by Jacob Aldridge

We’ve hired a car for today in order to head from Belfast to the very top of Northern Ireland. How far north is that? Well we’re going to a stand on a rope bridge from which you can see all the way to Scotland.

And then we’re going to visit the bullet holes that inspired a U2 song.

Today’s Experience

It’s an early start out of Belfast for the the 90 minute drive up the A26 to Bushmills, a town know for its Whiskey and famous for a causeway you could never take a boat on.

A natural wonder, we were disappointed when planning our drive to discover that the Giant’s Causeway is surrounded by cunning strategies to separate you from your money. Access to the park is free, but they don’t make it easy! In this instance, you have several options:

  • Pay £8.50 each for parking at the visitors centre (and entry to the centre)
  • Park in town, either free or a few pounds depending on the day, and catch a local bus out to the site
  • Park for free on a nearby street – except, there are no nearby streets with parking. It’s at least a 20-30 minute walk from the nearest legal and safe park up to the Causeway

Of course, we have a plan even more cunning than the National Trust: we’re going to park at the Visitor’s Centre … before they open.

Walking the Giant's Causeway national park just after sunrise

The other advantage of an early arrival? Avoiding the crowds.

Look, some people are blown away by the forces of nature that have created these hexagonal stones, extruded side-by-side from the earth and calmly treading a path from the cliff face down into the sea. Before your visit, be aware that they call this the Giant’s Causeway not because it’s particularly giant, but rather because in folklore it was built by a giant.

Person standing on top of the Giant's Causeway Northern Ireland

Of course, from the right camera angle everything can be made to look giant.

So some people will want to spend hours here, sitting by the sea and watching the changing tide. If that might be you – just pay for parking and enjoy! Others may it find it … underwhelming, and make it a twenty minute experience at best.

If you’re worried that might be you, check the tide times, and go at low tide when these marvels of nature are most visible.

Rope a Dope

The tale of the Giant’s Causeway involves battling giants – Finn McCool in Ireland and Fingal, who lived across the sea in Scotland. Having spent the past days travelling around Ireland, it’s easy to forget just how close these two islands are. How close?

Well from our next spot – the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, ten minutes east of the Causeway – you can actually see Scotland on the horizon!

(Specifically, you can see the Mull of Kintyre – with binoculars, perhaps, you might spot a former Beatle who wrote a song about that peninsula based on the land he owned there.)

This section of Northern Ireland is famous for the salmon fishermen, and the specific position here is dictated by the narrow gap between the mainland and a tiny speck of an island. Salmon swimming close to the shore for protection in this area would force themselves through the narrow gap – and for fishermen, this was like shooting fish in a barrel.

(Metaphorically! That’s a simile people! They actually caught them using nets, it was just as easy as … you know what we mean!)

To tend to these nets and their boats, access was required to the speck of land on the other side. And so every year, when the weather was good, the local men would come here and re-build a rope bridge. Today, fish are not as common in these waters, and the bridge is open all year long for those brave souls who wish to walk across it.

The Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, built by fishermen but now a tourist attraction in Northern Ireland

Looks safe. Right?

If you don’t cross it, it’s still a pleasant brisk walk, and a chance to blow any remaining cobwebs from your mind after our early drive. But it’s not nearly as dangerous as it appears … and if you’ve come all the way to the tip of Northern Ireland, why not cross a small stretch of water and go a dozen steps closer to Scotland?

What do you say? Will you join us on the other side?

Approaching the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Northern Ireland. Don't look down!

You know you want to walk across.

A Town Divided

From the tip of Northern Ireland, our roadtrip takes us south-west – our destination is the town of Derry (often written as Derry / Londonderry). If you’re familiar with the IRA, the actions of the British Armed Forces, or at least the music of Irish super-group U2, then the tale of woe that is Derry’s history may be familiar to you.

It’s an old city, having been granted a Royal Charter by King James I back in 1613 – at which point ‘London’ was added to the name. The original city sits on top of the hill, surrounded by 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) of wall. In fact, this was the last fully walled city to be built in Europe, and is sometimes known as the ‘Maiden City’ because the walls were never breached during the Jacobite wars.

It was those wars at the end of the 17th Century, between forces supporting King James II and those supporting the Glorious Revolution that put William III and Queen Mary on the British throne, that lies at the root of the religious troubles that have plagued Ireland and Northern Ireland.

On one side were the Catholic supporters of James II, who viewed Ireland as separate from England. On the other, ultimately victorious side, were the Protestants, those more closely aligned with London. As these latter men supported the Dutch-born William of Orange, they became (and are still) known as Orangemen.

For Derry, one outcome of the Battle of the Boyne that ended the war in the Orangemen’s favour, was a ruling that no Catholics could live inside the city walls. What followed was three centuries of discrimination – large families being raised in small houses built on the bogmarsh at the foot of the hill and with minimal representation in government. Little wonder it was a spark for the Irish War of Independence, although the Partition of Ireland in 1921 left Derry as a border city – the Catholics, still underprivileged, found themselves living in Ulster and governed by London despite the free Ireland border being located less than a mile away.

The Troubles

This Mural in Derry / Londonderry depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

This Mural depicts the events of Bloody Sunday

It was the simmering tensions that continued which ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, drawing incentive from the American movement of the same era. While a majority on all sides were peaceful, this was the start of the period the Irish refer to (with their typical downplaying) as simply ‘The Troubles’.

Walking through ‘Bogside’, site of these troubles, and looking up at the city walls, we are struck by a feeling of separation. The struggles, the cause, and many of the key incidents are memorialised in sets of murals painted on the ends of housing rows. The most famous of these declares “You are now entering Free Derry” – a protest against the UK and Northern Ireland governments that locals feel is so important that the wall remains, even though the row of houses have since been removed.

You are now entering Free Derry - a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

You are now entering Free Derry – a protest sign backed up by seige action from 1969-1972

It was here on 30 January 1972 that protesting Catholics were met with force by British paratroopers. Lethal force.

The Free Derry Museum certainly tells this story from one angle, that of the Catholics. It’s a moving experience to stand in this former tenement house, to hear recordings of the shots unfolding, and to see displayed the memories of the 14 people who died – including bullet holes in clothes some were wearing that day.

Perhaps most moving of all is the Civil Rights Association banner, marked with the blood of several victims.

Derry Civil Rights Association Banner from Bloody Sunday 1972, covered in the blood and dirt of what happened

This banner was at the front of the march when the paratroopers opened fire

While the violence of the ’70s and ’80s is, largely, behind us, differences remain. Legally, the city is still Londonderry – 75% of Catholics support a formal change back to Derry, while only 6% of Protestants support the move.

But all is not dire in this town, which is also famous for the Georgian buildings inside the walls where we stop to take afternoon tea. This year, Derry is the first city to be designated a UK City of Culture – the London Symphony Orchestra played here last night; tonight the city will host Primal Scream.

No doubt simmering historic tensions remain … but it’s uplifting to be experiencing a city united and proud of its future, not separated by a wall and a religion.

And it’s an easy 90 minute drive back to Belfast.

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace - hopefully representing the united future of this city

A Derry / Londonderry Mural for Peace – hopefully representing the united future of this city

Want to go? Need to know!

  • It’s possible to hire a car for just one day, and complete this experience while also seeing some of the gorgeous Northern Irish countryside.
  • We are great fans of the National Trust. If you live, permanently or are spending a year or more, in the UK then membership is a great idea as it gives you free or reduced-price access to a range of important sites. Our only frustration (apart from ludicrous parking fees) is that the same can be said for English Heritage – so half the sites you want to visit are within one group, and the others within the other organisation.
  • In Derry, aim to park in Bogside (on the far side of the city, from the river) as it will make your walking easier. The Free Derry Museum is at 55 Glenfada Park and costs £3.

Have you driven through Northern Ireland? Share your experience and top tips in the comments below, and be sure to like our Facebook page.