It’s almost time to say goodbye to 2016. What can I say? It’s been a mixed year. Huge political shake ups, continuing civil wars, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and Planet Earth II.
Personally, there have been sad times and happy times. I’ve had some great adventures and ticked off a couple of long held ambitions. Focussing on the positives, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 of 2016:
1. Running the London marathon
The first three months of 2016 were spent pounding roads and muddy footpaths in preparation for running the London marathon. My once in a lifetime challenge.
The day itself was incredible and by far the most physically demanding thing I’ve done. There were tough parts (the last six miles), amazing parts (spectator support and running over Tower Bridge) and emotional parts (finishing). Would I do it again? No way! But I’m very glad to have completed it.
2. Walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks
We spent a week in the Yorkshire Dales and were blessed with ideal walking weather. Perfect for tackling the Yorkshire Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. Often walked as a day long charity challenge, we chose the easy option and spread them over three separate days.
3. Family backpacking adventures
I’ve cheated here and combined two trips into one. At the start of the year we decided the kids were old enough for backpacking. We bought a couple of lightweight tents and chose a couple of weekend routes close to home.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. I oversetimated the mileage we could comfortably walk on our Lambourn Valley Way weekend. And the weather was just a tad too warm on our Thames Path walk. But both weekends were fun, we rewarded ourselves with lovely meals out and made some great memories.
4. Going underground at Zip World Caverns, Blaenau Ffestiniog
My scary but exciting birthday present. Zip lining in caves, crawling through tunnels and scaling the side of the caverns. Are you brave enough to tackle Zip World Caverns?
5. Watching a Midsummer’s Night Dream, Creation Theatre, Oxford
“Quick, follow me. Walk in zigzags and blink your eyes really fast. Get in the van, hurry”. Think of Shakespeare and you don’t generally think of being bundled into a van in a public car park. Or taking part in an audition. Or popping into the printers to pick up wedding invites.
Part immersive performance, part treasure trail around Oxford this was an incredibly imaginative version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Creation Theatre. It was simply the best production I have ever seen.
6. Descending into Gaping Gill
This was an unplanned, but welcome addition, to our Yorkshire Dales holiday. After spotting an advert in a local cafe we siezed the opportunity to descend 100m by winch into Gaping Gill, a large pothole. We had to contend with an early start and a couple of hours queuing but it was worth the wait!
7. Finally finding a bee orchid. And then another. And another.
You know the saying about waiting for buses? Well this year I could have substituted the words ‘bee orchid’. I was so happy to find my first bee orchid at Warburg Nature Reserve, closely followed by several more discoveries. I even found one on a roadside verge whilst out on my lunchtime walk. How could I possibly have missed them in previous years?
8. Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim
I’ve wanted to visit Giant’s Causeway for many years. It has been on my bucket list forever. With expectations so high, thank god it lived up to them!
9. Watching coypu at our campsite in France
Whilst on holiday in Brittany my favourite activity was watching a family of coypu living near our campsite. I’d head down to the river every evening, about half an hour before dusk, and wait patiently for them to appear. I was childishly excited at the first glimpse of the coypu each night, and even more so whenever the young appeared.
10. Starlings and moon rise at Otmoor
Over recent years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to watch the starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor. This year, in addition to 40,000 starlings, we were treated to the most amazing moon rise. Two spectacular natural sights in one day!
What are my plans for 2017? We’re keeping things flexible at the moment but I have a very long UK bucket list which I’m hoping to make a dent in. How about you?
There are so many places I’d love to visit around the world but I don’t have the time or money to travel extensively. Fortunately there’s lots to see and do in the UK so I’ve created a bucket list which will keep me busy for the next few years.
My bucket list favours outdoor attractions, walks and great scenery as that’s what I enjoy. It may look like I’ve ignored vast swathes of the country and prime tourist attractions but that’s because I’ve already visited many of them!
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. Yet it has moved on and our brief visit was well overdue.
Our trip coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising. Stepping 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 nethertheless accompanied by riot vehicles and a police helicopter. An interesting introduction to the city.
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 demise. It’s in 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. Instead much of the focus is on the shipyard itself and the industries that went hand-in-hand with the building of the Titanic.
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. This is like a theme park ride in slow motion although the warning signs might make you worried you’re about to experience zero gravity. Instead it’s a gentle tour through the heat and noise of the shipyard, suitable for almost everyone.
One of my favourite exhibits illustrated 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 much of the day there and felt we got value for money.
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.
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.
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 there are also numerous black cab and bus tours.
Walking towards Falls Road it’s hard to ignore the high-rise 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. Most depict the political and religious differences between the communities, although some focus on other conflicts around the world. One of the most famous is of Bobby Sands. Bobby died whilst on hunger strike in protest against the British government’s treatment of IRA fighters.
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. Despite plans to remove them many residents believe the walls (and gates, which close nightly) keep them safe.
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 seemed to have even more murals than the Falls Road. 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.
From 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 its recent inmates, including Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, will be familiar names.
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.
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 gaze. The tunnel was built in 1849, but has been reinforced under the road section due to the amount of traffic overhead. This obviously wasn’t an issue when it was constructed!
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.
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 are pretty unique events.
Despite excellent reviews I hadn’t planned to visit W5, an interactive science centre. I thought the kids were a little old, plus we’ve been to several similar places before. However we were meeting my other half’s sister and two children so this was an obvious place to head to.
W5 was very busy and generally aimed at primary school children. However the cousins loved their surprise meet up and it was the perfect place for them to explore on their own. There are several science shows throughout the day and three floors of exhibits so plenty to keep children occupied.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
Pin it for later:
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).