Ride the Antrim Coast Road for tall tales, Irish charm and a damn fine Scotch. WORDS: David Whitley
It’s a triumph of spectacularly random commentary. As the bus trundles up the road from Belfast, the driver points out the fabled business parks of Carrickfergus, three charity shops, special schools for the deaf and blind and what was once the UK’s widest motorway.
They are the words of a man who loves his job; a tour guide who freely admits that he happily drives the same route on his day off. Even the less-enchanting parts of the Antrim Coast Road hold their own magic for Tom.
To be fair, the drive takes a while to become properly charming. Yes, Carrickfergus Castle is a nice photo stop, but it’s when the road starts hugging the hills and skirts the Glens of Antrim that the journey begins to seem worth it.
As the bus rolls on through, we’re treated to a series of shaggy dog stories. “Wild haggis roam these hills,” Tom insists at one point, while he claims a cave was once used by a woman to make poitin (illegal whiskey). The story goes that she was arrested, fined five shillings, and then she started to sell water, giving the whiskey away for free in order to get round it.
It’s one of the few places in the world where grim weather doesn’t really detract. Yes, it’s probably idyllic on a sunny day, but blustery greyness and spitting drizzle seem a perfect match. Clattering seas and wild moorlands, thickly laced with Scottish-style heather, lend themselves to gloom and murk.
Alas, the weather conditions make the adrenalin-inducing part of the trip a no-go. Under normal circumstances, it would be possible to gibber and panic over the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Connecting the mainland to Carrick Island, this looks terrifyingly shaky. They say it’s safe, they say it’s been tested, they say nobody’s died. But then I didn’t believe the story about the wild haggis either.
But the real reason that most of us are on the tour is to see the Giant’s Causeway. It’s possible to get a shuttle bus down from the car park, but that’s for the truly feeble. In any case, the walk is fabulous, with cliffs and bluffs jutting out into the angry sea. There’s a wealth of colours in the rocks, grass and trees, but it’s the huge collection of hexagonal stepping stones that make this a World Heritage site.
While the coastline is pretty cool from afar, it’s really only up close that the magic of the Giant’s Causeway reveals itself. There are thousands of these rock columns, all tessellated together as if in a sprawling honeycomb.
Clambering over and hopping from hexagon to hexagon is tremendous fun – a little like a giant version of an odd Japanese board game. There are around 40,000 of these columns. Not all are six-sided – some are five or eight – but it’s the sheer scale and setting that impress. And, of course, there’s another unlikely story – this time about the giant who made it (see ‘Don’t burn your bridges’, below).
The tour finishes at what claims to be the world’s oldest whiskey distillery for a wee dram, though Tom betrays his Scottish roots by insisting there’s nothing special about the product at Bushmills. “It’s just a damn fine Scotch, made in Ireland to a Scottish recipe,” he says when trying to explain the difference between the Irish and Scottish varieties. He’s right – it is damn fine.
How was the Giant’s Causeway made?
If you ask scientists, the Giant’s Causeway was formed during a period of intense volcanic activity. They claim molten basalt poured out through a bed of chalk, forming a lava plateau. When it cooled it did so at varying rates, thus creating the unusual column structure.
This, of course, is nonsense, and the real story goes as the locals tell it. A giant called Finn McCool made the Causeway in order to get over to Scotland, where he was spoiling for a fight with a rival giant.
Once in Scotland he noticed that his foe was much bigger than he was, so he ran away back home. However, the Scottish giant got wind of this and followed him over the Causeway to Ireland.
Luckily, McCool’s wife was considerably cleverer than he was, and dressed Finn up as a baby. After seeing the size of the baby, the Scottish giant was terrified – how big must Daddy be? So he turned and fled, destroying the Causeway on the way so he couldn’t be followed. And that’s true, that is.