Backpacking the Lambourn Valley Way, Berkshire

Sometimes you don’t need to travel far for an adventure. Whilst my younger self would demand exciting experiences or exotic destinations last weekend we hopped on a couple of buses, hoisted on our backpacks and walked the Lambourn Valley Way.

Lambourn Valley Way
Lambourn Valley Way

The Lambourn Valley Way is a 20 mile walk, running from White Horse Hill, Uffington in Oxfordshire to Newbury in Berkshire via the horse racing village of Lambourn. There are no dramatic mountain vistas but plenty of downland views, farmland and racing gallops. We split the walk over two days, camping overnight at Farncombe Farm near Lambourn.

This was our first backpacking trip with the kids. At the ages of 11 and 13 years they’re used to walking reasonable distances and both were looking forward to the adventure. They were carrying their sleeping bags, mats and change of clothes whilst we also carried a tent each. We didn’t bother with cooking equipment as we ate out for a treat.

Start of the Lambourn Valley Way
Start of the Lambourn Valley Way

We arrived in Uffington, ate a late lunch and after fortifying ourselves with additional cake set off on our backpack. We had to walk a couple of extra miles to the official start of the Lambourn Valley Way but our feet and shoulders were fresh so hardly noticed it. One thing we did notice was the ominous sign below although I was disappointed not to see any!

We didn't see any though!
We didn’t see any though!

Our afternoon walk took us across chalk downland and alongside racing gallops. Away from the busy White Horse and Uffington Castle we walked the downs alone, treated to a landscape of gently rolling hills and serenaded by skylarks.

Further on our path ran beside the gallops. I’m sure that if we’d been thundering along them on racehorses we’d have reached the end in no time at all. But we weren’t. And the path and gallops seemed to stretch into the distance forever. Not my favourite part of the walk.

The gallops, Lambourn
The gallops, Lambourn

We finally made it to Lambourn an hour later than planned. The village and surrounding area are synonymous with horse racing and there are more than 50 local racing yards. According to the Lambourn village website the valley has a higher ratio of horses to humans than anywhere else in the country. Yet we didn’t see a single racehorse!

We had one more mile ahead of us, away from the official trail, out to Farncombe Farm campsite. The direct route was along the edge of the road; no separate footpath but relatively quiet and easy to hop on the grass verge if a car came by.

Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn
Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn

It was great to arrive and deposit our rucksacks for the evening. I was surprised we were the only campers on site although there were a couple of caravans at the other end of the field. At least we wouldn’t be woken by party goers or snorers in the night!

The only downside of the location was the extra walk to and from Lambourn for our evening pub meal. But our dinner at The George was worth it. The pub is the local racing hang out with horse racing on the TV, horse pictures on the wall and racing yard staff in the bar. Service and food were both excellent, a great meal out.

Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way
Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way

Our night on the campsite passed peacefully and not quite as cold as the weather forecast had suggested. After drying the tents we packed up and tackled the road into Lambourn one last time. The campsite owner did point out an alternative route back into Lambourn but it involved crossing a field of cows. And we’re not great fans of these particular four legged beasts!

The road to Lambourn
The road to Lambourn

After an excellent breakfast at The Café Lambourn, we pulled our rucksacks onto sore shoulders and headed out along the trail. Unlike the downland walk the previous day our route took us from village to village, sometimes following the river, other times the disused railway track which once ran to Newbury.

Rest stop, East Garston
Rest stop, East Garston

We passed through East Garston, an idyllic village where the River Lambourn separates many of the houses from the main road. The river is actually a chalk stream; crystal clear and inviting in May but troublesome in flood. The area suffered significant damage in February 2014 and it would be wise not to walk this route if flooding is likely.

The scenery was varied; not spectacular but the type of countryside where you’d go for a leisurely afternoon ramble or dog walk. We followed footpaths through fields of bright yellow rapeseed, across someone’s garden and amongst woodland. We stroked horses, avoided cowpats and heard our first cuckoo of the year.

The Lambourn Valley Way
The Lambourn Valley Way

We stopped for a short break in Great Shefford to buy ice creams. I would like to point out we don’t normally live on chips, fried breakfasts, cake and ice cream but I figured we were doing plenty of exercise so treats were allowed.

As we skirted around Welford we were worried by a ‘Bull in field’ sign. We had little choice but to walk quickly through the field. Fortunately the bull was nowhere to be seen. However my daughter spotted something much more exciting. For the last two years the Great British Bake Off has been filmed in Welford Park and she is convinced she saw the tent that it’s filmed in. Personally I was more worried about getting away from the bull.

Lambourn River
Lambourn River

We made a couple of grisly discoveries along a footpath near Boxford. Two partially decomposed animal skeletons which we just couldn’t place. We decided they were young badgers until we walked through the next field, full of sows with piglets. The sows were kept inside their pens by electric fencing but the piglets could easily walk under it without getting zapped. I’m guessing a few had wandered away from their mums and met with an unfortunate end!

Piglets near Boxford
Piglets near Boxford

At Bagnor it’s possible to take a short detour to Donnington Castle. This is worth the extra leg work if you haven’t visited before but we’ve been several times so I was happy to miss it out.

The last couple of miles were pretty hard-going. Feet were getting blistered, shoulders sore and, how could it be, we were all hungry again.

Unusual building, Speen
Unusual building, Speen

I stopped to take a photo of the building above, perched on stone mushrooms in Speen. I had hoped to read more about it on the Internet once home but couldn’t find any information. Any ideas?

It was a relief to finally reach Newbury and dive into the nearest shop for some snacks. Even more of a relief to get to the railway station and collapse into our seats for the journey home. I’m not ashamed to say that we even treated ourselves to a taxi for the final part of our adventure.

Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury
Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury

I’m already looking forward to our next backpacking trip but I’ll pay closer attention to the total mileage. Once I’d added in the extra distance from the bus stop to the start and the walk out (and back) to the campsite twice it totalled 26 miles. On a warm weekend. With kids. Carrying backpacking gear.

More info

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How we spent 48 hours in Belfast

As a child of the 1970s my early knowledge of Belfast came from watching news reports of the Troubles. But the Good Friday agreement in 1998 changed the political landscape and today my children have little concept of how different things are. That’s not to say that the city has forgotten its past, or even eschewed all violence, but it has moved on and our visit was well overdue.

Easter parade

Our trip coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising. As we stepped out of the hotel on our first morning we heard pipers from an Easter Parade and decided to tag along to watch. It was a small parade, with several children taking part, but was nethertheless accompanied by riot vehicles and a police helicopter. An interesting introduction to the city.

Easter parade, Belfast
Easter parade, Belfast

Titanic Belfast

Onto the sightseeing. Top of my list was a visit to the Titanic Belfast. This is Belfast’s flagship museum, charting the building of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard through to its unfortunate demise. It’s an impressive building, built in the old shipyard, about a 20 minute walk from the city centre.

Before we visited, our hotel receptionist mentioned there were no actual artefacts from the Titanic wreck site in the museum. Whilst initially disappointed the museum states this is for ethical reasons – although rather conversely it shows film footage of the wreck. Instead much of the focus is on the shipyard itself and the industries that went hand-in-hand with the building of the Titanic.

Titanic Belfast
Titanic Belfast

The museum consists of 9 interactive galleries, covering the life cycle of the Titanic from build, to launch, fit-out, maiden voyage and eventual sinking. It’s a modern museum, with some stand-out exhibits including a scaled down replica of the Arrol Gantry and the Shipyard ride. The ride is like a theme park ride in slow motion. Although the warning signs might make you worried you’re about to experience zero gravity it’s a gentle tour through the heat and noise of the shipyard, suitable for almost everyone.

View from Titanic Belfast out to shipyards
View from Titanic Belfast out to shipyards

One of my favourite exhibits related to the facts and figures about the Titanic’s launch. When it sailed from Southampton it was provisioned with 40,000 eggs, 75,000lb of fresh meat, 8000 cigars and 6 Steinway pianos. It also included 18,000 bed sheets as there were no laundry facilities on board!

We really enjoyed the Titanic Belfast. It’s not cheap but along with the visit to SS Nomadic we spent the greater part of the day there and felt we got value for money.

SS Nomadic

A visit to the SS Nomadic is included in the price of the Titanic Belfast ticket so it would be amiss not to visit. SS Nomadic is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world and was built alongside the RMS Titanic back in 1911. It was initially used to transfer passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic before seeing action in both World Wars.

SS Nomadic, Belfast
SS Nomadic, Belfast

Once inside you can visit both the luxurious bar area and the distinctly less luxurious crew’s quarters. Our kids enjoyed dressing up as first class passengers; there’s even clothes for the adults too. We should have spent longer on board, but we were all very hungry and a late lunch was calling.

Falls Road

The plan on our second day was to walk from our hotel to the Crumlin Road Gaol, via the predominately republican Falls and loyalist Shankill Road areas. These roads are now part of the tourist circuit, primarily for the political murals that decorate many of the buildings in both areas. Both are easily accessed from the centre of Belfast but if you want to join a guided tour there are numerous black cab tours and hop on hop off buses.

Murals in Falls Road area, Belfast
Murals in Falls Road area, Belfast

As we walked towards the Falls Road it was hard to ignore the 61 metre Divis Tower, the sole remaining building of the notorious Divis Flat complex. In the 1970s the British Army installed an observation post on the roof and took over the top two floors; these were only reinstated as residential accommodation in 2009.

We spotted murals as soon as we reached the Falls Road, mostly depicting the political and religious differences between the communities, although some also focussing on other conflicts around the world. One of the most famous is that of Bobby Sands, who died following a hunger strike whilst protesting against the British government’s treatment of IRA fighters.

Peace Wall

We visited a stretch of the wall between the Falls and Shankill Roads. I was surprised to learn there are actually 109 walls in cities and towns across Northern Ireland, built to separate the loyalist and unionist areas. Originally erected as a temporary measure in the 1960s, they’re still in place almost 50 years later and despite plans to remove them many residents believe the walls (and gates, which close nightly) keep them safe.

Peace Wall, Belfast
Peace Wall, Belfast

The walls are covered in murals and grafitti, including lots from tourists who sign the wall and proclaim peace. It’s hard not to compare it to the Berlin Wall although given all the wire on top I doubt you’ll find David Hasselhoff up there.

It was only after we passed through one of the large gates that I realised how incredibly close the two communities are to each other yet with such strongly held opposing viewpoints. The divide is still visible today; just check the colour of the flags and painted kerbstones and you’ll soon know which area you are in.

Shankill Road

Shankill Road seemed to have even more murals than the Falls Road, although the road itself was quieter with few shops open and some parts looked pretty run down. Once again we found ourselves walking through recent history; ten people died in the Shankill Road bombing in 1993.

Murals around Shankill Road area, Belfast
Murals around Shankill Road area, Belfast

From the Shankill Road we made our way through a housing estate to Crumlin Road, passing even more murals. I do not understand all of the different factions involved in the Troubles but from reading the poignant dedications on some murals it’s clear that people are missed whatever their political or religious viewpoint.

Crumlin Road Gaol

Crumlin Road Gaol was another of my Belfast highlights. Although the gaol dates back to 1845 it only closed its doors in 1996 and many of the more recent inmates, including Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, will be familiar names.

Crumlin Road gaol, Belfast
Crumlin Road gaol, Belfast

Our guided tour covered the prisoner holding cells, underground tunnel, the Governor’s office and C-Wing before heading outside to see the burial grounds and exercise yard. Along the C-Wing we were able to look into several cells, including a recreation of the padded cell and the condemned man’s cell. The tour also takes you through the execution room but this can be avoided if you wish.

Crumlin Road gaol, Belfast
Crumlin Road gaol, Belfast

The tunnel links to Crumlin Road courthouse which is on the opposite side of the road. Prisoners were taken between the courthouse and gaol through the 84 metre long tunnel to ensure they were kept away from the public graze. The tunnel was built in 1849, but has had to be reinforced under the road section due to the amount of traffic overhead, which obviously wasn’t an issue when it was constructed!

Crumlin Jail courthouse tunnel
Crumlin Road gaol courthouse tunnel

Sadly the courthouse cannot be visited. Originally purchased by an investor for £1 back in 2003 it’s a crying shame that the magnificent building now sits decaying, partly destroyed by fire.

Crumlin Road courthouse, Belfast
Crumlin Road courthouse, Belfast

The gaol appears to do a good sideline in paranormal events and tribute acts, from an Elvis ‘Jailhouse Rock’ gig to a Johnny Cash concert. It’s worth keepng an eye out if you’re visiting as I’d imagine they’d be pretty unique events.

W5

Despite excellent reviews I hadn’t planned to visit W5, an interactive science centre. I thought the kids were probably a little old, plus we’ve been to several similar places before. However we were meeting up with my other half’s sister and two children (who were driving up from Dublin) so this was an obvious place to head to.

W5 was as expected, very busy and generally aimed at primary school children, but the cousins loved their surprise meet up and it proved to be the perfect place for them to disappear off and explore on their own. There are several science shows throughout the day and three floors of exhibits so plenty to keep children occupied. I’d imagine it’s even more popular on rainy days!

As always with such a short visit we missed things out. Another day in Belfast would have allowed us to visit the Botanic Gardens, Ulster Museum and perhaps Stormont. But it was time for our roadtrip along the Antrim coast!

More info

  • Titanic Belfast is open daily apart from over Christmas. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children aged 5-16) costs £43 and allows entrance to both the Titanic museum and SS Nomadic.
  • Crumlin Road Gaol is open 7 days per werk. Entry is by guided tour; these run between 10am-4.30pm and last 1 hour 15 minutes. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.
  • W5 is open 7 days per week; hours vary according to the day. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.50.
  • We stayed at the Belfast City Centre Premier Inn. It’s a typical Premier Inn, good location, cheap rooms and friendly staff; we’d happily use it again.
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What’s it like to run the London marathon?

Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (only 1 in 15 entrants secured a ballot place). Fast forward six months and I was even more excited and nervous.

I wasn’t the only one. My train to Blackheath was packed with runners discussing finish times, training plans and previous races. Chatting to each other helped settle the nerves but there was no getting away from the challenge of what we were about to do. As we disembarked a helicopter overhead was transmitting pictures of us streaming up to the start area. We were famous!

On the way to the blue start, Blackheath
On the way to the blue start, Blackheath

It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for the start of the marathon but from my perspective it was seamless. Runners are split between three different starts; red, green and blue, which all join up by the third mile. Each colour has its own start area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.

Ah the toilets. I’m really not convinced that female urinals will catch on. I have never seen so many perplexed women holding up bits of cardboard and wondering how to use them. And what to do with them when finished! (Note to organisers, next year put the rubbish container inside the urinal area).

Decisions, decisions!
Decisions, decisions!

Fortunately there were alternatives to the ladies urinals, as long as you didn’t mind queuing. The portaloos certainly seemed the more popular option.

The baggage drop took seconds, as did the pick up afterwards. With time to spare I decided on one last cup of coffee before the run. This wasn’t my wisest decision of the day but I never say no to coffee.

The baggage lorries
The baggage lorries

Although I’d arrived early the minutes flew by and it was soon time to find my starting pen. I was in pen nine, the final pen on the blue start, so there was a delay of around ten minutes between the start of the race and the time I crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I tried to stay clear of the pacers as they were usually surrounded by crowds of runners.

So how did the race go?

London marathon miles 1-6

These were my novelty miles. Running past houses whose residents had come out to cheer us on. Hearing the race marshals shouting “Hump!” every few hundred metres to warn us of road humps. Spotting the Guinness World Record contenders and feeling relieved that I didn’t have to run as a dinosaur or carry a boat. High-fiving the children beside the road and trying not to miss any of them out. I learnt very quickly to avoid the plastic bottles in the road after the water stations and not to stand on sticky gel sachets.

The weather was perfect for running; cool, mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. I’d been wavering at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt and was glad that I’d chosen the warmer option. Although if it had warmed up much more I’d have been faffing around re-pinning my number onto my T- shirt whilst running.

Six miles in and the crowds were out in Greenwich town, drinking beer at 11am and making lots of noise around the Cutty Sark. I couldn’t see that many people had heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!

Waiting in the start pen
Waiting in the start pen

London marathon miles 6-13

These miles were great. I was still fresh enough to enjoy the experience and towards the end it included my race highlight, Tower Bridge.

However I was regretting my last minute cup of coffee. The toilets were stationed every two miles or so but there were long queues at the first few stops. This didn’t appear to affect the men who were relieving themselves wherever there was a gap in spectators. I eventually took a break and queued for a few minutes but the relief was worth it.

As I ran on one of my favourite diversion tactics was reading the spectator’s signs: “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run 26.2 miles” and “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear” (I was, but couldn’t help smiling anyway).

On to the best part of my race. Everything I’d read about Tower Bridge at mile 12 was true. It really is a fantastic experience to run across the bridge, cheered on by the crowds. I couldn’t resist another quick break, this time to take some photos.

Heading over Tower Bridge, London
Heading over Tower Bridge, London

London marathon miles 13-18

After Tower Bridge the route turns right along The Highway and you’re passed, on the opposite side of the road, by the fast runners approaching their 23rd mile. I looked over enviously. When it was my turn to run back I looked at those just passing their 13 mile mark and wondered if they had similar feelings. Particularly given they were being overtaken by the road sweepers and followed by coaches to pick up retiring runners.

Everyone who runs the London marathon talks about the support from the spectators and volunteer marshals. Some parts of the road are lined with charity supporters, others with family and friends. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But sometimes I relished the quieter parts of the route, away from the shouts and cheers.

Ben, the man running 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, and attempting to raise £250,000 for anti-bullying charities was running near me for some of the way. Wow, I could hardly walk the following day let alone run another marathon. I also ran beside a man with ‘Sexy’ printed on his top. The spectators loved supporting him!

Towards the end of this section I’d eaten most of the food I’d bought along. Most runners used energy gels, and spectators were handing out jelly babies and Haribos, but I relied on my stash of Nakd bars. I liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face one again.

London marathon miles 19-26

These miles were hard, very hard. I always knew I was going to finish but my running reduced to a shuffle, interspersed with bouts of walking. At around 19 miles I got stitch. I never get stitch, and surely it should have happened sooner in the race. Added to this, my knees and shins were screaming with every step. Did I hit the dreaded wall? I don’t know, but my body had decided it was time to stop.

Almost finished
Almost finished

Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I was determined to pick up my medal. I just let the last few miles pass in a blur, head down and focussing on putting one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah running towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.

I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). I was so relieved to reach the finish line and recieve my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those last few miles.

Finished!
Finished!

After the medal came the goody bag queue. I received a huge T-shirt, a bag full of snacks (mostly distributed to the family later) and a welcome bottle of water. I thought about getting changed but couldn’t bend down to do so. And there was no way I was going to take my medal off!

I still had no idea of my chip time until about 15 minutes later when I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. I was very happy to learn I’d run the London marathon in 4 hours 28 minutes and 2 seconds. I’d also raised almost £600 for Style Acre, an Oxfordshire based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.

So how do I sum up my London marathon experience? If I had to define it in just three words, they’d be noisy, inspirational and painful. But I cannot miss out the cheering spectators and helpful marshals, perfect weather and world-class course. I don’t plan to run again though; my knees have decided it was a once in a lifetime experience. And it’s only fair to let someone else take a chance with the ballot!

If you fancy running the marathon next year then pop over to the Virgin London marathon website for more information on the ballot and other ways to enter.

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A family road trip exploring County Antrim

Often voted amongst the greatest road trips the Causeway Coastal Route in County Antrim combines spectacular coastal scenery with world class attractions. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland we hired a car from Belfast and spent a couple of days travelling the coastal road and its hinterland.

Glenariff Forest Park

Our first stop and opportunity to stretch our legs was Glenariff Forest Park. We parked in the large car park and had a brief wander around the visitor centre, not the most picturesque of buildings.

Glenariff Waterfall Trail
Glenariff Waterfall Trail

Fortunately the scenery outside more than made up for it. After checking the trail map we chose the 3km waterfall walk; a wooden walkway which descends the Glenariff River gorge passing several spectacular waterfalls.

Glenariff Forest Park
Glenariff Forest Park

My favourite waterfall (below) was Ess-Na-Grub, next to Laragh Lodge, at the end of the main trail. The mossy branches and ferns made it feel like something out of Jurassic Park. Whilst you’d never catch me bathing in a waterfall pool in temperatures of less than 30C it did look tempting!

Glenariff waterfall trail
Glenariff waterfall trail

As we’d spent the first part of the walk heading downhill it was time to walk back up again. With the exception of the final stretch back up to the visitor centre it wasn’t overly steep. The waterfall trail lives up to its name and I’d highly recommend a visit; my only slight disappointment was not seeing one of the red squirrels that frequent the park.

Drive to Torr Head

At Cushenden we left the main Causeway Coastal Route and drove out to Torr Head, on a road designated as an additional scenic route. I didn’t get much chance to look at the scenery as the single track road took most of my attention. I did manage to glance out at the Scottish islands which are easily visible on a clear day but most of the time I was just thankful it was a quiet road and there wasn’t much traffic to squeeze by.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Ballintoy

The rope bridge was the one place my daughter wanted to visit. Traditionally used by salmon fishermen, nowadays the rope bridge transports tourists over to Carrick-a-Rede island. Spectacularly located, the bridge spans a 30 metre deep and 20 metre wide chasm. Don’t look down!

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Only 8 people are allowed on the bridge at any one time so we queued for a few minutes before being allowed to cross. The bridge reminded me of Go Ape in that it feels a little scary but is perfectly safe. Although I’m not sure I’d have wanted to cross in high winds.

On the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
On the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

The island itself is pretty small so we only spent 20 minutes or so on it. The views along the coast and out to Rathlin island are fabulous but there are no barriers so keep an eye on the cliff edges if you’re trying to take the perfect photo!

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

Portrush

Portrush has beautiful sandy beaches and is a popular resort on the north coast – but it wasn’t for us. My partner compared it to Newquay; amusement arcades, lots of restaurants and bars and cars screeching along the roads at 3am. Plenty of people love the town but we only stayed because of the availability of overnight accommodation.

Dunluce Castle, Bushmills

The next morning we set off early, back towards The Giant’s Causeway. We pulled into the Magheracross viewpoint to view the ruins of Dunluce Castle which are spectacularly sited on the edge of the cliffs. In fact, a little too close to the edge as back in the 1600s the kitchen fell into the sea after a severe storm!

Looking towards Dunluce Castle
Looking towards Dunluce Castle

We had a closer look at the castle from its car park but we were there before opening time so didn’t actually step inside. One to go back to.

Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle

Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills

The Giant’s Causeway has been on my bucket list for years so it was great to finally visit. It’s Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of more than 40,000 basalt stone columns.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

I’d read beforehand that the Giant’sCauseway is free to visit but if you wish to park at the visitor centre, use the toilets or eat in the cafe then you’ll be subject to the visitor fee (which was £22 for us, National Trust members are free). Hence we parked at Bushmills, walked the 2 mile path alongside the railway and then entered the Causeway site through a tunnel to the right of the visitor centre.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

It’s a 15 minute downhill walk fom the entrance to the stone columns. I enjoyed the anticipation of the walk, but the National Trust does run a shuttle bus service (extra cost) down to the beach for those that require it.

The Giant’s Causeway is an understandably popular destination and even though we visited early in the day there were already plenty of coach parties on site. That said, although it was the busiest place we visited in Antrim it didn’t feel particularly crowded. There are more than enough rocks to go round (or hexagonal).

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

It’s hard to imagine the geological processes that resulted in the Causeway, but suffice to say that the basalts were formed as part of a large volcanic plateau. Obviously it’s tempting to believe that it’s really a result of a fight between Scottish and Irish giants! Regardless of its origin I’m glad to say the Giant’s Causeway lived up to my expectations.

Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

The downside of the 2 mile walk back to our car can be guessed if you look at the clouds in our photos. Despite a forecast of sun all day we got rather wet.

Ballintoy harbour

Ballintoy was another of my trip highlights. I’d never even heard of it until I saw a picture of the harbour in one of the tourist leaflets. The drive down is rather steep but there’s a large free car park at the bottom. Before heading down we stopped for lunch at the Red Door Tea Room, it’s easily identifiable from the main road and the food was excellent.

Ballintoy
Ballintoy

Many tourists visit Ballintoy Harbour as it’s a Game of Thrones filming location but the coastline, with its arches, caves and rockpools were the star attraction for me.

Ballintoy
Ballintoy

I could easily have spent the whole afternoon exploring but we were booked on a late afternoon flight so all too soon it was time to head back to Belfast, via our final destination, The Dark Hedges.

The Dark Hedges, Stranocum

I’ve never seen Game of Thrones but my other half was keen to see the Dark Hedges which feature in the series. It’s a popular pilgrimage stop on the Game of Thrones tourist trail although it would be better if visitors parked in the allocated car park rather than on the edges of the road itself (grumble, grumble).

The Dark Hedges comprise of rows of beech trees which frame either side of the road. A couple of the trees blew down in Storm Gertrude so there are some gaps. It’s a nice enough place to stop for 15 minutes and meant that we got to visit the countryside of Antrim rather than just the coast but it is probably more significant to fans of the series.

The Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges

What did we miss?

We only had time for a whistlestop tour of Antrim. If we’d had longer I’ve have added in Whiterocks Coastal Path (looked beautiful when we drove past), a day trip to Rathlin Island and a walk along the cliff path at The Gobbins (closed during our visit due to storm damage).

Have you visited Antrim? If so, what else would you recommend?

More info

  • We flew with Easyjet from Luton to Belfast International. An interesting experience, particularly on the return journey when we sat on the tarmac for 1.5 hours whilst the staff tried to identify a potential extra passenger. And eject (one of the) drunken passengers. But of course the flights were cheap!
  • Our car hire was through Budget. Cheap headline price but lots of extras for the unwary (£9 per day for additional drivers).
  • It’s free to enter Glenariff Forest Park but car parking costs £5. Coins only, which we didn’t have. Logging operations can affect which trails are open so check before you make a special visit.
  • Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Giant’s Causeway are run by the National Trust so if you have membership you’ll be laughing. If not, a family ticket for the rope bridge costs £14.80 and access to the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and parking is £22 (although the Causeway itself is free if you do not use these facilities).