Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
18 July 2009
18. Castlemorris Woods, Co. Kilkenny
There were green men in the Grand Gates of Castlemorris. I saw them leering out of the fancy cast-iron foliage with pop eyes and saucy beards. Or maybe it was just my imagination, already working overtime to picture what things must have been like a hundred years ago when Castlemorris House with its reputed 365 windows and its armies of servants was up and running under the de Montmorency family. The great house is long gone, unroofed and demolished; the Montmorencys are seen no more in their mid-Kilkenny parkland. But the grounds, more thickly wooded now than ever they were when the Castlemorris gardeners kept all spick and span, are in Coillte’s stewardship and open to all.
Three locals had mustered to join Jane and me for an evening stroll through soft rain showers; friends and fellow walkers Mary Cuddihy and Lily Burke, along with their chum Eoin Hogan, County Kilkenny’s young and enthusiastic walks officer. This was a pretty formidable deployment of conversation power. Bacon, shoes, the dawn chorus, poetry, traditional songs, Donegal hills and modern mores were all dusted off and shaken out. Lily spoke of a solitary ancient who still inhabits these woods, and told of thrilling her children with tales of the Three Bears resident in the Gate Lodge.
If you like wild flowers and trees, come to Castlemorris. Here are oak, ash, beech, hazel, sycamore, specimen conifers, silver-skinned hornbeams. In their shelter flourished big spreads of buttercups, tall sowthistles, purple vetches, bird’s-foot trefoil, hairy-podded herb robert. Bramble bushes wore pink and white shawls of guelder roses. Wrens chittered and blackbirds fluted – it was that time of day.
We walked the grass and gravel paths of Castlemorris, stopping to peer through the ivy-hung archway of the old stableyard into the dark tangle of trees where the Big House once stood. On the far side of the woods we came to the ancient church of Aghaviller, and climbed its perilous stone stair for a jackdaw’s-eye view of the Round Tower and the railed burial vault of the Montmorencys in its shadow. How strange it was to see the great tomb slabs with their grim iron rings, sealing off the Big House family in death as in life.
Such a gulf came poignantly to mind along the calm pathways of Gáirdín an Ghorta, a garden just down the road from Castlemorris that has been laid out to represent the history of the Great Famine. Wandering there later that evening, one pictured the past as truly another country. Yet echoes of it ripple on, not least in the difficulties so many walkers have experienced down the years in getting access to their own native countryside. Several factors have been at play: a lack of information, inadequate mapping, old anxieties of landowners and farmers, nod-and-a-wink permissions that never made it to legal status and could be withdrawn on a whim. Now things are changing, praise the Lord.
Nearing the Grand Gates at the end of the Castlemorris walk, I ran wet beech and oak leaves through my fingers and gave a silent salute to Coillte. The opening of so many forest and woodland paths to walkers has been one of the most important factors in getting people out into the open air. Woods weave powerful magic, seducing you into their green shade and delectable silences – if you discount bird song, insect hum, wind music and the gentle million-fold drip of damp exhalations from fern and leaf. It was good to know we had the right to be here, and to take all the time we wanted, and then some.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.trailkilkenny.ie
Rail (www.irishrail.ie) to Thomastown (11 km / 7 miles)
Road: N10 Kilkenny or Waterford to Knocktopher (‘Trail Kilkenny’ signed from here); R699 (‘Callan’); in 4 miles/6 km, R701 (‘Kilmaganny’). In 1 km (½ mile), car park on right opposite Castlemorris Grand Gates.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Go through gates, past Lodge, through ‘Castlemorris Woods’ gate, up drive (red arrows, purple arrows). After a bit more than 1 km (¾ mile) bear right in front of an arch (Castlemorris House yard is beyond). Follow purple arrows for about 1 km (½ mile) to a minor road. Purple arrow points right, but go left (red arrow, ‘Trailhead 40 mins’). Follow road and purple arrows to cross stream. Soon the trail (red, purple arrows) turns left past a barrier on a forest path (‘Castlemorris Wood’) to return to car park. To see Aghaviller Church and Round Tower, keep ahead for 100 m/yards here.
LENGTH: 6 km / 4 miles: allow 2 hours
CONDITIONS: Forest tracks, minor roads
DON’T MISS … !
• superb ironwork of Grand Gates
• wild flowers everywhere – don’t forget the flower book!
• sinister lifting rings in Montmorency vault at Aghaviller Church and Round Tower
REFRESHMENTS: Café L’Arche, Green Street, Callan (056-770-6891) – light, friendly atmosphere; great food
ACCOMMODATION: Abbey House, Jerpoint Abbey (056-772-4166; www.abbeyhousejerpoint.com) – from €90 dble B&B. Characterful family house right opposite the Abbey.
GÁIRDÍN AN GHORTA: Garden of Remembrance for the Great Famine, Newmarket, next to Castlemorris (www.faminegarden.com; conducted tour, 086-839-4349)
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.coillte.ie
Walks and activities: www.trailkilkenny.ie
Kilkenny Tourist Office: 056-775-1500; www.discoverireland.ie/southeast