In the evening there was a feast of a session at the Highlands Hotel in Glenties – a fiddler with hands like animated hams giving it all he’d got, a guitar player chopping out chords as thick as slices of brown bread, and a woman in a white cap pouring out sweet and sour songs. But we couldn’t stay late. We had to be up betimes to meet Inga Bock, Co. Donegal’s German-born but Irish-hearted Rural Recreation Officer, for a step out along the Bluestack Way.
Poor Harry, Inga’s ancient and characterful terrier, was condemned to stay guarding his mistress’s van for the day – there would be cattle and sheep along the path. The Bluestack Way is a mountain route for much of its length, but today’s section between Glenties and Ardara runs in the gentle agricultural countryside of the Owenea River, all grazing meadows, brackeny bogs and flowery riverbanks.
We walked out of Glenties along a country road between verges thick with horsetails and trails of wild raspberries, sweet and sharp on the tongue. Drifts of feathery bog cotton spread across the peaty flatlands where a bog road ribboned away for miles in an undulating line, straight to the horizon. The knobbly west Donegal hills rose on either hand, with the green cleft of Glengesh opening ahead into larger mountains, westward towards the coast under a streaky blue and white sky.
We turned off the bog road and followed the Bluestack Way along the cattle-poached banks of the Owenea River. ‘Kingfisher country,’ said Inga, ‘rare enough round here, but I have seen them.’ Pods of yellow rattle hung among the tall grasses, and we flicked them with our fingers to hear the ripe seeds rattle within – the traditional method for farmers to assess when the hay was ready for cutting.
The piers of an old turf railway crossed the river. Beside it ran a former Bord na Mona bridge, all rusty girders and rotted timbers. A former Turf Board employee, Inga said, had kept it creosoted and beautifully maintained, for pride and pleasure, long after his retirement. He’d died, and within 5 years the strong old structure had given up the ghost. This warm midday the sun-dried planks were basking platforms for lizards, and for damselflies with enamel-bright bodies of crimson and azure blue.
The peat-brown water of the Owenea swung and eddied round dark mossy rocks. A sinuous river of deep pools and quiet backwaters under alders and willows, perfect for salmon and trout fishing. Perfect for idling by, too. On a bend above crumbly cliffs riddled with sandmartin holes we perched on Inga’s Picnic Rock, a rough boulder provided with handy natural seats, and munched our lunch – oatcakes and Bendick’s Bittermints, the perfect nutritional balance. An elderly angler fished the Owenea from a little gravelly beach opposite, the very picture of contentment in absorption as he cast and recast, his line flashing in the sun like electric wire.
The Bluestack Way turned south-west and ran beside the Owenea towards a mighty prospect of mountains, from rugged Crocknapeast and Mulmosog round to the rising spine and quartzite screes of dominant Slievetooey. We brushed through clumps of fragrant bog myrtle and came down a back-country road into Ardara, the little town lying at the feet of the hills with Loughros Point and Bay stretching out towards white sandhills and a dark green sea. Back in Glenties, Harry would be waiting to sink his three remaining teeth into a late lunch of doggie granules. For us, there was still time enough for crab claws in Nancy’s pub, and a rerun of our delectable walk through the boglands and meadows of wild West Donegal.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 10, 11; downloadable map/instructions at irishtrails.ie.
Bus – Bus Eireann (074-912-1309, buseireann.ie) or McGeehan (074-954-6150; mcgeehancoaches.com) between Ardara and Glenties – check before travelling!)
Road: N56 to Ardara, leave one car there: N56 to Glenties. Park in the town.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Bluestack Way (BW) is signposted off Glenties main street opposite Limelight Niteclub. Follow minor road (Clós Naomh Chonaill) out of town (BW, yellow ‘walking man’ symbols and yellow arrows; brown ‘Ardara’ signs). At T-junction, left along road. In 2 km/1⅓ miles, left through gate (BW) down stony track between fields. In 200 m, right opposite stone barn (BW) along left bank of ditch. In 150m cross Owenea River; follow BW along left bank. In 1 km (0.6 miles) recross river, follow BW along right bank. In 4 km/2½ miles approx., recross at small pumping station; follow rough tarmac road to R261; left into Ardara.
LENGTH: 12 km/7½ miles – allow 3 hours
• Watching trout rise in dark pools of the Owenea River
• Half-buried rails of the old bog railway
• Stunning view of coast and mountains as you approach Ardara
REFRESHMENTS: Nancy’s pub, Ardara (074-954-1187) – try their succulent crab claws and proper traditional Irish stew.
BEST PICNIC SPOT: Inga’s Rock by Owenea River (OS of I ref G754928).
ACCOMMODATION: Highlands Hotel, Glenties (074-955-1111; highlandshotel.ie). Steak and session night – Thursdays. From €90 dble B&B (ask about deals).
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
Sliabh Liag Hillwalking Club, Donegal (086-606-3923; www.sliabhliagwalkers.com) – walk on last Sunday of every month
Free Bluestack Way App: http://www.everytrail.com/guide/the-bluestack-way-app
BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.
INFORMATION: Donegal Tourist Office (074-972-1148)