Travel: Is the road to Carrick worth taking?

Carrickfergus probably isn't at the top of many people's list for a mini-break destination, but is it overlooked or best avoided? Our intrepid explorer Tom Kelly finds out...

Carrickfergus Castle is a spectacular 'proper' castle and well worth a visit. Picture by Mal McCann

UNLIKE as in the song, I have never wished to be in Carrickfergus. Not even for one night. But that's exactly where I ended up for a two day mini-break.

In fairness, the beautiful lilting ballad known as Carrickfergus is unlikely to have had anything to do with the Co Antrim town. It's more likely to have found its roots in Munster, not Ulster.

That said, Carrickfergus comes with some remarkable historical pedigree and awesome views. Though the profligate and prominent amount of political graffiti makes it seem more like Shankill by the sea...

To appreciate what the place has to offer - and there is much - the tourist has to look beyond the blindingly obvious partisan displays of paramilitary flags masquerading as culture.

This town is in a wonderful location and is seriously let down by its local authority in terms of investment. This place has potential.

But first to the history.

The foundation of Carrickfergus is associated with Fergus Mór (or 'Big Fergie'), who was a 6th century king of Dál Riata.

Kings back then were two a penny, as most chieftains of the era gave themselves a grandiose elevation to kingship.

To his credit, Fergus Mór was a big noise as his fiefdom crossed over to Scotland. Translated from Gaelic, Carrickfergus means Rock of Fergus and it's said he is buried locally.

Anyone who visits Carrickfergus can't fail to notice its beautiful Norman castle commanding Belfast Lough. Originally founded by the Norman adventurer John de Courcy in 1177 whose tenancy lasted until he was ousted by another such adventurer, Hugh de Lacy.

I should point out that 'adventurers' is a rather romantic term. These men were opportunistic mercenaries. Their reward for quashing native opposition to English regents was to live off the land they conquered. So they were in effect chancers and mini despots.

The ubiquitous King John (of Magna Carta and, allegedly, Robin Hood fame) took the castle after a siege.

As we know, he loved building castles in Ireland, as the residents of Greencastle, Carlingford, Limerick and other places will testify.

Carrick residents may not know it, but their magnificent castle was completed by one of the most Catholic of English monarchs, Henry III.

Carrickfergus was the administrative centre of power of English rule in the north east of Ireland. But it was also the start of the end of Carrick's reign, after the arrival of the notorious Sir Arthur Chichester, who was also making his mark in the emerging Belfast.

Of course, Carrick is best known as the 1690 landing spot of the Dutch usurper William of Orange, to whom we owe so much, not least the proliferation of bonfires that continues to 2021.

The castle is spectacular and well worth a visit.

Tom Kelly inspected a tank during his stay in Carrickfergus, where he was mistaken for Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie

The sea front at Carrick is stunning, as is the coastal drive to Ballycastle. The open vista of green spaces and a public boardwalk are superb.

Sadly there is no sandy beach but the views are amazing. Carrickfergus town centre is not hugely enticing and much of the medieval centre is gone.

We stayed in the hidden gem that is Walter's Place. It's a guesthouse come apart-hotel. Walter's is simply fantastic. The room decor and facilities would rival any four star hotel.

Next door is Ownies Bar and Bistro. It's an extremely busy restaurant with a gourmet standard menu. It is also where you get breakfast if resident in Walter's Place.

Both have the same owner and to say that he has nailed what Irish hospitality is all about would be an understatement. Gold plated standards and service and both at good value.

The Gobbins, near Islandmagee, is among the most dramatic visitor experiences in Europe, let alone Ireland

The real reason I chose Carrickfergus as a destination was because of the Gobbins - it is no exaggeration to say that this experience is one of the most dramatic cliff walks in Europe.

The Gobbins, at Ballystruder near Islandmagee, is challenging and does require a minimum level of fitness. I certainly just about fitted such a minimum requirement as returning up the steep incline to the main road proved. (They say its like walking up and down 50 flights of stairs...).

Our guide was a very informative Queen's University medical student. He told us about the geology, local legends, the engineering ingenuity and the ornithology.

It was all fascinating and took about two-and-a-half hours. It is hard to imagine Edwardian day trippers lugging picnic baskets to the caves from the train station but they did. The engineering behind the Gobbins walk is nothing short of phenomenal.

Tom Kelly found the Gobbins cliff walk an exhilarating experience

Be prepared for the birds nesting in the rock face. I thought they were all seagulls but I was corrected by our guide who said they were in fact, guillemots, razorbills and cormorants. Still, they looked like seagulls to me.

The noise and the smell is quite something else. It's a complete sensory overload. The puffins were less visible and to be honest I had enough of bird watching at that stage.

So, a long, slow slog back to the visitor centre for a nice cuppa - they didn't sell pints.

I have been to the Giant's Causeway three times and it has not grown on me at all. Like Samuel Johnson, I believe it is "worth seeing but not worth going to see".

The Gobbins, on the other hand, is a must-see and well worth the trip.

We drove up the coast to see beautiful walled gardens of Glenarm and then onto Carnlough.

The celebrated Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough is a landmark on the Antrim coast road

We nipped into the famous Londonderry Arms hotel, owned by the O'Neill family since 1947 and where Winston Churchill - who inherited the property in 1921 - once stayed.

Whilst in Carnlough - which needs a facelift, with so many derelict buildings - we took a boat trip on the Curiosity with its skipper Davy Smyth. It was 30 minutes of pure joy around the bay, and we even got to meet local resident Sammy the Seal.

Sammy the Seal

Then it was back to Carrickfergus, tired and exhausted.

Thanks to some local knowledge we discovered another culinary delight in the form of Castello Italia. This was an amazing find.

It certainly rates amongst the best Italian restaurants in Ireland. It is simple, friendly and elegant - a place worth getting dressed up for. I would recommend the formaggio starter of whipped goat's cheese and salt-baked beetroot - delicious.

And so it was we watched the clouds roll by from the first floor of the restaurant until retiring to our room at Walter's with a bottle of sparkling Prosecco Rosé and Netflix.

The next morning we feasted heartily at Ownies for breakfast before visiting the small Saturday artisan market. It is quite small.

We did consider visiting Larne, but the less than welcoming graffiti made us think the best thing about Larne is the road out of it.

But as for Carrickfergus and The Gobbins - well, as the philosopher and poet, John O'Donohue wrote: "Every time you leave home, another road takes you to a world you were never in."

To me, that's a road worth taking.

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