Whitepark Bay.


Whitepark Bay lies between the tourist hotspots of the Giants Causeway and the rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. At one end of this beautiful sweeping bay, sheltered below the cliffs from the prevailing winds,  lies  the small fishing hamlet of Portbraddon and at the other end the basalt islands that surround Ballintoy harbour.

Whitepark Bay was one  of the first settlements of man in Ireland and evidence of these Neolithic settlers are continually being exposed  on the raised beach and sand dune system. It is known that the manufacturing and exporting of axes and arrow heads took place from here, the limestone cliffs being a rich source of  flint nodules. Three passage tombs stand on the high points of surrounding hills overlooking the bay, the most striking being the dolmen known as the Druid’s Altar which was placed on the highest point above the bay.

The old hostel.

The original White Park Bay Youth Hostel can be seen in the middle of the bay. Beyond, almost buried now, are the remains of an old ‘hedge school’. This 18th Century ‘school for young gentlemen’, included on its roll call – a certain Lord Castlereagh for his early education years. What a location for a school! The modern youth hostel has a commanding position overlooking the bay. (More of that later)

A hedge school (Irish names include scoil chois claí, scoil ghairid and scoil scairte) is the name given to an educational practice in 18th and 19th century Ireland, so called due to its rural nature. It came about as local educated men began an oral tradition  of teaching the community. With the advent of the commercial world in Ireland after 1600, its peasant society saw the need for greater education. While the “hedge school” label suggests the classes always took place outdoors (next to a hedge), classes were sometimes held in a house or barn. Subjects included primarily basic  Irish language  grammar , English and maths. In some schools the Irish bardic tradition, Latin, historyand home economics  were also taught. Reading was generally based on chapbooks chapbooks, sold at fairs, typically with exciting stories of well-known adventurers and outlaws. Payment was generally made per subject, and brighter pupils would often compete locally with their teachers.

On personal note: Whitepark is significant to me because it’s where I was living when my daughter was born. She spent the first six months of her life there. At the time I was warden of the YHANI Youth Hostel. It has changed hugely since then. Much extended and now in different ownership, it is more a hotel like than the simple back packers hostel I managed. I spent an idyllic time living there. I used to go down to the dunes early in the mornings to hunt the rabbits which were very numerous. I had my dog, Pod and a shotgun.  We got fairly sick of eating rabbit but Pod never tried of it and would often bring a young rabbit home for me to peel. She didn’t like the fur in her teeth. Sheep used to graze in the dunes. That has now been stopped so the flora of the bay has also changed. Wild flowers are now beautifully abundant.

We kept a goat and she produced great milk which was used to make ‘Soda Farls’, an Irish specialty bread made on a griddle or hot plate. Fresh soda off the griddle and dripping with butter was a great seller as breakfast for the hostellers. Maude the goat, had to go when the Belfast middleclass members of the hostel association decided that they wanted their ‘private retreat’ to have a rose garden and prim lawn. They didn’t like the rural reality, come to think of it, they didn’t like school children or strangers from abroad in their hostel.

This is one of the few places that gets no mention in any of my novels. I think I’ve avoided it because it’s a place that’s filled with both happy and painful memories. I’ve felt unable to share it – unitil now.

When the chairman who appointed and supported me left, my time there was over. I left and left Northern Ireland too. I had no intention of raising my daughter in that beautiful but troubled place. As an adult, she choose to return to her roots and now lives near Belfast.

B and I spent a lovely day poking about the bay and found a few interesting visitors.  The Goose barnacle encrusted tree must have come all the way from the Mediterranean where they are native. There they are called Percebes and are a great delicacy. They have festivals devoted to them in Galicia. I suppose the tree may have come all the way over the Atlantic from Canada where they are also abundant.

The other visitor was Helge Mast from Leonberg in Germany. He was driving the splendid Unimog world tour van shown here. He’d traveled the length of North and South America in it and was now doing Europe.  I used to have an ambition to do this and to have such a splendid vehicle but I find driving such a chore now, I couldn’t face it.

Creative Recharging.

We took a last minute break and travelled north to the Causeway Coast in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. (NI)

The village of Portballintrae or Port-balance-your-tray as it’s been nicknamed as an aide-mémoire – is a sleepy little holiday village with a small sandy bay, a harbour and 50% second homes. It has also got what we think is one of the best small hotels in the world: The Bay View. The premier rooms all have big bay windows with a lounge for viewing … the bay!

Room 202

The place is simple, unpretentious and offers spectacular value for money. We were lucky and found two days of sunshine in a summer of otherwise unrelenting gray and rain. When we arrived about four, we sat in the bay window, sighed a lot and watched the Oystercatchers and Redshanks following the tide up the beach.

That lounging area in the suite is supremely sigh-worthy and we drank tea, took in the views, sighed and smiled a great deal and felt a year of care drop off us.

The view from the room.

We watched the wet-suited youth throwing themselves squealing into the harbour. The boys were trying to outdo each other with athletic excess to impress girls who were much too cool to notice. Cool in attitude and body. The water looked very cold.

Bush Foot bay.

Later we took a stroll round the harbour and into the next bay Bushfoot where the Bush river enters the sea. (The water from this river is used in what is reputed to be the oldest whiskey distillery in the world: Old Bush Mills). The river was pregnant with dark brown torrent water off the peat-moors so the surfers looked like they were riding creamy crests of Guinness. Across the bay stands the Causeway Hotel and the entrance to the Giants Causeway. The columnar basalt formations that are such a tourist honey spot.

Runkerry House

On the far shore stands the gothic looking Runkerry House, built by the Macnaughtons They were given most of North Antrim in times past. They gave the house back to the NI government in the 1930s. They used it up to the 1990s when they decided to sell it. £4 million changed hands and it went to a US based developer with big ideas for a golf centre. One thing NI doesn’t lack is golf facilities so that didn’t happen. Now the place is being sold off piecemeal as apartments.

As we came back, B captured a stunning sunset over the harbour. We sat in our room, sipped a Black Bushmills whiskey and watched the sun sizzle into the sea in the west.  Refreshed and delighted we retired glad we made the impulsive trip north.

Next day, after a hearty breakfast and a reading of the world’s oldest newspaper in continuous print – The Belfast Newsletter (first published in 1731), we drove round the coast to Whitepark Bay. A place of great significance to me but that story can wait for tomorrow.