Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ireland - Northern Road Trip - Causeway Coastline

After leaving Londonderry, we proceeded our way (driving cliff-side!) along the Causeway Coast in County Atrium, towards our next overnight stop of Ballycastle.  We had hoped to visit the Giant's Causeway, but when we woke up, it was pouring rain so we decided to put off this adventure for one more day to give a chance for the rain to subside, even though it meant doubling back on our route for a short distance.

Our first stop was the ruins of the 18th Century Downhill House and Estate, dramatically set on a clifftop with rugged views of the coast of Northern Ireland. It was built in 1774 for Frederick Hervey, the 4th Earl of Bristol, at a cost of  £80,000 and was once an elegant mansion filled with art from across Europe. Downhill Demesne refers to the piece of land attached to Downhill House and retained by the owner for personal use. This property has a varied topography including dense forests, open fields, sheltered gardens, a man-made pond and the dramatic cliffs overlooking the Downhill Strand (or beach).
Two gates provided entrance onto the property–the original Lion's Gate featuring the statues of two snow leopards which were part of the Hervey coat of arms, and the Bishop's Gate which replaced the Lion's Gate as the main entrance to the estate.  From the Bishop's Gate entrance, we walked through a wooded pathway with rare trees and up a grassy knoll to reach the Downhill House.  Looking back from where we came, we had a scenic view of the little village of Downhill in the distance, although it was a bit hard to see due to the rain.

When we finally arrived at the ruins of the "house", we were impressed by how large and intact it was. This seemed more like a castle than merely a house, especially when compared to some of the Tower "castles" that we had visited in other towns.  The house featured Grecian architecture and decorative masonry and carvings with Italian influences.  The home survived the "Big Wind" of 1839 but was totally gutted by a huge fire in 1851.  It was restored by 1874 and used to house RAF servicemen during the Second World War, but fell into disrepair shortly after that.

Wandering around the "interior" of the mansion, we got a sense of the amazing views that the Herveys enjoyed, by looking out the large window openings.  We saw the remnants of hearths and fireplaces but not much else had survived.  Standing on the landing of one of main entrances, with stone steps swooping down from both ends, we could imagine how grand this house was in its heyday.

 Walking out toward the cliffs, we approached the Mussenden Temple, a round structure that was modeled from the Temple of Vesta in Italy, and dedicated to the memory of Frederick Hervey's beloved cousin, Mrs. Frideswide Mussenden after her death.  Built to be a library, the inner walls were once lined with books.  The temple offers stunning views of Downhill Strand to the west and Castlerock beach to the east.  Today, it stands precariously close to the edge of the cliff but when it was first built, one could drive a horse and carriage all the way around the temple.  This gave us an idea of how much erosion had taken place over the centuries.  A scene from The Game of Thrones featuring the characters Stannis and Melisandre was filmed on Downhill Strand, standing in for "Dragonstone" where "the old gods burn on the beach".

Various other structures could be found throughout the property, including a round Belvedere that was built as a small summer house for Hervey's daughter Mary, a dovecote intended to house pigeons or doves, and a walled garden that provided the main house fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.  A mausoleum was completed in 1783 as a tribute to Frederick's brother George, who was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.  At one point, there was a sculpture of George sitting in the open rotunda, but it was blown down during the Big Wind of 1839.  The rubble from this sculpture remains piled at the foot of the monument.

After touring the buildings, we set off on the walking trails that took us into Black Glen Forest and by the man-made pond  that was created in the 1840s by excavation and construction of a dam. The pond was stocked with fish kept both for food for the main house and for ornamentation.  As part of our walk, we caught a glimpse of the railway line to Londonderry, which follows the coastline of the beach and enters a tunnel cut into the rock.

Because they were both run by the British National Trust, for the same price of admission, we were able to visit not only Downhill House, but also Hezlett House.  This 17th Century thatch-roofed cottage, where the Hezlett family lived for several centuries, is one of the oldest buildings in Northern Ireland. The big chestnut tree in the yard is known locally as the "Hanging Tree" since during the 1798 Rebellion, brothers Samuel and Jack Hezlett were on opposite sides, so Jack threatened to hang Isaac from the tree.  There is also a local legend that notorious highwayman, robber and murderer Cushy Glenn was hung from this tree as well, but other sources dispute this.

The house was built using the "cruck and truss" construction method, meaning that it has no foundations and the walls are not load-bearing.  The entire house is held up by wood timbers (the crucks and trusses) which form arches spaced throughout the structure.

A key part of the tour of Hezlett House involved a detailed explanation about thatch-roofing. Thatch is a natural reed and grass which when properly cut, dried and installed, forms a waterproof roof.  Wheat reed and water reed are used at Hezlett House, but barley and oat could also be used. Thatchers lay bundles of reeds on top of each other, building up a thickness of around 12 inches per thatch layer, so that an impenetrable shell of waterproofing covers the roof.   Thatch roofs provide good ventilation and insulation and are extremely thermally efficient, allowing for warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.  Unfortunately, the thatch on the roof needs to be replaced every 15 years at a cost of £30,000.  When we were on the top floor of the house, part of the ceiling was exposed so that we could see the thatch from the inside.  The batches of thatch are held together with sharpened willow sticks called scallops and smoothed into place with a flat comb-like tool called a leggett.

On a self-guided tour of the house, we found that the family lived on the ground floor while the servants and farmhands stayed on the upper floor.  On the ground floor, we saw the kitchen with the large open hearth where most of the cooking was done, as well as a washing machine in the scullery room.  The parlour (or Sunday Best Room) was used for entertaining guests and was the only room with wallpaper, which was very expensive at the time.  The centrepiece of the parlour was the stand-up piano shipped in from London.  Photographs of the various Hezlett family members can be found throughout the room, right up to the last generation who lived here until 1976.  A children's bedroom or nursery housed up to 6 children at a time and still contains various cradles, cribs and children's toys.

Still on the ground floor were two "adults" bedrooms, although the beds were so short that one might wonder whether they were actually for children.  Not only were people shorter in the old days but there are thoughts that they slept sitting up.  One theory for this practice was that superstitions indicated lying prone was for the dead, while another theory was that this was for medical reasons.  Moving to the second floor, we entered a room with a window that seemed unusually large considering it was assigned to the Hezlett's maid.  The window was a sign of wealth for the Hezlett's and also showed their affection for their maid, since they had to pay a window tax to have it.  Although the room was large, the maid did not have that much personal space because she had to share it with all the trunks and suitcases of clothes for the family, which it was her responsibility to look after.  Next to the maid's room was a huge open space where up to 15 farmhands lived.  On the ground were sacks of straw which they slept on.  The room was dark, hot and smelly but still a large step up from sleeping in the stables with the cows, which was the usual fate of farmhands in those times.  The farm hands (as young as 9 or 10 years old) worked every day except for one day allocated for them to visit their mothers.  This was the beginning of the tradition of "Mother's Day".

Continuing along the Causeway Coastline Road, we stopped at the Magheracross (meaning Plain of the Cross) viewing point where we could take in the stunning views, overlooking what was once the busiest sea roads between Ireland and Scotland.  From this location, we were able to spot the ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle in the distance.

Dunluce Castle sits on the edge of a piece of basalt rock jutting out from the mainland, 100 feet above the ocean.  It is accessible only by a bridge which at one time, connected it to the town of Dunluce.  The castle is surrounded by steep cliffs at all other points, making it the perfect location for defence.  While the first castle was built on this spot in the 13th Century, most of the ruins that remain today are from additions built on by the McQuillan clan in the 1500s and then later captured by the MacDonnell clan.

It was an imposing sight to see the castle looming in front of us as we walked along the stone-wall lined path and over the wooden bridge.  This was originally a drawbridge connected to a stone arch to provide better defence for the castle.  We were about to embark on a self-guided audio tour, but it was difficult to navigate, trying to balance the audio guide, my camera and my umbrella since it was still raining steadily throughout this visit.

We wandered through the guest lodgings on the outskirts of the castle property which were subdivided into rooms each with a window and a fireplace. We passed the stables that had individual wooden stalls for horses and a mounting platform to help get up onto a horse, traversed through the outer ward where guests and visitors were received and then into the Jacobian manor house built by Randal MacDonnell in 1620.  The manor house still reveals hints of its former glory days with large bay windows providing gorgeous views of the estate and an inner ward area that included a large kitchen area with ovens and fireplaces, a bake house and more lodgings for family and staff.

As impressive as the ruins were to see, even more stunning were the breathtaking scenic views that could be spotted through window openings and while walking near the cliff edges of the grounds.

Our next stop was Ballintoy Harbour, a small, picturesque fishing harbour located at the end of a very small, narrow, steep road down Knocksaughey Hill.  On our way down the hill, we unexpectedly encountered a uniquely designed house that we later learned was called the Bendhu House. Beginning in 1936, it was built by hand over a period of more than 20 years by Newton Penprase, a professor at the Belfast College of Arts.  It became locally known as "The house that was never completed" because Penprase kept thinking of new features to add.  Apparently the inside is as quirky and charming as the outside with sunken rooms, portholes, sculptures, wall paintings, ship's cabins, secluded nooks and fabulous views of the harbour. 

Once the hub for for north coast fishing, boat building and local industries, business dwindled in Ballintoy to the point where the population declined to only 165 people.  Things got a bit more exciting for the village in 2011 when it was chosen for another scene from Game of Thrones, filling in for the fictional town of Lordsport in the Isle of Pyke or the Iron Islands.  This is where Theon Greyjoy returns to his childhood home after many years absence and first meets his sister Yara.  The boats usually moored at the harbour had to be removed during the shooting.  The limestone cliffs surrounding Ballintoy harbour contain caves that possibly date back to the Stone Age.

Finally we reached our overnight destination of Ballycastle, the northeastern most tip of Northern Ireland.  From the harbour, we could see pretty views of the rolling hills and valleys of the Atrium Glens.  It had rained on and off all day, so we hoped that the next day would be better to visit the Giant's Causeway, a 23 minute drive back the way we had just come.

For dinner we were told that the place to go for good local fish and chips was Mortons, located at the west end of the Ballycastle Harbour.  As usual, avoiding the dreaded fat fries which we don't like in favour of coleslaw, we ordered a plate of battered scallops and a plate of cod gourdons, which were small chunks of battered fish instead of one big piece.  The fish and scallops were delicious but unfortunately Mortons was just a takeout place with nowhere to sit down.  Sitting outside was not a good option in the drizzling weather, so we ended up eating our meal in the car.  It was not the greatest ambiance, but the food made up for up and we did have a nice view of the harbour and the glens (when we could see them through the now pouring rain).  Despite the inclement weather, we did not let the rain slow us down and we had a great day nonetheless.

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