As we drew nearer to Ballina and the turn off to Down Patrick Head the weather closed in, clouds lowered and rain started to obscure the countryside. When we reached Ballina we took the turning for Down Patrick, but it was one of those small country lanes, pot-holed and narrow, there was no guarantee that we would even get to see the Cliffs in this weather, so we turned back and continued on toward Donegal.
The weather continued in its blustery wet state for the remainder of the day. Paul guided us through County Sligo past the Dartry Mountains to a lunch spot in the little coastal village of Mullaghmore, during the summer I could imagine this would be a thriving holiday spot, but on a windy, wet winters day it was deserted, so we sat in the car and ate our packed lunch.
We continued on through the amazing countryside, flat coastal terrain to rocky escarpments and the Black Stack Mountains of County Donegal and onto our accommodation at Dunkineely, a village about 20kms west of Donegal town. Our cottage was beautiful a converted barn, done out to perfection, very stylish and comfortable.
Our Lovely cottage at Dunkineely.
Very nice, and a coffee pod machine as well.
After a great nights sleep and a relaxing morning, we headed off to explore Donegal town. We followed our "Back Roads of Ireland" guide on a walking tour around Donegal town centre. The ruined Franciscan Abbey by the mouth of the Eske River which runs through the town, the lovely market diamond decked out for Christmas, the church with the Round Tower and the ever present Castle.
Donegal and the River Eske.
Back to the cottage for lunch and a rest, then off again to the famous Slieve League Cliffs. We were bound and determined to see some of Ireland's famous Cliffs at some point, so today was our opportunity. The weather was clearer after lunch so we negotiated our way through the countryside, discovering some beautiful little villages and amazing views on the way. We arrived at the carpark for the Cliffs, with the size of car park and the bus station obviously it can get pretty busy in the summer season. We left the car and headed off on the 1.5 km walk, up hill and down dale, beside small loughs and steep drops, sharing the stunning views with the local residents, the sheep. The whole landscape is bogs and rocks, with old peat workings dotted here and there. The Cliffs were pretty cool, at 600 metres they are amongst the tallest in Europe. Looking at them from the viewing platform, we were already over halfway up, so some of the drama was lost on us. In summer you can catch a boat from Teelin Pier to view them from the sea, this would be a more impressive way to view there sheer size. We had a good old stomp around, and a climb up some of the path to the top of the Cliffs (Paul adventured further than I), but alas the light was starting to wane and we wanted a quick stop in Killibegs on the way home, so we trekked back down to the car.
One of the locals on the way.
Some of the Cliffs, it looses its grandeur in a photo..
Killibegs is a major fishing port for Ireland, its Harbour is always busy with the North Sea fishing fleet. We did a quick tour around and a visit to St Catherine's Well, where people come to drink the water. By now dark was starting to flex its muscles so we bundled into the car and retraced our steps to the cottage for a warm up and a wine.
On the 17th December we said goodbye to Dunkineely, beautiful Donegal Town and the "Wild Atlantic Way" which we had been following for some time. We headed north through County Donegal, between the Blue Stack Mountains and on to Lough Swilly. I sing and play my quitar for my own pleasure and one song that I do is called "On the shores of the Swilly" it is written by Phil Coulter, and is about the death of his Sister in Lough Swilly, so of course I wanted to see what I sang about. I was a little disappointed, it was just a big Harbour much like any other Harbour, but we did only see a small portion of it. But it was onward to Northern Ireland, and what we expected to be a border crossing... not a border in sight, just a change of roadside speed signs from Kilometres to Miles. We circled around Derry (Londonderry) then shot left on the A2 for the Causeway Coast route. We stopped briefly at Downhill beach were the now famous Mussenden Temple sits moodily on the cliff tops ( famous because of Game of Thrones).
By this time we were really needing a pee, and as I have said before public toilets are not particularly obvious to the newbie in town. We continued on around the coast to Bushmill (think Whiskey) then on to the Giants Causeway carpark, by this time we were getting a bit frantic, so we parked up and used the loo's. We had a real fright when we had to pay £18 to park the car for the Causeway, but after a bit of complaining we coughed up and went. We walked down to the Giants Causeway along with about 10 other people, you could also take the bus, but that was an extra cost. The Causeway itself is quite spectacular, it is as though someone has stacked these stepping stone like blocks one on top the other, then stood the piles of blocks close together to stop them toppling over. There were people everywhere, with a goodly supply of Attendants to keep everyone behaving themselves and not doing anything silly, like climbing to high up, bloody nanny state.
The beginning of the Causeway Coast.
Some of the Giants Causeway.
It was a bit hard to believe that I was there, I had heard about the Causeway so long ago and had always wanted to see it, and there I was standing on it, another one of those must see places ticked off my bucket list. We trudged back up the hill to the carpark, then onward to our next Airbnb stop in the village of Ballycastle.
Ballycastle was quite a bustling little town, it is a jumping off point for ferry trips out to Rathlin Island and also over to the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland. In summer it is a busy seaside resort with its proximity to the Causeway, and its lovely seashore being the draw card. Our accommodation was an older style villa that had been converted into three apartments, with views over the Ballycastle Harbour and out to Rathlin Island and Scotland in the misty distance. The next day the 18th December, we explored around the Causeway area, walking along the foreshore at Ballycastle, then driving over to the "Dark Hedges" another Game of Thrones sight, which turned out to be not so dark in winter as all the leaves had dropped off the trees. We then found an amazing little Castle ruin on a small peninsula washed by the cold Atlantic, down a perilous staircase. Kinbane Castle was built in 1547 by Colla MacDonnell and was one of many MacDonnell castles along the Antrim coast. Kinbane comes from the Gaelic " An Cionn B'an " meaning white head, as the head of the peninsula is of white chalk, dating back to the Cretaceous period. We really enjoyed stomping around this piece of magical history, what made it so magical? There was not another soul there, we had this wonder to ourselves.
The Dark hedges and Ballycastle town.
We left Ballycastle the next morning, we really liked this unassuming little town that was smack dab in the middle of such a tourist hotspot. We decided to follow the Antrim Coast along the Causeway Coast A2 scenic route, we were not disappointed. The A2 took us around the Glens of Antrim, quite spectacular ranges of mountains and hills that run down to the sea with amazing valleys (Glens) between each range. There are nine Glens in all with little fishing villages dotted along the coast at the foot of the Glens. We stopped in Carnlough, Glenarm and Larne, quaint villages edging the North Channel of the Irish Sea. There were small harbours bound by huge rock walls like we had seen in Scotland, Castles and sweeping views out to Scotland and the Irish Sea.
Carnelough and the Glenarm Castle Barbican and walls.
We skirted around Belfast then headed south east to the Mountains of Mourne and Newcastle, a tourist hotspot in the summer with Bingo Halls, Casinos and Gaming Parlours, there was also a lovely beach a bit like Napier in New Zealand. The whole town was in Christmas mode with shoppers scurrying around laden with packages, decorations adorned the shops and hung over the streets. We had lunch in a local pub along with the usual cider and Guinness, then went in search of our Airbnb. Our hosts were so lovely when we arrived, and the house had views out to the Irish Sea, we settled into our room, then went back into Newcastle for some really nice curry for dinner.
The next morning the 20th December was our day to explore, we had a good chat with our hosts and they recommended a walk that they called Rosie's Walk. We set off towards the foot of Slieve Donard the highest peak in the Mountains of Mourne. The track was great going up, quite well defined, we stopped and patted some lovely Ponies on the way. We arrived at the river crossing, and got across safely, then we started down the rock strewn valley surrounded by peat bogs and gorse. The track had become less defined by this stage, so Paul and I separated, Paul chose the right one, were as I chose the wrong one, ending up in a bog surrounded by rocks and rivulets. Back on track we found the path and followed it down the hill to Bloody Bridge and on to the coast, along the foreshore and back to our accommodation, a very invigorating walk. The rest of the day was spent having more of a yarn with our hosts, and a tour of their lovely house, then we settled down for a quiet night in.
Slieve Donard in the swirling clouds
Me lost in the boggy wilderness.
Our Airbnb front right Slieve Donard behind.
We left County Down and Northern Ireland the next day, skirting around the Mourne Mountains then up along Carlingford Lough to Newry then back the other side to Carlingford. We had lunch in the pub and a walk around Carlingford Village, with some amazing old buildings and ruins. Before we left Carlingford we had to do a bit of de-cluttering, we were handing back our rental car later in the afternoon and had to carry our packs from then on. So clutter free, it was into the car for the last leg to Dublin, it was a cruise down the M1 to the rental car depot, then into a shuttle to the Airport, then the bus into Dublin City centre to find our home for 2 nights. Dublin has an amazingly long tunnel, that takes you under some of the outer city and under the River Liffey, pretty spectacular. By the time we got to our digs it was 4pm, we were a bit early for the 5 o'clock meeting so we settled into a pub right next door to the apartment block (how convenient). The young lass was a bit late meeting us and there was some confusion, but we were there at last. This particular Airbnb was a bit of a let down after all our others, it was in a great spot in the heart of Dublin, but very tired and a bit musty. After a quick settle in we headed down Lord Edward Street to find dinner, and have a wee look at the night life of Dublin.
The next morning Thursday 22nd December, we were up early to make the most of our one day in Dublin. After a 15 minute walk we arrived at Trinity College at 9am, a wee bit early so we had a cruise around the grounds checking out the lovely old buildings. At 9.30am we joined the queue to see the Book of Kells. For years I have been fascinated by the art of Calligraphy and the Book of Kells in particular, so there I was mooning over this amazing book. It was in a glass case so no touching and no turning the pages, but it was beautiful to see, the love that went into creating this work of art was obvious, I was in awe.There was also a display showing the other pages of the book and how it was created and the history behind it all. We then continued upstairs to the Trinity College Old Library, you could smell the books as you walked up the stairs, then it opened up in all its grandeur. It was the smell that I loved, old books have a smell of history about them, it is the leather coverings of course, but I so love that smell. I could have stayed there all day, but Paul was getting a bit restless by then so we headed downstairs to the gift shop, we had to get something!
Trinity College Library and the River Liffey
The Famine Memorial on the banks of the Liffey and the Tara Brooch.
Bog bodies, amazingly preserved.
The rest of the day was spent doing a walking tour of Central Dublin, we checked out the Grand Canal then back via the River Liffey to Temple Bar. After lunch we navigated through the alleyways and malls to the Irish Museum of Archaeology, bog bodies, jewellery, weaponry, boats and a myriad of other collections it was pretty cool. Our walk back to the apartment was pretty spectacular as Christmas shopping was in full swing, the alleys and lanes were choked with people, we had to risk life and limb a few times to get across the flow of foot traffic. We were leaving early in the morning for England so we had a quiet dinner at Jury's Inn next door to our apartment, then early to bed.
Friday 23rd December saw us up at 4.30am to get ourselves packed and ready for our ferry trip to Holyhead in Wales. We were a little bit worried about the trip as our first booking had been cancelled due to a storm that was bearing down on the Irish Sea. The Taxi arrived a 6.15am to take us to the Port, the Ulysses (our ferry) was huge, think about twice the size of the Cook Strait Ferry, seeing the size of it allayed some of my fears about the crossing. Once on board we ensconced ourselves up the bow in some comfy chairs and watched the parade of cars that were being taken onboard. The Ulysses was quite flash for a Ferry, with movie rooms for the kids numerous bars and sleeping cabins if you required. As we left the protection of the Harbour and headed out to sea the conditions became a little less comfortable, and unfortunately some of the surrounding children became seasick. Trips to the toilet became quite hazardous due to the vomit making the slightly heaving floor quite slippery, but we both came through fine, Paul even had his last glass of Guinness, I stuck to Ginger Beer. We arrived at Holyhead late morning and boarded a bus to the train station, we had a 1.5 hours wait for the train but that gave us time for lunch, and a rest.
The train ride through the Welsh and English countryside was quite fascinating and fast in places, but it got dark at 4.30pm so we lost our view of flashing countryside to flashing lights instead. We arrived in London at the Euston Street station at 5.40 pm on the Friday before Christmas, we were expecting crowds of people and that is what we got, but luckily they were all leaving London. We negotiated the two tube trains to West Brompton, then it was a brisk walk in the rain to our Airbnb. Maria had left the key out for us, and it was like coming home to something familiar for a change. Takeaways from the local Chinese for dinner and then we settled in for a sleep in a slightly familiar bed.
The next morning being Christmas Eve we had to stock up with a few supplies for our Christmas party at Xaviers flat, so we set off to find the local Waitrose and have a look around at suburban life in London. It definitely has its own flavour, the area we were in had a diverse mix of Ethnicities, which added to the colour and flavour. Street stall vendors selling fruit and veg, seafood and even pots and pans, calling out their wares for all to hear. A local Church stall fundraising for renovations of the Church, and people of all colours, Genders and Creeds walking side by side. But everywhere we went there was litter, blowing down the roads, hitched around the feet of lamp posts, blown into piles down alleyways. We met Xavier back at our apartment for lunch then it was off to the shoppers paradise of Harrods and Oxford Street. We caught the bus to Harrods then entered this Temple to consumerism and the worship of money. Floor upon floor of Women's clothing, do dads, shoes and smelly stuff, they at least had a floor for men as well. The cost of some of the items were beyond belief, the gowns some with no price tag...how much are they? Toys, electronics, motorbikes, furniture, food you name it they had it. We left feeling very poor and grateful that we could not afford to shop there. As we left the queues outside had started to form to get into the shop, no wonder it was a shit fight to exit the building.
Off to Hyde Park corner and the impressive Winter Wonderland themed Carnival, with all the rides and cotton candy. We skirted around the outside of this jam packed event, onto Oxford Street and down the street to look at the Christmas lights. Again we were amazed at the number of people out shopping, but it was Christmas Eve and the air was festive and the lights would have been spectacular if it was dark, but evening was setting in and they did show some of there sparkle. We passed shop upon shop upon shop, Swarovski, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer just to name a few it was all a bit overwhelming. By this point the buses had gone into lockdown because of the vast amount of traffic, so we hopped the Tube back to West Brompton and the apartment for a serving of the latest Star Wars movie and then dinner at The Goose.
Christmas morning was quiet for us, we were invited to go to Xaviers Flat for a "Orphans Christmas Party", most of the young people he flatted with were from the Antipodes, so we fit right in. We walked over to the flat late morning, through the eerily empty streets of London, to Fulham were the flat was. The lunch ended up being early dinner, so a lot of time was spent drinking and talking with some amazing young people who are all out experiencing life to the fullest. We had thought our Christmas would be lonely but it ended up being full of fun and laughter. We left the young people to their party at 6.30 and walked back to our digs feeling blessed that we had come.
Our last two days in London involved a small amount of shopping and a visit to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the shopping was fun on Boxing Day, as every man and his dog was out. The Museums were also pretty amazing and the queue to get into the Natural History Museum blew us away. By this time we were ready to head home, we were over the travelling, we were over the sight seeing, we were over the crowds. We wanted sleepy old New Zealand, and our beautiful home town of Whangarei.
Wednesday 28th December we left our digs early to take our last tube ride to Heathrow Airport, Xavier and His girlfriend Florence came to see us off at the airport, but I could sense that something was wrong between them, this made me anxious. I tried not to cry when we said goodbye, but I was so worried about Xavier, I fell apart after we walked away. The return home was a long, tedious and tiring 36hrs of travel with very little sleep and lots of sitting in uncomfortable seats, but we made it home and our son Jason was waiting at the airport for us.
We had an amazing 3 months exploring the UK and Ireland, but we were so glad to be home, back to our own bed and familiar stuff. We spent a week resting up and then took off on our yacht for a few weeks to enjoy the beautiful summer, before we returned to work and the daily grind.