Visit Northern Ireland's Antrim coast: history, walks and places to stay

The UK’s most amazing shoreline sets the scene for epic adventures both real and fantastical. Delve into the history of Northern Ireland’s stunning Antrim coast and discover its Game of Thrones treasures, best walks and places to stay with our travel guide

26th July 2017
County Antrim/Getty
History of the Antrim coast

map

The 11th Earl of Antrim lived in Glenarm Castle on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. His favourite spot was a hilltop behind his pepperpot-chimneyed pile with spectacular views across the sea to Scotland. He loved that glorious panorama so much that he asked to be buried on the hilltop, in an upright position, so he could continue posthumously to savour it.

The Buzzard, as he was known, died in 1918. His pallbearers duly staggered three miles uphill with his corpse. Unfortunately they were so exhausted by the time they reached the top that they inserted the coffin upside down – or so the story goes.

I feel some sympathy for the Buzzard. The rugged edge of Antrim, with its remote glens, sheer cliffs, tiny fishing villages, pristine beaches and colourful history, is one of the world’s more stunning and least spoiled coastlines. I visited it on occasion in the 1990s, when reporting on the Troubles as Belfast correspondent of The Times, and was amazed to find such beauty in a province with such a grim international image. 

Northern Ireland, County Antrim, Giant’'s Causeway/Getty
Northern Ireland, County Antrim, Giant’'s Causeway/Getty

Now with a fragile peace in place, Northern Ireland has seen tourism boom. The Giant’s Causeway’s basalt majesty is world famous, and another magnet lures visitors to these parts: Game of Thrones fans want to see where the hit TV series was filmed. Among other sites, viewers flock to the dramatic Dark Hedges, a tunnel of overarching beech trees that star as the Kingsroad on screen;  to the precipitous ruins of Dunluce Castle to see the real-life Castle Greyjoy; and to Ballintoy’s attractive harbour, the fictional setting for Lordsport in the Iron Islands.

Exploring by bike

I decided to explore this changing scene by cycling with some friends around the coast from Belfast to Londonderry. Our ride begins with a long haul out of Belfast along the built-up northern shore of Belfast Lough, the only point of interest being the impressive Norman castle at Carrickfergus. But where the lough meets the sea and the road turns north, we reach the first real curiosity: the Gobbins.

In the late 1800s, the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company built a line out here from Belfast. To lure day-trippers, it designed a spectacular one-and-a half-mile walkway along a cliff face above the churning waves. Blasted from sheer basalt, the path led through tunnels, past caves and over chasm-spanning bridges. Opened in 1902, the Gobbins was a huge success until it fell into disrepair during the Second World War. After a brief reopening in 2015, it closed again in 2016 due to rock falls, but it is due to reopen a third time this summer.

Heading north, we pass through unlovely Larne, lingering only to inspect the Ulster-American memorial. This statue of a bible-clutching family commemorates the departure of Ulster’s first emigrants to America in 1717 with an inscription that reads: “There is no other race in the United States that can produce a roll of honour so long and so shining in distinction.” 

By 1775, Ulster-Scots emigrants formed a sixth of America’s population. They provided a dozen early presidents, several signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and the frontiersmen Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and Jim Bowie. Protestant followers of King William who settled in the Appalachian mountains inspired the term ‘hillbillies’.

The beauty begins beyond Larne. A single tranquil road hugs the winding coast, and in the clear light of a seemingly endless early  summer’s evening we ride past fields of wild irises and sandy beaches, past Glenarm Castle whose wonderful walled garden is now open to the public, to Carnlough, where we stop for the night at the Londonderry Arms. 

The Marchioness of Londonderry built the hotel as a coaching inn in 1848. Her grandson later bequeathed it to his second cousin, Sir Winston Churchill, but the great man’s memory is rather eclipsed by that of a great racehorse – Arkle. Hairs from the steeplechaser’s tail and an iron shoe from his hoof have pride of place in the bar that bears the horse’s name.

Wild abandon

As a soft Irish rain falls the next morning, we pedal out of Carnlough past the Famine Stone, a massive limestone boulder on which the aforesaid Marchioness had engraved: “An imperishable memorial of Ireland’s affliction and England’s generosity in the year 1846-47.” Given that Ireland lost a quarter of its population to starvation or emigration during the famine, the offensive words were long ago defaced. Even today the shells of long-abandoned stone cottages litter the empty countryside.

We cycle on through Cushendall, whose ancient tower once served as “a place of confinement for idlers and rioters”, and Cushendun, near which there is another large boulder snared in the roots of an ancient tree with a small altar beside it. Roman Catholics would furtively worship at this Mass Rock when the penal laws banned them from practising their religion in the early 18th century. A local priest still conducts a service there each summer. 

Cushendun’s sea caves made waves as the ominous Stormlands in Game of Thrones but despite the fanfare, these ancient red sandstone caves remain down to earth.

Torr Head near Ballycastle, Antrim, Ireland/Getty
Torr Head near Ballycastle, Antrim, Ireland/Getty

Leaving the town, we rashly abandon the main road for a tiny ribbon of tarmac that loops round the north-easternmost point of Northern Ireland via Torr Head. It looked enticing on the map, but for the next two hours we labour up seemingly vertical hills – thighs aching, lungs bursting and hearts pumping – before coasting down to begin yet another impossible ascent. We are rewarded for our efforts, though. The lane is flanked by gorse of impossible yellow, and fields of impossible green that fall away to a silver sea far below. The rain has cleared, and we can just make out the Mull of Kintyre across 12 miles of serene water.

From Torr Head we glide to Ballycastle where, in 1898, Guglielmo Marconi found the first commercial use for his newly invented radio transmitter. At the behest of Lloyds of London, he established a radio link to Rathlin Island, six miles out to sea, so the islanders could report on passing ships.

Dunluce Castle in County Antrim/Getty
Dunluce Castle in County Antrim/Getty

We take the ferry to Rathlin, an L-shaped wedge of moorland resting atop fortress-like cliffs with one small community clustered around the harbour. In 1306, Robert the Bruce took refuge in a cave here, following his defeat by the English at Perth. He was so inspired by the perseverance of a spider spinning its web that he returned to win the Battle of Bannockburn and the Scottish throne. Today the Manor House offers rather more comfortable accommodation, and the population of 140 is swelled by visitors who come less for refuge than the abundant bird life. We duly walk to Rathlin’s western extremity, where we peer gingerly over the cliff edge and gasp. Far below, the rocky outcrops are covered by tens of thousands of puffins, razorbills and guillemots – not to mention their pungent excrement.

Balancing act 

Back on the mainland the next morning we labour with stiff legs up the steep hill out of Ballycastle and head west along the north Antrim coast towards some of its better known attractions. First stop is Carrick-a-Rede, a small island of rock reached by a bouncy rope bridge strung across a narrow channel. In the 1990s, my family and I would have the place to ourselves, but this time there are so many overseas tourists that we have to queue to cross.

A few miles further on, past the sublime white sand crescent of Whitepark Bay, we reach the geological wonder that is the Giant’s Causeway. Comprised of some 40,000 upright hexagonal basalt columns, each of a different height but slotted together like a perfect honeycomb, the sea-girt promontory is remarkable, but there is now a socking great visitors’ centre and buses ferry the visiting hordes to and from the car and coach parks.

Still, mass tourism is good for Northern Ireland, and would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. And much of this is thanks to Game of Thrones. Between Carrick-a-Rede and the Causeway we pass the picturesque harbour at Ballintoy, thankfully far calmer than its alter-ego of Lordsport in the fantasy drama. Beyond the Causeway, teetering on the edge of vertiginous cliffs, the turreted Dunluce Castle recalls the House of Greyjoy – without its armour-clad seafarers. And a few miles inland, the beech-lined avenue of Dark Hedges, known to viewers as the grand Kingsroad (right), draws keen crowds.

Journey’s end

Our last day is the best. Beneath a blue sky and warm sun we skip the resort towns of Portrush and Portstewart – Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘Riviera’ – and rejoin the coast at Downhill Desmesne, a National Trust property. Abandoning our bikes, we walk across a vast expanse of rolling grass filled with wildflowers to the shell of a ruined 18th-century mansion. This was built by Frederick Hervey, the colourful Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who sprinkled flour in the upstairs corridors at night so he could tell which guest had visited whom.

Beyond the mansion, perched dramatically on the cliff overlooking the sea, stands the exquisite Romanesque folly Mussenden Temple, which held Hervey’s library and was named after his lover. Its inscription reads: “Tis pleasant, safely to behold, from shore, the rolling ship and hear the tempest roar.”

From Downhill we slog up Binevenagh Mountain and are rewarded with a stunning panorama of land, sea and sky. To the north lies the vast blue Atlantic and Islay, the most southern of the Inner Hebrides. To the west, we gaze across the mouth of Lough Foyle to the distant hills of Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula. Behind us lie moors and the Sperrin Mountains

Our ride is almost over. Avoiding the main road, we head south on country lanes flanked by fragrant hay meadows and banks of
cow parsley. We then ride, tired but elated, up the bank of the River Foyle and come to rest in Londonderry, one of the finest walled cities left in Europe.

Best walks along the Antrim coast

Walk: The Causeway Coast, County Antrim

Giant's Causeway: The famous area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns (Image: Getty)
Giant's Causeway: The famous area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns (Image: Getty)

Escape the crowds on a deserted coastal path just minutes from the Giant’s Causeway: countryfile.com/days-out/causeway-coast-county-antrim

 Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island off the Northern Irish coast/Getty
Rathlin Island off the Northern Irish coast/Getty

The island offers trails of one to four miles with wonderful views of lighthouses, the Atlantic and the Scottish islands. Watch out for the amazing seabirds and seals basking on the shore. walkni.com/walks/?k=rathlin

North Antrim Cliff Path

Northern Ireland, County Antyim, Dunseverick Castle/Getty
Northern Ireland, County Antyim, Dunseverick Castle/Getty

The five-mile cliff path begins at ruined Dunseverick Castle, and winds around beautiful headlands and bays before offering hikers a panoramic view of its final destination, the Giant’s Causeway. The 162 Shepherds Steps lead down to the Unesco World Heritage Site. http://www.walkni.com/walks/400/north-antrim-cliff-path-dunseverick-to-giant-s-causeway/

Where to stay

The Londonderry Arms

This charming, old-fashioned coaching inn once owned by Sir Winston Churchill is just across the road from the harbour in Carnlough. If traffic disturbs you, ask for a room at the back. glensofantrim.com

Manor House

manor  house

Facing you as you step off the ferry on Rathlin Island is the newly refurbished, whitewashed, 18th-century Manor House. Look no further for accommodation. manorhouserathlin.com

The Brown Trout Inn

brown trout

A few miles inland from the attractions of the north Antrim coast at Aghadowey, this friendly and comfortable inn has good food and its own nine-hole golf course. You would never guess that it was blown up by the IRA in 1973. browntroutinn.com

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign and associate editor of The Times, and now a freelance writer based in London. He is the author of Silver Linings: Travels Around Northern Ireland (Little Brown, 2000).

Food and drink

Mary McBride’s Pub

pub

Once claimed to be the smallest pub in Ireland before an extension in the 90s, this Cushendun inn still has history and charm. In 2015 it opened a seafood bistro, The Little Back Door, upstairs. mcbridescushendun.wordpress.com

You are currently reading: Visit Northern Ireland's Antrim coast: history, walks and places to stay - 26th July
Get your first 5 issues for just £5 when you subscribe to BBC Countryfile magazine!

Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.

Countryfile Magazine - Current Issue