Search Results : Antrim

Apr 082014

Dungonnell Way, Glenariff, Co Antrim, N. Ireland

Mist was hanging tattered curtains from the unseen rims of Glenariff as we drove up the twisting road from Waterfoot. The glen’s waterfalls showed as white threads tangling into wind-blown ropes down tall chutes in the basalt cliffs. At the top of the glen the moorland village of Cargan lay in a hollow below mountain slopes that we sensed rather than saw.

Along the road we walked from Cargan, cattle lay in the stone-walled fields, each cow preserving her own dry patch. We passed a rough-cut, square-topped standing stone half-hidden under an ornamental tree in a cottage garden, and turned along a lane that led past mountain farms towards Dungonnell Reservoir. Every farm gate held its black and white guardian collie, head cocked low and sideways, a picture of acute alertness and suspicion. Three magnificently horned sheep watched us across their field wall, stamping the grass and shaking mist-drops from their coats like dogs.

Dungonnell Reservoir, opened in 1971, lay curved in an elbow of low hills, its architecture suitably functional for the austere era it was built. Beyond the reservoir we left the road and crossed a strip of the Garron Plateau’s blanket bog, lushly sodden peat starred with pale pink marsh orchids. Down in Crockaharnan Forest all was still and dark among the long avenues of spruce, under which shone carpets of brilliant crimson and luminescent green sphagnum moss. Goldcrests squeaked in tiny voices among the treetops, and the mist trickled thin and milky between the pale trunks of the trees.

We crossed the road to Waterfoot, then the one to Cushendall, and were back in the foggy forest on a flint-surfaced path among horsetail plants, jointed and bristly like bright green bottlebrushes. A tiny brown frog sprang from stone to stone until it vanished in among the grass tussocks, where every sedge seed hung enclosed in the magnifying bowl of a water drop. It was an Antrim cloud-forest, seething soundlessly under the invisible slopes of Trostan mountain.

At the forest gate Artie O’Brien and his little Cairn terrier Zimba offered us a lift in their car along the mountain road and back to Cargan. Shall I confess that we took it? Well – I won’t tell, if Artie won’t. Zimba, you can keep your mouth shut, too.

Start: Cargan village, Glenariff, Co. Antrim, BT43 6RB (OSNI ref D 169189)

Getting there: Bus – service 150 (, Ballymena-Cushendun. Road – Cargan is on A43 Ballymena-Waterfoot road.

Walk (9 and a half miles, easy, OSNI Discoverer Sheet 9; downloadable  map, directions at; NB – online map, more walks at Head down street towards Ballymena. Left along Gortnageeragh Road. In 600m, round right bend; in 200m, left along Dungonnell Road (‘Dungonnell Walk’/DW waymark arrow) for nearly 3 miles. 400m past north end of reservoir, beyond notice-board on right bend, left (198185, DW) into forest. In half a mile, left at T-junction (203194, DW); in 1 mile, reach A43 (191207). Right for 100m; left (DW) into forest. Follow DW to B14 at Essathohan Bridge (191217). Right beside road; left onto road, back across bridge (DW); in 200m, right over stile by gate (DW) into forest. In 400m, left at T-junction (187220, DW); in 1 mile, ahead along road (180206). In 2 miles, left (157187); in 700m, left (159180) along Legragane Road into Cargan.

Lunch: Greenhills pub/chip shop, Cargan (028-2175-8743)

Accommodation: Londonderry Arms, Carnlough, BT44 0EU (028-2888-5255; – cheerful family-run hotel with sea views.


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 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Apr 072013

‘It’s a wonderful thing,’ mused Sean Mullan, ‘how the walking leads to the talking.’ This is such an incontrovertible truth that Sean, a much-travelled Derryman come to anchor in rugged north Donegal, has named his out-and-about-on-foot touring business ‘Walking & Talking In Ireland’. Come Irish, English, Germans or Americans – a day or two in the countryside with Sean, an ex-teacher gifted in drawing out his walking companions, and all tongues are magically loosened. That’s what Jane and I found, too, on our exploration of Rathlin Island’s road less travelled, the south-going peninsula that leads to moody and beautiful Ushet Port.

It was a good omen for the day when I found that the Rathlin ferry was Canna, an old friend last met 25 years ago when she bumped me over to Iona on a stormy day in the Hebrides. Canna gave us an easier passage this morning; Sloch na Marra, ‘valley of the sea’, the notorious rip tide in Rathlin Sound, lay as quiet as a sleeping wolf, and we landed and set off down the island road in good order.

The first thing we saw was Richard Branson’s toothy smile, flashing from an information board. In 1981 the dashing gazillionaire ditched near Rathlin Island after crossing the Atlantic in his hot air balloon. He was rescued by the Rathlin boatman, Tommy Cecil. As a thank-you, Branson generously forked out for several island amenities, including, rather appropriately, a rescue craft. If he’d been a medieval monarch in similar circumstances he’d have endowed a monastery on Rathlin in thanksgiving – St Richard’s, probably.

We called in to the excellent Boathouse visitor centre and island museum for a quick chat with Tom McDonnell and a look at his fabulous Rathlin photographs, then headed from the shore road past the shell of the kelp factory that once brought work and prosperity to the seaweed-processors of the island. Soon the harbour and buildings were behind us, and we strolled the up-and-down road past Craigmacagan and Kinkeel Loughs, beautiful sheets of still water fringed with reeds and paved with broad green lily pads.

The day held that very specific but intangible mix of peace, isolation and melancholy peculiar to islands in soft grey weather. Greylag geese cackled in the bog, a hare bounced nonchalantly along the road ahead of us, and a scarcely fledged meadow pipit sat fatly on a fence post, its feathers fluffed right out against the wind like a starlet in a mink coat.

The road curved between two hills and dipped down a bank of wild thyme to reach Ushet Port, poignant name for a rocky inlet overlooked by a house of rough stones and a kelp station in roofless ruin. Seven seals were in occupation, sprawled out on the rocks like immensely fat old clubmen after three good lunches apiece. A small flotilla of eider ducks sailed in the inlet, flightless and nervous at the height of their moulting season. Beyond across the Sound, the square-cut sheer cliffs of Fair Head loomed in dark purple, with the domed mountain of Knocklayd spread with sunshine in the south-west; while round to the east the long hills of the Mull of Kintyre rolled in sea mist, seemingly within swimming distance. If I ever find a more haunting place and prospect, I will bottle it and sell it for gold. Maybe it will be sold for gold anyway, if the rumoured half-billion barrels of oil under Rathlin Sound should one day be tapped.

Our homeward path lay along the cliff tops above basalt ledges topped with grass and spattered with pink thrift and yellow kidney vetch. Ahead stretched the western peninsula of Rathlin, an arm of white chalky limestone capped with dark chocolate basalt. We talked of birds, flowers, men, music, writers, history and happenstance. If this walk had never come to an end, I don’t think any of us would have cared a rap.


MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 5; downloadable map/instructions at

TRAVEL: A2 to Ballycastle, then Rathlin Island ferry (booking essential; check timetable – 028-2076-9299;

WALK DIRECTIONS: Turn right along harbour past Boathouse Visitor Centre. Fork right past Kelp House ruin along shore road. At T-junction, right along main island road for 2.8 km (1¾ miles) to end of road at Ushet Port. Returning, in 200 m turn left through gate into RSPB Roonivoolin reserve. Left along fence, following ‘Roonivoolin Walk,’ ‘Coastal Walk’ and black/orange arrows. Optional path outside fence, reached by stiles – NB – unguarded cliff edges! Where fence ends at cliff, right inland along fence (arrows). Descend into valley between telegraph poles, aiming for waymark post on saddle of ground. Follow waymarks and grassy track, keeping Ushet Lough on right, to reach road. Left to harbour.

LENGTH: 6 miles (9.5 km) – allow 3 hours (plus bird, seal watching time)


• Boathouse Visitor Centre
• Kelp House and seals at Ushet Port
• Cliffs of south-west coast (take care!)

REFRESHMENTS: McCuaíg’s Bar (028-2076-0011); Manor House (see below – open 1 May – mid Oct)

BEST PICNIC SPOT: Grassy bank overlooking Ushet Port.

ACCOMMODATION: Bayview Hotel, Portballintrae, Co Antrim BT57 8RZ (028-2073-4100; – ring for information on deals/packages. A great base for exploring the Causeway Coast.


GUIDED WALKS: Sean Mullan, Walking & Talking Ireland (074-745-9366;

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:;

RATHLIN ISLAND (B&B accommodation, Boathouse Information Centre etc.):


 Posted by at 5:44 pm
Oct 242009

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

24 October 2009

31. Croaghan, Co. Antrim

The sky over County Antrim was a slate grey bar pressing down on the horizon. The forest steamed. Swirling curls of mist drifted across moor and mountain. The peak of Croaghan stood wrapped in silvery, backlit cloud. Jane and I sat in the car at Altarichard as rain spattered the windows, and wondered what to do. Give up now? Have a go and hang the weather? Well – let’s do the walk back to front, starting in the forest. The trees’ll give us a bit of shelter, and Croaghan will have a chance to kick off the cloud blankets before we get there.

Rain bounced off our noses and shoulders. The forest ran with water. Every channel was a bubbling, noisy millrace under brilliant green mats of sphagnum. Fly agaric fungi raised their toxic heads under the conifers, the rim of each shining scarlet cap nibbled into lace. What could eat a fly agaric without tripping out into insanity and death? Wow, man. There must be some highly psychedelic insects in the Antrim forests.

‘A five-star wet forest, half land and half water,’ murmured Jane, picking blueberries beside the track. Each bush was hung with gleaming fruit, a raindrop pendulous from every berry. Gradually the rain slackened, and patches of blue began to spread like celestial butter across the western sky. After the deluge, the Ugly Bugs Ball. Heather and grass suddenly crawled with life: spiders with hugely swollen white abdomens, steel-blue thrips with feathery wings, fat buttery caterpillars, a lumbering black oil beetle as long as the top joint of my thumb. A small copper butterfly, sensing the sun about to emerge, opened wings of burnt orange vividly spotted with patches of deep charcoal grey.

Out in the open we splashed and slid through patches of sodden turf and heather clumps pearled with moisture, then turned in among the trees once more. Walking north on the edge of Corvarrive, a wonderful view opened out ahead across the Antrim farmlands to the domed green head of Knocklayd streaked with ancient erosion channels, and beyond the mountain the white and black cliffs of Rathlin Island out at sea a dozen miles off.

A last long stretch through spruce, up to the knees in sucking bog, the fallen boughs draped with mats of moss like shaggy green yaks, goldcrests calling seep-seep from the topmost sprigs. Then out onto the open hillside, forging up the north flank of Croaghan on a well-beaten path trickling with water, through heather bristly with old dried sprouts of bog asphodel. In clear sky on the top of Croaghan, a blasting wind and a mighty view. To the north behind the grey hummock of Knocklayd and its pimple of a summit cairn, the ghost of Rathlin sliding in and out of the grey and white slabs of rain pounding the coast. In the south a forest of wind turbines semaphoring beyond Slieveanorra. And to the west a heavenly prospect of sunlit plains, with more rain making ready to sweep in over the border from the Sperrin Hills in cloudy Tyrone.

As we squelched down over the moor on the homeward path, I all but trod on a beautifully camouflaged frog, as olive-coloured and gleaming as the mud he crouched in. One easy, remarkable jump took him ten frog-lengths away into a patch of sphagnum. There he squatted, gulping rhythmically, waiting with all the monumental patience of nature for me to move on out of his sphere.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 5; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at

A44 Ballymena towards Ballycastle; in 17 miles, right to Magherahoney; left across Bush River, first right, then first left (brown ‘Orra Scenic Route’ signs); Altarichard car park is on left in 1½ miles.

WALK DIRECTIONS: NB The walk as recommended here follows the official Croaghan loop in reverse; direction arrows are on reverse of guide posts! From car park (OSNI ref D 124293), right along road, round 2 bends; take first forest road on left (past metal gate). In 300 m it doglegs right (132297), then left (red arrows/RA, and blue arrows/BA); then runs NNW for ⅔ mile to T-junction (129306). Left (RA, BA) for 100 m (very boggy!) to post (RA, BA); right over stile to post; left for 200 m along forest edge; right (126306; RA, BA) into forest. In 200 m, left (RA, BA) up forest road. In 150 m, Blue Route turns left towards Croaghan mountain (124308; BA), but continue ahead. In 1⅓ miles, Moyle Way (MW) comes in from grassy path ahead (129327; yellow arrows); follow forest road uphill to left, and on for ½ mile. Turn left off Moyle Way (124331; RA) up side road. Where road ends, bear left (RA) up grassy ride (very boggy!) to edge of trees (117316; RA). Follow posts uphill across moorland to summit of Croaghan (118308); aim for car park 1 mile away.

LENGTH: 6 miles: allow 3 hours

GRADE: Easy/Moderate

CONDITIONS: Very boggy in parts after rain; wellingtons or waterproof boots!

• views of Knocklayd and Rathlin Island
• views from Croaghan


GUIDE BOOKLET: Guide to Walking Causeway Coast & Glens from TICs

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:;


Tourist Office: Mary Street, Ballycastle (028/048-2076-2024);;

 Posted by at 2:07 pm
Aug 082009

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

8 August 2009

No. 22. Slemish Mountain, Co Antrim

When the Irish raiders returned home from Wales in 406AD with their newly captured slave boy Succoth, a strong teenage lad just right for heavy farm work, they must have thought they’d struck lucky. So they had, but not in the way they imagined. Young Succoth was put to minding Chief Milchu’s pigs in the pastures under Slemish Mountain, and it was the six long, lonely years he passed there that turned the stolen Briton’s thoughts towards God. Eventually Succoth escaped and made his way to the Continent for education. When he returned to the emerald island in his late thirties under his adopted name of Patrick, it was as a spiritual sledgehammer to crack the nut of Irish paganism.

You can’t picture Slemish without thinking of St Patrick. And you can’t catch sight of the old volcanic plug rearing skyward from the green fields of Antrim without wanting to climb it. That was what Jane decided, anyway, at first glimpse of the mountain. It took a year or two to make her dream come true, but on a windy summer afternoon the two of us found ourselves on the upward path that countless pilgrims have beaten out across the lower slopes of Slemish. Rain blocks were sliding across the outer Sperrins far to the west, and there was a bruised, ominous look to the sky – no day for faint-hearted walkers to be out and about, or swineherds for the matter of that.

This low-lying farming region of Antrim was a bubbling, smoking sea of boiling magma some 60 million years ago. When everything had cooled off, and the rains and frosts of many millions of years had eaten away the softer volcanic material, Slemish remained: a giant plug of basalt, craggy and proud, standing 500 feet above the surrounding lands, dominating all. The rugged shape of Slemish draws the eyes, and it draws the feet as if by magnetism. Up where the smooth pasture falls back and the path steepens among naked rocks of purple and black, you get a proper sense of climbing a mountain, a slip-and-slide upward progress which only the very fit accomplish without a breather or seven.

Underfoot the piled rocks gave out a hollow ring. Jane and I went steadily up, the gap between us widening as she stopped to sit on a ledge and catch the view. I wanted to have my back to all that until I could gaze on it from the summit, so I kept my eyes fixed on what was near at hand: heather, coarse mountain grass, clumps of tiny eyebright flowers sheltering under rocks, a spatter of sulphurous yellow tormentil. The lowing of cattle and barking of farm dogs came up from far below, but here on the mountain the sounds were of trickling streamlets, the tik! tik! of pipits, stones grating under my boots and the rasp of my own leaky bellows.

‘At last!’ sighed Jane as she came up over the brow of Slemish and turned round and round in high delight. Up on top we gulped air, gasping over the immense prospect: the giant volcanic steps of the Antrim coast, a blur of mountains overlooking Belfast, Lough Neagh a sword-shaped gleam, the rain-occluded Sperrins. Derek and Wilson from Coleraine had struggled up Slemish by another route, and they shared the whole glorious prospect with us, their arms flung wide, grinning fit to split their cheeks.

Did Patrick ever supervise swine on Slemish? We don’t actually know for sure. And does it really matter? Descending the steep and narrow pathway and walking back along the foot of the mountain, it was good to picture that homesick youth, herding stick in hand, striding the slopes of Slemish with mighty thoughts swirling around his tangled young head as Chief Milchru’s pigs went rooting in the bracken.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 9; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at

Road: From Ballymena, A42 to Broughshane; Slemish is signposted (brown signs) from the town

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Slemish Visitor Centre car park (NB closes at dusk), follow the path towards the mountain (‘Antrim Hills Way’ waymarks). A very steep, well-worn path leads straight up the flank of Slemish to the summit.
At the top, turn right to the southern end of the summit ridge, and bear to your right down a grassy path, very steep and slippery, to the bottom of the mountain. Turn right along the path, passing ‘Antrim Hills Way’ waymarks, to return to the Slemish Visitor Centre car park

LENGTH: 1¼ miles: allow 1½ hours


CONDITIONS: This is a climb that most can manage. Take your time. Both upward and downward tracks are very steep for short sections. Slippery after rain – a stick helps balance. Sensible footwear with good sole treads is essential.

• Displays in Slemish Visitor Centre
• Mountain wildlife – pipits, skylarks, buzzards, ravens; eyebright, tormentil, elaborate star mosses
• The stunning view from the top, as far as Scotland on a clear day

REFRESHMENTS: Lally’s Larder, Main Street, Broughshane (028-2586-2366)

ACCOMMODATION: Loughconnolly Farmhouse, Broughshane (028-2586-4380; – £46 dble B&B

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:;

NATIONAL TRAILS DAY 2009: Sunday 4 October (

Tourist Office: The Braid, Ballymena (028-2563-5900;;

 Posted by at 1:57 pm
Jul 042009

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

4 July 2009

17. Glenariff, Co. Antrim

Glenariff, ‘Queen of the Antrim Glens’, lay stroked by early mist. From the high perch of Glenariff Forest Park, the views that Jane and I had of the upthrust cliffs of the glen seemed softened and toned down. But as the summer morning broadened and the sun came through, the hard purple and slate hues of the naked rock reinstated themselves.

The nine Glens of Antrim are harsh country. Glenariff, largest and deepest of all, is no exception. Like its neighbouring clefts, bleak moorland tops Glenariff. Ancient woodland clothes its flanks, and rivers and springs cut down through the basalt that formed it some 60 million years ago, the seaward pouring of a gigantic outflow of lava. Ice Age glaciers gouged Glenariff deep and narrow, and tumbling waterfalls and cataracts continue the scouring process today. Four Forest Trails show walkers a number of aspects of Glenariff, and this morning Jane and I were aiming to link up the longer of the walks, the Waterfall Walk and the Scenic Trail, to taste the cream of this superb landscape.

Blue tits gave out a thin, clockwork pzzit! pzzit! and chaffinches their explosive run-and-hurl-the-ball songs as we descended the path towards the Glenariff River, whose faint roar came up from far below. Down there in the leafy half-light we crossed Rainbow Bridge to explore the damp cleft beyond, every crevice packed and dripping with luxuriant moss cushions, jointed horsetails and creamy fungi sucking moisture from rotting logs. ‘Bryophytes,’ murmured Jane the botany graduate, parting the mosses round a sodden tree stump to reveal fleshy, dark green leaves like a miniature tropical forest. ‘They need a lot of water …’

The Waterfall Walk led us down wooden stairs and along teetery walkways, winding deeper into the gorge cut by the Glenariff River. At one moment the path ran beside the river; the next it had leaped 50 feet above it and was catwalking along the wall of the cleft. Zigzagging back down, we crossed a bridge and turned to enjoy a spectacular sight: the double cascade of Ess-na-Larach, the Mare’s Fall, tumbling like a swishing horse’s tail 50 feet into a smoking pool, then sluicing over rocks almost as far again to hiss into the bed of the gorge.

Just above the confluence of the Glenariff and Inver Rivers is the second of the glen’s breathtaking waterfalls, Ess-na-Crub, the Fall of the Hooves – another equine inspiration, perhaps drawn from the thunderous noise of the water. We drank a cup of tea in the Laragh Lodge café, looking out through the trees towards Ess-na-Crub. ‘The thing I like about that view,’ said the owner, peering out and grinning as though savouring it for the first time, ‘is it changes all the time. In a few months those leaves will be on fire; then they’ll drop and we’ll be able to see the fall properly; and then the snow will be down and it’ll be different again.’

We turned aside to see the Fall of the Hooves at close quarters, and then commenced a long back-and-forth climb through the forest to the lip of the glen. Up there the moorland lay silent under strong sunlight. The upper falls of the Inver River came crashing over a basalt lip high on the skyline. Turning down the homeward path we saw the whole of Glenariff stretched out ahead, purple cliffs on high, wooded slopes sweeping down to a far-off glimpse of the sea in Red Bay, where a solitary fishing boat rocked at ease in the hazy summer afternoon.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 9; downloadable map/instructions at, and

Bus ( Ulsterbus Service 150 (Ballymena-Cushendun) stops at Glenariff Forest Park.
Road: From A2 coast road at Waterfoot, A43 Ballymena road passes Glenariff Forest Park.

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Glenariff Forest Park car park, follow Waterfall Walk/WW signs. At foot of slope, by WW signboard, bear left down path to cross Rainbow Bridge. Track soon doubles back to re-cross bridge and continue along WW. Follow WW to Laragh Lodge tea room.
Cross Glenariff River and start up track; detour left to see Ess-na-Crub Waterfall; then on up track. In 100 m fork left to cross Inver River, following Scenic Trail/ST upwards through zigzags and up steps and slopes for 2½ miles to cross upper waters of Inver River. A few 100 metres further on, track marked by signboard branches sharply right past hut; ignore this, and continue for ½ mile to where ST crosses downward-sloping track opposite old quarry hopper. Bear right off ST down track; right by building at bottom to reach wooden huts in gardens. Steps behind huts lead up into gardens; bear right (‘Viewpoint Walk’) to car park.

LENGTH: 5 miles: allow 2½-3 hours

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Many steps; some steep slopes; paths can be slippery

• Ess-na-Larach Waterfall on Glenariff River
• Ess-na-Crub Waterfall on Inver River
• spectacular falls to left as you cross upper Inver River
• views on way back, down Glenariff to sea

REFRESHMENTS: Glenariff Forest Park Café; Laragh Lodge Restaurant (028-2175-8221)

ACCOMMODATION: Dieskirt Farm, 104 Glen Road, Glenariff, Co Antrim BT44 0RG (028-2177-1308; – from £50/€57

 Posted by at 1:40 pm
Feb 162013

Marty and Mary McGuigan stepped out of their van in a Dungiven lay-by to greet us, looking as spry as ever. It was good to see them again. Mary is a great hill-walker in her own right, and as for Marty – what that man doesn’t know about his native Sperrin Hills of Tyrone and Derry isn’t worth the knowing. Every time I’ve been walking with Marty he’s filled the day with talk, song, conjecture and jokes, and today was no sort of exception.

We drove the narrow hill road that winds up the south-west angle of Benbradagh and parked at the top of the lane. Benbradagh – Binn Bhradach, the Thief’s Mountain, no-one knows why – dominates Dungiven the way Benbulben dominates Sligo, a mighty presence at the back of the town, wedge-shaped and green as it hangs half-way up the sky. Grey slopes of bouldery scree tumble from its peak, contributing to the wild look and reputation of the mountain.

We turned north into a blustery wind and went towards the peak, scrambling over tied-up gates and walking along a roadway surfaced with old hardstanding and flanked by intriguing blocks of concrete set with rusty iron stanchions. Plainly others had been here before us, with some industrial purpose. Before we could speculate further, though, we were over the last of the gates and out on the open mountain, scattering black-faced sheep as we followed a path up towards the long escarpment that forms the summit of Benbradagh.

The wind poured up over the edge, whipping at the grasses and the wild flowers dotted among them – heath bedstraw, heartsease, trembling sky-blue harebells, clumps of wild thyme. We knelt to pinch them and sniff our fingers, while dredging up from our collective memories an old tune and the words to go with it:

“Come all you maidens brisk and gay,
All you that flourish in your prime,
Beware and take care, and keep your garden fair,
And let no man steal your bonny bunch of thyme.”

So singing, we stared at the view, one of the finest in County Derry – the sunlit lowlands around Dungiven striped with little traditional fields, the north Sperrins rolling away like sombre waves in the south-west, Lough Foyle lying north-west like a steel tongue, and tabular Muckish and conical Errigal standing out in Donegal on the western skyline.

Could the wild mountain that owns this stupendous prospect really conceal the deadly secret that the Internet websites whisper about – a nuclear bunker, built by the US Navy at the height of the Cold War? Certainly the US had a low-rise signal base, modestly concealed on a boggy plateau, constructed up here in the late 1960s to service a cluster of tall radio masts that shuttled messages to and from US Navy ships out in the North Atlantic. It also, in all probability, acted as a hotline between Pentagon and Kremlin in the dark days of the 1960s and 70s when it looked as though an itchy finger might stab the red button at any moment.

We found the remnants of the old base beside the ‘American Road’, the supply road the US Navy built to supply their station – hut bases, conduits, strange holes, chambers, vents and snipped-off wires. An eerie place, desolated and resonant with Cold War foreboding. Later I looked up Navcomsta Dungiven online, and found images of the site (see below), all the way from big blokes in donkey jackets in a sea of bog and concrete mixers, to the opening by splendid brass hats, and operation by pallid and bespectacled techies, as clever as professors with their switches and dials.

On the way back to the car, Marty McGuigan taught us how to vault a five-barred gate. Now that’s what I call clever.


MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 8

TRAVEL: Dungiven is on A6 (Belfast-Derry) between Maghera and Claudy. Entering Dungiven from Maghera (Belfast) direction, turn right up Curragh Road past school. Continue for 4 km/2½ miles, to park at the end of the road high on Benbradagh.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Climb over the gate and turn left along stony roadway, climbing over several fastened gates. By a radio station walk ahead towards Benbradagh, keeping fence on your left. At a metal pole, left across stile; follow track up and along summit. Return same way to gate by road end; turn left here along the ‘American Road’ as far as the signal station site. Go further down the American Road if you wish (superb views), or return to car.

LENGTH: 5 km/3 miles – allow 1½ hours


CONDITIONS: Surfaced tracks or hill paths – these could be squashy after rain.

• View west from Benbradagh over Lough Foyle, Inishowen and the north-western Sperrin Hills
• Relics of the American signal station
• Views from the American Road towards Slemish and the Derry and Antrim Hills

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic on Benbradagh, or plenty of cafés/pubs in Dungiven.

ACCOMMODATION: Eugene and Gerardine Kielt, Laurel Villa Townhouse, Magherafelt (028-7930-1459; – from £80 dble B&B – the famed ‘House of Poetry’, the perfect base for exploring the northern Sperrins.

US Navy Base:

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:;

DERRY TOURIST OFFICE: 028-7126-7284;;

 Posted by at 4:05 pm
Jun 132009

‘Ever smelt pine needles properly?’ enquired Ron Murray, reaching out to pluck a spiny sprig as we strolled the Forest Drive along the southern flank of Slieve Gullion. ‘Crush ‘em like this between your finger and thumb.’ I suited action to words, and sniffed deeply. A spicy blast of orange as pungent as a marmalade factory. Now why had I never noticed that before?

Until recently Ron served as officer for the Ring of Gullion Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When you’re out and about with someone so observant and experienced, all five senses get a re-bore. Birds, rocks, landforms, farming practices, local history, ancient monuments – all came alive for me during this walk over the big dark hump of Slieve Gullion, centrepiece of a remarkable volcanic landscape set in the green farmlands of South Armagh. Surprisingly few people – walkers or others – venture into the countryside south-west of Newry to climb the mountain and savour for themselves one of the most spectacular high-level views in Ireland.

Rowan and silver birch were coming into leaf all along the sides of Slieve Gullion. We left the trees and turned aside to climb, short and sharp, to the southern peak of the mountain. Smoking rainstorms whirled djinn-like across the lower lands as we pulled to a halt by the stony cairn and turned for a proper appreciation of the whole grand panorama.

If you can see one mile, you can see well over a hundred from the summit of Slieve Gullion. In the east Carlingford Lough, running north-east to Slieve Donard and the hummocky backbone of the Mountains of Mourne. Northwards, the tumbled hills of Antrim, with the block-head of Slemish some 50 miles off. North-west the billowy heave and roll of the Sperrins, a gleam of Lough Neagh at their feet. South-west the green-and-brown mat of Monaghan and Cavan, unrolling into the Midland plain. And down in the south, diminutive, unmistakable and as pale as tin cut-outs, the hills of Wicklow more than sixty miles away.

Until I was surfeited with this gigantic panorama, the Ring of Gullion itself had to play second fiddle. It was a series of unimaginably powerful subterranean convulsions some 60 million years ago which caused the ancient and original Slieve Gullion volcano to collapse into the great chamber that lay beneath it, sending a ripple of molten rock outwards like a stone thrown in a pond. The circular ridge solidified, then weathered over ages into the guardian hills of the Ring, a ten-mile-wide circle of craggy mini-mountains encircling Slieve Gullion like courtiers round a king.

I turned away from the breathtaking prospect at last, to find Ron beckoning like a Beatrix Potter dormouse from a little low doorway of stone set deep into the side of the cairn. On hands and knees I followed him inside, to find a chamber walled with stones neatly shaped and fitted. A neolithic passage grave under a Bronze Age cairn, say the archaeologists. Not at all, retort the romantics. Here is the house of the Cailleach Beara, the unspeakably wicked witch who turned mighty Fionn MacCumhaill into the feeblest of old men in the time it took him to dive into the Lake of Sorrows to retrieve her golden ring. Of course, the fact she’d disguised herself as a beautiful, shapely young maiden in distress had nothing to do with Fionn’s recklessness.

Ron and I strode the windy summit ridge past the Lake of Sorrows. What on earth was a millstone doing up here, half in and half out of the water? ‘Oh, a miller pinched it from the Cailleach Beara’s house,’ said Ron, ‘but it brought him such bad luck that he decided to put it back. When his donkey had got it this far, the poor thing fell down dead. So that’s where it stayed from then on. No-one quite fancies moving it …’


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer Series Sheet 29.

Bus: Service 43 (Newry-Forkhill) to Forest Park entrance
Road: N1/A1 Dublin-Newry; B113 (‘Forkhill’); in 3½ miles, right (‘Slieve Gullion Forest Park’) to car park.

WALK DIRECTIONS (Ring of Gullion Way/RGW blue arrows): From top left corner of car park (OS ref J 040196), left up path through trees. In ¼ mile join Forest Drive (038191), up slope, then level, for ¼ mile to RGW post on left (035190). Right up drive, past metal barrier; left uphill for 1½ miles to car park (018200). Beyond picnic table, right at white post, steeply uphill to South Cairn on Slieve Gullion summit (025203).
Walk past Lake of Sorrows to North Cairn (021211); then aim north for Sturgan Mountain (left of Cam Lough), then white house between you and lake. Path divides by grassy ‘lawn’ with boulder beyond; right here, aiming for house. Through gate, down to road (025230). Right along road for 3 miles, passing Killevy Old Church (040221) and Clonlum Cairn (047206), to northern entrance to Slieve Gullion Forest Park (046199). Right to car park.

LENGTH: 8 miles

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Can be muddy

• Cailleach Beara’s house
• Lake of Sorrows and enchanted millstone
• sensational views from Slieve Gullion

REFRESHMENTS: Slieve Gullion Courtyard Centre café/restaurant

ACCOMMODATION: Murtagh’s Guest House, 13-15 North Street, Crossmaglen (00-44-2830-861378; – comfortable, friendly place. €28 pp B&B.

INFORMATION: (Walk Northern Ireland’s ‘Quality Walks’); (Discover Ireland’s ‘Loop Walks’)
Slieve Gullion Courtyard Centre: 00-44-2830-849220;
Tourist Office: Newry Town Hall (00-44-2830-268877)

 Posted by at 12:36 pm
May 252009

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.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 8; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at; map of trail at car park.

Bus (integrated website – 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

GRADE: Moderate

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.

• 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; – 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:;

INFORMATION: Magherafelt TIC (02879-631510);;

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

23 May 2009

 Posted by at 12:32 pm
Apr 182009

‘I take groups of people of all ages and stages out walking all over this area,’ said Martin McGuigan as he steered his minibus up to Crockataggart, ‘and I can honestly say I enjoy every single outing. There’s something about the Sperrin Hills – they’re not exactly mighty mountains, you know, but they do have a kind of magic, a wild magic, to them.’

The few houses of Crockataggart, tin-roofed and ruinous, were slowly collapsing into the arms of ferns and mosses. We climbed away up the mountain road, riding our luck between rain bursts, watching in awe and appreciation as dense rainstorms went charging across the plains of Antrim some forty miles off, diluting the silvery gleam of Lough Neagh to a misty gauze.

Up on the saddle of Crockmore we swung to the west, a gentle climb on a rain-sodden green road that bought us to the summit of Crockbrack where a big wind was blowing. The view simply stopped us in our tracks. There can’t have been less than a hundred miles in view, with the olive-and-grey shoulders of the Sperrins dominating the middle distance. Of all the mountain peaks and ridges in view, it was the solitary bulk of Slieve Gallion down in the southeast that caught our eye as a rogue bar of light slid across it.

‘Do you know that song called ‘Slieve Gallion Brae’?’ enquired Martin. I didn’t. Would he give me a lick of it? Oh, you wouldn’t like my singing at all. Like an old crow. Well, I could maybe give it a go … After a minute or so of contemplation and tune-gathering, Martin put back his head and diffidently sang:

‘As I woke up one morning, all in the month of May,
To view all your valleys and mountains so gay,
I was dreaming of the flowers that were going to decay,
That blow upon your bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion brae.’

The retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age and ten ensuing millennia of weathering had kindly provided us with seat-shaped rocks on which to munch our sandwiches in a green cleft at the head of the infant Drumderg River. Goat’s cheese and tomato – is there a finer filling anywhere on God’s earth?

Idling in this cleft of the eastern Sperrins with the hill burns trickling and a stonechat gushing out his metallic little call, I reflected on the marvellous but eerie emptiness of this mountain range. The Sperrins seem caught under a cloak of invisibility. Long may that continue, I thought with selfish pleasure as I brushed the last crumbs of goat’s cheese from my knees.

The lichen-draped fence led us up to the gentle summit of Craigbane, where a stony lane ran away eastward. Blood-red lanterns of fuchsia bobbed to each raindrop in the hedges as we came off the mountains and through a derelict farmyard. An old iron boiler lay under a bush. ‘I was one of 16 children,’ Martin remarked, prodding it reflectively with his boot, ‘and we’d boil up our potatoes in a thing like this, and a bit of swill for the pig.’

We strolled on through green pastures, chatting and yarn-spinning as we made for Crockataggart along a path known as Hudy’s Way. ‘Oh, it’s named after Hudy McGuigan,’ said Martin, ‘now he would have been a relation of mine, way back. A bit of a local character. He’d ride his horse around stark naked. And there was one time he tried to fly off a mountain with a pair of goose-feather wings. Did he succeed? Well – he came down to earth with a bang, let’s say …’

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Series Sheet 13.

Bus: Sperrin Rambler Service 403 runs to Draperstown from Magherafelt and Omagh (02890-666630;
Road: A31 to Magherafelt; B40 to Draperstown and Moneyneany. Just before entering Moneyneany, left (OS ref 754967 – Ulster Way sign) up side lane. In ½ mile, right (Ulster Way/Hudy’s Way signs). In another ½ mile, park – neatly, please! – at ‘Crockataggart’ sign beside farm (741969).

From Crockataggart sign, left up lane (‘Ulster Way’) to summit of Crockmore (725955). Right on green road towards Crockbrack; follow fence over summit of Crockbrack (718957). Where side fence descends to right (712958), follow it into glen at head of Drumderg River (712964) and up to cross fence on Craigbane by stile (711970). Right along stony lane beside fence. In ½ mile ignore track joining on left (719974); continue down as stony surface gives way to tarmac. When nearly under power lines, right through gate by ruined house (738973; ‘Hudy’s Way’). Keep same line across field to fence. Left to descend, cross stile, then cross Drumderg River by steel bridge (740972). Up steps, cross field, up track to Crockataggart.

LENGTH: 6 miles

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Undemanding mountain walk – but take raingear, walking boots.

• view from Crockbrack
• picnic in glen at head of Drumderg River

REFRESHMENTS: None en route – take picnic

ACCOMMODATION: Laurel Villa Townhouse, 60 Church Street, Magherafelt, Co. Derry BT45 6AW (02879-301459; – friendly, well-run family house, with a strong liking for poets and poetry! From £70 dble B&B.

WALKING COMPANY/GUIDE: Martin McGuigan, Walk On The Wild Side (02880-758452 / 07714-835-977;

Details of dozens of local short, medium and long walks in Northern Ireland at
Sperrins Tourism (; Northern Ireland Tourist Board (

Tourist Office: Burn Road, Cookstown (028-8676-9949)

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

18 April 2009

 Posted by at 12:26 pm