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 spent a couple of days in Belfast before hiring a car to explore 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

We queued for a few minutes before being allowed to cross as only 8 people are allowed at any one time. The bridge reminded me of Go Ape in that it feels a little scary but is perfectly safe. Although perhaps not 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 our 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’s Causeway 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. Suffice to say that the basalts were formed as part of a large volcanic plateau. Although 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. 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?

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Antrim Pinterest image

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 the visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway are free for National Trust members. 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).
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A walk from Winchcombe to Belas Knap, Gloucestershire

With a sunny spring day forecast what better way to experience it than with a walk in the Cotswolds. We decided on a 5 mile circular route from Winchcombe via Belas Knap, one of the best preserved long barrows in the area.

Walkers welcome

I hadn’t realised that Winchcombe is the unofficial walking capital of the Cotswolds. It lays claim to more long distance walking routes than any other town, holds its own walking festival and has ‘Walkers are Welcome’ status. Hence there was an abundance of booted middle-aged walkers (er, us) wandering through the town.

Spring lambs, Winchcombe
Spring lambs, Winchcombe

Winchcombe isn’t the Himalayas though, or even the Lake District. Think leisurely afternoon rambles through Cotswold scenery followed by a cream tea instead.

After lunch and a visit to the bakery for mid-walk cake supplies we headed out of town. Our route took us gradually uphill through a field of lambs, probably one of the springiest spring sights. Fortunately they weren’t too bothered by four humans traipsing through their field.

Walk from Winchcombe
Walk from Winchcombe

As we gained height we had a great view back over Sudeley Castle, a private residence which is open to the public. The castle is supposedly haunted by Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, who is buried in the chapel. Of course, with my cycnical head on this may just be a rumour for the tourists.

Winchcombe walk
Winchcombe walk

Onwards and upwards we walked. Our jumpers were off by now, partly due to the sun’s warmth and not just the exertion. Spring really had arrived! A skylark was singing somewhere above us and gorgeously tactile pussy willow adorned several branches. Ominous small patches of stinging nettles were just starting to grow again too, ready to ambush walkers in the months ahead.

Spring, Winchcombe
Spring, Winchcombe

We passed a small copse with an intriguing building in amongst the trees. Someone’s house? A woodland retreat? A sauna? The Keep Out sign made it clear we wouldn’t be able to investigate.

Belas Knap

As we neared Belas Knap we joined up with the car walkers. The long barrow is sufficiently away from the road that you’ll still face a 15 minute uphill walk even if you do choose to visit by car.

Belas Knap long barrow
Belas Knap long barrow

Belas Knap is a hilltop long barrow estimated to have been built around 3000 BC. The ancient tomb has several burial chambers, including a false entrance. During the 19th Century several excavations uncovered the remains of 31 people, some of whom are thought to originate from the early Bronze Age. You can crawl into and explore a couple of the chambers if you’re brave enough!

The barrow is a popular picnic spot for visitors; slightly surreal given it’s history but I can understand the appeal. There are great views in all directions and the surrounding stone wall offers protection from the wind. It certainly proved a good cake stop.

Heading downhill back to Winchcombe
Heading downhill back to Winchcombe

Back to Winchcombe

Our return to Winchcombe was all downhill. We dropped down quite steeply, past a ménage where a rider was practising dressage, to walk beside a cricket pitch. We were intrigued by the number of stiles punctuating two fences but I can only imagine it was to allow easy access to wayward cricket balls. The last stretch followed the Cotswold Way into town where I was happy to find the tea rooms still open.

We’ll definitely head back to Winchcombe for more walks. In addition to several long distance paths which pass through the town there’s also the remains of a Roman villa, an abbey and a castle to explore locally.

More info

  • We followed the route in our AA Walks in the Cotswolds walks book. Whilst I cannot find the exact route online it’s near enough the one here – but in reverse.
  • I thought parking in Winchcombe was going to be a nightmare as cars were parked on either side of the main road when we first drove through. However we followed signs to the long stay car park which was only a 5 minute walk to the town centre. There were plenty of spaces and it only cost £1!
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Exploring World War 2 London with children

A visit to the Imperial War Museum in London has been on the cards for some time but we wanted to wait until the children were old enough to understand and appreciate it. They’ve both learnt about the Second World War at school now so during half-term we combined the museum with a trip round London to view some of the other war legacies.

If you’re interested in a similar exploration I’ve listed below the places we visited and further suggestions that could be incorporated. I wouldn’t advise following our exact route; I had specific plans for lunch so our itinerary is based as much around our stomachs as World War 2 sites!

Site of the first bomb on the city of London, Fore Street

We started in Moorgate, looking for a plaque which commemorates the first bomb of World War 2 to fall in the City of London. It’s thought that German bombers were heading for an oil refinery along the Thames but dropped them, possibly mistakenly, over the city instead.

Plaque to remember possible site of first Second World War bomb in London, Fore Street
Plaque to remember possible site of first Second World War bomb in London, Fore Steet

Much of the City was rebuilt after the war but it seems to me that it’s being rebuilt again. The whole area around Moorgate Underground station is a building site which made it a little difficult for us to find the plaque. When we finally found Fore Street a construction worker kindly pointed out where to see it (down the end near St Giles Cripplegate Church).

Christ Church Greyfriars

We walked from Moorgate to Christ Church Greyfriars. Almost all churches in the City of London were damaged during the Blitz, including many designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. Christ Church was one of eight Wren churches hit on the night of 29th December 1940.

The ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars
The ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars

The church was almost completely destroyed although the west tower survived and is now a private house; what an amazing place to live! The remains of the church are a public rose garden, perfect for lunchtime breaks.

St Paul’s Cathedral, just a few minutes from Greyfriars, escaped major damage despite almost all of the surrounding buildings being destroyed. This was mainly due to a group of fire fighters who took special care to protect the cathedral.

World War 2 shelter sign – 36 Longmoore Street

Although the Underground stations famously doubled as air raid shelters during the war many other places were also put to use. These were signed to help the public locate them, some of these are still visible today.

One sign can be found at 36 Longmoore Street. Walking along the road you can see that most of the residents have converted their basements to kitchens. Back in World War 2 public shelters were found in vaults in these basements. We could just make out the writing on one of the walls directing people down the stairs to the shelters.

Public shelter sign, 36 Longmoore Street
Public shelter sign, 36 Longmoore Street

Whilst trying to find out more history of the street I couldn’t resist a peak at property prices. The relatively modest 3 bedroom houses all appear to be worth upwards of £1.8 million, wow!

Tate Britain bomb damage

Few places in London were immune to bombing damage in the Second World War. Even Tate Britain suffered as you can see from the photos below. I wonder how many people notice this when they visit the galleries?

Tate Britain war damage
Tate Britain war damage

I popped inside briefly to confirm that we were actually looking at bomb damage and spoke with a helpful assistant. He told us that the gallery was damaged by bombs several times in the war but most of the art was moved to Picadilly Underground tunnels for safe storage (the door key is on display in the gallery).

Imperial War Museum

Our main destination was the Imperial War Museum which covers conflicts from World War I onward. Although we were primarily there for World War 2 we also visited the Great War exhibits and had a brief look around at the more recent collections.

I thought the World War I rooms were by far the best, although busy due to school holidays. In comparison the World War II rooms didn’t seem as comprehensive although there was still plenty to see.

Japanese Zero fighter, Imperial War Museum
Japanese Zero fighter, Imperial War Museum

Whilst the children liked the big and obvious military exhibits I preferred the personal aspect of war stories. For this reason I focussed on the Family in Wartime exhibition which explored the life of the Allpress family during the Second World War. As well as reading and listening to audio clips about how their lives were affected there was a model of their home and an Anderson shelter.

I enjoyed seeing this letter from an evacuee, particularly the postscripts. I could imagine writing them myself as a child!

Evacuee letter, Imperial War Museum
Evacuee letter, Imperial War Museum

We missed the Holocaust exhibiton out as it’s only recommended for children aged 14 and older. I’ve read that it’s incredibly moving and sobering; definitely worth a visit on a future trip.

Admiralty Citadel

Our last stop of the day was the Admiralty Citadel. I loved seeing this! The Citadel is one of the ugliest and most out of place buildings you can imagine. It’s ‘hidden’ in full view of the public just off of Horse Guards Parade. Can you imagine this getting planning permission nowadays?

Spot the Citadel!
Spot the Citadel!

The bomb proof citadel was built as the Admiralty communications centre in 1940 and is linked by tunnels to government buidings. It has a 6 metre thick concrete roof which was laid with a grass lawn to help camouflage it. Take a look at this British Pathé film of the roof grass being cut and raked back in 1950.

The building is still in use today; I’d love to pop in for a nose around!

More World War 2 sites in London

We only scratched the surface during our trip. Other World War 2 sites in central London which I came across during my research are shown below.

Cabinet War Rooms, King Charles Street: the secret underground bunker used by Winston Churchill during Word War II. We had planned to visit this but ran out of time. Entrance charge applies.

HMS Belfast: highly recommended. This floating museum ship shows how life was on board during and after the second world war. Lots of stairs and ladders so not for those with mobility issues. Entrance charge applies.

Churches: All Hallows-by-the-Tower survived the Great Fire of London but was almost destroyed in the Blitz; you can still see lead from the roof which melted during the bombing. St Dunstan-in-the-East was destroyed in the war but the ruins have also been turned into a public garden.

Air raid shelter signs: can be found in Queen Anne’s Gate, Brook Street and Lord North Street

Memorials: The Cenotaph and Monument to the Women of World War II are both on Whitehall. The Animals in War memorial can be found in Brook Gate, Park Lane.

Have I missed any? Let me know if you can suggest other central London World War 2 sites.

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A snowdrop walk near Swyncombe, Oxfordshire

As regular readers will know I believe a good walk always features cake. So it’s probably no surprise that our weekend walk included afternoon tea at a church. Most visitors were probably there for the main event, snowdrops in the churchyard, but not us. Instead I’d chosen a longer walk with a cake stop halfway round.

We left the car, rather nervously, in a small car park a couple of miles from Swyncombe. Last time I parked there I returned to find someone had smashed the window of the car next to us. Fortunately there were plenty of people around this time, hopefully enough to deter anyone up to no good.

The perfect tree for climbing
The perfect tree for climbing

Swyncombe Down

The first part of the walk took us steeply uphill through woodland, out on to Swyncombe Down. Although I’d planned for cake we’d also bought sandwiches so we ate these, sheltering from the wind, in amongst the trees. We didn’t hang around as it was freezing; I am so looking forward to summer picnics again.

The path runs alongside an earthwork topped with large beech trees. These had multiple branches as a result of pollarding many years ago; perfect for climbing. The earthwork, a trench called the Danish entrenchment, wasn’t much to look at but supposedly dates back to 870AD when the Danes were fighting King Alfred in the area.

Walking the Ridgeway near Swyncombe
Walking the Ridgeway near Swyncombe

St Botolph’s Church, Swyncombe

A little further on the path joined the Ridgeway, our local long distance trail, taking us downhill and up again to St Botolph’s Church at Swyncombe.  The chuchyard puts on a good display of snowdrops each February and visitors are encouraged to visit with the lure of snowdrop teas.

A couple of years ago we visited Welford Park (of Great British Bake Off fame) which has huge swathes of snowdrops and is packed with visitors. The snowdrops at Swyncombe are on a different scale as they only cover a small proportion of the graveyard but they’re still very pretty.

Snowdrop teas at Swyncombe
Snowdrop teas at Swyncombe

The warm winter weather has encouraged the snowdrops to flower early this year and I was glad we’d chosen to visit at the start of the month as a few were already starting to go over. It’s a little strange walking around headstones and taking photos in a graveyard but the snowdrops do look lovely. Whilst I’m not in a great hurry to be buried anywhere I can certainly think of worse places!

Afternoon tea at Swyncombe Church
Afternoon tea at St Botolph’s Church, Swyncombe

After a wander around the snowdrops it was time for cake. It was a hard decision but eventually we chose orange cake, chocolate sponge, brownie and gingerbread between us. We sat outside to enjoy them before heading into the church for a look through their second-hand book stall.

Snowdrops at Swyncombe Church
Snowdrops at St Botolph’s Church, Swyncombe

The Ridgeway

Leaving the church we rejoined the Ridgeway. Another uphill stretch had us puffing and panting, good job we had the cake to power us! Part of the route goes through woodland and every year I’m amazed by how much moss covers the tree trunks in this particular area. In previous years we’ve just walked a short circular route around the church so this year it made a change to turn right at the top of the hill rather than left.

It was lovely chatting to my son as we walked. When he’s at home he’s often buried in technology but there’s no option to do that outdoors. Instead he chatted happily about Star Wars (he’s seen the film twice) and Nerf YouTubers. Whilst I’m not knowledgable about either of these topics I could at least answer some of his random questions, including ‘Do bones go rusty?’.

Who can resist walking through puddles?
Who can resist walking through puddles?

Our route back to the car took us along broad bridleways, with views out to the remaining towers of Didcot Power Station. The sun was slowly disappearing behind the clouds but there was still fun to be had. The kids waded through the big puddles and I joined them on one occassion, only to find out that my ageing wellies had developed a split thus letting water in.

Fortunately our car, and all its windows, were still intact when we arrived back. Even better was that the rain started to fall just as we returned. Perfect timing!

More info:

  • Snowdrop teas at St Botolph’s Church in Swyncombe take place over three weekends in February. Dates are advertised on the church website.
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