Antrim Coast and Glens
Antrim Coast and Glens was designated as an AONB in 1988. The coastline of County Antrim from Ballycastle to Larne and the world famous Glens of Antrim contain some of the most beautiful and varied scenery in Northern Ireland. The area is dominated by a high undulating plateau cut by deep glens which open north and eastwards to the sea. It is an area of contrasts: gentle bays are separated by blunt headlands; exposed moorland gives way to sheltered valleys; wide open expanses to enclosed farmland.
Slemish Mountain rises abruptly, its wildness in sharp contrast to the neat fields of the Braid Valley below. Rathlin Island, lying offshore to the north, is rich in historical, geological and botanical interest.
Further information can be obtained from the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust (CCGHT) webpages Antrim Coast and Glens AONB.
The Antrim Coast and Glens AONB Management Group, in partnership with the CCGHT, have produced a management plan for the area. The Management Plan helps everyone with a stake in the landscape respond in ways that enhance the landscape and ensure the AONB remains an area everybody can identify with and enjoy, and allow it to continue contributing crucially to the economy of the area.
The management plan covers a 10 year period and comes with associated Action Plans which detail how the goals will be attained.
In the past the land surfaces consisted of sedimentary rocks: sandstones, limestones, shales and clays. On the surface some 55-60 million years ago poured lavas which formed a massive basalt plateau, capping and preserving the softer rocks below. To the north-west all these rocks have been stripped away to reveal silvery schists - the oldest rocks of the area some 300 million years old.
This geological variation produces many contrasts - red sandstones, grey clays, black basalts and white limestones, creating an ever-changing display reflected in local place names - Red Bay, Blackcave, Whitebay, while the 'dhu' in many names is Irish for black.
The present shape and form of the glens and coast is the result of intense glacial erosion during the last glaciation which was drawing to a close only 17,000 years ago. Ice has sculpted the landscape deepening pre-glacial valleys as at Glenariff and Glenballyemon. At Fair Head and Rathlin rock surfaces bear the scars of passing ice, and ice-scoured hollows are filled with small loughs and bogs.
Alternating sandy bays, rocky shores, high cliffs and forbidding headlands combine to produce dramatic coastal scenery. It has been shaped both by the flow of ice and by the sea, which has fluctuated in level relative to the land. The release of pressure on the land as the ice retreated allowed the land to rise. This is marked by raised beaches seen along the coast notably at Southbay, Glencloy. Other features were cut by wave action: sea stacks such as the White Lady north of Garron Point, and caves in the red sandstone cliffs at Red Bay are now left above present sea level.
Many features of geological interest are exposed at the coast - the cliffs of basalts overlying limestone from Larne to Red Bay, the great sill of Fair Head, the North Star dyke at Ballycastle, red sandstones around Cushendall and caves of conglomerate at Cushendun to name but a few. Fossils exist in both the limestone and underlying clays and the observer may find remains of marine creatures 180 million years old. This extensive shoreline is a rich marine environment for plant, animal and bird life. The sea stacks of Rathlin are the breeding grounds for hundreds of thousands of sea birds - guillemots, razor bills and puffins, while fulmars soar off the cliffs near Glenarm. When visibility is good, views from the coast include the Mull of Kintyre and Ailsa Craig off the Scottish Coast, while northwards the islands of Arran, Islay and Jura may be seen. At Torr Head, the narrowest crossing point, the sea is no more that 12 miles wide.
The plateau top, rising to 550m at Trostan, its highest point, forms a series of rugged hills, shallow valleys and bogs. It is exposed and desolate with a wild beauty appreciated by those seeking solitude and tranquility. High rainfall, exposure to strong winds, poor soils and a short growing season create a harsh environment for vegetation. Heathers and grasses tolerant of these conditions carpet the hilltops along with a unique group of plants and animals. In some places, specialised plants like butterwort and sun-dew supplement the low nutrients of poor soils by trapping and absorbing insects. In the wettest hollows mosses dominate bog pools. The plant debris, unable to decompose fully in waterlogged conditions, has accumulated for thousands of years to form thick blanket bog. These are internationally important for conservation. They contain within their deposits evidence of climates, vegetation and human activities of the past. They have practical significance, acting as water-holding sponges and alleviating extremes of flood and drought. The peat or turf, long used as a source of fuel, is still hand cut in the traditional way in many of the glens and the scars of peat banks are clearly evident. Mechanised cutting is increasingly used now and is more damaging to this fragile habitat. Some of these areas have been protected as National Nature Reserves or Forest Nature Reserves, for example at Slieveanorra and Beaghs. Much of the upland area is extensively grazed by sheep, while large tracts have been planted with coniferous forest, as at Slieveanorra, Breen, Glenariff, Ballycastle, Ballypatrick and Ballyboley.
Off the high ground, on steep hillsides, alongside rivers and in valley floors trees and woodland add greatly to the beauty of the area and support rich wildlife and bird populations. Below 150m only 4.5% of the land area is woodland but its impact is important. Glenarm, Glendun, Glenshesk, Glenariff, Cleggan, Garron Point, Murlough and Ballygalley are the most wooded areas. Ash and hazel are abundant. Birch, beech, alder, rowan, holly, willow and thorn are all common. Oak is found, especially at Breen National Nature Reserve where a remnant of once extensive oak forest survives.
At Straidkilly (on the slopes of Glencloy), Glenariff and Glenarm, hazel woods are protected as nature reserves and are important for the rich flora they contain. Elsewhere, hedgerow trees reinforce the patch-work appearance of the farmed landscape and are important for wildlife, while shelterbelts around isolated buildings may provide the only trees in remote areas.
Little of the landscape remains truly natural. People living and working the land have created their own landscapes of farm, field, hedgerow, wall and dwelling. All of these add to the heritage of the area. The patchwork of small fields around the Antrim Glens and Coast, most only enclosed in the 19th century, contrasts with the open moorland above. In Glenariff, the distinctive pattern of ladder farms can be seen running upslope from the valley floor, each farm thus ensured a share of lowland, glen side and hill ground. To the west of the plateau, the valleys are fertile and gently sloping. The Braid Valley is characterised by small fields bounded by dry-stone walls, their sense of order reinforced by the rough hill ground beyond. Nowhere is this more evident than looking northwards from Slemish, where the mountain rises abruptly, leaving its wilderness in sharp contrast to the farmland below. The importance of conserving this historic landscape and its associated wildlife is recognised, having been designated an Environmentally Sensitive Area, thus ensuring that modern farming practices do not erode this rich heritage, but take an active role in conserving the best of our countryside.
Many industries have left their mark on the landscape, for example, mineral resources have at various times given rise to mining activity. Evidence of iron ore and bauxite mining at Glenravel can be seen in disused mine workings, and traces of narrow gauge railway systems to Red Bay and Ballymena can still be seen today. Miners settled in the villages of Newtown-Crommelin, Cargan and Waterfoot. At Fair Head and Murlough disused mines, harbours and place names remind us of former coal mining. Today, extractive industries continue at Glenarm and Kilwaughter where limestone is worked, while old quarry sites and lime kilns mark past operations.
The archaeological evidence of the area records man's early arrival some 9,000 years ago. Flint implements of this period have been found on beach sites along the coast. from 4,000-2,500 BC the Neolithic period is marked by flint working at Ballygalley and porcellanite axe factory sites at Tievebulliagh and on Rathlin. Large stone monuments, such as Ossian's grave in Glenaan and Glenmakeeran in Ballypatrick forest are from this period, while others represent the Bronze Age. Raths, cashels, crannogs and souterrains survive from Early Christian times (AD400-1100). There are medieval churches and friaries at Bonamargy Friary (Ballycastle) and Layd Church near Cushendall, while castles such as red Bay castle, Castle Carra (Cushendun) and Bruce's Castle indicate a turbulent past. 17th Century castles at Glenarm and Ballygalley remain in use to this day, the former as the private residence of the Earls of Antrim, and the latter as a hotel. Most of the historic monuments in the Antrim Coast and Glens are not in state care. They vary in accessibility from monuments in always open graveyards, on publicly owned land or beside a public roads, to others reached across farmland or high on a mountain. There is no right of access to these monuments and visitors are advised to seek the landowner's permission to approach a site on private property.
A Third Order Franciscan Friary, traditionally founded by Rory Macquillan in about 1500 and used until the mid 17th century. The approach is through a gatehouse set in an earth bank. The long narrow church has three windows and a door in the South wall and a two-phase East window with broken flamboyant tracery. North of the church was a cloister and in the East range is the sacristy for storing equipment, a day room for indoor work and the friar's dormitory above. The 17th century vault running South from the church is the burial place of the MacDonnells, Earls of Antrim.
A hillside court tomb with fine views to Glendun, Glenaan and Scotland. Semicircular forecourt opens into a two-chambered burial gallery, formerly set in a short oval cairn. Romantically named after the Early Christian warrior-poet but built in Neolithic times.
The ruined church and its graveyard stand beside a fast flowing stream above the sea at Port Obe. Though traditionally a Franciscan foundation, this was a parish church in 1306 and continued in use until 1790. The fabric shows at least four phases of medieval and post-medieval remodelling. The long narrow church has a tower at the W end, perhaps providing residential accommodation for the priest. Marks of the wicker centering are clear under its vault. Fine gravestones in the yard include MacDonnell memorials and illustrate the area's maritime and Scottish connections.