Belfast Telegraph

Queen retraces Northern Ireland train journey from coronation year

The Queen has recreated a scenic rail journey she first made in her coronation year as she ended a 90th birthday visit to Northern Ireland that also took in the famous stones of the Giant's Causeway.

In between those engagements, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a statue to a Victoria Cross winning hero of the Battle of the Somme on a packed day touring the scenic north coast.

The last stop on her visit saw her board a Merlin steam train at Coleraine station to embark on the world renowned rail journey along the picturesque coastline.

Well-wishers waved at the passing train from beaches, golf courses, level crossings and even back gardens as the steamer pulled the carriage on the 30-minute trip to the restored platforms at Bellarena.

The journey represented a section of a longer train ride the Queen took in 1953, a month after her coronation.

Joan Smyth, vice president of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, had waved to the Queen's train as it passed her as a child in 1953.

"It's very exciting to have her here and to use the steam train," she said, on board the same carriages. "We treat it as an honour."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster were among the other passengers on the train.

The royal couple began their day with a visit to the Giant's Causeway.

They braved blustery conditions to view the Unesco World Heritage site, which is made up of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that were created in a volcanic eruption.

Ancient folklore has it that Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway by hand to cross the North Channel to do battle with a Scottish giant.

The existence of similar stone columns on the Scottish isle of Staffa helped perpetuate the legend down the centuries.

For the visit, the Queen wore an apple green coat and matching hat by Angela Kelly with a grey, lime and apple green silk flower print dress by Stewart Parvin - accessorised with a simple diamond brooch bar.

Neville McConachie, the visitor experience supervisor at the National Trust site, said: "She was asking about the formation of the rock and I was telling her it was either caused by nature or a giant, and I believe a giant."

Mr McConachie said he told the Queen that the Scottish giant Benandonner reputedly destroyed the rock bridge as he fled Ireland in fear of doing battle with Finn MacCool.

"People did say that he actually moved to America, but I was asking her was he maybe knocking about Balmoral," he joked.

Tourists from around the world were at the causeway, with the Queen's visit providing an unexpected surprise.

They cheered and some sang God Save The Queen as the cavalcade weaved its way down the coast road to the stones.

Englishman David Heaton said the Queen's appearance was a great experience.

"It was very pleasant. There were a lot of nice people here - a lot of foreigners here who were as excited to see the Queen as the locals were."

He added: "She's a very special woman."

The Queen also toured the visitor centre at the causeway, welcomed by North Antrim MP Ian Paisley, Ms Foster and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton.

The royal couple met National Trust staff, rangers and volunteers who run the centre - as well as local craftsmen - before being treated to a short animation of the Finn MacCool legend.

A group of children from nearby schools presented the visitors with gifts including a posy of locally grown flowers, a piece of north coast basalt and a bowl carved from oak by wood turner Gerard Gray of Taisie Crafts, based in north Antrim.

Despite the rain, large crowds turned out to welcome the royal couple when they later arrived at Bushmills to honour VC recipient Robert Quigg.

The soldier was awarded the highest military honour for bravery during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

After a short ceremony, the Queen unveiled the life-size bronze sculpture.

The Queen and Philip spent a short time speaking with relatives of Quigg, including his great-nephew, retired schoolteacher Leonard Quigg.

Mr Quigg said: "She thought it was a wonderful piece. She was very impressed. She actually was able to say to me when she arrived that she had shaken the hand of Robert Quigg in 1953 when she visited Coleraine train station.

"She was very gracious. It was a tremendous occasion."

The statue, which cost almost £60,000 - most of which was raised by the local community, was created by Scottish sculptor David Annad.

The royals also attended a private lunch reception at Royal Portrush Golf Club. The seaside course is due to host the Open Championship in 2019.

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