Ever since 1693, when the Royal Society first publicized it as one of the great wonders of the natural world, the Giant’s Causeway has been a major tourist attraction. The highly romanticized pictures of the polygonal basalt rock formations by the Dubliner Susanna Drury, which circulated throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, did much to popularize the Causeway; two of them are on show in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. Not everyone was impressed, though. A disappointed William Thackeray commented, “I’ve travelled a hundred and fifty miles to see that?”, and especially disliked the tourist promotion of the Causeway, claiming in 1842 that “The traveller no sooner issues from the inn by a back door which he is informed will lead him straight to the causeway, than the guides pounce upon him.” Although the tourist hype is probably now less overtly mercenary, the Causeway still attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, filling the visitor centre and the minibus that scurries back and forth. But even in high season it’s easy to escape the crowds by taking to the cliffs.
For sheer otherworldliness, the Causeway can’t be beaten. Made up of an estimated 37,000 black basalt columns, each a polygon – hexagons are by far the most common, with pentagons second, though sometimes the columns have as many as ten sides – it’s the result of a massive subterranean explosion, some sixty million years ago, that stretched from the Causeway to Rathlin and beyond to Islay, Staffa (where it was responsible for the formation of Fingal’s Cave) and Mull in Scotland. A huge mass of molten basalt was spewed out onto the surface, which, on cooling, solidified into what are, essentially, crystals. Though the process was simple, it’s difficult, when confronted with the impressive regular geometry of the columns, to believe that their production was entirely natural.
The walk to the Causeway
From the visitor centre, it’s wise to resist the temptation to follow the crowds on the ten-minute walk along the lane straight down to the Causeway, and to dodge the minibus that runs every ten minutes, the only form of transport allowed here except bicycles; instead take a far more scenic route – a round trip of roughly two miles. Follow the cinder path up behind the visitor centre and round the edge of several promontories, from which you can gasp at the Causeway from above and watch the eider and gannets wheeling across from Ailsa Craig, thirty miles away in Scotland. A flight of 162 steps takes you down to sea level and a junction in the path. Following the path west will bring you to the Giant’s Causeway but if you continue round the bay to the north you’ll reach a series of rock formations, the first of which is the twelve-metre basalt columns known as the Organ Pipes. Many of the other formations have names invented for them by the guides who so plagued Thackeray and his contemporaries – the Harp, for example – but at least one, Chimney Point, further north, has an appearance so bizarre that in September 1588 it persuaded the crew of the Girona, a ship of the Spanish Armada, to think it was Dunluce Castle, where they thought they might get help from the MacDonnells. Instead, their vessel was wrecked on the rocky shore at Port-na-Spánaigh, just before Chimney Point. Its treasure was recovered by divers in 1968, and some of the items are on show in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, and, the Tower Museum in Derry. Sadly, extensive cliff erosion prevents any further exploration, though some restoration work was planned to commence in 2010.