Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre 60 Causeway Road, Bushmills, Co. Antrim

Published in Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Only the front of the centre is fully visible, while another side tapers off into the hillside, its black columns, although rectangular, evoking the columns of the causeway itself. (Heneghan Peng; Sarah Sheil)

Only the front of the centre is fully visible, while another side tapers off into the hillside, its black columns, although rectangular, evoking the columns of the causeway itself. (Heneghan Peng; Sarah Sheil)

The new visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway is an impressive but not a domineering building. Only the front is fully visible, while another side tapers off into the hillside, its black columns, although rectangular, evoking the columns of the causeway itself. It occupies a spectacular location on top of a cliff with magnificent views along the coast in both directions and across the Sea of Moyle. On the unseasonably sunny October day that I was there Scotland appeared close enough to touch. The centre’s carpark was nearly full, as there were hundreds of visitors. A quick scan of car number plates revealed that they came from across Ireland and the UK. Some were hired by Continental visitors and one coach was full of Chinese tourists. So far, it seems, the centre has been worth the £18m spent on it.

 

Inside, the building is a relatively simple design. It resembles an aircraft hangar, being one big open space with no definite divisions between areas. The reception where you get your ticket (£8.50 for an adult) is designed to cater for large crowds. The rest of the centre is divided between a café, a shop and an exhibition area. The shop is as big as the exhibition area and sells every conceivable souvenir, from sweets and toys to t-shirts and golfing gear, all branded with the causeway or Finn McCool, the legendary giant associated with it.

 

Columns of the causeway.

Columns of the causeway.

The exhibition is ultra-modern, with its models, maps, touch-screens and interactive exhibits. Much of it is aimed at the younger visitor, with the emphasis on games and learning through fun. There are lenses to look through, handles to turn or crank and panels to flip over. The underlying intention of the National Trust, the site’s owner, is to make a visit to the Giant’s Causeway a fun family day out, and the friendly staff help with that. The more grown-up exhibits are also fun to use, as at the touch of a screen you can call up revolving 3-D images and videos. The atmosphere is far from museum-like, as there is a cacophony of sound from the various screens, games and exhibits.

 

There are three broad themes. The first is scientific, as the various screens explain the origin of the causeway in volcanic activity 60 million years ago. This is interesting in itself and all the more so for putting this ‘eighth wonder of the world’ in its international context. You can follow the creation of land masses that eventually became today’s continents, and even see the red dot representing Ireland move thousands of kilometres around the world before settling in its present location. While unique in its size and structure, the Giant’s Causeway is one of seven similar formations in the Atlantic Ocean from Iceland to the Canaries, while there are four others in different parts of the world. Here, as elsewhere, there is a personal touch to the displays, as geologist Iain Stewart gives us his take on the formation of the causeway and what it means to him.

 

Inside, the building resembles an aircraft hangar, being one big open space with no definite divisions between areas. (Heneghan Peng)

Inside, the building resembles an aircraft hangar, being one big open space with no definite divisions between areas. (Heneghan Peng)

This personal touch is carried through to the history section of the exhibition. The causeway first came to prominence in the eighteenth century as a place to visit and then in the following century was the centre of a thriving tourist industry, as people earned a living selling souvenirs or acting as guides, on foot or by boat, to the thousands who flocked there. Many arrived on a pioneering hydroelectric train from Portrush. From the earliest painting by Susanna Drury to modern postcards along with brochures, posters and newspapers, the visitor can follow the development of the causeway as a tourist attraction and its place in the local economy. Photographs of people who actually worked there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and speech bubbles give a human face to the history and reveal facts about the causeway and what went on there. There is, however, no mention of Dr Johnson, who remarked after his visit that it was ‘worth seeing but not worth going to see’.

 

For much of the historic period the causeway was a wonder more readily explained by legend or religious belief than science. Before going I was aware of the controversy over the reference to ‘creationism’ in this exhibition but this would appear to have been amended. The legends make up the third theme in the exhibition. Here the screens and interactive displays concentrate on the stories associated with Finn McCool, while a giant screen at the rear runs an animated film about him. One could quibble over the version of the origin-myth presented here (as a child growing up in the North I was taught that a Scottish giant built the causeway) or that the wider context of Finn as leader of the Fianna is not included, not to mention its more ancient association with the Formorians. Perhaps the designers felt that this would only confuse non-Irish visitors.

 

On leaving the visitor centre you collect an audio guide and proceed on to the real thing. (National Trust)

On leaving the visitor centre you collect an audio guide and proceed on to the real thing. (National Trust)

If that was all you got for your £8.50 I would say that it was a bit expensive, even if it does include the carpark fee, but on leaving the visitor centre you collect an audio guide and proceed on to the real thing. About the size of a bulky mobile phone, the device is fairly sophisticated, allowing you to listen not only to the nine main points on the tour—you are given a map with the way marked out—but also to other information and stories. The voice is that of Jimmy McCallum, a modern-day guide who gives a jaunty commentary that mixes hard historical and scientific fact with legend and oral history.

 

The causeway is, I think, worth going to see and there are a number of trails recommended, from a leisurely stroll among the main features to a more adventurous trek around the headland. Don’t worry if the climb back up to the centre is too steep for you, as there is a shuttle bus available and you can get a nice cup of tea and a bun in the café.  HI

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