causeway is made up of thousands of mainly hexagonal Basalt columns. These were formed by molten lava cooling very slowly, shrinking and cracking. Each column has many horizontal fractures which are eroded away, breaking off at different heights causing the characteristic steps.
From the Giant's Causeway we walked east along the coast path to Carrick-A-Rede. The first five miles are steep dramatic cliffs (left) with a continuation of the basalt columns of the causeway. The path then descends to sea level and is a scramble around the base of the cliffs to Whitepark bay, a long curved white sandy beach - completely deserted. Just after Ballintoy harbour, the National Trust have a car park for the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge - There has been a 30m high rope bridge here for over 350 years to allow fishermen to gain access to the best places for catching migrating salmon. Not all the visitors made it the 1km from the car park to the bridge and then not all those who made it to the bridge made it across. It wasn't that scary really!
We caught the bus back to Ballycastle from Ballintoy where the local artist had had a hand in the village convenience signage! On May 31, we had a fine sail across to Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay, Scotland at last! We really enjoyed Northern Ireland, County Antrim, especially. It is a real treasure and we'll return in due course.