They had all the flags out in Swatragh for the Derry County Senior Hurling Final. ‘Horse it into them, Swa!’ urged a big hand-painted banner by the roadside. Sadly, it was Dungiven who horsed it into Swatragh that particular afternoon, 0-12 to 0-8. But I don’t suppose the men of Swa ever hold back too much. Learning your hurling in the shadow of Carntogher would be an inspiration to anyone, the long sloping shoulder of mountain lying at your back like the mother of all goalies, or the great hurler Cuchulainn himself.
Down in the glen of the Altkeeran River all was sedgy, the fields dotted with rushes and the streamsides with scrub trees where long-tailed tits went pit-peet-ing among the silver birches. The old coach road along the glen gave firm footing through the turf which squelched and bounced under every incautious step. Streams ran orange from the iron minerals of the mountain, up whose green flank Jane and I turned to climb towards the Snout of the Cairn. The views widened the higher we went – the hard humpy outline of Slemish due east in Antrim, the neat grouping of Mourne peaks 60 miles off on County Down’s south-easterly skyline, and nearer at hand the rolling bulk of the Sperrin Hills across in Tyrone.
Pink conquistador helmets of lousewort clashed with virulent red sphagnum in the banks of the tumbled wall we were following. It lifted us to the shoulder of the mountain, and a track where we met our first and only walkers of the day, two men of a local townland who pointed out Slieve Gallion ten miles to the south (‘a Derry mountain, despite what you might hear’) with great precision and pride. ‘I’ve walked this path since I was a boy,’ said one, ‘and by God I will do it till the day that I die!’
Up at the Snout of the Cairn, Shane’s Leaps lay just off the path – three innocuous-looking rocks. Did that dashing and irrepressible 18th-century raparee Shane ‘Crossagh’ O’Mullan, the scar-faced outlaw whom all the ladies sighed for, really spring lightly from one to the next in the act of outwitting the lumbering English soldiery? So tales tell us, and how we like to picture such derring-do. Much more shadowed and sombre are the images the skull cinema brings up at the Emigrants’ Cairn, where the heart-stopping view to the hills of Donegal was the last that those walking over the mountains to the ships in Lough Foyle took away with them to ‘far Amerikay’.
Back across the slopes of Carntogher we went, following the boggiest of upland tracks, half peat and half puddle, past black heaps of iron-mining spoil to the top of the ridge and another most tremendous westward view, across the silver fishtail of Lough Foyle, on beyond the pale humps of Barnesmore and the Blue Stacks to the jagged spine of Errigal out at the edge of sight in western Donegal. Between Errigal and Mourne there cannot be fewer than a hundred miles. All Northern Ireland lay spread out for us, and we lingered long over this extraordinary feast.
On the way down we passed a Bronze Age cist grave, carefully labelled ‘Tuama ón Ré Chré Umha’. Now that might just mean ‘the old tomb from the Bronze Age’, but there was something about the little dark hole in the bank, slab-lined and secretive, that simply invited a taller and wilder tale. But no-one was there to tell it to us today.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 8; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at
http://www.walkni.com/d/walks/319/Carntogher_History_Trail.pdf; map of trail at car park.
Bus (integrated website – www.nirailways.co.uk): Ulsterbus to Maghera (3 miles) or Swatragh (3½ miles)
Road: A29 (Coleraine-Maghera); minor roads to parking place by ruined cottage at Tullykeeran Bridge (OSNI ref C 819045).
WALK DIRECTIONS (red trail): Continue along road. 100 m beyond 3rd bridge, left over stile by cylindrical gatepost (red/blue arrows); follow track for ½ mile into Altkeeran Glen (805407 approx). Turn right up path by tumbledown wall (red/blue arrows on posts). In ¾ mile, stony track crosses path (800058 approx); left (red arrow) to Snout of the Cairn viewpoint at Emigrants’ Cairn and Shane’s Leap rocks (796058).
Retrace steps for 50 yards; left at post (red arrow) along grassy track to marker post on saddle of ground; walk 400 yards left here to ridge for great view over Lough Foyle and Donegal hills; return to marker post. Continue downhill along track for 2 miles, past cist grave (824061), through gates, down to road (823055). Right (red arrow) for 2 miles to car park.
LENGTH: 5½ miles: allow 3 hours
CONDITIONS: Mountain hike on hill tracks – wear boots, hillwalking gear. Take binoculars for spotting waymark posts! Very boggy between Snout of the Cairn and Lough Foyle viewpoint.
DON’T MISS … !
• View from Emigrants’ Cairn and Shane’s Leap Rocks
• View over Lough Foyle from ridge
• ‘Tuama ón Ré Chré Umha’ – cist grave
REFRESHMENTS: Rafters Bar and Restaurant, Swatragh (028-7940-1206); food all day, open fire, warm welcome.
ACCOMMODATION: Laurel Villa Townhouse, 60 Church Street, Magherafelt, Co. Derry BT45 6AW (02879-301459; www.laurel-villa.com) – friendly, well-run ‘house of poets’. From £70 dble B&B.
GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: Carntogher History Trail – see ‘Maps’ above
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
INFORMATION: Magherafelt TIC (02879-631510);
Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
23 May 2009