Friday, 13 November 2015

Island 299 - Rathlin, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

Rathlin Island is the only permanently inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland.  It is located off the coast of County Antrim six miles to the north of the town of Ballycastle. The population is around 125 and the island is served by a year round ferry service from Ballycastle.  There are two boats - a vehicle ferry (MV Canna) and a passenger ferry (MV Rathlin Express).   The vehicle ferry takes 45 minutes and the passenger ferry only 20 minutes.  In the summer months there are up to 10 sailings a day each way and in the winter there are 5.  Unless you are disabled or staying on the island for more than 6 nights, you need to obtain a permit from Moyle District Council if you want to take a vehicle to Rathlin.

Rathlin is an L shaped island but the L is back to front and upside down.  The island is 4 miles from east to west and 2.5 miles from north to south at its widest point. The highest point on the island is 134 metres above sea level. Roads run from the main settlement at Church Bay on the south coast to the west end of the island; south from Church Bay towards Rue Point and north east towards the East Lighthouse.  

Rathlin has 3 lighthouses: West Lighthouse, East Lighthouse and Rue Lighthouse. It also has 2 churches (Catholic and Church of Ireland), a shop, visitors'/heritage centre, Water Shed Cafe, McCuaig's Bar and Restaurant, art studio, gift shop and post office and public toilets.  Sadly Emma's Chip Ahoy had recently closed when I visited for the day in early September 2015.  I didn't go in McCuaig's Bar but did pay to visits to the Water Shed Café where I ate one of the best muffins I have ever had (and I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to cake!). 

I caught the 8am sailing to Rathlin and so was the first visitor of the day to the Boathouse Visitors' Centre when it opened an hour or so later.  However the lady staffing it on the day I visited was presumably not enjoying her day, as she barely greeted me as I entered.  I then stood right in front of her desk for several minutes, as I wanted to ask a question, while she completely ignored me and was busy looking at a rota or something. Eventually had to cough to get her attention.  When she did finally look up at me, she was actually quite helpful - I asked if the bus to the West Lighthouse would be running that day and she told me when and where to catch it.   

This proved useful, as there were no timetables for the bus displayed anywhere and an hour and a half later when the next ferry arrived, several passengers got off and asked me if the bus was running and where to catch it.  The slightly dilapidated bus turned up on time driven by a very friendly lady and we all got on and she drove us the 3 miles to the RSPB Seabird Centre.  

I took the option to walk back along the road but it wasn't the world's most exciting walk, although it did have a few geocaches along it and a picnic bench about halfway along it.  Like everywhere else in Northern Ireland there are few footpaths on Rathlin and therefore off road access is only allowed on the RSPB reserves at the west end of the island and at Roonivoolin on the west coast of the south arm of the island and on designated trails at Kinramer, Kebble and Ballyconagan.  If these were waymarked from the road, then I missed them all except the one at Roonivoolin.

Having seen Rathlin Island from the end of the Kintyre Peninsula several years ago, I was greatly looking forward to my visit.  Despite an overcast day, Rathlin didn't disappoint.

 Kelp House in Church Bay
The Kelp House was built by the Gage family who purchased the island in 1746.  Kelp seaweed was burnt in stone kilns around the island to produce soda and iodine.  This was then stored in the Kelp House before being exported.  The industry was at its height during the Napoleonic Wars of 1808-12 when the price of kelp was high.  It declined a few years later when the price dropped after the end of the wars. 


 Boathouse Visitor's Centre
 Marconi Plaque in Church Bay
The wording on the plaque reads "This plaque was unveiled by Councillor Oliver McMullan, Chairman of Moyle District Council on 6th September 2005 to commemorate the first Commercial Wireless Telegraphy link in the world, which was established for Lloyd's of London between the East Lighthouse, Rathlin Island and Kenmara House, Ballycastle in Autust 1898 by Guglielmo Marconi with Edwin Glanville Engineer and George Kemp, Technical Assistant; Lighthouse keepers Michael Donovan and John Sullivan  who assisted in operating the Telegraph Equipment; Lloyds Agent J. Byrne.

 Seabird cliffs looking north from the West Lighthouse
From May to July these cliffs are teaming with seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, shags and black guillemots.  However I visited in early September when there were only fulmars, kittiwakes and a peregrine to see.
 West Lighthouse
This is the only "upside down" lighthouse in Ireland.  It was built between 1912 and 1917 and was first lit in 1919.  It was automated in 1983 and its foghorn was removed in 1995. The light is red and can be seen from a distance of 22 nautical miles if the visibility is good.  By 2016 it should be possible to go on a guided tour around it. 

All those stairs to climb from the lighthouse back up to the visitor's centre!
 West Lighthouse and seabird viewing platform from above

 New Visitor's Centre at the West Lighthouse 

 The edge of Kinramer Wood
 The trees don't look as though they are thriving on this windswept island.  It was planted 50 years ago and although as a commercial woodland it hasn't been a great success, it provides a home to short eared owls and sparrowhawks.

 Famine Stone 
The wording on the stone reads "1845-1848 In memory of the 500 inhabitants of Rathlin Island who emigrated to America and England during the Great Famine.

Church of the Immaculate Conception - Catholic

 Interior of the Catholic Church
 Virgin Mary in Grotto

 St Thomas's Church of Ireland

 Picnic table in Church Bay
These heavy stone benches and table aren't in any danger of being blown away in a storm!
 Former walled garden of the Manor House

 Harbour at Church Bay, Rathlin
 East Lighthouse
This is the oldest of Rathlin's lighthouses.  Construction began in 1849.  It was automated in 1981 and the light has a range of 26 nautical miles.  This is as close as you can get to the lighthouse without trespassing - the Keep Out notices are very visible all around here both for the light itself and all the adjacent fields.

 East Lighthouse

 Fire station

 Church Bay

 Lovely garden in Church Bay

 Beach at Church Bay

 Memorial garden to those lost at sea

 Unusual memorial in St Thomas's Church

 Graves of sailors whose bodies washed up on Rathlin Island

 The Water Shed Cafe

 Plaque commemorating Richard Branson's unscheduled visit to Rathlin

Richard Branson's hot air balloon crashed into the sea off the coast of Rathlin Island in 1987 after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Maine. He was picked up by an RAF helicopter and his companion Per Lindstrom was rescued from the sea by a Rathlin islander.  Richard Branson later gave the island £25,000, which was used to restore the former tithe barn of the Manor House and to convert it into the Richard Branson Activity Centre.

Robert the Bruce was an earlier visitor to Rathlin.  He fled to the island after his defeat by Edward I in 1306.  He took refuge in a castle to the north of Portawillan.  Nearby is Bruce's Cave where he is said to have been inspired by a spider not to give up - the maxim "If at first you don't succeed - try, try again."  He went on to defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  Other caves in Scotland also claim to be location for this story.

 I liked the alternating black and white coping stones

Entrance to the RSPB's Roonivoolin Nature Reserve
I heard but didn't see the choughs that live here.

 Manor House Guest House

 Vehicle Ferry - MV Canna

 On the way back to Ballycastle - looking west towards Sheep Island - a wonderful display of crepuscular rays

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