The rooster crows each morning with the first light. He has a distinct sound that pierces the cold morning air and the stone walls of the barn we call home. He will not stop until we give up on our dreams and the warmth of our thick blankets and start our day.
The dogs come to the glass kitchen door when they see us turn on the light. We name them Scruffy and Old Tom and they don’t seem to care what we call them as long we give them treats. After a couple of days, we decide it is okay if they come into the house. The painted cement floors of the barn have permanently embedded dog prints so the owner must have been alright with them entering at one time. Scruffy knows where we keep the treats and jumps excitedly in anticipation. Old Tom sits patiently and relies on his sad eyes to inspire our compassion.
We hear the sheep in the small field next to the barn. The sheep’s wool is full this time of year and each has one or two new lambs in tow. On rainy days, they make mournful sounds. The air is cold, the winds blow hard and with the rain or snow, it can’t be comfortable for them.
The peacocks come to visit later in the morning. Our barn has a glass entry door that is mirrored and the colorful birds preen and pose to look attractive to their own reflections. Watching their odd antics from the other side of the glass is always entertaining. Sometimes the sheep from the adjacent field escape and lead their flock past the window. It can be a little unsettling to have a sheep staring at us while we drink our coffee on the couch.
There is a fish pond on the property that is stocked with trout. It makes for a good walk to circle the lake when the weather is clear. The view over the surrounding hills is beautiful. Hedgerows separate the fields that are filled with sheep and green grass. A river runs through the valley. The trees that grow in the furrows between the hills are beginning to sprout leaves. More of the famous 40 shades of green are about to make their appearance. Bright yellow daffodils trace the path of the road as it rises over the hill. Cottontail rabbits are abundant and have homes under the berry plants that grow wild everywhere. Scruffy and Old Tom generally follow along until they realize we have not brought them treats.
The weather is constantly changing and never predictable. It is always the first topic of conversation amongst the locals we meet. It is several miles from our farm to the tiny town of 1200 where we find our supplies. The single main street is lined with barbershops, pubs, markets, butcher shops, hardware stores and small shops where we find all our necessities. The townsfolk are all friendly and make easy conversation. They are curious about strangers and happy to share ideas of how we might get the most enjoyment from the surrounding area. As soon as we speak they know we are visitors and are always interested to find out what we think of their country. They are surprised we are spending a full month in the area. International tourism is still a bit new here after the area was avoided for many years by tourists who only knew of it from nightly news reports.
On the few relatively better weather days, we make our way out to the surrounding countryside. The nearby Antrim Coast is one of Ireland’s most majestic. This magnificent meeting of land and sea is raw, windswept and weather-beaten. It is a stunning land of white rock cliffs, green pastures, wide beaches and pounding seas.
Narrow country roads connect the small villages that line the coast. The roads are incredibly scenic but take constant attention to avoid oncoming cars. The added challenge of driving on the left, roundabout etiquette and stormy weather take much of the enjoyment out of our first few days of touring.
The popularity of Game of Thrones has brought many visitors here to find locations used during filming. Hoards of bus tourists from Belfast usually mark the most popular sites. The Dark Hedges are filled throughout the day by selfie-takers seeking to capture a little of the show for themselves. Ballintoy Harbor is also a popular stop along the coast for loyal fans.
Dunluce Castle displays the most complete of several ancient ruins to be found along the coast. Set on a jagged piece of rock that hangs precariously over the sea, the castles existing bones show the outline of what must have been spectacular in its time. Sunsets offer the most dramatic views and multiple visits are warranted.
The beaches are great for walks on tolerable weather days. These are not the beaches of suntans, umbrellas and beach games. The sands are wide and the waters are rough. Downhill Beach can be driven upon. Having a refuge in the car as storms passed proved helpful on some visits. The cliffs at Whiterocks are a good indication of how harsh the wind and sea can treat the land. Brisk walks on windy days here led through deep sand to hidden caves in the cliff face. Runkerry Beach offers windswept dunes of long grasses that somehow hang on to the sandy hills despite natures frequent fury.
We enjoyed strolls through several of the more popular towns. Bushmill is famous for its world-class whiskey distillery. Portrush is a typical summer beachside resort that is busily preparing to host a British Open on its famous Royal Portrush links. Castlerock is a quiet town of stunning seaside mansions. Nearby Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple offer another tour of National Trust protected ruins from days gone by. Ballycastle and Portstewart offer similar charm and both became favorites for day trips.
We spent a day walking the city wall of Derry, the largest town in the area. The area inside of the walls has history at every corner and several interesting museums. We especially enjoyed the local history museum inside of the beautifully restored Guildhall that told of the founding of the city. Outside of the walls, we walked in the Bogside neighborhood along Rossville Street where we saw the Memorial Murals and the Bloody Sunday Memorial. The Museum of Free Derry tells of the history of “The Troubles” that affected the area for such a long period. The Good Friday agreements that brought an end to the violence were 20 years ago, but in these days of Brexit and talk of closing border crossings, many of the old sentiments have unfortunately been brought back to the forefront of many conversations.
The most popular and famous attraction on the coast is perhaps the Giant’s Causeway. We finally found a nice day to visit. This unique geological formation is reachable after a long walk down a steep road from the parking lot. A small bus carries passengers during the day, but we decided to visit after the 5 o’clock closing time so we could view the area at sunset. We were glad that most of the crowds had gone home. We had most of the area to ourselves and enjoyed spending a couple of hours climbing on the strange rocks that sit next to the sea.
We had trepidations that a month living in a restored barn on a small farm amongst the green fields of Northern Ireland in the last days of winter might not be the best idea. We were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough things to see and do to fill an entire month.
We did struggle with weather that was so ferocious that it sometimes became an event in itself. Rain from every direction followed by snow, wind, hail, more wind with only a few sunny days in between. We did struggle with budget. A rental car that turned out far more expensive than we planned limited our already strained finances.
However, I think we saw everything we came here to see. The highlight of our time turned out to be our small barn located on a scenic farm just outside a tiny town in the middle of a tiny country filled with friendly people. We had fun with friendly dogs and experienced rural life up close. I guess that is what travel is really all about.