The Giant’s Causeway is one of earth’s natural wonders, iconic and instantly recognisable. Although it can have up to a million visitors a year, it is possible for the Slow Traveller to enjoy it in relative peace if the timing and choice of viewing position are right.
Given World Heritage Status in 1986 by UNESCO, this site is unique because of its size, its stunning beauty and the legends associated with it.
The site is an entirely natural phenomenon, approximately 40,000 interlocking basalt columns formed 50 - 60 million years ago by a volcanic fissure eruption. Basalt lava erupted on to chalk and, as it cooled, it began to contract and fracture, splitting the basalt into the imposing pillars that can be seen today. The pillars are predominantly hexagonal but some have 4, 5, 7 and even 8 sides.
Of course, the “truth” of their origin lies in mystery and legend; you will read and hear tales of the two rival giants - Benandonner from Scotland and Finn MacCool from Ireland. The stories differ in the telling but the most common one seems to be that Finn hurled rocks into the sea to build himself a pathway to meet and subdue his enemy. However, he soon realised that Benandonner was by far the stronger and more powerful of the two of them, so retreated back to Ireland.
Benandonner followed, Fion’s wife disguised her husband as a baby whereupon Benandonner took fright, assuming the father of this huge child must be gigantic, and fled back across the sea tearing up the rocks behind him. This version fits delightfully with the apparent origins of the basalt columns that remain in Scotland on the island of Staffa.
The rock formations of Staffa as seen from the sea
The walk down to the cliffs is itself a delight – past jagged cliffs tumbling down into the Atlantic Ocean, attractive small bays and wild flowers peeping out of the crevices in the rocks. On a clear day Scotland is visible from the path. The basalt columns ahead form dramatic pillars - stepping stones from the foot of the cliffs above right down into the sea - and the visitor is able to wander freely among and on them. The tallest is 12 metres but most are easily accessible.
There is a palpable sense of the natural world even in the most visited area - there are no buildings nearby, no cars nor coaches, just the occasional sight of a shuttle bus depositing and collecting visitors who choose not to walk the kilometre down to the shore. Rangers with different specialisms e.g. a geologist, a naturalist, are on hand to answer any visitor questions or point out features like the giant’s boot or wishing chair. One showed us where past generations had forced coins into the fissures, presumably for luck, but explained how any attempt to leave evidence of human presence can cause huge damage to these impressive stones and is today considered vandalism.
The site is extensive enough to accommodate large numbers with ease but, if you wish to avoid potential crowds, it is possible to scramble beyond the obvious places close to where the shuttle stops and strike out onto other areas of the stones which are just as fascinating and can be enjoyed peacefully. The Causeway extends well beyond the main focus of attraction for 4 miles in total so there is plenty of space to immerse yourself in this geological feature and wonder at the power of nature that created this drama in the Antrim landscape.
If you can time your visit for sunrise or sunset your views will indeed be spectacular - in any case early morning or late evening are the best times to arrive. There will be no coachloads of tourists, just walkers, strollers and the occasional cyclist looking to absorb the sights, colours and atmosphere of mystery surrounding these remarkable stones.
The site is under the guardianship of the National Trust and there is no charge for seeing the stones - a fee is made for parking and for entry into the Visitors Centre which explains the science that created these dramatic columns. You can pick up a leaflet which suggests 4 different walking routes, take an audio guide to listen to a commentary at marked stops, join a guided walk led by a Ranger or simply wander off on your own. Whatever your choice, you can be certain of an uplifting experience within this natural wonder.
Visiting the Giant’s Causeway
Parking near the Visitors Centre, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU
Regular services available, some are seasonal. Ulsterbus Service 172, Goldline Service 221, Causeway Rambler Service.
Regular train services from Belfast or Londonderry to Coleraine then Ulsterbus 172.The Causeway Coastal Path, a relatively easy section of the Ulster Way passes through the Giants Causeway.
The Causeway Coastal Path, a relatively easy section of the Ulster Way, includes a route covering the 4 miles of the Causeway.
The Giants Causeway ride is 65 miles in total.
The coastline is open from dawn to dusk, the car park and Visitors Centre from 1000 - 1700.
There are loos, a café and a shop at the Visitor Centre.