I once a recall a friend saying she walked every Christmas in the footsteps of giants.
Rough, blackened, hexagonal footsteps that slot together like honeycombs and lead to a wind battered outcrop in the sea.
Getting there can be something of a giant task in itself; December in Northern Ireland is unpredictable and unforgiving. From a pebbledash cottage in Portballintrae, she and her family would set off – a seaside village overlooking a sand and shingle beach.
The path rounds the harbour and leads to a crossing at the mouth of the River Bush. There they would walk eastwards along kelp strewn sands towards Runkerry Point and lean int the hill, as a narrow grass path rises over the cliffs and past the abandoned Bushmills railway. Topping the hill, they would arrive at the Giant’s Causeway.
According to legends, an Irish giant named Finn McCool was the architect of this coastline. Caught in a war of words with a Scottish giant called Benandonner, Finn built a series of hexagonal stepping stones across the North Channel for the Scot to come and face him.
On sight of the gargantuan Benandonner, Finn fled home to his wife Oonagh, who dressed her husband as a baby in a cunning plan designed to deceive his enemy. When the Scotsman came knocking, Oonagh pointed to a cot where her ‘son’ lay. Benandonner took one look at the monstrous infant and struggled to imagine the sheer size of the father.
He turned on his heels and raced back along the causeway to Scotland, churning the earth of Ireland as he went.
The mythical tale of the causeway’s creation may capture the imagination, but science has an equally impressive story to tell. Some 60 million years ago, the area known today as County Antrim was the site of an intense volcanic activity, which formed the largest lava field in Europe.
The plateau cooled quickly and formed a network of 40,000 blocks of layered basalt rock. The resulting hexagonal columns, some of which measure up to 12 metres in height, lead from the food of the towering cliffs and form a pavement that disappears into the sea.
Standing at the edge of the causeway, which looks out rather accusingly across the water towards Scotland, it’s not so hard to believe in both stories. In fact, as the waves roar, it is more of a challenge to imagine the coastline flooded with miles of lava than it is visualising a giant crashing towards the sea.