Youngest Son (YS) took us out for two major trips away from Belfast while we were visiting him for the first time in his new environment in Northern Ireland. The first was a drive south for a walk in the Mourne Mountains in County Down. Then he persuaded us to make a very early start to visit the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Antrim. YS loves sunrises and sunsets; on trips he has arranged for us in England, Australia and now Northern Ireland he has repeatedly proven that he is fully justified in that!
The first thing that struck me when we approached the Mourne Mountains was the character of the stone walling separating fields and gardens. Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are very familiar with stone walls since they are ubiquitous in The Cotswolds. Indeed, we are currently having a few new ones built to create some terracing in our garden. But the walls around the Mourne Mountains are very different and very striking. Essentially they are huge, rounded granite boulders placed on top of each other so their very weight gives the walls strength.
Even more impressive was the fact that these walls not only skirted the mountain slopes but also sat on the ridge lines right up and over the highest peaks. The ‘Mourne Wall’ was constructed between in the early 1900’s to define and enclose the catchment area for the Silent Valley Reservoir. The wall is 22 miles long, crosses the peaks of 15 mountains and keeps farm animals away from the reservoirs and rivers that flow into them. It’s an amazing feature – both in terms of simple engineering and of beauty.
We were blessed with perfect weather for walking. It was sunny but a great deal cooler than the simultaneous overbearing and sweltering weather back home in Gloucestershire. The wispy and puffy clouds not only helped with the backdrops to the photos but created a constantly shifting, dappled shade across the muted mauves, greens, greys and browns of the mountainsides.
The circular walk was challenging but not exhausting. The views from the peaks of Wee Binnian and Slieve Binnian were easily worth the exertion. The subsequent substantial and carbohydrate laden brunch at Railway St felt very well deserved.
Our second trip out of Belfast with YS started before 5.30am. YS drove us snoozy oldsters out to the Giant’s Causeway Heritage Site. We effectively had the place to ourselves throughout our visit and as the sun rose over the cliffs and started to illuminate the causeway, we felt very privileged and pleased with YS’s insistence on an early start.
The Giant’s Causeway itself was much as I had expected – after all, it is so well documented in pictures including some we had seen when YS had visited the place a few weeks earlier. What was a more unexpected pleasure was the walk around the adjacent cliffs and the ruggedness of the nearby coast. That feeling of wildness was enhanced by the lack of other visitors at such an early hour, but also by the path closure signs (which we partially ignored) which warned of rock falls for which there was plenty of recent evidence.
YS took us on to see Dunluce Castle which was one of the locations used for The Game of Thrones television series (Greyjoy Castle apparently). It is certainly spectacularly located and, when the coronavirus has passed, it would be great to visit this National Trust property more fully.
We then went on to White Rocks Beach which was a further geological surprise: chalk cliffs backing a beautiful sandy beach. Then, after a brief walk around Portstewart, we refuelled with breakfast in The Three Kings.
We made and attempted a couple more stops to see some of the dramatic landscapes used in The Game of Thrones series. But the visits to White Park Bay and Boheeshane Bay were brief or aborted as, by now, crowds of other tourists were gathering and car parking was becoming problematic. I can feel another 5.30 am start being required next time we visit Northern Ireland to see YS!
There certainly will be a next time. Some aspects of the tour around Counties Antrim and Down were expected: the calming greenness and the quiet, rural character. But there were many surprises too and we want to see more. Perhaps the multi-day itinerary we had planned for a walk along the South West Coastal Path in England last June, but which we had to cancel due to the coronavirus, will switch into an Irish coastal walk rather than just be rescheduled for next year. Who knows, but we certainly enjoyed this first taster of Northern Ireland very much.