Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
28 November 2009
36. Vinegar Hill Loop, Sperrin Hills, Co. Tyrone
Two separate but related delights awaited Jane and me at the foot of the Barnes Gap – a glorious day of sunshine over the Sperrin Hills, and the sight of Martin McGuigan clambering out of his van with his walking boots on. Inveterate hill walker and mountaineer Martin, fit and springy, is exactly the man you want with you in the Sperrins. This wild range of fells, straddling the waist of County Tyrone, is his native ground; and not only does he know every inch of the hills, he has just been instrumental in putting together the brand new Vinegar Hill Looped Walk around the beautiful and lonely glen of Gorticashel.
‘Mullaghcarn with the peaked head, down there in the south,’ said Martin, pointing out the landscape features from the heights of the narrow Barnes Gap, ‘and the central Sperrins all around us here. Then what I’d call the High Sperrins to the north there through the Gap. Of course we’d never have had this view if it wasn’t for the Ice Age. The glaciers scraped and shaped all the hills you can see; and then when they were melting they formed a huge lake, and when that overflowed it just burst through a weak spot in the rock and formed the Gap itself.’
A landscape with dynamic origins, and an exceptionally beautiful one. From the old stony road that winds like a scarf around the upper shoulders of the Gorticashel glen we looked down into a silent bowl of fields, some green with good grazing, others hazed under bracken and sedge. Abandoned farmsteads lay dotted across the slopes, each rusted roof of corrugated iron an orange blob among tattered shelter trees – eloquent testimony to the hardships faced by small country farms these days.
‘Lazybed strips.’ Martin’s finger pointed out the corduroy rows on the slopes of the glen. We tried to imagine the work involved in wresting a family’s living out of a lazybed. ‘I’ve dug rows like that myself,’ Martin observed. ‘It’s hard enough work. You dig a trench and turn the soil over onto the next ridge, grass to grass, to make a domed top and undercut sides. Spuds and cabbages. The biggest crop I had was half a ton out of ten rows, each maybe twenty yards long. So lazybeds are very effective – but they’d break your back.’
Two ravens passed overhead, planing downwind with a harsh cronk! We paused on Vinegar Hill beside one of the tumbledown cottages, its rafters half smothered with fuchsia and Himalayan balsam, its fireplace choked with tendrils of ivy that were feeling their way blindly, like pale tentacles, out into the room among the wrecks of chairs and dresser. Martin fingered the balsam, ruminating. ‘These flowers were a big thing in my childhood. The bees would go crazy for them, and we’d see how many we could catch in a jam jar before we got stung!’
Down where the Gorticashel Burn ran under a bridge, a ferny old mill house stood hard against the bank, with an ancient potato-digging machine on its mossy cobbles. Sparrows went flocking through a cotoneaster bush on a farmhouse wall. At Scotch Town we found the crossroads guarded by a handsome rooster in a tippet of gleaming ginger feathers. Near Garvagh, as we turned for our homeward step, a great roadside shed stood provisioned for the winter with dried sods of turf.
This whole glen speaks eloquently of the life and work of family farms, present and past. Now, with the opening of the Vinegar Hill Loop, cheerful voices will be heard around the abandoned steadings and boots will tread the forgotten green roads of Gorticashel once more.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 13; downloadable map/instructions soon to be available at www.walkni.com
TRAVEL: From B74 between Plumbridge and Draperstown, follow brown ‘Barnes Gap’ tourist signs. Park in car park/toilet/picnic area (OSNI ref. H 551905) at foot of Mullaghbane Road by ‘Plumbridge 5’ sign.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Walk up the upper Barnes gap road (‘Craignamaddy Circuit/CC, Ulster Way’ sign) past farm (barking dogs!). Right along Magherbrack Road for ⅓ mile; left (552896; CC) along dirt road. Follow it round Gorticashel Glen for 2 miles to road near Irish Town (558873). Right for ⅔ mile to crossroads in Scotch Town (548875; ‘Gortin’ left, ‘Plumbridge’ right). Straight across here and over next 2 crossroads (544875 and 538880) for 1 mile, to pass turning on left (536883 – tarmac stops here). Ahead for 300 metres; right (534885; ‘Vinegar Hill Loop’) on stony lane. Follow it for 1⅓ miles to road (550892). Forward to Barnes Gap road; left to car park.
LENGTH: 7 miles: allow 3 hours
CONDITIONS: Minor roads, country lanes
DON’T MISS … !
• views from Barnes Gap – north to High Sperrins, south to Mullaghcarn
• old mill and potato digger at Scotch Town bridge
• standing stone behind hedge near Garvagh (ref. 538881)
ACCOMMODATION: Crosh Lodge, 22 Plumbridge Road, Newtownstewart (024-8166-1421) – £46 dble B&B
OPERATORS/COMPANIES: Walk On The Wild Side (024-8075-8452 or 07714-835-977; www.walkwithmarty.com)
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
Vinegar Hill Loop Launch: 12 December 2009; everybody welcome; contact Martin McGuigan on 024-8075-8452 or 07714-835-977; www.walkwithmarty.com
INFORMATION: Tourist Information Centre, Strule Arts Centre, Omagh (024-8224-7831); www.discovernorthernireland.com; firstname.lastname@example.org