Portrush grew to be the popular tourist resort town it is today through its two sandy beaches- West or Mill Strand and East or Curran Strand leading to the White Rocks.
From Portrush’s first settlement, the sea has been the centre of life whether it be fishing, the use of the port for travel & commerce, the study of the wildlife and fossils, water sports or entertainment. The spectacular setting of the grassy sand dunes, long beaches and crashing waves make it one of the most popular beach locations.
Beaches are usually found in sheltered bays between two headlands. Portrush is therefore a prime location for beaches due to it being a peninsula. The beaches are built up as constructive waves (gently sloping waves whose ‘swash’ (forwards push) is stronger than their ‘backwash’ (backwards pull)) lose energy as they hit the land and deposit the material they are carrying, leaving us with beaches of the sand which has been eroded off cliffs and other rocks, or even transported by the waves from other beaches to end up in Portrush.
The West or Mill Strand is the smaller beach of the two and joins the harbour to the Black Rocks on the West side of the town while the East or Curran Strand is the larger beach connecting the peninsula to the White Rocks.
Both beaches have full amenities such as toilets, disabled access and dogs allowed on the beaches (with restrictions during the summer months). Horses are also commonly seen being ridden along the East Strand, with access for riders via the White Rocks carpark.
The East Strand, the larger of the two beaches of Portrush, is well loved by holiday makers and by surfers and is well-known for its connection to the golf courses overlooking the sands. International surfing competitions have been held there in recent times. The beach was originally known as the Curran Strand, so called because of the Curran Point where the beach turns East towards the White Rocks. The waters off the Curran Point are treacherous in the extreme due to meeting of several tides and currents in their vicinity.
Peat Beds at West Strand Beach
The West Strand is registered as an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) due to the presence of an underlying peat bed – the fossilised remains of birch and alder trees which have been dated to 7,000-9,000 years old! This proves that Portrush was once covered by forest and is important to our understanding of the land and how it has changed over time and with different inhabitants. These fossilised remains are hidden inside ancient peat deposits beneath the beach.
The peat deposits were first noted in 1888 during the movement of sand to create a sea wall, which is a wall along the beach which protects the land above it from coastal erosion. Peat is usually found in ‘bogs’ or ‘mires’, as it requires a damp but stagnant area of land. It was used in the past as a major fuel for fires and is a large portion of fossil fuels used in Britain and Ireland due to the amount of bogs we have. Peat covers 2% of the world land mass and is important in the formation of coal and other fossil fuels as peat will turn into these fuels over time with the right conditions.
Peat forms at the rate of only 1 millimetre per year, so it must be managed and protected. It also means that it contains a lot of important fossils. Fossils need water and other sediment to form, so bogs are perfect for their formation. Peat and fossils both need an atmosphere with no oxygen which causes them to decompose before they can be preserved. An excellent example of this is the archaeological discoveries of ‘bog bodies’ which is where bodies up to 8000 BCE have been found intact and scientists can find put more about human life at the time.
The oldest fleshed bog body is the Cashel Man, who was alive in the Bronze Age in 2000 BCE and was discovered in County Laois, Ireland. This is very important for scientists as it is one of the very few sites which shows how the sand dunes and coastal area has changed over such a long period of time, and therefore how it might change in the future. We still use peat in fires today, but as it is a fossil fuel, more and more people are switching to more sustainable resources such as wind and solar.
THE WHITE ROCKS
The White Rocks are tall cliffs made of chalk to the east of Portrush. They were formed when the sea was much shallower, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The chalk is composed of the skeletons of tiny single-celled organisms which accumulated on the seabed and were later compressed over time.
Chalk also formed in other areas in North-East Ireland, but some of the other areas of soft rock have been reduced or removed through coastal erosion. The chalk bed at the White Rocks is among those which remains intact as it was capped by a layer of hard basalt rock which takes much longer to erode.
Coastal erosion is when the rock is ‘eaten away’ by the sea or by other rocks. There are four different types of coastal erosion which create the interesting shapes of the rocks we can see today at the White Rocks:
Abrasion (sometimes called corrasion) is when the sea throws pebbles and sand against the rock and acts like a wrecking ball or sandpaper in grating away the rock face.
Hydraulic Action is when the waves push water and air into cracks in the rock and causes the rock to shatter due to the force of the air being compressed and expanded.
Solution (sometimes called corrosion) is the sea dissolving soluble materials like calcium carbonate from the rocks such as chalk and limestone – like the White Rocks.
Attrition is when the rocks which have already been broken off from the main rock face knock against each other and are slowly worn into smaller boulders and pebbles.
Erosion makes different shapes and coastal rock forms such as caves, which can turn into arches and finally stacks and stumps as the sea erodes further into the rock. The White Rocks have examples of all these features.
The chalk in the White Rocks is full of fossils, many of which are the tubular-shaped belemnites. It also contains considerable quantities of flint, which was used by Stone Age communities to make weapons and tools. Flint can also be used to make fires and is considered a survival skill even today. Archaeologists have discovered several Stone Age settlements along the coast, and it is believed that the abundant supply of flint to make tools, the fish for food and the fresh drinking water from nearby streams were what attracted these people to live here almost 9,000 years ago.
Dr AEP Collins concluded that the importance of the White Rocks sandhill site which he excavated in 1971, lay in the fact of the number of structures and objects which typologically could be assigned to periods ranging from the Neolithic to the Medieval on a single old land surface. C-14 carbon dating demonstrated this convincingly. The number of worked flints found at the site may indicate that it was an industrial site ie a “Flint Factory”; however, this could not be conclusively proven.
In more recent centuries, chalk was burned in kilns to make quicklime which helped to enrich soils for farming and was also used extensively in making Lime Mortar for building. Lime is still used by farmers to enrich their soil and make it more workable, which is why you can see the fields covered in a white substance between Winter and Spring as farmers prepare their fields for the planting season in the Spring.
Seawalls & Promenades
With Portrush being on a rocky peninsula extending out into the Atlantic Ocean with sandy beaches on either side, there was always a risk that wave erosion on both sides could cut away the sand dunes and leave Portrush as an island.
In the mid-1930’s a seawall and promenade was constructed from the town for about a quarter of one mile. This would have protected the adjacent holes on the golf course and the land where the East Strand car park in now situated. In the early 2000’s this was replaced by a new promenade with a connection to the promenade below Strandmore. Unfortunately this was severely damaged by storms on at least two occasions and additional work had to be carried out to strengthen it.
On the West Strand the beach was backed by sandhills all the way from the south pier of the harbour to the Blackrocks. The Golf & Hydropathic Hotel was built on a sandhill site overlooking the beach at the end of the 19th century. No seawall was constructed around the base of the hotel at beach level until the 1930’s. There is evidence of some earlier sea defence work of a much more temporary nature before this time, but it was all replaced by the solid concrete construction with a stepped front to dissipate the strength of the waves which is still in place today as part of the later promenade.
Between 1950 and 1953 a new concrete seawall and promenade was constructed from the south pier of the harbour to a point just below the start of Barry’s garden railway (now Kiddieland): a distance of some 120 metres. This seawall protected the ground known as Kerr Street Green together with the former lifeboat-house which was then being used as a shelter against inclement weather.
During the early 1960’s a major construction contract was placed to construct a new seawall and promenade from the Blackrocks connecting to the existing seawall below the hotel and linking it to the existing promenade from the harbour. The work included driving interlocking steel sheet piles into the beach some 30 metres deep to form a solid edge from which the curved seawall could be formed. A few years later, during a major storm, the wave action created by the curvature of the new seawall caused the original section adjoining the harbour to be torn apart and wrecked. Following this a new section of seawall was built to match the curved wall and was blended into the south pier and given an access ramp unto the beach.
Seawalls take a tremendous battering, especially during storms, and are designed to withstand this. However additional factors, such as the loose boulders and stones at the Blackrocks end of the West Strand seawall grind upon the concrete and gradually wear it down and cause sections to break away. Because of this the condition of seawalls has to be constantly monitoring and corrective action taken where appropriate. Failure to do this could result in catastrophic damage occurring during a bad storm and large parts of the seawall being washed away or badly damaged.