When I was young the prospect of ever going to Northern Ireland seemed completely remote on account of the political and nationalist troubles. In September 2003 however I travelled there to the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health annual conference and I was overwhelmed by the charm, history and natural environment.
When I read the guide books I knew that there was one special place that I had to see and I would have to go back there to visit: The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim on the north-east coast.
The Giant’s Causeway is a geological wonder consisting of about forty thousand interlocking basalt columns resulting from a volcanic eruption about sixty million years ago. Most of the columns are hexagonal in shape, but there are some with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about twelve metres high, and the solidified lava in the cliffs is nearly thirty metres thick in places. It was declared the only World Heritage Site in Northern Island by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987.
In a 2005 Radio Times poll, the Giant’s Causeway was named as the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom. The top three were the Dan Yr Ogof National Showcaves Centre in South Wales, The Cheddar Gorge in Somerset and the White Cliffs of Dover. I’ve never visited the caves, Cheddar Gorge is worth a visit but I’m not at all sure about the White Cliffs of Dover! Making up the rest of the top ten were the Jurassic Coast, Loch Lomond, Cwm Idal, Staffa, St Kilda and Lundy Island.
I drove to The Giant’s Causeway from Belfast using the A2 coastroad on a sunny day with a cloudless blue sky one February. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the coastline and the friendly villages on the way. This was a revelation to me as the only images that I had in my head were those associated with the troubles in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Bearing that in mind, what was helpful was that in each of the villages we passed through we knew exactly where political loyalties lay because the lamp posts were either painted red, white and blue or orange, white and green depending upon wheather they were predominantly loyalist or republican.
The Scottish coast is only about forty kilometres across the Irish Sea and there were good views across to snow capped mountains in the distance. I stopped frequently on the way to admire these and the only time I felt unsafe was when a big hairy dog was running loose on a beach and came much too close for comfort on a couple of occasions. Finally I drove through the village of Bushmills, which is best known as the location of the Old Bushmills Distillery, founded in 1608 and is the oldest licensed distillery in the world and the only Irish distillery using 100% malted barley in its whiskies, in a range which includes Original, Black Bush and a range of malts, including a famous twelve year old malt. Three kilometres from Bushmills was the Giant’s Causeway.
The visitor centre was a bit of a disappointment because the permanent one had burnt down in April 2000 and all that was here now was a temporary wooden shed with a few exhibits, an inadequate restaurant and a ticket office. The Causeway attracts over half a million people a year and I imagine that this must make it a bit crowded in summer but today being the middle of February was short of visitors which made it much more enjoyable.
The causeway was formed during the early Tertiary period about sixty-two million years ago over a long period of igneous activity when this whole area would have been situated in an equatorial region, experiencing hot and humid conditions. The unique sprawl of hexagonal basalt columns that make up the Giant’s Causeway, was formed when lava broke through the earth’s crust and cooled as it hit the sea. The fascinating patterns in the causeway stones formed as a result of rock crystallization under conditions of accelerated cooling, which usually occurs when molten lava comes into immediate contact with water and the resulting fast accelerated cooling process causes cracking and patterns.
There is uniformity to the patterns that confused people for a long time and before the geological process that formed the causeway was fully understood some were convinced that it was the result of the labours of an earlier civilization that had built a sort of paved highway across the sea to Scotland. What made this credible for them was that the same rock formations occur at Flingal’s Cave across the water. We know now that this was completely daft but it is a nice story nevertheless.
An even better story of course is the legend that the Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner. When he arrived in Scotland he was alarmed to find that his opponent was much much bigger than him so he immediately returned home in a panic pursued by Benandonner who crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Fin his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him and pretended he was actually Fin’s baby son. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby, he assumed the father must be gigantic indeed and he fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway as he went in case he was followed by Fionn.
It is an interesting fact that in Irish Finn McCool becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill and the 19th century Irish revolutionary organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood took its name from the inspiration of these legends.
I liked the Giant’s Causeway, it certainly goes into my personal top ten and I have to say that I think it deserved to come a bit higher in the Radio Times poll of top ten UK nautral wonders.