We are in a charming town with a little harbour called Carnlough in County Antrim when Billy my guide makes an unscheduled stop. “You have to see this, ” he said as we walk towards a plaque. An unusual war hero is commemorated here – Paddy the pigeon. The story goes that Paddy, a recipient of the Dickin Medal, was one of the pigeons trained during World War 2 to pass messages. And it is believed that he was also one of the fastest to do so. The Irish carrier pigeon took about four hours and fifty minutes to cross the 230 miles of the English channel as he flew passing on coded messages. It is beautiful just standing there and listening to Paddy’s story and touching to see the Irish remember one of their own heroes, even if it is a pigeon. But there is more to Carnlough, located on the Antrim Coast as it is one of Game of Thrones charming locations as well. I am on a Northern Ireland Road trip and the journey becomes the destination as we take the Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast. There are stories everywhere as we see ruins of churches and castles in Northern Ireland and look out for fairies and leprechauns.
The winds howl through the trees, sounding like wailing banshees. It is dark and dramatic. The sea and the sky are in shades of grey. Forests are enchanted. I stop to soak in the view. A hazy canopy of branches, dipped in various shades of green greet me as the murmurings of a rivulet sound like music to the ear. Northern Ireland is hauntingly beautiful – its eeriness and melancholy only add to the charm.
“The little people are watching,” whispers Billy as I shiver in the cold. I am standing in front of a little nursery filled with sculptures that look straight out of a fairy tale. They look like pretty garden gnomes . I wonder if they are leprechauns but I am told they are little people who were once rulers of the country but were later defeated and forced to live in the underworld. They apparently arrived in a mist and vanished into thin air. Legends say that they love children and often abduct them, if the parents were not around.
Billy has a stock of ghost stories up his sleeve. The small inns and taverns along the coastal villages are home to ghosts. And the castles are haunted. We stop at the 12th century Carrickfergus Castle, which is one of the oldest stone castle in the region. Built by the Normans it stands overlooking the Belfast Lough or the Carrickfergus Bay . The story goes that John De Courcy a Nornan Lord had heard of a prophecy that the region would be ruled by a white knight riding a war horse with birds of prey on his shield. He believed that the legend spoke of him and invaded the land. A well in the castle is however haunted, apparently by a soldier who was wrongly executed for murder. Almost all castles in Northern Ireland seem to have ghost stories echoing from the walls.
The town itself is steeped in medieval lore. An ancient inn, Dobbins Inn is haunted by a lady who was believed to have been in love with a soldier who guarded the castle and was murdered by her husband. The walls of inns and taverns are coloured with quaint murals as the town hall stands right in the centre, painted in hues of yellow like a pretty sunflower looking up to see the sun which has briefly made its appearance.
We continue on our Northern Ireland road trip and pass through Glenarm, a pretty coastal village with its historic lanes and cobbled streets which is the first of the nine glens in County Antrim. Looking straight out of a picture postcard , the village also has a very old private castle, home to the Earls of Antrim. You cannot have enough of nature while driving through the route. The Forest Park located amidst the Glens of Antrim takes you to see some of the most spectacular waterfalls, particularly the Glenariff waterfall. There is a charm in the ruins that cannot be explained. Crumbling walls tell stories of their own, like the ruins of Ardclinis church and a cemetery. The sea is one side and the meadows on the other, while the broken remains of the 800 year old monument lie scattered around amidst the trees.
There is so much drama in every destination that it is little wonder that Game of Thrones was shot in several of these locations in Ireland. Our Northern Ireland road trip takes us to Ballintoy, a harbour which became famous as a Game of Thrones destination. Rocks and rock formations lend a fantasy touch to this dramatic landscape fishing harbour. As we drive past the village, we visit the Carrick – a -Rede- Bridge that dangles precariously 98 feet above the rocks, connecting the mainland to a tiny island called Carrickarede. The bridge swayed by the winds is about 66 feet and is believed to have been built by fishermen to check their fishing nets to catch salmon.
The main attraction on the Causeway Coastal Route is the Giant’s Causeway, but on the way we stop at one of the castles in Northern Ireland. I am fascinated by the ruins of Dunseverick Castle that look like two large stumps of a tree that have been chipped off. One of the oldest castles in Northern Ireland, it was believed that St Patricks visited here in the 5th century.
Nothing prepares me for my first view of Ireland’s first Heritage Site, Giant Causeway, a natural site caused over 60 million years ago due to volcanic activity with 40,000 basalt columns formed out of it. The winds are getting colder by the moment and the skies darken. I love the Irish for their stories. They can make even a basalt column and a volcanic site into a legendary story around giants.
Ireland’s favourite giant, Finn MacCool was challenged by the Scottish giant Benandonner who goes into hiding when he realizes that the Scottish giant is bigger than him. Finn’s wife however tucked him in a cradle when Benandonner knocked on his doors. Seeing the massive baby, the Scottish giant apparently fled for his life destroying the causeway originally built by Finn, so that he wont be followed.
But it doesn’t end there. The Irish with their humour and sense of imagination have named many a rock formation . Look out for the Organ, the Chimney Stacks, the Giant’s Boot before posing at the Wishing Seat among others. And as the cold winds bite into my skin, I head to the mammoth visitors centre to lose myself in a world of fable and folklore.
Our last port of halt on the Northern Ireland road trip takes us to rugged cliffs overlooking the sea.. A gaunt spectacle greets us . Perched proudly are the ruins of an ancient castle, another famous Game of Thrones location . There is an air of melancholy in the magnificent ruins of the Dunluce Castle, one of the most dramatic castles in Northern Ireland.
Built in the 13th century, the ramparts and the turrets hide many a secret like the ghost of a broken hearted woman who roams through these windowless ruins. Another tale speaks of the time when a part of the kitchen fell into the sea , killing all servants but for one boy. The castle which passed on from one generation of another of the gentry was eventually abandoned, left to only ghosts and haunted tales.
And as darkness envelopes the sky and the lighthouses wink along the coastline, I end my Northern Ireland road trip across the 120 mile Causeway Coastal Route with a final visit to the oldest distillery at Bushmills to flavour the spirit of Ireland before calling it a night.
UK is definitely the flavour of the season and plan your trip to UK this summer with Wego, which is my favourite one stop shop for all deals when it comes to fares for flights and also hotels. It helps you to get an understanding of the various fares offered by different sites to the same destination and you can choose the ones that suit you, based on cheap deals and convenience. Belfast is just a flight away from London and you can lose yourself in the dramatic beauty of this region.