From the natural arena of the splendid beach at Whitepark Bay, a path moves eastwards through quiet stretches of sheep pasture. These are flanked on one side by green farmland, and on the other by a sea of steady grey. The rock formations that rise and fall in the water at intervals along the way seem to have been sculpted by centuries of strong winds and stormy waters.
For all this, there are moments of calm on the little bays that we encounter, where sand shelves gently into the sea, and tiny marine birds settle on the water, blending seamlessly into their surroundings. There is one cove that is so well hidden it took us many years to find it. It is a beautiful tranche of golden sand that sits at the base of towering black rocks. The drama of land and sea plays out here in a secluded, intimate theatre.
This is the kind of coastline that children of all ages like to explore, and in summer, little troupes armed with coloured buckets and miniature fishing nets congregate by the edge of the sea to while away a quiet morning or afternoon. For as long as I can remember, from a stone cottage built on the rocks, someone has been trading in required provisions: tea, scones, apple pie and ice cream; miscellaneous local confections.
The harbour itself is narrow and not very deep. It is positioned snugly between the cumulative masses of craggy rock that form a sea wall battered by heavy swells on one side, and a hill rising up on the other, into which has been incised a narrow, winding road. The harbour structure is remarkable for the creamy colour of the limestone from which it is built. In places, this hue deepens until it resembles honeycomb, a traditional, sticky, porous sweet, beloved of generations. I wonder if this honeying is due to the rust from the metal mooring rings somehow seeping into the limestone, or if it has been brought about by the perpetual baptism of the stones in cold Atlantic brine.
The pale colour of limestone begins to be quietly quintessential to the Antrim coast as it turns southwards towards Carrickfergus and eventually gives way to Belfast Lough. We learn that it was quarried here and exported to cities across Britain and Ireland, to pave illustrious streets. The residues of this industry can still be seen in and around the harbour. Lime used to be burned in large kilns beside the water. These are curious structures that still stand today. It is difficult to envisage this previous existence of serious business, when nowadays, most people come here to ‘get away from it all’.
We notice a sepia image on a historical information panel that has been installed close to the kilns. It depicts a tall ship, bedecked with linen sails, poised, elegantly, against a backdrop of limestone moorings. This, according to the photograph, was the Ballintoy of yesteryear. In the harbour when we visit, there are a few teenagers in kayaks, and three diminutive fishing boats, each freshly painted in green, red, and blue. The names these bear are unmistakeably Irish, but on clearer days, it is the Western Isles of Scotland that line the horizon.
Looking out across the water, the eye meets Sheep Island, a giant stack of dolerite that sits proudly just off the coast, like a great anchored vessel, crowned in green grass, and fringed, in summer, with a layer of gold. Lying in relief against the haze of sky and sea, there is the low stretch of land across the sound that is Rathlin Island.
The story goes that Rathlin once sheltered Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. Crowned in Scone in 1306, but pursued by the English, Bruce is said to have taken refuge here, in the dark interior of a cave. As children, we were told about him, sitting over on Rathlin in his gloomy hideaway, watching a spider spinning a web. The spider kept failing, but it refused to give up, and many times it recommenced its task. If at first we didn’t succeed, they told us, we should try, and try again. The story is still a good one.
Summer at Home Staycation Series: