“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant” – William Shakespeare, ‘Measure for Measure’
When visiting Northern Island there was one special place that had to be seen: The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim on the north-east coast.
The Giant’s Causeway is a geological wonder of the World consisting of about forty thousand interlocking basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption about sixty million years ago. Most of the columns are hexagonal in shape, but there are some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about twelve metres high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is nearly thirty metres thick in places. It was declared the only World Heritage Site in Northern Island by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987.
In a 2005 Radio Times poll, the Giant’s Causeway was named as the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom. The top three were the Dan Yr Ogof National Showcaves Centre in South Wales, The Cheddar Gorge in Somerset and the White Cliffs of Dover. These competitions are always subjective of course and open to challenge. I have never visited the Dan Yr Ogof National Showcaves Centre, Cheddar Gorge is worth a visit but I’m not at all sure about the White Cliffs of Dover! Making up the rest of the top ten were the Jurassic Coast, Loch Lomond, Cwm Idal, Staffa, St Kilda and Lundy Island.
We drove to The Giant’s Causeway from Belfast using the A2 coast road on a sunny day with a cloudless blue sky one February. Some people claim that this is one of the most scenic coast roads in Europe. The first town was Carrickfergus where William III landed with his troops in June 1690, was the scene of the last witchcraft trial in Ireland in 1711 and where the RMS Titanic anchored up for the last time before setting off on its fateful journey in 1912.
I was immediately struck by the beauty of the coastline and the friendly villages on the way as we passed through Ballygally, Glenarm and Cushendall, all small towns clinging to the rugged coast and with the Glens of Antrim, sculptured by the ice age, as a backdrop.
This friendliness was a revelation to me as the only images that I had in my head were those associated with the troubles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Bearing that in mind, what was helpful was that in each of the villages we passed through we knew exactly where political loyalties lay because the lamp posts were either painted red, white and blue or orange, white and green depending upon whether they were predominantly loyalist or republican.
The Scottish coast is only about twenty-five kilometres across the Irish Sea and there were good views across to snow capped mountains in the distance. We stopped frequently on the way to admire the views at the many panoramic viewing points. Finally we drove to the village of Bushmill’s, which is best known as the location of the Old Bushmill’s Distillery, founded in 1608 and is the oldest licensed distillery in the world.
Three kilometres from Bushmills was the Giant’s Causeway.
The visitor centre was rather a disappointment because the permanent one had burnt down in April 2000 and all that was here now was a temporary wooden shed with a few exhibits, an inadequate restaurant and a ticket office. The Causeway attracts over half a million people a year and I imagine that this must make it rather crowded in summer but today being the middle of February it was short of visitors which made it much more enjoyable.
The causeway was formed about sixty-two million years ago over a long period of igneous activity when this whole area would have been situated in an equatorial region, experiencing hot and humid conditions. The unique sprawl of hexagonal basalt columns that make up the Giant’s Causeway was formed when lava broke through the earth’s crust and cooled rapidly as it hit the sea. The fascinating patterns in the causeway stones formed as a result of rock crystallization under conditions of accelerated cooling, which usually occurs when molten lava comes into immediate contact with water and the resulting fast accelerated cooling process causes cracking and patterns.
There is a uniformity to the patterns that confused people for a long time and before the geological process that formed the causeway was fully understood some were convinced that it was the result of the labours of an earlier civilization that had built a sort of paved highway across the sea to Scotland. What made this credible for them was that the same rock formations occur at Flingal’s Cave across the water. We know now that this was completely daft but it is a nice story nevertheless.
An even better story of course is the legend that the Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. When he arrived in Scotland he was alarmed to find that his opponent was much much bigger than him so he immediately returned home in a panic pursued by Benandonner who crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Finn his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him and pretended he was actually Finn’s baby son. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby, he assumed the father must be gigantic and he fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed by Finn.
It is an interesting fact that in Irish Finn McCool becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill the hunter-warrior of Irish mythology and the nineteenth century Irish revolutionary organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood took its name from the inspiration of these legends.
I liked the Giant’s Causeway, it certainly goes into my personal top ten (which is getting rather overcrowded now) and I have to say that I think it deserved to come a bit higher in the Radio Times poll of top ten UK natural wonders.