Walk for the Weekend: Fair Head, Co Antrim
Murlough is one of Northern Ireland’s hidden treasures: a time-warp of idyllic pastures and ancient oaks
Fair Head, Co Antrim: “With the cliffs becoming more precipitous, I ramble northwards towards Fair Head as an unforgettable canvas unfolds.”
Last year was the best ever for Northern Ireland tourism. Morphing in just over 20 years from being considered Europe’s most dangerous destination to being, perhaps, its safest, the region has reaped rich reward. Visitors are pouring in to sample the friendly ambience and spectacular scenery; now I have arrived to contribute modestly.
Intent on driving the intoxicating Causeway Coast from Belfast, I need a walk abbreviated enough to allow me to later reach Derry. For inspiration, I ransack Helen Fairbairn’s, Northern Ireland: A Walking Guide, and alight upon an outing linked indelibly in my mind with Mizen Head in Cork as the opposite extremity of Ireland.
In the blurb, the Fair Head Loop offers a short coastal circuit “exploring a beautiful bay and the tallest cliffs in Northern Ireland”. Exiting the carpark above Murlough Bay, I come upon great declivities dropping to a spectacular shoreline. This is a popular location for recording the HBO series, Game of Thrones, and has now become a Mecca for “thronies” – those who come to visit its various filming locations.
Here, they fall on their feet, for Murlough is truly one of Northern Ireland’s hidden treasures: a time-warp realm of idyllic pastures and ancient oaks that remain charmingly unaltered since the War-of-the-Roses era.
With the cliffs becoming more precipitous, I ramble northwards towards Fair Head as an unforgettable canvas unfolds. Below, the Sea of Moyle immediately has me segueing back to youthful days and eye-widening sagas of how the Children of Lir spent 300 years on this storm-tortured coast. Beyond, an opalescent ocean blue-greens its way to the Scottish coastline, evoking a time when Antrim and Scotland’s Argyll were co-joined within the kingdom of Dal Riada.
Next to beckon my curiosity is the Grey Man’s Path. This grassy gully – spectacularly bridged by a fallen pillar – is used by climbers to access the most extensive and demanding expanse of climbable rock on these islands. For one mad moment, my climbing days return; I feel an urge to descend to some climbers far below and request they rope me up for a route.
Good sense prevails, however. Instead, I avert my gaze towards the dog-leg outline of Rathlin Island. This myth-laden place of many invasions has long been on my wishlist, if only to visit the cave where exiled King Robert Bruce of Scotland took life-changing inspiration from the tenacity of a spider. Today, the white cliffs, whitewashed cottages and bookending lighthouses blend to exude a magnetic charm that has me vowing to visit soon.
I could now follow blue arrows on a magnificent clifftop walk that eventually swings inland to Coolanlough village. Time is short, however, so I follow Fairbairn’s advice and head inland on a rough, flaggy path descending south above the eastern shore of Lough na Cranagh, which boasts an impressive cranóg (lake dwelling) dating from the Iron Age.
Reaching pretty Coolanlough, I scratch around but can’t find the promised path with paint splashes. Forced to pull out map and compass, I go left through a gate and then fix a bearing on my start point. The route takes me roughly southwest over open, unsanitised hillside to ascend a small ridge before crossing a stile to regain my parking place.
Time: 2.5 hours
Map: OSNI; Sheet 5
Start: Circular outing starting and finishing at the parking place above Murlough Bay, Co Antrim. This is accessed from the A2, Cushendun/Ballycastle road.
Terrain: Moderately challenging outing following idiosyncratically placed waymarkers and yellow paint splashes, so navigational skills may be required.