Ballintoy – where myth and legend take over from reality.
The salt tang of the ocean drifted in on the gentlest of breezes through the tiny open sash window. A warm wind that carried scents of new-mown hay from the meadow outside the window. The distant bleat of lambs from the upper pasture punctuated by the sharp call of the curlews on the cliff edge.
The setting sun eased its way below the horizon, a fishing smack impossibly beautiful with its red sails in the sunset.
And to complement this idyllic pastoral image, a dozen fresh-caught mackerel drenched with country butter sizzle on the hot irons of the barbecue, their smoke spiralling upwards in the still air.
Not in some far-flung remote corner of the world, but in “The Wee Bothy”, a single bedroomed cottage for two in a clachan of ten dwellings of various sizes in what is known as McShane Glen at Ballintoy on the North Antrim coast. All these have been custom built to the highest specification and lack nothing in comfort. Step back in time to this little cottage and its turf burning stove with a limitless supply of turf from the bog to make for an evening of craic and relaxation or indeed quietly doing nothing at all. But in spite of the traditional stove, there’s full central heating and all the mod. cons. needed.
Comfort and cleanliness are the watch words here and the bedroom is immaculate with the scent of lavender from the crisp, freshly laundered bed linen and with a view of the night sky framed by a little sash window. With no pollution from street lighting, the sky is black velvet strewn with the diamond dust of the Milky Way, Orion’s belt bright in the West. After a dram or two of the famous golden liquid from the Bushmills Distillery down the road and blessed by the little folk, sleep folds us in its arms in a bed of thistledown.
In the morning, walk past the little whitewashed church which is always open, to the Harbour. Listen to the waves as they gurgle among the pebbles, their strength tamed after their long journey from Greenland.
The harbour is quaint with huge caves cut into the limestone and if the traveller has an interest in the Cretaceous period of geology, then go no further. Armed with a small hammer, these rocks can be broken open easily, and as with all discoveries in nature, excitement knows no bounds when a fossil is found. Usually a belemnite, a cigar shaped bony structure of an octopus like creature that roamed the warm tropical seas a hundred million years ago. An hour or so beachcombing is a very contemplative exercise, but hunger pangs remind the body what the mind has forgotten. And to cater for the missed breakfast, no better place than here in the harbour. The little tearoom has been owned by the present lady for thirty five years and is famed for her wheaten bread and cakes and scones and pies and tarts and…
Suffice to say, exercise is needed after the North Antrim fry with crisp shavings of bacon and plump sausages from local produce that have roamed the heather-laden Glens, tatie bread made with local “Queens”, eggs with yolks the colour of the country butterwe get from the farm - and the wheaten. The recipe a closely guarded secret.
And on the way back, stop and look at the architectural anomaly of Bendhu. Standing sentinel on the cliffs overlooking Ballintoy harbour, Bendhu is a house quite unlike any other - its concrete form and unusual silhouette of cubes and finials distinguishing it from the pitched roofed cottages that surround it.
For 70 years architectural enthusiasts have marvelled at Bendhu, the creation of Newton Penprase, a remarkable Cornish artist based in Belfast. Penprase started working on it at the age of 47, changing the design as work proceeded, defying Atlantic gales and the occasional hostility of local people.
Bendhu might finally be finished but its legend looks likely to live on. Not least because a view from the car window is still as close as most people will ever get to the fabled house.
The Wee Bothy makes a fine base for touring or wandering. Indeed the car could stay here for the whole of your break.
A good way to judge a rental property is by the hygiene of the bathroom, especially in those hard to reach places, but it has to be admitted that the shower was impeccably clean, had no loose bits, didn’t flood the floor and the W.C. worked first time every time and was in pristine condition. (Which is more than can be said for some top-class hotels).
After lunch outside in the little garden, explore along the cliff path of newly-mown grass fringed with bird's-foot trefoil and kidney vetch from the little white church to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. Take consolation that the first bridge had only one hand rail and the treads were alternate.
For the hardy in spirit the bridge spans a fearsome chasm above the pounding breakers. Such breakers were to spell doom for the galleas Girona on October 28th 1588, when, as a remnant of the Armada, it was caught in a dreadful storm. Overloaded with 1500 men, the cumbersome vessel laboured against the waves, but was dashed upon the rocks off shore. Only a handful survived, but the folk memory drifted down the centuries until the treasure from the wreck was salvaged by the Belgian diver Robert Stenuit off the point known as Port-na-Spania. The treasure known as the Girona Hoard now lies at peace in the Ulster Museum, the most unique and complete collection of Armada artefacts in the world.
Those bodies not claimed by the depths were washed ashore and buried in St.Cuthbert’s churchyard at Dunluce. Now if you’re in the local pub having a few drams of the Black Bush there will be stories told that on nights of stormy weather if you are to venture along the cliffs, the pitiful screams of drowning men can be heard and the agony of splintered timbers from the tortured vessel in her death throes.
Now in front of a scorching turf fire with the amber courage and the company of friends, it’s easy to smile and know better, but will you be the one to venture home tonight alone along the shoreline to your cosy bed in the Wee Bothy?
But in daylight there is the loveliest of walks along a bay that has no right to be so perfect, its smooth crescent curving from one headland to the next. Whitepark Bay. Walk barefoot along the shoreline in the tiny wavelets that lisp onto sand that is like silk. Or the strand at Portballintrae. Lie in the sand dunes and listen to the waves hushed by distance as wisps of Mare’s Tails drift overhead, a background for the swifts that soar and dive in their eternal quest.
Not far from here along this capricious coastline is Dunluce Castle, which Sorley Boy MacDonnell took over in his acquisition of the Glens. One vicious stormy night, so the story in the pub goes, the walls of the kitchen collapsed, sending to their doom on the rocks below, the kitchen staff. All except a kitchen boy who was sitting in a corner.
The violent history of this coast stretches back farther in time, in fact sixty million years, when a cataclysmical eruption caused a huge outpouring of lava, which, as it cooled formed over sixty thousand basalt columns. That’s the scientific bit which can be read in the visitor’s centre at the Giant’s Causeway.
But much more interesting is the story of Finn MacCool, (Fionn mac Cumhail), an Irish Giant who lived on an Antrim headland and one day when going about his daily business a Scottish Giant named Fingal began to shout insults and hurl abuse from across the channel. In anger Finn lifted a clod of earth and threw it at the giant as a challenge, but it landed in the sea. Much more interesting than boring geological explanations! (The hole left behind was Lough Neagh, and the island was the Isle of Man.)
Fingal retaliated with a rock thrown back at Finn and shouted that Finn was lucky that he wasn't a strong swimmer or he would have made sure he could never fight again.
Finn was enraged and began lifting huge clumps of earth from the shore, throwing them so as to make a pathway for the Scottish giant to come and face him. However by the time he finished making the crossing he had not slept for a week and so instead devised a cunning plan to fool the Scot.
Finn disguised himself as a baby in a cot and when his adversary came to face him Finn's wife told the Giant that Finn was away but showed him his son sleeping in the cradle. The Scottish giant became apprehensive, for if the son was so huge, what size would the father be?
In his haste to escape Fingal sped back along the causeway Finn had built, tearing it up as he went. He is said to have fled to a cave on Staffa which is to this day named 'Fingal's Cave'.
A large part of North Antrim was once part of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada which stretched across to Scotland, hence the strong ties to the farther shore.
Now whether a geologist, archaeologist, botanist, giant, one of the wee folk or out for a bit of a rest, this is the place. Scorching sun and golden beaches or wild wintry nights, you’ll not forget the Causeway Coast and the people who’ll do their best to make sure you come back, either with good food and drink, hospitality, or maybe is it a come-hither spell from those wee folk we heard laughing in the meadow behind the Wee Bothy?
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