One small step for me, one giant leap for nature

Stepping out of Central Station, Belfast, at about 7pm on the Saturday before last, I saw, at the end of the street, a murmuration of starlings wheeling about the sky.

One small step for me, one giant leap for nature

They were only, perhaps, 5,000, weaving and interweaving, a dark cloud changing shape above the tall buildings, but an astounding and absorbing sight, as such murmurations always are.

Once, the massed birds climbed vertically and formed a human shape swaying at the waist like a belly dancer.

A few minutes later, they clustered like amoebae or pixels and became a flying banana. As we walked towards our hotel, they made patterns of parabolas rising and falling before our gaze in sync with the melody of the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’.

As regular readers will know, I’ve lived in every Irish province and many places elsewhere.

However, until last weekend, I had never been to the Giant’s Causeway, nor had my wife.

I’d lived in Donegal in the mid 1950s: Derry was close genetically but distant politically.

Belfast might have been behind the Iron Curtain. We didn’t go there; we didn’t want to.

Now, it was time to see this wonder of Northern Ireland, a Unesco World Heritage Site on our own island.

Spotting a unique day when sun was guaranteed, nominally and literally a Sunday, we decided to explore this unknown city. The Troubles were over; it was not Mogadishu. An abiding memory is the oustanding courtesy, friendliness and helpfulness.

For once, we wouldn’t be independent travellers: We’d take a train to Belfast and then a coach tour to the Causeway.

The Sunday, as forecast, was a glorious day.

It would have been perfect weather to have walked the deep, green Glens of Antrim, the U-shaped glacier valleys with their system of ladder farms, each with good land by the river at the bottom and less good higher land above. However, this wasn’t scheduled. We saw them, in their noontime beauty as the bus drove slowly by.

The coach driver was a vernacular man with a headful of facts, conversationally delivered.

As we drove past Larne, he told us about a local bird, Paddy the Pigeon, that had received the avian Victoria Cross, the Dickin Medal, for flying a vital mission through hails of enemy fire and phalanxes of enemy falcons (German peregrines used to bring down British carrier pigeons) to be first of 32 companions to reach Blighty with a coded message about troop movements on the D-Day beaches of June 1944.

He flew 230 miles in 4 hours and 50 mins, an average speed of 56mph.

As we cruised along, we saw the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland only 12 miles across the water and green Rathlin Island, set in a shining sea.

To see the basalt columns of the Causeway was the main object of our journey, especially because in La Gomera, a Canary Island with which we’ve had half a lifetime’s association, very similar columns form a steep cliff at the northern end.

Los Organos, as they’re called, rise like giant organ pipes out of the Atlantic, ascending 800m and extending 200m along the cliff.

Like the Causeway, they are petrified lava that once poured like mud from a massive volcano, settled, cracked and then solidified into hexagonal, sexagonal or octagonal columns, with millimetre-wide fissures separating them.

In Antrim, they formed overground; in Gomera, underground, but coastal erosion, over aeons, exposed them to view as an extraordinary, natural work of art. They can only be viewed from the sea, the waves crashing against them.

A cliff rises behind the pillars at the Causeway. Less tall than we expected, at most 12m, they are uncanny in their resemblance to artisan-crafted, hexagonal stone blocks cut and stood precisely upon one another.

The tops of some are at ground level and lead like paving stones from the foot of the cliff down and into the sea.

All that Antrim shore was laid down 60 million years ago. On that bright sunny Sunday, it was swarming with visitors like ourselves, decamped in groups or wandering about clicking cameras.

It was only around the corner, at a lonely bay, that one could feel the weight of time. No human structure or presence distracted from the millenia-old face of the cliff above, and the rocks marching into the ocean.

Los Organos in Gomera is 20m years, less old, less worn, less haunting than the Causeway, where rows of columns run down to the sea in narrow, tiled pathways until they dissapear beneath it.

The sea-washed rocks are black and shining as obsidian, and one can see how the legends were made.

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