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A road trip to Northern Ireland

I returned yesterday from an impulsively-organised road trip to Northern Ireland. For those of us who grew up during the Troubles, it's not an obvious tourist destination. The names of its towns and villages meant nothing to me but violence and – Giant's Causeway apart – I had never seen a reason to go. However, the future Mrs P the Second's sister was visiting Ireland and is a fan of "Game of Thrones."  The series was mostly filmed in a studio on the Belfast Docks and on location around Northern Ireland so we decided to meet her there and visit some of those locations.

It was a frivolous idea but it led to some good fun. Mrs P2-elect and I crossed from Birkenhead to Belfast on the 1030 sailing on Friday. I wasn't too happy that Speranza travelled on an outside deck, exposed to weather and spray, but the passage was calm and agreeable enough, if a little boring. We landed on Friday evening at 1830 and were safely at our modern hotel near the docks by 1900. Within minutes we were changed and in a taxi to a splendid restaurant recommended by my cousin in the catering trade. She had told me that the chef was on the cusp of his first Michelin "macaron" and after our experience there, I can believe it.

We met my fiancee's sister's train from Dublin at the railway station on Saturday morning and set off on our (as it proved) over-ambitious tour. Our first stop was Cairncastle, where the scene in which Ned Stark lived up to his motto that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" was filmed. The photo below shows Speranza near the place.
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A nearby hotel features one of the "Doors of Thrones". These are made from wood from trees at the Dark Hedges (itself a GoT location – see below) felled by Storm Gertrude in 2016. Local tourism promoters turned damage to one tourist attraction into ten new ones – all at pubs or hotels near to a location used in series six. All the locations can be found here

From there we drove to the Cushenden Caves at Ballymena. They are open to the public but the locals didn't seem keen for us to find them. There are no signs until you have actually arrived. We persisted however and duly saw where the Red Priestess gave birth to the shadow creature. We lunched at a pub across the road before striking out, this time with the roof down, for Murlough Bay

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This location stands in for the region of Westeros (the fictional continent where most of Game of Thrones is set) known as Pyke. Inevitably, as GoT is set in an alternate medieval reality, there's little to see but windswept hills and ocean but our tour was getting us out into some beautiful scenery and involving us in lots of healthy outdoor exercise. The roads to this remote spot were not (unlike the winding B roads we enjoyed for most of the trip) ideally suited to Speranza but she coped.

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From here we drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which features in GoT as the scene of the killing of Balon Greyjoy. 

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We arrived too late to buy a ticket to cross the bridge, which was a disappointment, but made the walk there and back anyway to take a look and make some pictures. By this time night was falling and it was too late to go to our main destination for the day the famous Giant's Causeway. As we drove back to our hotel in Belfast however, we came up with a plan to return the next day.

We also had the chance on our way back from the rope bridge to park up near the Dark Hedges. My camera can shoot at very high ISO and so I was able to get one of my favourite shots of the weekend in near-darkness. Had we arrived in daylight it would have been crammed with tourists spilling off the coaches that were leaving as we arrived. As it was, it took me seconds to Photoshop away the few stragglers that remained.

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After breakfast on Sunday morning, we drove directly to the Giant's Causeway. On well-maintained and (by English standards) lightly-used motorways and A roads it was a different experience from Saturday. The miles ticked away quickly and we arrived within 50 minutes or so despite a refuelling pit stop. The attraction is natural and free, but the National Trust is in charge and determined to rake in the cash. Essentially it charges £11.50 per person to park and kindly allow access to their gift shop and cafe where its polite and helpful staff can relieve you of more cash. The "visitor centre" is modern and magnificent and we did plan to spend some time there so as the NT is a charity and mostly (despite its political correctness and priggishness) does a useful job we decided to pay up with a smile. If you were minded to be more frugal you could drop your passengers at the entrance to the car park and they could walk for free to the Causeway. If you wanted to be really frugal, you could park the car down the road and walk in. There's nothing in the gift shop or cafe that you couldn't get online or nearby from some private business or other.

After exploiting the NT facilities we had paid so handsomely to use,  we set off for nearby Dunluce Castle, a ruin that stands in for Castle Greyjoy in GoT, but is an interesting enough attraction in its own right. The owners clearly think so as, despite the constant GoT chatter of their visitors, they make nothing of the connection to the show. 

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We then had a late lunch in the nearby town of Portrush, before heading south again towards Belfast. We had hoped to visit another GoT location, Shane's Castle, on the way back but it is part of a working agricultural estate and is only open to the public for special events. So we called an end to our GoT tour and returned to town to visit the famous Crown Bar and then the cafe of the Europa Hotel (bombed 36 times during the Troubles but a pleasant enough place to pass an hour these days).

From there we dropped our guest at the station to return to Dublin and we set off to wait for our ferry home and a good night's rest at sea before a pleasant drive home to London. Given our early start – disembarking at 0630 – and a single pit stop to refuel at a motorway service station, we were home  before 11am.

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