Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
5 September 2009
Oxford Island, Lough Neagh, Co Armagh
The coot chicks with the scarlet mohicans were proving hard to satisfy. No matter how many times their mother dived for titbits, the tiny scraps of sparse black fluff still agitated for more. It would be another week before they could leave the safety of the pond in front of the Oxford Island Discovery Centre and venture out into the wider world of Lough Neagh’s vast expanse of water.
A grey summer’s afternoon, close and soporific, had settled over northern Armagh; one of those afternoons when nothing seems more seductive than a nice lakeside snooze in the shade of a willow. Jane and I hung over the footbridge rails, idly watched the coots, the dragonflies and the gracefully curving carp, feeling almost too sleepy to set out on the walk we’d promised ourselves. When we did, eventually, it was to the accompaniment of face-splitting yawns.
Trust Mother Nature to provide a wake-up call. The sight of a kestrel swooping down into the scrub bushes, a vigorous scribble of reed bunting twitter and the slop and slap of wavelets in the rushes soon brought me round from my bout of lazyitis. Jane went stalking the buntings through the reeds, but they proved too elusive for her. Delicate yellow moths were clinging all over the stinging nettles like tatters of parchment as we followed newly mown paths through the meadows. The sun-warmed wooden walls and beams of Kinnego Hide gave off a faint smell of tar and pine sap. We leaned in its shelter, binoculars at the ready, watching a big mixed fleet of pochard and tufted duck bobbing in the shallows.
Lough Neagh is one hell of a big body of water. It is over ten miles broad and nearly twenty long. A walker circumambulating its shores would cover 65 miles. It’s so big that, as with the great lakes of Canada, one loses the sense of it as a body of fresh water bounded by land. Strolling its margins is like walking by the sea. Set as it is in flat country, its waters usually hidden behind a hedge or beyond the trees, one generally struggles to catch a good view of Lough Neagh. So it was a special pleasure to be down on the shores of Oxford Island with a clear prospect across the lough, watching the bobbing birds and red-sailed dinghies, with Thomas Moore’s ‘Let Erin Remember’ drifting through the memory halls.
‘On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays,
In the clear cold eve declining,
He sees the round towers of other days
In the waters ‘neath him shining …’
Lough Neagh holds its fair share of magic. Do fabulous cities lie under its waters? Drowned forests of former days certainly do. Calcified fragments of timber, dredged up in the nets of Lough Neagh eel fishermen, were sold not so long ago in the streets of Belfast for whetstones, as the hawkers cried: ‘Lough Neagh hones! Lough Neagh hones! Put in sticks, took out stones!’
We went dreamily on through the orchid drifts of Kinnego Meadows, round the phragmites beds and gently undulating lily pads of Kinnego Pond, and back by peaty paths under the trees and along the low cliffs of the lough’s former shoreline. These days Lough Neagh lies ten feet lower than it did before Victorian engineers began to drain the surrounding wetlands for agriculture. If it continues to rain as it has done so far this soaking summer, however, the enchanted lough may yet regain its stolen kingdom.
WAY TO GO
MAP: Maps available from Discovery Centre.
Rail/bus (integrated website – www.nirailways.co.uk): rail to Lurgan (3 miles), bus 53 to Kinnego Embankment
Cycling Route NCN 9 and 94
Road: M1 to Jct 10; follow brown ‘Oxford Island’ signs to Discovery Centre and car park.
WALK DIRECTIONS: From Discovery Centre follow roadway past car park; where road curves right, follow mown footpath for 500 yards. Bear left along gravel path past Kinnego Hide to road. Left past Art Space building; follow ‘marina’ signs along path through Kinnego Meadows.
Just before Waterside House bear left, then right (butterfly waymarks) to reach Marina. Turn right; left to pass playground; right along top of car park to far corner. Follow path into wood (sailboat waymark), then clockwise round Kinnego Pond.
Right at top past ‘Wildlife of Reedbed’ info board. In 100 yards, at next crossroads (bench and sailboat waymark ahead), go left, through fence, across 2 roads, down tarmac road opposite. In 50 yards (‘Private’ notice on left), right on path through trees for ⅓ mile to road. Right, then left past ranger’s hut. In 100 yards, right through gate (‘Waterside House’); follow round to left; in 50 yards, keep forward (butterfly waymark), retracing steps past Kinnego Meadows, Artspace and Kinnego Hide. 200 yards beyond hide, left (‘Reed Beds’), cross road, on along gravelled path through woodland. Down steps; right along old shoreline past Closet Bay, back to Discovery Centre.
LENGTH: 4 miles: allow 1½-2 hours
CONDITIONS: Well-surfaced paths, some wheelchair-friendly
DON’T MISS … !
• changing Discovery Centre displays
• birdwatching from the hides (bring binoculars!
REFRESHMENTS: Discovery Centre; or picnic by Lough Neagh
LEAFLET GUIDES from Discovery Centre
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
NATIONAL TRAILS DAY 2009: Sunday 4 October (www.nationaltrailsday.ie)
INFORMATION: Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island National Nature Reserve, Craigavon (00-44-28-3832-2205; www.oxfordisland.com)