Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
21 November 2009
35. Slí an Easa, Guagán Barra Forest Park, Co. Cork
‘Well, after rain like we had last night,’ said Neil Lucey as he waved us off from the steps of Gougane Barra Hotel, ‘I’d recommend Slí an Easa, the Waterfall Trail.’ He held out a palm to gauge the spitting wind, and gave a grin. ‘It should be roaring up there, all right!’
Gougane Barra Hotel, perched beside Guagán Barra lake in north-west Cork, is a well-found vessel of hospitality and comfort, helmed by the Cronin/Lucey family through five generations. Its current boss is nothing if not positive and forward-thinking. Coillte have gone a long way to make the Guagán Barra Forest Park walker-friendly, but Neil Lucey dreams of more – a network of waymarked footpaths, through and beyond the secret glen where the River Lee springs. Good news for walkers and lovers of tucked-away country, one fine day.
It certainly was roaring in the forest beyond the lake as we climbed the puddled pathways of Slí an Easa. The wind came blustering in from the west with rain swirling in its skirts, causing the pines to hiss like a boiling sea as it rushed overhead from rim to rim of the glen. The woods were loud with the gush and trickle of overloaded streamlets. Mats of moss hung over the narrow rocky channels of the waterways, each feathery tendril dribbling its individual string of silver long after the rain had stopped.
A darkly glistening rosette of toothed leaves clung to a wet rock, with a solitary stalk of tiny white flowers still bravely standing tall. ‘Fox’s Cabbage!’ exclaimed the botanist in Jane. ‘What a beautiful thing,’ murmured her artistic side. Both were spot on. Saxifraga spathularis, a shiny and heavily serrated plant of shady and well-watered places, arrived from its stronghold in the Iberian peninsula some time in the deep past before sea levels rose and isolated it in south-west Ireland, where the mild winters suit it just fine. Some call it St Patrick’s Cabbage; others ‘Cabáiste na ndaoine maithe’, the Good People’s Cabbage. Sturdy and thick, it doesn’t much call the fairy folk to mind, but maybe they find the solid umbrella-like leaves a handy hiding place.
The scratchy little cheedle-cheedle-chee of goldcrests called our gaze upwards to the treetops where a flock of the little birds was bouncing from sprig to sprig, their brilliant gold foreheads flashing against the dark green of the pines. Water vapour hung heavy in the resin-scented air, making the dried heads of foxgloves and the shamrock-shaped leaves of oxalis sag with droplets.
A flight of slippery steps led us high into the wood, where a swollen mountain stream crashed down its rocks in a spectacular cataract. We teetered across the stepping stones and went on up to a viewing platform among trees under the peak of Tuarin Beag. The whole of Guagán Barra glen lay spread out under ragged patches of blue torn by the wind in the racing grey sky, Great rock faces rose, their strata canted at steep angles. Across the valley white skeins of water twisted as they tumbled from the dark purple rim of moorland towards the lake hundreds of feet below. One day, if Neil Lucey’s dreams come true, there will be more walkers among those peak, more wanderers on the moors.
Back down by Guagán Barra lake we crossed the short causeway to pay a call to St Finbarr’s Oratory. Long before he ventured down the River Lee to found the city of Cork, fair-haired Finbarr lived on the islet in Guagán Barra lake, a hermit alone with God among the mountains. For austere beauty and a wild grandeur of surroundings, Finbarr could not have done better. Just as well that Gougane Barra Hotel didn’t exist back then – the temptation of a nice hot cup of tea might have been too much even for a copper-bottomed saint to turn his back on.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 85; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at http://www.coillteoutdoors.ie/?id=53&rec_site=88
TRAVEL: Road: From Ballingeary, R584 to Guagán crossroads; right to reach Gougane Barra Hotel. From Bantry, N71 to Ballylickey; right for 15 miles to Guagán crossroads; left to hotel.
WALK DIRECTIONS: From Gougane Barra Hotel, follow lakeside road into Guagán Barra Forest Park. At first car park (NB €5 fee for cars, in coins), take track on left (Waterfall Trail/Slí an Easa). Soon cross footbridge, then track. Continue up path, zigzagging through wood to return above car park. Left up steps (‘Radharc/Viewpoint’). Cross river at waterfall (stepping stones); continue up steps to viewpoint. Return to ‘Radharc/Viewpoint’ sign; bear left across footbridge and fall to return to car park and lakeside road to Gougane Barra hotel. Cross causeway to visit St Finbarr’s Oratory.
NB The walk is described back-to-front, to leave the best waterfall till last.
LENGTH: Waterfall Trail/Slí an Easa 1¼ miles (allow 1 hour); add half an hour for there-and-back from hotel.
CONDITIONS: Forest tracks, many steps
DON’T MISS … !
• natural ‘gardens’ of ferns, liverworts and mosses, including Fox’s Cabbage
• stepping stone crossing beside the high fall
• view over Guagán Barra glen from Tuarin Beag viewpoint
OTHER WALKS: Several other waymarked trails explore Guagán Barra Forest Park.
REFRESHMENTS/ACCOMMODATION: Gougane Barra Hotel (026-47069; www.gouganebarrahotel.com) – welcoming, relaxing, family-run place on the lake
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking; www.coillteoutdoors.ie
Tourist Office: Old Courthouse, Bantry (027-50229);