Sunday, September 02, 2012

Giant's Causeway and the new National Trust visitor centre

Hexagons abound at the Giant’s Causeway. Staying for a few nights up on the north coast, we called in to see the new National Trust visitor centre and take a walk down to the basalt columns.

There is still free pedestrian access down to the Causeway and onto the network of paths. You avoid charges if you step away from the shiny new visitor centre and walk on past.

First impressions were good, with lots of parking. Note that there’s no charge on the way into the centre’s car parks. Instead, you’ve got to show your ticket on the way out. Ulsterbus 172, 252 and the Causeway Coaster services call stop near the centre. And there are bike stands near the next-door Causeway Hotel.

Second impressions were poor. The cafĂ© – just in the door past the ticket desk – charges fancy prices but doesn’t serve fancy food and in our case (first thing in the morning) had someone else’s food caked onto the side of the table.

Probably the most expensive cup of tea or coffee you would buy on the north coast. And the scones are closer to rock cakes … it took a lot of butter to lessen the stodginess of my cherry scone. £3 for a slice of cake.

Tip – Bring a picnic.

The audio guides provide a great commentary on the walk down from the hill towards the famous hexagonal basalt columns.

Tip – Ask for the children’s commentary: you get the same information with a much more entertaining delivery.

Unfortunately once the NT staff hand you your audio guide there’s no way for you to change the language or version of the commentary without taking it back.

Having been a fairly frequent visitor to the Giant’s Causeway in the past, there were still lots of factoids and stories that I hadn’t heard before holding the guide up to my ear.

Tip – If it’s a windy day, bring gloves otherwise one hand will slowly freeze as you hold the speaking plastic gizmo up to your ear.

The visitor centre has an easy mix of legend and geology. Finn McCool sits neatly alongside visual displays showing how the bedrock of Ireland and Scotland have moved around over the last 470 million years.

A giant video wall tells the story of Finn McCool, his wife Oonagh and the Scottish giant Benandonner. Displays guide visitors – young and old – through the life of Causeway guides, conversation staff, geologists and naturalists.

The National Trust shop is full of high quality touristy tat. Would be worth checking out the longer-established McConaghy Souvenir shop a hundred yards away at the side of the Causeway Hotel to compare prices.

Given the sensitivities around the World Heritage Site, I found Peter Kuhn’s installation of Flags – just beyond the main stones – quite out of place.

Flags, coloured yellow on one side and red on the other, dotted across the cliff faces. Compared to the size and majesty of the rugged landscape, the flags were small and relatively static. (They rotate in the wind, switching colour, but on the windy Saturday morning we visited, the cliff was mostly dotted with red.)

It felt a little like an enormous golf course had been set up on the Causeway: something the National Trust are keen to avoid around the coast at Runkerry. Together with the bottles of golf tees in the shop, perhaps golfers are more welcome in the region that they imagined!

Admission prices are currently set at: adults £8.50 (£7.50 online); 5-17 years old £4.25 (£3.50 online); under 5 free; families (2 adults and up to 3 children under 17) £21 (£18.50 online). National Trust members go free, and can avoid the £1 easy way charge in the bus if their legs can’t manage the walk.

Overall, I’d say that the visitor centre is well worth a visit every now and again, particularly to get to hear the audio commentary again, but it’s not essential every trip. And bring a picnic.


Timothy Belmont said...

Great article, Alan! Thoroughly concur with you.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the 70's style building frontage as ugly as sin though?

Anonymous said...

I hope that the people who read this are well aware that the Giant's Causeway Visitor centre currently has, in part, been hijacked by anti-geologists (Young Earth Creationists) in a display that construes their viewpoint as science, is factually false for something that is in an educational display and provides no other beliefs (religious or not). Help fight against this injustice at