jane

Feb 162013
 

The farmer at Eskeradooey – a proper County Tyrone hill farmer, neat, courteous and observant – was leaning on a gate at the entrance to his farmyard, a length of blue plastic piping in his hand by way of a switch. He waved us on politely. ‘We’re just bringing the sheep through now,’ he said, and true to his word there was a muted thunder of cloven hooves and sixty sheep came charging out of the field and across the yard, a sheepdog close at their heels.

‘Have you ever clipped sheep?’ the farmer asked us, rhetorically enough. One look at our soft hands must have given him the answer. ‘Well, stay here with us this morning and we’ll learn ye to clip!’ Jane and I would have been happy to do that, and our friend Inga – along for the fun today – looked ready for anything. But Harry had other things on his mind.

Harry is a wire-coated terrier, nurtured by Inga since she found him wandering the back roads of Donegal. He’s 19 years old, and thus officially superhuman. Last time we met, Harry had possessed a single, endearingly monstrous canine tooth that gave him an expression both prognathous and piratical. In the intervening year the tooth had dropped out, streamlining Harry’s snout like a disastrous overdose of botox. But he had retained enough bounce and pezazz to put to shame a dog half his age. Now rabbits, wet bog smells, sheep dung and the freedom of the hills fought for Harry’s attention as he led us away up the old mountain road from Eskeradooey.

It was a steady climb up the track, once a through route to the Owenkillew Valley and the high heart of the Sperrin Hills. Up at the saddle we stopped to take in one of the great Tyrone hill views, over the chequerboard fields of Owenkillew to the rolling, smooth-cheeked central Sperrins – Slievemore, Craignamaddy and Mullaghbane, with the higher profiles of Mullaghclogher and Mullaghasturrakeen beyond and above them, and the rounded heads of Dart Mountain and Sawel, summit of the range, looking over their shoulders in turn. Away in the north-west we were astonished to see a pure white cone, tiny and clear-cut against the sky, that looked the spit and image of Donegal’s highest peak, Mt Errigal. So it was, confirmed Inga, a resident of that county – Donegal’s finest, rising on the edge of sight some forty miles off.

The Robber’s Table, famed for its role as a rapparees’ hang-out, turned out to be no more than a flat double dome in the bog. Between the Table and the pass lay an ancient car, half-buried in peat, thoroughly squashed and smashed, its door open – a 1970s Chrysler, the kind the Professionals would have forward-rolled out of whilst cornering at high speed, .45 magnums blazing in both hands. Harry gave it a sniff, but found no glamour there. He was for questing on, the scent of something far funkier in his nostrils. But Inga, with afternoon appointments to keep, had to turn back.

Jane and I waved the two of them goodbye, and went on down into the Owenkillew Valley. Whatever farming communities once inhabited the slopes of the Robber’s Table and Curraghchosaly Mountain have all gone down the hill to the less harsh environs of the valley. The mountain is now a repository of ghost farmsteads with rusty roofs, cold chimneys and blank black windows, each with its shelter belt of wind-tattered pines or sycamores, neat huddles of buildings once snug, now stark and lifeless. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel their poignancy.

We found the parallel track back over to Lisnaharney glen, a rushy old road, wet and mossy. Long-abandoned turf banks made a giant’s geometry of the mountainside. The track led us back over the pass and down to the lower lands again, its course marked by foxgloves, gorse hedges, and swathes of grassheads in full flower – pink, mauve, milky green and pale crimson, a princely path to end the walk.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 13; downloadable map/instructions at walkni.com.
GPS: satmap.com

TRAVEL: Park at Gortin Glen Forest Park, on B48 Omagh-Gortin road (£3.50 cash). Bus: Ulsterbus 403 from Omagh

WALK DIRECTIONS: Return from car park to B48; left for 100m; right up Lisnaharney Road. In 2.2 km (1¼ miles) pass side road on right marked ‘Lisnaharney Public Right of Way’/PRW), in another 0.8 km (½ mile), turn right (‘Eskadooey PRW’). In 200m, right to farmyard at end of lane. Between buildings and farmhouse bear left up stony lane for 2.3 km (1⅓ miles) past Robber’s Table/RT and down to road. Right (‘RT’) for 0.7 km (nearly ½ mile); right up track (‘Lisnaharney PRW’, ‘RT’) past Curraghchosaly Mountain and down to road. Left for 2.2 km (1¼ miles) to B48 and forest car park.

LENGTH: 12.4 km/7½ miles

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Rough hill track, boggy in places; gentle ascents.

DON’T MISS:
• Beautifully kept sheep and cattle on the local farms
• Spectacular view from pass near Robber’s Table – north over Owenkillew Valley to central Sperrin, north-west to Muckish and Errigal

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic at the pass near Robber’s Table

ACCOMMODATION: Mullaghmore House, Old Mountfield Road, Omagh (028-8224-2314) – £78 B&B

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.walkni.com; www.discoverireland.ie/walking
This walk is based on: http://www.walkni.com/walks/116/robbers-table/

INFORMATION: Omagh Tourist Office – 028-8224-7831
discovernorthernireland.com

 Posted by at 4:38 pm
Feb 162013
 

Marty and Mary McGuigan stepped out of their van in a Dungiven lay-by to greet us, looking as spry as ever. It was good to see them again. Mary is a great hill-walker in her own right, and as for Marty – what that man doesn’t know about his native Sperrin Hills of Tyrone and Derry isn’t worth the knowing. Every time I’ve been walking with Marty he’s filled the day with talk, song, conjecture and jokes, and today was no sort of exception.

We drove the narrow hill road that winds up the south-west angle of Benbradagh and parked at the top of the lane. Benbradagh – Binn Bhradach, the Thief’s Mountain, no-one knows why – dominates Dungiven the way Benbulben dominates Sligo, a mighty presence at the back of the town, wedge-shaped and green as it hangs half-way up the sky. Grey slopes of bouldery scree tumble from its peak, contributing to the wild look and reputation of the mountain.

We turned north into a blustery wind and went towards the peak, scrambling over tied-up gates and walking along a roadway surfaced with old hardstanding and flanked by intriguing blocks of concrete set with rusty iron stanchions. Plainly others had been here before us, with some industrial purpose. Before we could speculate further, though, we were over the last of the gates and out on the open mountain, scattering black-faced sheep as we followed a path up towards the long escarpment that forms the summit of Benbradagh.

The wind poured up over the edge, whipping at the grasses and the wild flowers dotted among them – heath bedstraw, heartsease, trembling sky-blue harebells, clumps of wild thyme. We knelt to pinch them and sniff our fingers, while dredging up from our collective memories an old tune and the words to go with it:

“Come all you maidens brisk and gay,
All you that flourish in your prime,
Beware and take care, and keep your garden fair,
And let no man steal your bonny bunch of thyme.”

So singing, we stared at the view, one of the finest in County Derry – the sunlit lowlands around Dungiven striped with little traditional fields, the north Sperrins rolling away like sombre waves in the south-west, Lough Foyle lying north-west like a steel tongue, and tabular Muckish and conical Errigal standing out in Donegal on the western skyline.

Could the wild mountain that owns this stupendous prospect really conceal the deadly secret that the Internet websites whisper about – a nuclear bunker, built by the US Navy at the height of the Cold War? Certainly the US had a low-rise signal base, modestly concealed on a boggy plateau, constructed up here in the late 1960s to service a cluster of tall radio masts that shuttled messages to and from US Navy ships out in the North Atlantic. It also, in all probability, acted as a hotline between Pentagon and Kremlin in the dark days of the 1960s and 70s when it looked as though an itchy finger might stab the red button at any moment.

We found the remnants of the old base beside the ‘American Road’, the supply road the US Navy built to supply their station – hut bases, conduits, strange holes, chambers, vents and snipped-off wires. An eerie place, desolated and resonant with Cold War foreboding. Later I looked up Navcomsta Dungiven online, and found images of the site (see below), all the way from big blokes in donkey jackets in a sea of bog and concrete mixers, to the opening by splendid brass hats, and operation by pallid and bespectacled techies, as clever as professors with their switches and dials.

On the way back to the car, Marty McGuigan taught us how to vault a five-barred gate. Now that’s what I call clever.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 8
GPS: Satmap.com

TRAVEL: Dungiven is on A6 (Belfast-Derry) between Maghera and Claudy. Entering Dungiven from Maghera (Belfast) direction, turn right up Curragh Road past school. Continue for 4 km/2½ miles, to park at the end of the road high on Benbradagh.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Climb over the gate and turn left along stony roadway, climbing over several fastened gates. By a radio station walk ahead towards Benbradagh, keeping fence on your left. At a metal pole, left across stile; follow track up and along summit. Return same way to gate by road end; turn left here along the ‘American Road’ as far as the signal station site. Go further down the American Road if you wish (superb views), or return to car.

LENGTH: 5 km/3 miles – allow 1½ hours

GRADE: Easy

CONDITIONS: Surfaced tracks or hill paths – these could be squashy after rain.

DON’T MISS:
• View west from Benbradagh over Lough Foyle, Inishowen and the north-western Sperrin Hills
• Relics of the American signal station
• Views from the American Road towards Slemish and the Derry and Antrim Hills

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic on Benbradagh, or plenty of cafés/pubs in Dungiven.

ACCOMMODATION: Eugene and Gerardine Kielt, Laurel Villa Townhouse, Magherafelt (028-7930-1459; laurel-villa.com) – from £80 dble B&B – the famed ‘House of Poetry’, the perfect base for exploring the northern Sperrins.

US Navy Base: http://navcommsta-londonderry.freeservers.com/dgmaster.htm

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.walkni.com; www.discoverireland.ie/walking

DERRY TOURIST OFFICE: 028-7126-7284; derryvisitor.com; discovernorthernireland.com

http://www.walkni.com/Walk.aspx?ID=172

 Posted by at 4:05 pm
Sep 222012
 

Murlough National Nature Reserve, Co. Down

We could only set out in hope. The marsh fritillary butterflies, their open wings as beautiful as stained glass windows of amber and pearl, would be there, we knew, among the sand dunes of Murlough National Nature Reserve. It was the right time of year, midsummer, to see them on the wing, and the Murlough dunes behind the long curved beach at Dundrum were rich in sky-blue buttons of devil’s bit scabious, main foodplant of these delicate and very rare butterflies. But … it was raining. Clouded, grey and pelting over the crest of County Down, with the Mourne Mountains sulking under blankets of mist that they’d pulled over their shoulders instead of displaying themselves at the end of the strand in full and proper glory. Marsh fritillaries don’t like rain – why should they, these lovely creatures made for sunlight and warmth? They, like the Mournes, would be in hiding today.

So we started out into the drizzle, and of course it cleared within a few minutes. What’s more changeable than Irish weather? We didn’t see the marsh fritillaries, as things turned out. But as for what we did see…

You couldn’t imagine a more perfect habitat for wild flowers, wild birds and insects – warm, sheltered, varied, carefully protected and managed by the National Trust, with acid parts and lime-rich parts, humps and hollows facing every which way, places for the rain to pool, salty bits and sunny bits. These dunes have been slowly growing, developing, shifting and stabilising since before man learned to farm or to make bronze in Ireland. They are immensely old, hugely varied and wonderful to walk through, following a tangling maze of paths.

The first path we found led us through rough grassland thick with white dune roses, heath bedstraw, wild pansies of intense purple and yellow, fragrant woodsage. We left the nature reserve for the shore path along the tidal slabs of the Carrigs River where it pours in and out of Dundrum Inner Bay, and saw fleets of swans, drifts of mallard, and curlews stalking with high-stepping deliberation through the mud as they stabbed and burrowed with long down-curved beaks. A flotilla of sailing dinghies came heading in from the sea, bumping and grounding in the shallow channel, and a big heron jumped up from close by and took off like an old grey brolly suddenly come to life.

We crunched the pebbly shore of the bay, walking south along the inlet towards the big sandspit at the mouth where a group of grey seals lay singing, their snouts upturned like giant musical slugs to bring forth eerie echoing calls. One seal came drifting up the tideway, inspecting us as he passed, then lapsing back into the water with a rasping sigh.

The strand turned south-west and ran in a long tan curve towards the multi-coloured seafront of Newcastle. The Mournes still smoked like dampened volcanoes above the town. We idled along, picking up sea urchin exoskeletons far lighter and more fragile than any bird’s egg. Then a yellow post showed the course of a nature trail through the dunes. The sun came through the clouds. Magnificent orange and black butterflies began kettering from hollow to hollow – dark green fritillaries rather than marsh fritillaries, we reluctantly decided. It didn’t really matter a jot. We were content to walk the path through groves of Rose of Sharon, wild strawberries and royal blue viper’s bugloss, making back west and watching the mighty heads of Slieve Bearnagh, Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard itself break free at last into evening sunshine.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:25,000 Activity Map ‘The Mournes’, Nature Trail leaflet map (see below)

TRAVEL: ‘Murlough Beach & National Nature Reserve’ signed off A2, 1 mile out of Newcastle towards Dundrum. NT car park – free members, moderate charge non-members.

WALK DIRECTIONS: At top end of car park, left through gate; left along duckboards; in 50 m they bend right, but keep ahead on grass path by fence. The path soon turns left down steps, then on, following yellow-topped posts/YTP. At Slidderford Bridge path runs close to A2, then on along south bank of tidal Carrigs River, following yellow arrows and Lecale Way/Newcastle Way. At Downshire Bridge, don’t turn left across bridge, but bear right along road. In 100m, left (‘Newcastle Way’), then right along shore. Follow shoreline round the point, south then south-west towards the Mourne Mountains, for 2 ½ miles. At OS ref 405338, look for YTP in dunes on right, turn right inland and follow National Trail/YTPs back to car park.

LENGTH: 5 ½ miles/9 km – allow half a day to enjoy the wildlife

GRADE: Easy

CONDITIONS: At very high tide you might have to follow shoreline among the dunes rather than on the beach.

DON’T MISS:
• Wide views across Dundrum Inner Bay
• Seals basking on the sandspit at entrance to Dundrum Bay (bring binoculars)
• Sensational wild flowers and butterflies along the Nature Trail

REFRESHMENTS: Cottage Café, NT car park – great baking and nice big pots of tea. Check National Trust website for opening times

BEST PICNIC SPOT: on the beach – out of the wind!

ACCOMMODATION: Burrendale Hotel, Newcastle (028-4372-2599 www.burrendale.com ) £ 140 (but much cheaper special offers) dble B&B.

NATURE/TRAIL and OTHER LEAFLETS from NT kiosk in car park

MURLOUGH NNR: nationaltrust.org.uk

INFORMATION: As template
BOOK: As template

INFORMATION: Newcastle Tourist Office (028 4372 2222)
discovernorthernireland.com
WalkNI.com

csomerville@independent.ie

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SS_Great_Britain_stranded_in_Dundrum_Bay.jpg

 Posted by at 3:31 pm
Sep 082012
 

I first walked the Bangor Trail through north-west Mayo’s Nephin Beg mountains more than twenty years ago. Although the background memory is indelibly stamped with the harsh beauty and isolation of that 30-mile trek through Ireland’s wildest mountain range, the foreground is all one blur of rain – spotting, spitting, sluicing, steady old rain. And mist. Every time I’ve caught sight of the Nephin Beg since then, they’ve either loomed grey and insubstantial in shawls of rain, or stood cut off at the knees by mist. So it was a great moment when I pulled back the bedroom curtains in the Clew Bay Hotel down in Westport and saw wall-to-wall blue sky. Now, then!

Cathleen Fergus, County Mayo’s recently appointed Rural Recreation Officer, had given up a day of her time to come and walk the Letterkeen Loop in the southern skirts of the Nephin Beg with Jane and me, and it’s fair to say we set off from the forested valley of Srahmore in good fettle, with sun and cloud shadows chasing each other across the mountains. Wild tales could be told of the Bangor Trail, the ‘old and only road into Erris’ with its bare rocky course winding over remote hills and through valleys. The people of the Nephin Beg seldom saw a stranger, except the hardy drovers who brought cattle along the boggy mountain track between Bangor Erris and Newport mart – 64 miles there and back in hobnail boots. Cathleen’s father was a drover himself, she told us, though he’d walked the Achill Island-Newport route and never trod the Bangor Trail itself.

 

We stepped and stumbled north up the stony road, its boulders and pebbles clinking underfoot. We splashed and squelched over black peat bog seeded with stepping stones that sparkled with mica chips reflecting the sun. Mountain streams crossed the trail in boulder beds, forded with small leaps from one stone to the next. We squeezed leaf buds of bog myrtle, sniffing the pungent fragrance on our fingers, and stooped to inspect the fattest spider in the Nephin Beg, curled motionless in a self-woven gossamer hammock slung between two myrtle sprigs, her pale abdomen zigzagged with brown and black.

A mizzling gauze swept through the valley and across the conifer plantations, more like a softening of the air than rain. We topped a rise to see the ‘old and only road’ ribboning away ahead over the shoulder of the mountain. Apart from the conifers, nothing in this empty, magnificent landscape spoke of either 21st or 20th century.

Near the top of the rise the Letterkeen Loop broke away from the Bangor Trail and took us up along a line of rotted fenceposts on a very sodden and sloppy path. It rose to a saddle of ground, wound through some stubby escaped conifers and went on up to the rocky peak of Letterkeen. The view from here was sublime – north into the long bowl of gold-shouldered Nephin Beg Mountain, west and south to a great cliff-faced horseshoe of fells trending down towards Glennamong and the sleek hollow back and head of Bengorm in the south, then north-east across the vast flatland of the great bog of Bellacorick and the rise of the land towards the north Mayo coast.

We sat nibbling chicken-and-pesto sandwiches and watching a ewe standing motionless guard over her two tiny blackfaced lambs. Then it was a slip and a slide down the boggy hillside, and a crunching finish to the walk along a forest road between banks of white wood-sorrel bells, scented with pine resin and lit by shafts of sunlight slanting among the massed ranks of the trees.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 31; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking.
GPS: satmap.com

TRAVEL: N59 Newport-Mulranny road; on outskirts of Newport, turn right (‘Letterkeen, Bangor Trail’, then ‘Srahmore, Letterkeen Loop, Nephin Beg’) for 12 km/8 miles. Park at Brogan Carroll Bothy.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow purple arrows/PA across Altaconey River and up glen on Bangor Trail for 4 km/2⅔ miles. Lough Aroher Loop (red arrows) turns right; don’t follow this, but keep ahead along Bangor Trail for another 100 m. Then turn right (PA) off Bangor Trail, following fence posts to top of slope, then through trees and up to rocky peak. Follow PA down off peak, through forestry to track; left to descend to forest road; right to return to Brogan Carroll Bothy.

LENGTH: 10.5 km/6½ miles – allow 3-4 hours

GRADE: Moderate/hard

CONDITIONS: Bangor Trail is very stony, mountain slopes very wet and boggy; many streams, stepping stones etc. Proper hill walking clothes and boots essential. NB: No dogs allowed – sheep country!

DON’T MISS:
• Information boards on the local trails and countryside at the start
• Views west and south of Bengorm and Glennamong mountains
• Views from the rocky peak over Bellacorick Bog and much of North Mayo

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic on the peak at Letterkeen.

ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Newport, Main Street, Newport, Co Mayo (098-41155; hotelnewportmayo.com – please ring for deals); Clew Bay Hotel, James Street, Westport, Co Mayo (098-28088; clewbayhotel.com) – from €50 dinner, B&B pp.

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: discoverireland.ie/walking and coillte.ie

BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

INFORMATION: Newport TIC (098-41895); countymayo.com

 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Aug 042012
 


Wind, sun and towering clouds over Connemara, Galway Bay a choppy mass of white horses, and Inisheer the shape of a pale grey currach upturned in the sea, with bursts of white spray demarcating the shoreline as we butted out aboard the Doolin ferry. It’s always a shock to remember that the three iron-grey Aran Islands, with their cracked and flower-bespattered limestone, belong politically to granite-hearted Co. Galway, rather than Co. Clare of whose Burren region they are insular outcrops.

Safely landed, and walking the north-west shore of Inisheer along a massive storm beach of grey boulders piled ten feet high, we looked across to neighbouring Inishmaan, its white houses sunlit against slaty clouds under a technicolour rainbow. A gannet wheeled on long black-tipped wings before plunging down like a dive-bomber to smack into the sea on top of some unfortunate fish.

The back of Inisheer is divided into hundreds of tiny fields, each enclosed by walls of rough stone blades and boulders so intricately positioned that they look like artists’ installations – an effect enhanced by the chinks of white, grey, blue and silver sky caught like stained glass between the stones. In the fields we found watchful horned cattle, doleful piebald horses, and such a profusion of wild flowers it was hard to know where to look first – on this spring day, primroses, bluebells, milkwort, buttercups, cowslips, early purple (and white) orchids, and just-emerging flowers of bloody cranesbill of a deep, rich, episcopal pinky-purple. Pride of the place, though, were the spring gentians – royal blue trumpets raised skywards, of a colour so vivid and intense it always takes one by surprise, spring after spring.

Tobar Éinne lay by the lane side, a beautifully kept holy well in a double curve of stone wall like a yin-yang symbol, the entrance marked by a weather-smoothed bullaun with a smidgeon of rainwater held in its hollow for a wish or blessing. The lane led us back to Cill Ghobnait on the outskirts of the village, a diminutive stone church, well over a thousand years old, with great thick walls and a tiny arched east window. Then we fumbled and wandered our way back to the south end of the island, with views widening over the waist-high stone walls, south-east to the abruptly stepped silhouette of the Cliffs of Moher, north to the crumpled blue backbone of the Maumturks and Twelve Bens against the smoking rain clouds over Connemara.

Nearer at hand, Inisheer’s lighthouse raised a black and white striped finger on the southern shore. White rollers were creaming in from an indigo sea to crash on the rim of the island. We followed the well-beaten path over the pebbles, accompanied by flights of oystercatchers with their plaintive p’cheep! of a call, towards the rusty old hulk of the freighter Plassey lying stranded for ever more on the storm beach of Inisheer’s most easterly point.

Plassey was thrown ashore during a storm in 1960 and she has lain here ever since, gradually acquiring a fiery orange coat of rust and losing chunks of herself to wind and weather. Jackdaws were strutting the bridge rails and funnel of the broken-backed hulk, and the rocks and boulders all around lay stained a rich ochre. We idled in her shadow, kicking up the pebbles, before hiking back over the hump of the island into the blast of the Galway Bay wind once more.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 51; ‘Folding Landscapes’ 2.2 inches/mile ‘Oileáin Árann’ map; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking.

TRAVEL: Ferries from Doolin (Doolin Ferries 065-707-5555; 087-958-1465) or Rossaveal (091-568903; aranislandferries.com); flights from Connemara Regional Airport, Inverin (091-593034; aerarannislands.ie)

WALK DIRECTIONS: There are 2 National Looped Walks on Inisheer – ‘Lúb Ceathú an Phoillín’ (purple arrows) and ‘Lúb Ceathú an Locha’. Most of the island can be seen in a day’s wandering along the narrow, winding lanes and boreens. If you get lost, don’t worry – head north and you’ll end up in the village.
The walk as described: From pier turn right, then uphill to T-junction. Follow ‘Fisherman’s Cottage’ past café and on along coast road, which becomes stony. Where tarmac lane comes in on left, follow it past Tobar Éinne. At next corner, left (yellow arrow) back to village. Pass Arts Centre, then first right, first left, first right by thatched barn. Carry on, to turn right past church. At Y-junction, right. First left along lane. At Y-junction, right; in 50 m, right again and follow tarmac lane. In 300 m, left by Looped Walks arrow post along green lane to tarred road. Right to south shore. Left past lighthouse (red blobs) to wreck of Plassey. Follow road back to village.

LENGTH: 12.5 km/7 ½ miles – allow at least 4 hours

GRADE: Easy

CONDITIONS: Roads, green lanes and lots of wobbly pebbles – take ankle supporting footwear.

DON’T MISS:
• Wild flowers everywhere
• Tobar Éinne holy well
• Wreck of the ‘Plassey’.

 

REFRESHMENTS: Fisherman’s Cottage café (099-75073; 087-904-2777) – try their delicious breakfasts, also fish pie and lemon posset.

PICNIC SPOT: Anywhere sheltered – it depends which way the wind’s blowing!

ACCOMMODATION: South Aran House (contact as for Fisherman’s Cottage) – €76 dble B&B – comfortable, friendly and extremely helpful.

WALKING IN IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.coillte.ie

BOOKS:
• Wildflowers of Ireland by Zoë Durlin (The Collins Press) – a marvellous, beautifully illustrated compendium
• Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

INFORMATION: 099-75008; inisoirr-island.com

 Posted by at 4:46 pm
Jun 162012
 

Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville

No 121. Bolus Head, Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry

On a spring morning like this one, fantastically blowy and vigorous, with a white-toothed milky green sea and a tumultuous blue and silver sky, you really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than down on St Finan’s Bay in south-west Kerry at the outermost tip of the Iveragh peninsula. New-born lambs tottered in the shadow of their mothers, primroses and dandelions fought silently for possession of the verges along the bumpy little back-country road to Ducalla, and altogether everything in and out of nature seemed in a conspiracy to put a big stupid smile on a walker’s face.

A great crowd turned out to mark the start of the walk – Mary Adair, Gaeltacht worker Caitlín Breathnach and Kerry’s stand-in Rural Recreation Officer Trish Deane, Rural Social Scheme workers John Joe O’Sullivan and Patrick O’Donoghue who had installed the Bolus Head Loop Walk on the ground, and Jimmy Curran and John Joe O’Sullivan (another one!), the farmers whose land we were going to be crossing today. After a lot of handshaking and mutual grinning, the actual walking party shook down into Jimmy, John Joe (RSS) and Patrick, Trisha, Jane and myself. We waved goodbye to the others and set out across the squelchy hillsides of Ducalla.

‘Just born this morning – see?’ Jimmy pointed to a lamp so new that the bright red birth string was still attached. ‘I’ve farmed and lived all my life right here,’ Jimmy said, ‘and I’m never happier than when I’m out here on these fields with that view,’ and he indicated with a sweep of his arm the wide bay, the striated green blade of Puffin Island, and the Skellig Rocks like twin castles out in the sea. ‘We’d the white-tailed sea eagles down there on the cliffs for two months last year, and I’m hoping they’ll visit again.’

At the turn of the path Jimmy decided he’d better be off to see to his lambs. He hurried away down the hillside and the rest of us faced up the spine of Ducalla Head, a narrow upward path on the cliff edge with breathtaking views down into the dark hollows of the cliffs, a tumbledown wall between us and the drop to the rocks a couple of hundred feet below. We sat out of the wind in the shelter of an ancient multi-gabled building while John Joe and Patrick, local farmers, talked of west Kerry’s recent problems of emigration and the steady draining away of bright and energetic youth with no work or prospects to hold them here.

And what of John Joe and Patrick themselves? ‘Ah, well, now…’ The modest men and women of the Rural Social Scheme would never tell you this, but their hard work and local knowledge forms the bedrock of the huge success of Ireland’s new Looped Walks. If it wasn’t for their tactful sit-downs and give-and-take discussions with sometimes reluctant landowners – people they’ve known all their lives – not to mention their hard work with spade, shovel and signpost, the Looped Walks would never have got off the drawing board onto the ground.

We stormed the last of the slope and came to the twin ruins on the crest of Bolus Head – a plain concrete lookout from the Second World War, and a far larger and starker tower of black stone just beyond, the wind howling softly through its blank windows. The crest of the hill made an atmospheric spot to stop before the homeward descent, getting our breath and looking out to the soaring spires of the Skelligs where other modest and hard-working men – the monks of the lonely rocks – once clung to their isolation in that sea-girt fortress of prayer and fasting.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 83; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking.
GPS: Satmap.com

TRAVEL: N70 to Cahersiveen; 4 km towards Waterville, R565 to Portmagee; minor road to Keel. From Keel, follow road marked ‘Baile an Sceilg’; first right past Skelligs Chocolate factory (‘Trailhead’); park by Liberator monument.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow purple arrows (PA) along road for 2 km to its end. Cross stile and on across hillside, then left beside fence up spine of Bolus Head to signal tower at summit (PAs). Left along fence, over ladder stile; on to cross next ladder stile. Bear left along green road, then ahead (PA) steeply down beside a fence to a gate and road; continue ahead back to monument.

LENGTH: 8.5 km/5½ miles – allow 2½-3½ hours

GRADE: Moderate/steep

CONDITIONS: Soft hillside paths; boots/walking trainers advised. One short, steep upwards section. Please do not cross fence at summit of Bolus Head; the larger ruin is private property.

DON’T MISS:
• Sensational views of the Skelligs
• Gannets diving into St Finan’s Bay for fish
• View from summit – from Beara peninsula to Inishvickillaun

REFRESHMENTS: Skellig’s Chocolate Café (066-947-9119; skelligschocolate.com): Mon-Fri 11-16.45, Sat, Sun 12-16.45.

PICNIC SPOT: Up by the ‘barracks’ on Bolus Head

ACCOMMODATION: Currane Lodge, Tarmons, Waterville, Co. Kerry (066-947-4073; curranelodge.ie; €60-70 dble B&) – Ann McCarthy’s immaculate lake-view B&B.
DINNER: Smugglers Inn, Cliff Road, Waterville (066-947-4330; thesmugglersinn.ie) – superb seafood bisque and local fish straight out of the sea.

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.coillte.ie

BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

INFORMATION: Waterville TIC (066-947-4646); discoverireland.ie/Places-To-Go; ringofkerrytourism.com

csomerville@independent.ie
900 words

INFORMATION: Waterville TIC

 Posted by at 4:43 pm
Oct 152011
 

Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville

113: McSwyne’s Gun Loop, Horn Head, Co. Donegal first published 17 September 2011

When I’m 108, I only hope I’m half as spry as Harry. Since Inga Bock, Co. Donegal’s indefatigable Rural Recreation Officer, found him wandering on a back lane near Ballybofey, this 18-year-old (in human reckoning) Patterdale terrier, absolutely chock-full of character and devilry with his bushy white brows and single shark-like fang, accompanies his adoptive mistress on all her walks. This morning Harry went trotting through the dunes with all the enthusiasm of a puppy – on the lead at all times, as every dog on the path to Tramore Beach must be.

It was one of those beckoning Donegal days, the sky over the Horn Head peninsula swirling with silver clouds and intense patches of blue, the long sandflats of Dunfanaghy Bay emitting a low gleam of ochre, dun and emerald. A mighty storm in 1917 sealed the fate of Dunfanaghy, said Inga, silting up the harbour and ending the coastal village’s eminence as a herring port. Sand has been the story here, choking the sound that once made an island of Horn Head, heaping up huge dunes some 50 metres tall. The path we were following took us a mazy trek through the hollows and over the peaks of the sandhills, an extraordinary natural garden of wild flowers.

Topping the sandhills we stood looking west over a wonderful view – jade green waves creaming in serried ranks on the golden strand of Tramore, the tremendous quartzite humps of the Derryveagh Mountains rising in the south and out at sea the jagged dark profile of Tory Island lying on the horizon, its towering western cliffs rugged and blocky enough to be the work of some clumsy sculptor giant. It was a prospect to stop anyone in their tracks, but not Harry – he was attentive only to the beat of a singular doggy drum, and did his best to get stuck fast down one impossible rabbit burrow after another, his wriggling tail sticking out of the holes the only clue as to his whereabouts.

On Tramore Strand Jane and I bade a fond farewell to Inga and Harry – dogs aren’t allowed onto the headland, on account of the livestock in the fields. We headed out along the narrow cliff path round Marfagh headland, a slippery flywalk that brought us down over tar-black rocks speckled with green and orange lichen. A deep, booming thump, irregularly repeated with a slight tremor of the rocks under our feet, told us that we were in the vicinity of McSwyne’s Gun, and soon we had identified the famous blow-hole. To leeward of the dark chasm the cliffs were carpeted with deep drifts of sea-rounded pebbles. They had been blown there with the force of bullets by the eruptions of the seawater geyser, which can reach an almost unbelievable height of 70 metres during storms. Some say the Gun can be heard booming ten miles off; there’s even a rumour that its percussive explosions have reached the city of Derry, 30 miles away as the wave-shot pebble flies.

In among a little settlement of tumbledown stone cottages beyond Pollaguill Bay, two Connemara ponies were grazing, their long manes flopping in the wind like a boy band’s fringes. On the road above we met up with Inga and Harry once more, our four-legged friend wheezing asthmatically and grinning with his outsize fang through a mask of clotted sand, product of his latest excavation. The four of us walked down towards the scatter of Dunfanaghy around its bay, with the soft throaty invitation of a cuckoo echoing across the hayfields and the cloud-piercing cone of Mount Errigal on the southern skyline to put everything into decent perspective.

WAY TO GO

Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 2; downloadable instructions as discoverireland.ie/walking.

TRAVEL: Coaches from Dublin (www.johnmcginley.com), Galway (www.feda.ie) and Belfast (www.gallagherscoaches.com) stop outside Arnold’s Hotel.
Road: N13 to Letterkenny, N56 to Dunfanaghy. Continue through village; at far end, right (brown ‘Trailhead’ fingerpost). Cross bridge, pass Trailhead Map board; continue along road for 100 m. First left to car park.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Return along road to Trailhead map board by bridge. Follow ‘McSwyne’s Gun Loop’ blue arrows (BA) over stile and through dunes for nearly 2 km to north end of Tramore Strand. Bear right; follow fence (BA), then cliff path (BAs on posts and rocks) for 2.5 km to Pollaguill Bay. Inland along Pollaguill Burn (BAs, ladder stiles) towards Claggan. Among ruined houses join boreen; at tarmac road, right for 2 km to car park.

LENGTH: 6 miles/10 km; allow 3-4 hours.

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Some narrow cliff paths, some steep, exposed sections. Take great care with children!
NB Dogs must be strictly on the lead at all times as far as Tramore Strand, and are not allowed further onto the headland. Ignoring this instruction may cause Horn Head to be closed to walkers.

DON’T MISS:

• Wonderful flowers of the dunes
• Blow holes, especially McSwyne’s Gun
• Spectacular views from road over Errigal and the Derryveagh Mts

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic.

ACCOMMODATION: Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy (074-913-6208; arnoldshotel.com): family-run, really friendly and helpful.

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
National Trails Day, 2 October: Walks, trails, fun events across Ireland (nationaltrailsday.ie)
Carlow Autumn Walking Festival, 7-9 October (059-913-0411; www.carlowtourism.com
East Clare Walking Festival, 21-23 October (www.eastclarewalkingfestival.com)
Foxford Walking Festival, Mayo, 21-23 October (094-925-7684; www.foxfordwalkingfestival.com)

LETTERKENNY TIC: Blaney Road (074-91-21160); discoverderrydonegal.com)

csomerville@independent.ie

 Posted by at 3:30 pm
Sep 242011
 

Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville

first published 10 September 2011

112: The Causeway, Killeter, Co. Tyrone

If you’re going to walk way out in the moorlands, and especially in the real high back country of West Tyrone, then you can’t do better than have Martin Bradley at your side. Martin is Tyrone’s countryside officer, so bog myrtle and sphagnum moss, traditional sheep farming practices and the run of field boundaries are just naturally meat and drink to him.

Up on the border between Tyrone and Donegal we parked the car and set out – not down a winding sheep track or a gravelled bog road, but along what must once have been a great and important highway. There’s no mistaking The Causeway in this gently rolling landscape. The broad strip of the upland thoroughfare runs as straight as a die, heading roughly north-east and south-west, unrolling into hollows and up over the back of the moors. Bootprints and sheep slots indent it; fleets of rainwater glint in its furrows, brilliant green and scarlet patches of sodden sphagnum make splash-traps for unwary walkers. You can’t mistake it, and if you have even a squirt of rambling blood in your veins, you can’t resist its summons.

‘I was looking at an old map,’ said Martin as we put our backs to the wind and a spat of rain, ‘and I noticed a dotted line running straight across the moors. The name “Causeway Hill” just off the line seemed to be a good clue, and talking to locals I found out that they’d always known of it.’

Big views unfurled as we walked the hilly country of West Tyrone; the shark tooth of Errigal away in the north-west, far glimpses of the Sperrin Hills in the east, and behind us the old road rising arrow-straight through the Black Gap towards the empty lands of south Donegal where Lough Derg and the great inland sea of Lower Lough Erne lay hidden by the swell of the land. Could The Causeway have been trodden out as a route to those loughs, for pilgrimage or trade purposes? ‘Well,’ Martin said, ‘I think it could be two thousand years old at least, maybe older. There might be a wooden log trackway under what we see today; excavation would tell us that. But it’s certainly not a famine road. An Iron Age date seems a possibility.’

The bog each side is busy reclaiming The Causeway, enfolding it in a solid blanket of grassy peat. Below that covering, though, the whole trackway is ditched, embanked and provided with neat stone culverts – evidence that it has been used, and highly valued, for a very long time. During the Second World War, Martin told us, The Causeway was a well-trodden smuggling route, bringing milk and meat on the hoof from Donegal into a ration-hit Tyrone.

These boglands are threaded by the Pollan Burn and watered by more than enough rainfall. Plants that love wet and acid conditions grow in abundance: insect-devouring sundews, heath bedstraw, bell heather and bright pink bogbean. Pipits and wheatears flit away, skylarks fill the air with unceasing song. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for an upland walk – and if you don’t care for the sight of wind-farms, you’d better set out soon.

Down in the valley we turned along the road through the townland of Magherakeel. An ancient church, perhaps 6th-century in foundation, beside an old white-washed school cabin; a graveyard full of angel-carved headstones; a holy well where St Patrick once stopped for a drink and a bit of a sit-down. Danny Gallan of Killeter Historical Society met us at the well, having turned out on this rainy afternoon to unravel the story of it all.

An ancient trackway over a hill, a fund of history and legend along a country lane. Probably every square mile of rural Ireland holds as much, if only we knew where to look, and who to help us seek it.

WAY TO GO

Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 12.

TRAVEL: (2 cars): From Castlederg (B72 or B50) follow Killeter signs. From Killeter, follow ‘St Patrick’s Well, St Caireall’s Church’.
Leave one car opposite holy well; continue in other car to T-junction; left on Shanaghy road for 3 miles (5 km). Opposite small quarry with double gates on right, turn left along rough track (‘Causeway Walk’). In 150 m park on bend by barrier (‘Causeway Hill’ waymark).

WALK DIRECTIONS: Yellow arrow points right, but you go left past barrier. Follow The Causeway for 3¾ miles (6 km). At foot of lane (yellow arrow), left along country road. At ‘Mellon’s Glen’ signboard, detour left through gate. In 50 m, right at cross-inscribed stone to Mass altar. Return and continue along road. At T-junction, left and left again up Magherakeel Road. Pass lime kiln and St Caireall’s Church to return to St Patrick’s Well.

LENGTH: 5 miles/8 km: allow 2½ – 3 hours

GRADE: Easy

CONDITIONS: Very boggy underfoot in places. Boots, gaiters, waterproof trousers advised.

DON’T MISS:
• Bog flowers
• Views of Blue Stack Mts and Mt Errigal
• Mass altar in Mellon’s Glen.

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic

ACCOMMODATION: Marian McHugh, Glen House, 30 Aghalunny Rd, Killeter BT81 7EZ (028-8167-1983) – offers drop-off and pick-up at start and finish of walk.

GUIDED WALKS: Martin Bradley (028-7131-8473; 079-2678-5706, Martin 839@btinternet.com)

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.walkni.com; www.discoverireland.ie/walking
Tourist Information Centre: Strabane (028-718-84444);
www.discovernorthernireland.com
National Trails Day, 2 October: Walks, trails, fun events across Ireland (nationaltrailsday.ie)

BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

csomerville@independent.ie

 Posted by at 3:29 pm
Sep 032011
 

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

3 September 2011

111. Lough Easkey, Ox Mountains, Co. Sligo

The first time I went walking in the Ox Mountains, I was (almost) literally blasted off them by one of the coldest springtime winds I’ve ever encountered. And when I’d last tried to walk a circuit of Lough Easkey, in the heart of the range, it had rained and blown so hard that I’d actually had to cry off, the only such occasion – so far, touch wood – in over 100 walks for the Irish Independent. So as I left a sunny north Sligo coast and headed inland, there was a bit of a sense of déja vu when I came over the crest of the mountain road and found rain clouds drawn down like a close-fitting cap of grey wool over the hills around a wind-ruffled Lough Easkey.

There is something about the Ox Mountains, the oldest rocks in County Sligo, both elemental and harsh, that seems to suit – if it doesn’t actually attract – weather to match. But then the rain fades off, the winds fall easy, the clouds and the sullen light lift, and so does your heart as you walk among the heathery Ox ridges and slopes, one of the wildest and least visited mountain ranges in Ireland.

I struggled into rain trousers, gaiters and anorak, and set off along the stony path for an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake. Rain-pearled ewes watched from among the rocks with the kind of mistrustful disdain in which mountain sheep are such specialists. A pair of sandpipers bobbed and flirted among the lake shore pebbles, their breast feathers flashing brilliant white. The strong south wind drove successions of wavelets onto the shore with a slap and rustle, filling the air with a fine mist of spray even as the rain began to die away. Everything was wet and wild, and everything was invigorating and beautiful in a bleak, stripped-to-the-bone kind of way.

Plank footbridges carried the path across loud rivulets charged to the brim with rainwater. Meadow pipits went up with a flutter, each upward swoop accompanied by a needly little call. Look! How clever we are! Flying! The hill slopes were spattered yellow and white with miniature four-petalled windmills of tormentil and a froth of heath bedstraw. Rain drops slid in slow progression down the smooth stems of sedge clumps.

I dodged across the sodden ground between dark pools and green sphagnum patches. A bootful of bog water was an inevitability, and I soon got one. But on such a day and in such a place, you laugh in the face of wet feet. That’s all just part of the fun. The wind blew and blustered at me, and I pushed back against it with the enjoyment of pent-up energy given a vigorous release.

The lichen-whitened stones of ruined houses formed rectangles in the grass and heather. The lake shore swung west to form a wide bay, above which an abandoned farmhouse looked out on a view that any true romantic would gladly pay a million poems for – wild flowers, water, mountain, cloud. I doubt many poems were written at the fireside in the houses by Lough Easkey, though. Forcing a decent living from ground as uncompromising as the Ox Mountains would be enough to send most folk early to their beds in a decidedly unromantic state of exhaustion.

Bilberry and bogbean sprays shook the last of the raindrops into the wind. Slabs of the Ox rock lay exposed among the grasses, the grey granite interlarded with thick white seams of quartzite, all contorted by ancient volcanic pressures into bends and loops like a cross-cut of some heroically coarse salami too long neglected in a giant’s lunch-bag.

Hmmm. Yes. Rather a long time since breakfast, now you mention it. I squelched down the slope, sending tiny frogs leaping for safety, and hurried along the rocky cart track that led by the shoreline from the old farm to the motor road. A big sulphur-yellow moth, its furry body and eye-marked wings drenched with rain, clung to a grass clump, waiting for the wind to dry it for flight – infinitely patient, self-sufficient and indifferent to my passing.

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 24; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
GPS: satmap.com

TRAVEL:
N17 to Tobercurry; R294 towards Ballina; in 5½ miles (9km), right (‘Cloonacool, Mass Rock’). In 1½ miles (2 km), left (brown ‘Lough Easkey’ sign) to trailhead and car park by Lough Easkey.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow purple arrows/PAs along rough track by lake shore. Left across bridge; follow stiles/PAs along west shore. In 1 mile (1.5 km), skirt above ruined farmhouse in bay; descend to follow farm track along shore. Nearing cottage in shelter trees, turn right (stile, PA, yellow arrow) across open ground to road. Left along lake shore road to trailhead.

LENGTH: 4 miles (6 km): allow 2 hours

GRADE: Easy

CONDITIONS: Can be very boggy – boots/gaiters advisable

DON’T MISS … !
• ruins of old houses
• views of Ox Mountains
• contorted granite and quartz outcrops

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic

ACCOMMODATION: Murphy’s Hotel, Teeling Street, Tobercurry (071-918-5598; murphyshotel.ie) – very friendly family-run place

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.

BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

INFORMATION:
SLIGO TIC: Temple Street, Sligo (071-916-1201); discoverireland.ie/Places-To-Go/Sligo

csomerville@independent.ie

 Posted by at 3:28 pm
Aug 272011
 

Inishowen is strange country. Ireland’s most northerly corner spreads south from Malin Head as a broad, diamond-shaped peninsula, its nether angle rooted in a slim-waisted isthmus of low boggy ground where Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly do their best to join hands. Inishowen – Owen’s Island – is only an island in name these days, but time was when high tides regularly cut off Donegal’s northernmost peninsula. It still retains the other-worldly feel of a place more often bypassed than visited.

That atmosphere of being neither island nor mainland extends to little Inch Island, a gently domed green hummock in the throat of Lough Swilly. Inch lies tethered to the western edge of the isthmus by two straight, slim embankments. ‘Built by the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway in the 1850s,’ remarked Andrew Speer, regional manager of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as we stood on the long-disused Letterkenny railway line, looking across the water to Inch. ‘Much to our benefit today – not mention the birds.’

Before the railway arrived, the broad collar of land between Inch and the mainland was all sloppy, marshy tidal slobs. But once the railway company had run their two embankments out to the island, the entire area was drained and reclaimed for farmland, with the basin between the banks used as a lagoon for receiving overflow at times of flooding. Lagoon, marsh, wetlands, grasslands – what could be more perfect for over-wintering geese, for whooper swans and nesting gulls, for ducks and grebes and wading birds? Nowadays the whole damp, fascinating complex of habitats is managed by the NPWS as a wildfowl reserve of international importance.

Walking the old railway line on this cloudy, showery morning, we looked out on the lagoon where mute swans sailed among fleets of black and white tufted duck. Dog rose and buttercups, angelica and vetch brightened the shaggy verges of the path, deliberately kept jungly to break up the outline of walkers and prevent the birds being scared away. ‘Whooper swans in winter by the thousand,’ said Andrew. ‘Huge rafts of scaup and coot. Greenland whitefront and greylag geese. We’ve kingfishers and a good population of otters – and more than enough black-headed gulls, as you can see …’

The gulls were fighting and screaming above an islet in the lake, their harsh, throaty voices like spoilt children squabbling. Below them on a long stony spit a line of cormorants stood in black silhouette, wings held out crooked at the elbow to dry in the stiff breeze. Beyond the birds rose the low whaleback of Inch, a ruined cottage on its shore. North up the lake the view sharpened and steepened dramatically into the peaked profile of Scalp Mountain, while further south the modest ridge of Greenan Mountain was crowned by the distinctive pillbox hat of Grianán of Aileach, the Temple of the Sun, great stone-built stronghold and symbol of O’Neill power in Donegal.

Once he’d set the framework for us, Andrew had to go. But we were lucky enough to have born-and-bred local historian Dessie McCallion to walk on with us, filling in the picture with gentle humour. Dessie pointed landwards with his twisty briar stick, indicating the flat green fields cut off from the lagoon by the tall bank of the Letterkenny line. ‘I remember in the 1950s everything reverting to woodland and marsh because the farmers couldn’t agree who was responsible for keeping the drainage ditches clear. Then it was drained and ploughed and intensively farmed. Now the whole estate is going organic – and it’s amazing how the birds go for the organically grown grass when they’ve got the choice.’

At the western end of the railway path we turned out along the Farland embankment. Its narrow wall separates the smooth waters of the lake from the choppy tides of Lough Swilly, where the gaunt ruin of Inch Castle looms on its promontory. Dessie plucked gorse flowers, releasing rich coconut smells. ‘As a girl my mother would bring these home, boil them up and bottle the water to use as hair conditioner. They only had Sunlight soap for shampoo in those days! Blondes used the blossoms, dark-haired girls the shoots. I wonder how many would know about that nowadays.’

One day soon the embankment path is to be extended across Inch Island to complete a circuit for walkers. For now, you have to turn back at Inch’s shore. We lingered before we did, looking along the wetland margin of the island, a haze of creamy white, blue and pink – meadowsweet, pyramidal orchids, forgetmenots, buttercups …

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 7; leaflet guide from NPWS (npws.ie) or local TICs
GPS: satmap.com

TRAVEL:
Rail/bus (nirailways.co.uk): Derry (8 miles/13 km)
Road: From A2 (Derry Letterkenny), brown ‘Inch Wildfowl Reserve’ sign points down lane. Ahead at right bend to Pump House car park.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Left along track for 1¾ miles (2.6 km); right across Farland embankment to Inch Island. Return to car park; continue along track to Toobin bird hide, and return.

LENGTH: 5½ miles (9.5 km): allow 2-2½ hours

GRADE: Easy

DON’T MISS … !
• Bird-watching from the hides (bring your binoculars!)
• tern islet
• view of Grianán of Aileach

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic

ACCOMMODATION: An Grianán Hotel, Burt, Inishowen (074-93-68900; angriananhotel.com) – very comfortable, helpful; right on the doorstep

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.

BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.

INFORMATION:
Letterkenny Tourist Office: 074-912-1160; discoverderrydonegal.com

 Posted by at 4:17 pm