Ballycastle exploration

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Following my brief sightseeing walk in Belfast, the next leg of my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure) was a bus ride to Ballycastle, a pretty seaside town on the north coast of Northern Ireland in County Antrim. I would have my headquarters at a B&B in Ballycastle and hike in the area for six days.

There are actually two bus routes between Belfast and Ballycastle, one along the coast and one inland. The bus schedule worked out better for me to take the inland route, via Antrim, Ballymena, and Armoy. The town of Antrim is on the shore of Lough Neagh, the largest lake on the island of Ireland as well as in the United Kingdom and in the British Isles. It was difficult to get good photos from the moving bus, but notable sights included a few isolated windmills, for wind energy, and a special type of cow known locally as panda cows. I was hoping to see more panda cows later (and I did!).

Approaching Ballycastle the road passes around Knocklayd, one of the highest mountains (approx. 1695 ft or 515 m high) in Antrim and an easy-to-identify landmark. This view from the bus shows Knocklayd with other characteristic features: unbelievably green sheep grazing pastures and the almost ever-present clouds.

image of Knocklayd, near Ballycastle

Knocklayd, near Ballycastle

As the bus enters town on the A44 from Armoy the route passes through Glentaisie, one of the nine famous glens in the area. Glentaisie was named after Princess Taisie, daughter of King Dorm of nearby Rathlin Island. It seems that there is an interesting story or legend behind many of the place names in the area! Entering town, there is an intriguing view of the top of a church steeple: Holy Trinity Church (Church of Ireland), located on The Diamond, or town square. I took this picture later while exploring town on foot, but imagine seeing just the top half or so over the crest of the bluff straight ahead of you as you enter town.

photo of Holy Trinity Church on The Diamond in Ballycastle

Holy Trinity Church on The Diamond in Ballycastle

After the bus dropped me off at the Marine Corner, right next to the harbor edge, I took my luggage a short 0.2 mile up the street to my B&B, named An Caislean in honor of the castle after which Ballycastle is named. I could hardly wait to go out and explore more of the town. In fact, I went for an afternoon walk and another walk in the evening, taking advantage of the late (~9pm) sunset.

GPS track

GPS track

The first objective for my afternoon walk was to return to the Marine Corner area, in the upper right of the blue GPS track, go to the Tourist Information Centre and get some maps and other information for my planned hikes, and check out the ferry to Rathlin Island, which I planned to visit a couple of days later. I passed by the Marine Corner at least twice every day I was in Ballycastle, and I was continually fascinated by the ever-changing views of Fair Head, a dramatic headland just 4 mi away. The cliffs of Fair Head are 196 m (650 ft) above the sea. In the background the skyline of the Mull of Kintyre, the southwestern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland, can be seen. It is about 20 mi away, visible in relatively clear weather but certainly not every day. It turns out that Paul McCartney, with Denny Laine, wrote a song called “Mull of Kintyre” that, performed by Wings, was a huge hit in Britain in the late 1970s.

picture of Fair Head and the Mull of Kintyre from Ballycastle’s Marine Corner

Fair Head and the Mull of Kintyre from Ballycastle’s Marine Corner

Turning away from Fair Head, I could enjoy a pretty view of boats moored in the Ballycastle Harbor, with commercial buildings and houses on the bluff above the harbor. In the harbor area the water was so calm that the boats and clouds were nicely reflected.

image of boats moored in Ballycastle Harbor

Boats moored in Ballycastle Harbor

There were several types of sea birds either perched on various posts and signs or flying around the harbor area. I think this is a black-headed gull in non-breeding plumage.

photo of black-headed gull

Black-headed gull

In the harbor area there are a few sculptures and an interesting-looking rock monument. This monument is called the Marconi Memorial and commemorates the first commercial wireless telegraph communication, achieved by Marchese Marconi and his assistant George Kemp. The wireless communication took place in 1898 between Ballycastle and the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island, to advise Lloyds of London about ships passing safely through the North Channel, which goes between Northern Ireland and Scotland and connects the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean.

picture of Marconi Memorial

Marconi Memorial

Also visible across the water is Rathlin Island, the only inhabited island off the north coast of Antrim. Rathlin is about 6 miles away and is 6 miles long, with a maximum elevation of about 110 m (365 ft). From Ballycastle it looks low and wide. I was looking forward to spending two days hiking on Rathlin during my stay in Ballycastle.

image of Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island

In the evening I went out for a second exploratory walk, this time continuing up the street away from the harbor. As seems to be common, the street changes name several times, from Quay Rd to Ann St to Castle St. The Diamond, mentioned earlier, is where Ann St becomes Castle St. I continued a short distance further, then turned around about 1 km from my B&B. I explored a couple of side streets, with more views of Knocklayd. Following some signage, I went down a side street, Fairhill St (at the bottom of the GPS track), which led to the final prize of my exploration, a trailhead for the way-marked Moyle Way. I hoped to hike this trail as two day hikes. The significance of the Moyle Way is that it is the family name of my mother’s family.

photo of Moyle Way sign at the Ballycastle trailhead

Moyle Way sign at the Ballycastle trailhead

After celebrating finding the trailhead I returned to my B&B to get ready for my hiking adventures. These initial explorations were a great introduction to the upcoming six days. I could hardly wait to get started!

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Belfast sightseeing

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On my way from Dublin to the north coast of Northern Ireland during my Irish dream adventure, I made an overnight stopover in Belfast. In the morning I spent a couple of hours exploring the center city area before continuing to Ballycastle by bus. My hotel was very close to the Europa Bus Centre and Great Victoria Train Station, so it was very convenient for my intercity travels on public transportation. My short sightseeing walk began at the hotel, at the bottom end of the blue GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

My plan was to walk north to St Anne’s Cathedral, then explore the riverfront area, and stop in at the Tourist Information Centre to change money. Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, uses pound sterling currency, while I’d been using Euros in Dublin. My route to St Anne’s took me along Queen St, Castle St, and Royal Ave. At a cross street I noticed that the buildings along Royal Ave seemed to be almost facades, they were so skinny from front to back. I’d never seen anything quite like this building style before.

photo of tall skinny buildings along a busy street in Belfast

Tall skinny buildings along a busy street in Belfast

Continuing roughly north, after less than a 20-minute walk I arrived at St Anne’s Cathedral, which is also Belfast Cathedral. The current building is relatively new, having been built between 1899 and 1981. The end of the North Transept has an outer layer consisting of a large Celtic cross. The spire is a modern, unadorned spire. In the park across the street there is an exhibit of three actual navigational buoys, presented by the Commissioner of Irish Lights to highlight the city’s tradition as a seaport and shipbuilding city.

picture of St Anne’s Cathedral exterior

St Anne’s Cathedral exterior

Before entering I walked around the block outside the cathedral (see the almost complete loop in the GPS track). On one side there is an open plaza called Writer’s Square. Quotations about Belfast by well-known local writers are carved into paving stones scattered throughout the plaza.

Here is a view of the nave inside the cathedral. There are also several pretty stained glass windows and special areas (small chapels, etc).

image of St Anne’s Cathedral interior: nave

St Anne’s Cathedral interior: nave

As I left the Cathedral Square area to make my way to the riverfront, I noticed an archway that led to an alley. The entrance to the alley surprised me, because it seemed to be basically a hole in the buildings lining the street.

photo of alley branching off from a bigger street

Alley branching off from a bigger street

Several blocks later I passed the Merchant Hotel, a luxury hotel located in the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank – it really looks like a business building rather than a hotel! – and the Customs House, located on the bank of the River Lagan, which runs through the city. Along the riverfront there is a kind of plaza with another buoy,

picture of buoy near the River Lagan

Buoy near the River Lagan

as well as distinctive sculptures like some playful seal heads and the appropriately-named Big Fish. There is also a distinctive tall building with a profile resembling the prow of a boat, with the exterior adorned with colored picture-frame-like decorations.

image of “The Boat” building

“The Boat” building

There are four bridges across the river, rather close together. One is a pedestrian bridge, and I walked across to the east bank and back. Looking to the south, toward Queen Elizabeth Bridge, the bridge and clouds were nicely reflected in the water.

photo of reflections in the River Lagan

Reflections in the River Lagan

Just a block from Queen Elizabeth Bridge is Queen’s Bridge. At the west end of the bridge, next to Thanksgiving Square, is a sculpture called Beacon of Hope. According to its designer, “I hope that the figure is adopted by the people of Belfast as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and as a shining beacon of modernity and progress”.

picture of Beacon of Hope

Beacon of Hope

As I left the riverfront area I made a slight detour to walk past the Albert Memorial Clock, built in 1865. The land on which it is built was reclaimed from the River Lagan, and apparently the clock tower began to lean. A recent renovation has corrected the issue.

image of Albert Memorial Clock

Albert Memorial Clock

As I continued back toward the city center, I passed St George’s Church, which is built on the site of the original settlement of Beal Feirste (“the sandy ford at the mouth of the Farset”) nearly 1000 years ago. Belfast’s history is quite old!

In contrast, I also passed a store with a sign in its front window advertising how you can stay dry in the summer rain with a “kit you can trust for weather you can’t”. (Kit is like an outfit or uniform.) Although I hadn’t experienced much Irish rain yet, I hoped that the rain gear I’d brought with me would be adequate.

For many years Belfast was well-known as a shipbuilding city. Along the sidewalk next to Donegall Pl there is a series of exhibits commemorating some of the most famous ships built by Harland & Wolff for White Star Lines between about 1899 and 1920. Each of the eight exhibits consists of a plaque in the sidewalk and a mast-like structure with a fabric sail. The most famous of the ships is the Titanic.

photo of Titanic mast on Donegall Pl

Titanic mast on Donegall Pl

The Titanic mast is basically across the street from City Hall, which occupies Donegall Square.

picture of City Hall

City Hall

As planned, I went into the Tourist Information Centre, around the corner from the masts, to change money. While inside I turned off my GPS unit, so the track does not return all the way to the hotel. I had just the right amount of time to retrieve my luggage and make my way to the Europa Bus Center to continue my journey north.

My time in Belfast was very limited, so I had to skip some popular and well-known tourist spots, such as the Titanic Belfast exhibit and the famous murals. Perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to return to Belfast another time.

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Tour of the Hill of Tara and Newgrange

This was the only event in my entire Irish dream adventure that did not involve a hike or any other significant walking: a day trip via bus and guided tour to the valley of the River Boyne, about an hour north of Dublin in County Meath. Included were visits to the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, both of which are sites of great historical interest and significance.

It turned out to be a beautiful day for the tour. The weather was not quite as clear as it had been the previous day for the half marathon but stayed dry. During the bus ride from the heart of Dublin, our guide provided quite a bit of interesting information. For example, in honor of producing writers such as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw, Wilde, and others, Dublin is one of 7 cities that have been designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. Also, one of the towns we passed by was Navan, childhood home of Pierce Brosnan (aka James Bond).

The River Boyne near Drogheda is the site of perhaps the most famous battle in Irish history, the Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange and James II, both crowned kings of England, fought each other in 1690. William, who was both son-in-law and nephew of James, won decisively. This battle is said to be the origin of “the troubles” that were part of Irish life for 3 decades in the late 1900’s.

Our first stop was the Hill of Tara (Teamhair na Rí), ancient inauguration site of the High Kings of Ireland. There are numerous monuments at the site, some dating to the Neolithic period, 4000-2400 BC, and most thought to have had a ritual purpose. The hilltop is at an elevation of about 650 feet, with the surrounding valley nearly at sea level. The best overview of this remarkable site is from the air – I can give an impression of it via this photo of one of the excellent interpretive signs.

picture of overview of Tara complex

Overview of Tara complex

The monuments are primarily earthworks: mounds surrounded by ditches and outer banks, for example. One of the oldest is called the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall) (in the overview photo, the small bump slightly to the upper right of center), originally built as a passage tomb and dating from the Neolithic Age. Although there is now a gate across the entrance to the tomb, you can easily reach through well enough to photograph a side stone that has original carved designs.

photo of carved side stone in the entrance passage of the Mound of the Hostages

Carved side stone in the entrance passage of the Mound of the Hostages

The large oval in the overview is the Fort of the Kings or Royal Enclosure (Ráith na Rí). It’s at the top of Tara Hill and is the largest enclosure, with a 1 km circumference. The two circles that seem to form a figure eight are the Royal Seat (Forradh) and Cormac’s House (Teach Chormaic), built in quite different time periods. Here is a view of the Royal Seat, topped with a phallic standing stone called the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), the inauguration stone of the Kings of Tara.

image of Royal Seat at Tara, with the Stone of Destiny

Royal Seat at Tara, with the Stone of Destiny

Other major monuments on the hill include the Banqueting Hall (Teach Miodhchuarta), parallel earth banks over 200 meters long, which may actually have been a ceremonial approach to the summit rather than a banqueting hall; and the Rath of the Synods (Ráith na Seanadh), thought to be a ringfort or circular fortified settlement, with 3 concentric earth banks. About a half mile south of the main hill is another hill fort known as Rath Maeve (Medb), which may be associated with the legendary queen or goddess of Tara. Near the location of Rath Maeve there was a flock of sheep, placidly grazing or resting, apparently oblivious to the history of their surroundings. (I was to see many, many more sheep during my hikes!)

image of sheep at Tara

Sheep at Tara

The views from Tara were simply lovely.

picture of view from Tara

View from Tara

A church is located near the entrance to the site. The current building is dedicated to St Patrick and dates from 1822, but a medieval church most likely occupied the site previously. The stone wall around the graveyard had a special type of gate known as a kissing gate, which lets people – but not livestock – through and does not require a latching mechanism.

photo of kissing gate

Kissing gate

By the way, Tara of Gone with the Wind fame was named after the Hill of Tara.

After leaving this site we continued through the Boyne River Valley to the Palace of the Boyne (Brú na Bóinne), an area of several square miles just inland from Drogheda of such historical and archeological importance that it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brú na Bóinne includes the site of the Battle of the Boyne as well as three great passage tombs known as Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, and several other significant sites. The area lies within a large bend in the river.

Along the way we passed through the town of Shane and past fields with hay harvest in progress.

image of field with hay harvest in progress

Field with hay harvest in progress

Our tour group made a lunch stop at Newgrange Farm. In order to get there we drove down a country road that was barely wide enough for the bus to pass. I took this picture through the windshield of the bus as we drove along.

picture of country road near Newgrange

Country road near Newgrange

Newgrange Farm is a working farm. During our lunch stop there was a little time to explore. Among other wildlife (cows, sheep, a couple of horses), I noticed ducks, white doves, barn swallows, and a large and strange-looking type of crow called a rook.

photo of rook perched in a tree

Rook perched in a tree

Finally our reserved time slot approached, and we walked a short distance up the hill to the Newgrange site. By the way, this was a special arrangement for tour groups; the normal way to access the site is through the Visitor’s Center.

Newgrange is the best known of the passage tombs in the Brú na Bóinne complex. Simply put, the site is spectacular. Our first view was from the bus before lunch; I took this photo out the bus window as we drove along. Our guide explained that one group was just exiting from the tomb and the next group was ready to enter, so this was the very maximum number of people that is ever present at the site.

image of Newgrange passage tomb

Newgrange passage tomb

The mound covers a chamber with three recesses where people were buried, most after cremation. A passage nearly 19 meters long and lined with large stones leads from the entrance to the chamber. These main features give rise to the term passage tomb. Newgrange dates from the Neolithic period and is believed to be 5000 years old, older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

Around the base of the mound is a row of 97 retaining boulders called kerbstones, some of which are carved with spirals and other geometric designs. The white quartz stones on the front face are a reconstruction carried out by Professor M.J. O’Kelly, who directed a major excavation of the site in 1962. He used stones that were already at the site. However, this reconstruction is somewhat controversial since no one knows – or can know, now – if it is accurate.

When our designated time slot arrived, we walked up to the entrance area. The very large kerbstone is called the entrance stone, and its triple spiral design (at the left) is thought to have special significance.

picture of Newgrange entrance

Newgrange entrance

Just above the entrance is a rectangular opening called the roof-box. This opening admits sunlight to the chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, and for a few days before and after. The entrance passage is narrow and has curves, so light does not enter that way. And the passage slopes upward such that the light from the roof-box illuminates the floor of the chamber in the back recess. It is thought that Newgrange may be the oldest known deliberately aligned structure in the world. There is no photography allowed inside the mound, but there is a “re-enactment” of winter solstice dawn included in the tour. It is quite amazing! If you want to see the real thing, there is a lottery for tickets for the winter solstice dawn time slot. No guarantee that the weather will be clear enough to see the sunrise.

In front of the mound are other features that are associated with later uses of the site. One is a large circle, roughly 100 meters in diameter (about the same size as the main mound), actually a double circle in which portions of animals were cremated and buried in pits around the circumference of the circle. This area is known as the Pit Circle and was constructed in the Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC. The posts in this picture indicate the Pit Circle; about half of the circle is on the other side of the hedge. The circle in front of the hedge marks the outline of a satellite tomb.

photo of Pit Circle and satellite tomb at Newgrange

Pit Circle and satellite tomb at Newgrange

There are also several large standing stones in at least a partial circle around the main mound. Their purpose is unclear. This circle was constructed after the Pit Circle.

image of standing stones at Newgrange

Standing stones at Newgrange

The archeological research at the site indicates that Newgrange has been used in different ways and by different cultures over the centuries. In Celtic mythology, after about 500 BC, the so-called Fairy Mound of the Brú (d im Brúg) was the home of Dagda Mor, the greatest Celtic God, and his son Oengus. The reputation of the site apparently persisted for visitors from Roman Britain as late as 400 AD.

The land around Newgrange was acquired by the nearby abbey at Mellifont after its founding in 1142, and it became a grange, or outlying farm, for the abbey. By the late 1300’s it was simply referred to as the “new grange.” This is a view looking down the hill from the area in front of the entrance, toward the River Boyne.

picture of view from Newgrange

View from Newgrange

To exit the site we took the on-site shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center. A trio of enterprising young men entertained visitors waiting for the shuttle with traditional Irish music.

photo of musicians by the shuttle bus stop

Musicians by the shuttle bus stop

The shuttle bus route stops on the north side of the River Boyne, where there is a pretty footbridge crossing the river to the Visitor Center.

image of footbridge across the River Boyne

Footbridge across the River Boyne

The river itself flows serenely past these sites of historical significance.

picture of River Boyne

River Boyne

All in all, this tour was quite remarkable, and included only a small preview of the rich history of Ireland.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon

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As I mentioned in the overview post about my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure), the original premise for the trip was to participate in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon, my first overseas race. I hesitate to use the term race, though, since I primarily participate in timed events to have fun and give myself a goal to work toward, rather than to achieve any placement within my division – in other words, I could say that I race against myself, but not anyone else. This was only the second year that a Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon has been held in Dublin, but the Rock ‘n’ Roll organizers have lots of experience and the event was a blast and a success.

A very special aspect to this event began to unfold the previous morning. In my hotel’s breakfast room I happened to get seated near two couples who had also traveled to Dublin for the half marathon. Three, all American Army civilians stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, had been training together and would be running. We had a great get-acquainted conversation and agreed to share a taxi to the start area the next morning. We ended up warming up together, waiting for each other at the finish, and sharing the fun and excitement of the event. For two of the runners, it was their first half marathon ever. And the other spouse was a great sideline support and cheerleader, who stationed himself along the route to watch us pass and then came to the finish also. It was a really special aspect to an already memorable event!

The half marathon route started on the north side of the River Liffey, passed by the center city area, crossed the river twice, and proceeded to Phoenix Park, where the second half of the route was located.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon GPS track

Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon GPS track

Phoenix Park is a beautiful 1752-acre park, one of the largest enclosed recreational spaces in a European capital city. It is almost as big as New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park combined! It was established in 1662 and was conceived as a royal deer park: indeed, a herd of fallow deer has lived in the park since the 1660’s. The park also contains the official residences of the President of Ireland and the United States Ambassador, among other buildings and monuments and several special habitat areas.

The route included a few hills, though nothing that I considered very steep. The longest hill, between mile 8 and 10 in Phoenix Park, was adorned with a sign that said “It’s a hill, get over it.” My GPS recorded about 450 feet of total elevation gain. Of course, the official distance was 13.1 miles.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon elevation profile

Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin half marathon elevation profile

There were a few notable things about the half marathon. First, the start area emcee was delighted to announce that there were participants from 46 countries. I thought that was fantastic. There were about 5000 finishers, so it was a relatively small / comfortable event. Perhaps the most notable thing was the fabulous weather. Never mind Ireland’s reputation for rain, the fact that there had been light rain the two previous days, or the forecast, which was for rain every day for the following 10 days. For the half marathon we had dry, sunny weather – a fine day indeed!

After our taxi dropped us off we had just a short walk along the North Wall Quay to the start area. We had time to enjoy a few sights, including the beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge, which crosses the River Liffey.

picture of Samuel Beckett Bridge

Samuel Beckett Bridge

We had plenty of time to find our corrals, stretch, and pose for a picture in front of the start line.

image at the start, excited to begin the half marathon

At the start, excited to begin the half marathon

After a bit of debate before leaving home, I had brought my tutu. Mine was certainly not the only one. There was a nice assortment of colorful wigs, crazy socks, shirts with shamrocks, and so on.  Also, there was a group of 3 women with shirts that said “Durham2Dublin” on the back. Assuming they were from the UK, I asked one of the women where they were from and was surprised at her reply: North Carolina!

One of my favorite “costumes” was a couple of women in running kilts. As is typical with costume photos taken during the event, this was shot from behind. It’s not well-focused because I did not stop – and tried not to slow down – for pictures.

photo of kilts? – perhaps only in the UK or Ireland!

Kilts? – perhaps only in the UK or Ireland!

The route was along the North Wall and Custom House Quays, crossing the River Liffey via the Talbot Memorial Bridge next to the Custom House. We then proceeded along a few more quays past Temple Bar and then took a short detour a few blocks away from the river to pass Christ Church Cathedral and St Audeon’s Church before returning to the riverfront. About 2.8 miles from the start we passed the large and famous St James Gate Brewery of Guinness, which has been a brewery since 1759. While quite a few runners stopped to take and/or pose for pictures at the brewery gates, I kept going without stopping.

pictuer of Guinness’s St James Gate Brewery

Guinness’s St James Gate Brewery

After passing the brewery the route again turned away from the river, this time to pass the Irish Museum of Modern Art, housed in the former Royal Hospital Kilmainham, which is not far from one of the famous jails, the Kilmainham Gaol. In this area all of the runners passed through a very interesting-looking gateway. I haven’t been able to figure out what the gateway is part of.

imae of runners passing through a gateway

Runners passing through a gateway

As we passed through one neighborhood, I noticed a woman who had come out to watch and cheer the runners on. It looked like she had decked out in her Sunday finery!

photo of half marathon watcher

Half marathon watcher

About 5.6 miles from the start we again crossed the River Liffey and shortly entered Phoenix Park. One of the highlights of a Rock ‘n’ Roll event is the bands. Often there is a local flavor to the bands, or something else unique. The band near the halfway point was a samba band.

picture of samba band in Phoenix Park

Samba band in Phoenix Park

Near one of the water stops I encountered (for about the third time) another costume that I enjoyed. This young woman had especially decorated her tee shirt to say “Pat my back, it’s my first half marathon.” She seemed to be having a good time.

image of pat my back, it’s my first half marathon

Pat my back, it’s my first half marathon

The area of Phoenix Park where our route took us was often quite open, with beautiful lawns and trees. In the background there is a distinctive monument, the Wellington Testimonial, which, at 203 feet tall, is the largest obelisk in Europe.

photo of Phoenix Park, with the Wellington Testimonial in the background

Phoenix Park, with the Wellington Testimonial in the background

After a couple of fairly large loops in Phoenix Park, we arrived at the finish line. Part of the finish line fun is seeing some more costumes as others finish their race. Kudos to the gal in the middle of this trio, who completed the event in a wheelchair with a cast on one leg!

pictue at finish line

Finish line

At the beginning of this post I stated that I hesitated to call this half marathon a race, because I race only against myself (and my goals). Having said that, I do usually hope to achieve a new PR (personal record). A training buddy has suggested that one should only track PR’s for a given course. In that context, by definition I achieved a PR, since it was my first time on this particular course. My time was actually about 2 min 30 sec slower than my fastest half marathon on any course (and I think that course might be a little bit short…). But when I consider the time change, the fact that I carried a camera and took pictures – and was slightly less focused on my pace – as well as the modest hills and the additional fact that my summer training season was rather different from my usual training, I’m really quite satisfied with my time. The most important things were that I had a good time and that I met some new friends!

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Dublin Sightseeing Walks

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My eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure) began with a  4-day stay in the Dublin area, during which I went on 3 sightseeing walks. The first was kind of a brief initial exploration, the second was a more extensive walk through the Temple Bar and River Liffey areas, and the third was a revisit to the center city area after completing the half marathon. All of these walks began and ended at my hotel. True its reputation, the weather presented a variety, with changes happening fairly rapidly, including light rain.

Prior to the first walk I’d been on the ground only a few hours, and I needed to go to an exhibition hall to pick up my half marathon participant materials (bib, shirt, goodie bag, and so on). Fortunately this was only about 1½ miles from my hotel – it was a convenient distance to walk to get some fresh air, stretch my legs, and hopefully help keep me awake until a decent hour in the evening. Before I set out, the hotel concierge kindly marked a map for me with the hotel and exhibition hall locations, as well as a suggested walking route.

Note: Since my GPS software does not include any maps in Europe, my GPS tracks for this trip will all be displayed in Google Earth. In the track for the first day’s walk the hotel is at the left and the exhibition hall is at the right; the track is displayed blue.

GPS track for Aug 2 walk

GPS track for Aug 2 walk

I had gone just a couple of blocks when I heard a bird chattering and saw it fly away from the sidewalk into a tree on the grounds of an apartment complex. It turned out to be a magpie: in Europe it’s called a European or Eurasian magpie, and in the US it’s called a black-billed magpie. Apparently it’s the same species (pica pica)!

On my way to the exhibition hall I passed through a mostly residential area, including a parish church (Church of Ireland, Parish of St Bartholomew). In one of the driveways I noted a car restoration project. There was also a local commercial area with – of course! – a pub or two.

photo of neighborhood pub

Neighborhood pub

The River Dodder passes through this area, and the designation Ballsbridge refers to an actual bridge, Ball’s Bridge, originally built in 1791. Along the edge of the river I saw what I think were black-headed gulls, as well as a grey heron.

picture of grey heron feeding in the River Dodder

Grey heron feeding in the River Dodder

At the Health Expo where I picked up my half marathon numbered bib, I was amused to note that one of the exhibit booths was basically a cupcake stand; usually the food items in the Health Expo are more like race nutrition and organic foods. There were at least 10 or 15 types of cupcake available, and I couldn’t resist trying one!

For my second day’s walk, I headed the other direction to visit Trinity College, the Temple Bar district, the River Liffey, Christ Church Cathedral, and Dublin Castle. The hotel is at the lower right of the GPS track, which is again shown in blue.

GPS track for Aug 3 walk

GPS track for Aug 3 walk

My path to the city center crossed the Grand Canal and passed through St Stephen’s Green, a 22-acre public park in the Victorian style (see the green square almost in the center of the GPS track image). Each of the 4 times I walked through St Stephen’s Green I took a slightly different route, enjoying trees, lawns, magpies, flower plantings, and a small ornamental lake with swans, ducks, and herring gulls.

My first major stop was Trinity College, created by royal charter in 1592 and formally titled College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin. Near the main entrance is a beautiful campanile, or bell tower.

image of campanile, Trinity College

Campanile, Trinity College

I was hoping to view the Book of Kells, housed in the Old Library building. This involved waiting in an imposing-looking queue. Fortunately the queue moved steadily and everyone was friendly and seemed equally excited to get in to see the exhibit. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript, which means that various ornamentations (initials, borders, and miniature illustrations) have been added to the text. It contains the four Gospels in Latin. Created in a monastery around 800AD, it is considered by some to be Ireland’s finest national treasure. Seeing it was well worth the half-hour wait!

After exiting the exhibit, I continued directly to the famous Long Room, which houses some 200,000 books, a mere 4% of the entire Old Library collection. The Long Room is simply magnificent, 65 meters long with a high, arched ceiling. There are two galleries, with lettered alcoves lining both sides of the central hall. Beautiful spiral staircases allow access (by staff only!) to the upper gallery. Each alcove contains two floor-to-ceiling sets of shelves, with each shelf labelled. So every book housed in the Long Room can be located to its shelf with just two coordinates. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a bit of a musty odor, associated with the number and age of the books housed there.

photo of Long Room, in the Old Library of Trinity College

Long Room, in the Old Library of Trinity College

There was a special exhibit about Brian Boru, Ireland’s most famous king, and the Battle of Clontarf, where he was killed in 1014. A special, permanent, exhibit, is one of three surviving medieval Gaelic harps, known as the Brian Boru harp.

Ready for some fresh air, I headed for the adjacent Temple Bar district, where I walked along Fleet Street past a TGI Friday’s on my way to the River Liffey, which winds through the center city. The river is relatively narrow, and over a dozen bridges cross it in center city. First I crossed the O’Connell Bridge, known for being wider than it is long. I walked a bit farther north to view the Spire, a cone-shaped sculpture some 120 meters tall, with a diameter of 3 meters at the base and 15 cm at the top. It is thought to be the world’s tallest sculpture.

picture of Spire of Dublin

Spire of Dublin

Next I walked a couple of blocks southwest to cross the Ha’Penny Bridge, viewed here from O’Connell Bridge. Ha’Penny Bridge was the first pedestrian bridge in Dublin, built in 1816. It was originally a toll bridge; its half-penny toll was exactly equal to the fare for the about-to-be-redundant ferry. It was the only pedestrian bridge across the river until the nearby Millennium Bridge was built in 1999.

image of Ha’Penny Bridge

Ha’Penny Bridge

Something that both impressed and amused me was the prevalence of indications, painted right on the street pavement, reminding pedestrians which way to look before crossing the street. Clearly there are many visitors from countries in which the driving conventions differ from Ireland (where you drive on the left)!

photo of Look to the right to avoid being run over

Look to the right to avoid being run over

After enjoying the River Liffey and the 3 bridges I walked across, I continued southwest to Christ Church Cathedral (at the left of the GPS track), which was probably founded around 1030. Some of the building dates from the 1100’s but there has been extensive rebuilding over the centuries.

picture of Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

Not surprising for a church of its age, there is a lot of history associated with Christ Church. For one thing, music has been very important; there are several plaques and other exhibits. The choir was founded in 1480, and in 1742 a combined choir with St. Patrick’s Cathedral gave the world premier performance of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by the composer. Here is a beautiful group of stained glass windows in the nave.

image of stained glass windows, Christ Church Cathedral

Stained glass windows, Christ Church Cathedral

While walking around the interior, when I got to the area where the choir typically sits, I was surprised to see it signed “Quire”. Later I learned that this is an accepted alternate spelling for this area in a church or cathedral. (Live and learn…)

The crypt is very interesting. Dating from the 12th century, it is thought to be the oldest structure in Dublin. It was restored in 2000 and opened for public visits. One interesting exhibit is a collection of sliver gilt plate presented to the cathedral by King William III and Queen Mary following the king’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Another is a display of a mummified cat and rat, which apparently became trapped together in an organ pipe in the 1850’s and were found sometime later.

photo of the cat and the rat, Christ Church Cathedral crypt

The cat and the rat, Christ Church Cathedral crypt

I had been hoping to have afternoon tea in a little tea room in the crypt, but unfortunately it wasn’t open. Continuing on my itinerary, I started back toward the Temple Bar area. Along the way I passed a large bike rental facility and was passed by various tour buses. The most interesting was this one, which apparently has an amphibious aspect to it – and participants are encouraged to wear Viking hats while on the tour.

picture of Viking hat, anyone?

Viking hat, anyone?

A short distance from Christ Church is Dublin Castle, which has been continuously inhabited since its founding in 1204. I briefly visited the Chapel Royal and viewed the adjacent Record Tower. Most interesting, however, was an exhibit of sand sculpture in the Great Courtyard. The exhibit included 3 sculptures with a theme of black, white, and grey. I particularly liked the sculpture corresponding to black, which depicts a portrait of Albert Einstein stretched over the event horizon of a black hole (on the other side of the sculpture).

image of sand sculpture at Dublin Castle

Sand sculpture at Dublin Castle

After a break for a late lunch, I started back to the hotel. As I walked along King Street, which, like many others in Dublin, has a particular name for only a few blocks, I passed the Gaiety Theatre. I was interested to note that the 20th Anniversary Tour of Riverdance was playing there.

After passing through St Stephen’s Green again, I continued along Leeson Street Lower. I began to pay attention to the variety of colors of front doors to apartments or other units in the buildings, and I captured quite a few images before I crossed the Grand Canal and arrived at my hotel.

photo of colorful doors of Dublin

Colorful doors of Dublin

My third walk was the following day, in the afternoon after completing the half marathon in the morning. Once again I went to the center city and River Liffey area. This time the weather was relatively clear and dry.

GPS track for Aug 4 walk

GPS track for Aug 4 walk

I took my time and just enjoyed the day. When I got to the Grand Canal I walked along the side for a few blocks. The surface of the water was smooth like glass.

picture of Grand Canal

Grand Canal

I spent some time observing a moorhen walking around by the edge of the canal and in the grass. Its feet seem exceptionally big!

image of moorhen

Moorhen

I continued to St Stephen’s Green, where I enjoyed watching a mute swan swimming in the lake.

photo of mute swan in St Stephen’s Green’s lake

Mute swan in St Stephen’s Green’s lake

I continued through the Temple Bar district to the River Liffey. This view is from Ha’Penny Bridge looking toward O’Connell Bridge.

picture of River Liffey

River Liffey

After strolling along the riverfront for awhile, I retraced my way through the Temple Bar district and along Grafton Street. There were several street musicians and other street performers. This group was particularly interesting; there were actually people in these unusual costumes, in stationary poses.

image of unusual street performers

Unusual street performers

After a break for a snack I walked through St Stephen’s Green one final time. There were plenty of Dubliners enjoying the beautiful summer early evening. There was even a young woman practicing cartwheels!

photo of practicing cartwheels

Practicing cartwheels

My time in Dublin was too brief to be able to visit as much as I would have liked. Indeed, on the third day it would have been too rushed to visit any museums or indoor venues, so I simply enjoyed walking outdoors in the beautiful weather. I would enjoy having an opportunity for a return visit.

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Irish dream adventure (eachtra aisling Éireannach) – overview

Eachtra aisling Éireannach means an Irish dream adventure. That’s an apt description of the trip I recently completed. Here’s how it came about:

Almost two years ago I began to develop the notion of doing a half marathon overseas. I’d participated (by walking) in several relatively local half marathon events (as well as Bay to Breakers), and I thought it would be interesting to participate in a half marathon in a more exotic location. Part of the experience, in my mind, would be to stay after the half marathon for some sightseeing and perhaps some hiking. Eventually I decided to sign up for the 2014 Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Dublin, Ireland. I’ve just returned – and it was, indeed, a dream adventure!

When I began planning my trip, a friend suggested going up to the north coast to see the Giant’s Causeway, one of the top sightseeing destinations in Northern Ireland. As I did more research I learned about several interesting-sounding hiking trails not far away. Soon I had the following general itinerary planned:

I would arrive in Dublin 2 days before the half marathon – enough time, I hoped, to adjust to the 8-hour time change and do a bit of sightseeing. For the day after the half marathon I signed up for a day excursion to a Neolithic site called Newgrange, which is part of a larger complex called Brú na Bóinne. After the tour I would take the train to Belfast, overnight there, and continue to the small resort town of Ballycastle, where I would headquarter for 6 days of hiking on the Coastal Causeway Walk, the Moyle Way, and Rathlin Island. Then I would return to Belfast, hopefully with time for one final short hike near Belfast Castle before returning to the Bay Area.

The map gives a geographic overview. Dublin and Belfast, both on the east coast, are shown with stars, as capitals of Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively. Near the top right is a small boomerang-shaped island, which is Rathlin, just a few miles from Ballycastle.

map of Ireland

There were some notable highlights for the trip:

  • People were friendly and helpful. If I asked a question, or even looked confused or lost, someone would be happy to offer information
  • Ireland really is as green as its reputation! This is clearly due to the frequent rain (the cover photo for this post is from an umbrella that I couldn’t resist purchasing)
  • By serendipity I met up with two couples in town for the half marathon, and we ended up carpooling to/from the event, warming up together, and waiting for each other at the finish – a truly special part of the event
  • The day of the half marathon was sunny and dry
  • The places I’d decided to visit were interesting and beautiful
  • In particular, the coastal scenery was stunning
  • Each day I got more proficient at keeping myself and my gear dry, and at way-finding on the trails

By the numbers: Here is a summary of my walking and hiking during the 12 days I was in Ireland and Northern Ireland. As is my usual practice, I carried a GPS to track my walking/hiking route and distance. When I added everything up, I was a bit startled to see that I’d covered 130 miles!

stats - Ireland

I plan to post write-ups of my adventures, so stay tuned!

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Bowman’s Hill Tower and Wildflower Preserve

stats box

As a child growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate the local historical and natural features surrounding me. But certain memories were deeply imprinted and have remained through my adult life in California. One of my fondest memories is the numerous Sunday afternoon family visits to Bowman’s Hill Tower and Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, both located in Washington Crossing Historic Park. This is the real, historic Washington Crossing, where General Washington and Continental Army troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, on their way to a surprise attack and defeat of Hessian troops several miles downriver near Trenton, New Jersey, leading the way to a turning point in the Revolutionary War. For my siblings and me, visiting the park almost always included a walk on some of the trails in the Wildflower Preserve and a climb – probably a race, when we could get away with it – to the top of the tower. We also often stopped off in a special room in the Visitor Center with a window wall facing bird feeders and the adjacent wooded area, for some up-close bird viewing.

Recently I made two brief visits to the park: one to climb the tower and visit the bird viewing room, and another to walk along some of the wildflower paths. For the visit to the tower, my siblings were all present, and that made it a truly special occasion. The tower sits atop a 400-foot hill overlooking the Delaware River and its valley. The tower is surrounded by trees, so you really can’t get an overview view of it except looking upward from the base.

picture of Bowman’s Hill Tower

Bowman’s Hill Tower

The tower was built between 1929 and 1931 as a commemorative to Washington, his army, and the Delaware River Crossing. It looks like a lookout tower, and it certainly seems as though this hill might have been a good place for a lookout to be located. The tower is 125 feet tall. Today an elevator goes ¾ of the way to the top, but we were delighted to discover that the original staircase, which spirals around inside the shell of the tower, is still in place. Needless to say, we all walked up the stairs. The final 23 steps are inside a smaller diameter tower (at the left, in the photo) in a very tight spiral.

From the top, the views of the river and valley are quite beautiful. Here is a view looking roughly northwest and showing two bridges crossing the Delaware River.

photo of view northwest from Bowman’s Hill Tower

View northwest from Bowman’s Hill Tower

Turning to look downstream, here is a view looking roughly southeast toward Trenton. These two views illustrate what a nice lookout hill this might have made.

image of view southeast from Bowman’s Hill Tower

View southeast from Bowman’s Hill Tower

As it turns out, while descending the tight spiral at the top of the tower, I mis-positioned one foot on a step, lost my balance, and tweaked my ankle. I walked the rest of the way down to ground level – it would have taken a more severe fall to cause me to abandon the walk – but we all decided to defer a wildflower walk until another day.

Instead, we went into the Wildflower Preserve’s Visitor Center and spent some time in the bird viewing room. Almost immediately we noticed several rose-breasted grosbeaks taking turns at one of the feeders. Here is one of the males, showing off his beautiful coloring.   The photo is not the best, but a wire net between the windows and the feeders – which kept the birds from flying into the window panes – made it difficult for me to convince the autofocus on my camera where I wanted it to focus.

picture of rose-breasted grosbeak (male)

Rose-breasted grosbeak (male)

I had a little better luck with this tufted titmouse, a favorite visitor to the feeders we’d had outside our living room window at home.

photo of tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

I returned another day with my sister and brother-in-law for a short walk on some of the paths in the Wildflower Preserve, which is at the base of Bowman’s Hill. I was impressed to learn that the web site lists flowers in bloom for each month of the year (well, just one or two covering November through February), and the Visitor Center staff have copies of a list that is updated frequently, including which trails are likely places to find each wildflower that “you may find in bloom today”. We were especially hoping to find a jack-in-the-pulpit, a beautiful childhood favorite. We were unsuccessful, but enjoyed a leisurely walk along several trails.

GPS track

GPS track

Most of the trails are quite short, with frequent distance markers. From the Visitor Center we started up the Cabin Trail, which goes to a cabin, and then took the Azalea and Millrace Trails, which meander next to Pidcock Creek. The trails are well-signed, and many are named for wildflowers that grow along them.

image of sign denoting Azalea Trail

Sign denoting Azalea Trail

At 0.4 mi in length, Millrace Trail is one of the longer trails in the preserve. We decided to walk its entire length to see what we would find along the creek. We saw many forest plants that we did not recognize, as well as lush ferns enjoying the moist environment. We found one particular log on the ground with an interesting assortment of different shaped and colored fungi growing on the cross-sectional surface.

picgture of fungus growing on a log

Fungus growing on a log

It was delightful to walk along and listen to veeries, wood thrushes, catbirds, and other forest birds. Just after we had reached the far end of Millrace Trail and turned around, we heard an eastern wood pewee singing its distinctive “pee-a-wee” song over and over. It seemed close to the trail, and soon we saw it fly from one perch to a different tree, where we could actually see it.

photo of eastern wood pewee

Eastern wood pewee

After we returned to the Visitor Center we walked a very short distance along the park road to the Marshmarigold Trail, one of the “target” trails in our search for jack-in-the-pulpit. While we didn’t find a jack-in-the-pulpit, we did find several pretty wild irises.

image of wild iris

Wild iris

Next we crossed Pidcock Creek and walked the (short) length of Violet Trail, again looking for jack-in-the-pulpit. Then we crossed the park road to explore Gentian Trail, a trail name I could almost hear my dad talk about in my memories. Along this trail we found skunk cabbage, with its extra-large leaves, and these pretty, small, light-green bell-like flowers just a few millimeters across. I think the small leaves near the center of the picture belong to the flowers, while the larger leaves, which remind me of Solomon’s seal, are from an adjacent plant.

picgture of small bell-like flower

Small bell-like flower

We also found a pretty spider web glistening in the filtered sunlight.

photo of spider web

Spider web

Returning from the end of the Gentian Trail loop, we walked along Azaleas at the Bridge Trail and Aster Trail back to the Visitor Center. The entire wildflower trail walk was only 1.8 miles, but it was a wonderful walk down memory lane.

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