Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Northern Ireland: The Giant's Causeway, Titanic Exhibition and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

So I'm actually back in London now... But I had a great few days in Ireland! Despite forgetting to take my camera with me...

On my first afternoon my lovely hostess took me out to the Giant's Causeway on the north coast. The cliffs are amazing here, with moss and grass clutching onto the rock in a way it just doesn't seem to in New Zealand. But more amazing on this coast are the hexagonal, octagonal and pentagonal volcanic stones leading away into the sea towards Scotland.

This is the Giant's Causeway, built by the giant Finn McCoul to create a path from Ireland to Scotland. Or it's leftovers from a volcanic eruption, whichever you choose to believe. The day was absolutely beautiful: very still with wisps of cloud the sun was painting gold and peach and, later in the night, scarlet. We went to the new visitor's centre, a very modern building set into the hill with black pillars as a facade on one side that I quite liked, and then walked down the gravel path to the stones.

I'd been there before aged 12, and it was strange to be walking these same rocks again, reminded of what it felt like to be 12. I walked all the way to the end of the causeway, and all the way to the top, just because I wasn't allowed to last time. A bit further on we saw Finn McCoul's duck and his boot, and his organ up in the cliff. It's incredible that these stones were formed naturally - they look so strange jutting up side by side and marching down towards the sea.

We walked back along the cliffs, which was quite a climb, and saw the sun going down in its bed of clouds.

On Friday we went to the Titanic Exhibition in Belfast. The exhibition is in a purpose-built building set approximately where the Titanic was built in dry-dock, a silvery four-prowed square with reflecting pools at its base. Inside, some of the walls and ceilings are clad in rough iron panels and an atrium soars up five floors. The exhibition takes you through the early days of Belfast, and then the making of the Titanic.

I never really understood just how much work went into building such a ship. A five man team could do 200 rivets a day, and there were many hundreds of thousands of rivets in the Titanic. A little ride takes you through a mock-up of the shipyard with all its hammering and ringing metal, and then you watch the actual floating of the Titanic out of its dry dock on video. At the end of the video, the frosted glass of the window behind goes unfrosted, and you can see out to the dry dock where the Titanic was actually put to sea more than a century ago. I'd love to know how they can frost and unfrost glass like that.

Next was the furnishing of the ship - when it was put out of dry-dock it was really just a floating shell. The exhibition had mock-ups of first class cabins, which were very much smaller than the one Kate Winslet has in Titanic, as well as those in second and third class. There was also a very good fly-through of the ship where you stand in a room and screens on three walls show what it would have been like to be there.

The next space had the original morse code SOS (or CQD) messages on the walls and the voices of survivors describing the sinking. After seeing all the work that had gone into the building of the ship, and getting to know a few of the people who'd been on board through information panels, the loss of the ship was all the more real and heart-breaking. So many lives lost, so much work swallowed by the waves.

We drove about Belfast for a bit after the exhibition, seeing the City Hall and Victoria Square as well as the beautiful university.

On Saturday I braved the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is strung across a chasm over the sea and is not good to cross in a high wind. It was originally made by fishermen hundreds of years ago (though the current bridge is quite modern) to get across to an island to catch the salmon migration.

It was quite windy the day I crossed, windy enough that I could stand holding my jacket out like wings and lean into the wind. This made crossing interesting, with whitecaps rippling happily twenty metres below and the rope handrails swinging to the extreme left. I did wonder how many people have fallen to their deaths here. Hopefully none. It was worth it, though, for the thrill alone and for the reward of wandering around the island with its cliffs and little cottage. Then I just had to make it back across... The wind was still as strong, and this time I thought a lot more about my jewellery and how many pieces might spin off into the waves below. None did, thankfully.

We spent the evening at a country barbecue where I won a bar of chocolate for my unparalleled ring-throwing skills (well, almost unparalleled. I was joint first) and eyed the bouncy castle, which was unfortunately full of small children. We drove into Belfast after church on Sunday for a beautiful Sunday dinner, and then I had another more in-depth tour around Belfast, including going up to the viewing platform in the Victoria Square glass dome. You can see out across most of Belfast from here, though the rain was coming in fits and starts and it was a bit misty. The viewing platform is on a pillar and shudders as you move around, but didn't fall over as I'd feared.

And that was my Northern Ireland adventure! My last day was filled with getting the plane, which was quite tiny and attracted turbulence. Arrived safe in London, though. I think I shall have to go back some time soon...

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