Europe’s oldest suspension bridge. It is well signposted just 3 miles north-east of Ballintoy and a few miles down the causeway coast.
Up until a few years ago, the approach to the famed rope bridge was by way of a very steep hill, slippery when descending, but murder crawling back to the main road. Today a leisurely 12 to 15-minute walk from the car park down a pathway will lead you to one of the great curiosities in Ireland. These modern improvements have done away with the old ‘toll gate’ which had been operated by successive generations of a local family when the only access was through their private farmland.
A Fisher’s Bridge
The strangest thing about this rope bridge is the fact that, while thousands of visitors, with squeals of fear, test their nerves by crossing it every year, this world-famous spectacular attraction was originally exclusively a fisherman’s bridge.
Carrick -a- Rede is the corrupt form of Carrig Riada [the rock on the road] i.e. the road of the salmon. The salmon skirts the coast sniffing for the home rivers. This great rock pushes them around the bay, here strategically placed by the accumulated knowledge of generations of fishermen was a wall of net called ‘the leader’.
So perfect was the salmon trap here, that the fishermen of old erected a cunningly – crafted, but perilous – looking Rope Bridge with its cat’s cradle of rope and planks. You might think it’s a precarious way to reach the great rock stack called Carrick Island where swells crash against the giddying cliffs.
Carrick-a-Rede with Port moon and White Park Bay used to be the best salmon fisheries on the coast, but fishermen no longer fish here due to the dramatic fall in Atlantic Salmon stock, so today it is purely a tourist attraction.
It is on record that fishermen first cast their weighted fishing line across the 90-foot chasm to colleagues on the other side way back in 1620. A thick hemp rope would then be attached to the line which in turn would be hauled across the great gap, allowing the main structure of the bridge to be pulled into position. The handrails and foot planks were then secured into place and finally, the completed bridge was made secure at either end by means of strong iron rings driven into the cliff face.
The Bridge of Sighs
Even on the calmest day, the whole structure swings alarmingly with the lightest footstep, it’s no wonder the bridge is sometimes called ‘The Bridge of Sighs’. Don’t look down whatever you do, tread carefully, just trip lightly across, keeping in step with the rhythm of the bridge, using the handrails as a sort of psychological support. It is certainly no place for the fainthearted, but if you fancy yourself to be ‘an Indiana Jones’, then have a go, but do be careful, for as the departed local fishermen used to say ‘The brig is nay a plaything’.
Today this precarious foothold bridge still consists of a light wooden gangway of narrow planks with rope handrails. The big strong hemp ropes have been replaced by two steel cables anchored to the cliffs on either side of the sixty-foot span bridge swinging eighty feet above a deep yawning chasm where the waves dash and roar on the rocks below.
One of Ireland’s top tourist attractions, the bridge is quite unique. 25 metres long and the only rope bridge where you can cross the Atlantic anywhere in Europe. The bridge certainly tests the mettle of over 185,000 tourists a year who warily venture across it each year; the crossing can still be quite a challenge. A notice, therefore, advises that only two persons on the bridge at any one time, otherwise you get the shakes.
Today The National Trust is responsible for the safety of the bridge. In the year 2000, the Trust replaced the bridge at a cost of £50,000. After review, the old structure failed to meet modern safety standards and had to be replaced. Although, there have never been any fatal accidents involving the old bridge. The new bridge installed by Army snappers is held very tightly in place by stout wire ropes. Two handrails and the sides are covered in with crisscrossing ropes.
It is perfectly safe to cross over on a calm day but prepare for a little ‘swinging and swaying’. The site manager informed me that many tourists lose their nerve when confronted by the deep chasm. Seemingly on a regular basis, they forget they still have to make a returning journey.
Personal Notes and Trivia
Have a look at the bronze table map on which is engraved the distances of nearby points of interest. Such as Rathlin Island, the largest island of the Irish coast. Which can be seen on the Scottish coast- namely the Mull of Kintyre, beyond that The Paps of Jura.
There are wooden benches for those who want to sit and enjoy the views of this magnificent Causeway coastline.
Before you leave this dramatic place, have a closer look at the unusual rock formation around here. On the right of the rope bridge, you can see the vent of the old Carrick-a-Rede Volcano. Directly below the Rope Bridge are two boulders of rock embedded in much finer material, these are ‘volcanic bombs’. Formed from volcanic ash during the volcanic eruption at this spot 62 million years ago. You will notice an absence of white Limestone rock at this spot, which was destroyed during the eruption.
Not many know that this rope bridge actually joins two parts of an extinct volcano. If you had been here 62 million years ago, you could have stepped straight onto Greenland!
P.S. The 400-year-old small fisherman’s cottage has been fully restored. Visitors can learn via oral histories which captures the memories and stories of those natives who fished for salmon here.
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