Wild Atlantic Way – where the wild things are

I’m trying to hold the camera steady but the wind whips both hands over my head and sends it flying behind me. “I should get back in the car. This doesn’t feel safe.”, I think to myself. Rain has soaked all the way through to the last layers of my clothing. My hair is stuck all across my face. Relentless rain drips over my eyes. It’s cold and I can no longer feel my fingers and toes. But I don’t get back in the car. I’m captivated at the edge of this cliff, on the Wild Atlantic Way, by the frenzied ocean beneath me. It’s like no sea I’d ever encountered before; enraged, untamed, incessant and I’m mesmerised.

It was meant to be a scenic road trip along the Atlantic coast on my last day in Derry with Jeanne aka Cooksister. We’d spent a wonderful weekend exploring its historic city walls (which incidentally celebrates 400 years in 2019), enjoying its incredible cuisine and admiring the architecture. Today we were on our way to Moville for lunch at Donegal’s Foyle Hotel. Donegal is a short journey away from Derry making the city a perfect base for exploring this rugged landscape. Storm Deirdre was battering the coast. We’d made no plans to stop except just once at Malin Head; the northernmost point of Ireland. We were forced to abandon the rest of the picturesque route due to the weather.

Malin Head, along the Wild Atlantic Way, is first mentioned, in the 2nd century AD, by Roman astrologer Claudius Ptolemy who described it as Boreionย (the northern). It has one of 22 weather stations reporting on the BBC Shipping forecast on Radio 4. Banbas Crown, a small tower named after a mythical Irish Goddess, built by the British in 1805, to guard against a French invasion, marks the very tip of the coastline. A signal station, built in 1902, close to the old Napoleonic watchtower also still stands. As I stood in front of the tower I imagined that on a clear day we’d spot all the bird species described on a small information board nearby.

More recently, the Wild Atlantic Way was chosen for the most famous blockbuster Hollywood movie of all; Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As if this terrain of 1.7 billion year old rock, 15 000 year old beaches and more shipwrecks in its sea than anywhere else in the world needed further accolade. Luke Skywalker himself is said to have visited the local pub during filming.

“If it wasn’t so stormy I could have shown you the place where they spelt Eire in stone during the war” my guide tells me. “It was to show planes flying overhead that Ireland was a neutral country.” He’s trying to coax me back towards the car away from the cliff. I’d heard that the Northern Lights had started to frequent off this coast. I mention this to him as we attempt to walk back. Somehow, he doesn’t seem keen to return that night.

The wind is lashing against my skin and almost knocks me off my feet as I turn back to walk to the car. It’s howling and so strong that I can’t open the door. My guide clambers in from the other side and pushes the door out from the inside. Cooksister and I climb in and desperately attempt to dry our cameras and equipment. They undoubtedly felt the force of Deidre as much as we did. We dry our skin and buckle up as the car pulls away towards the main road. We’re back on track on the way to Moville where we were expected half an hour ago.

A herd of sheep graze on a steep cliffside of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Sheep graze on the Wild Atlantic Way

Unassuming sheep, empty cottages miles away from each other and desolate beaches whizz past the window against the rain as we drive. Our guide points out a lighthouse on the edge of another cliff in a tiny village. “Stop! I want to get off!”, I scream in my head but I don’t say it out loud. It’s grey and cold outside and we need to make up for lost time. The road is barely visible ahead. The sea is striking itself against the land on one side. A boundless landscape of rocks and mountains on the other. Inexplicably green grass covers the hillsides. Our car bravely pushing ahead between them determined or be forced to find shelter.

We make it to Foyle Hotel in the small town of Moville sooner than I’d expected. It took less than half an hour. There’s no hint of Deidre here other than a slight, bitterly cold drizzle. The town is quiet and peaceful with little sign of the ferocious sea raging a few miles away. We’re greeted at the hotel by Donegal’s most famous chef Brian McDermott who’s preparing a treat of sea food and cottage pie from the very sea and the very land we’d encountered. Conversation around the table returns to the history of Derry’s past social turmoil. It’s enough to take my mind off the Wild Atlantic Way for a while.

As I sip a glass of warming red wine, waiting for lunch to be served, my mind wanders back. That wild, rugged, unforgiving cliffside. The whitewashed cottages on the beach. The lighthouse which flashes every 30 seconds despite the stormy weather. That angry sea which remains mostly calm yet has the power to draw the Northern Lights above it at night. I can think of little else but its wild ways. Then, as if by divine intervention, I understand the affinity, as it dawns on me that I too am a wild one.

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