Belfast & Northern Ireland – 07/08/2018 to 11/08/2018

Previous post – Dublin

Last week I left off at Dublin, 7th August, as I was leaving for Belfast. Well. Getting the bus to Belfast from Dublin couldn’t be easier – I got the Dublin bus from outside the customs house for €10. It was direct, and just under a two hour journey, so before long I arrived at Europa Bus Station in Belfast. Thanking the driver, I headed to my Belfast hostel – the best I stayed in during my trip – Global Village.

Southern façade of the Custom House

The Customs House – my last stop in Dublin

After dropping off my bag and charging my phone I decided to explore West Belfast. Everyone says that there is far more to Belfast than just murals, and this is certainly true, but the recent political history make for a fascinating visit. Starting in Falls Road I walked and took in the Catholic memorials and began to understand the sectarian divide within the city. The Falls Road murals encapsulate life as an occupied society, and while it was hard to see – being from the United Kingdom – it is interesting to wonder how I would feel in the same position.

Catholic mural

At the end of Falls Road you can wrap onto the Peace Wall at Cupar Way. This for me was the most striking remnant of the troubles and the divided communities. I have visited Berlin, visited Checkpoint Charlie and seen the remaining sections of the Berlin wall. But I was not prepared for the scale of the division. I mock Trump and his desire to build a wall on the Mexico border and yet here I was. It was a far cry from Plymouth. I was beginning to realise that maybe the United Kingdom was not so United after all. Thankfully the Peace Wall is covered in murals dedicated to its namesake. Peace. The most contentious spot in the city has become a shrine to end the troubles.

But climate change is fake news right?

The Peace Wall divides Falls Road from Shankhill Road and the Protestant community. The murals here are very militant, pro union and anti IRA. After seeing both sides I found it impossible to view either as right or wrong. I was mostly just sad that communities a stones throw away from each other were so divided.

Militant Protestant murals

Having had enough I headed back to the hostel for a night of beer, Irish music and an Irish Pastie. Not at all like a Cornish Pasty. My first foray into Belfast was complete.

I always knew the Punisher > Captain America

Wednesday 8th

Waking up at a reasonable time I decided to spend my day exploring Cavehill Country Park overlooking the city. Taking the bus from next to Belfast City Hall, I headed slightly out of the city. Walking along the path to the park, I could see the hill rising above me and already was excited for the views it promised. My first stop however, was the magnificent Belfast Castle.

Belfast Castle

Built between 1811 and 1870, the castle is in the Scottish Baronial Style and is impressive on the outside with gardens to walk around all year. Most importantly it is free! After an expensive few days in Dublin, it was nice to have a day that was largely free. Always refreshing on a backpackers budget. Inside there is a small visitor centre on the lower floors, with upstairs reserved for functions.

The ascent in the distance

Having had my fill of gardens and the castle I began my hike along the Cave Hill trail. The hike wraps around the hill, following a distinct groove valley and gives stunning views over the city. Moving along the horseshoe shape, nearing the summit I reached McArt’s fort – an old ráth or ring fort. Sitting inside the ancient structure looking out to sea you can see as a far as Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Views over Belfast and out to sea

Thoroughly enamoured with the hill so far, I quickly detoured to reach the highest point of Cave Hill at 368m (1207ft). I veered off course to the North in order to reach the nearby summit of Collinward – 360m (1181ft). I think the actual summit is covered by a mobile phone mast, but walked the surrounding area as high as is possible without scaling a large no access fence, and like many others, I was happy to add to my hillbagging account on that basis!

Looking over the hills – those clouds though!

Having reached the two summits I was aiming to hike, I headed back down the hill to meet my friend Rob. I chose the path that follows the front of the hill, overlooking the cliff and passing the caves after which the hill was named. Peering inside the largest, I really appreciated just how cool and different the location was. Once I had met Rob I grabbed some well-deserved food and caught up briefly before he had to travel to Coleraine.

Prehistoric caves

Rob dropped me off at Belfast City Hall, which I explored quickly before closing, visiting the Titanic Memorial Gardens and walking around inside before being kicked out for the end of the day. At this point I returned to my hostel and got ready for another night of Irish beer and Irish music. It is safe to say that already by this point I was in love with Belfast!

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Titanic memorial garden

Thursday 9th

Today was the big day. An early start saw me and a friend from the hostel take the bus to Coleraine to meet Rob. He picked us up from the bus station and we drove along the Causeway Coast to the Giant’s Causeway. With beautiful scenery the whole way, our excitement built as we went to arguably the most famous sight in Northern Ireland.

The drive to the Causeway was beautiful

Entering and walking down the hill to see the stepping stones is amazing. Built by giants across Ireland and Scotland wanting to fight, or as a result of an ancient volcanic fissure making impressive basalt columns; whichever way you choose to look at it, the Giant’s Causeway is a remarkable sight to behold. It is a wonder, both geologically and culturally.

Completely surreal rock formations

After walking over the causeway and taking our fill of the dramatic scenery we decided to take a longer, winding route back to the car park, climbing the cliffs and seeing the headland of the surrounding coastline. Some of the views on this route were breath-taking, will remain with me forever – I could never hope to do them justice with a photo. At the brow of the cliff, looking over the causeway below, the scale of the landmark is revealed, offering a completely different and refreshing perspective compared to ground level. 

The view from above

Our next stop for the day was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The bridge itself has taken many forms over the years, originally used by fishermen to cross to the island during the salmon run. Unfortunately when we arrived the waiting time to cross the bridge was nearly 3 hours, so we decided to hike to the bridge, enjoy the coastline and move on. I do wish I had managed to cross the bridge, and if I return to Belfast I will book on a coach tour to cross the bridge – as they come with a crossing time included!

The rope bridge – i’ll come back and cross someday

After heading back along the coast path to the car, we set off once again for our second to last stop of the day – the Dark Hedges. Made famous by Game of Thrones (where it is used as the filming location for the King’s Road) this walkway of beech trees was planted to provide an atmospheric walk towards Gracehill House, in 1775. According to legend, the hedges are visited by a ghost called the Grey Lady, who travels the road and flits across it from tree to tree. She is claimed to be either the spirit of James Stuart’s daughter (named “Cross Peggy”) or one of the house’s maids who died mysteriously, or a spirit from an abandoned graveyard beneath the fields, who on Halloween is joined on her visitation by other spirits from the graveyard.

Possibly haunted?

Today the beech trees have sadly been hit by recent storms (who says climate change isn’t real?), thinning them out some places. Some of the beech trees were reclaimed however, and now form the doors for the Game of Thrones Northern Ireland Passport, with one door (and stamp) at each key filming location. So the fallen trees are still playing a vital role in Northern Ireland’s tourism!

Game of Thrones door

Our final location for the day was a quick walk along Lough Neagh – Britain’s largest lake. The lake is so big that five out of six counties in Northern Ireland have shores on it. Arriving at the town of Antrim we took the time soak in the sheer scale of the lake in front of us – horizon to horizon. It was literally a sea, there is no sight of the far shore at all. After a brief shoreline walk, we headed for home. It was a long and tiring day, but it was my best experience on this Ireland and Northern Ireland trip for sure.

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Lough Neagh

Friday 10th

My last full day in Belfast began with a change of plans – I was going to hike Divis and the Black Mountain, but family and work emergencies meant Rob had to return early to the UK and I lost my lift. I made the most of my time however, and spent the morning soaking the city centre on a guided walking tour. As with many cities, this was free and informative and shed light on some of Belfast’s recent troubled history and industrial origins. I ended up ending my morning in a bar with another of the Game of Thrones beech doors, showing how integrated into Northern Ireland tourism they are!

It is worth spending a morning just walking through Belfast

My afternoon was spent visiting the docks and titanic museum. Amazing. The building itself is impressive to begin with, but the ticket entry gives you access to so much more than just the titanic exhibition – where of course you get to see the story of the titanic, and how it is intrinsically linked to the Belfast community and area. You also get to explore the SS Nomadic fully restored to its former glory. The tender to Titanic, and the only remaining ship of the White Star Line today, it is an amazing piece of history in the flesh.

The Titanic Museum – amazing

With a fantastic final day under my belt, I headed back to the hostel. It was time to pack.

Another Game of Thrones door

Saturday 11th

Unfortunately all travels must come to an end at some point, and the 11th marked the end of the line for me! Enjoying one last Irish coffee after checking out of my hostel, I headed to George Best Airport before flying back to England. An hour later I was in Exeter, and an hour after that I was back home in Plymouth. I loved Ireland and Northern Ireland, and will return soon. I’ve included the information I used to plan my trip and write my blog below. It’s always great to look forward though – and my next trip will reunite me with my girlfriend. That’s right… I’m off to the States in September!

So watch this space!

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No… this picture isn’t wonky! Much like Piza, the clocktower in Belfast has sunk on its foundations, leaving it tilted

I used the following sources to either write this post or plan my stay: