Game of Thrones adventures in Northern Ireland — searching for Lannister gold and dragons

Walking up a wood chip pathway following specially planted solar lights at 9pm on a chilly Irish Saturday, we wondered what await us down the end of the path.

Our ‘Yurtreat’, which we’d quickly checked into a few hours previous, that had been lovely and warm thanks to a wood burner lit by our host, was our worry. Would we be returning to a burned-out fire, a cold tent in the middle of someone’s back garden?

With relief we climbed inside to a cosy haven and warmth filled our bones — there was still fire burning! It was an oddity in our busy lives of being constantly on the go to be tucked up in a warm bed, inside an authentic Mongolian Yurt along the northern Irish coastline at 9pm in the evening with a log burner blazing at our feet.

This isn’t my usual way of doing things. Albeit, yes, I’m always on the look out for a bargain, I do usually draw the line at staying somewhere without electricity. And yet, here I find myself “glamping” in the first week of March in the notoriously-rainy Ireland. The week following one of the UK’s worst snowfalls in recent years that ground a large amount of the UK (mostly the south, I admit) to a halt.

We arrived into Belfast Intl. Airport early on a Friday morning. Car collection was nice and easy (thank you Alamo and the wonderful bloke on front desk who was so patient when my card randomly declined). The weather was absolutely stunning, shockingly so for Ireland (I’m not sure I’ve seen anything other than sideways rain in the 6 or 7 times I’ve been between Belfast and Dublin) so we quickly loaded up the boot of our Seat Leon and drove north, our first stop being the infamous Dark Hedges (known as the King’s Road in Game of Thrones speak).

the dark hedges.

Expecting a shallow 20 metre stretch of road full of selfie-stick adorned tourists, you can imagine my surprise at the fact that a) the road was about a kilometre long, and b) was absolutely deserted bar one man knelt on the floor snapping away on his DSLR at the eerily planted beech trees before us. His wife and baby called him back to the car after 5 minutes, and we had the whole stretch of road to ourselves.

Having seen the road already in a TV show, I obviously had a pre-existing notion of what it was bound to look like. I was delighted to see that it was every much as awesome as how GoT portrayed it to be. It really does look like that in real life – creepy, eerie and points you to doom if you dared to venture this alone in the dark. This spellbinding road featured in Thrones’ season 2, providing the setting of the King’s Road that Ayra (pretending to be a boy) travelled on with Hot Pie & Gendry, as they all head north to join to Night’s Watch.

The original 150 trees were planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century, intending to provide an impressive grand entrance to their Georgian estate. Unfortunately over fifty trees along the road have now died or been blown down in storms leaving just stumps, but for the most part these trees are still thriving, branches like gnarled fingers in the pre-Spring sparseness, intertwined at the tips.

As beautiful as these trees are, they are sadly not expected to last beyond another twenty years due to the massive increase of traffic down this road which is damaging their roots. A trust was set up almost ten years ago which is helping to preserve these beautiful beeches and in October 2017 signs went up to stop cars from driving down it. Unfortunately in the two times we visited over our weekend, I still saw about one car every five minutes drive down the road, and one family even had the nerve to drive down and park up midway in a farmer’s entrance for 20 minutes (which totally ruined everyone’s experience of the road because you can hardly appreciate something as natural and beautiful as these trees with a green Skoda Fabia blocking your view).

This road is now only meant to be used by tractors and other agricultural vehicles or emergency services, so please please if you’re visiting this beautiful natural preserve, do not drive down the road and especially do not park down it! There is a layby at the southern end of Bregagh Road which happily fits about six cars, alternatively at the northern end of the road you can park up at The Hedges Hotel and walk for a few minutes to the Dark Hedges. You don’t need to drive down the hedges road to get to the other side if parking is full, you can simply drive down the parallel Chatham Road which takes about three minutes.

Enough scolding (can you tell how mad I am about this?!).

I’ll just add, right near the Dark Hedges (actually, enroute if you’re coming straight from the airport) there is a wonderful pub to stop at — we were so lucky to find it as we’d not had a proper breakfast, we’d stepped off the plane and it was about 11am as we took our rental car north. I was adamant I didn’t want to eat at the airport. No. We were in Ireland. I wanted to eat at a traditional Irish pub with Irish food. We set off up the A44, peeled eyes for anything that looked open (unfortunately there really isn’t a whole lot on this road). Luckily we opened up Google Maps just in time to approach The Scenic Inn near Ballymoney, which is literally a 20 seconds’ drive from the A44. They opened at noon — checking the time, it was 11.55am. Just a 5 minute wait for opening. Phew! I wandered around the adjacent roads and farmland for five minutes then we eagerly went inside and I ordered a full Irish fry up, and the American had a pepper beef wrap in a creamy sauce topped with shredded crispy onions. Both meals absolutely shone out as being some of the best food we’d had in roadside cafes/pubs — really good grub and highly recommended if you’re nearby the Dark Hedges.

After our first wonderfully tourist-free visit to the Dark Hedges, we travelled further north to the coast. The sun was still shining — we couldn’t believe our luck. We head straight for the Giant’s Causeway, with it being the main reason we wanted to visit Northern Ireland (don’t judge us….).

The sun was shining, it was a Friday afternoon, so, of course, it was busy. Here’s one thing I failed to research upon however — there is an entrance fee to the Causeway. Being naive, I’d figured that a natural coastline feature such as this would be something you can just walk to from any point along the coast for free. This didn’t appear to be the case.

Well, that’s what they want you to think.

There are two entrances. The first, the most costly, is via the visitor centre where there is a gift shop. It costs £11.50 per head to enter via this way and this covers your parking (which we needed, since we’d naively parked directly outside). If you park here, you have to pay this charge. However even if you walked here or got public transport, there are no signs whatsoever suggesting there is a free entrance. It’s a bit cheeky this way — as it doesn’t suggest there is any free option, most assume you HAVE to go via the visitor centre in order to get to the Causeway.

HOWEVER. Here is a tip if you don’t want to pay. If you park in Bushmills village and get the cheaper Park & Ride bus to the visitor centre, or actually walk all the way from town (probably a 20 min walk), there is a trail that runs along the top of the Causeway that is accessed by a slope running up from the main car park which actually goes over the roof of the visitor centre.

It is a short trail (about 5-10 minutes of walking depending on pace) with glorious views from above down onto the coast. There is a series of slick steps going downwards (the Shepherd’s Steps — called this as apparently shepherds once carried their sheep up and down this sheer cliff face, so they integrated the steps). Another few more minutes of walking downhill along the coast you’ll be at the Giant’s Causeway.

the giant’s causeway.

The first UNESCO Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. Busy, over-populated, full of selfie sticks and National Trust staff with whistles, discouraging anyone from going too close to the edges. Not really selling it, am I?

It has it’s bad points — for instance in the centre of the hexagonal rocks there is a peak that constantly had the same groups of people sat atop of it (named The Wishing Chair), so no chance of climbing up for yourself. The circular area where the tour bus stops where there is a lovely view of the coast and also what they called The Organ was absolutely full of tourists. However, if you’re not afraid to walk a bit, there are plenty of private sights to be seen.

We straight away walked east away from the crowds through a frame of basalt columns and found ourselves on a empty footpath that led to the aforementioned trail up the cliff face. Here we had a section of the bay to ourselves and even came across the smooth hammock-shaped stone that adorns the face of the National Trust information guide for Giant’s Causeway. I actually later found out this called the Giant’s Boot and is estimated to be a size 93 — just about fitting for a giant…

It was from this point we were able to appreciate the columns from afar. Geology guides tell me that the Causeway is made up of 40,000 basalt columns that were formed following many volcanic eruptions that happened over 60 million years ago. Gingerly stepping over them, wet and slick, we climbed upwards until we were on the main stretch of the Giant’s Causeway.

Now walking around on top of the basalt columns, thankfully the crowds had died out a bit. There were still the same groups sat atop that Wishing Chair, photobombing any and all photos taken, but now we were able to be relatively alone as we walked out (thankfully not worrying the staff into blowing their whistle at us) further along the bizarre collection of columns surrounded by the wild North Atlantic Ocean. I snapped plenty of photos, trying to avoid other people (and failing) and we reluctantly departed, disappearing up the Shepherd’s Steps on the cliff face and admiring the top-down views of the coastline in the sunshine. From this point, we could see to the east Rathlin Island, and straight north there was Scotland. Not impressive from afar, it just looked like a dark shadow upon the sea line, but how wonderful to be in one country and to see another country across the waters. It was maybe 30 miles to the Isle of Islay in Scotland, and another finger of Scottish land was just about visible behind Rathlin.

carrick-a-reeeedy.

Our final stop of the day was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge near Ballintoy.

Carrickarede is the name of an island just off the coast, and, yep, you guessed it, it’s connected to mainland via a rope bridge. The island itself is tiny, only about 20 metres across. The island has predominantly been used by fishermen and in the past their idea of a ‘rope bridge’ was less comprehensive – larger slats meaning more empty air beneath the user, only one handrail rather than two sides to the bridge… yeahhhh no thank you. Fortunately now it’s been built to withstand many tourists (though there are a limited number allowed on at one time). Nowadays the island is not used — it is thought to have been for salmon fishing, and now there are very few salmon left in these waters. The caves underneath Carrickarede served as a shelter for fishermen in stormy weathers.

Now, similar to the Giant’s Causeway, there are ways around not paying to visit this attraction. There is a trail that leads all the way there that is completely free of charge, however most people end up paying anyway because at the start of a trail there is a manned booth which misleads you into thinking you need to pay regardlesss. It’s £8 just for one adult. If you’re not that interested in actually crossing the bridge and want to save some pennies, simply tell them you’re not crossing. It’s free — you can walk all the way down the kilometre-long trail for nothing. And there are plenty of other little outcrops of land that you can get to for free, which I’ll touch on later.

We didn’t know this before getting there. We turned up on our first evening there to find it closed — apparently last entry is 5.15pm. It was 5.17pm. Never mind – the trail was still open. We simply walked all the way down (there are some slick steps here) and came to the rope bridge ten minutes later. There was a big iron gate across the entrance, but we still were able to see it well and had a wonderful view of the island. Better yet, we saw it entirely without any other person on it at all.

I found this cool poem about Carrickarede, written by Seamus Heaney in 1978:

A lone figure is waving
From the thin line of a bridge
Of ropes and slates, slung
Dangerously out between
The cliff-top and the pillar rock

It was getting dark. We left.

And so we’re brought back to the start of this post: the Yurt. I discovered it on AirBnB months ago whilst trying to find cheap accommodation and loved the idea of posh camping along the coastal road for £45. Check in was quick, and we were just as quick to head back out into the town of Ballycastle, upon our host’s recommendation, to eat at a restaurant called The Cellar. We were assured it was delicious but suitably informal (as I look down upon my mud-splattered Salomon Quests, my scruffy crumbled sweater and crazy wind-beaten hair.

That small suggestion turned into one of the best meals we’ve had in a long time — now, turn away any vegans. Yes, we both opted for lamb. The menu was mainly split up between lamb and fish, and it was a really tough choice between the two. We shared a seafood starter and then indulged in racks of lamb (mine suitably rare and bloody) and, for him, a leg of lamb. The leg of lamb was braised and truly falling off the bone, whilst my rack (haaa) was so tender and pink, with a seared chargrilled fatty edge. For dessert I opted for a creamy Banoffee Pie which I carefully selected from their amazing looking cake cabinet. The Cellar served a few different local beers which the husband sampled all of.

Back to the Yurt, we dressed down to underpants as it was surprisingly warm. A long night’s sleep followed.

top o’ the mornin’ to ya.

[I’m full aware that no Irish person has said this ever….]

We woke to the sound of pounding rain upon our Yurt. With the fantastic weather we’d experienced yesterday, I suspected we were due a day of misery. We didn’t wake up and leave at 7am as planned. Instead we lounged in bed, listening to the rain and swirling winds, delaying heading outside into the cold.

Breakfast back in Ballycastle, we unfortunately couldn’t find ‘Sally’s’ that our hosts suggested (we must’ve misheard), so instead stumbled off the wet streets into Donnelly’s Bakery & Cafe. A glamorous display of baked goods left me drooling downstairs and I purchased a treacle scone (grr why didn’t I order more?!) and an apple turnover to snack on later. Upstairs there is a simple cafe, one of those ‘grab a tray and get the things yourself’ type places. We ordered a normal fry up for him, and a veggie fry up for me, and I requested extra potato bread (mmmm).

What we hadn’t realised yesterday (poor planning on my part) was that the first item on today’s list was actually at the same place as Carrick-a-Rede. Heading back to Ballintoy, this time we turned down a lane that ran alongside the rope bridge car park and found ourselves in a large white limestone quarry.

larrybane quarry.

Otherwise known as the meeting point in season 2 between Catelyn Stark and the “newly appointed” King Renly in the Stormlands, where she goes to try and initiate a peace between Baratheon brothers. This quarry is where Renly sits alongside the beautiful Queen Margaery, and they watch a duell between Ser Loras Tyrell and Brienne of Tarth. Now, Brienne is one of my most favourite Game of Thrones characters, so I was particularly excited to visit this location where she defeated Loras and became part of Renly’s Rainbow Guard.

The quarry itself is….well, quarry-like. It’s a big hole in the ground surrounded by cliffs. In the driving rain and heavy winds we didn’t walk all the way around it. It is disappointing to know that the National Trust now use this quarry as an overspill car park when the more-popular rope bridge car park is full. What a shame it must be to come down here to see it overpopulated with tourists and vehicles; cars and tour coaches lined up in rows, full of people only interested in that rope bridge. We were lucky; there wasn’t a single car in the entire car park (probably due to the fact it was disgusting weather and most people were holed up in a pub somewhere). The quarry leads down to a little outcrop, a tiny pebbled beach that unfortunately it was impossible to go on as the winds were now up to 50mph and had a way of slapping seawater into your face with such reverence that it felt like rocks.

Back in the car, we drove east, intending upon visiting Torr Head but being sidetracked by a brown road sign (usually these symbolise historic features in the UK) and a narrow country lane that promised to head down to the unknown. Little did we know, this would turn out to be the best adventure yet on our Irish trip.

It was a wonderful piece of Northern Irish history to accidentally stumble across.

The actual historic feature was Kinbane Castle. The castle formed the front of an outcrop of land, which reaches out to sea like a giant limestone finger, sided with steep cliff edges.

We parked up at the empty car park which had a very closed toilet block. Despite the 30mph winds, the view (which was quite restricted due to low fog) was incredible down onto the coast. We could see Rathlin Island in the mist ahead. Waves crashed into rock faces far below. There was a walkway heading out to sea which wound around the side of the cliff — heading deeping into the unknown, this was our view:

An outcrop of land and cliff, windy narrow trails leading to various interesting features, and at the very base a sea cave that we could see straight through to the other side. Walking through the ruins of the castle (of which there is hardly anything left) we continued along this finger of land until we could go no further; there was a very narrow strip that led to the very end and peak, but it was far too windy, and without rails or anything to hold onto, it would’ve been far too dangerous to transverse.

The best thing? We had the whole piece of land to ourselves. This wonderful feature, and yet no one else to share it with. I couldn’t help but think this would be a fantastic place for a picnic in summer.

roadtrip.

Here’s a wicked roadtrip suggestion. From Ballintoy drive straight to Torr Head (another stretch of land that reaches into the coast — we meant to walk up it but the rain stopped us. Instead we parked up in its tiny car park, looked down upon the raging coast and muddy country lanes around us, sheep-watched, ate scones and apple pastries, spotted the carcass of a sheep skeleton and then decided to leave — honestly did the farmer put it there to scare tourists???). After that, take the Torr Road all the way to Cushendun. It’s definitely not the quickest route (the larger A2 runs parallel, a bit more inland, and allows you to go faster) but Torr Road provides the most scenic route.

Unfortunately for us it was a low-hanging-cloud kinda day. For throughout this cliff-face road we were in and out of cloud but it provided us with the most beautiful, and slightly scary, scenery. We drove through the village of Torr (honestly, at the time I didn’t even realise there was a village because it appeared to consist of three roadside farmhouses). The beautiful, single-lane winding road disappears slightly inland then returns to the coast and weaves up and down, bump-bump-bump. The only traffic we saw was two tractors coming towards me. I had to strategically manoeuvre into field gateways to allow them to pass by me as I was scared we’d be crushed in the middle of nowhere.

caves.

The town of Cushendun houses some caves — this was the reason why we wanted to come here. The very caves used in Melisandre’s giving-birth-to-death scene with Ser Davos.

To reach the caves, you need to follow the road that runs parallel to Glendun River. Putting ‘Water’s Edge’ into Google Maps will get you to it. This needs to be navigated on foot — no vehicles are allowed down this road unless you actually live there, and residents have permits. Not worth getting in trouble over, we parked the car up in town and walked the few minutes down there. We passed a decrepit, decaying hotel. Further on a B&B. Some four storey houses. Rounded a corner and — suddenly we’re on a beach. With waves lapping furiously at us, with a promising incoming tide.

We’d come all this way. We could see the caves on the opposite side of the tiny pebble beach. I raced across. I knew how dangerous tides could be but I needed one quick look and photo of the caves before leaving.

And of course, wouldn’t you know, we reach the cave and there’s an on-land route running above the beach that we could’ve walked down instead. More relaxed now, and convinced I wasn’t going to be shoved into a cave by the tide and die, we ambled around these little caves and wondered which one it was that Melisandre and Davos were in. Plenty of photos and marvelling later and we headed back — just in time to bump into two more tourists who’d come down this way. Once again, we’d had the whole place to ourselves.

Even some leaps…

The next town on, Cushendall, was the next spot, and here we’d lunch (we didn’t know this at the time, I didn’t even know if there’d be anywhere to eat there).

We had soup and yummy cranberry chicken sandwiches at Cafe Revive. A charming little place and looked to be family-run (those are always the best places). As we were there the owner was feeding her granddaughter lunch. Thankfully the place seemed to be only full of locals, and I couldn’t identify a tourist in sight (other than us, of course). It was small, and the only other people inside included a table of older ladies having a natter over lunch, a couple near the window and the cafe owner’s family next to the kitchen. The kitchen is all open — you can see over as they make your lunch for you. A little treat.

Our two day adventure was coming to a close. On our way back to the airport, we left Cushendall and went west to drive through some of the Glens of Antrim. It was a short drive. Within 10 minutes we were completely absorbed in cloud and couldn’t see more than 5 metres ahead of us. We went up Cloghs Road, which supposedly leads to a mountain. Tievebulliagh. 550 metres high, and it has an amazing history. Apparently it is formed on a volcanic plug (one of many in Ireland — actually Carrickarede island is built on one too, and that’s actually the most known). From the molten lava it produces porcellanite (I am supposed to know what this is?!). All I could uncover in my short time to research was that at the foot of the mountain they found flint axe heads from Neolithic times, that were made from the same material. Actually, axe heads made of this exact porcellanite have been found all over the British Isles, including as far as England’s south coast.

We didn’t make it to the tip of Tievebulliagh. It was raining and it would’ve meant getting out the car — and we were already pushing it for time before needing to head to the airport. We turned around in a narrow field gateway and returned back to civilisation. There was hardly anything on this part of the countryside. A few country farmhouses, that was it. However I really struggled to imagine spending many a day being in these houses, not being able to view the insane countryside views around you due to the fact you’re frequently in a cloud. Maybe it doesn’t get as clouded over as I’m imagining. Maybe we were just unlucky that day. Still. It made me think.

And so comes to an end our journey. It wasn’t technically on the way back but we did head west and go back to the Dark Hedges one last time. I was desperate to see it in fog and mist, but of course heading down back towards sea level we were no longer in cloud and it wasn’t as eerie as I’d hoped. Still, we walked down a little bit of the stretch of road one last time, taking in the old beech trees. There were many more tourists here now. I think a whole tour bus must’ve stopped off at the northern end because it was absolutely rammed (thankfully that was a kilometre away from us. These people were merely ants).

Now. I have about 2,000 photos to go through. The sad part of the trip surely is leaving and then realising you’ve snapped away so much and now you need to actually cleanse the photos because you’ve taken many duplicates and now they’re just dead space on your camera. Once I’ve gone through them, edited and so on, I can finally share them on Instagram. For the time being you’ll have to make do with these few ones I’ve got here and my long, rambling words.

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[Edit: To my dismay, I saw a Facebook post today from the Yurtreat owners who’d been so kind to us during our stay. They are selling their Yurt and toilet/shower facilities that sat alongside it. Just how sad is that! There was me thinking I was doing them a great help by advertising their glamping experience, but unfortunately they’ve closed up shop. It’s pretty thrilling to know we were one of their last customers. I messaged them privately, wondering what was happening. They said their neighbours weren’t keen on the Yurt being in the garden and they’ve also been offered jobs in Cyprus working for the ambulance service, so at least there is a happy ending.]

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