There is no better time to cycle along the Aird than mid July. We set out in the early afternoon, in perfect weather: warm sunshine with just the hint of a summer’s breeze. At first, there are quite a few people, pottering along the shore as the custom is here in July. Golfers clad in bright colours by the River Bush, pursuing their dreams in the shape of a tiny white ball; starry eyed young couples holding hands; families on bikes with toddlers in tow. The determination that some of these tiny people show in their energetic efforts to reach their destinations ‘à deux roues‘ must surely serve them well in later life.
After the holiday hubbub of the Causeway itself, with parked cars everywhere, the road stretches on into the North Antrim farmland that lies beyond. There is an inviting calm, and we can breathe. Occasionally the route gets steeper, and I think again of those energetic toddlers as I keep pedalling to reach the top of some of the hills.
The fields on either side of us have been coiffed, and today they look especially elegant. Some of them are like stripey, oversized lawns. Others are dotted neatly with golden bales. The air is sweet with the scent of fresh grass. I notice a small sign by the roadside that tells us that this is is the townland of Aird Hannan. The sign translates this as ‘the white-capped headland’. As we continue, I wonder about the origins of this name. Perhaps the top of the cliffs at the very edge of the Aird, where the land meets the sea, are white. I can’t remember if this is the case, although I have looked at them once or twice from a boat. At this time of the year there is certainly something pale about the fields of grass that have just been cut, compared to the darker, more intense green of the hedgerows. And there are silent grazing sheep in the fields that give the appearance, from a distance, of white patches at intervals on the land.
We pass white cottages, immaculate bungalows, and several small farmsteads. The arrival of summer is announced in the floral displays along their borders: gorgeous white daisies; sunny nasturtiums; shocking pink foxgloves; and lilies in the boldest shades of orange and gold. As the bend of the road takes us closer to the sea, we catch a glimpse of North Antrim’s most iconic summer bloom: the exquisitely sculpted flowers of the fuschia bush, spilling in delicate abundance over the edge of a stone wall. Its colour is beautiful and familiar, but hard to describe. Somewhere between scarlet and cerise, and set against the blue sky of this afternoon, it is truly glorious.
The road turns, and suddenly before us the landscape embraces the sea in a flourish of headlands and rocky outcrops that catches our breath and draws our admiring gaze as far as the Western Isles of Scotland that lie in the distance. Soon, on our left, the land dips, and we see the ancient castle walls of Dunseverick. We are at the pinnacle of one of the five ancient highways of Ireland that ran from the banks of the Liffey in Dublin to the seat of the High Kings at Tara, to Navan, and eventually, right to the North, and Dunseverick itself. The castle walls are diminished now, but they are an enduring reminder of the ancient Kingdom of Dál Riada and the strong ties forged centuries ago between this part of Ireland and Scotland. It is a marriage held together by the channel of sea that lies between, and is deeply embedded in our language.
We swim in a green pool in the rocks, just past the castle, and are invigorated by the seaweed-infused water and the salted air. The basalt rocks are typical of this coast: studded with barnacles and limpets, and home to an intriguing array of mineral-rich plant life: kelp, sea-lettuce and carrageen moss, in every shade of blood-red and green. Above the water’s edge there are clusters of bladder wrack that have dried to a black crisp in the sun, and make a crunching sound underfoot. It has been like this since I swam here as a child.
By now the sun has disappeared behind a bank of grey cloud, but the air is warm and remarkably still. We make our way back, retracing our route through the mellow farmland, softened by the summer. We know we are almost home when we reach the windswept cluster of Scots Pines that frames the view in front of us. We look over the silver sea as far as Dunluce, the majestic strand at Whiterocks, and the mountains of Donegal beyond. We could almost be in Narnia.
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