One of the best ways to admire the jewel-coloured glories of the fuchsia bushes that grace the North Coast is to make your way down the small, winding road towards the sea at Portbradden. If you do decide to follow this road, you will have no choice but to move at a slower pace, for it is more of a lane than a road, but no matter, the hedgerows that shelter it on either side are laden in July with the spectacular ruby blooms. For me, these flowers speak summertime at home.
Portbradden is composed of a single row of dwellings, about half a dozen in all, built at the foot of a steep wooded bank that looks out towards the ancient bay at Whitepark and the village of Ballintoy. At the end of the row of cottages there is a harbour, bijou in scale, like the hamlet itself. These days the few clues to its history are found in the shape of a few rusty pieces of fishing equipment still sitting intact along the little pier; Port Bradán derives its name from its place in the local tradition of salmon fishing.
The sea is shallow and clear as it laps the small sandy beach that sits at a right angle to the houses, facing the small harbour at the other end of the little row. There is a grassy path that descends just a few steps down to the beach, and a perfectly positioned bench to soak in the view, but to reach the sand at the water’s edge we must first step over the pebbles. They are large, smooth pebbles, and their colour reminds me of blue slate.
The houses themselves are painted white, and today they look splendid in the bright morning sunshine. Their tiny, colourful front gardens seem to face South, and must boast the most glorious views in all of Ireland. The hue of the water close to the beach is the kind of verdigris that I have admired elsewhere, along much warmer shores. Perhaps this inspired someone to plant the mature palm trees in one of the gardens that rise steeply behind the row of white houses. Higher up on the hill there is a decorative ironwork gazebo, evocative of the Romantics. This garden gives the place something of a Mediterranean feel. When I look at them from the water as I swim, set against the dark foliage of the trees, the whitewashed gables of the house, and the blue paint on the window frames and the eaves, they remind me of a Greek island.
The scene is idyllic, but the temperature of the water feels more icy than it did in Greece. We expected it to be cold, so we judge the timing of our swim carefully, hoping that the incoming tide over the warm sand will warm the water a little. It proves to be beautifully fresh, but the light on the sea and the views across the blue horizon of the bay redeem any momentary discomfort. When I look into the distance I make out the shape of a little herd of cattle that have gathered as they sometimes do on the majestic half-moon of fine sand at Whitepark Bay. They enjoy drinking from the freshwater streams that flow down through the grassy hills and the great chalk-leans above the beach and quietly ebb into the ocean.
Sitting on the miniature beach at Portbradden after our swim, we become aware of a sound that seems to be constantly in the background; a kind of low, deep rumble or roar, like a mighty churning engine. We look for the source, expecting to discover a large boat out in the bay, or agricultural machinery working on the farmland high above the beach. There is no sign of either of these, but we remember Greece again.
Walking uphill in the afternoon heat towards the Acropolis in Athens, the light of summer reflected on the white stone all around us, we were reached by the most exquisite music. We followed it, mesmerised, until, looking down from the height of the path, on our left, we could see the the stage of the Odeon Herodes Atticus theatre some distance below, where an orchestra was rehearsing the overture of Verdi’s La traviata.
The formation of the land on this stretch of the North Antrim coastline, as it drops down to meet the inestimable force of the sea, is semi-circular. It is a great arc, like an ancient amphitheatre, and we imagine that the sound of the breaking waves as they roll in, in all of their fresh, white brilliance, has been amplified, like a great opera. We have some of the best seats in a timeless, entrancing drama: the meeting of the land with the mighty, mysterious sea.
Momentarily, we take our leave of sheltered Portbradden, and clamber over the huge, angular boulders of chalk that separate it from the wilder waters of Whitepark. High up on the rocks to our right, we notice clusters of tiny pink flowers that tumble and cascade down the cliff-face, generously, like soft, foaming waterfalls. On our left, the sea is a deep shade of turquoise, and relatively calm, but even today, the force of the waves is astounding.