Monthly Archives: May 2023

Should we or shouldn’t we?

We found a particularly fine parkup that’s touted as a perfect view of the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, one of the must-do stops on the Causeway Coastal Route. And it is indeed a glorious view. You can see the bridge swinging 100 feet above the sea, connecting the mainland with a small rocky island used for centuries as a base for salmon fishermen. In our car park there’s a constant stream of buses and cars bringing hundreds of tourists to snap the photo; then after a few minutes they leave to drive down the road to the National Trust car park to walk back along the shore to the bridge. By five o’clock we and our fellow campers have the place to ourselves.

We’re mostly content to look at the bridge from afar and use the parkup while we explore other places, like the Giants Causeway and nearby castles. We like the view.

There are a couple of reasons why we’re reluctant to add the rope bridge to our itinerary. For one thing, it’s expensive. They want £15 each ($18.50) just to walk over the bridge to the island. That seems excessive to us. We decided to go down to the coast anyway and walk along the sea, figuring we’ll enjoy the views just as much even if we don’t walk across the bridge, which is short by rope bridge standards. We’ve been on others, longer if not as high, in Costa Rica and New Zealand.

Then we discovered that the powers that be erected a height barrier at the beginning of the access road leading to the official rope bridge car park to keep tour buses out. It also keeps out campervans but there’s a phone number you can call and someone will come and open the barrier. The problem is there’s not enough space to stop while you call and wait. The barrier is at the top of a hill and on a curve and we don’t feel safe with cars and buses zooming by. They sure don’t make it easy to visit a popular place on the Game of Thrones tour.

Our solution is to walk down from our car park following a route in the AllTrails app which suggests a shortcut nearly straight down to the rope bridge. We set off on a perfect day, early enough, we thought, to avoid the inevitable crowds.

After a few hundred meters along the road the app points toward the sea but we couldn’t see an obvious path. What we did see was a house and a “Private Property” sign and a fence. We knew from the map that we were directly above and adjacent to the bridge. If we can’t find the path the alternative is to walk a mile further along the road, then down the height-restricted access road to the official car park at the bottom, then double back along the coast for a mile to the bridge. We were deflated. We looked at our map. The path starts here. We looked at the house. No path. In a burst of age-adjusted rebellion we whistled past the “Private Property” sign, climbed over the fence and spent the next 20 minutes picking our way through as much sheep poo as any random field in Scotland as we snaked our way down to the bottom. Along the way we both agreed that what the heck, we’ll pony up the £30 and walk the damn bridge.

Near the bottom we left the private property and looked back toward the high promontory where we parked.

Then we looked for the ticket office. What we found instead was the gated entrance to the actual bridge, and two young park attendants.

“Do you have a booking?” they asked.


“Do you have a ticket?”

We explained that we’d walked down from the road above and pointed to where our van was parked and that we didn’t pass the ticket office. The attendants looked up at our steep overland route and back at us. I wasn’t sure if they were thinking we’re mighty adventurous for a couple of old folks or merely foolish. Silence.

“What do you suggest we do now?” I ventured. There was no one else about. They hemmed and hawed. Then I had an idea.

“I have this,” I said, and I tapped my phone to show our National Trust membership card, which expired a few days ago.

“Oh, you’re members! Go ahead!” They said, happy to be relieved of a decision. They stepped aside and we stared down the steep steps to the bridge.

Now I have no problem with rope bridges, even when someone jumps up and down in the middle as some idiot did on a long and jangly number in Costa Rica. What I do have a problem with is heights. And this bridge is high.

Nevertheless, it’s as sturdy as you can make a rope bridge and they let hundreds of people traverse it every day, so who am I to let a little palmsweat keep me from crossing to the other side? And the views are absolutely worth it.

They say there’s been a rope bridge here for 350 years, strung up every year for the salmon fishing season. The fishing boats were lowered into the sea then hauled up to safety again with the catch. It’s seems a hard way to make a living.

An old cottage still remains, along with part of the structure the fishermen used to winch the boat out of the water.

Carrickarede island itself is interesting for its geology as the largest volcanic plug in Northern Ireland. We spent the better part of an hour sitting on a rock at the end of the island, surrounded by wildflowers, looking out at the sea.

When more tourists started showing up we made our way back over the island to the bridge.

By this time there was a queue on either side because everyone wants a photo of themselves crossing over and we all waited patiently for our turn.

When we climbed up to the path we had a decision to make. Should we muck our way back through the sheep meadow and the private property? Or take the official path to the National Trust car park, a much longer but legal route?

We opted for the straight and narrow and enjoyed even more spectacular views of the coastline and Game of Thrones filming locations.

It was a long steep walk back up to the cliffs and along the road to our van. I’m pretty sure tomorrow will be a recovery day.

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Forewarned is only forearmed if you’ve fully assessed the situation

Ok, I was warned that the circuitous single-lane road down into Old Ballintoy Harbor was steep, narrow, twisty and busy. Which it was. It’s just that one has to experience how tight and how twisty before you can ask, “Is it worth it?”

Switching off EV I let out a heavy sigh of relief, looked up and said, “Wow, this is beautiful!” It really was. Before you ask, yes, several GoT scenes were shot here and many thrillseekers are here to pay homage.

Ballintoy stood in for Iron Island and we are definitely on the tour schedule. No buses are in evidence but with that twisty trip down the hillside I’m not surprised. Town council has welcomed us by blocking most of the car parks using the despised height barrier and plastering the lot with “No Overnight Parking” signs, which we read may or may not be obeyed.

On that happy note we began to explore the harbor.

We could sense the energy of the incoming tide

In an effort to stay one step ahead of the law we regrettably decided not to chance staying overnight and that meant challenging the steep, narrow, twisty road back up again. Luckily we didn’t meet anyone coming down.

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Join the crowd

We are masters of off-season travel but in a break from our usual approach we find ourselves in peak season at the most touristed places in Northern Ireland. Even at the beautiful parkups where we enjoy peaceful sundowns and quiet nights, midday brings a confusion of large and small tour buses and family cars from all over Europe. It’s madness but we’re learning to get up early, do our touring before the throngs arrive, then retreat to the van for lunch and to read or write or nap until the car park empties out and we can stretch our legs again.

The biggest draw on the Causeway CoastalI’m Route is the UNESCO listed Giant’s Causeway, which has been on my bucket list for decades. We need to pick the right time to visit: sunny weather, a weekday, and early enough to beat the crowds. The weather gods smiled on us and we began our assault.

On the advice of some other early risers we initially walked past the causeway itself and followed the trail until it ends at the “Amphitheatre.” (You know you’re in a heavily touristed area when geological formations get cultural names.)

The trail is steep in parts and took us to the Organ Pipes and along the ridge until the path ends with a view of even more basalt columns.

We turned around and followed the path back down towards the sea, and as we approached the actual causeway, it was clear that the tour buses had started to arrive. Maybe we should have gone there first.

Luckily, most of the tourists don’t venture too far onto the rocks.

We picked our way to the front of the pack, and under the watchful eye of a park guide whose job it is to keep people off the slippery bits, we sat for awhile watching the sea and its relentless assault.

The place was filling up and we exhausted the possible photo ops. It was time to start the mile-long slog back up to the car park.

At the top of the cliffs, we found two benches with glass and ceramic medallions embedded in the wood. The work was done during and in response to the pandemic. I found these artistic expressions of something we all lived through, separately and as a whole, very moving.

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Parkup in the clouds

Marce found a quiet parkup high above Rathlin Sound in the clouds with Scotland, on a clear day, off in the distance. The main attraction for us is that it features a few RV services we’re in need of. You could say free toilets with a view.

For me, the fascinating thing about the view is an unmarked formation of rocks that I’d noticed before from other locations but, because of distance and the lack of elevation, I couldn’t really make sense of. Now, from our perch in the clouds we’re high above the rocks but clarity is another matter. These rocks so disturb the flow of the current that as the swell approaches, the water suddenly rears up into a standing wave whose break causes other waves from three different directions to tumble into the center, creating a frothy whirlpool in the middle of the maelstrom. And yet, at other times the rocks are under the surface and the sea around them is placid. As an unrepentant sailor I find the sea endlessly fascinating and this phenomenon really focused my imagination.

While sailing in the Caribbean we had occasion to sail right over “Kick e’m Jenny” an underwater volcano with dire warnings on the nautical charts to steer clear. Afterwards locals looked at us like we were either sailing gods or maybe just plain mad.

After servicing EV we noticed a trailhead at a back corner of the parkup and more significantly, a plaque describing native flora & fauna mounted right before the path turns a corner and disappears out of sight. This is a quiet backwater with a gorgeous seaview of Rathlin Sound and Island but with a more substantial parkup than you would expect. What are we missing here? It must be the trail but there are no clues from up here. It’s the kind of temptation that draws you further up a mountain, or down a set of stairs so long that you can’t even see the bottom. This time it turned out to be the latter. It’s a beautiful scene and we’re keen to find out where these stairs lead.

Slowly, every 50 feet or so, bit by bit, the story is revealed.

It took a while to piece together what we were looking at.

As we closed with the bottom of the stairs we found the ancient ruins of Kinbane Castle clinging to a rocky limestone outcrop reaching out into the crashing waves of Rathlin Sound.

What a special find! I just had to climb over a grassy knoll and found what was probably a fisherman’s cottage and a bit of rock art.

Kinbane Castle was built by Colla MacDonnell in 1547, younger brother of the notorious constable of Dunluce, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, during the height of MacDonnell supremacy along this coast.

It was besieged by the English but a garrison found hiding under the castle in a large sea cave — now called the “hollow of the English” — were trapped and massacred.

The castle was thought to be impervious to cannon fire due to the protection of the rocky limestone knoll to seaward. It was eventually damaged by English cannons but was soon rebuilt, and survived as a residence well into the 1700’s.

This is the kind of place where you just want to sit and soak all of this in for a while, especially when you consider all the stairs you’re going to have to lug the caboose up to get out of here.

You’ll be shocked to learn that Kinbane Castle in not on the GoT tour.

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Six degrees, or five

Shortly after we arrived in Northern Ireland we got an email from my sister’s husband’s colleague, their friend for nearly fifty years and by extension mine too. She told us one of her cousins in Northern Ireland married into the McBride family who’ve farmed the northeast corner of the island for 300 years. Their land includes the rocky cliffs of Fair Head which, like so many places along this coast, was a location for Game of Thrones, and the family welcome hikers and climbers with a car park and a field for tent camping. We marked our map.

At the car park I was dropping coins into the honesty box when a car drove slowly out through the open gate. On a chance I called out, “Are you Sean?”

The driver stopped, then reversed to where I stood. He looked friendly enough and he smiled and said yes, he was Sean. I told him my sister’s husband’s colleague is his wife’s cousin, and he paused for a minute to think about that, then asked, “You mean Margaret Mary?”

“Yes!” I said. “I’ve known her for nearly fifty years.”

“Well, come in and have a cup of tea,” he said and he welcomed us into the house where we had one of those Irish conversations that feel like you’re catching up with an old friend. He told us all about the family here and about the branches who emigrated to America, and he regaled us with stories about the filming of Game of Thrones.

We could have talked for hours, but we were eager to get to the cliffs while the weather was clear and sunny. Sean walked us out and pointed past the family’s ancestral home to the start of the trail, then showed us the various optional hiking routes through the property.

We couldn’t have picked a better day. The air was chilly and there was a fresh breeze but Sean assured us that even on the cliffs if wouldn’t be too windy.

Most of this coastline is columnar basalt culminating in the famous outcropping of the Giant’s Causeway. But even here you can see the long columns that make up the cliffs and see the shapes which can be pentagons, hexagons or octagons.

This is about as close to a cliff edge as you’ll ever see me. “Not too windy” is subjective when you weight 130 lbs. and it’s a land breeze. Let’s just say Sean is well-grounded.

We had the foresight to take along some refreshments and with plenty of convenient rocks to sit on we rested and marveled at this breathtaking scenery. There wasn’t another soul in sight.

We started up again following our blue route markers until right after this stile we lost our way. We doubled back, looked for the right trail marker, lost it again, went back, lost it again. In all we crossed that stile four times before giving up and heading overland. We could see the farm in the distance but not the trail we were supposed to be on.

We slogged our way through lumpy sheep meadows, climbing over wire fences and rerouting around rivulets and loose rock. Many times we thought we’d found an established path only to have it peter out. It was an exhausting and soul-crushing return.

When we finally reached the car park Sean asked how we did and we told him about losing the trail.

“You didn’t see the road?” He pointed up past the fields we’d plodded through.

“No,” we said, sheepishly. “We missed it.”

As we said our goodbyes something behind us caught Sean’s attention and with a quick wave he hurried off to help wrangle some unruly sheep into the barn.

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You never can tell

By all rights tonight’s parkup ought to be awful. The single lane access road bifurcates a public golf course which assures high traffic. After a sharp 90° turn to avoid a beach and the ocean, one finds a pie shaped parkup for maybe four reasonably sized RVs which means lots of people want your space and they’ll do most anything to get there first. It can be quite cutthroat and they’ll probably stay for the sunset. The narrow lane continues with cars haphazardly parallel parked against a stone wall for a quarter mile until several tiny cars could pull straight into a few spaces near the end.

Regardless it’s a lovely spot and somehow we shoehorned EV into a questionable spot to wait for a better one. It’s our superpower. We wait. We have some lunch. We take a stroll. We wait.

We walked out on the beach to a pier to visit some rocks with magnificent Fair Head in the background.

It’s funny that headlands were always good reason for extreme caution when we were sailing past them but now on land we find them quite beautiful, dramatic, and hard to resist.

In the evening while relaxing after dinner I sensed movement in the pie shaped RV section a quarter mile away. We had an Escape Velocity fire drill with Marce hoofing it down the road while I backed EV out and headed towards what we hoped would be an actual RV parking space. We barely made it to the vacated space in time and we may have disappointed a fellow traveler but I must say it made for a relaxed night’s sleep.

The following morning while sipping my first coffee something caught my eye just off the beach.

A square rigged barque hove into view.

You don’t see this everyday and with all sails furled we could see she was headed for the outer harbor. She rounded up into the wind and splashed anchor. Marce looked her up in Marine Traffic and she’s called Thalassa out of Troon, Scotland.

There was some breeze this morning and the swell began to surge in sending the barque into a wicked corkscrewing roll.

Well hidden, tucked deep behind a headland I’m sure she had every expectation of a calm night but it’s amazing how much the swell can wrap around a headland, as much as 30° is not uncommon. Boats have a diabolical predilection toward lying ahull in a sympathetic roll with the swell. It can really get nasty. Those sailors did not have a comfortable night and I’ll bet not many opted for breakfast.

Later we walked into Ballycastle in search of edible eggs Benedict.

What we found was honestly the most perfect cinnamon roll I’ve ever had in a bakery called Ursa Minor. To this day I rue the fact that I only bought two. Pictures? Surely you jest.

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The insurance dance

After many days on the phone and plenty of rejections I finally found an insurance carrier who agreed to take us on for less than half what we paid last year. We have a few more restrictions as to coverage area but we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.

Confirming that we are not yet a paperless society we need to print the documents, sign and rescan them before emailing back to the agent. We need to find a copy shop. Try as I might, I couldn’t locate one anywhere near where we are or plan to be.

We stopped for the night at a little town where we’d stayed before, went to a grocery store, then a laundry, and while Jack kept his eye on the wash tumbling in the machine I circled for a half hour through the convoluted streets until I found the tiny public library.

The librarian on duty confirmed that yes, I can print documents, and when she couldn’t find the visitor’s pass for me to use, she just signed me up as a member. I now have a library card for all of Northern Ireland. Take that, Edinburgh, who wanted a full personal dossier to even let me in the door and denied me membership because I’m not a legal resident of the UK, despite having a borrowed address. I know, rules are rules, but as the accommodating librarian today told me, it’s at the discretion of the librarian, and she obviously didn’t see me as a threat to the library’s holdings.

Access to the collections and services of archives and libraries is always of interest to me as a family history researcher. I don’t mind rules or fees, but I do like to hear a logical reason for denial of services. I’m reminded of my time researching in St. Thomas.

I found the 1820 record of my great-great grandmother’s baptism on microfilm at the Caribbean Genealogy Library. The film was very poor and hard to read.

The cathedral in the same town holds the original records and I went to the parish office to ask if I could see it. I was told I needed to petition the Monsignor in a letter, which I did. My request was denied because the records are “too fragile.” I asked what measures were being taken to preserve the records. None, I was told. So the records are deteriorating day by day in an unforgiving climate, and no one can see them. They will crumble into dust whether someone looks at them or not. I’m still angry about it.

I understand the difference between historical parish records and public library holdings but I strongly believe in access to information, whatever it may be, and however reasonably controlled or regulated.

None of this has anything to do with printing insurance documents except to say that the small town librarian who assisted me also gave me lots of information about where I might find records to help with our family history research. She was for access, not against it. And I nearly danced back to the van, printouts in hand, happy to have a few new leads to follow, and grateful to a local librarian who took the time to help a stranger.

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Chasing the little red teardrop

Things are not as obvious here in Ireland as Google Maps would have you believe. We crossed a charming one-lane stone bridge looking for today’s parkup and honestly, before I was ready I had to pivot Escape Velocity sharply right at a fish and chip shop onto a tiny alley which was unfortunately blocked by stylishly turned out young women and gents. As they reluctantly sauntered out of the way I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women had the same flowing cocktail dress on. I’m no judge but they seemed to be a little over-dressed for the afternoon and was it possible we were witnessing a remarkably awkward coincidence? Or was it a gaggle of bridemaids out for a smoke break? I vote for smoking bridesmaids.

Suddenly they all disappeared only to return in a remarkably short amount of time, and I’m going to guess here, post ceremony with bride in tow, for a rather longish photo session with three photographers: a young female to do the candids, a middle aged man to doggedly capture the mandatory familial combinations, and the old man with that all-important very long slimming lens who had to set up beside the RVs — including now us — in the parkup to do the top tier portraits. That long lens can only help. When the wedding party was released they hopped into odd looking, incredibly noisy little hot rod econo-boxes.

And with that, sleepy Cunshendun’s entertainment was over for the day. We strolled across the old stone bridge through the picturesque town.

In the morning we decided to take our personal entertainment into our own hands and hike over to the caves rumored to be in the area.

Almost every house in Cunshendun has a window display like this

On the way we ran into Johann, Cunshendun’s grumpy looking bronze memorial to the last of countless goats culled during the terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001.

Condolences Johann

It’s true that it wasn’t far but the beach was deep with what I imagine are millions of those rounded golf ball sized stones that are the devil itself to walk on.

Of course several scenes used in The Game of Thrones were shot in these caves, including that creepy shadow birth of Melisandre’s. Yes, it’s on the GoT bus tour.

We came to Cushendun for the nice parkup and the caves were a bonus, but the open road calls Escape Velocity.

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A hidden village

Guided by a small mark on the map we parked along the coast road by a gate that opened to a gravel road leading up a steep hill. We know by now that such a setting is an invitation to the Escapees to put on our hiking shoes and see what’s up there.

We climbed and climbed, high above the coast road, around craggy outcrops and spongy meadows.

A half mile of thigh-burning hiking brought us to the hidden village of Galboly, a walled group of abandoned stone buildings left to crumble and overgrown with vines and wildflowers. It’s as picturesque a place as we’ve ever seen.

Lucky for us, one of the lineal owners of the village was tending his sheep and was happy to have a chat. Liam pointed out each building — this was Rose’s old house, that was Rose’s new house, this was Annie’s house, that was a shebeen. Liam explained that a shebeen (síbín in Irish) was an illegal pub where they sold homemade whiskey.

“My mother was born in that cottage,” Liam said, and he pointed to a crumbling building with a fine view of the sea. He happily obliged when I asked if I could take his photo in front of it, then regaled us with glee about the times visitors arrived boasting that their granddad or great uncle had lived there, not realizing that Liam was probably a long lost cousin.

Liam was particularly amused by the woman who told him her son was the first to discover the village. He said he asked her if the son was 200 years old and he howled with delight at the thought that his ancestral village was unknown before a young man stumbled across it.

We spent a good hour listening to Liam’s stories and taking photographs before starting the beautiful trek back down the mountain to the sea. The coast of Northern Ireland continues to deliver.

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Something evil in the stones of man

Marce aced the park-up again. She found a large, free, nearly flat parking lot facing the Lough of Belfast in the middle of downtown Carrickfergus. Not an easy thing to do. The Irish, it seems, insist on their pound of flesh or simply install heavy height barriers that stop us from using many car parks. Not exactly welcoming. We’re not in Scotland anymore but at least several large grocery stores were right across the street and remarkably, tucked away in a corner of the lot, was a French style aire de service, expressly for servicing RVs. They hate us…then they love us.

However there was a disquieting presence that we both felt in this otherwise soft touch. Every so often, actually more than made sense, we would stop and glance up staring all the way across this large lot of parked cars at the hulking dark almost malevolent presence of Carrickfergus Castle. I know it’s supposed to look threatening, which it does very well, but we couldn’t understand why we didn’t feel protected or at least well defended by its over dominant feng shui. Maybe that’s all it is. That evening we decided on a bit of a stretch and inevitably, on our stroll, we were drawn to the dark imposing walls of the castle. You know, it’s a “face your discomfort” kind of thing.

Note to Carrickfergus town council: some cheerful lighting playing on the castle walls at night might be nice. There’s something just not right about this thing. We both decided this would be more fun on a sunny day especially before the crowds descended on us. Against all odds the next morning we got just that.

You’re thinking Jonny Depp but no, it’s King William III commemorating his 1690 landing.

Begun in 1177, surrounded on three sides with rocky walls rising out of the water of the Lough of Belfast, the sturdy Norman style Carrickfergus Castle is indeed imposing.

One buys one’s ticket in the gift shop and you’ll soon find yourself watching a helpful orientation video.

A massive keep dominates the interior space.

Some of the largest caliber guns we’ve seen.

Impressive 5 story keep
Throne room
The great hall on 5th floor
Teacher says, “Oh my days, I’ve never seen a more crooked line!”

Looks like it’s time to go.

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