Europe’s oldest suspension bridge. It is well signposted just 3 miles north-east of Ballintoy and a few miles down the causeway coast from its famous neighbour tourist attraction ‘The Giant’s Causeway’.
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. To-day 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.
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. It was a vital part of the salmon fishery here and enabled the fishermen to carry their precious salmon catch in stout sacks across the bridge saving a long detour down the coast to the nearest suitable landing place. Carrick -a- Rede is the corrupt form of Carrig Riada [the rock on the road] i.e. the road of the salmon, for along here, the salmon skirts the coast sniffing for the home rivers. This great rock pushes them around the bay, so here strategically placed by the accumulated knowledge of generations of fishermen was a wall of net called ‘the leader’. The salmon, suddenly confronted by this, noses along the net and in this way, is led down a V shaped entrance towards the trap or bag, and once inside, they cannot get out. Up until the early 1960’s the fishermen would catch around 250 fish in a day, but it dropped until the catch was only 300 for the whole season. 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 to-day it is purely a tourist attraction.
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. It is on record that fishermen first casted 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.
To-day this precarious foothold bridge still consists of a light wooden gangway of narrow planks, with rope handrails but now 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. 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’. One of Ireland’s top tourist attractions the bridge is quite unique – its 25 metres long and it is 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 and day-trippers who waringly ventures across it each year, even those who have a good head for heights; 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. And in the year 2000, the Trust completely replaced the bridge at a cost of £50,000 following a health and safety review which decreed that the old structure failed to meet modern safety standards and had to be replaced, although it has to be said, there has never been any fatal accidents involving the old bridge. The new bridge installed by Army snappers is held very taughtly in place by stout wire ropes with two hand rails and the sides covered in with criss-crossing ropes. It is perfectly safe to cross over on a calm day but be prepared for a ‘swinging and swaying’ little walk like standing on a trampoline. The site manager informed me that many tourists lose their nerve when confronted by the deep chasm, seemingly it happens on a regular basis, they seem to forget that if one goes over to the island they still have to make the swinging journey all over again.
It can be busy at weekends in July and August so you may have to wait your turn to take part in this most unusual tourist attraction. 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, Fair head and on a clear day can be seen the Scottish coast namely the Mull of Kintyre and beyond that again The Paps of Jura. There are wooden benches for those who just want to sit and enjoy the superb 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 whilst directly below the Rope Bridge, you can clearly see two boulders of rock, embedded in much finer material. These are ‘volcanic bombs’ that are actually embedded in volcanic ash that was erupted during the volcanic eruption at this spot 62 million years ago. You will note that the white Limestone rock is very common along this coast but not here for at this spot the volcanic eruption blew it to smithereens. Not many know that this rope bridge actually joins two parts of an extinct volcano. If you been here 62 million years ago, you could have stepped straight onto Greenland as it was still attached to Carrick a Rede at that time. This popular north Antrim coast tourist attraction attracts close on 200,000 visitors a year, it is now open all year round – depending of course on the weather.
P.S.. The 400 year old small fisherman’s cottage has been fully restored and visitors will now be able to learn for themselves via oral histories recorded for the restoration project which captures the memories and stories of those natives who were associated with the salmon fishing here.