Romance of the rocks

David Atkinson discovers the legends etched in limestone and basalt landscapes on a road trip of the Causeway Coast.

It's a journey of fire and ice, limestone and basalt. But, most of all, as I set out from Belfast Lough to Lough Foyle, just outside Londonderry, this 190-kilometre trip comes alive with ancient folk legends.

"Ireland has the second-oldest oral tradition of storytelling in the world after Greece," tour guide Ken McElroy says. "Old superstitions and legends - the little people, banshees and giants - are embedded in the national psyche ... And the dramatic landscape of the Causeway Coast lends itself perfectly to illustrating this storytelling tradition."

Indeed, the Giant's Causeway, the monumental natural feature of this coast, is the focus of another of Northern Ireland's big events this year. A multimillion-dollar visitor attraction opens in July to form a new gateway to this geological wonder. Among other things, visitors will be able to learn more about the Causeway Coast legends first collected in the tales of the Tain - stories of good versus evil, featuring the likes of the mythological Ulster warrior Cu Chulainn.

The early Christian church, founded by Saint Patrick in the 5th century, adopted many old pagan festivals, while Scottish settlers arriving in the 17th century also brought their stories.

As I set out along the old Antrim coast road, built by military engineer William Bald in the 1830s, the fables of rural Northern Ireland appear to be etched into the stone-forged, purple-heather scenery. Flint-speckled limestone cliffs, isolated farms and old walls lend context to the legends. Gnarled hawthorns stand stoic by the roadside, the locals reluctant to cut them down for fear of disturbing the wee folk.

I will follow the arc of the coast for several days, passing through the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, stopping to visit lost-in-time coastal towns, such as Carnlough, and exploring the nine Glens of Antrim further inland. This is great driving country with plenty of wave-crashing vistas and a slew of interesting pit stops.

The first legend takes me to Glenariff for a brush with a giant's son. Ossian was a warrior poet who fell in love with Niamh, a lady of the Tir Na Nog underworld. But Ossian wanted to see his beloved glens once more and returned to the mortal world. Pursued by Vikings, he scaled what turned out to be the fibrous tail of a magical horse overhanging a cliff. The horse turned into a stream, washing away the invading Vikings and saving Ossian's life.

From the roadside, looking across verdant Glenariff to the sea beyond, Grey Mare's Tail waterfall gushes down behind me from Glenariff Forest Park. Standing on the crest of the glen, late-dawn mist swirling around me like ancient ghosts, I start to feel the visceral power of nature that fuelled these legends and makes them still tangible today.

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The next leg of the journey hugs the Sea of Moyle from Ballycastle to Ballintoy, just beyond the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, erected by salmon fishermen to span a deep chasm off the limestone headland. It's now protected by the National Trust.

The area is associated with the legend of the Children of Lir - twins Fiachra and Conn, Fionnuala and Aodh - who were changed into beautiful white swans by their wicked stepmother, Aoife. They were condemned to spend 300 years adrift on the Sea of Moyle but the curse was broken by the peal of the first Christian bell. Today, the ruins of a friary, just off the road at Ballycastle among golf links, mark the site of the early church.

The route then twists through coast-hugging curves, past the mist-looming stronghold of Dunluce Castle, clinging to the clifftop just east of Portrush, and to Mussenden Temple, an 18th-century folly near Castlerock.

Irish monks first brought perfume stills from the Middle East between the 6th and 9th centuries and created a liquor they called uisce beatha or "water of life". It grew quickly in popularity in Northern Ireland. Records from 1070 talk of local warlords fortifying men for battle with whiskey. The liquor went on to be hugely popular all over the world. Today, there are just three distilleries left in Ireland; one of them, Bushmills, in Northern Ireland.

"The water we use flows over the same basalt rock as the [Giant's] Causeway, so it lends the whiskey a certain mineral taste," the master distiller at Bushmills, Colum Egan, says. "And the purity of the water is key to the whiskey's quality."

The distillery is just a few kilometres from the Giant's Causeway in the village of Bushmills and is one of the main features along this stretch of coast. Another close by is Carrick-a-Rede, where a rocky little island is connected to the mainland by a rope bridge that swings 30 metres above a chasm. Looked after by the National Trust, it is a fine place to look out for birds and plants and to admire the coastal panoramas that stretch to the Scottish Isles. There are some exhilarating walks along the cliffs.

Portrush, to the west of Bushmills, is one of Northern Ireland's favourite holiday places, with sweeping beaches, good shopping, restaurants and lively nightlife. As well as catering for golfers and anglers, the town is a magnet for surfers. It has a couple of surf schools if you want to give it a try.

But it's the Giant's Causeway, a World Heritage site and domain of Northern Ireland's favourite giant, Finn McCool, that is the highlight of my trip.

Finn is said to have built the rock causeway to Scotland to fight his arch rival, the Scottish giant Benandonner. But Finn ran away when he realised his rival was bigger than him and was saved by his cunning wife, who disguised Finn as a baby as Benandonner approached. The thought of the size of the baby's father made the Scottish giant take flight, ripping up the causeway in his wake.

The Causeway's hexagonal basalt columns, about 40,000 of them forged by cooling lava more than 60 million years ago, still point an accusatory finger towards Benandonner's domain.

I walk down to the stones, where new walking trails lead off around the headland, to catch the afternoon sun illuminating the rocks. There's a restored steam railway here, too, between Bushmills and the landmark.

In years gone by, crones would sit among the stones, regaling visitors with nips of whiskey and folk yarns in return for a few coins. They're gone now but the sense of being in tune with folk traditions still leaves me humbled.

I feel the route has brought me closer to understanding this more rural and remote side of Northern Ireland, away from the city lights.

New steps among the stones

THE new Giant's Causeway Visitor Experience, designed by Dublin architects Heneghan Peng, opens to the public in July. The project incorporates a visitors' centre, interpretation material around the site and new clifftop walking trails.

"The building is not the destination; after all, we have one of the natural wonders of the world on our doorstep," says Graham Thompson, project director for the National Trust, which looks after the landmark. "However, it's a stepping stone to the stones and a way to enhance the experience."

Built for sustainability, the building features a grass roof and columns of locally quarried basalt to reflect the legend of the giant Finn McCool plucking columns out of the ground.

Inside the 1860-square-metre centre, past National Trust-branded information and a cafe, the interpretive space features three key themes: the formation of the Causeway; people and legends; and the natural world.

Two features of the exhibition are a revolving CGI presentation of the Finn McCool legend and a large-scale sculpture of the Causeway Coast.

The opening will be accompanied by a public art installation around the causeway by German artist Hans Peter Kuhn. Flags, which will embed hundreds of semaphore flags around the Port Noffer headland, will coincide with the closing of the London Festival on September 9.

The Causeway's new centre is expected to attract 600,000 visitors a year to the UNESCO World Heritage site.

See nationaltrust.org.uk/giantscauseway.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Dublin from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1920 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Dublin (8hr 30min); see emirates.com. Hire-car companies are at the airport. Belfast is 167 kilometres from Dublin; there are regular trains and buses (about 2hr).

The 252 Ulsterbus is a circular route that goes via the Antrim Glens from Belfast. The closest railway station to the Causeway is at Portrush; see translink.co.uk.

Staying there

Portrush has hotels, guesthouses, self-contained cottage stays and camp sites; see portrush.org.uk. For more information, see causewaycoastandglens.com; discoverireland.com.

While there

The Titanic Belfast visitor attraction opens on March 31. It's the centrepiece of the Titanic Quarter, built at the shipyard. Titanic Belfast extends over nine galleries and includes full-scale reconstructions. One gallery area is devoted to "Boomtown Belfast" — its shipbuilding and linen manufacturing industries. At the end of this gallery, visitors pass through the original Harland & Wolff shipyard gates and continue to the Arrol Gantry and on to a shipyard ride. The Titanic Quarter has a movie studio and hotel. Exhibition tickets cost £13.50 ($20) an adult; £6.75 a child; £34 a family of four. Phone +44 (0)28 90246609; see titanicbelfast.com.

- The Telegraph, London

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