Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island is a place that I often saw, when on a cycle run as a teenager, from the north coast. It lies 6 miles off the County Antrim coast at Ballycastle. A ferry service runs from town harbour to Church Bay on Rathlin Island. In my younger years the 'ferry' was on open boat on which you were just as likely to encounter livestock, as people. The six mile journey over Rathlin Sound, in an open boat, was not for the faint hearted, through the North Atlantic swell and strong tidal current running through the Sound. I heard enough stories of rough, wet crossings and sea sickness to put me off visiting the island in an open boat. However, a recent visit has shown me how much things have changed. There are now two vessels that operate the ferry service, a fast catamaran for foot passengers and bicycles, with a more conventional vessel for motor vehicles. 

Rathlin Island is relatively unspoilt, and it is only in recent years that the islanders have had electricity. Rathlin Island is around 16 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. The island has 3 lighthouses, which reflect the often dangerous sea conditions around the island. The coast is littered with ship wrecks. Strong currents and often deep water make diving a challenging proposition. The wreck of WW1 cruiser HMS Drake lies in Church Bay and the site is marked by a buoy. Marconi transmitted some of his first commercial radio signals from Rathlin's East lighthouse to Ballycastle on 6th July 1898. The RSPB  now has a nature reserve for sea birds on the cliffs at Rue Point, the location of the west lighthouse.

On my recent visit I used the fast ferry and there were a number of bicycles on the vessel. Most were modern aluminium or carbon bikes, but I did see a 1960s five speed French lady's Motoconfort 650B bicycle equipped with a Huret Svelto rear mech on the ferry. 

The island is quite hilly and the roads quite narrow. The route to the west lighthouse at Rue Point is a challenge by bicycle. The traffic is usually light and a short walk or cycle south from Church Bay along the coast road will bring you to the remains of the Kelp House.

The gathering of Kelp was a local industry in the first half of the 20th century, the seaweed being used in the production of iodine. Only the shell of the Kelp house remains as, a visible reminder of this once important industry to the Rathlin islanders. Further along the beach from the Kelp House, the visitor can usually get close to seals resting on the rocks of the foreshore. 

They are unperturbed by the visitor and seem to embody the calmer pace of life on the island on a long summer's day.  The island is well worth a visit and can be reached by National Cycle Network route 93.

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