“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’
Sometimes it is is not necessary to travel huge distances to visit something special.
The Giant’s Causeway is a geological wonder of the World close to home in the UK 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. 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.
I am not a geologist or a scientist but I can relate to that because I imagine it would be rather similar to my childhood experiences of being prodded into the North Sea by my parents on family holidays when I was a boy and the phsical consequences of being suddenly immersed in freezing cold water.
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! These polls are always a bit subjective and making up the rest of the top ten were the Jurassic Coast, Loch Lomond, Cwm Idal, Staffa, St Kilda and Lundy Island.
Subjective? So how did Lundy Island slip in there? Over a million people a year go to Giant’s Causeway compared to about two thousand to Lundy Island, I wonder how it got so many votes? How many people even know where Lundy Island is? I never trust a survey or a poll!
After an excellent lunch at the Smuggler’s Inn we made our way to the causeway. I had read some conflicting advice about this, a lot of visitors had left reviews saying that the National Trust visitor centre is overpriced and disappointing so I was looking for a way to avoid the £9 per person entry fee. It seems that this is just a giant rip-off because there is no charge to visit the rocks themselves so we parked the car using Richard’s National Trust membership card, turned a blind eye to the ticket office and walked straight through. Why would any sane person pay £9 to go and see something that is free?
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 a credible explanation 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.
The causeway was predictably busy this afternoon and we shared the site with several coach loads of visitors from Belfast and a car park full of tourists but this didn’t detract from the wonder of the place and we clambered over the rocks and admired the shifting colours and the changing patterns and shadows.
When we had tired of mountaineering we returned to the car park and Richard and Pauline went into the visitor centre while we went to nearby Bushmills for beer and wine at a mini-market and a stop off for a Guiness in a local hotel garden. When we met again later Richard confirmed what we had feared, the centre was very disappointing and we were glad that we had avoided it and I recommend anyone visiting the causeway to do just the same.
We had a wonderful evening at the Smuggler’s Inn and next morning Richard and I rose early and returned to the causeway to get there before the crowds. What an excellent decision this turned out to be. We defiantly parked in the National Trust car park again and then enjoyed an hour on the rocks which at seven o’clock in the morning we had completely to ourselves.
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.