The Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland has an unparalleled display of polygonal columns of basalt rock resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.
Lying on the north coast of County Antrim, The Giant's Causeway has been Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attraction for 300 years.
Its 40,000 polygonal basalt columns sticking out of the sea contributed to the development of Earth sciences as the site became the centre of 18th-century geological debate about the origins of igneous rocks.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987, the Causeway Coast now receives more than 400,000 visitors annually.
The largest remaining lava plateau in Europe
Some 60 million years ago, County Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity which formed a 3,800 km2 lava plateau, representing the largest lava field in Europe.
The lava plateau cooled rapidly forming a polygonal network of 40,000 blocks of layered black basalt rock.
The resulting basalt rock columns average 45cm in diameter and are typically hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven, or eight sides.
The size of the columns, the tallest being about 12 metres high, was determined by the speed at which lava cooled down.
Smaller scale basalt formations belonging to the same lava flow can be found across the sea in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. Columnar basalts can also be found in other places around the world such as the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
However, the Giant's Causeway columns, leading from the cliff foot and disappearing under the sea, form a horizontal pavement of stepping stones which is considered to be unique in the world.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Giant's Causeway was at the centre of 18th-century debate about the origins of basalts. Geological studies of its lava flows have greatly contributed to the development of Earth sciences and particularly to the analysis of volcanic events in the North Atlantic.
In 1986 the Giant’s Causeway was inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
UNESCO considered the site to be of outstanding universal value as an example representing major stages of the earth’s history.
Folktale of an Irish-Scottish causeway
The intriguing nature of the Causeway's polygonal blocks, coupled with the existence of similar formations across the sea in the west of Scotland, inspired a wealth of myths and legends in ancient times.
According to tradition, Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicised as Finn McCool) built the causeway so he could walk to Scotland to fight a giant called Benandonner.
Different versions of the legend exist, with the most prominent stating that Benandonner crossed the causeway first and started looking for Fionn. As the giant was much larger than the warrior, Fionn's wife came up with the ingenious plan to dress her husband like a baby. When Benandonner came to Fionn's house and saw the size of the supposed baby, the giant was terrified at the thought of how huge the father would be. Benandonner ran back home, destroying the causeway so he would not be followed by Fionn.
The myth linking Fionn mac Cumhaill with the Giant's Causeway gained international success after Scottish poet James Macpherson published his Ossian poems in the 18th century. Ossian's poems were translated into several languages and influenced the works of many European writers of the time.
Northern Ireland's most popular attraction
The Causeway Coast, between Causeway Head and Benbane Head, has been Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attraction for 300 years.
The site became popular with tourists during the 19th century, when the Giant's Causeway Tramway was built from the nearby village of Bushmills.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987, the Causeway Coast now receives more than 400,000 visitors annually, over half from overseas.
The site comprises an area of a spectacular Atlantic coastal landscape, rugged cliffs, secluded bays, and unparalleled 40,000 regular polygonal columns.
The focal point of the World Heritage Site is The Giant's Causeway, a wide pavement of polygonal blocks leading into the sea. Visitors to the site can walk over the basalt formations at the edge of the sea.
Other geological formations in the area include the Giant's Organ, a structure of about sixty 12 metres-high basalt columns; the Chimney Tops, a number of columns separated from the cliffs by erosion; Hamilton's Seat viewpoint on Benbane Head; and other curious structures such as the Giant's Boot, the Giant's Eyes, the Giant's Harp, the Giant's Gate, the Shepherd's Steps, the Honeycomb, and the Camel's Hump.
Public access to the coast is by a system of footpaths, with stunning coast and cliff trails for exploration. Runkerry Head provides a spectacular two-mile walk, while a longer, scenic coastal path extends for 19km (12 miles) to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Declared a National Nature Reserve in 1987, the Causeway Coast is a site of national importance for wildlife conservation. Bird watchers can see over 50 resident and 30 migrant species such as fulmar, razorbill, redshank guillemot, shag, petrel and cormorant.
Visitor facilities on site include tourist information, shop and refreshments. There is access for visitors with disability.
The Giant's Causeway and Bushmills Railway, a 3.2 km long (2 miles) heritage railway, provides a passenger link between the town of Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage site. The railway is the successor of the original 19th century Giant's Causeway Tramway and recreates the passenger experience of the original hydroelectric tram which brought the first tourists to the Giant’s Causeway.
The town is also home to the Old Bushmills distillery, which claims to be Ireland’s oldest whisky distillery. The distillery welcomes visitors and provides guided tours, exhibitions and whisky tastings.
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