Welcome to my somewhat delayed account of our trip to Northern Ireland on the June bank holiday weekend. I know, you’ve been waiting anxiously.
I have been dying to get my little family to Co. Antrim since I had a wonderful trip there last year with some friends from a former job.
We set off late on Friday afternoon without the cat, somewhat to her chagrin.
Traffic out of Dublin was dreadful. We decided to go for dinner once we were safely across the border. We stopped in Hillsborough where the children were suitably impressed by the phone boxes and the post boxes. It’s like going abroad, only not.
We were staying outside Coleraine. When I mentioned this to a number of people they looked very dubious and my brother announced that “Coleraine is the dullest place in Ireland.” In fact the accommodation was fine. It was on a farm outside the town. Our host was very chatty and kept goats which the children were allowed to feed and, at her request, took the Princess on a full tour of the farm including seeing bags and bags of sheep’s wool which had been sheared during the week (very oily apparently).
In fact the only problem with the accommodation was that the heating was set to what my friend from Bangor refers to as “Ulster Granny” levels and there was no real way to turn it off. Indeed, our host was quite keen for us to light the fire and gave us logs for that purpose. I am sure, most of the time, that is necessary but the bank holiday weekend was very warm and sunny. It would have been quite cheap as well but, despite my hopes, market nervousness about Brexit was insufficient to make any dent on the exchange rate.
The next morning we were up bright and early to go to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which we all enjoyed but it was very warm indeed. In fact, a bit too hot which, I suspect is not normally a problem for visitors to Co. Antrim.
Then we went down to Ballintoy harbour for an ice cream. It features in Game of Thrones and I thought that the boys might be mildly interested. They were, very mildly. I hasten to add that they have not seen Game of Thrones but it seems to be seeping into the primary school culture. Unnerving. Our host told us that our accommodation had also hosted Game of Thrones crew members. I’d say anywhere within a 90 minute drive of the Antrim coast can boast some kind of connection.
Then we went in to Bushmills for lunch and decided that we would do the touristy thing and take the train from there to the Giant’s Causeway. This was a mistake. The train is actually the world’s slowest tram. It was very slow. And not very busy. For reasons which became entirely obvious as we were overtaken by hikers en route.
We got there eventually though. We emerged from the tram somewhat disorientated. We saw three locals with fishing rods and asked where the Giant’s Causeway was. They pointed in the opposite direction from where we were going. They were keen to emphasise that although it looked like you had to pay to get in via the visitor centre, access to the site was free via the underpass. I love frugal Northerners. We inspected the Giant’s Causeway. The children were a bit tired and underwhelmed. Herself and Daniel were grabbed by a Chinese woman who wanted them to be in her photo. They were surprised but willing and even now may be being inspected by this woman’s friends in China.
There were busloads of Chinese tourists there. Although it was busier than it had been when I went there last year, it was not too dissimilar. Mr. Waffle, on the other hand had lasted visited in 1986 when he was there on his own pretty well and he found the crowds of people quite surreal.
Unfortunately, the last tram had left by the time we got back to the tram stop and we found ourselves reliant on Ulster Bus to get back to our car in Bushmills. We spent a tense enough half hour at the bus stop but, happily, a bus did come and return us safely to our car.
Mild highlight of the day was returning to our accommodation with a pack of Northern Taytos under our oxters and having a blind taste test as against Southern Taytos to see which was best. For the record, we found them indistinguishable.
On Sunday we went in to Portstewart for Mass which was neither as full nor as long as I expected. After mass the boys went on a bouncy castle and the rest of us had a cup of tea. God, it was hot.
While walking along the Promenade we found this product:
There are no words.
We went to Downhill beach for a swim. This is an amazingly beautiful beach overlooked by Mussenden Temple. The scenery is utterly breathtaking. Our Northern brethern have chosen to let cars come on to the beach and park there. While I think that this is appalling and really, really wrong, a very small part of me has to concede that it is extremely handy to park your car and pull the stuff out of the boot and have it right beside you which seems to be the form locally.
The Princess and I swam and Michael went in as far as his waist. The water was freezing but very clear and when you got out, the beach was absolutely roasting so you dried almost immediately, it was like being in the South of France. Except that the water was freezing.
For lunch we went in to Castlerock. We took ourselves to the only place that seemed to be open and it was quite rough, I thought. For the only time on the trip, I did feel quite conscious that we were Southerners and Catholic to boot. The man told us dourly to take “a wee seat in the wee bar for a wee minute” and we sat with the local, tattooed, beefy, hard chaws feeling a bit unnerved. We were seated speedily enough and our waitress was pleasant and the food alright and extremely economically priced but we were not tempted to linger.
Then we went to look at Mussenden Temple which was quite beautiful and in the hands of the resolutely middle-class and safe feeling National Trust.
I have to tell you that the Earl Bishop of Derry was, however, completely nuts to build a library right on the North coast. Even on the spectacularly warm day we visited it was pretty damp. Apparently in its heyday there was always a fire burning in the basement to keep out the damp.
The big house is a ruin but quite a recent one. It seems to have been pretty much intact up to the end of the second world war.
While Daniel and Michael played in the ruins of the house, the Princess and I rushed to see Hezlett House which was a traditional cottage (price of admission covered by the ticket for the main house). It was quite interesting and we pretty much had it to ourselves. As we arrived, the guide gave us a laminated card and told us that it was a “wee self-guided tour”. He had to say it three times before we understood though. The accent can be challenging for those of us unfamiliar with it.
The next day was the bank holiday Monday in the South but the previous Monday had been the bank holiday in the North. See my cunning? I took us to the Titanic museum in Belfast and it was reasonably empty. It wasn’t totally my cup of tea but I think that the children liked it and it was certainly interesting in parts. It really tries to reset the narrative to focus on shipbuilding in Belfast rather than the ship that sank. It is only partially successful in that regard. A small tender, the SS Nomadic, the last White Star Line boat in the world is available to visit also and we found that mildly enjoyable. Toilets were something of a highlight for the more juvenile members of the party.
And there was dressing up.
And then, back to Dublin. I would definitely go again. It’s really beautiful in Antrim and far more accessible from Dublin than West Cork or Kerry – where the scenery is also pretty impressive. It’s also, busloads of Chinese tourists notwithstanding, generally far less touristy than the South. I think we’ll be back.