Lent Pilgrimage – Rathlin Island
21 Mar 2014
In Ballycastle harbour a small group of walkers gathered for the first of three Lenten pilgrimages organised by Corrymeela. The group was welcoming and friendly and by the time we’d boarded the ferry to Rathlin had caught up on each other’s news, or in the case of us newcomers, memorised each other’s names. The Sea of Moyle looked deceptively calm in the early March sunshine.
Once out of the shelter of the harbour a relentless wind whipped through our waterproofs as we lined the deck taking in the hazy views of the Mull of Kintyre in the distance beyond Rathlin and the jutting cliffs of Fairhead which seemed to always loom large to starboard even as we left them behind. After half an hour of becoming progressively more frozen despite being bundled up in several layers, some of us took to the cabin. Later as the ferry spilled us onto the slipway in Rathlin harbour we agreed it was a toss–up between the deck with its cutting wind or the diesel–scented cabin. In there the movement of the boat was amplified and the portholes dipped dramatically to frame a fleeting view of the horizon then tipped wildly up again.
After disembarking we made the most of the chance to warm up in the tranquillity of St Thomas’s Church of Ireland. Patrick the minister had arranged for us to have a few moment’s reflection and say some Pilgrim’s prayers together before we set off on an 8 mile trek.
The walk started with a steep hill (the only one, I was assured, a comment that caused us to smile every time we came to another one…). Tangled trees lined the path, and, pausing at the top – or to put it another way, at the bottom of the next hill – the views of the harbour and the sun–spangled sea stretching out below us were spectacular. We passed by the Catholic Church where we would bookend our pilgrimage later.
We had about a 3 mile walk ahead of us to reach a camping barn where we were to stop for lunch. It was path all the way, mostly gentle inclines interspersed with flat so there was always a chance to catch our breath. Many of the walkers were frequent visitors to the island and knew its wildlife well.
“Look, over there. A hare!” someone exclaimed. And sure enough an elongated, tan form could be seen standing alert some distance away in the long grass. Earlier as we had neared the harbour on the ferry someone had identified the striking black and white ducks bobbing on the swell as Eiders, and a lone Great Northern Diver was also spotted. Binoculars went up to eyes and it was confirmed that yes, it was definitely a diver, sure enough.
We would not be going near the section of the island where the puffins could be seen and anyway it wasn’t the right time of year, but nevertheless there was plenty of birdlife to be enjoyed along the way. As we rounded a bend and passed a couple of houses whose hardy residents must have enjoyed breathtaking sea views from their elevated vantage point, a flock of meadow pipits flitted about in a scrubby field beside the road. “Wee brown jobs,” I was informed authoritatively as we watched their parachuting antics.
A bit further along the path as an impromptu shower forced us to stop and pull on our waterproofs, a miniscule black speck amongst a white bank of cloud overhead was identified as a skylark and the source of the clear trilling that cut through the serene quiet.
Some time and several hills later, the welcome sight of the whitewashed camping barn came into view. We had been given the use of it by a resident named Alison who seemed to be well–known by the regulars and who that day was meeting with a mysterious body known as ‘the lights’, who seemed to take to do with tourism and puffin matters and were therefore important decision makers.
In honour of the date a plate of pancakes awaited us along with flasks of hot water to make ourselves tea and coffee to go along with our packed lunches. As we ate Alison gave us a quick briefing about the walk, which consisted of a 1¼ mile loop called the Kinramer Permissive Path, which would take us in a southerly direction to the top of a promontory that overlooked Cooraghy Bay, and back to the barn again.
After lunch we set off refreshed, and glad that the sun was still out if not exactly providing much warmth, and the rain had mostly stayed away. Soon we found ourselves on a steep descent that was best tackled by zig–zagging down across the tuft and rocks and where the walking poles for those who had them came into their own. At the bottom in a perfect demonstration of the pride that comes before a fall I confidently approached a rivulet, lost my footing and performed a comedy fall up the bank on the other side. A firm hand belonging to one of the older walkers who I might have been trying to show up helped me up from the mud and put me back on my feet, where, turning round I got a great view of the Causeway Stones on the face of the hill we’d just descended. Once everyone was safely over the stream on we proceeded, picking our way carefully through a marshy plateau across the top of the promontory before stopping at the top to admire the vista which lay before us. The stunning views were ever–changing depending on where we were on the island and what the weather was doing at that particular moment.
After drinking in the view and taking photos, we turned back to begin our homeward loop and came upon a sizable lake which was probably much larger than normal due to the recent rainfall. As we traversed the length of it and entered a valley we came upon the roughest terrain we encountered that day and where it was necessary to navigate between soft mud to the right and serious–looking thorns to the left and where each had to keep their head down and focus on just staying upright. At the end of the valley we looked back the way we had come and admired a perfect v shape framing a glistening sea.
After another challenging zig–zag this time up a hill, we paused briefly, handed round sweets and chocolate and congratulated each other on making it this far. It was time to rejoin the path that led back to the harbour, but not before a camera was positioned on a rickety gate post and we posed in all our water–proofed glory for an unashamed group selfie!
On the way back the gentle camaraderie that had marked the day continued, each of us falling into step with different groups or individuals and learning a little about each other’s lives and interests. One man was planning on publishing a book of his life’s collection of photographs, another was in training for a 500 Km trek along the Camino Way. We kept up a steady pace back to the Catholic Church and inside the pews provided a welcome chance to rest and reflect for a few minutes before making our way to the ferry.
The eiders were still there rising and falling on the slate grey water by the harbour wall. Not wanting to be left out of the show a group of seals lolled about on the rocks, waving their heads and scratching long creamy bellies with their flippers.
For the homeward journey we had the comparative luxury of the fast boat, which shaved 20 minutes off the journey, and was a catamaran so skimmed along in a less nausea–inducing motion than the ‘slow’ 45 minute ferry. Luckily for us, as we needed to be in good shape for fish ‘n’ chips and a cup of tea back on dry land. After all, we pilgrims had earned it!
There are two more Lenten pilgrimages planned before Easter. If you’re interested please contact Corrymeela for more information.