This was my husband’s first trip back to his homeland for two decades, and the last time I was in the Province I was a newspaper reporter following the British Army, seeing life through the windows of an armoured vehicle.
“So Darling, what can you tell me about Ballymena?” As soon as I opened my mouth I regretted asking the question. I knew the answer. I’d heard it before. More than a few times.
“Did you know,” my husband mused, “that my name is on the school hall wall and that it’s Liam Neeson’s home town?”
Twenty years might seem a long time, but not much has changed, and at the same time everything is different. The police station is still surrounded by high security fences, and when the shops shut, the iron curtains descend across their façades. But this is an habitual routine rather than any real expectation of violence. After decades of taking heed of bomb alerts, and taking the long way round to avoid the delays at the police checkpoint, it is very hard to break habits.
However, I don’t want to dwell on the political clouds that hang over Northern Ireland. This was an opportunity to see it in a new light, and open the doors of travel to new possibilities.
I want to tell you about the unusual, the impossible and the strange.
Love for the homeland is deep routed. So deep in fact, that people buy holiday homes just 20 miles from where they live. Why drive long distances if you don’t have to? Mr Mc. was obviously being flippant when he said: “There is only so far you can take a Thermos flask,” but there’s an element of truth.
From Ballymena we headed north to the verdant, fecund north Antrim coast. Heathers, campanulas and cornflowers flow across the cliff top, the wind rippling the long grass to mimic the rolling sea below. The scenery is stunning. It’s wild, but accessible, pretty but with raw beauty. If you follow the coastal path every turn offers a new surprise; a hidden bay, an unspoilt white sandy beach, rock formations with families of seagulls nestled against them.
We walked from Port Rush to Dunseverick Castle, a challenging route that left our hair ruffled and our waistlines a little slimmer.
The full Causeway Coast Way path stretches 33 miles from Portstewart to Ballycastle, passing through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a World Heritage Site and several Areas of Special Scientific Interest. The sights are spectacular, whether you’re interested in the natural or manmade. Crumbling castles guard the boiling waters below (the least and most apt adjective for the churning, freezing sea), hinting at the troubled past of raiding Vikings and Ulster clans long gone; Impressive hexagon-shaped rock stacks loom out of the water at the Giant’s Causeway, surrounded by mystery and folklore; and for visitors with a head for heights, the Carrick-a-rede ropebridge offers an insight into the harsh lives of bygone fishermen.
No visit to the British Isles would be complete without touching on one of the most talked about subjects however: the weather. As it was August, the weather was changeable. In fact it was sometimes raining in between the showers. Across the dark, steely sea, fat, almost tactile, clouds, brought with them the threat of a drenching, and with the rain came winds that buffeted us along the cliff top. But after a short, sharp episode the dark skies split and shards of sunshine shot down.
Despite weather hardly warm enough to be out of thermals, hardy souls continued to frolic in the foam, and huddle on picnic blankets wrapped in coats.
Tempting as it is to hunker down into your collar, this is a coastline that demands you pay attention. The sights are staggering, the countryside is untamed, and what can be better than a hot chocolate in a café after a character-building hike?
For more photos please visit our Flickr page
The practical bit:
Strangest sight: a rabbit going for a walk on a lead at the Giant’s Causeway.
Fact: Part of the United Kingdom, but only separated by 11 miles of the Northern Channel from Fair Head to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
Walking routes: www.walkni.com. A Rambler bus operates along the cliff top road to help you complete the loop back to your car.
Things to see and do:
- Giant’s Causeway (National Trust)
- Carrick-a-Rede ropebridge (National Trust)
- Secret rock pools and hidden caves at Ballantoy habour
- Dark Hedges – a magical tree-lined road planted to create an impressive entrance to Gracehill House in the 18th century and reputedly haunted by ‘Grey Lady’.
Places to eat:
- The Galgorm Manor (see below) has great food, whether you want afternoon tea, Italian with flare or a good steak. We ate in the new Fratelli’s restaurant, which is homely Italian fare with flair.
- Sandwich with a view at the Bayview Hotel, Portballintrae
- Coffee with a vista at 55 North, Portrush
Places to stay:
- Ramada Portrush
- Galgorm Manor: This spa hotel in Ballymena offers a luxurious rural escape with style. With dedicated facilities for weddings, extensive grounds and a Rolls Royce once owned by Alan Sugar, this country house is a great place to spend time relaxing.