Wednesday 9th September – On a bright sunny morning, 33 residents of Winthorpe and the surrounding area set off at 8.45am on a six-day coach holiday to Northern Ireland. Our driver was Alex Machin, of Travel Wright, Newark, who had taken us to the Isle of Mann two years ago. A lunch stop was made at Ripon, the Cathedral City of the Yorkshire Dales. The 7th century Cathedral, dedicated to St. Wilfred, dominated the city skyline. An overnight stop was made at the 91-room Caindale Hotel in Dumfries, Scotland. We had stayed there on our return journey from Scotland in 2005. Dumfries, commonly known as ‘Queen of the South’ is where Robert Burns, the best-known figure in Scottish literature, lies buried.
Thursday 10th September – An early morning start was made so that we could catch the 9.40am ferry from Stranraer to Belfast. A two-hour smooth crossing was made on the Stena HSS ‘Voyager.’ This craft, using four gas turbines to power its waterjets, is capable of carrying 1,500 passengers.
Our stay, for the next four nights, was the 64-room Clarion Hotel in Carrickfergus, overlooking Belfast Lough. (Notice the Irish spelling of Loch)
Carrickfergus, a small town in County Antrim, is guarded by the massive Carrickfergus Castle, which greets everyone with its strength and menace from land and sea. Begun in 1177 by John de Courcy to guard the entrance to Belfast Lough, it is shaped to fit the crag on which it stands overlooking the harbour. It is the finest and best-preserved Norman castle in the whole of Ireland; it even has its original portcullis. Life-size model soldiers are posed along the wide ramparts, which accommodates the castle’s cannons. Arms and armour are on display in the large rectangular keep. The military has been garrisoned here right up to WW1.
This is the best castle, without a doubt, I have ever visited. The entrance fee was only £1.50.
Friday 11th September – We were greeted with another warm sunny day as we set off northwards alongside the east coast, passing the seaport and industrial town of Larne, then along the Antrim Coastal Road passing through Black Arch. This archway, cut through the rock allowing the road to pass through, is a fine example of engineering and is the most famous landmark along the route. This coastal road is considered by many as the finest scenic road in Northern Ireland. On one side we had the sandy beaches of the North Channel and the other side, the nine Glens, or valleys, of Antrim with their limestone cliffs hugging the coastal road. The Glens are known as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ Passing the village of Cushendall, known as the Capital of the Glens, and where part of the village is designed similar to the Welsh village of Portmerion. We visited the Italian style village of Portmerion in 2004.
A stop was made at the delightful seaside village of Ballycastle. This is where Marchese Marconi and his assistants in 1898 established wireless communications with Rathlin Island, which is 6 miles off the coast in the North Channel. This created a historic link between the town and the pioneering developments that were taking place in wireless telegraphy. The Scottish island of the Mull of Kintyre could be seen in the distance.
A stop was made for lunch and a tour around Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, which is on the outskirts of the town of Bushmills. Outside, one could smell the sweet air of whiskey fumes from the oldest whiskey distillery in the world. (Notice the spelling of Whiskey, ending in ey. The Scottish spelling has no e.) The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic uisce beatha meaning water of life.
The last stop of the day, on the northern tip of Northern Ireland, was The Giant’s Causeway, the jewel in the crown of the fabulous coast of Antrim. Known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Giant’s Causeway has about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. The columns, many 36ft. (12mtrs.) high and about 12ins. (30cms.) across, form stepping stones, that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. The columns are mainly hexagonal, although there are some with four, five, seven and eight sides. Owned by the National Trust, it is Ireland’s only World Heritage Site and has been designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.’ It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland.
There is a popular legend that says how the giant, Finn MacCool laid the causeway to provide a path across the sea to his lady love, who lived on the island of Staffa in Scotland – where similar columns are found.
Could this be true? I wonder.
The journey back to Carrickfergus was on the west side of the Glens of Antrim via Ballymena. Due to the high rainfall and a moderate climate, everywhere was covered in lush grass. The farmers had just started harvesting, whilst back home all had been safely gathered in. I was surprised to see numerous fields of sweetcorn. (Corn on the cob)
This visit to the Giant’s Causeway was the highlight of my holiday in Northern Ireland. I saw history that had been made those millions of years ago of geological activity. The magic of the place was enhanced by the shrieking of the gulls around its looming grey cliffs.
Saturday 12th September – Our day started with a conducted tour of the city of Belfast. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is ringed by high hills, a sea lough and a river valley. It is a thriving place with many exuberant Victorian and Edwardian buildings with sculptures over the doors, wide streets, which are pedestrianized, with benches where you can sit and watch the world go by.
Standing in the centre of Donegall Square, from where most of the main streets radiate out, is the City Hall. This vast imposing building, built in 1906 with Portland stone, has an elaborate tower at each corner and a central copper dome that raises 173ft. (53mtrs.) Statues around the building include a glum looking Queen Victoria outside the main entrance and on the east side, Sir Edward Harland, founder of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Close by is the memorial to those who died when this ship sank in 1912.
Continuing around the city our guide pointed out many of the buildings describing their history. The Harmony of Belfast, a stainless steel and bronze sculpture near Queen’s Bridge. Erected in 2007 for the new peace process in Northern Ireland, it depicts a girl standing on a rock, representing hope, aspirations and spirituality. The Albert Memorial Clock Tower, leaning four feet off the perpendicular, is known locally as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Subsidence has caused this, due to it being built, using wooden piles on marshy reclaimed land around the River Fasnet. This river is now piped under the city roads and is the main reason why the roads are so wide.
Our guide then took us down the Shankill and the Falls Roads. The Shankill Road is predominantly a Protestant working class area of Belfast. Stretching for about 1½ miles, it is lined to an extent by shops. The residents live in the many streets which branch off the main road. Shankill Road had many flags of the Union Jack hanging from windows, lampposts and strung across the road. The gable ends of dozens of houses were decorated with murals depicting Ulster loyalist sympathies.
The Falls Road, one of the most famous streets in Northern Ireland, is the main road which passes through the west part of the city. This is where the Catholic and republic communities live. The new apartment blocks are fenced off to prevent unwelcome visitors. The roads separating the two areas, which are blocked off by high walls, are called peace lines. These communities displayed their own murals on buildings and walls. Many houses were flying the green, white and gold flags of the Republic of Ireland. (Eire)
A short visit to the gates of the Parliament Buildings of Stormont, on the outskirts of the city, enable a photo shot and for our guide to explain the history of Stormont.
Down the now redundant dock area of Belfast to see the Harland and Wolff twin yellow shipbuilding gantry cranes, called Samson and Goliath. Named after biblical figures, they dominate the Belfast skyline. The cranes which stands 348ft. (106mtrs.) and 315ft. (96mtrs.) high respectively, are to be retained along with the existing dry dock facility, whilst the land around is undergoing redevelopment.
The afternoon was spent walking around the city. A visit to the Church of Ireland St. Anne’s Cathedral, sometimes called Belfast Cathedral, easily visible by its 131ft. (40mtrs.) stainless steel spire named Spire of Hope. The base section of this spire protrudes through a glass platform in the Cathedral’s roof directly above the choir stalls, allowing visitors to view it from the nave. A trip was made to The Dome in the new Victoria shopping centre. Looking like an observatory, this segmented glass structure, with a glass canopy standing 115ft. (35mtrs.) above the street level, gives spectacular views of the city’s skyline.
Sunday 13th September – Continuing with the fine warm weather we headed south along the east coast. Calling at the small fishing port of Donaghadee for a photo shot. The village boasts of having the oldest public house in Ireland, the King’s Arms, opened in 1611 and in 1934, its lighthouse became the first one in Ireland to convert to electricity.
Our main stop for the day was the 19th century Mount Stewart House near Newtownards in County Down. Once the home of the Londonderry family, the most famous of whom was Lord Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary from 1812 to 1822, it is now owned by The National Trust. It has a splendid interior with twin curving stairs and imitation marble pillars in many rooms. The dining room, which contains 22 chairs were used at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and were given to Lord Castlereagh, in recognition of his role in the talks that redefined Europe’s frontier, after the fall of Napoleon. The impressive landscape garden, now a World Heritage Site, is full of exotic plants and trees and makes use of the unique microclimate of the Ards Peninsular, with magnificent views across Strangford Lough.
Strangford Lough a vast, shallow, sea lough has a highly energetic tide race and is recognised as one of the main tidal ‘hotspots’ in the UK. Great use has been made of this tidal stream by the installation of the world’s first commercial-scale tidal turbine. Built at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyards, this underwater turbine develops 1.2MW of electricity, enough to supply 1,000 homes. The electricity generated is then fed into the Northern Ireland National Grid.
After a eight minutes ferry crossing from Portaferry to Strangford, we continued along the coastal road to Newcastle. Newcastle, a popular sea side resort with a promenade overlooking a sweeping sandy beach, nestles under the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne.
The Mountains of Mourne, internationally recognized as an ‘Area of Outstanding Beauty,’ is the most picturesque mountain district in Ireland and has been immortalized in Percy French’s song (1896) “Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.”
I quote the 1st verse of 5.
Oh, Mary, this London’s a wonderful sight,
With people all working by day and by night.
Sure they don’t sow potatoes, nor barley, nor wheat,
But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street.
At least when I asked them that’ what I was told,
So I just took a hand at this digging for gold,
But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
Time did not allow us to ride around the 53 miles route of the Mourne Coastal Road.
The return journey to Carrickfergus was via Ballynahinch passing through villages, many who were showing their Ulster loyalties with the flying of the flags of the Union Jack.
Monday 14th September – It was going home day. A morning stop was made at Belfast Castle, a familiar landmark overlooking the city from 400ft. (121mtrs.) above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill. This magnificent sandstone building was built in 1870 for the 3rd Marquis of Donegall. Over the years, ownership has changed hands before ending with the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. In 1934, the Shaftesbury family presented the castle and estate to the City of Belfast. It now is a popular venue for wedding receptions, meetings, dances and afternoon teas.
Leaving Belfast at 12.25pm on the Stena HSS ‘Voyager,’ we had another smooth two-hour crossing before arriving in Stranraer. Alex, our driver then made short work, with a few stops, of the long journey home, before arriving back in Winthorpe at 9.30pm.
Pat Finn. October 2009.
The North Channel separates the eastern coast of Northern Ireland and the south west coast of Scotland.
A good guide is worth a million and without exception this was possibly one of the best we have had with the Winthorpe Village Holiday Group. Using no notes, our guide was able describe the history, buildings and ‘The Troubles’ of Belfast.
She told a moving story of her now deceased next door neighbour, the nicest neighbour one could have. He was a Catholic along with his family. (Our guide is not a Catholic.) His children thought that he was a civil servant, as he always went to work in civilian clothes. He was too frightened to tell his children that he was a policeman. He and his wife lived in fear, always aware that there could be reprisals made to his family from militant unionists.
What a brave man.