North Antrim CoastWalking the path of giants
We are met by wonders of topography, geology and meteorology between bouts of terror where the path is especially narrow.
We set out just after midday, the grey drizzle having given way to a high, blue scrubbed sky. Clouds sail through it like galleons. Our rucksacks bulge with high-calorie provisions and our waterproofs rustle in the stiff breeze. We head coastward through pristine, prosperous and brilliantly green countryside. Spacious farmhouses sit squarely amid darkly fertile furrows, and the ubiquitous Northern Irish crows flap and squabble in the intermittent sunshine. To mitigate my anxiety at the breakneck local driving speed and total lack of pavements, I gulp the abundant oxygen. We turn right and there is a conspicuous increase in the number of tour buses zooming by. We must be approaching the Giant’s Causeway.
You can’t see the 40,000-odd 60 million year old basalt columns of the causeway from the road. The whitewashed walls of the Causeway Inn act as landmark by proxy. You don’t notice the new £18.5 million visitor centre from the road either; its sombre, black columnar façade is cut into the hillside. It sits squarely across the old footpath. Untempted by its offer of exhibition, shop, information centre, bureau de change, souvenirs, hotel, bar, and restaurant, we avoid its turnstiles and eventually get past it via a dark tunnel to the right of the plate glass entrance lobby.
Rounding a corner on the broad, smooth footpath, the full force of the Atlantic wind hits us. Waterproof trousers rattle out a furious tattoo. Lime green shuttle buses ferry tourists up and down the slope. Battered by wind and sea, the columns cluster around a small bay and suffer from varying degrees of erosion. The lowest form a patio at soil level, circular puddles in each hexagonal flagstone. The highest pillars crowd into a soaring ridge jutting out into the waves. The wind whips up devils of sea spray. Tourists clamber gamely until a particularly strong gust threatens to tumble a gaggle of Brazilian high-school students into the sea. They scramble like crabs, hopping to safety down the perfect six-sided columns. We battle the breeze, taking in the curios of millions of years of erosion; the Giant’s Boot, the Honeycomb, the Camel’s Hump. We climb the steep path to the Organ (think church organ), a shallow cave mouth bristling with columns halfway up the cliff face behind the bay. The Shepherd’s Steps snake up above it. The dozens of narrow slippery steps cut into the rock face deter all but the most determined. When we reach the top, we are alone with the bright yellow gorse, the blue sky and the turquoise sea.
We pick our way eastwards along the narrow cliff top path, barbed wire fencing to our right, a few hundred feet of empty air to our left. The wind barrels over the land and out to sea, tearing the words from our lips. We are met by wonders of topography, geology and meteorology between bouts of terror where the path is especially narrow. Mist occasionally sweeps over us, and I stop counting the rainbows at seven. We climb higher over the striated, twisted cliffs and the causeway diminishes in our memories.
Rathlin Island, home to Northern Ireland’s only permanent offshore population, is a constant companion. At the highest point of our walk, the distant southern coast of Hebridean Islay looms in the haze like a mirage. Hundreds of feet below, sheep huddle at the end of track cut into the almost vertical rockface. We stop for a picnic of bananas, chocolate and bagels. The foot-thick mattress of grass we sink into is soft as an eiderdown. A lone walker in orange Lycra strides past. We press on, shielded now from both precipice and howling wind by a thick tangle of gorse. Our pace becomes easier as we begin our slow descent. The path traces the gravelly crescent of Port Moon below us. Accessible only by sea or rope and crampons, a newly renovated bothy sits just metres from the shoreline, awaiting passing kayakers. A square remnant of castle keep squats by a square cut bay. Six concerned sheep scatter as we pass. We finally descend to sea level at the impossibly pretty Dunseverick Harbour. The sheltered sea is mirror-smooth.
A notice pinned to a fence informs us that, due to a recent landslide, the footpath has given up on us until further notice. We climb to the coastal road, fast cars pass us as we pass isolated homes with neat lawns. We look back. The cliffs are a rampart shrouded in mist. A few more kilometres and our next stop is White Park Bay. The signs send us through the carpark, past the splendidly located, white gabled youth hostel and down the steps. We are greeted with increasingly strict warnings. Swimming unsafe! Rip tides! Strong currents! No lifeguards! The path descends through dense bramble thickets. Soft-eyed woolly heifers pause from chewing to ogle us as we pass. Beyond the old hostelry, now abandoned and boarded up, the pale sand curves round its three kilometre sweep. Waves crash and suck at the shore. Further out, riptides crosshatch over one another before fading to a white horizon. We stand a while and stare.
Energy fading, we climb the steps back to the road. Our spirits are lifted by a happy, fat brown dog we meet on the way. We ponder our blisters and our last few kilometres. Every great walk (especially an Irish one) ends in the pub, and this is no exception. Snugly installed in the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, we discover champ – mashed potato with butter and scallion greens – and a novel dessert dubbed ‘strawnoffee’. We are then whisked by taxi back to our green-painted B&B, the Causeway Tavern. We marvel at how six hours’ walking takes 15 minutes by car. The Sunday skies close in. The driver switches on his windscreen wipers as we pass the Presbyterian Tabernacle. The carpark is full.
How the Causeway formed
During the geologically active period between 65 and 62 million years ago, lava flooded the site of the Giant’s Causeway during at least three distinct seismic episodes. Enough time passed between outflows for a layer of reddish lithomarge, rich in clay, iron and aluminium oxides to form between the layers of volcanic basalt. At the time the eruptions happened, the area was subtropical and connected to the eastern seaboard of America. The tectonic plate drifted slowly north. The basalt cooled slowly over millions of years, contracting and cracking. The distinctive hexagonal columns are the result. Similar formations can be seen across the world in locations as distinct as Svartifoss in Iceland, The Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (of Close Encounters of the Third Kind fame), Namibia’s Twyelfontein Organ Pipes, and Jusangjeolli on Jeju Island, South Korea.
The Causeway Coastal Route
The route takes in around 195 kilometres of dramatic coastline from Lough Foyle in the west to Belfast Lough in the east. Highlights include; the ruined 14th century Dunluce castle, built on a promontory and accessible by drawbridge; Bushmills Distillery; The Giant’s Causeway; The Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge over a 30m deep chasm; and the nine Antrim Glens.