Helens Bay, Co.Down 10th January 2016

I haven’t posted anything in a while with a few personal things going on, but new year brings new intentions to get things going again, and as ever, the idea is to show just what Northern Ireland has to offer beyond its troubles of the past and its big ship that sunk in the night. There’s much more to our tiny country than those black taxis around tainted murals, or even the wonderful Giants Causeway. Have a look and see what has lay hidden for decades from most travellers eyes, and where most sights are never more than 120mins apart.

All photos were taken with only my Sony compact camera, so my pictures actually are of what you will see (no hyper-realistic SLR pix here as I prefer to show reality). Heres to a great new year of 2016 and I hope it brings each and every one of you much happiness 😀

 

 

HELENS BAY – SEAHILL Coastal path, on the evening of January 10th 2016

 

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The weather in the north of Ireland (in fact all of the UK and Ireland) has been the wettest ever on record this winter, so we’ve barely seen the sun in weeks. Last night however there was a little glimmer of gold as the day began to fade so we went out for a walk along the shores of Belfast Lough and grabbed a few pics.

 

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You cant really see it here, but this is looking across the lough towards Carrickfergus from Helens Bay

 

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A rocky beach between Helens Bay and Seahill

 

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You might just be able to see a little bench to sit on to the left here, but we decided not to given it was very, very cold!

 

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After all that rain, much of the path was muddy and puddled, but it made a nice feature in this picture.

 

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Daylight almost gone now, the last embers of light fading into a January night.

Mourne Mountains Walk – Slieve Binnian (from Carrick Little car park) County Down, Annalong

There are so many amazing walks through the Mourne mountain range in County Down, and sometimes its just hard to fathom how such a vast area even exists in Northern Ireland given the country is so small. When you’re in middle of any of these walks you can see for miles (sometimes without a person, or particularly any sign of civilization, in sight). Which is a fantastic feeling when you just want to get away from it all.

For this route, make your way to the Carrick Little car park which is at the junction of the Head Road and Oldtown Road near Annalong. The Mourne Rambler bus departs from Newcastle Bus station on a regular basis during the summer months for here.

 

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From the Carrick Little car park, follow a clear, stony track that rises gently between the fields. Note the boulder walls alongside. You’ll soon see this old cottage in the middle of a field to your left. I wonder who lived here?

 

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At this point leave the wide trail here and go over to your left following the stone wall that takes you upward to Slieve Binnian (thats it ahead in the picture).

 

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We were lucky with the weather as the Mournes can be unpredictable (bring some suitable gear anytime you visit outside the Summer months). Its not long before you’re treated to a stunning view like this. Thats Slieve Donard in the distance here (just right of center of the picture) the highest peak not only of the Mournes but in the whole of Northern Ireland.

 

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About half way up the climb we veered right (following the wall cutting diagonally right across the second photo above here) as we hadn’t been up this way before, there was a still a reasonable climb (as you can see from the height of the pics) but it wasn’t as exhausting as the climb to the very top of Binnian. We followed the direction of the old stone wall (to the top of THIS climb) and looked across the valley below…

 

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Climbing down from here you’ll come to a massive boulder ahead (dropped by the glacial ice retreat thousands of years ago). And on one edge of a rock you might see this……I shall name him….. Dragonstone haha 🙂

 

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Just below you (beyond the big rock above) you should be able to see this small lake. We descended down to it and admired its peaceful tranquility…

 

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A final look across the landscape of this part of the Mourne Mountains. You could easily spend a week hiking through here. For more information on walking this area see here:   http://www.walkni.com/walks/67/slieve-binnian/

 

Kinbane Castle, Ballycastle, County Antrim

Kinbane Castle isnt really a place many seem to know about here, even though it lies between Ballintoy and Ballycastle and is quite well signposted from the main road. We had never stopped here before ourselves and we really didn’t expect much as we pulled into the car park but all I can say is… wow!….. once you discover what this place looks like I reckon you’ll be back. The area is stunning and we were kinda ashamed that some American and German tourists were already here (when we arrived) given we had never even seen the place. Not too much is known about Kinbane, but it didnt last very long after being constructed it seems. The castle was built by Colla of the MacDonnell clan, the clan who also built many other castles and buildings in the area including Dunluce and Dunseverick. The English laid siege to it within a few years of its completion in 1551 as they were getting a bit concerned about the strength of the ruling MacDonnell Clan (and their friendly connections with Scotland just across the water), but the castle prevailed at this point. Another attack took place in 1555 however where the castle was partly destroyed by cannon fire but it was rebuilt afterwards.  The hollow below the castle is known as Lag na Sassenach (Hollow of the English) and it was allegedly during the 16th century that a garrison of English soldiers laying siege to the castle were surrounded and massacred. Fires lit on the headland as calls for assistance were answered by clansmen who came from all directions and surrounded the garrison rolling rocks onto the English below crushing their advances. Game of Thrones for real eh?

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Hopefully you can read the information on the 1st picture here (click for large high def) and this second photo is your 1st glimpse of the castle.

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When you arrive at the castle car park you’re pretty high up, and the surrounding area and views are just amazing. Just look at those cliffs (and the beautiful June weather). Thats Fair Head in the distance btw.

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The view of the castle taken from about halfway down the descent to sea level, and when you reach the bottom you’ll come to another sign with more information and a further sign warning of your possible doom haha (erm, and I wouldn’t take it lightly either, if you’re going out to the end of the headland be very careful!)

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A stunning location for a castle though it was placed here (of course) for strategic reasons. The second picture was taken from inside the tower looking out, and the third picture is of one of the remaining “gun loops” – ie. where they placed the huge cannons (you can see some of the steps down to the castle in the last picture).

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Just below the castle are the ruins of what looks like some old fishery, Im not sure of the history of this, but I expect its a few hundred years old rather than several (like the castle). It provides a nice backdrop to the area however.

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The first two of these pictures were taken from the cliff top behind the castle and in the first one (if you look closely towards the right) you might be able to see some people standing beside the old fishery shown in the pictures above. This will give you a sense of the scale of the place and the heights involved. The people in the second picture are sitting right at the very tip/end of the precipice shown on the third pic. Honestly, this is only for the brave and likely very dangerous in Winter!

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Kinbane Castle, still projecting its dominance 500yrs later. You really should visit here.

Slieve Gullion, Giants Lair, Ring of Gullion, County Armagh

Best laid plans eh? We set out for Slieve Gullion pretty early in the morning but on arrival found that not only was the drive around the 9KM “Ring of Gullion” closed due to tree felling, the entire visitor center and restaurant was closed too due to a burst water pipe, they wouldn’t even let us use the toilets (after quite a long drive from home). What a disaster.  Anyway, we parked up the car and took a walk around “The Giants Lair” trail which is a signposted trek through the lower part of the forest featuring, among other things, little fairy houses carved into the trees and many exhibits children can interact with. The pictures probably don’t do it justice as its better than it looks here, but if you have younger kids I think theyd really enjoy spotting all the cute features hidden among the trees. Theres also a really excellent adventure playground before you start the trail which has rides for older children as well. And, best of all….. Its all FREE!

 

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The sign before the entrance to the “Giants Lair” forest walk.

 

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The start of your fairytale adventure.

 

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Dotted all over the trail are fairy houses fixed to the trees. Keep your eyes open as there many to see and many slightly hidden, they could be at floor level or up high. Children will love finding them though.

 

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Red doors to where? The first one you can walk through, the others you cant (unless youre fairy sized).

 

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At many of the elfin doors people have left coins for luck and wishes (I expect). The wooden house in the last picture was just completed and this will be a place where children can go to have magical stories read to them. There are two of these in the Giants Lair part of the forest.

 

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As you make your way around, you’ll see little signs telling you what the next sight will be and how many steps it will take to get there (its never as far as they say though, maybe these are for fairy sized feet haha).

 

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A few more of the magical fairytale items around the Giants Lair walk at Slieve Gullion. For a free day trip for kids its really worth seeing, and the adventure playground is very good too with picnic tables and places to sit and enjoy the sunshine. hopefully we will get back soon to do the drive around the actual Ring of Gullion but we liked our walk around the fairy infested route.

 

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More information can be found here: http://www.ringofgullion.org/things-to-do/slieve-gullion-adventure-playpark/

 

 

 

Fair Head aka Benmore, County Antrim

Fair Head is a rocky headland about 3 miles East of Ballycastle and is the closest part of Northern Ireland to Rathlin Island. It is a popular rock climbing area and it is believed to have the largest climbable area of rock in the British Isles. If its your first visit (it was ours) it can be pretty hard to find. Its very easy to see Fair Head (either from Ballycastle town or Murlough Bay – posted earlier) but after following the road signs you’ll come to a small group of old cottages that look like a farmyard and it will seem like you can go no further. Theres a car park to your right as you drive past the cottages, which isnt even marked as a public car park until you actually drive into it, and there is no mention of this being the start of the Fair Head walk (again, until you drive into the unmarked car park using your guesswork). Someone really needs to sort the area out as it looks as if its just been left abandoned, and given its reasonable to assume tourists might want to come here, then could we maybe invest in some further signs? That would be helpful. Thanks Mr Antrim Coast & Glens man 🙂

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So when you find the car park among the (seemingly empty) white cottages, drive in and park up and youll see this sign hilariously hidden behind a wall lol. The sign says there are “yellow circles” marking the route to Fair Head but good luck with that as we found only one which had been bleached white. Maybe they repaint them now and again but we just wandered about like lost sheep (across marshy bog land) and only found the edge of the cliff by trial and error.

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The area up to Fair Head was pretty expansive. The car park from this point is further away than that lake you see in the distance.

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Our first view from the edge. It was hard to keep the horizon straight for the pictures as we couldn’t see it, it was quite a hazy morning. The second bay in the distance is Murlough Bay where the big white house is I posted earlier. The sign says you can walk from here and it takes 90mins, but I really imagine its much more.

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Its always hard to convey exactly how high up a place is in photographs, no picture can really do it justice. The highest point here is 196mtrs above the sea, and quite a bit of it is near vertical. If you have a fear of heights beware! In the distance (in the first picture) you can see Rathlin Island.

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We saw this climber about to descend the huge wall of rock at Fair Head. This picture will give you some idea of the size of the rock face. In the second picture is a little dog who followed us up from just after the car park. She seemed to be alone as no one else was around, and the climber we came upon didn’t know who she belonged to either. When we were leaving she simply disappeared again. Maybe it was some doggy spirit of the Fair Head moors haha woof!

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We made our way back to our car (across wet and squelchy fields) and on passing the lake took this photo of the island on it. The lake is called Lough na Cranagh and the island, known as a “crannog” was man made in the Iron Age by extending a small natural island and surrounding it with a stone wall. It was likely a place of refuge. The entire area of Fair Head is now owned by the National Trust in NI. Hopefully they can invest in some nice signs soon up there then. 🙂

Murlough Bay, County Antrim April 2015

Its not often, though its happened for a few years now, where we actually get great weather in April in NI. And given this was Easter week, all the schools were closed and many people had taken to their cars to head to the seaside. With that in mind, we set out pretty early from home and arrived at Murlough Bay around 9am. At this point I need to say that there are essentially two “Murlough Bay” in Northern Ireland, one in Co.Down and this one in Co.Antrim. Make sure you locate the correct one haha. The bay in Country Antrim is likely a little harder to find but in many ways that makes it all the more peaceful when you finally get there. There are 3 car parks at the site and my view is to totally ignore the first one (you come to) unless you want to stop there first and take a photo of the view below before you descend (the first picture here shows that view). Move on then to at least the second car park along the (pretty narrow) road and park up, or take the route of the brave, past the subsidence warning sign, to the last car park no.3 – which is the most perfect stop but many may not want to risk it. From here you will have no climbing to do back to your car however. Murlough Bay sits between Fair Head (posting that next) and Torr Head, near Ballycastle.

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This is the view if you stop and walk a little down hill from the first car park. If you look towards the centre of the picture you should be able to see a white van, that is in no.2 car park. From there you can see the (tiny) road cutting diagonally away heading for the last car park. Be advised that all 3 are quite small so you should arrive early or you might have some reversing to do. You can see a small part of Rathlin Island in the distance to the left of the picture.

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Theres a road that extends beyond the third car park but dont drive any further. It leads to a private cottage so just walk along here instead. On your way you will pass an old lime kiln still in good condition. They put alternate layers of limestone (from the hills above) and coal in it to burn and produce quicklime used in cement etc (the quicklime was raked out of the arch at the bottom after burning).

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Look up here, about 200ft high above you are the limestone cliffs used in the kiln, hard to believe these were once under the sea. The little cottage is called a “Bothy” an old labourers cottage used either for kiln workers or fishermen I suspect. Sometimes these would be left open as a refuge, but this one is locked.

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Over to your left are the remnants of some long lost building foundations, and part of a wall. Maybe a fishery or some ancient cottage. After that you will come to this private house. I reckon it must get a lot of photographs taken of it, as it adds a great focal point to the entire area. The bay and Torr Head lie before you.

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A place of natural beauty. Fair Head pointing towards the sky in the first picture. Torr Head in the second. You might just be able to see the shadow of Scotland on the horizon here.

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Like a land that time forgot. Murlough Bay, County Antrim,  10th April 2015 🙂

Belfast Castle, Belfast, County Antrim. March 2015

I initially intended to have a joint post between Belfast Castle & Cave Hill (given they’re effectively joined at the hip) but we took just too many great photos that day so I’m putting them up on separate posts instead (Cave hill next).

Belfast Castle is set 400 feet above sea level on the slopes of Cave Hill overlooking the city of Belfast, in many ways its more of a grand house than an actual castle in my opinion. It was built in a Scottish baronial style with the main part of the building set over two floors and having semi circular round towers at the corners. Outside the castle has a sweeping stone staircase overlooking the formal gardens and park.

Belfast Castle is open to the public daily with a visitor centre, antiques shop and restaurant, for families the castle even has its own adventure playground. The castle can host both wedding receptions and civil ceremonies in one of its private rooms (we saw a young couple getting their instructions on the day we were there).

The original Belfast Castle was built in the city centre by the Normans in the 12th century and was home to the Baron of Belfast, Sir Arthur Chichester, who later became the Marquess of Donegal. The castle was burned down in 1708 and rather than rebuild it on the same site it was decided to build a new castle within the deer park on Cave Hill many years later.

The new castle was almost completed in 1870 but due to the rising costs of the building and the loss of the family fortune it was unfinished. It was the Marquess’ son in law, Lord Ashley 8th Earl of Shaftsbury, who paid for the castle to be completed and inherited it in 1884.

There are amazing views from the front of the castle across the entirety of Belfast Lough and the city. And on a clear day, Scotland can clearly be seen to the east.

 

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A magnificent March morning at Belfast Castle. You can see the lough in the distance.

 

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Maybe it should be renamed “Belfast Cats-le” as there are many cats dotted around the grounds. See how many you can find.

 

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You can see the lovely outdoor spiral staircase of the building on the second pic here.

 

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More cats (I think my focus went off target for the little brass guy oops).

 

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And even more cats! Make sure you look under your feet too as there are mosaic pictures on the floor. The little cat at the red door has been placed in remembrance for  Audrey Beggs “A Cat Lover” and the plaque here tells the tale of the good luck of the white Castle Cat. Miaow!

 

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Relections on a castle window, and…. do you see the cloud haha? Its not been doctored in any way, and given the castle is used very regularly for weddings, imagine capturing THAT behind you in your wedding photos? 🙂

Ballintoy, County Antrim. Game of Thrones, Pyke Harbour

So not long now until the premiere of Season 5 of Game of Thrones (12th April 2015) so I thought Id mark that with a little mention of Ballintoy which substituted as Pyke Harbour in Season 2 of the series. A permanent plaque stands there now for visiting fans to read and it looks as if Northern Ireland will be home to the show for a while longer as Season 6 will also be filmed here. Ballintoy is a quiet little village with an attractive small harbour, but walk left around the headland and it has some amazing scenery. There are also some caves you can enter (though you may need wellingtons). 

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Some information.

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Do you remember this place? Its probably pretty recognizable as Pyke harbour even without the special effects.

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On the left is Roarks Kitchen, which is a little cottage style cafe that’s been serving lovely food here for 35yrs. And on the right is another view of the harbour used in Game of Thrones.

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Now follow the path left, walking away from the harbour and past this little house (there’s a cave before you get there you could maybe walk into, though it might have some shallow water in it).

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The view ahead.

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You can climb up some of the huge grass covered rocks (be careful) which have trails left by local sheep. Once at the top of this one, the view back to the harbour is quite amazing (you should be able to see it in the distance here).

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A huge eroded arch just off the shore, and a bit further out…….. arrrgh….. a shark!! 🙂

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Its easy to see here how vast the immediate landscape is, with all its greenery, yet having a look like some strange alien planet. And in this first picture you might just be able to see a little church on top of the hill. This is Ballintoy church, built in 1813 and seen closer in the second picture. Ballintoy is definitely worth stopping off at if you’re visiting the north coast, even if you’re not a fan of Game of Thrones 🙂

Cushendall & Cushendun, County Antrim.

Less than 5mls apart and on the much travelled A2 (the Antrim Coast road) Cushendall and Cushendun are pretty sleepy little villages that sit below the imposing Glens of Antrim and the table-top Lurigethan Mountain. Cushendun is likely the quieter of the two, but it boasts a long stretch of sandy beach and on a clear day you can see The Mull of Kintyre in Scotland as its only 15 or 16mls away. Both towns sit in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty (sometimes seen as AONB on maps) and there are many splendid walks and drives around the locale. Five miles inland from Cushendall is Glenariff Forest Park which Ive posted a few pictures of already, but intend to return to soon. The entire area really is beautiful.

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So what do you think of this little tower in Cushendall High Street? Its called the Curfew Tower and was built to confine riotous prisoners in 1817. Dan McBride, an army pensioner, was given the job of permanent garrison here and was armed with one musket, a bayonet, a brace of pistols and a thirteen-feet-long pike. But that’s not the end of its interesting tale. Today the Curfew Tower is owned by none other than Bill Drummond, and if you know your UK music scene of the 80s and 90s you’ll know he was co-founder of The KLF who had worldwide hits with songs such as 3am Eternal, Justified & Ancient, What Time Is Love, and (my favourite) Last train To Transcentral. They also (infamously) set fire to £1million in 1994 on the island of Jura in Scotland and filmed the whole thing (I dont know why but I actually find that incredibly funny). Anyway, the tower is used now for various artists and their work (on loan from Mr Drummond). Quite a strange history for the building then.

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Cushendall seafront…. and if you’re anything like me you’ll be thinking of a certain movie from the 1970s by Mr Spielberg right now. Yes, you could easily see a giant spaceship land up there as per Close Encounters of the Third Kind haha. This is Lurigethan Mountain which is pretty impressive on first sighting. Its actually the end of a long piece of plateau but from the right angle looks like a stand alone peak. We really hope to return to this area again very soon as the weather in Winter was extremely cold and very changeable.

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The Cushendall seashore.

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It probably looks like a balmy Summers day here but this was instead a pretty cold February one!

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Theres a cliff path from the Western side of the shore (behind the little kids playpark) that gives a great view over the entire bay. This picture was taken from the top.

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Five miles along the coast, this is Cushendun.

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It has a long sweeping beach and I suppose it would be pretty busy on a warm day, but today it was quite quiet.

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Lying at the mouth of the River Dun, this is Cushendun Bridge. Most of the town was designated a conservation area in the 1980s.