At seven o’clock in the morning the Giant’s Causeway was magnificent and as the sun struggled to break through the crazy paved cracked clouds we wandered across the magnificently moody rocks without any interruption, until that is a quartet of men appeared who were obviously trying to walk off a big boozy night and even now had not fully regained complete volume control.
After Richard and I had returned to the Smuggler’s Inn from the causeway we had an excellent breakfast (full English or full Irish I am not sure, I was going to ask but promptly forgot) and then we checked out and headed west.
Our intended destination was Dunluce castle but somewhere in Bushmills I missed a signpost and it was soon clear that we were going in the wrong direction and we had to turn back. It was well worth it though because once on the right road we approached the castle along a twisting route that dropped dramatically down to the cliffs and showed it off to its best advantage.
Even though it was early it was already quite busy and the car park was full and there were a couple of tour buses out of Belfast disgorging their passengers. On account of this it was rather overcrowded so with natural skinflint tendencies kicking in we declined the opportunity to take the internal tour of the ruins and satisfied ourselves instead with a wander around the exterior.
Actually I am not sure that the £5 entrance fee was really worth it because without doubt the best views were from the surrounding cliffs and that is what I always tell myself when I have been too mean to pay the admission fee.
Our next destination was a last minute adjustment to the planned itinerary and was made in response to something that we had seen in the local guidebooks – the dark hedges of Ballymoney, famous all of a sudden for being featured in the TV film ‘Game of Thrones’.
From looking at the road map I was sure that this would be a place that was certain to be difficult to find but I was practically speechless when the normally not entirely reliable SatNav found it without any difficulty at all.
The dark hedges is an avenue of beech trees that were planted in the 1750s in the grounds of Gracehill House a Georgian mansion built by the Stuart family, descendants of a cousin of King James who had been granted the land but who had died in a shipwreck. They wanted to create a compelling landscape to impress visitors who approached the entrance to the mansion. The Manor House is still there but a private residence and the Stuart legacy is this fascinating avenue of spooky interlinking tree boughs.
I say spooky because of course, such an ancient stretch of road is bound to have horror stories linked to it and visitors are warned to watch out for the ‘Grey Lady’. Local legend has it that she haunts the thin ribbon of road that winds beneath the ancient gnarled beech trees. She is said to glide silently along the roadside, and vanish as she reaches the last tree. I couldn’t help thinking that I wished some of the tourists might disappear so that I might get a decent picture!
It was a fascinating place and maybe we were lucky to see it because Beech trees reach maturity at no more than two hundred years and those making up the Dark Hedges are well past that. The Dark Hedges came under threat a few years ago when highway authorities proposed to fell many trees for safety reasons but the avenue was taken over by the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust – and is now the subject of a Heritage Lottery Fund project to protect the popular landmark but I suspect that there is only so long that they can remain on an environmental life support machine.
We might have stayed longer but to perfectly coincide with our visit a neighbouring farmer decided that this was the perfect agricultural moment to apply an evil silage cocktail to the land and the smell was truly awful and penetrated the interior of the car even through the closed windows. I was concerned that we could get charged for this later under the car rental small print conditions of contract!
We left the Dark hedges and returned to the coast road that we picked up a mile or two beyond the Coleraine by-pass but in truth the coast road never really threatened to become anything like as dramatic or interesting as the Antrim coast the previous day and with nothing of any great interest to detain us we carried on directly to our next overnight stop in the city of Londonderry/Derry.