Balintoy (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 23 March

Magic moments along the road that should never have been built

The Antrim Coast road in Northern Ireland wouldn't be built today. Helen Moat is glad it was.

I’ve never done drugs, but there are certain things that naturally give me a high. Listening to Mozart is one of them, or a favourite Indie band at an intimate gig. Mountains do it for me too. Then there’s the sea.

I was back in Northern Ireland again. This time I took Marcella, my German visitor, and we drove up the Antrim Coast. The Antrim Coast Road is often quoted as one of the best coastal roads in the world – not least because it closely hugs the shoreline for a glorious twenty-five miles.

The blueprint for the road was created in the early 1830s. It was a crazy idea, as the cliffs dropped directly into the sea, but the Victorians, never put off by a challenge, were determined to carry out their ambitious plan. Until that point, the locals had to make do with a muddy track that rose and dipped across the hills and glens behind the coast. In winter the track was sometimes cut off. Otherwise, the sea was seen as the most practical way to travel up and down the coast - but not in stormy weather, of course.

Bald, the Scottish engineer in charge of the project, had the cliff blasted, and the debris that fell below was used to create the road. It took ten years, between 1832 and 1842, to finish the job. Hundreds of labourers from the Glens were employed and as many tonnes of rocks were blasted away. Bald’s road project ran over by almost 50% and cost the stately sum of £37,000 – and that was a lot of money back then.

Up-keeping the road is still a costly, time-consuming business. The geology along the coast is complicated and cliff maintenance challenging – as is maintaining the sea defences. But it’s worth it.

As a teenager, I remember cycling along this stretch of road in the opposite direction, the sea on my left. I was so close to the water, it felt as if I was riding the waves on an ocean-going bicycle.

Now back on the Antrim Coast Road with Marcella, we were experiencing one of those rare clear days in Northern Ireland with the green-blue water reflecting pure blue skies, rather than the usual murky grey. Marcella exclaimed at the narrow road at the foot of the cliff as we squeezed between columns of rock and through arches.

“Just wait,” I said to her. “The best is yet to come.”

We stopped at Cushendun, a picturesque village owned by the National Trust. On the side of the bay there was a statue of a goat called Johann – the last animal to be culled in the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak. But it was the live goat tethered next to it that really caught our attention, wearing a high-vis jacket! Later I was told that the owner is well-known character in the local community.

After Cushendun, the road climbed steeply. Behind, the village with its little bay and harbour, receded to model railway size, and the hills plunged to the sea below.

Beyond Cushendall, the road leaves the coast and winds its way through less interesting countryside. You’d be forgiven for thinking the best is over, but in actual fact the best is yet to come. At this point, you can take the A2 directly to Ballycastle, but you’d be a fool to miss out on the breath-taking Torr Road. Torr Head is a wild and lonely place. The road drops and climbs, twisting and turning, with the ocean spread out at your feet all the while, and the Mull of Kintyre beyond. It’s biker heaven – but only for those who are very skilled.

We halted at Ballycastle for sweet and sickly cakes on the harbour front. From here the boats ply the water to Rathlin Island (great for puffin watching) and to Scotland.

And still the drama of the coast road continued. We were chasing the daylight now. It was painful to ignore White Park Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the UK, but there was somewhere special further along the coast that I had to show Marcella.

We left the A2 and took the narrow lane down to Ballintoy. You know how there are places in your life that are really special to you? Well, Ballintoy is one of those places for me. In all honesty, the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, wonderful as they are, don’t compare to Ballintoy. It’s a tiny little place with just a small harbour, a boathouse and the Harbour Café overlooking the bay, but it’s what lies beyond that really grabs your attention. 

We stood on the beach, the light fading, the low sun bombing the clouds, the film of water on the strand turning to liquid gold. North of the bay, rocks rose out of the water, jagged, black, dramatic. It had not been a particularly windy day, but there was enough turbulence on the water to create waves at Ballintoy to match those in the recent storms of Cornwall.

The waves broke over the rocky outcrops, running in rivulets down the vertical cracks in the basalt. Marsella climbed the rise beside the little harbour and after a while I followed behind, wondering what had led her there. Out to sea, the swell was mountainous, thrashing the rocks and throwing spray high into the darkening sky. The waves must have been close to ten feet in height at times, although it is difficult to tell. We watched the swell, small at first, then building up and building up, until the waves gained momentum and crashed with violence over the rocks. The ocean roared, breaching the breakwater that bridged two rocky headlands. The water cascaded down the cement wall and rushed towards the shore.

I took out my camera and clicked and clicked and clicked. But every time I looked in the viewfinder I wasn’t satisfied. Neither my camera skills, nor the camera itself, could capture what lay in front of me. Luckily, the battery ran out and I was able to enjoy the real, live experience first-hand in front of me.

Standing there, I felt alive, on an adrenalin rush. I don’t know how long I stood motionless, starring out at the Atlantic Ocean. Time had stopped and I was caught up in the eternal motion of the sea, taking great gulps of buffeted, damp salty air. Sometimes, your childhood memories are distorted. Looking back, everything seems sweet and idyllic, or dramatic and larger-than-life. Our memories often distort our past, but this was the Ballintoy I remembered from my own childhood. I was not disappointed.

So the next time I need to fill truly alive, the next time I need a fix, I’ll make my way back to Ballintoy. It is my drug of choice.

But for now, we had to turn our backs on the Atlantic and retrace our steps along the murky, misted jetty under the glow of the orange lamplights, knowing we had just been somewhere extraordinary.