Thursday, 29 March 2012

Leaving Up North & Heading Down South

There seems to have been a long line of sad farewells this last week of our Ireland holiday and today was no exception, with us having to bid farewell to Audrey & Ray as they left for work, leaving Donna & I to rearrange the contents of our bags, ready for the big weigh in at Dublin Airport later this evening.

Leaving Belfast in the North & heading South

We left Belfast just before lunch with plenty of time to spare before we had to drop the car back at the Europcar depot at Dublin Airport. 

Belfast is about 167 kms [100 miles] from Dublin on the A1/M1 & takes less than 2 hours.
As you drive via the motorway to Dublin, crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic for most, will go unnoticed.   If you are on the look out, you may see the speed limit signs, depending on which direction you're heading, alert you to the fact that the speed limit has now changed to Kilometres per hour [if you're driving into the Republic] or Miles per hour [if you're driving into the North].
Despite this being our last day in Ireland, there were still a couple of historic sites we wanted to cross off our list before we left the country.  The first of these was Monasterboice.

Now it should have been relatively easy to find Monasterboice from off the M1 but I kid you not, we drove round in circles trying to find the place, coming across this interesting wee village signpost along the way.
Termonfeckin.... obviously, Co.Louth
I know, I know... I'm being slightly mischievious adding this photo of a road sign that we happened upon while trying to find Monasterboice, but it made us do a double take & I was intrigued to find out a little more about Termonfeckin & how it got it's name.

The simple answer is that the name of this small village of around 700 residents, means "Fechin's refuge".   Who is Fechin, I hear you ask?   Saint Fechin to be precise, was a 7th century Irish saint, rememberd as the founder of Fore Abbey in Co. Westmeath.   My one & only question is...  "why did they change the 'h' to a 'k' "?   Could it be that I'm not the only one being mischievious.
As I was later to find out however, Termonfeckin is not only famous for the Saint which gave the village it's name,  Oh no.
For Harry Potter fans, this is the home town of actress Evanna Lynch who played the character 'Luna Lovegood' in four of the Harry Potter movies.
And for those of us from Downunder in NZ, this was the birthplace of one Molesworth Phillips who sailed with Captain Cook on his last voyage to the Pacific & who was present at the Captain's death in Hawaii.  

I also found out that there's a pretty substantial Turkey farm in the village & have to say, they too have made interesting use of the town's name, branding their home run Turkey business 'Termonfeckin Delicious".      Their promotional video is well worth taking a look at if you're in need of some light entertainment!

Had we not been so intrigued by the name, we would have also known that Termonfeckin has the remains of a 15th century castle & a magnificient High Cross, built around the 9th century which we could have visited.
Enough banter about Termonfeckin, let's get back to looking for Monasterboice's High Crosses.   And yes, we did eventually find this historic site after much persistance.  A word of warning... don't rely on your Sat Nav to get you there!

Monasterboice Cemetery, Monasterboice, Co. Louth
Monasterboice is a small, quiet, well kept cemetery & features the largest High Cross in Ireland, along with one of the highest & oldest.
Muirdach's Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth
Monasterboice Monastery is thought to have been founded around the 5th century, and apart from the magnificient High Crosses & Round Tower here, there are also remains of two churches.
Monasterboice Cemetery, Co. Louth

Ruins of Church, Monasterboice Cemetery, Co. Louth
Near the entrance of the cemetery is the 8th century Muirdach's Cross.  Amassed with biblical carvings depicting the fall of Adam & Eve, the murder of Abel, David & Goliath, the three Magi bearing gifts to Mary & Jesus, to name a few.
Biblical carvings on the Muirdach's Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth
A taller cross standing at 6.5 metres high, making it the tallest high cross in Ireland is situated near the Round Tower & is also well covered with biblical carvings, including the Crucifixion, the Resurrection & the Kiss of Judas.
The West Cross, Monasterboice
Standing behind the West Cross is the Round Tower with it's missing conical top, supposedly blown off by lightening. These Round Towers were the Irish reaction to the Norse raids on Monasteries in the 10th & 11th centuries, built over 100 feet high, they served as watch towers, belfries, storehouses for church valuables & as refuges for the community. Monasterboice's round tower, stands at 110 feet.
The Round Tower stands at 110 ft high behind the West Cross, Monasterboice

Monasterboice, Co. Louth
The West Cross, Round Tower & church ruins, Monasterboice

The West Cross, Monasterboice

The site is open all year and can be accessed by a stile at the gate, even when no one is in attendance. 
Stone Stile access into Monasterboice Cemetery, Monasterboice,
We still had an hour & a half before we were due to drop the rental car off at Dublin Airport, so went in search of Malahide Castle, just outside of Dublin.   Again, our trusty Sat Nav let us down & despite having to resort to our map, we still could not find this place.   In defense, there were a lot of road works & detours around Malahide, so this didn't help.  Or it could have been, that my navigational ability was beginning to tire after a month on the road.   That said, we couldn't find it & after taking a few wrong turns, we decided we couldn't waist any more time & headed on to Dublin Airport.
Bridge over the River Boyne, north of Dublin
Passing over the River Boyne on the M1, heading toward Dublin, we cross this magnificient cable-stayed bridge, the longest in Ireland.   Interestingly, most of the bridge, including its central pylon and 56 cables are situated in County Meath, although the last few northern most cables partly stretch across the county boundary into County Louth.    It is such a distinctive structure which seems in sharp contrast to the feast of ancient structures we've visited over our month long tour of Ireland.   It now seems incongruous amongst my photos of ancient castles, forts, churches & burial places.  Odd too, that it should be the last photo I take before flying out of Ireland & back home.

And as I wing away from the Northern Hemisphere & back into the Southern Hemisphere, I'm already plotting my return, to a country I've fallen head over heals in love with.

Thank you Tourism Ireland NZ, I've had the time of my life!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ambling Around Antrim

Driving out of the beautiful seaside town of Portrush, we pass the famous Royal Portrush Golf Club where over 100,000 spectators are expected to turn up to watch the Irish Open Championship in June of this year [2012].  And of course, Ireland has three of their own playing in this years tournament.    Darren Clarke, reigning Open champion, lives in Portrush & Graeme McDowell was born here too.  Then there's my favourite, Rory McIlroy, who grew up  in Holywood, just outside of Belfast.   My claim to fame, if I can claim it at all, is that my cousin who I'm staying with again tonight just outside of Belfast [in fact, not far at all from Rory's place], told me her daughter went to school with Rory & played in the same golf team as him at school!.... I feel like I'm practically related to him already!   
It has been 65 years since Royal Portrush have hosted the Irish Open & I'm sure the weather God's will put on a cracking week for it.  Fingers crossed.

Royal Portrush Golf Course, Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
If you ever get to the North of Ireland, don't leave without driving along the A2 Coastal Road.  A prayer or two for a sunny day wouldn't go a miss either, as there is some stunning scenery to be had when the skies are clear.  This drive has been compared to Australia's Great Ocean Road and the Big Sur in California & is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in Britain & Ireland.    
Along this 86 km scenic coastal route,  from Ballycastle to Larne, we pass through a series of steep coastal valleys & hills, known as the Glens of Antrim.   These Glens comprise of nine wooded river valleys, that spread inwards from the coast.    The principle towns in the Glens are Ballycastle, Cushendun, Cushendall, Waterfoot, Carnlough & Glenarm.

Cushendun, Coastal Antrim, Northern Ireland

Our first stop is Cushendun , an ancient ferry port a stones throw from Scotland with pretty wee whitewashed dwellings sitting alongside others that appear to have been transplanted from another time & place.
Cushendun, Co. Antrim

Adjacent to Cushendun Village is the Antrim Glen of Glendun.
'Glen' folk, I've read, are great storytellers. They will tell you that fairies live around these parts & that they will take devastating revenge on anyone rash enough to cut down a fairy thorn tree!

Cushendun, Co. Antrim

Cushendun village, Co. Antrim

Waters Edge Apartments, Cushendun, Co. Antrim
White sandy beach, Cushendun, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

We pass through Cushendall next, known locally as the Capital of the Glens, nestled at the bottom of Glenballyeamon.    The prefix 'Cush...' in Cushendall & Cushendun means 'the foot of the river'.    It lies in the shadow of the table topped Lurigethan Mountain and at the meeting point of three of the Glens of Antrim: Glenaan, Glenballyemon and Glencorp.

Cushendall Village, Co. Antrim
If you keep your eyes open as you drive into Cushendall Village, you'll see the large colourful mural on the gable of one of the buildings commemorating 100 years of Hurling in the region.   We had one of those, "do you want to stop & go back & get a photo" moments but decided to keep going.   While we're on the topic of those "do we stop or not" moments - there have been a few over the last month of our travels in Ireland & one thing I'd change when I revisit Ireland is, when my gut feeling is to stop for that photo... I will.   Don't pass up opportunities to take a great photo just because you're in a car heading west & there's no parking spaces to pull over into!  Photos will forever be the storage for your memories of a wonderful holiday, no matter how big or how small.

Glenarriff, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

Coastal route near Glenarriff, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

Lurigethan mountain, Glenarriff, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland
Horned Sheep, Waterford, Antrim Coast
The most well known of the nine Glens is Glenarriff which sweeps down toward the small village of Waterfoot, lying at the foot of Lurigethan Mountain.     Like all glens in that area, it was shaped during the Ice Age by giant glaciers.    It is sometimes called the 'Queen of the Glens' and is the biggest and most popular of the Glens of Antrim

Garron Point, Northern Ireland
From Waterfoot the road hugs the coastline, all the way to Larne & on a bright sunny day, there is nothing more awe-inspiring.

About 8kms before we reached Carnlough, near Garron Point, we passed the gates of St Killian's college which looked pretty grand from where I was standing at the gateway into the college.     Known locally as Garron Tower, it was built as a summer house by the Marchioness of Londonderry around 1850.     One hundred years later it began life as a boarding school for boys & just 2 years ago, it became a catholic co-ed school which caters for around 830 pupils living in the Larne to Cushendall region.

St Killian's College, Carnlough, Co. Antrim
St Killian's overlooks the southern end of the Irish sea & out across to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
We stop next at Carnlough & have a wander around to find somewhere to have lunch.       Carnlough is a picturesque wee harbour village lying at the foot of Glencloy, another of the nine Glens of Antrim

Carnlough Harbour, Co. Antrim

Carnlough Harbour, Co. Antrim

The small harbour of Carnlough, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland
The Londondery Arms Hotel , situated on the main street of the village, was built in 1848 & was once owned by Sir Winston Churchill.

The Londonderry Arms Hotel, Carnlough, Co. Antrim
Two doors down from the Londonderry Arms, is this curious establishment [below].  The sign says 'Antrim Coast Private Nursing Home'!    I'm thinking, there's got to be another way in or those poor old dears in there haven't been checked up on in a while!

The Antrim Coast Private Nursing Home, Carnlough, Co. Antrim
A limestone bridge & archway over Carnlough's main steet, used to be a railway line which travelled from a limestone quarry in the hills behind the village across the coast road to the harbour where small coastal boats would be loaded with  the crushed lime for export.  

Main Street, Carnlough, Co. Antrim
Just south of Carnlough we come to the peaceful wee seaside village of Glenarm, which takes its name from the glen in which it lies, the southernmost of the nine Glens of Antrim.   At the centre of this village is it's Castle, Glenarm Castle which dates back to 1750.  The village itself is reportedly, one of the oldest towns in Ireland.

The Stone bridge across into Glenarm Castle, Glenarm, Co. Antrim

During the great Irish famine, the Glens of Antrim apparently didn't fare as bad as the rest of Ireland.   The Earl of Antrim and the Marquess of Londonderry, prominent landowners of the time, organised relief schemes of food & money for their tenants and built soup kitchens throughout the Glens.

Glenarm has a small Unionist & Protestant majority & like its republican counterpart in nearby Carnlough, has cleaned up its public image by removing flags & political emblems to boost tourism in the area.   It's hard to imagine after visiting both of these beautiful peaceful places, that sectarian tension apparently still exists between the two villages. 

Barbican Gate into Glenarm Castle, Glenarm, Co. Antrim
For 400 years, Glenarm Castle has been the family home of the Earls of Antrim and the setting of a glorious Walled Garden which is only open to visitors from May to September.  Sadly, today when we drove into Glenarm, the Barbican Gateway into the Castle & gardens was firmly closed.  I've read that it is apparently at its best at this time of the year - spring time - with its show of wild flowers such as primroses & lovely yellow irises.

Glenarm Castle, Glenarm, Co. Antrim
We did however, find a driveway which we boldly drove down to get a glimpse of the castle from behind a large  iron gate.   Glenarm Castle is a family home, however it is open to the general public for guided tours on occassions.     Just this July [2012], the castle will play host to Ronan Keating who will deliver a live evening concert along with his friend & guest Sharon Corr.
We continue on from here down the old Antrim Coast Road towards Larne, then cut across to Antrim to visit one of my new found cousins who lives near the town.  I met her for the first time in Enniskillen when she drove down for the night to join four other members of her family for dinner with me.  It was lovely to see her again & to have a relaxing coffee break & enjoy the gorgeous views of the Antrim countryside from her home, before heading to Helen's Bay to spend our last night of our holiday with my cousin Audrey again. 

Looking out over the Antrim Countryside from my cousin's home in Antrim
But just before we leave County Antrim, I want to tell you about a former prime minister of New Zealand who came from these parts...  I myself didn't know this until researching a little more about Antrim for my blog.

Just south of Antrim [the town], is Glenavy, where in 1839, John Ballance was born in a restored farmhouse which now houses an array of exhibitions, audio-visual displays & a library of information on the man, pioneer life, maori culture & the impact Irish immigrants had on New Zealand.   Ballance held the Prime Minister's office during 1891-1893; he is recognized as the architect of the welfare state in New Zealand, which is still going strong today.    Ironically, I live just 60kms north of a little settlement called Glenavy, in NZ.  Now I know where it got its name!

Arriving at my cousins home on the outskirts of Belfast after 5pm, I  had just enough time to have a quick Skype chat with Audrey's two sisters, both of whom live in Vancouver now, before heading out the door for dinner at the Crawfordsburn Inn, near Helen's Bay.
Crawfordsburn, Co. Down
Crawfordsburn is a small picturesque tudor town in County Down & lies between Holywood [for golfing fans, that's Rory McIroy's home village] & Bangor on the outskirts of Belfast.

The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn has been in existence since the 17th century. Records show this building to have been standing in its present form since 1614.   The thatched portion of The Old Inn is the most ancient part of the Inn. 

The Old Inn, Crawfordsburn, Co. Down
My meal at The Old Inn, was superb & was a lovely place to unwind with Audrey & Ray who had been so kind to us & made us feel so welcome.  I hope they're prepared for me coming back again.... and again in the future!?  I've loved this place.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A Giant with a Cause

Driving the scenic, breathtaking, Causeway Coastal Route in the most northern tip of Northern Ireland is a stunning experience & one not to be missed.  Not only littered with beautiful coast lines, but white sandy bays, cliff edge castles, golf courses & strange hexagonal columns.
Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
Just 4.5km from Portrush heading north, Dunluce Castle perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, comes in to view.    Built 30 metres above the Atlantic and isolated from the mainland by a 6-metre chasm, Dunluce dates back to the 1200s although much of the castle was built after that time.

Dunluce Castle, Coastal Antrim, Northern Ireland
Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim
Every castle has a tale to tell it seems & one of this castles stories occurred in 1639 during dinnertime while a mighty storm raged outside it's thick walls.   Suddenly, part of the castle falls off the cliff & in to the ocean below, taking the kitchen quarters & the kitchen staff with it.  Yikes! 
Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim

Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim
Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

Just up the road from Dunluce, we come across Northern Ireland's most visited tourist attraction, the Giants Causeway. In New Zealand we have coastal shore phenomenons too, in the form of the Punakaiki Rocks & the Moeraki Boulders. Here in Ireland they have the Giants Causeway

The Giant's Causeway, Co. Antrim
Currently, the Causeway's Visitors Centre is undergoing major redevelopment [due open in July 2012] & car parks around the centre are limited to just a few.  We were directed to a carpark down the road & caught a shuttle bus back to the site.

Giants Causeway, Co. Antrim
From the Visitors centre we took the 20 minute walk down to the Causeway.  It was a popular option  & one not to be rushed as it was such a warm day, there was not a cloud in the sky & the scenery was beautiful.  Initially there is a steep downhill section but then it levels out to follow the coastline.   Mercifully, when we arrived at the Causeway, I see a bus picking up people to ferry them back up to the Visitors Centre.  That steep incline back, had been worrying me.  The bus trip will cost you £2. 
Giant's Causeway, Co. Antrim
The Causeway rocks really are spectacular & much more exciting up close than even the pictures I've seen of them in the past.  The Causeway consists of thousands of basalt rock pillars, mostly hexagonal in shape & its believed, up to 100 meters deep in places.
The hexagonal rock forms of the Giant's Causeway, Co. Antrim
Like our Maori Legends in New Zealand, which try to explain the creations of such strange & wonderful phenomenon, Ireland too, has a Causeway Legend.
Ireland's legend involves a warrior giant named Finn McCool who needed to get back to Scotland to his lady love. Lucky for him, there happened to be a path of hexagonal stones that crossed the sea. Although the path is now mostly washed away, the stones can still be seen in the sea all the way to Scotland apparently.  

Hexagonal shaped formations at the Causeway, Co. Antrim
However, the more likely evolutionary theory is that the Causeway was formed by volcanic activity resulting in seven separate lava flows.    Geologists traditionally date these lava flows to about 60 million years ago
Hexagonal pillars at the Giants Causeway, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland
And for those who really want to wade into the debate about it's creation, there's always the Biblical explanation of what happened.
The sun was getting hotter & we still had another trek to do, this time to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, just a few kilometres up the road from the Causeway, situated between Ballycastle & Ballintoy. 
White Park Bay with Rathlin Island visible off the Coast, North Antrim Coast
We stopped briefly at White Park Bay to again marvel at the gorgeous coastal views & the bay's white sandy beach.  Rathlin Island, is clearly visible from the beach, with the distant shores of the Scottish islands of Jura and Islay beyond it.

The tiny settlement of Portbradden, White Park Bay, Co. Antrim
Portbradden, Co. Antrim
At the western end of White Park Bay is the small fishing hamlet of Portbradden. The village is home to St Gobbans, allegedly the smallest church on the island, although the building was originally built as a cow shed and used as such until the 1950s.  

Next stop, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

The view back along coast trail from the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Antrim Coast

The walk to the bridge follows the cliff path for just over a kilometre & took us a good 30 minutes... ironically it was one of the hottest days experienced here at this time of the year for quite a while, so many stops along the way were had to catch our breath.  
The path is quite steep in some places with rough steps.  The spectacular views along the way made it all worthwhile. 

View of Elephant Island from the Carrick-a-Rede Coastal Pathway, North Antrim Coast

Local fishermen have kept a rope bridge here since the mid 1600s!  I am relieved to learn that the bridge we will cross is not the original.  The rope bridge is approx. 70ft across and 100ft above the sea.  It links the mainland with the tiny Carrick Island.

The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, North Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland
Carrick a Rede Bridge, Co. Antrim
Around the final bend, your eyes catch sight of the bridge...   roped sides and 2 planks of wood.   To cross it or not, that is the question.... aww.. go on why wouldn't ya!
I have to say, it was just a little bit more scary than I was anticipating, but I made it gingerly across & then back again despite the bridge's precarious wobble.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Carrick Island, Co. Antrim
The area really is beautiful.  The geology, flora and fauna have won Carrick-a-Rede many accolades.  For the bird watcher, it's a small paradise.

Birds resting on the rock face of Carrick Island nr. the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
The walk back was even more arduous as we'd both had, dare I say it, a tad too much sun by this stage - I arrived back to the car, red faced & panting like a puppy after rounding up a mob of sheep! 

On the drive back to Portrush we drove through Ballintoy as I'd heard of a Dolmen known as the Druid's Altar being near here but unfortunately, we just couldn't seem to find it, despite a couple of enquiries with local folk.  I later learned that it may have been on land some-where near White Park Bay. 

Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, Bushmills, Co. Antrim
We pass through Bushmills on the way back & decided to stop in at the famous Distillery for a look.  It was now too late for a guided tour, but we get to have a meander around the gift shop where a full range of the famous Bushmills Whiskey is on display for purchase.

It'd been a stunning day & when the sun is shining there is no place to compare to the north Antrim coast

Back in Portrush, we decide to have another meal at the Ramada Inn restaurant & retire for an early night.  There's only two more nights sleep left before we are winging our way back home to New Zealand & neither of us are looking forward to that long haul flight home again.

Small park across street from the Ramada Inn, Portrush, Co. Antrim
View from our accommodation at the Ramada Inn, Portrush, Co. Antrim