Search Results : derry

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
Jul 232011

Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville

23 July 2011

No 105: The Walls of Derry, Co. Derry

‘This place was probably just a druidical oak grove when St Columbkille founded his monastery here in 546AD,’ said Adrian Callan as we walked the Walls of Derry. ‘We’ve come a bit of a journey since then.’

That was a true word. Notwithstanding the slow growth of the ‘town of oaks’ beside the River Foyle, it was the building of Derry’s city walls in 1613-18 that gave the place a new coherence and a new prosperity. The city received a new name, too – Londonderry – to reflect the place of origin of the rich English livery companies that funded, and profited from, this transformation. Not only do those 400-year-old walls and their original gateways still stand: they are in wonderful repair, a tight belt of stone strapping the 17th-century city to its hilltop in defiance of all comers. Strolling the broad walkway and looking inward onto neat streets of well-kept houses, you’re aware of a notable civic pride and energy about the place.

At the ornate Bishop’s Gate, Adrian pointed west. ‘King James II thought he could take Derry without much trouble when he arrived here in April 1689. But he’d not reckoned with the mood of the Protestants in the city.’ Nearby St Columb’s Cathedral serves as a museum of the Siege of Derry, telling the remarkable story of how the defenders held out for 15 weeks after the famed (and maybe mythological) Apprentice Boys seized the city keys and locked the gates against the Catholic besiegers. By the time the siege was finally lifted in July, a quarter of the 30,000 citizens inside the walls lay dead of starvation, disease or wounds. Every dog, cat, horse and cow in the place had been eaten, and most of the rats and mice too.

Walking on, we came to the Double Bastion with its two apt symbols of Derry new and old. The Verbal Arts Centre on the walls is all about exchange of views through story-telling, communication and the meeting of minds and the people that possess them. Just along the way the iconic cannon Roaring Meg, her breech stamped ‘Fishmongers, London, 1642’ in acknowledgement of the Livery Company that paid for her, points out towards the big housing estate that lies to the north below the walls. ‘The Bogside,’ said Adrian, ‘and that street over there is where I was born.’

You can’t really get a proper perspective on Derry’s tangled history from the walls alone. We passed the Apprentice Boys’ Memorial Hall and went out of Butcher Gate. Down on Free Derry Corner at the entrance to the Bogside, the murals stood large and passionate in dark blue, grey and black – Bernadette Devlin in tight jeans hollering into a megaphone, a boy in a gas-mask clutching a petrol bomb, figures running and choking in clouds of tear gas. Adrian had vivid stories of what it meant to be a Bogsider in the 1970s. Along the street in the Free Derry Museum, the displays, the desperate newspaper headlines and the jarring soundtrack all brought those dark days vividly to life.

Dark days produce dark humour to shine a chink of light. We heard of the traveller who brought his donkey to the Bogside and coolly set about removing the engine of a bus that had been jammed into a barricade. And then there was the time that a brand new bus had been commandeered, and the bus company sent a message asking if the barricade-builders would mind swapping it for an old one.

Back on the walls once more we made a tour of the excellent history display in the Tower Museum, and admired the superb stained glass windows in the Guildhall. Spanning the Foyle beyond was the graceful arc of the newly-opened Pearce Bridge, sign of the times and of hopes for the future.

A walk round the Walls of Derry is not a stroll in the park – it is a walk through dour and bloody history. But it’s also a walk about hope and transcendence. History is clinging stuff, but it needn’t drag us down – that’s what we saw and heard on this memorable perambulation.


Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 7; city centre map from TIC.

TRAVEL: Rail/bus ( Derry
Road: From Belfast, M2, M22, A6. Car park signed beside TIC on Foyle Embankment.

WALK: From TIC, up Bridge Street (opposite) to Ferryquay Gate. Left along walls walkway. At Bishop’s Gate, descent to visit St Columb’s Cathedral. Return to walls and continue. At Butcher Gate leave walled city; descent Fahan St to Free Derry Corner. Right along Rossville Street to Museum of Free Derry. Continue to roundabout; right to return to walled city at Tower Museum. Guildhall is opposite. Return to walls at Shipquay Gate; left to Ferryquay Gate and return to TIC.

LENGTH: Allow half a day


DON’T MISS: Ornate wall gates; St Columb’s Cathedral and Chapter House Museum; Walker’s Plinth; Free Derry Corner, murals and Museum of Free Derry; Tower Museum, Guildhall windows.

REFRESHMENTS: Plenty of options in Derry – try Java Café, Artillery Street, opposite Ferryquay Gate (026-7136-2100)

GUIDE: Adrian Callan (07793-525478)

ST COLUMB’S CATHEDRAL: London Street (026-7126-7313)

MUSEUM OF FREE DERRY: 55 Glenfada Park, Bogside (026-7136-0886)

TOWER MUSEUM: Union Hall Place (026-7137-2411)

GUILDHALL: Guildhall Square (026-7137-7335)

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

DERRY TIC: 44 Foyle Street, Derry BT48 6AT (026-7126-7284;

 Posted by at 3:23 pm
Jun 192010

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

19 June 2010

63. Derrycassan Wood, Granard, Co. Longford

It was one of those glorious, sunny, breezy evenings out in rural County Longford when the chaffinches are really putting their backs into their singing and you don’t believe there ever was such a thing as winter. The sinking sun brilliantly lit the gorse along the edges of Derrycassan Wood and sent dusty fingers of light filtering between the spruce trees. It touched the fast-running Clooneen River into a sparkle, and jewelled every wind-ruffled wavelet on Lough Gowna with a fiery diamond tip. As we squinted out from the viewing area over the brushy trees of Cygnet Island, Jane and I found our eyes watering with sun and wind.

Even though it was late afternoon, plenty of people – family groups, couples out for an after-work saunter – were wandering the pine-scented paths. Derrycassan Wood is set up for strollers, idlers, dawdlers and tiny scurrying kids. The paths are flat-surfaced, there are picnic tables under the trees, and the mapboard near the entrance tells you just enough about what to look out for to whet your appetite. There are three waymarked walks – Nature Trail, Walled Garden Walk and Main Avenue Walk – and we decided to roll them all into one, a decent couple of hours’ worth.

Derrycassan Wood has grown up over the past half-century around the remains of Derrycassan House and its grounds, seat of the Dopping Hepenstal family. All kinds of complications swirled about the family during the 19th century – a disappointed father who disinherited his son, internecine lawsuits, dependent spinster sisters who wouldn’t let their brothers sell property, and so on. In 1929 the Dopping Hepenstals sold the place to a timber merchant, and were probably relieved to get rid of it.

After days of rain, Lough Gowna was so full this evening that its shoreline lay drowned. Alders and birches stood footed in water. Clumps of wood anemones shone palely under the larches and firs, their delicate faces turned inward for the night. Coot squawks and the lowing of cows came across the lake, and the squeal of children playing chase through the trees.

There’s something tremendously triste and nostalgic about the ruined features of old landlord estates such as this, silently crumbling to dissolution at the heart of so many of today’s Coillte woodlands. Down on a miniature cove we found the foundations of the Dopping Hepenstals’ old boathouse, its back wall a cliff of natural rock, its concrete buttresses cushioned with mosses and ferns. The path led on above the lake, with glimpses of the long green back of Inch Island coming and going between the trees; then it doubled back on itself to bring us to the walled garden of Derrycassan House. The garden was not laid out in a conventional rectangle, but followed a curvy outline, its sinuous wall pierced with ornate gateways, one arched, another pointed, a third square. We entered through an arch and followed a path through a wilderness of scrub trees, past tumbledown alcoves and overgrown benches – a wonderful creation, fast being swallowed by inexorable nature.

The three-storey mansion that lay beyond was demolished in the 1930s. Its stones, some of which – stories say – originally belonged to a monastery on Inch Island, were themselves reused to build a church nearby. All that’s left is a fragment of sunken wall among a thick tangle of rhododendrons.

High up the hill above the kitchen garden lies the piled circular rampart of a rath, a hundred paces across, hazed with bluebells, thickly studded with crooked old hazels and tall firs that were sighing to themselves, a bitter-sweet air on the evening breeze. Of course I’m not a fanciful man – but if I were, I might have suspected the presence of Derrycassan’s ancestral inhabitants, gathered at the rath in this beautiful dusk to whisper a lament for human folly.


MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 34; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at

Rail ( Longford or Edgeworthstown (c. 12 miles)
Bus ( 111 Dublin-Athboy-Granard (7 miles)
Road: From Granard, R194 Longford road; in a few yards, right (‘Lough Gowna, Arvagh’) for 3½ miles; left at crossroads (‘Derrycassan Wood Walks’) to parking place on right.

WALK DIRECTIONS: From car park, follow track for ½ mile to mapboard. Left across Clooneen River; right up track to T-junction. Left to Lake Viewing Area; continue round gravelled path – pass bench and turn left along woodland path, then left across Longford Avenue Bridge. Left along forestry road. Bear left (‘summer house, boat house’) to see the ruins. Back on the main track, turn left and follow it for ¾ mile; then turn uphill away from lake at ‘Mapboard 1.5km’ sign. In ¼ mile, left (‘Ringfort’) to circle rath and return to upper track. Turn right down path opposite (‘Walled Garden Ruin’); follow paths through walled garden, and on to site of Derrycassan House. Continue down track to car park.

LENGTH: 4 miles: allow 1½-2 hours


RATINGS: 3 buggies, 1 wellies, 1 binoculars, 1 mountain slopes

• superb lake views from viewing area
• tree-smothered rath
• ruins of walled garden and Derrycassan House

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic by the lake

ACCOMMODATION: Viewmount House, Longford (043-334-1919, – very comfortable country house and restaurant

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:;

Longford Tourist Office: Market Square, Longford (043-334-2577;

 Posted by at 2:42 pm
Jun 122010

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

12 June 2010

62. Ness Country Park, Co. Derry

The countryside of County Derry goes unexplored by most visitors as they dash on through to Derry city or up to the sands of Benone. That’s a shame, because it’s great walking country – especially in the narrow wooded glen of Ness Country Park, just south-east of Derry, that forms the gorge of the Burntollet River. A dramatic burst of floodwater from a melting glacier cut the gorge through the ancient rocks ten thousand years ago. Nowadays the Burntollet drops in a spectacular fall in the heart of Ness Wood, before snaking and sparkling in a rocky bed down the valley bottom and on through neighbouring Ervey Wood. There are buggy and wheelchair friendly paths here, high tracks through the flowery woodland, and flights of steps to give the old knees and lungs a good work-out.

The recently opened Visitor Centre (run with great enthusiasm by park ranger Stewart Molloy and assistant warden Seamus Carten) is very family-friendly, with stuffed animals and hands-on activities for the kids, and fascinating displays that explore the story of the glen. Ness and Ervey Woods are rare survivals of ancient forests that once covered the land. Less than one acre in a thousand of Northern Ireland’s ancient woodlands survived the axes of millennia of shipwrights, charcoal burners, tanners and house builders; but the woods that now flourish in Ness Country Park were on land too steep for the cutters to get at them. These days they shelter a wonderful variety of wildlife. Red squirrels (rare survivors themselves) are seen in the oaks and beeches of Ness and Ervey; otters hunt salmon along the Burntollet, dippers bob on its stones; buzzards and long-eared owls quarter the valley.

A figure-of-eight route shows you the best of the park. While Jane lingered among the displays, I started by following the path through drifts of wood anemones along the floor of Ervey Wood. The gravelly track shadows the shallow Burntollet, its pure water charged with oxygen bubbles after tumbling from the moors, then climbs on a ledge of bilberry and moss with a steep fall to the river glinting a hundred feet below.

Back at the Visitor Centre I met up with Jane, and we took the riverside path towards Ness Wood together. First a sandwich at a handily placed picnic table beside the Burntollet at the entrance to the wood; then a flight of steps and a switchback path high above the water. The way runs through groves where fallen boughs, dried and mossy-backed, look like weird old men of the woods caught in the act of scuttling off into the undergrowth.

The gorge sides narrow below, the rumble and crash of the river get louder, and then a turn in the path reveals the full majesty of the Ness Waterfall. There’s a viewing point beside the path from which you get the full panorama – the Burntollet hissing and sluicing through a glossy black rock gateway, then hurtling in slow motion (there’s no better way to describe it), a lacy fan of peat-tinted water, down into a smoking pool. Spray from the endlessly churning fall keeps everything damp, with dripping mats of mosses and liverworts overhanging the rocks.

We crossed the river above the falls at Shane’s Leap and turned back through the trees on the far bank, thinking of the handsome raparee Shane ‘Crossagh’ (‘Scarface’) O’Mullan. Whether the jolly outlaw – a great favourite with the ladies of 18th-century Derry – actually leaped the 20-foot gap across the gorge while being chased is open to question. One tale says he slipped and fell to the rocks, breaking his leg, but still managed to thumb his nose at his pursuers and get away. Another tells of how he stripped a company of soldiers and made them march into Derry in nothing but their drawers. It seems pretty certain that Crossagh was actually an unpleasant character who ended his life by doing the hangman’s jig in 1722. But who wants a good story spoiled by too much reality?


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 7; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at, and in leaflet guide at Visitor Centre

Signed off A6, Derry-Claudy

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Visitor Centre, cross Brown’s Bridge; left through Ervey Wood, by river and uphill; return to Visitor Centre. Cross Hone’s Bridge; where path leaves river, left up steps; higher path past Ness Waterfall. At open field, right on gravel path. Fork left to cross Shane’s Bridge. In 200 yards, right down steps; recross river (Gorge Crossing); follow lower path. At Stevenson’s Bridge, don’t cross; bear right to return to Visitor Centre.

LENGTH: 3½ miles: allow 1½-2 hours

GRADE: Easy (valley floor) to moderate (rough woodland paths, some steps)

RATINGS: 3 buggies (wheelchair accessible paths near Visitor Centre); 1 wellies; 2 binoculars; 1 mountain slopes (steps)

CONDITIONS: Very well surfaced throughout; trainers are fine

• Visitor Centre displays
• views of the Burntollet River
• Ness Waterfall (especially after heavy rain!)

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic (nice spot near Stevenson’s Bridge)

GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: From Visitor Centre (024-71-338-417)

Car park open daily: 9.30-7, March-Oct; 9.30-9, May-Aug; 9.30-4.30, Nov-Mar
Visitor Centre: 10-5, weekends and public holidays, Easter-Sep; 10-5 daily, July, Aug; 12-4, Sundays only, Oct-Easter

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

INFORMATION: Derry Visitor Bureau, 44 Foyle Street (024-7137-7577;;

 Posted by at 2:41 pm
Oct 102009

Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville

10 October 2009

29. Downhill Estate and Benone Strand, Co. Derry

Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Londonderry from 1768-1803, was a remarkably broad-minded man. In that intolerant era of the Penal Laws, the Bishop allowed the local priest to celebrate Mass in the Mussenden Temple, one of the follies he erected around his preposterously extravagant Downhill Estate on the cliffs outside Castlerock. Hervey was also fabulously red-blooded and eccentric, fond of his wine and the ladies, addicted to foreign travel and art collecting, apt to have himself borne around in a palanquin and to drop spaghetti on the heads of pilgrims passing below his balcony in Rome.

Jane and I entered Downhill on a brisk windy morning under the knowing grins of the ounces or mythic lynx-like beasts – superbly restored recently – that guard the estate’s so-called ‘Lion Gate’. Beyond the partly replanted Walled Garden we found the Bishop’s enormous Palace of Downhill in poignant ruin, its grand fireplaces hollow and stark, its windows blank, state rooms carpeted with grass and open to the sky. In the heyday of Downhill this incredible centre of luxury high on the cliffs had an entrance facade flanked by Corinthian pilasters, with a double stair leading to the door. There was a State Dining Room, a State Drawing Room, and a two-storey gallery for the Bishop’s superb art collection, all covered by a magnificent dome. Facade and double stair still stand, but now the interior walls, once beautified with exquisite plasterwork, are sealed with functional Ministry-of-Works concrete, the elaborate mosaics are gone from the chimney breasts, and buttercups and clover have taken the place of Wilton and Axminster. It’s a strange, uncanny and altogether haunting atmosphere in the empty shell of the Palace of Downhill.

Down on the brink of the basalt cliffs beside the domed Mussenden Temple, we looked out on a most sensational view: the sea shallows creaming on seven clear miles of sand that ran west in a gentle curve towards the mouth of Lough Foyle, with the clouded hills of ‘dark Inishowen’ beckoning from far-off Donegal.

That proved a quite irresistible call. Down on the strand we pushed into the wind. Waves hissed on the tideline, sand particles scudded by. Surfers rode the waves like water demons. The black and green rampart of the cliffs was cut vertically by white strings of waterfalls, the falling cascades blown to rags in mid-plummet. All this vigour and movement whipped us onwards to where the preserved sand dunes of Umbra rose between strand and cliff foot. A complete change of tempo here, sheltered among the sandhills, down on our hands and knees among pyramidal orchids of blazing crimson, yellow kidney vetch, lady’s bedstraw sacred to the Virgin Mary, and tall spikes of common spotted orchids of such a seductive milky pink and blue it was all I could do not to take a surreptitious lick at them.

Lying prone in the dunes, looking back through a screen of marram grass and clovers, we saw the dark pepperpot shape of the temple on the brink of Downhill cliff. Had the bold Bishop of Londonderry kept a mistress in there, as stories say? I rather hoped he had, and his palanquin and spaghetti-tureen, too.

Sand yachts were scudding along Benone Strand, chased by the most diminutive of tiddly tiny terriers. The Bishop of Londonderry in his red and raging guise could have swallowed the puppy with one gulp. In another mood he might have made it a curate, or given it the run of the palace Axminsters. What a splendid fellow, for those on the right side of him.


MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 04; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at

Rail/bus (integrated website – Rail to Castlerock (half a mile); Ulsterbus service 134
Road: Downhill Estate is on A2 between Castlerock and Downhill Strand

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Lion Gate car park (OS of NI ref C 757357), explore the Walled Garden, then Downhill Palace ruin, then Mussenden Temple (758362). Return anti-clockwise along the cliff. From Lion Gate cross A2 (take care!); turn right downhill beside the road along pavement. There’s a short stretch with no pavement before you reach the foot of the hill. Turn right under the railway, then left along Downhill Strand. After 1¼ miles, where a river leaves the dunes, look left for Ulster Wildlife Trust’s Umbra Dunes notice (732359). Follow the fence through dunes, looking over into Umbra Dunes Reserve, before descending onto Benone Strand. Continue to Benone (717362 – lavatories, Visitor Centre, sometimes ice cream vans). Return along the beach and A2 to Lion gate car park.

LENGTH: 6 miles: allow 2-3 hours


CONDITIONS: Good paths, firm sands

• the strange ruins of Downhill Palace
• Mussenden Temple on the cliff edge
• flowery delights of Umbra Dunes

REFRESHMENTS: Pretty Crafty Studio (signed across A2 from Lion Gate) is a great place for tea and cakes; or take a picnic on the beach.

ACCOMMODATION: Downhill Hostel (028-7084-9077; at foot of hill – dormitory (from £12) or private (from £35 dble, £60 for 4 adults). The whole hostel can be booked by one group, if required.

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 (

INFORMATION: Downhill (NT): 028-2073-1582;
Umbra Dunes (Ulster Wildlife Trust):

Tourist Office: Railway Road, Coleraine (028-7034-4723);

 Posted by at 2:05 pm
Jun 272009

‘Cloonfad? Oh, the back blocks!’
‘Aye, they lost a couple of fellows in there last year – neither hide nor hair of ‘em seen since.’

The jolly drinkers in Roscommon’s Abby Hotel were getting great gas out of the thought of me venturing into the south-west tip of the country. The way they talked it up, I’d need an elephant gun and a pocketful of quinine just to survive. Myself, I could hardly wait. Roscommon is one of those edge-of-the-midlands counties it’s all too easy to sidle by on your way to the grandeurs of the west. But I’d noticed enough bird-haunted forest and sunsplashed bog on previous glancing contacts with the place to have promised myself to come back with my boots on one day.

On a morning cold enough to nip the fingers, with a muted pearly light overhead and in among the conifers, I found my way to Derrylahan Resource Centre. Beside the building stood a tiny domed structure of stone – an ancient sweathouse, recently restored. You’d need to be extremely thin, or to be given a cruel kicking as incentive, to force your way inside that diminutive bee-hive hut. Once there, you’d be baked alive till the sickness was out of you, then extracted and chucked in an ice-cold stream. It was kill or cure in the old days: no namby-pambies survived around Derrylahan.

The bluish bottle-brush sprouts of the sitka spruce in Derrylahan Forest made a sombre backdrop for the tender green leaves breaking out on willows, hazels and birches all around. A robin sat on the topmost branch of a pine tree and sang as if about to burst with glee. Bog ditches glinted iridescent and thick in the strengthening sunshine. Even the darkly mysterious realm under the conifers, so redolent of Grimm fairytales, of horrid stepmothers and cannibalistic witches, seemed exorcised by spring.

Derrylahan hamlet lay among the daffodils – a neat white dwelling next to a tumbledown older neighbour in a hollow of dog’s mercury and moss. The world seemed out on its doorstep today. In nearby Cloonerkaun an old man in billycock hat and paint-splashed overalls was so busy whitewashing the stains of winter from his barn that he didn’t even look up as I went whistling by.

The advance of Derrylahan Forest had captured several townlands and their small farms whose walled fields lay wholly overgrown with stiffly rustling clumps of rushes. Beyond Cloonerkaun, though, the trees stepped back and a long and wide bog landscape unrolled northwards. Some patches bristled with the wind-bleached bones of old trees; others lay littered with coarse grey rocks studded with jewel-like blobs of gleaming white quartzite. In there somewhere, according to the map, a Mass Rock and a cillin were to be found. I scoured the dun and ochre landscape with binoculars, but never spotted them. It didn’t matter – I was contented to leave them in silent concealment, and to stroll on across the bog with lark song and wind whistle for company.

The sun released rich smells from the bog: heather, dry grasses and wet turf, myrtle, and something eucalyptus-like that I couldn’t identify. I took a detour and found Brid Bourke’s Cross, very roughly fashioned, rising from a haphazard grave of stone slabs. ‘RIP Brid Bourke, Drumbane’ was the simple inscription lettered in trickly black paint on the cross. Who was Brid Bourke? There were no clues. And where was the standing stone the map showed at the crest of Slieve Dart? I didn’t find it when I climbed there for the wind and the fifty-mile view towards Connemara. I couldn’t have cared less. The back blocks of south-west Roscommon get you right in the heart, with all their mysteries and subtle beauty. Who’d want to be anywhere else on a spring day such as this?


MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 39; downloadable map/instructions at

Rail ( or bus ( to Ballyhaunis (5 miles from Cloonfad)
Road: Follow ‘Scenic Walk Resource Centre’ sign from R327 Williamstown road, 2 miles east of Cloonfad.

WALK DIRECTIONS (purple arrow/PA waymarks): Leaving Resource Centre (OS ref M 536695), turn right along road, round sharp left bend; first left (PA) past Derrylahan hamlet for 1 mile to road at Cloonerkaun. Turn right; ignore ‘Scenic Walk’ sign on left and continue along road for ½ mile. Beyond farm on left, bear left on green track, SW, for ⅓ mile to a step-over stile (M 522700 approx – NB: waymarks briefly disappear here). Cross stile, then another lower down (522698). Keep ahead with drain on your left to road (waymarks resume). Forward for 50m; forward at left bend (PA) on bog road. Follow PAs for ½ mile to forest road (516689). Left for 1 ½ miles to Resource Centre.
Detours: (a) left at 522689 to Brid Bourke’s Cross (signed); (b) right just before Resource Centre up forest road to viewpoint on Slieve Dart.

LENGTH: 5 miles: allow 3 hours


CONDITIONS: forest roads and tracks, bog paths. 2 step-over stiles.

• The rich smell of the bog in sunshine
• Brid Bourke’s Cross
• View from Slieve Dart

REFRESHMENTS: Take a picnic – several tables along walk.

ACCOMMODATION: Abbey Hotel, Galway Road, Roscommon (090-662-6240; – very stylish and comfortable

GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: From Derrylahan Resource Centre (contact Cloonfad Scenic Walks, 087-239-6985)

INFORMATION: walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s ‘National Loop Walks’, walking festivals throughout Ireland: and

Roscommon Tourist Office: 090-66-26342;

 Posted by at 12:43 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 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.


P1030569P1030576 P1030572

 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 152011

Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville

113: McSwyne’s Gun Loop, Horn Head, Co. Donegal first published 17 September 2011

When I’m 108, I only hope I’m half as spry as Harry. Since Inga Bock, Co. Donegal’s indefatigable Rural Recreation Officer, found him wandering on a back lane near Ballybofey, this 18-year-old (in human reckoning) Patterdale terrier, absolutely chock-full of character and devilry with his bushy white brows and single shark-like fang, accompanies his adoptive mistress on all her walks. This morning Harry went trotting through the dunes with all the enthusiasm of a puppy – on the lead at all times, as every dog on the path to Tramore Beach must be.

It was one of those beckoning Donegal days, the sky over the Horn Head peninsula swirling with silver clouds and intense patches of blue, the long sandflats of Dunfanaghy Bay emitting a low gleam of ochre, dun and emerald. A mighty storm in 1917 sealed the fate of Dunfanaghy, said Inga, silting up the harbour and ending the coastal village’s eminence as a herring port. Sand has been the story here, choking the sound that once made an island of Horn Head, heaping up huge dunes some 50 metres tall. The path we were following took us a mazy trek through the hollows and over the peaks of the sandhills, an extraordinary natural garden of wild flowers.

Topping the sandhills we stood looking west over a wonderful view – jade green waves creaming in serried ranks on the golden strand of Tramore, the tremendous quartzite humps of the Derryveagh Mountains rising in the south and out at sea the jagged dark profile of Tory Island lying on the horizon, its towering western cliffs rugged and blocky enough to be the work of some clumsy sculptor giant. It was a prospect to stop anyone in their tracks, but not Harry – he was attentive only to the beat of a singular doggy drum, and did his best to get stuck fast down one impossible rabbit burrow after another, his wriggling tail sticking out of the holes the only clue as to his whereabouts.

On Tramore Strand Jane and I bade a fond farewell to Inga and Harry – dogs aren’t allowed onto the headland, on account of the livestock in the fields. We headed out along the narrow cliff path round Marfagh headland, a slippery flywalk that brought us down over tar-black rocks speckled with green and orange lichen. A deep, booming thump, irregularly repeated with a slight tremor of the rocks under our feet, told us that we were in the vicinity of McSwyne’s Gun, and soon we had identified the famous blow-hole. To leeward of the dark chasm the cliffs were carpeted with deep drifts of sea-rounded pebbles. They had been blown there with the force of bullets by the eruptions of the seawater geyser, which can reach an almost unbelievable height of 70 metres during storms. Some say the Gun can be heard booming ten miles off; there’s even a rumour that its percussive explosions have reached the city of Derry, 30 miles away as the wave-shot pebble flies.

In among a little settlement of tumbledown stone cottages beyond Pollaguill Bay, two Connemara ponies were grazing, their long manes flopping in the wind like a boy band’s fringes. On the road above we met up with Inga and Harry once more, our four-legged friend wheezing asthmatically and grinning with his outsize fang through a mask of clotted sand, product of his latest excavation. The four of us walked down towards the scatter of Dunfanaghy around its bay, with the soft throaty invitation of a cuckoo echoing across the hayfields and the cloud-piercing cone of Mount Errigal on the southern skyline to put everything into decent perspective.


Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Sheet 2; downloadable instructions as

TRAVEL: Coaches from Dublin (, Galway ( and Belfast ( stop outside Arnold’s Hotel.
Road: N13 to Letterkenny, N56 to Dunfanaghy. Continue through village; at far end, right (brown ‘Trailhead’ fingerpost). Cross bridge, pass Trailhead Map board; continue along road for 100 m. First left to car park.

WALK DIRECTIONS: Return along road to Trailhead map board by bridge. Follow ‘McSwyne’s Gun Loop’ blue arrows (BA) over stile and through dunes for nearly 2 km to north end of Tramore Strand. Bear right; follow fence (BA), then cliff path (BAs on posts and rocks) for 2.5 km to Pollaguill Bay. Inland along Pollaguill Burn (BAs, ladder stiles) towards Claggan. Among ruined houses join boreen; at tarmac road, right for 2 km to car park.

LENGTH: 6 miles/10 km; allow 3-4 hours.

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Some narrow cliff paths, some steep, exposed sections. Take great care with children!
NB Dogs must be strictly on the lead at all times as far as Tramore Strand, and are not allowed further onto the headland. Ignoring this instruction may cause Horn Head to be closed to walkers.


• Wonderful flowers of the dunes
• Blow holes, especially McSwyne’s Gun
• Spectacular views from road over Errigal and the Derryveagh Mts


ACCOMMODATION: Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy (074-913-6208; family-run, really friendly and helpful.

WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland:
National Trails Day, 2 October: Walks, trails, fun events across Ireland (
Carlow Autumn Walking Festival, 7-9 October (059-913-0411;
East Clare Walking Festival, 21-23 October (
Foxford Walking Festival, Mayo, 21-23 October (094-925-7684;

LETTERKENNY TIC: Blaney Road (074-91-21160);

 Posted by at 3:30 pm