| NATURAL beauty |
sky – the golden has a coat like that of a ginger cat and blue rather than brown eyes. ‘They don’t know if it’s a subspecies or a mutation because they’ve never been able to catch one to find out,’ shouts McFaul from the front of the quad, although Skipper is doing his best, tearing through the coarse grasses, eyes beady, teeth bared.
In contrast to the wildlife, Rathlin’s growing human population – currently about 100 – is surprisingly well connected. Up to ten ferries run daily, and the islanders retain strong links to mainland Northern Ireland and Scotland, where many of their families originated. The same links are evident on the Antrim mainland, which, along with Rathlin, forms the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), more than 70,000 hectares of ravaged black coastline and connected glens on the northeastern shoulder of Northern Ireland.
UNTOUCHED L AND Originally carved out by glaciers that stretched across from Scotland, the glens – now just an hour’s drive from Belfast – were so inaccessible during the early 1800s that they were described as a ‘barren waste asylum of miserable and lawless peasantry’ by the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland. A road was built soon after, but prior to that, the population traded more with Scotland than inland Ireland – a trade that has been found to go back to Neolithic times, when the area was known as a good spot to pick up an axe.
Today, Antrim’s lack of development is perceived as an attraction. ‘Our tourism figures have increased more than for anywhere else in Ireland,’ says Kevin McGarry, Moyle District Council’s head of tourism and leisure, when I visit his offices at Ballycastle, back on the mainland. ‘This is the Ireland people want to see,’ he says. ‘Donegal and Connemara have been ruined by all the bungalows people were encouraged to build to boost the population, but mainland. ‘This is the Ireland people want to see,’ he says. ‘Donegal and Connemara have been ruined by all the bungalows people were encouraged to build to boost the population, but we still have the untouched we still have the untouched landscapes and farmsteads.’
landscapes and farmsteads.’
The authorities are trying to keep it that way, but their planning restrictions sometimes
The authorities are trying to keep it that way, but their planning restrictions sometimes irritate the locals, who feel the rules don’t always take into account the area’s unique history. Up until the late 1800s,
irritate the locals, who feel the rules don’t always take into account the area’s unique history. Up until the late 1800s,
20 www.geographical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE MAKING THE MOST OF
THE ANTRIM COAST
UP AND UP ‘Just outside Glenariﬀ, you can still see the old ladder-farm fields stretching up the hillside above the village.’ Dominic O’Loan, Glens of Antrim
Historical Society member
ON THE WING ‘May, June and July are the best times to see the breeding birds, such as the pu ns, guillemots and razorbills. By August, it’s just the kittiwakes and fulmars left.’ Liam McFaul, RSPB warden, Rathlin Island
THE HIGH ROADS ‘Most visitors follow the Antrim Coast Road.
It’s spectacular, but if you don’t deviate from it, you’re missing out on so much. I’d suggest visitors also explore the villages en route, such as Glenarm, Carnlough, Glenariﬀ, Cushendall and Cushendun – they all have their own unique characters – and drive up a few of the glens, maybe to see the waterfalls at Glenariﬀ Forest Park or the Vanishing Lake, from which you can see all the diﬀerent glens.’ Maxime Sizaret, natural heritage officer, Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust
BEST FOOT FORWARD ‘The walk around Fair Head provides great variety. It takes around three hours one way, and besides spectacular scenery and terrain ranging from grassy cliﬀtop paths and rocky scrambles to sandy beaches and narrow shoreline tracks, there’s also the chance to see ruined churches, industrial coal-mining heritage and wildlife including peregrines, seals and dolphins.’ Cowper Lynas, local walking guide
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For more information on Northern Ireland,
Antrim Coast and Glens
Antrim Coast and Glens
Southampton families here lived in clachans – small familial hamlets – but as farmers tried to pass on to their children a mix of good and bad land, farms were becoming an unwieldy collection of up to 30 or more fields dotted over a large area.
In order to simplify the system, ladder farms (strips of land that stretch up a hillside so they include good arable land and more marginal land) were introduced, and farmers were encouraged to move out of the clachans and set up farmsteads near their land. ‘These dispersed farmsteads are still a feature of the Ulster countryside,’ says local historian Randal McDonald.
‘But now, the planners want to force people into the occupied areas – a town plan, they call it; a town cram, I call it,’ says McDonald. ‘Locals feel they should be able to build on their own land. It’s as if [the authorities] have decided the countryside is perfect now. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re living in a museum.’
Local historical society member Dominic O’Loan concurs. ‘I don’t want to become like an animal in a zoo for the people in Belfast to come and stare at,’ he says. ‘They have to remember that this is a living landscape.’
FA I R DEAL Thanks to a decision made by the English government during the 1800s, many more local farmers own their land. As a result, the countryside is largely divided between small landlords rather than large estates. This can cause problems for walkers, as the farmers can be territorial, but that’s changing, says local walking guide Cowper Lynas, as we sneak over the fence of a farmer who Lynas sweetens with the occasional box of chocolates. Their arrangement means that we can walk around Fair Head, on the AONB’s northeastern corner, taking in a dolerite boulder field and walking up a hill so steep that I cut my hands and dirty my knees as I use the heather as a rope ladder.
It’s the most exhilarating walk I’ve taken in years. And I think that’s the attraction of this landscape: it’s wild and untamed, and exploring it requires a bit of effort. But in return, it gives so much back, such as glimpses of dolphins and seals, waterfalls and the sun-warmed silence on Rathlin, so total that the only sound you can hear is the blood rushing through your own ears.