The North Remembers
Towns / Cities Visited: 82
Countries Visited: 21
Steps Taken Today: 19,426
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,686,564
An early start saw us up and catching a taxi out to the docks to collect our hire car for the next couple of days. With a refreshingly quick and painless pick up, we were soon on our way. Before we left Belfast though, we had one last thing we wanted to visit, as solemn as it would be; the Peace Line. For those of you who don’t know anything about the history of Northern Ireland; much like Berlin, Belfast (and other parts of Northern Ireland) have been split in two by a wall. You see after Northern Ireland broke off from Ireland after the fight for independence there was a lot of tension between those who thought that Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom (most of whom were protestants), and those who thought they should break away and make a united Ireland with the south (most of whom were Catholic). Although it isn’t technically a religious conflict, the difference in opinion, for the most part, co-relates with their religious beliefs and thus the idea has stuck. The conflict, known widely as The Troubles, began during a campaign to end discrimination against the Republican minority, and over the decades has seen many riots and protests. Although a peace agreement was signed in 1998, the conflict still continues, albeit much less widespread. Unlike most conflicts though, this one resulted in the death toll made up of majority civilians, and most of the violence has been classed as guerrilla warfare. It truly has been brother against brother, not soldier against soldier.
As we arrived and parked the car we made our way along the road that separates the two sides; one side flanked by barbed wire topped wire fencing, through which there sits an inordinate amount of homes sporting an almost provocative British Flag, and on the other side a solid wall at least 10 feet tall, topped with another level of solid metal sheeting, and atop this sits a third level made of wire fencing. Although violence in this conflict has died down for the most part, there is still a lot of tension, especially with the older generations. The section we were visiting has gates at either end which allow people to travel between the two sides during the day, but are closed at night. It seems strange in this day and age to see a first world country still having to separate its people in this manner, like holding apart quarreling children who just can’t seem to get along. Much like the Berlin wall now, this solid wall on the Irish Republicans side sports a large selection of poignant artworks, many of which call for unity and peace, or otherwise depict images in support of other nations which are struggling for freedom from oppression. There are also a number of images of famous IRA members (Irish Republican Army, a civilian group who have existed since WWI and who have played the main role in the Republicans acts of violence and defence against their Loyalist counterparts) who died in the conflict. The most noteworthy portrait being that of Bobby Sands, an IRA member who died at 27 as a result of a hunger strike he went on while imprisoned for firearm possession in 1981; he is considered a hero to those fighting on the Republican side, for his use of peaceful protest to bring the conflict to the attention of the world. The visit was quite the eye opener, and it was with heavy hearts that we hopped back in the car and drove away from this divided place.
Onwards to happier locations we headed, and eventually we found ourselves in Carrickfergus, just up the east coast of the country. Parking, we made our way towards our first location; Carrickfergus Castle. This 12th century Norman Castle was built by none other than John De Courcy; yes that same man I mentioned in my last blog who built Inch Abbey, and proclaimed himself King in the North. As we approached we were taken aback by its imposing beauty, as it sits atop a spit of land which juts out into the bay. Its easy to see why they would choose this location for a defensive structure, especially considering its commanding view of the entrance to the port. We made our way up the ramp and inside, and before long we were off exploring the cannon filled ramparts, the inner courtyard, and the keep. There are a number of painted plastic figures dressed in medieval garb, to help add depth and context to the rooms, and although none of the furniture is historic, they have done a decent job dressing it to look the part. Given that it was the school holidays, the vibe of the place was more angled towards the younger visitors, but there was still a number of information boards which gave an overview of medieval life. There was also a visitor centre which played a rather informative video about the turbulent history of the castle during the years when it was fought over by the English and the Gaelic, and changed hands several times as a result. Although this castle was not used in the filming of Game of Thrones, its history and the battles fought here had certainly put us in the mood to go and explore the other sites we had on our list for the day.
After a quick lunch we were back in the car. We had wanted to go and visit the Magheramorne Quarry, which was used to film all of the scenes in which the Nights Watchmen exit the gate in the wall and head out into the land of the wildlings in Game of Thrones. Although it looks nothing like the icy terrain it was used for, its bare stone was easily painted white, a green screen added above to digitally add the rest of the walls height, and a wooden gate built in front of an opening in the rock to appear like the fortified gate used in the show. Despite little help from Google, and after somewhat of a lengthy drive round, we finally found the entrance to the quarry site, only to find that it is closed to the public; a fact which makes sense I guess, given that the quarry is privately owned, and I doubt they want thousands of tourists wandering all over their land. Still, dismayed, we headed off down the road to our next location. Just so you understand what we had attempted to visit I’ll add a couple of photos, courtesy of the internet, of what the sight looks like.
The next stop on our coastal drive was the Cushendun Caves; a small waterside cave system used as the location for the scene where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow creature. Parking in the tiny seaside village, we followed the signs down onto the mauve tinged white pebbled beach, between the grassy mounds, and before long we stumbled upon the entrance to the cave. Its plain to see why they chose this semi-secluded location, and wandering into the short but spacious cave is was easy to imagine the scene playing out again in our minds. Film in darkness, and add some strategic torchlight and you barely have to change a thing to make this space seem ominous and forboding. Taking one last moment to drink in the quiet calm of the waves lapping at the shore, we were soon back in the car.
Arriving at our last sight for the day, we realised as we arrived that this was certainly the most popular of the Game of Thrones film locations of the batch; Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and Larrybane Chalk Quarry. Now fear not, we were not going to miss a second quarry today; in fact, this now disused coastal chalk quarry actually doubles as the overflow carpark for the bridge, and we actually found ourselves being directed to park in there. Stepping out of the car, it only takes a small stretch of the imagination to remove the cars in your head, leaving you with the backdrop for the scene where we first meet Brienne of Tarth in the show, as she wins a tournament against other knights in front of Renly Baratheon and his wife Margery. This towering white walled rectangle certainly provided the privacy the production team always sought after.
Making our way up the hill, we arrived at the ticket desk for the rope bridge and booked in for the next available group crossing. For those of you who don’t know of the bridge, it is a small wood and rope bridge originally constructed on a yearly basis, starting some 350 years ago, by salmon fisherman who used the towering rocky outcrop eroded into isolation from the cliffs, better known as Carrick Island, as an outpost for their trade. After a short wait, it was out time to head down. You see, when they say rope bridge, it really is made of rope handrails, and two planks of wood for the walkway. Of course given the fact that the traffic on it has gone from a few fishermen, to an endless parade of hefty tourists, the entire thing is reinforced with wire cabling to bear the weight. Regardless it is still only one person wide and thus the visitors must be separated into groups to allow a smooth flow of crossings back and forth, and prevent a bottleneck.
The trail to it is picturesque enough, with sweeping views of the cliffs, and a small bridge that spans a stunning crevasse. As we rounded the corner we finally caught our first glimpse of it, and lined up to cross. Now, I know I have mentioned this before, but the lack of photography based courtesy in the world these days makes my blood boil. As we waited patiently we watched person after person stop halfway across to capture their perfect photo, or get their friend to get to the other end, and take what I will assume is at least ten photos of them, while everyone else trying to cross was left either in line with us or stuck behind them on the bridge; I can only imagine how frustrating that position must have been for anyone who was a little uneasy about heights, and was left stuck in the traffic jam, unable to go neither forward nor backwards. It was clear to see we weren’t the only irked visitors, with more than a few shouting choice words at those responsible. I’m all for taking a nice photo of yourself to remember your trip, but common courtesy, which seems to be anything from common at the moment, would stipulate that you should only attempt to achieve said photo when doing so is not impeding the enjoyment of those around you.
Moving on, it was finally out turn to cross; and yes, we got stuck behind the selfie takers. As I rolled my eyes and waited for them to get out of the way my eyes wandered down past the meagre planks of wood supporting us, to the crashing waves thirty metres below. There was something soothing about the cool spray of sea water, and the primal appearance of this less than technical bridge. Eventually we made it to the other side, and we carefully picked our way around the small speck of relatively untouched land, weaving through the other visitors. The landscape was spectacular on all sides, from the view out to sea; to the towering cliffs which drop sharply into the water; to Sheep Island, another spit of land further out to sea. As everyone buzzed around posing for photos, or going dangerously close to the edge, as seems to be the other trend at the moment, we took a moment to simply sit and admire the breathtaking scenery we had found ourselves in. The time passed around us, and many people came and went before we headed back, and after a quick walk up to the viewpoint on the mainland, which provides an amazing panorama of the bridge and Carrick Island, we made our way back to our car and bid farewell to this gorgeous historic place.
We would be staying just down the road, in the small town of Ballintoy, and we were soon checked into our hostel. With no grocery store nearby, and little desire to cook after the long day, we made our way to the nearby pub, another of which we found to be sporting one of those Game of Thrones inspired carved wooden doors we had seen the day before. This makes sense considering the proximity to the chalk quarry, and the fact that the production team used Ballintoy Harbour, which we would visit in the morning, as a filming location. Walking in, the place was everything you would expect from an Irish pub in the country; dark woods, cosy feel, and friendly atmosphere. Ordering a pint, we noticed that they were running a special on mussels, with your choice of several different kinds of broth. What better place to eat a giant bowl of shellfish than next to the sea we thought, and we were right. My partner’s broth of coconut, ginger, and gin was heavenly creamy; and my chorizo, fennel,and tomato broth had a good kick of spice without overpowering the delicate flavour of the wonderfully fresh mussels. Paired with crusty bread and a cider, we left fat and happy.
As I reflected on the day, my mind wandered back to the bridge, and the fisherman who replaced and rebuilt its weathered remains every year at the start of the season; reconnecting the island with the mainland despite the danger and hardship it required. I thought about how this metaphorically reflected my attempts to maintain and reconnect relationships within my life over the years. Every year I would try rebuilding the bridge to those friends and family who had become distant or estranged by time, but often the bridge would go unused and wither again. Every year I would invite friends from my past to my birthday party, and every year none would come. Nine years I tried in vain to rekindle relationships with friends my vivid memory still held dear as though our closer times were but yesterday, and every year I was reminded that that feeling was not reciprocated; to them I was and remained a distant memory, a remembered story to tell new friends but a book that would never be picked up again. Those I would make time for would not make time for me, and it cut me every time; yet still I built the bridge to the mainland and waited in my isolation for them to come.
It is not just friends though, there are many in my family, like my father, to whom I extended this bridge year after year, and each time his responses were short and disinterested, every offer of a place to stay at my house, or eat where I was working fell on deaf ears. Every time we speak, it is as though it is two acquaintances forcing small talk; simple pleasantries and questions we ask without much care for the answer. Its these conversations that snap the ropes of the bridge, and rot away the planks; its every ‘What have you been up to?’ responded to with ‘Nothing, just working’, its every one minute phone call on Christmas that, although we haven’t spoken in a year, feels as if there’s nothing left to say; its every invitation I’ve extended to try and spend time together being RSVPed with another excuse; its the ‘Its too far away’ to the invite to a concert, or the ‘I have to work’ that left me dancing with a friend when all others danced with their fathers at the debutante ball. Despite all of this, the bridge remains, hanging treacherously over the abyss that has grown over time, and I am not free from blame in the state of things, this I freely admit, but by the same token I cannot force him to grab hold when I reach out my hand, only he can do that.
I can count on one hand the amount of people I know who have instigated a conversation with me since I left Australia nine months ago, and it is the reason when I am asked if I miss home, my answer is a swift but assured ‘No’. That’s not to say that there are not people I miss; people who help me to maintain the bridge, people who varnish the planks and repair the ropes, people who have worn their footprint into its wood with their passage to my often dark and dreary island, and come bearing light and comfort. I will not stop building these bridges though, both to those who come and to those who don’t, for this is who I am, my truest self. Even in my darkest times, the marks they left on my heart have never faded, my gratitude for their past friendship never wavering, and the hope that one day they will return never being snuffed out by the cruel hand of time. My heart is both an impregnable fortress and an open book, I keep it both deep within me and on my sleeve in equal measure. To any who dare read this and fear yourself to be one of those mentioned I wish you to know this; I am not angry, I am not resentful; I am disappointed, for disappointment it routed not in hatred but in love. The bridge still stands strong, and although the journey is often scary, I can not drag you across it unwillingly. If you ever dare to cross it, just know that I wait loyally at the other side, no matter how long it takes; a friend always.