Sunday 4 May, Ireland
It seems a long time since we left Marseilles yesterday morning! Air Lingus brought us without mishap to Dublin airport and after some wait for our hire car, we headed north. Ray seems to have no trouble reverting back to driving on the left only 24 hours later but I have to keep stopping myself from telling him he is on the wrong side! Our first stop was lunch in the town of Trim – it was by then 2.30pm after all. Then we visited Trim castle – quite spectacular, 5 stories high and the remains are very well preserved and the self-guided tour explains the many features very well. Dates from the 12th Century and was used as a backdrop for many scenes in Braveheart – in fact many of the townsfolk were extras in the movie!
From there, we went to the Hill of Tara which is billed as Ireland’s most sacred place at the heart of its history, legend and folklore, dating back 5000 years. Home of druids, ceremonial place for the crowning of kings, ancient burial site etc etc. It is in fact quite spectacular in the aerial photos we saw but yesterday in the rain, it was just a series of humps and circular ditches. Needless to say, we did not stay long. Instead we drove on to Slane where we found a very comfortable B&B and made a simple meal in our room of crackers, tuna, fruit and yoghurt. Our hostess asked us if we wanted the “full Irish breakfast” (in case we were vegetarian) and so this morning we enjoyed juice, cereal and fruit, followed by a plate of sausages, bacon, white AND black pudding, an egg and tomato, plus toast & jam and lots of coffee. Such a change from our French breakfasts!
Fortified by this hearty meal, we set forth to visit Newgrange and Knowth, the nearby Neolithic burial sites. These are an absolute must to see, wonderfully preserved and presented and breathtaking in their sheer age and significance. Older than Stonehenge by 1000 years, their construction is a wonder in itself as is the knowledge and expertise of their builders. Cleverly designed, their excellent condition belies their 5000 years age. The spring and autumn equinox causes a shaft of sunlight to illuminate the central chamber of the giant mound through a long carefully constructed tunnel. We were able to stand in the central chamber and the guide switched out the lights, then simulated with electric light the shaft of sunlight entering the chamber. It was not so strong as sunlight would have been but you got the impression. There are 6 days each year when it may be seen for real and 27,000 people put their name in the lottery for only 120 places – can you imagine how you would feel if you were chosen and then it rained?!
This afternoon, we have headed up the coast to see where “the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea” as it says in the song. We picked the scenic route up a very beautiful valley where the hedgerows were yellow with flowering gorse around the green fields filled with sheep – pretty white sheep with black faces and legs. We are now in Northern Ireland so the currency is British pound, therefore more costly as they still seem to charge the same amount as for Euro. Our B&B is on a farm outside Newcastle with lots of black faced sheep, mostly with twin lambs gambolling about. Out the bed room window we have a view of the Mourne Mountains – when the clouds clear that is... Actually it hasn’t rained at all today, touch wood.
Monday 5 May
Today our breakfast was even more copious than yesterday – and we could choose from a menu as well! Ray chose the “Ulster Fry” which was everything he had yesterday plus 2 slices of potato bread and 2 of soda bread. I had scrambled eggs & salmon - as well there was fresh fruit salad & yoghurt to go with the cereals. We can keep going until quite late before needing lunch and even then a homemade soup was sufficient.
This morning was rainy so we chose to visit the St Patrick Centre at Downpatrick. You can’t come to Ireland without researching St Patrick! It was very interesting and well presented but did not dispel the feeling that the myth exceedeth the man – which is not his fault! What is certain is that his writings and the events of his life/times saw the end of the Roman influence in this part of the world as well as the beginning of Christianity. We also visited St Pat’s Cathedral and his grave – now covered by an enormous flat stone because more than 100 years ago, all the Irish immigrants were coming to take a handful of the soil before they left and the locals feared he would be uncovered.
When we emerged, the weather had cleared and so we went on to our outdoors option – Castle Espie Wetlands, which proved to be a wonderful experience. We have never seen a wider range of ducks and wildfowl in one place! The location on Strangford Lough makes it a significant natural stopover for migratory birds but as well the WWT runs a breeding program for many endangered species. It is an excellent set-up with many bird-hides from which to view and we thoroughly enjoyed a couple of hours in the biting wind looking at birds! The site is well planned and eco-friendly in every way with many activities for children – they even run kids’ birthday parties.
The long afternoons enable us to do a lot more in a day so leaving there at 3.30pm, we were able to take a run up to Bangor – just for a look and into Belfast – just to visit Falls Road where all the Republican murals are. Luckily it was a Bank Holiday so there was little traffic. We came north across a high stony plateau, a contrast to the green fields so far seen and down through the Glens of Antrim to our B&B at Cushendun.
Tuesday, 6 May
What a beautiful little town Cushendun proved to be in the welcome sunlight this morning! Once an important as the nearest port to Scotland, it is now more like a pretty little fishing village. From there we followed the coastal road north to Fair Head, with stunning views of the ragged coastline where the hedged fields run down to precipitous cliffs and all the sheep must have 2 long and 2 short legs to cope with the slopes. In the distance we could see Scotland – the Mull of Kintyre, in fact. At Fair Head we took a 4km hike up to the Head through high heathland, passing enroute a lake with the remains of a Neolithic settlement on an island in its centre. Even Ray was nervous of the sheer granite cliffs plunging 180m to the sea but evidently they are popular with climbers! It was a sheer pleasure to be out in nature with no another soul in sight!
Further along more spectacular coastline we came to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which is a real tourist trap. Originally constructed by local fishermen to get across the chasm onto the little island to access their salmon nets, it is now purely a tourist attraction with the added advantage of being scary! We walked down for a look (another 2km) but figured we would not get any better view or experience than we had already had for free!
After a huge lunch, we felt ready to tackle the Bushmills Distillery – a very interesting and comprehensive tour of the factory and our choice of a whiskey to sample afterwards. Had to buy a bottle to take home too! Then onwards to the Giants’ Causeway and yet another big walk. This amazing volcanic phenomenon is listed National Heritage and is a mecca for all tourists it seems. The self-guided audio tour was useful to explain the geographic reasons for these many thousands of hexagonal stone columns but the locals prefer the romantic myths that have been made up over the centuries to explain them.
After some grocery shopping we headed straight for our B&B in Londonderry, ready to explore the walled city tomorrow.