Co-ordinates: 54°36’N, 005°55’W
Weather: Heavy rain showers throughout the day. Weak front created unstable atmospheric conditions
Air Temperature: 11C max
Sea Temperature: 10C
Pressure: 1005hPa and falling
Wind: Northerly or north-westerly Force 3-4
In the very early morning the vessel had entered the sheltered waters of Belfast Lough and at 0700 we were approaching the quayside in the port of Belfast. To greet the vessel were the usual bevy of port officials, harbour police and the tourist board who had erected a tent structure in which were found maps. Other maps had been distributed on board and our departure from the vessel at around 0815 was heralded by a piper.
Once the logistics of ensuring that our numbers tallied, the four luxury coaches, which had been chartered for the day, set off on a short tour of the centre of Belfast. The Belfast City Hall, Queens University and the City Hospital were on the itinerary before we left Belfast heading northwards towards the coast. A set of four high-rise apartment blocks was passed, one of which bore the distinctive Irish tri-colour flag signifying that the religious tensions of the “troubles” of the past 30 years had not completely disappeared although Heather, our softly spoken local lady guide, was pleased to report that everyone was striving to make the peace work.
As we progressed northwards she was full of interesting facts about the surrounding countryside including the local resistance in Ballymoney to a proposed open-cast lignite (brown coal) extraction site that threatens to desecrate upwards of 400 acres of prime farm land, houses, churches etc. We passed through the village of Bushmills with its distillery but the consensus was that a “shopping experience” (and that is all it would have been) was not necessary. Indeed bottles of Bushmills whisky (if that is your preferred tipple instead of the Scottish “real thing”) are likely to be available in any licensed premises.
The main excitement of the day was our visit to the unusual geological formation of the Giants Causeway on the coast east of Portrush.
When we arrived at the car park at the top of the hill above the shoreline it was evident that this was a popular attraction. A short video presentation was really just an advert for Ulster tourism but did raise a laugh when the legend of Finn MacCool was shown. However, that video proved to be sufficient for some guests who dived into the souvenir shop and then made it back to the coach. Perhaps the heavy shower of rain or the total lack of interest were contributing factors but many of our coach either walked down the half mile road or took the mini-coach to the car park at the causeway. However, even then a walk to edge of the tarmac and a return to the coach was a sufficient taste of this world heritage site.
As a geologist, the causeway is a fascinating glimpse into the centre of a cooling lava flow, which formed around 60 million years ago, at about the time the Atlantic Ocean began to open. Columnar jointing and cooling and shrinkage cracks such as are present in he Giants Causeway are not unusual but what makes this a special site is the easy of access and the exposure nicely washed by the sea and the ability to clamber all over the stones. The heavy rain showers were short and sharp but did not deter many visitors. Several managed to return up hill on the mini-bus but a few hardy souls walked up the hill back to the visitor’s centre and car park.
With everyone accounted for in the bus tally, we headed towards Dunluce Castle, a 16th century hilltop ruin with a complicated history. Its commanding position with the backdrop of Malin Head and the white sands of Portrush in the distance it made a good photo stop. A slight deviation occurred when a cow and calf, being driven along the main road, nearly ran into our on-board photographer Richard. It could only happen in Ireland!!
The Royal Court Hotel, which also has a commanding position overlooking the town of Portrush and its beach and links golf course, was the venue for lunch and a great feast it turned out to be. Melon, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and Pavlova with a Guinness on the side was all devoured in short order. First class meal with service as slick as required for a quick turnaround. At the end of the meal there was a deviation in the original plan with some guests choosing to return to the ship rather than seeing a little more of Northern Ireland. Buses were reorganized and then set of in two directions. Two coaches returned to the ship via the outward route whereas the other two headed east in occasional rain showers to complete the coastal road through the villages that lie at the foot of the 12 Glens of Antrim.
The next and only stop on the journey was an investigation of the bridge across the gap at Carrick a Rede. This rope bridge allowed fishermen access to the small island to obtain salmon by netting from the fishing station on the island. A brisk walk in a fresh breeze brought us to the steep steps down to the bridge of wire ropes anchored into the rock, wooden slats on which to walk and rope handrails. Once on the island, fulmars hanging in the updraught from the cliff face proved to be an interesting diversion. The view of basalt cliffs contrasted with the dirty white of the underlying chalk.
Once everyone was back on the coach the rain started for a while and partially obliterated the landscape as the driver squeezed us round bends in this scenic route taking in Cushendall, Ballypatrick and all the other villages along the coast to Larne. Scotland (the Mull of Kintyre) could be seen off in the distance and a classical rainbow hung over the sea for a time. The chalk rock (c.70Ma) and then a dark reddish pebbly sandstone of Devonian age (c 400 Ma) have been preserved under the lavas (c.60Ma) but with a tight schedule to keep there was no stopping as we headed back into Belfast and straight to the ship for around 1740, just as the heavens opened again. However, Ireland would not be as green as it is unless it rained as it does.
This gave enough time for a spruce up before an Irish evening in the Panorama Lounge where more Guinness was taken and tiny packets of fish and chips (wrapped in “newspaper”) were dispensed as a novelty.
Dinner was the usual lively affair as we departed Belfast Lough and headed south at a lazy pace to arrive for our next adventure.