For a mid-summers day treat a dozen members of the walking group decided that there could be nothing nicer than to visit the birds on Rathlin Island and savour the famous hospitality provided by the islanders. John made the bookings for ferry and accommodation - at the Manor House and at Coolnagrock B&B.
Dire warnings had been given all week about the foul weather heading our way but undaunted we packed a few extra clothes preparing for what we felt might be the worst and headed for Ballycastle. John and Christina, Jim and Sandi travelled "under their own steam". The remaining eight of us were to meet in the Jethro Centre, initially planning to travel by mini-bus, Paddy Og (the one not old enough for his bus pass) having kindly offered to drive us to Ballycastle. When we arrived at Jethro shortly before 8.45 in the morning there was no mini-bus to be seen so John's last minute executive decision to travel in two cars was vindicated. But worse was to come - a quick head count revealed that one of our party was missing - Paddy Mór (AKA Postman Pat) was nowhere to be seen. Calling into the Jethro Centre, John was lucky enough to find Susan who retrieved the Cedars file from under the stairs and gave us Pat's phone number. He wasn't still in bed as we had feared but he was just seconds away from going out of his front door for a leisurely walk round Lurgan Park before dandering down to the Jethro Centre for the usual 10.00am start. Had he a subconscious premonition that he would be better off staying at home, has he been pre-programmed to turn up at Jethro at 10.00am on Thursdays or was he just his usual carefree self? The mystery was solved when he told us that he didn't read his email every day - tut tut.
Picking Pat up on Lurgan's High Street, we were soon on the M1 and had a trouble-free journey to Ballycastle where we even had enough time to drive past 15th century Bonamargie Friary - Further along the coast road we marvelled at the contortions of the rock which make this area a mecca for geologists.
But other contortions were beckoning as we turned the car round and headed back to the ferry. We arrived at about the same time as the girls in the second of the two "Jethro" cars - they had been held up for 20 minutes getting through Moira so Pat's carefree attitude to time had actually ensured that we arrived first. All was forgiven.
Soon all were assembled and tickets "bought". Paddy Og even had to pay real money reminding us that, for the present at least, free travel to Rathlin is one of the great joys of growing older. But storm clouds were gathering! Because of the worsening forecast, the ferry staff suggested we return on the mid-day ferry the next day rather than the later ferry which John had originally booked; taking his mobile number staff promised faithfully to ring John if anything changed so that Jim and Pat could be sure of getting back for the summer festival of racing at Down Royal.
Arriving on Rathlin our greatest surprise was that it was totally rain free - despite the most horrendous five day forecasts earlier in the week it was dull but perfectly dry. Sandi was kind enough to suggest that I had arranged the good weather but, fearful of what lay ahead, I assured her that it was entirely out of my hands.
As we disembarked from the ferry at Rathlin we all were warmly greeted by Margaret McQuilken owner of Coolnagrock B&B. She assisted her four charges - Editn, Jenny, Joan and Kathleen - to pack their luggage into her boot and within a few minutes she had whisked them all up the hill to deposit their bags and see their rooms which were en suite, slendidly comfortable and tastefully decorated in soft warm colours. From here they could see the Mull of Kintyre and Islay. Margaret's hospitality was most generous - as well as tea and coffee making facilities the girls had access to a ground floor lounge with a library of very interesting books. Edith particularly enjoyed a recent publication by Philip Watson - Rathlin, Nature & Folklore - and also Rathlin, by Bernard Davey a former BBC Weather Man. If one wanted to relax by enjoying music a good library of CDs was also available. The breakfast room looked out over the rugged island terrain and a family of bunnies was observed one morning playing hide and seek. But this wasn't designed to be a holiday for relaxation so the girls soon set off again to meet the others.
But back at the Manor House, and without the benefit of Bernard Davey's wisdom to guide us, some of us were keen to press on with our walk while the favourable weather lasted but a small group was drawn to the dining room of the Manor House like moths to a flame. Somewhat reluctantly (surely not!) John joined them and we were soon tucking into a fine repast from the large tapas menu. Meanwhile the others who had followed John's advice and come prepared with sandwiches and flasks of hot water enjoyed their picnic in Manor House's lounge, little imagining that this room would become the focus of the unfolding drama in the days ahead.
After lunch, we retrieved our luggage from the store room and claimed our bedrooms - there was a brief tussle over the en-suite room which Paddy had initially taken but it only boasted a shower so when Paddy saw the bath in the private bathroom not twenty feet away from John and Christina's room, he was quick to do a swap. Paddy, as we were to learn, likes his bath.
We then rearranged ourselves into two walking groups with six in each. One group, the mutineers, comprising John and Christina, Jim and Sandi, Jenny and Edith sought permission from John to take the Puffin Bus to Bull Rock at the western end of the island. Realising that they were going to go anyway, John acceded to their request, advising them to travel there by bus and walk home so that they capitalised on the dry weather for bird watching although there was just a suspicion that he hoped they might get a good soaking on the way back for breaking rank. The bus driver, passionate about his island, was a font of local knowledge and kept the group well informed of anything of interest on the journey. On the bus the group also met three Dutch ladies and enjoyed learning of their Northern Ireland experiences. The final approach to the sanctuary caused some concern; the bus made some strange noises and struggled to get up the steep incline. Sandi, applying her medical knowledge wondered if perhaps it was called the puffin bus because they would all end up puffin' after shovin' the bloomin' bus up the hill to its destination.
But the bus made it unaided to its cliff top terminus and after a steep walk down ninety or so steps brought the group to the platform where they met the enthusiastic RSPB volunteers who helpfully explained that there would be no penguins to be seen on the island that day (or ever). To a background of noisy chatter from the thousands of guillemots the volunteers also explained that the puffin population has significantly diminished in recent years. The climatic conditions and the change in fishing patterns are among the reasons for the decline. There were plenty of binoculars and telescopes available, to give a clear view of the puffins, kittiwakes, fulmar and various gulls and the volunteers positioned the telescopes so that is was possible to view the puffins in closer detail. These little birds are really beautiful and one could never cease to be amazed at their flight. It is hoped that baby puffins will be seen within the next couple of weeks.
The group our visit had the privilege of speaking with Tom McDonnell a renowned wild life photographer. He shared with them a lovely shot of a puffin in flight. He spotted one on a grassy ledge quite near and everyone attempted to get a picture. For the present I will have to make do with one taken from the web.
Most members of our Cedars Walking Group will by now be familiar with the RSPB observation platform at Bull Rock; if you're not, then you should add it to your list of must-see destinations - but try to plan your visit for a still and sunny day! It's a favourite spot for fanatical bird watchers or twitchers.
Did you know that twitchers have developed their own vocabulary?
Remembering who they were and why they had really come, the group decided to walk the return journey, approximately four miles, back to base. This gave an opportunity for them to view and photograph some of the wild orchids, blue scabious and fiery fuchsia. The rambling wild honeysuckle and buttercups added to the rich tapestry of the heathland. A grey heron was also spotted patiently waiting at the edge of the pond hoping for a meal and further along another heron was seen in flight. By the time the group arrived at the harbour they reckoned it was four Irish miles they had journeyed. However, the outing had given them much to savour and many lovely memories to share with family and friends at home.
Meanwhile Kathleen, Joan, Paddy, Pat, John and Ann collectively known as the buccaneers took the more adventurous and less travelled path south on the Roonivoolin Walk . Starting at Church Bay, we climbed up to the crossroads, the only one on the island, and turned right towards Rue Point and the south light house. It really seemed like we were stepping back in time as we walked along the road - to somewhere between 2005 and 2007 judging by the tax discs on cars. And another reminder of times past was the distinctive call of choughs - Rathlin Island has the only breeding pair in Northern Ireland - and corncrakes. However, these were not the calls of living birds but recordings played (by turning handles) on an informative notice board helpfully placed at the roadside by RSPB.
Despite the overcast skies we managed to get some real views of the Mull of Kintyre (just) and sightings of (possibly) hares and (definitely) orchids for which the island is justly famous. Passing some rock formation reminiscent of the Giant's Causeway we eventually came to the end of the surfaced road (about two miles from Church Bay) and caught sight of the Rue Point Light House. Worried that the weather might suddly take a turn for the worse we decided not to go all the way past the disused kelp kiln on the shore line to the light house beyond; when the tarmac road ran out, we took a small gate to the right and followed the RSPB marker posts across the fields of the Roonivoolin Reserve to the entirely safe and well fenced off cliff top walk where we enjoyed spectacular views along the coastline of Rathlin and back to Fair Head (Irish: an Bhinn Mhór), the rocky headland 3 miles east of Ballycastle, and the closest part of the mainland to Rathlin. The fitter among us will know that Fair Head is a very highly-regarded rock-climbing location, and is believed to be the biggest expanse of climbable rock in either Ireland or Britain - but that's for another day.
As we walked back towards the Manor House we passed Ally Lough and Ushet Lough and at one point we almost walked through an unnamed lough which ran alongside the field wall. Having descended back down to sea level we were treated to sightings of the seals in Mill Bay including, for a few of us, the amazing sight of a seal travelling at full speed towards us and leaping right out of the water a number of times like a dolphin or, for that matter, a seal! I was too dumbstruck to get a picture of the seal but here on the right is one from the web.
Finally, returning to Church Bay, we visited the small museum and exhibition and met up with the mutineers who tried to convince us that they had had the better time - but they didn't fool us for a moment! At least not until we later saw the photograph of Jim displaying in front of some migratory birds unseasonably resplendent in their full winter plumage
In the evening we all sat down together at 7.00pm in the dining room of the Manor House for dinner. It arrived shortly after 8.00pm but the lively conversation made time fly. Paddy Og bagged the last "T" bone steak on offer and John got his lobster, freshly landed and laced with wild garlic and herb oil - some suspected that this was his real reason for the Rathlin trip. We were perhaps just a little confused when Paddy started to reminisce about enjoying a bath with Joe Malone - had the chef served magic mushrooms with his steak? But Paddy was quick to clarify that Jo Malone are the purveyors to the quality of fine fragrances and lotions for body and bath - now you don't have to be stuck when picking Paddy's Christmas gift.
Replete and exhausted, we went to bed with hardly a care in the world little knowing what the morrow had in store! With apologies for the split infinitive, Friday 22nd June 2012 on Rathlin was to truly be "The longest day".
Waking up, there was an ominous noise on the west facing roof of our bathroom caused by wind (external) and heavy rain. As we sat down to enjoy our Ulster fries together we were acutely aware of the slow service and the fast rain hurtling past the window. Waves were crashing on the shore but nevertheless we were a little reassured by the sight of the vehicle ferry (resembling a "D" Day landing craft) preparing to set off for Ballycastle. As it lurched out of the harbour into the tossing waves we became concerned that the smaller ferry on which we had been booked to sail, might not be able to cope with the conditions but when we made enquiries of the Manor House staff they reassured us that its engine was running so it would sail. How wrong they were!
Only moments later John received a phone call from Kathleen in the B&B half a mile away. Her landlady had just received a call to say that all further sailings from the island were cancelled that day. For unexplained reasons the ferry company didn't contact John as they had promised the day previous. When John broke the bad news to his fellow diners there was universal disbelief and even a bit of nervous laughter. When the waiter confirmed that the ferry wasn't to run again that day he was congratulated on his fine acting ability and the room was thoroughly reassured that John's story was no more than an elaborate joke. But doubt crept in as frenzied phone conversations were overheard in the hall and when the engine of the smaller ferry was shut down and the crew packed up and left for home the truth, and recognition of John's unimpeachable honesty, finally began to sink in. The expensively acquired tans on more than one face drained away when our plight was confirmed by Manor House management who didn't seem to be excessively worried that we would be staying for a second night; their first question to us was "how many for lobster this evening?" It finally sank in why the service at breakfast had been so slow - we had missed the last ferry and were trapped. Is there a pact on the island (ferry men are all islanders) that they won't take visitors off the island if they can't bring anyone back to fill the empty beds?
As the wind pick up we were temporarily relieved to see that when we looked out of the window there was no rain to be seen, but stepping outside we quickly discovered that this was because the rain was travelling horizontally at such a speed that the eye couldn't follow its trajectory. If it hit a solid object it was with such force that the water atomised, leaving no visible trace apart from the rivers of water we were later to find flowing down the roads. Turning into the wind it felt like a thousand needles being thrust simultaneously into your face. Undaunted, or perhaps just trying to salvage something from our plight, nine of us set off in a northerly direction towards the east light house - the direction of travel is explained by the island's "L" shape, turned clockwise through 90 degrees and then mirrored horizontally - perhaps the view from space will explain it better!
Three of our party (although by this stage it wasn't much of a party) stayed behind, hoping that the wind might abate and the ferries restart or possibly even that a helicopter might be summoned to take them off during a lull in the storm. But their dreams were dashed as the weather worsened through the day.
Of the nine who set out for the lighthouse, barely a mile and a half away, only six managed to make it all the way. The three who didn't make it weren't blown away - they simply turned back once they had become waterlogged. One of them was heard to mutter darkly - these boots were made fer "walkin' - not fer wadin'." The light house site was one end of Marconi's experimental wireless link between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle which was first successfully established on 6th July 1898 at the invitation of Lloyds of London who wanted early reports of safe Atlantic crossings.
"Bruce's Cave" is also sited at and just below the East lighthouse. This is where Robert the Bruce was said to have sought refuge in 1306 after his defeat by the English at Perth in Scotland. As he sat in the cave, he caught sight of a spider that repeatedly tried to reach the cave roof by its thread. When it succeeded he decided "If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again". He then returned to Scotland and defeated the English at Bannockburn.
But there was going to be no escape from Rathlin for us and history was not uppermost in our minds as we stoppoed at the lighthouse only long enough for a photo opportunity to prove "Cedars waz here". That done, we made the descent, past the tiny primary school and the island's two churches, to Church Bay. If our prayers for less rain were answered it wasn't for very long.
Back in the Manor House, we regrouped in the lounge; Ann brought down a bag of board games, the TV was turned on and in the bar John found a tin containing instructions for a variety of party games. The Manor House is well geared up for bad weather but even John's brave efforts at party games weren't enough to raise our spirits. The TV taunted us with pictures of glorious sunshine at Royal Ascot and the jigsaw kept us engrossed for a while but was found to be deficient in seven key pieces (carefully hidden in photo right). Paddy didn't improve matters by thrashing all-comers at draughts. Money was running out and, despite meeting some fascinating fellow internees in the lounge, cabin fever threatened to engulf us. Some decided they would have to break out for the evening and dine elsewhere so John and Pat volunteered to brave the hurricane force winds to go to Emma's Chip Ahoy - the island's only fish and chip shop to check out the fare and opening hours.Emma (left) and her father (the man who caught the fish!) were welcoming and helpful, offering to open to suit our requirements. A wall display in Chip Ahoy catalogued famous disasters associated with Rathlin - we wondered would a report of the Cedars Walking Group visit be added anytime soon. We enjoyed our fish and chips and the conversation just as much. Reporting back to the group marooned at Manor House they agreed to brave the weather that evening and "dine out". It turned out to be one of the highlights of our visit. It definitely was fine dining with a difference. The dining area situated across the road from the chip shop was in a wooden shed, tied down with hawsers to stop it blowing away. It most closely resembled the hut occupied by Scott of the Antarctic before his ill-fated trek. Furnished with formica tables and plastic chairs, Last of the Summer Wine came to mind, but the food was good, the view was splendid and the craic was mighty.
Our spirits lifted and any residual frustrations were forgotten. Ten of us met up again round a roaring turf fire at the Manor House. Steam rose from our clothes as they dried and any bad feelings we may still have harboured evaporated with it. We went to bed happy; we had had a "once in a lifetime" adventure and tomorrow we would get home to brag to our friends. The next morning we were up and dressed in plenty of time for the first boat - we weren't going to be caught out again. And despite the tossing waves, oppressive heat and diesel fumes we smiled through gritted teeth as we left Church Bay and headed back over choppy seas to the mainland.
Was it a worthwhile trip? You bet your life it was, and an experience never to be forgotten. Better still, nobody was permanently damaged in the making of this historic trip !!!!
Many thanks to those who went to Rathlin and posed for or took the photographs reproduced here and especially to Sandi and Edith for writing about the RSPB reserve, Coolnagrock B&B and fine dining at Emma's Chip Ahoy.
Here are some more pics from our stay. Note the "faces in the rock" - John's theme for next year.
On the rocks at Rathlin
John plays Chopin on
his virtual piano.
Paddy and the remains
of his "T" bone steak.
Faces in the rock - how
many can you see?
And to help you follow the story, here's a map.
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We will leave Jethro Centre on the morning of walks at 10:00am unless otherwise agreed. Planned walks may change right up to the last minute. If travelling directly to the start point sign up for John's text messaging service to stay up to date.
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