Northern Ireland: North Coast and the Armoy Road Races

The Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge are among the attractions not to be missed by any self-respecting visitor to Northern Ireland. For Mark, though, both were eclipsed by his visit to the hallowed ground of Joey’s Bar in Ballymoney……

Overview: 5 days, 209 miles


Following on from our last post, we crossed the border back into Northern Ireland just to the North-West of Derry / Londonderry (whichever name you prefer). This time we were on a main road and there were some obvious clues as to the location of the border. The “Frontier Hotel” was a bit of a give away, as was the plethora of signs advertising bureaux de change (does anyone really use them nowadays I wondered?).

Mark noticed that there were no fuel stations for a good few miles after the border (diesel is currently around 10% cheaper in the Republic) and that the first couple of fuel stations that we did see weren’t displaying any prices….

Our route took us along the North Coast, visiting the very busy tourist attractions in this part of Northern Ireland. The scenery along this coast is just stunning.

The first place that we stopped at was Dunluce Castle. We’ve seen this on TV and it’s looked fabulous, so we were all ready to pay the entrance fee of £5.50 each. When we got there, though, we realised that it only looks fabulous from one angle, and there didn’t really appear to be a lot to see inside the ruin itself – so we did what all of the tourists piling off coaches seemed to be doing, took some photos from the roadside, and moved on.

Passing the Giant’s Causeway, we discovered that the car park was officially full so opted to continue the short distance to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and return to the Giant’s Causeway later in the day when things would hopefully have quietened down a bit.

The rope bridge was originally used by salmon fishermen to get across to the small island just offshore. Well, perhaps I should say that a simpler version was used by the fishermen. The bridge that’s crossed by tourists today is a very sturdy and safe construction.

You can walk up to look at the bridge for nothing, but the National Trust charges £8 per person if you want to cross. Luckily, we’re now members again…..

On the other side, you can walk around the island and soak up the glorious views.

There were kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs, many with cute little chicks.

We made it back to the Giant’s Causeway at around 5.30pm, which left us plenty of time to look at the causeway but no time at all to loiter in the gift shop before it closed at 7pm 😉 The pricing here is interesting; you can look at the causeway for free but if you use any National Trust facilities (parking, visitor centre, toilets, shop… SHOP?!) they charge £11.50 per person. There do seem to be places to park further away and walk to the causeway, but armed with our new National Trust membership we needed to park in their car park so as to “save” £23. I could see that Mark was very tempted by the shuttle bus down to the causeway (£1 each, each way, or free to members) but even he couldn’t bring himself to be seen getting on the bus to save £4.

The causeway itself was very impressive, but smaller in visible extent than I’d imagined.

It continues under the sea as far as the island of Staffa off the coast of Scotland, so we now need to go look at the other end.

I thought that the towering columns of basalt were the most amazing aspect of the causeway, rather than the part that almost everyone else was clambering round on and taking photos of.

A bit further round the coast, we had a look at the small village of Cushendun. This is a village of two halves, with one half managed by the National Trust. The architect Clough Williams-Ellis, perhaps best known for the beautiful Italianate village of Portmeirion in North Wales, was commissioned to design properties here in the early 20th century by Ronald McNeill, a Conservative MP and later Lord Cushendun. McNeill’s wife Maud was from Cornwall, hence Williams-Ellis’ brief was that the designs were to be Cornish-style.

“The Square”:

“Maud’s Cottages”:

I can kind of see it, though if you’d shown me the properties and asked me to guess the location that inspired them, I wouldn’t have come up with Cornwall. To be absolutely honest, I thought that the rest of the seaside village looked perhaps more Cornish!

Yet more lovely scenery:

Turning inland, after a brief foray to Armoy to suss out our options for parking up later in the week, we drove the short distance to the Dark Hedges. This is an 18th century avenue of beech trees made insanely popular by the fact that it was used in the filming of Game of Thrones.

We should mention that so far, everywhere in Northern Ireland seems to have been used as a filming location for Game of Thrones. Even Cushendun had a little Game of Thrones information board next to a beach and cave.

Arriving at the Dark Hedges, guess which Dutch van we spotted in the car park….. It really is a small World…

This place is packed with tourists; you’d have to be there very early or very late to get a photo of the trees without the people.

Mark claims that his friend Derek told him that you have to lie on the ground to get a good photo of the Dark Hedges. I’ve no idea whether the strange yoga-esque pose is also necessary. Suffice to say that plenty of people were giving him strange looks, and no-one followed his lead….

Our final stop on Wednesday was the town of Ballymoney, famous as the home of the Dunlop motorcycle road racing dynasty. The Dunlop Memorial Garden contains a memorial to Joey Dunlop……

… and one to his brother Robert Dunlop.

Both Joey and Robert Dunlop were killed in bike crashes; the flowers all around the statue of Robert Dunlop are for his son William, who was killed earlier this month in practice at the Skerries road races in the Republic of Ireland.

Just down the road from the memorial garden is Joey’s Bar, which is still owned and run by the Dunlop family. Mark has now ticked “a pint of Guinness at Joey’s Bar” off his bucket list!

We found a great little aire on Wednesday night at Portglenone Marina, about half an hour South of Ballymoney. For £10 you get everything you could possibly want, including electricity, toilets & showers, use of a lounge / kitchen area, and even a washing machine (though no tumble drier).

Then it was back up to Armoy for the Armoy Road Races. It cost us £20 to camp in a field next to the course for the weekend (though in the end we only stayed for two nights not three).

Friday saw practice sessions for each race (which also determine the positions on the grid for the actual race), and then the first two races. Both were supposedly 7 lap races but both were red-flagged (stopped), although thankfully neither rider who’d come off his bike was seriously hurt. One race was decided based on the standings after 4 laps and the other was restarted as a 4 lap race.

The big question before the weekend was whether Michael Dunlop would show up, and the answer was No. It may seem ridiculous to think that there would be any possibility of a rider racing three weeks after the death of his brother, but stranger things have happened; both of them went out and raced two days after their father was killed in practice for a race in 2008.

There was rain overnight and it rained on and off this morning. Nevertheless, it did seem that the racing would be going ahead.

Then everything got delayed by what was announced as a “non racing-related incident” which, from what Mark heard later, turns out to have been another of those “A goes round a corner on what they think is an empty road and hits B” incidents, with serious consequences.

At lunchtime, the course was inspected and a bit later, it was announced that the meeting was being abandoned. Mark is of course disappointed; my thoughts are that at least this way, they’ll all live to race another day…..

Given that it was still quite early in the afternoon and that the wet field was only going to get more churned up as vehicles left, we decided to leave and head back down to the lovely marina at Portglenone for the night. An evening of reading and planning our next few days’ adventures beckons.

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