Northern Ireland - Coast, castles, emerald beauty

Northern Ireland - Coast, castles, emerald beauty

From the reinvented and rejuvenated city of Belfast with its Victorian splendour, intriguing modern buildings and historic Titanic Quarter to the castles of Carrickfergus and Dunluce, through the lush deep green landscapes of Antrim with its delightful glens and stunning coastline. Marvel at the world famous Giants Causeway and travel along the dramatic and beautiful coast road, walk the walls of Derry and cross the Peace Bridge, visit whiskey distilleries and then head to the foreboding Dark Hedges, made famous by the TV series "Game of Thrones".

There are two routes available by ferry from Great Britain over to Northern Ireland. The shorter crossing of two and a quarter hours is from Cairnryan, just outside Stranraer on the south-west tip of Scotland to Belfast. There is also a ferry service from Cairnryan to Larne, just north of Belfast. The alternative sailing is from Liverpool which takes eight hours and could be done as an overnight journey. The ferry terminal is right in Belfast Harbour so once you are off the ship you are in the city.

Make your way to the Titanic Quarter car park just off Queens Road and start your visit with a look at one of the city's newest museums, Titanic Belfast. The large silver building's similarly to a huge iceberg was not intentional! This area is the rejuvenated former docklands area, associated with Harland and Wolff. The Titanic, along with her sister ships, the earlier Olympic and the later Britannic were constructed here. In many ways the Titanic was an Irish ship, albeit registered in Liverpool. Many of its crew were Irish, as were many of the ship's passengers and its last port of call was in Ireland before it sailed off the Irish coast to its fate. Learn of the history of all three ships and how they were built, look at life of a shipworker in Belfast and the careers of these ships at sea. Bear in mind that only the Olympic had a full working life, the Britannic sank in 1916 after hitting a mine while operating as a hospital ship. And the fate of the Titanic along with the stories about her crew and passengers are all very well known. As you may well have expected, most of the museum is dedicated to the RMS Titanic with nine galleries of exhibitions and displays of artifacts and replicas. There is also a chance to buy a combined ticket covering the museum and the open-top guided bus tour provided by City Sightseeing. This will enable you to leave the campervan in the car park and explore the city by tour bus and on foot.

There is no need to leave the Titanic Quarter just yet. Just a short walk away is the Titanic Dock and Pump House where you can see the huge dry dock where she was built then walk down to its vast open floor, then visit the adjacent Pump House with its audio-visual exhibitions  on Belfast's maritime history. Head over to the World War One battleship HMS Caroline which you can step aboard for a tour. 

If you decide to drive around Belfast then after you leave the Titanic Quarter drive underneath the M3 and head eastwards on Newtownards Road over to the Northern Ireland Assembly buildings at Stormont. The Stormont Estate includes these buildings along with Stormont Castle and the open spaces and grounds between them. The grand buildings of the Northern Ireland Assembly were built for the Parliament of Northern Ireland after the partition of Ireland in 1921. The large Neoclassical designed building by the architect Sir Arnold Thornely was completed in 1932 in Portland stone and opened by the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII. Stormont Castle dates from the 1830s and was purchased in 1921 by Parliament for use by the government. It is not open to the public.

Parking at Upper Newtownards Road allows you to walk up the Prince of Wales drive to the Stormont buildings. Alternatively there is parking much nearer if you didn't want to walk. You can then return to the city centre for further exploration.

One of the best located central car parks is the Station Street car park on Station Street where you can walk across the River Lagan on Queen's Bridge to the centre or use the car park on the A24 Cromac Street, a little closer to the the heart of Belfast.

Relax in the 28 acres of Belfast's Botanical Gardens opened in 1828 and drop into the Palm House and Tropical Ravine House, always a delight in any weather or stroll around the rose garden if the weather is pleasant. Located here is the Ulster Museum, opened in 1929, featuring exhibitions on anthropology, archeology along with botany, zoology and wildlife. Irish art and textiles are also represented.

In Donegal Street you will find the the Protestant St Anne's Cathedral. Built on the site of an earlier church, St Anne's dates from 1899 - 1904 and is in a Romanesque revival style with early 20th century additions and a stainless steel spire. This is known as the Spire of Hope, added in 2007 to a height of 131 ft (40m). There is a memorial inside to the 1,517 lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Over in East Bridge Street is the vibrant St George's Market, built in 1890 with an overall cast-iron roof. Over 300 traders and food vendors are at your service. Different days have different specialties, for example fruit and vegetables on Fridays and antiques on Sundays, but there is always a varied choice on offer for lunch or a snack. From the market take a walk up May Street to the monumental Belfast City Hall built from 1898 to 1906 with war memorials and a monument to the Titanic disaster within the grounds.

The road south of City Hall is the A1, known here as Grosvenor Road. This will be the road to drive along to leave the centre of Belfast for the Falls Road area. Stay on Grosvenor Road, over the A12 link road and then turn right on Collingtree Road and left on Albert Street to St Peter's Roman Catholic cathedral which will come up on your right at St Peter's Square. The cathedral is in a rather muted Gothic and was built in the 1860s. This is the easternmost end of the Falls Road district and is known as the Lower Falls Road. Turn onto Falls Road westwards to take a journey past the murals.

The Bobby Sands mural stands on the corner of Falls Road and Sevastapol Street and is probably the most well known, also if you wish to see the one of the  Peace Walls then head off the Falls Road just after you have left St Peter's and turn right up North Howard Street and left on Cupar Way. This wall was initially built in 1969 to divide unionist and republican areas and like many other peace walls in the city has been highly decorated with murals, motifs and graffiti. A journey down the Falls Road, being predominantly republican and nationalist will reflect that in the murals, then returning into the centre along Shankill Road, being a community largely made up of loyalist and unionists will see different themes on their murals.

At the end of Shankill Road turn left on North Boundary Street and continue northwards on Denmark Street to the Carlisle Circus roundabout to head north on the Antrim Road A6 to Belfast Castle. This grand house in the Scottish Baronial style of architecture was built around 1870 on the site of numerous earlier fortifications going back to Norman times. The surrounding grounds are known as Cave Hill Country Park and include an adventure playground, landscaped gardens, fine views over Belfast and, as the name suggests, a number of caves.

Returning to the A6, make a turn down Grays Lane which cuts down to Shore Road. Turn left here and follow Shore Road to Carrickfergus. The is the A2 and it runs alongside the north shore of Belfast Lough to the town of Carrickfergus. The castle here is one of the best preserved and complete medieval structures in Northern Ireland, dominating the landscape that surrounds it.

Built in the late 12th century by Anglo-Norman knight Sir John de Courcy so that he could control the bay and the land around it, the castle was eventually wrestled from the Ulster Norman rulers by King John of England. From then on it became the principal fortress and residence for English Kings in the northern part of Ireland. During the Napoleonic Wars it was used as a prison. Since 1928 its military use has ended and it is now open to the public to visit. Tours are self-guided and entry includes visiting the Great Hall that lies within the keep and the walls, towers and battlements. 

Just a little further east on the A2 make a turn left heading northwards on the B149 which will be signposted for Glenoe. You will drive through lush deep green farmland to the pretty white cottages of the village of Glenoe with its spectacular waterfall. There is a National Trust car park in the village but it is quite small and you may find that you have to park a little way outside. However if you do get the chance to park the vehicle you will be rewarded with a delightful woodland walk, with quite a few steps upwards, to the 30ft (10m) high waterfall, about a mile (1.6km) from the car park. You will be following the babbling River Glynn up to the falls and a little further on is the old church of St Columba, built in 1842, a short way along the gorge. There is a cafe in the village for refreshments.

Now join the B99 just north of the village for a drive through fields of gorse and woodland down to Glynn where you turn left, picking up the A2 again towards Larne. As you enter the port of Larne you will be able to follow the brown tourist signs saying Causeway Coastal Route. This will keep you on the A2 on a visually stunning drive following the Antrim shoreline. You will also encounter many place names begining with the prefix Bally, this is Gaelic and simply means a settlement or "the place of".

This drive is up here with the world's most scenic routes, dramatic and astounding with spectacular landscapes and dazzling views.  Drive under the Black Arch, blasted out of the rock almost 200 years ago to start this wondrous journey. Look out for the Devil's Churn just on the edge of the shore on your right. Impressive rock formations and jaw-dropping coastal views on one side and verdant green rolling hills and gorse-enshrouded moorland on the other.

A worthwhile stop can be made at Glenarm Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls of Antrim. Like Belfast Castle, this building is far more of a stately house rather than a fortress and dates from the 17th century. There is a beautiful walled garden plus numerous woodland walks as well as house tours and a heritage centre. Children will love the "self-drive" mini electric Land Rovers that they can drive along an adventure course.

After a break here, continue on this spellbinding and spectacular coast road northwards. At Carnlough you can bear off right to the harbour and take a short hike following the old railway line inland to long abandoned Gortin Quarry. From there it is a little further on to get to Cranny Falls. Being an old dismantled railway route, the incline is gentle with signboards giving information about the history of the area on the way. The falls are about 22 feet (7m) high and the walk will be about 2 miles (4.8km) there and back. Dont forget to relax a while on the lovely beach before you leave.

A little further on, as you pass the meeting point of three of the Glens of Antrim at Cushendall, you are just 16 miles (30km) off the coast of Scotland. Note the old Curfew Tower in the centre of the village, built in 1817 to hold drunks, petty thieves and na'er-do-wells. Just after the village, bear right following signs for Knocknacarry and the Torr Head Scenic Route.

Take the B92 Knocknacarry Road through Knocknacarry and onto the village of Cushendun but turn right immediately before the bridge then find a parking place in the lay-by to the left, facing the ocean. A short walk from here will take you to Cushendun Caves, formed 400 million years ago and used as a filming location in the TV series Game of Thrones. There is a Game of Thrones information board in situ once you arrive at the cave entrance. You can wander inside and climb along some of the rock formations as the water laps below.

Head back and over the bridge that crosses the River Dun and drive through Cushendun village, picking up signs for Ballycastle on the B92 to get back onto the A2. The town of Ballycastle is the start of a chorus line of castles, distilleries and natural wonders all the way westwards to Portrush, however if you are a fan of Game of Thrones then you need to head inland from here. Drive along Quay Road then head off the A2 onto the Coleraine Road (A44) then bear right when the road forks, continuing towards Coleraine on the B67 to what is now the world famous Dark Hedges.

Don't expect huge tourist signs pointing towards a Game of Thrones Filming Location or even a sign for the Kings Road, the role it played in the TV series. Instead take the B67 for a few miles towards the B147 and bear left up a slip road. Don't contine under the old stone bridge, this is known locally as the Dry Arch and if you go under it you have missed your turn! On the B147 you follow signs for Ballymoney, so turn left and contine a mile or so further on. Again there are no signposts so be ready to make a left turn, just after the Bell Tower Hotel and Spa, onto Bregagh Road and you've hit the spot!

This avenue of twisted Beech trees planted 250 years ago is visited by Games of Thrones fans the world over. First of all drive along the road all the way to the end. Here you will find a parking space on your right. Then, if you wish, walk back and explore the "King's Road" at a slower pace. To make a round trip continue east on the Bregagh Road, left on the Ballykenver Road and left on the A44 back to Ballycastle.

Head back in again on Quay Road and at the roundabout head straight on to the quayside. Boat excursions leave from here and head out to the northernmost point of Northern Ireland, that of Raithin Island. This beautiful and idyllic place is a popular day trip from Ballycastle, people enjoy the tranquility of this island, its seabird breeding colonies, stunning cliffs and its enticing little harbour. The express boat takes half an hour, the larger car carrying ones take 90 minutes to make the six mile journey. Only vehicles with special island passes are allowed on the car ferry so leave the campervan behind. Just over a hundred people live on this 4-mile long island, many would be descendents of those who used to work here in the kelp industry which has all but died out now. In legend, this is where in 1306 Scottish King Robert the Bruce is said to have watched the perseverance of a spider spinning and failing to create a web while he took refuge in a sea cave on the island. The spider succeeded on his seventh attempt thus inspiring The Bruce to return to Scotland and fight the English King, Edward the First.

Back in Ballycastle, pick up signs again for the Causeway Coastal Route and turn westwards out of the marina and harbour area, through the centre following the B15. Take this up hill and out of the town and take a right after a couple of miles, following the brown tourist signs for Kinbane Castle along Whitepark Road.

There isn't a lot left of this 16th century fortress but one doesn't come here to climb towers and visit dungeons. This is a dramatic, windswept section of coastline which provides excellent photo opportunities. There is a narrow steep path up to the remains of the structure and great views out across the sea to Raithin Island.

Continue west on the B15 and prepare yourself for the next stop, for now is time to test your head for heights by crossing the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge suspended almost 100ft (30m) above the ocean. A swaying walkway linking the mainland with the tiny island of Carrickarede. The brown sign will direct you to take a right at the bend in the main road.

The island was considered an excellent place for salmon fishing and over the centuries there have been many precarious rope bridges crossing from cliff to cliff. Today's bridge is the sturdiest of them all and thousands of tourists now make the short journey. However, there is a charge to cross over to the island.

Continue west, joining the A2 then turning right following signs for Dunseverick, the Causeway Coastal Route and Giants Causeway on the B146. Just after Dunseverick village you will find a lay-by on the left. Park here and cross the road. You should make out a path and a wooden bridge which will take you on a short walk to Dunseverick Falls, a delightful cascade of water crashing down into the sea. A breathtaking location, and not often visited by tourists. Nearby is Dunseverick Castle which you can get to by walking the coast path or driving onwards to the next lay-by on your right. Only a section of the gatehouse remains, the rest of the castle destroyed in the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century. Nevertheless it is another dramatic and photogenic location.

From here continue west on the Causeway Road with the coast on your righthand side. Eventually you will start to drop down to the clifftops and the car parks, cafes and guest houses that cluster around the edge of one of the most popular visitor locations in Northern Ireland, Giant's Causeway.

This incredible natural wonder is a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed about 60 million years ago. In legend it was the Irish giant Fionn who built a causeway across the ocean to fight his rival, the Scottish giant Benandonner. This awe-inspiring landscape is free to roam around but parking is only available for those visiting the Giant's Causeway Visitor Experience. A ticket purchased here will include the Visitor Centre, audio tour, option of a live guided tour and the parking costs.

A short drive from here will take you back on the A2 to the village of Bushmills and its 400 year old whiskey distillery. Although a licence was granted to produce whiskey in Bushmills back in 1608 the present distillery was founded in 1784. Drive through the village on Main Street and the distillery parking area will be on your left. Bushmills is the oldest licensed distillery in the world and produces a legendary triple-distilled single malt whiskey. Tours are available every day with limited opening hours on Sunday.

One of Northern Ireland's most spectacular ruined castles is just north west of Bushmills on the A2. The dramatic and foreboding Dunluce Castle stands on rugged clifftops above an angry sea. Built in the early 16th century it soon became a stronghold of the mighty MacDonald Clan who also ruled the western lands of Scotland as Lord of the Isles. They were later to become Earls of Antrim. Its almost impregnable clifftop location surrounded by sheer drops on three sides made it an essential fortress to any occupier. The decline of the castle began after the defeat of James II and VII at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Alexander MacDonald had fought for James, the exiled Catholic monarch, resulting in his lands being forfeit. The impressive ruins are open to explore as are stunning coastal walks all the way to either Giant's Causeway eastwards or Portrush westwards. 

Driving to Portrush, you will continue west on the A2, past the golf course to your right and into the town, turning left at the roundabout onto Crocknamack Road and right to the Dunluce Avenue car park. This former fishing village, nestled on a promontory, is picturesque in parts but also quite lively and vibrant with a busy promanade and fun fair.

Its strategic location saw the Portrush peninsula fortified as early as the 13th century although nothing survives from this time, not even its castle. Its main industry was fishing and later tourism with its proximity to Giants Causeway, the two locations being linked by an electric tourist railway, and the setting up of the Portrush Royal Golf Club in 1888. Attractions today include the indoor water park known as Waterworld, Barry's Amusements featuring rollercoasters, carousels and dodgems plus two long sandy beaches, West Strand and East Strand.

The charming Portrush Harbour was built in 1827, largely to serve the steamers travelling over from Scotland. Today it is far quieter,  and as a further chance to get away from the crowds you can walk from here to Whiterocks Beach and on to Ramore Head at the very end of the peninsula. There are nature walks, a children's adventure playground and lovely coastal views to be enjoyed.

From Portrush the A2 continues out of County Antrim into County Londonderry to the picturesque seaside resort of Portstewart with its sandy beach and fine Atlantic views, then the A2 heads south to the town of Coleraine where you cross the River Bann and pick up the A29 westwards out of the town and the A37 at the roundabout following signs for Londonderry, rejoined the A2 at the roundabout at Limavady. The A2 then heads west, just at the foot of Lough Foyle and into Derry/Londonderry itself which stands at the mouth of the River Foyle. The A2 will take you straight into the heart of the city, cross the River Foyle on the Craigavon Bridge and turn right down towards the Foyle Road car park.

The name of the city in Gaelic is Doire (meaning oak woods) and Derry is the preferred name to many of the inhabitants along with their neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. The name of Londonderry can be traced back to the Flight of the Earls in 1607. To put it very simply, the native Gaelic Earls of Ireland had welcomed a Spanish Catholic backed plan to consolidate their power in these parts, when that failed they fled to the continent and their lands were seized. King James I and VI then introduced new Protestant settlers (or "planters") from England and Scotland. Although there was a lot of resentment to this, especially amongst Catholic communities, some settlers were welcomed by the locals as they were to bring prosperity and stability to the area. In recognition of the investment brought to Derry by the London livery companies the name of the city was changed to Londonderry in 1613. The city also has the alias "the Maiden City".

The walls around the city were built at this time and it is one of the major attractions, being one of the most complete walled cities in Europe. The walk will be about a mile in length (1.6km). Walk up Hawkin Street from the car park then walk under the arch, turning right on Artillery Street. Here you will find steps up to the walls. 24 original canon, restored in 2005, can be seen at various points along the fortifications, including Roaring Meg, a seige gun used in the 1689 Seige of Derry, and so named because of its loud roar.

The Seige Museum can be found at the north west corner of the walls on Society Street. It is a small but interesting exhibition on the brutal conditions suffered by the townspeople during the seige by Jacobite forces under the exiled King James II and VII from December 1688, then later over a three and a half month period when the seige was heavily enforced in 1689. Thousands were to die of starvation and disease.

More artifacts and information about the Seige can be found in St Columb's cathedral, one of the city's most historic buildings, constructed as a Protestant church in 1633 in a style known as Planter Gothic. The cathedral is just a few minutes walk from the museum.

On the riverside section of the walls one can find the Tower Museum, featuring two exhibitions, one on the history of Derry and one about an Armada shipwreck, that of the La Trinidad Valencera which sank off the Donegal coast in 1588. The building does look rather old and was built on the site of O'Doherty's Tower which was set within the 17th century walls, but this museum building was actually constructed in the 1990s. It also has a spiral staircase which takes you up to the roof to enjoy panoramic views over the city and river.

Derry's more recent history concerns Bloody Sunday and the Bogside riots. This area, just north of the walls features a large number of the Derry Murals which decorate this district and other parts of the city. Back in 1969 it was this area that started to see an increase in violence, the beginning of a period known as "the Troubles" with fighting between Unionists and Catholics. The nearby Museum of Free Derry in Glenfada Park is centred on explaining the background to this. Unlike many other museums the Museum of Free Derry deals with conflicts, civil rights movements and political and religious unrest that are still within living memory, and indeed the memories of those that live on in the area. Central to this are the events of 30th January 1972, where unarmed civilians were shot and killed on what is now known as Bloody Sunday.

Moving on from here and looking forwards to a more harmonious future, the Peace Flame in the middle of the grassy square on Foyle Street and the sweeping spectacle of the Peace Bridge are attesting to this. The Peace Bridge was opened in 2011 to link largely Protestant and Catholic sides of the city.

From Londonderry/Derry you will now head east back towards Belfast. Take the A6 towards the shores of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, with a surface area of 151 square miles (391 square km) and onto the M22 and M2 into Belfast. However if you branch off the M22 at Junction 2 you can head down Castle Road to visit the historic town of Antrim.

Here you will find a pleasant town on the shores of Lough Neagh. On Steeple Road you will find a 90ft (28m) monastic Round Tower, dating from the 10th century, so typical of Ireland and used at one time as a belfry. The delightful Castle Gardens, on the banks of Six Mile Water, date back 400 years with parterres and Yew hedge borders, historic Clotworthy House is the centrepiece, built in 1843 in the Jacobean revival style. The riverside location and the delightful Deerpark Bridge adds to the beauty of this place. For town centre parking use the free parking at Castle Mall, allowing you to explore the town as well.