House Sitting in N. Ireland – Week 1
We are currently house sitting in Northern Ireland and from the first day of arrival, I began to fall in love with this beautiful area.
The home is a renovated farmhouse and the pet is “She Who Must Be Obeyed”, a gorgeous black cat with wonderfully white whiskers. (say that five times fast!)
Even though we arrived early, the owners made us feel immediately welcome, and showed us around their lovely home. They made a delightful meal for us before retiring to get their final preparations made. They were leaving at 4am! The owners were very clear that we were free to roam the countryside and that She Who Must Be Obeyed was very independent and they had often left her on her own for days at a time. We weren’t going to do days at a time, but it was nice to know we could go out and explore daily.
The home is situated about 6 miles from Ballycastle on the Northern Irish coast. It is surrounded by fields, farms, cows, sheep and horses. The resident swallows were busy building nests and preparing for their young. It is a very busy place from that point of view. The back garden is wild and the clover had just come out, so we were aware of the low hum of dozens of bees collecting the first pollen.
Northern Ireland, by its location, is cooler and therefore behind the rest of Britain when it comes to the birds and the bees (not what you think). The Hawthorne is just beginning to come out in the first week of June. The lushness of the land it amazing.
Our first order of business was to decide what we were going to see. There is so much to choose from and so many places to visit, and if you are a Game of Thrones fan, there are tours designed specifically for that!
The Coastal Causeway Route
Because the house is situated so close to the coast, we decided to start with the Coastal Causeway Route. It is a must-see if you are coming to Northern Ireland and it runs from Belfast to Londonderry or Derry as it is now known. You can do it in a day, be we decided to do bits of it at a time to ensure we fully explored and experienced it.
Our first foray was to the Giant’s Causeway. The first mistake was to try to do it on a Sunday, AND the last day of the half-term break! It was so busy that we decided to come back and do it later in the week. We ended up driving the Causeway and stopped at White Park Bay and Balintoy Harbour.
White Park Bay
White Park Bay is said to be one of the first settlements of Ireland and there has been evidence found of Neolithic settlers and a stone axe and arrowhead industry. It is a sweeping bay of tall, craggy cliffs and sandy beaches that are home to a diverse collection of birds and sea creatures. It is said that on Midsummer’s Eve, you can come to the layby (from where this picture is taken) at the top of the cliffs and see a sunset of uncommon beauty. The Sun sends a pathway of golden light across the sea to the land.
White Park Bay gives way to Ballintoy Harbour
Ballintoy Harbour is a small community of fishermen that was used for the setting of Theon Greyjoy’s homeland in the Game of Thrones series. It is a craggy bay fully of rocks and outcroppings and one is said to resemble a sleeping dragon, when the light hits it right in the evenings.
The biggest draw is Roark’s Kitchen, which sits at the edge of the bay and it boasts the most amazing array of cakes, scones, fudge, bars, and pies you can imagine. It is a popular (well, of course) stop in the Causeway Coastal Route for a cuppa and a cake. I will tell you, the cakes were delicious.. yes, I said cakes.
There was the largest selection of cakes I have ever seen in one place.. We will have to go back to try some different ones!
The Dark Hedges
Another stop you must make is to the Dark Hedges. The Dark Hedges are an ancient stand of beeches that were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family, along the roadway leading to their manor house, Gracehill. They have grown to meet above the road and create the iconic avenue. Most famously, this was used as the road to Kings Landing in the Game of Thrones.
When you arrive, you are directed to the car park – there is also a hotel and café there along with a golf course and clubhouse. You can sign up for a guided tour of the property (about 40mins long) or carry on by yourself. There is a wee fairy forest at the beginning of the walk with many fairy doors.
Once beyond that you can cross the road (look before crossing!) and you are in the avenue. It is usually quite busy but you can go off season or around sunset to beat the crowds. Beware the Grey Lady!
The Birches are wonderfully old and creaky and did you know you can live on the Beech nuts if you are starving? There are many medicinal properties of the Beech Tree.
The next day we went back to the Giant’s Causeway.
The Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most famous features of Northern Ireland. The story goes an Irish giant named Finn McCool (I am not making this up!) was defending Ireland from a Scottish giant, named Benandonner, and they threw down clods of the land to form a bridge between Ireland and Scotland, for Finn to teach Benandonner a lesson.
Once Finn McCool caught sight of Benandonner – he knew he was beaten because the Scottish giant was HUGE. He ran home and begged his wife to hide him and she told him to get into the bed and made him up to be a baby. When Benandonner arrived looking for Finn, Finn’s wife told him that Finn was not home.
When Benandonner queried about the figure in the bed, Finn’s wife told him it was their baby. Benandonner exclaimed “If yer bairn is that big, then Finn must be bigger…” and ran away in fear. As he left, he broke up the Causeway to protect him from the Irish giants.
The Causeway is protected and run by the National Trust and it is totally worth getting a membership if you are going to be in the UK for a couple of months (or six). It gets you free parking and access to many of the old Manor Homes and protected areas in the UK. The other one to join is the British Heritage Society that allows you to pay monthly for a membership. This will get you into many of the monuments and castles in the UK.
We had a wet and rainy day next, so we took a day off… built a fire in the stove and spent the day puttering about and reading. It was a gloriously wet and windy day and we were toasty warm inside. The peace and solitude of this location made it a lovely “sit by the fire day and relax all toasty and warm”.
Londonderry, or Derry as it is now known
The following day we took a road-trip to Londonderry, or Derry as it is known now. It was a grey day and hit pockets of torrential rain all the way along. It was just over an hour’s drive to get us there, but so worth it. One of the places we visited was St. Colomb’s Cathedral. This Cathedral has played a significant role in the formation of N. Ireland.
There is a cannon ball (huge) in the atrium that is the very same that was shot into the walled city by the Jacobites during the Seige of Derry. It contained the surrender terms for the city. The people did not take kindly to it and locked the city gates is massive locks and the Seige began. It is an interesting story and sets the stage for future conflicts.
Our week ended on a glorious day of sunshine and a drive back to the coast to visit the Glenarm Castle grounds.
As Google will do, we were sent on the fastest route – overland – to the small seaside town of Glenarm. We made our way to the Glenarm Castle (a manor really) and the walled garden. You can visit the gardens daily, but the Castle is still inhabited, so tours are infrequent and delivered by the Butler. There is a lovely tea house that serves breakfast, lunch, and tea.
We left there and decided to throw Google to the wind and follow the coastal route back. The sky was blue, the wind a minimum and boats dotted the sea. We wound our over mountains speckled with sheep farms, around the ragged coast, and inland through drier and gorse-covered hills. It was a lovely drive and highly recommended.
That ends week one of our sit in N. Ireland. Can’t wait to see what discoveries week two will hold.