CSCC Reports 2015: Sea kayaking holiday in Northern Ireland (July 2015)

The club made its first trip to Northern Ireland this summer, with Dan, Rob, Sarah and Gavin heading over for a week in July. We were generally lucky with weather, sitting out only one day due to rough seas, and as a result were about to paddle in three different areas, the Irish Sea, the North Atlantic Coast, and Strangford Lough, which each had their own charms.

Our first day on the water was in the Irish Sea. This was on the 14th of July, two days after the peak of the marching season, but not apparently after the marching season, as a huge police presence lining  the streets of Newry proved, as we drove through on the way to Kilkeel, our starting point. From Kilkeel we paddled to the seaside resort town of Newcastle, stopping for lunch at the picturesque harbour of Annalong. This was a very pleasant and unchallenging paddle in calm waters, below the Mourne Mountains. We also saw our first seals of the trip, and our only dolphins. Reaching Newcastle in around 4 hours, a member of the group advised that there was time to climb Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard, before dinner, and that they had “done the whole walk in an hour and a half”.  These implied timings proved a little off, and an hour and a half’s walking after setting off from sea level took us to the top of Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, with an 850m descent still remaining to the nearest takeaway. Nevertheless, we’d reached an eaterie just before closing, and over fish and chips it was agreed the views from the mountain had probably been worth it.  

Our first day on the North Coast was perhaps the highlight of the trip, with the day’s paddle between Ballintoy and Ballintrae  taking in the Giant’s Causeway, Dunluce Castle, numerous sea caves, lunch at the idyllic Port Moon bothy, and a surprising lenthy pursuit by a group of grey seals. It was an extremely warm and clear day, with the Atlantic eerily flat, and views across to Rathlin Island, Islay and the Mull of Kintyre. Rob and Sarah decided to take the first and last swim of the trip, deciding ultimately that even on a hot day in July, the North Atlantic is pretty cold. Fortunately they were able to warm up at the Fullerton Arms in Ballintoy, where we stayed whilst on the North Coast. In addition to a good location, this provided good B&B, and a lively bar.

The weather then deteriorated for three days, and we took one non-paddling day, and also undertook shorter, round trips between Cushendun and Cushendall, and Ballintoy and Ballycastle Bay. The latter was the better trip, with lunch at the very atmospheric Kinbane Castle, and a sea level view of the Carrick-a-Rede ropebridge. This bridge spans a narrow gap between the mainland and a small island, historically used as a fishing base, but now a primarily a money spinner for the National Trust. You can paddle underneath the bridge, but it is a bad idea to do so in rough seas with a following wave. This was verified by Gavin whilst attempting to do just that, coming the closest to anyone going into the sea involuntarily over the entire week.

For our non-paddling day we took a ferry over the Rathlin Island, visiting the RSPB centre in the far west of the Island, whose extremely helpful volunteers helped us identify the different species amongst the hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the cliffs below. The last ferry was cancelled, due to adverse weather, and the penultimate ferry we caught back was a very rough crossing. This was fun – Dan thought similar, but in the final analysis superior to a funfair ride – but also made us rather glad we weren’t out in a small kayak.

For our final day, we headed south again, to Strangford Lough, going between Killyleagh and Sketrick Castle. We had gone out to a few pubs in Belfast the night before, resulting in a late and not very efficient start. The west side of the lough, where we were paddling, is a maze of small islands, which on a high spring tide do not resemble the islands shown on the OS map in either size or number. This resulted in some confusion over where we were.  The combination of narrow channels between islands and big tides made for some fast moving and unpredictable water, and this was a very interesting paddle, particularly given the lough is close to being an enclosed body of water. We ended our trip with a good meal at our finish point, at Daft Eddy’s pub on Sketrick Island.

Northern Ireland is clearly a long way for a London based club to go, and good weather is particularly unguaranteed: we were lucky. The North Coast provides the best paddling, but the tides over most of it are difficult to read, and challenging, and this makes many sections, and the open crossing to Rathlin advisable only in good conditions. However there are several interesting sea loughs and sheltered sections of the Irish sea which mean that it is possible to find decent paddles, within fairly easy travel of anywhere in Northern Ireland, in all but very adverse weather.  At least for the English members of the club, Northern Ireland also felt like a slightly more exotic destination than somewhere in Great Britain, with for example two individuals struggling to order fish and chips in a fish and chip shop (probably) due to vernacular differences. 

More photos can be found here.