Coffee and a raspberry muffin were never as welcome as on that mid-December morning in Sarah's WaterShed Cafe on Rathlin Island. It was now 11.30am and I'd left a dark frosty Dublin at 6.45am for the 10.30am island ferry from Ballycastle and I was tired. By the time I'd finished, the low sun had cleared the mist over the Antrim Plateau, and was flooding the little Christmas-ready cafe with sunlight. And now, with my mind and mood very positively altered, I set off to walk the linear Rathlin Trail from the harbour away out to the "upside down" West Lighthouse.
My first port of call was the shore-side Church of St Thomas, and its story-telling headstones of generations of deceased island residents, including a Captain Gage of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. A poignant little cluster of headstones told of unidentified drowned sailors for whom Rathlin had became their final resting place.
Then it was on up the hill, past the Church of the Immaculate Conception, to the high Knockans Viewpoint. There the island quietly introduced me to its neighbours – the low hill of the Mull of Kintyre, Torr Head and shapely Fair Head, and the coast all the way to the Giant's Causeway in the west. Picnic tables and information panels, and the sheer beauty of the vista, prompted a short hangout – but I was booked on the 3pm return ferry so I soon struck off for the spectacular western end of the island. On my way, I accepted a lift from a fellow Southerner, and now longtime island resident, Julie Staines, who shared with me something of her deep love and knowledge of her island home.
With her help, I made it out to the West Lighthouse and the remote and beautiful Kebble Nature Park, and lingered for a while enthralled by the Atlantic swell playing around the sea-worn basalt stacks of that exposed west coast. The sea shone silver under the weak sun, already dipping on its short mid-winter journey.
I walked back to the harbour enchanted by where I was – a sleeping dormant island of little fields, dry stone walls and homesteads, with nothing moving under that soft and undemanding winter light. There were no visitors, no birds and no wild flowers, only a deep silence accentuated by hints of wind and distant waves. And with that mystical sense given to us Celts, I saw the clouds take the form of swans over Fair Head and the Sea of Moyle, and imagined the sad songs of the Children of Lir in the wave and wind-sound.
On the ferry, I knew I’d glimpsed a magical place of 100 souls, and that a new season would come and bring colour, céilithe and craic as well as seabird spectacles and wild flowers. But I’d been privileged to share with it a brief moment of its quiet time, and just loved it.
Map: map of all island walks available in the Rathlin Island Ferries ticket office (00442820769299)
Start/Finish: Island harbour area
Effort: About 12kms, 200m of climbing, about 3.5hrs (bikes for hire)
Suitability: easy, a paved track for most of the route