Here’s a puzzle. In the same year––2017––the Giant’s Causeway was voted the best place to visit (Lonely Planet) and also the most-overrated tourist attraction (The Irish Times). There seems a paradox here. It couldn’t be one thing, and also the other. Someone––Lonely Planet or The Irish Times––was clearly wrong. There was only one way to solve the mystery. Visit the Giant’s Causeway and find out for myself.
I knew a bit about the Giant’s Causeway before I visited; what I didn’t know, I researched on Wikipedia. Located in Country Antrim, on the north coast of Northern Ireland––I knew that bit. Comprised of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns––big up Wikipedia for having taken the trouble to count them all. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I had an impression of the Giant’s Causeway. It was a name that I had been conscious of since childhood; my imagination had constructed a mental model of the landmark, aided by photographs I had seen and TV programmes I had watched. For years, that impression had sufficed but, now, I was required to do a spot of first-hand, primary research of my own.
It was a rainy day in Northern Ireland––not an uncommon event. However, it may have been the rain, which rushed me into a decision. A decision, which led to a particular course of action. A particular course of action, which occasioned a first––and unexpected––view of the Giant’s Causeway. But, I get ahead of myself.
It was a rainy day in Northern Ireland, but it was not such a rainy day that I was prepared to pay the entrance fee to shelter in the National Trust’s Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, rather than just visit the site for free on the public-access footpaths.
It was rainy, though. Sufficiently rainy so that on the spur of the moment I decided to take the cliff route to the Giant’s Causeway, not thinking through the fact that the Giant’s Causeway must surely lay somewhere closer to the shoreline than the cliff top. However, once embarked on a course of action, there is no turning back for me. I recognised my mistake fairly early on into my hike, but nothing on earth was going to make me retrace my steps. In fact, the path itself was set back a sufficiently safe distance from the cliffs to feel more like a country-field path rather than a cliff path, but it was a pleasant walk despite the rain, and one which seemed to increase my isolation from the carpark-coach-crowds that thronged the busy visitors’ centre.
After about ten minutes walking, a well-tramped, short detour from the main path to the cliff edge held the promise of a viewpoint. Like all good explorers, I travelled in hope, but the view was frankly disappointing. A considerable distance below, the grey sea stretched to a cloud-cloaked horizon and, on the land, an unfeasibly large number of tiny people seemed to be attempting to set a world record for fitting on a short length of black, rocky promontory. I couldn’t understand what it was that was causing such a fascination until, suddenly, the penny dropped. The Giant’s Causeway. This, below me, was the Giant’s Causeway. This rather short length of black, rocky promontory. It took a bit of reassimilation of my previously held impression of the place. The jury in the trial of Lonely Planet versus The Irish Times began to lean heavily in favour of The Irish Times.
Still, I did not consider that my primary research would be complete until I stood where the tiny people currently stood; until I took my place among the tiny people and clambered over the 40,00 interlocking basalt columns myself.
The path down the cliff face zigzagged satisfactorily, although sufficiently steeply to make me feel pleased that I was heading down, rather than heading up. It was not long before I found myself crossing a grassy plain, on a level with the grey sea.
The first basalt columns I encountered were tall buggers; tall enough to make me wince at the sight of the foolhardy visitors who were taking selfies at their edge. I quickly moved on to the Causeway itself; soon found myself stepping from black hexagon to black hexagon with all the other tiny people––no longer quite so tiny and seemingly more numerous for that.
I followed the black hexagons towards the sea up to a point where a substantially-proportioned security guard barred the way:
“Not safe beyond here.”
I looked beyond the security guard at the short expanse of virgin black rock, free from tourists, which slowly disappeared into the sea to the point that presumably was not safe. I screwed up my eyes, squinting, imaging the entire headland like this. It was rather beautiful, rather special. The jury began to give Lonely Planet a fighting chance.
The jury was out. The verdict was imminent. It was left to the judge to sum up. So, the Giant’s Causeway? Well, it was a lot smaller than I expected; it was more crowded than I expected; but, despite this, it was still rather magical. Am I glad I visited? Yes. Am I glad that I didn’t pay to visit? Yes.
© E. C. Glendenny
Travel writer E. C. Glendenny gets value for money at the Giant’s Causeway.