The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most famous natural landmarks in Northern Ireland, with the hexagonal basalt columns looking curiously man made, and giving rise to the legend that provides the name of the rock formation. The story goes that Finn MacCool, a local giant, built the causeway to meet Benandonner, a giant in Scotland. There are different versions of the story from that point, with Finn defeating Benandonner in one telling, and with Finn realising that Benandonner is much bigger than him, and running back home and hiding in another. In that version, Benandonner follows him, and finds that Oonagh, Finn’s wife, has disguised him as a baby. Benandonner sees how big the baby is, and worried that Finn must be much bigger, flees.
There are similar rocks on the Scottish island of Staffa, with Fingal’s Cave on the island seen as the other end of the causeway.
The scientific story of the creation of the rocks is that when County Antrim was going through a period of intense volcanic activity, fluid molten basalt merged with chalk beds to form a lava plateau. As the lava cooled – when it met the sea – it cracked, leaving the structures we see today.
However, the commonly seen part of the Giant’s Causeway is far from the only interesting rock formation in the area. The nearby coastline includes The Giant’s Organ, The Giant’s Boot and the Chimney Stacks. It is a beautiful coastal area, and the wider area has plenty to see and do. The town of Bushmills, home to the world’s first licensed distillery, is a couple of miles away, and the Dark Hedges, which have been recently used as a film set for Game of Thrones is a few miles beyond that. Dunluce Castle is also nearby, as is Carrick-a-Rede and its rope bridge. Beyond that are the impressive Glens of Antrim, one of the prettiest coastal drives in the UK.
If that is not enough to tempt you to the area, then the local wildlife might. Cormorants, shags, redshanks, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and petrels are all to be found among the local sea birds, and the plant life is also diverse.
The causeway is not far from where I grew up, and is somewhere I have visited many, many times. About twenty years ago, I was a regular enough visitor to be on first name terms with the minibus driver who ran the shuttle service from the visitors’ centre to the causeway itself, as I turned up with various groups of international students. In those days, the causeway had a steady stream of visitors in summer, but significantly fewer in winter. The location means that the area is cold and windy at the best of times, so the middle of winter often feels very cold. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see how busy the Giant’s Causeway was on a cold but crisp day in late December on my most recent visit. Apparently in the middle of summer, there are five times as many visitors, I was reliably informed by the staff.
The new visitors’ centre, which opened in 2012, seems to be split between interactive displays that tell the myths, legends and stories of the area, a shop selling local souvenirs, and a cafe. There is a ten minute walk to the causeway, down a steep hill, although a bus will take you down if you desire. That said, as there was ice on the ground on the most recent day that I was there, that was not an option. The guided tours were, though, in operation.
The visitors’ centre also shows exerts of films that use the local area as a backdrop, including Hellboy II, and Dracula Untold, which was filmed across Northern Ireland.
One of my abiding memories of the causeway was from the day after my wedding. We took our guests on a trip along the beautiful Antrim coast, and seeing sixty or seventy of our friends and family sitting and chatting on the causeway still makes me smile as much as any stories of giants.