Towns / Cities Visited: 83
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 16,904
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,703,468
We awoke to the morning sun of this sleepy country town streaming in through the paper thin curtains of the hostel, and our dorm mate clattering around to leave, much earlier than we had hoped to rise. No matter though, we had a big day ahead of us, and before long we were up and checked out. We would later be returning to Ballintoy and its beautiful harbour, but first we had an early scheduled entrance to make at the biggest attraction this side of Ireland; Giant’s Causeway. As we parked, we were immediately thankful that we had chosen an early time slot, as the carpark was already filling up quick, with both cars, and tour buses. Entering the visitor centre, we collected our tickets, and began our visit by exploring the informative and interactive displays they have inside. Here you can learn everything from how the tens of thousands of interlocking basalt columns that make up the sight were pushed up from an ancient volcanic fissure millions of years ago, to the plant and wildlife that calls this place home today.
With our mind full of facts and figures, we picked up our audioguides and headed on down the path. Now you can choose whether you want the guide to show you around and tell you all about the geological aspects of the sight, or whether you would prefer to hear the myths and legends connected with this place, and about the history of the people around here. We inevitably chose the latter, hopping to hear why and how this sight got its rather mythical name. As we traversed the first part of the walk, passing by large mounds of volcanic rock, now covered in grass, our guide told us the tale behind the name. According to Gaelic mythology the basalt columns are the remains of a causeway build by giants. The story goes that an Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn MacCool in English), was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across to Scotland so that they could meet. When Benandonner arrived, Finn hid, realising that his opponent was much larger than he. Luckily Finn’s wife Oonagh came to save him by bundling him up into a cradle and pretending he was a baby. Benandonner, seeing the baby, became frightened that Finn must be enormous if that’s the size of his son, and fled back to Scotland in fear, destroying the causeway as he went. Although this is obviously all fiction, the story probably derives from the fact that there is also basalt columns identical to the ones here, on the Scottish isle of Staffa; thus the idea that they used to be connected was born.
A short walk, and a few more giant related legends later, we finally arrived at the main event. As you draw closer, you begin to realise just how other-worldly this formation appears. These basalt columns are, for the most part, hexagonal, although the number of sides varies from anything from three to eight sides. Their geometric shape was caused by the way the molten rock cooled and cracked as it was slowly extruded into the ocean then pushed upwards, but the result looks almost manmade. The rocks both grew and eroded at different rates and thus the causeway itself is made from an undulation on different heights, anything from a couple of feet, to 12 metres (once you include the amount that’s hidden underwater). Reaching the edge we stepped onto the rocks, and preceded to spend the next half hour or so clambering around, admiring both the columns, and the stunning view out to sea. Its hard to explain the majesty of this place, but I hope the photos give you some idea.
Eventually we continued, and as we went further, and began the climb up the hill to take the path back, we passed a few other rock formations with their own legends attached to them; from the Giant’s Boot, named as such because of it uncanny resemblance to a giant shoe; to the Organ, which is another formation if these basalt columns up on the hillside which resemble, funnily enough, a series of organ pipes. As we hiked up the hill our audioguide told us all about the fisherman who used to live and work around here, as well as the little stall owners who used to sell food and trinkets to tourists here in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Unsurprisingly this place has been a popular attraction for centuries, and as we followed the high road back to the carpark, and looked down on this place, and its spectacular view, once more, its easy to see that it will continue to draw and fascinate people for centuries to come.
Hopping in the car, we made our way back down to the harbour of the tiny town of Ballintoy. What was the draw, you ask. Well you see, they used this harbour in the filming of Game of Thrones. As well as being used for some scenes on Dragonstone, it is probably most recognisable as the spot where Theon Greyjoy arrived when he returned to the Iron Islands after he escaped from the clutches of Ramsay Bolton, and also where he was baptised inthe name of the Drowned God. It was only a quick stop, but we took a moment to bask in the ominous look of this rocky cove, and the dark clouds looming overhead.
Before long we were on our way again, off to our next stop; Dunluce Castle. As we arrived, and walked towards it, it became blaringly obvious why this castle was used, with the help of some CGI, as the House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. The castle began being built in the 13th century by Richard Burgh, the 2nd Earl of Ulster, but changed hands to the McQuillans and later to the MacDonalds, and was added to extensively up until the 19th century. Its position is truly imposing, perched high upon a basalt outcrop, jutting out to sea, the two parts of it connected by a relatively new wooden bridge, set atop a truly historic old stone bride arch.
Excitedly, we made our way to the visitor centre, grabbing tickets and plunging headfirst into this fascinating place. As you wander around it is easy to spot different eras of architecture, and with a little help from the site map, you are able to identify the purposes of the now roofless crumbing walls. The area before the bridge was used mainly by servants, and held the stables, and a few rooms for accommodation. Across the bridge, on the other hand, was the domain of the noble families which resided there. There are still many noticeable structures, from the remains of a 19th century bay window, to many fireplaces and chimneys. One of the reasons it was abandoned becomes obvious when you reach the end of the farthest room, which is now just a safety rail, given the fact that the entire back wall collapsed into the ocean along with the rock which was holding it up. Clifftop castles always seem like a good idea until mother nature decides to redecorate her shoreline.
A good hour of exploring later, and we found ourselves a bit peckish. Deciding we should eat before our last destination and the drive back to Belfast, we stepped into the tiny café just across the road; The Wee Cottage, the most Irish name for a place if ever I’ve heard one. Walking in the door, it was like stepping into your Nan’s house, with mismatched couches, wooden tables topped with red and white checkered table cloths, shelves filled with knick knacks, and a table numbering system which involved being handed a numbered wooden spoon. It is a quaint little place run by two older sisters and one of their daughters, and as if it needed to feel like being at home more, the air was often filled with the sound of the two sisters jibing at each other. The food was homely but delicious, and we enjoyed our soup and sandwiches so much we decided to order tea and scones as well. Now as I am writing this some time after the fact, and with the hindsight of all of the other scones we ate on our journey around the UK, which will be the topic of the next six weeks worth of blogs, I can say confidently that this perfectly cooked, fresh, fluffy, warm specimen, topped generously with homemade raspberry jam, cream, and fresh strawberries, were the best we had on the entire trip, bar none. And when I think about it, it doesn’t seem surprising at all that this tiny out of the way café would have the best ones; the ones cooked fresh throughout the day (something you just can’t do in a bustling inner city tea room); the ones made with the love only a small family business can provide. So I beseech you, if you ever find yourself at that end of the world, and you’re feeling like a spot of tea, duck into the Wee Cottage and have a scone for me.
More than content, we tumbled back into the car and made our way to the last of our visitor attractions in this stunning little country; the Dark Hedges. After driving around a little, we saw signs for a place to park if you are visiting the hedges, so we headed in. Following the signs down a lane and onto the road, we crossed an intersection, and discovered why we had been directed into a carpark. You see, aside from local traffic, you are not permitted to drive down the road where the Dark Hedges stand. An apt choice considering the number of people wandering on the road. Now, trust me, the Dark Hedges sounds a lot more foreboding than it actually is; which is an avenue of beech trees planted in 1775 by James Stuart, to create an impressive entrance up to his estate. Although the estate does not remain, the trees most certainly do, and with more than 200 years of growth on their side, they reach high into the sky, leaning over the road until they intertwine; creating a truly stunning natural tunnel. This beautiful place was also used in the filming of a number of things, including, surprise surprise, Game of Thrones, where it was used as park of the King’s Road. I’m sure they are much more imposing when their branches are naked in the winter months, but we were treated to the intense beauty of their lush green foliage as we wandered amongst the other tourists. Now, naturally, not everyone actually pays attention to the traffic signs, and there was more than once we all had to step aside as a car of selfish sightseers, leaning out of their window with their Iphones taking pictures, drove past. If you could manage to ignore the random cars and the other tourists though, it was actually a rather relaxing walk, with bright green farmland sprawling out on either side.
By now our visit to this wonderful corner of the world was at an end, and we jumped in the car and drove back to Belfast, sad that we would be bidding farewell to a place we had loved so much. Before long we were hopping onto our short flight across to London. At this point it seems poignant to point our the massive security flaw in border control here, as we were not required to show our passports when we took the train into Northern Ireland from Dublin, and yet we also did not have them checked as we boarded our domestic flight across to England. Meaning that we entered the UK without any formal checks. Not that we are people to be worried about in this situation, but it did seem like a remarkable fault in the system.
The flight was short and sweet, and before long we were meeting up with Tony, my first cousin once removed, and his wife Lisa, who live close to Heathrow Airport, and were kind enough not only to pick us up, but to put us up at their house for a few days while we did some sightseeing south of London. It was nice to finally be meeting some of the family I have on this side of the world, especially seeing as there are quite a number of them, and I had previously only met one of my English family members in the entirety of the 27 years I have been alive. They were kind and welcoming, and we made a quick trip to the shops, and whipped ourselves up a quick meal before bidding them good night.
As I reflected on our trip so far, I came to the realisation that coming and going from so many places, and having to stay with and meet so many new people, I have grown to be somewhat less anxious socially. That’s not to say that the pang of anxiety wasn’t in the pit of my stomach as we walked up to Tony and Lisa, but I have come to be more capable of controlling and understanding that fear. Much like everything in life, education and repetition breeds tolerance, and I am thankful for all of the ways this trip has helped me grow so far as a person. I will most likely always be shy and reserved by nature, but I have grown to learn how to approach social situations I would otherwise avoid altogether. I know its cliche to say that travelling changes you, but I guess I am surprised in the ways in which it has done so in regards to my mental illnesses. That’s not to say they are being cured by travel, and I doubt they ever will go away, but my experiences so far have helped me to learn new coping mechanisms, and learn more about my mental state than is possible in a highly routine work life. I have come to accept the fact that perhaps my social anxiety in crowds is more akin to sensory overload, than textbook anxiety, and in discovering and acknowledging that, I have been able to find better ways of identifying and combating the resulting stress. I have grown more confident in who I am as a person, and the years of being told that I am cold and stuck up, are being melted away by the people I have met who have thought me to be warm and friendly. The scars left by the harsh words of my past, are being healed by the growth of my present state, and for this I am, and will continue to be, intensely and eternally grateful.