NORTH MAYO: Woods and Moor, Bog and Shore

A couple of weeks after my last ramblings in the Nephin Wilderness Park we returned to Mayo, to explore the landscape to the north. We started by visiting Enniscoe House and its 3 km Woodland Loop. Actually we started in the Kaffa Coffee Cafe and museum in a converted outbuilding of the 18th century Georgian mansion before meandering around the walled ornamental and organic fruit and veg garden restored under the Great Gardens of Ireland Programme. It looked like Covid regulations or something had hit the upkeep of the gardens hard which was sad to see and we moved on to the woodland beyond the walls.

The gardens have been certified organic for over 25 years and other good things have been initiated here over decades. In 1993 10,000 sessile oaks, Ireland’s National Tree, were planted with help from the Tree Council ( and Mitsubishi) and the woods are part of a Neighbourwood Scheme to create local and community amenities for recreation in nature. They won the Forest Service Biodiversity award in 2013. It’s also an International Phenological Garden, one of 28 sites in Ireland that notes important dates in nature each year. Leafing, flowering, ripening and leaf fall etc- all important info- not least for the study of climate change.

We set off to follow the trail to Lough Conn and back around Fox Covert, Burnt Wood and other named avenues.

We parked up that night on the site of the old turf power station on Bellacorick bog, the flow country that stretches north from the Nephin mountains all the way to the coast.

Opened in 1963 it consumed 1000 tonnes of turf a day for 40 years finally being decommissioned in ’03 and demolished in ’07.

Ireland’s 1st commercial windfarm opened on the adjoining Bord na Mona land ( they have 10,000 hectares of bog) in ’92 with the 21 small turbines producing only 6.5MW. I say only because a new windfarm opened there in 2019 with the 29 big turbines producing 93MW!

In the morning we crossed a new bridge over the Oweninny and joined the 13km looped walk around the site.

A joint venture between Bord na Mona and the ESB, the renewable energy plant is a major part of BnM’s “Brown to Green” rebranding. Although I think much of the cut away bog there is beyond restitution into a working carbon sink eco system, it is heartening to see its rapid transformation into a more ” natural” state.

Cows and sheep grazing, insects and birds on the ponds and wild growth of heathers, grasses, lichens and mosses all testified to recovery. The paths followed the miles of old railway track, laid down to facilitate the removal of 1000 tonnes of ground a day. 10km of new roads have now been made for phase 2, complete next year and doubling the number of turbines and producing an additional 83MW of clean energy.

A nice flat easy hike across an amazing landscape under a very big sky. Unfortunately we discovered we shouldn’t have been on it at all when we tried to go to the visitor centre and discovered it closed due to construction of phase 2. A further, phase 3, is now in the planning stages- to bring another 50 MW on stream further to the east.

From a scene of a landscape heritage destroyed by exploitation of a natural resource to a scene of cultural and historical heritage destroyed for the same reason.

Across the bog a few km, near the proposed site of phase 3, is Blanemore Forest and its 4.7 km loop. A spruce, pine and larch plantation was thoughtlessly put down on top of a wealth of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.

Although surveyed in the early 1960’s, when the state forestry board first bought and planted the land, the pre-bog boundary walls, field systems, court- tombs, stone row and standing stone here were “lost” for decades before being brought to light in ‘ 93 by a couple of archaeology students. Since then the local community has done much to preserve and present these remnants of Ireland’s first farmers over 5000 years ago.

For 500 years from 3,800BC Neolithic farmers cleared forest and created fields for grazing cattle before a change to a wetter climate and the growth of bog coupled with soil erosion led to the disappearance of the settlement here. The nearby Ceide Fields complex spans 1000’s of acres and is the largest Neolithic site in the world.

The trail led us on forest track and rubber mat boardwalks past information boards at each of the sites. Unfortunately much has been swallowed by the bog and forest and the repeated planting and harvesting operations have caused a lot of damage. In fact the capstone of the largest court tomb was deliberately knocked off by digger in the 60’s to see what lay under “the large flag” of the ” giants grave”. Thankfully all archaeology within state forests is now protected.

The site also contains a couple of impressive Bronze Age monuments from when farming returned about 600 years later as things warmed up again temporarily.

A large standing stone and a stone alignment atop a gravel ridge had a very different prospect before the trees surrounded them. It is conjectured that the stone row is in alignment with Nephin on the winter Soltice when the sun would appear to “roll” down its shoulder, similar to an event we have witnessed on Croagh Patrick.

After a few hundred years the wet returned, the farmers retreated east to the limestone, and the bog reclaimed the area again. Who knows what might be revealed later in this climate change?

It was a big weekend in Mayo and particularly in our next destination, Ballycastle. Not only was the Sam Maguire cup within reach again in Mayo’s 10th Gaelic football final since their last win after a 70 year wait but the Red Bull cliff diving championship was also happening from the dramatic coast there, creating a lot of razzmatazz.

We watched the game in a fairly raucous pub with the excitement growing for hours before the throw in. Sad to say it didn’t go well and we slid away to the camper after the final whistle unable to share the agony of the true Mayo people.

Sunday morning we walked down through town to the trail head of the Sralagagh 9.5km Loop and headed off a small road that became a boreen that became a track. Abandoned gravel pits, rough overgrown fields, some mattress dumping and views of farms smothered by forestry monoculture doesn’t sound great but our surroundings had a melancholy charm enhanced by the frequent gurgling of multiple watercourses.

We reached old turf banks and at the highest point we turned down a bog track that stretched far into the distance. This deserted place must have been a busy hive of industry for generations of families producing fuel. From here we could look back to a sunlit Ballycastle and, further down the fuchsia track, the towering sea stack off Downpatrick Head where the diving was taking place.

A coffee at the beach watching kayakers setting off for a fisheye view of the cliff divers, and we drove east over the headland for our last walking environment- the shore. The tide was out on Lacken Bay exposing miles of golden sands. There is a centuries old tradition of horse racing on the strand and every May thoroughbreds from around the country compete over a 5 furlong looped track surrounded by spectators who also engage in a variety of family fun sporting activities. Rather than sleek steeds racing around the sand we had to endure a boy racer doing doughnuts.

This is the scene of the French landing in 1798, the last act in that ill fated rebellion, and the troops marched across these sands to Killala and eventual defeat at Ballinamuck when the French were allowed to surrender whilst the Irish were massacred. We walked out into wide airy space experiencing a similar openness to the flat bog land horizons, tip toeing over the rivulets of retreating waters and admiring the big skies and small sandy details.

A lovely series of walks, but a slight sense of sadness crept in when contemplating the loss of life in the bloody rebellion and the memorial to fishing disaster, the migratory birds lining up to leave, signifying the end of summer and ,of course, the sad defeat of the Mayo hurlers.

WILD NEPHIN : Into the Heart of Mayo

Sustained sunshine and a dry Indian summer provided too good an opportunity to miss. After a few ” mild” walks I hankered after some “wild”. And so thoughts turned to Nephin and what is usually uncomfortably wet and soggy terrain. I’d twice crossed the boggy wastelands of Ballycroy and the Bangor Trail and relished the empty openness of that Big Country. I had also been inspired by Sean Lysaght’s book on Wild Nephin and had pored over the excellent 1:25,000 scale map of the area put together by Barry Dalby of EastWest Mapping.

So a maiden voyage in the repaired and whine and grind free campervan got me to a lovely parkup on the shores of Lough Cullin with the setting sun rolling down the shoulder of my goal for the morning.

A big full moon hanging over the lake when I awoke added to the call of the wild as I drove off, stopping on route at the poignant Titanic memorial in the village of Lahardaun. 14 souls from the area lost their lives in the disaster and others miraculously survived. Anne McGowan, a local, survived and lived on to reach 95 years finally dying in 1990. Every year here at 2.20 on April 15 th the church bell tolls and a ceremony is held in their memory.

Nephin is the highest standalone mountain in Ireland and second highest point in Connacht, second only to Mweelrea. From its summit at 806 m there are outstanding views over the vast tracts of moorland, forest, blanket bog, farmland and the mountains of Donegal, Sligo, Galway, even Clare on a clear day. And of course Croagh Patrick and the Nephin Beg range. It’s a mountain I’d been attracted to for decades with its enticing and mystical pyramidical formation, but been unsure the best way to tackle it. Problem solved by local community groups with help from Coillte and the Co Council who created a marked trail on the north face with its fantastic Corrie. Known as “Finn Mc Cool’s Armchair” the Corrie does not contain a lake but is certainly dramatic. Leaving the camper in a recently created trail head car park I started off up a forest track with the early morning dew still glowing on the spider’s webs and a small blanket of cloud still draped over the summit.

An old Mass Path lead me on to the edge of the forest and out on the heather clad open mountain. The path got muddy and eroded in places, the downside of creating a route and car park and increasing the amount of footfall. Moving on up and starting to slow as the incline increased I was bemused to be overtaken by a young one running up the, to me , daunting climb stretching ahead. He turned out to be an Italian, and bizarrely a mad Mayo football fan, over for the final, as I discovered when he passed me again on his way down.

The views opened up as I rose up through the heather and scrambled on the loose rocks. I looked over to the west at the lower rounded hill of Tristia, where I planned to visit a holy well.

I moved over towards the edge of the steep drop into the corrie, thrilled by the views, and clambered on up towards the now visible trig point.

At the summit I found a spiral art work had been created below the trig point and a wasp nest was resident in it. I discovered this while resting against it congratulating myself on a successful ascent, just before receiving a couple of stings. A mysterious figure emerged from the cloud to the west.

Eamon was on a mission from Scotland to climb all the Irish peaks over 600m, known as the Vandeleur-Lynams, of which there are 273. He was doing this without transport, hitching to the trailheads. He was also doing it without paying for accommodation instead hoping to meet friendly folk to put him up or camping out. But just to ensure that his life did not become too easy and diminish the challenge he was doing it without a tent, just sleeping bag and mat!

And he was about my age. Not one for the Saga coach tour then- and way beyond the definition of Active Retirement.

With so many peaks to bag he couldn’t stay too long and disappeared back into the cloud leaving me to carry on around the rim of the corrie and start back down on the opposite slope to complete a horseshoe climb. I could make out tiny figures scaling the shoulder across the gulf of Finn’s armchair and I disturbed a resting sheep who hobbled off with a broken leg. How long to survive?

Jumbled rocks gave way to rough grass and heather on the steep slope down towards the ravine caused by the scouring waters of the stream that becomes Castlehill river.

After the exertion of the climb I took the restorative waters at the holy well on the slope of Tristia, a few km away. Originally a site of pre Christian celebration at Lughnasa it was later dedicated to St Patrick after he was said to have called here himself for a drink. In fact there are two wells, one for Patrick and the other, in a gesture of sexual equality, Bridget. The waters are reputed to cure lost eyesight and to bring about reconciliation to troubled families.

With a fair bit of fine day left I moved around to the opposite side of the hill to Drumleen Lough for a refreshing swim. An easy 3km loop walk encircles the lake thanks to the efforts of local community and willingness of landowners. A laid gravel track and boardwalks take one past an old homestead and around the lake held between the glacial drumlins with a thoughtfully placed picnic table and benches where I stripped off and cooled myself in the placid waters.

With the evening drawing in it was time to head deeper into the Nephin Wilderness and find a parkup. Turning off the Bangor road toward Keenagh with the vast expanse of the bog stretching away to the north I visited Bunaveela Lough before finding a beautiful spot in a little lay-by overlooking the forest and folded landscape above the Goulaun river.

Another place of curative waters was my first destination in the morning – deep into the bowels of Glen Augh under the watchful eye of Mount Eagle. Driving up a forestry track as far as possible, I followed on foot the post markers leading along boggy firebreaks to Jamesie’s Well. The old lodge pole pines were festooned with lichen- a testament to the pure air. Unfortunately the rhododendron that plagues so much of the area, and could cause problems for the hands off rewilding plans for the park, had managed to get a purchase even here.

There were actually 3 spring wells spurting the purist of waters from under the trees. Said to be effective in the treatment of kidney stones, when Jamesie McIntyre passed a stone after drinking the waters, they will not work for those attempting to sell the aqua viva.

I supped deep from each in turn before following the gurgling sounds of the infant Srahrevagh River up to Lough Doo in the saddle between Mt Eagle and Top of Lena peaks. Blazing sun, cooling waters, empty, isolated and open to enormous vistas – perfect for a bit of “wild swimming”.

The views only improved as I climbed on up to the summit, admiring the micro worlds held within the clumps of mosses and the macro world of the vastness of earth under the heavens.

Back down in the river valley I went in search of some waterfalls known as The Lep or leap. Hidden in a deep and steep ravine, sheltered by ancient gnarled oaks whose precarious positions have protected them from browsing sheep and men with saws, the falls are heard way before they are found. Even now, after weeks of dry weather, the cascades were impressive. To be here in a winters flood would be awesome.

Inspired by my view east from Mt Eagle of ancient trackways and settlements at the far end of Glen Lara and the booleys of The Pullidge I set out from Shrahmore Lodge towards the mighty Burren Corrough. This land, once so full of hard lives, was now deserted but still harboured remnants. Potato ridges, ditches and banks, the deep impressions of discarded turf banks, stone walls of cottage and booley huts.

There was a melancholy to the place and I had planned another wild swim in Derrybrock Lough but on reaching it somehow my desire for immersion faltered. Perhaps something to do with the fairies the area is associated with , a place children were warned to avoid. The lakes Irish name , Doire Bhroc ( Badger Wood), is another cause for sadness- the despoliation of the landscape has seen both badger and wood eradicated. In the end though the blue sky and shining sun banished the banshees and the swim was a blessing.

Invigorated by the swim I carried on over the tussocks of rush and grasses into a vision of the American Badlands or the Mongolian steppes. The vastness was a little daunting, or maybe it was the fairies, and I decided I’d better retreat before the light did. From the furthest flung roofed building, adrift in the featureless void, I struggled to follow the ghost of a cart track back to the van. In another few decades this could all be a rhododendron forest, so many of them were progressing across the land, triffid like.

I drove south then west to cross the Black River and around the top of Lough Freeagh to continue down a forestry track into Glennamong. Parking up next to the bridge I was visited by a logging lorry just before dark and another late at night and again in the misty (and midgy) morning. Their timber cargo was going to Enniskillen in the north which seemed absurdly far away but the driver told me they go all over the country.

A still and humid morning had the midges out in swarms so as soon as the mist had risen enough for me to see my route up towards Ben Gorm I was off, first through a clearing in the plantation, then up over the sheep wrecked mountainside of sparse vegetation, hags of turf and swampy hollows. The erosion had revealed a lot of prehistoric tree stumps, relics of another age and another climate. And there were sundews.

I’d read about a discovery I was hopeful to find high up in the moraine of jumbled boulders and rocks that have detached themselves from the side of Ben Gorm and lie strewn around dangerously awaiting careless ankles. A local man had followed a fox into a narrow fissure in the rocks and found a 20 m corridor and later chambers containing human bones. Subsequent examination determined that the chambers had been used for ritual burial for several centuries from over 5000 years ago. My first effort was woefully inadequate as far as Neolithic burial chambers go but I spied what must be it, a huge slab, high up the cliff, guarding a wide opening.

Unfortunately a difficult clamber up there revealed only the skull of a sheep, but the view was good.

I had got myself into a position where the only way was up, and it was a sweaty scramble clinging to rocks and heather before I finally breached the ridge and hauled myself to the reward.

Beautiful weather beautiful views. The pinnacle of Croagh Patrick rose above a sea of islands in Clew Bay to the south and the wilderness of the Nephin range faded into the east. To the west were the mountains and cliffs of Achill while down to the east the camper, and a long journey home awaited.

My thirst for the wild had been sated but my attachment to this landscape had only grown. Laid out in such a grand scale it displays its history in geological and human scale openly and I can only wonder what comes next.

CURRAGHMORE AND CHARLEVILLE CASTLE ESTATES: A Walk on the Mild Side

Finally getting my fingers to the keyboard to write about a couple of micro adventures- weeks separated in time but sharing many similarities.

First up was a little side trip from our visit to this years Covid constricted Sproai festival, Waterford city’s annual street performance jamboree. We drove west up the Suir valley to the super wide streets of Portlaw, the 19th century model town created by mill owning Quakers. From there we took the oddly named Scrouty road to the car park entrance to Tower Hill woods to begin a 4.5km loop.

There are 100’s of acres of glorious mixed oak woodland hereabouts, mostly owned by the Curraghmore estate, and although this particular patch had been described as representing one of the larger remaining tracts of oak woods in the country, it seemed mostly coniferous to us. We passed an old stone boundary wall which obviously predates the supposed “ancient woodland” and reached an open area with stunning views to the Comeragh mountains.

We emerged from the shade of the trees into a fine sunny day under blue skies and followed the track across the shoulder of the hill till reaching a road at Hussain gap where one of the Marquis of Waterford had his faithful war horse buried. The gravestone of Jock the Charger had been removed to the house for safekeeping after some inaccurate tree felling had broken it.

Some of the 12 miles of estate boundary walls we passed along the road were being restored with traditional lime mortar aided by state and European GLAS grant aid- an ironic twist on the fact they were originally constructed as famine ” relief” for a penny a day and food.

Shortly turning off the road and into the forest again we climbed on a path past seeding willow herb and spindly holly towards the De la Poer tower.

Sitting atop the 230m hill the tower was built in 1785 by the 1st Marquis of Waterford in memory of his eldest son who died aged 13 in a riding accident jumping his horse over the courtyard railings. A solid construction with walls up to 7 ft thick and a 92 step spiral staircase that leads up to a view over 5 counties.

We sat at the top looking down at our next destination, the house and grounds of Curraghmore. The 2500 acres of the estate make up the largest private Demesne in Ireland and are home to a remarkable tree collection including the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka Spruce planted in 1830’s and about 180ft tall.

The De la Poers have been here since the 12th c and the original Norman keep with its 12ft thick walls has been encased by a Victorian mansion. The fine back courtyard, where we took our luncheon in the cafe, is overlooked by St Huberts Stag sporting a crucifix between the antlers.

Traditionally hosting polo matches in summer and shooting parties in winter the glorious grounds of lawn, lake, woodland, borders, parterre and formal gardens were the unlikely setting for the All Together Now music festival in 2018 and 19 and are signed up for 3 more. 15,000 people camped and danced and partied in these refined surroundings over long weekends with no damage done- but leaving tell tale traces dotted incongruously about like objects implanted from a future reality.

I wondered what Lady Catherine, the Countess of Tyrone, would have made of it. Being a creative herself I feel she would approve. In 1754 she took 261 days to construct the Shell House with “her proper” hands and instructed captains leaving Waterford harbour for exotic destinations to return with shells with which to decorate its interior- unfortunately hidden from our view.

We had to return to Sproai and so left without fully exploring the planting Lady Catherine was instrumental in. Exotic trees as well as shells found their way to Curraghmore. Chinese Fir, Japanese Umbrella Pine, Lebanese Cedar, Western Hemlock, Mexican White Pine, Caucasian Fir, Chinese Plum Yew, Serbian Spruce, Bhutan Pine, Japanese Red Cedar, Chilean Southern Beech, Cappadocian Maple- it’s an impressive list, and an impressive landscape. We will return.

Another historic estate that hosts a music festival, and has done annually for 13 years, is Charleville, just outside Tullamore, Co Offaly. It also has a remarkable collection of trees as we discovered on our latest ” train and trail trip”.

Alighting the Dublin bound train in Tullamore it was a short walk to the entrance to Charleville Forest where we were immediately gifted with the presence of The King Oak.

This approx 700yr old venerable being is one of many in the ancient forest that has survived here after 1700 acres were given to the Moore family by Queen Elizebeth 1. Voted third in the European Tree of the Year in 2013 the oak has a girth of 26ft and the lower branches spread 150ft. It was struck by lightening in 1963 and survived, split but still strong.

The forest here has been considered magical for centuries and was sacred to the druids. As we continued up the lane towards the castle we were in awe of the majestic towering oaks that formed the top canopy of a multi story woodland.

The arboreal senior citizens sported some huge burrs that masked hidden wonders for a wood turner.

At the end of the drive we passed through an entrance to the castle itself, built over 14 years from 1798, the year of the crushed rebellion, and designed as a neo gothic statement of power. The round towers were supposedly positioned on the crossing point of key lines and create a powerful energy in the tower rooms. Reported to be full of hauntings the castle hosts overnight paranormal investigations.

Uninhabited from 1912 it fell in disrepair but was saved from ruin by the work of volunteers and supporters from 1970’s and the creation in 1994 of the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust. In 2006 the first small scale Castle Palooza festival was held, raising money for the continuing restoration, increasing in size to 5000 over the coming years.

Skirting the castle we followed the track over a stream and past a wide assortment of mature trees- mighty chestnut, ash and sycamore. There is a planting of yew here in the shape of the union flag, impossible to determine from the ground. We continued our walk down through an avenue of limes from the farmyard and out onto open pasture.

Out through a gate onto the Lynally road and we carried on northwards through farmland that although productive seemed somewhat of a mishmash with abandoned old cottages and sheds alongside brutish new development.

This area was part of a major ecclesiastical centre for centuries when the monastic site founded by St Colman Elo in 590 grew into an important place of faith and learning. The ancient oak woods of Charleville were part of the settlement back in the day and we stopped for a picnic lunch at the atmospheric ruins, kindly shown around by the knowledgeable owner of the land, Mr Mooney.

An unofficial caretaker of this OPW site he had protected it from much official vandalism and seen a partial improvement with the removal of damaging ivy by the county council a few years ago. When I asked him if his family had been here for a long time he replied, No they’d only come in 1668 from another part of the county. “A blow in so”, I replied, ” have the locals accepted you yet?”

A mine of historical info and a welcoming custodian, he left us to tend to his farm and we carried on up the road another couple of km to join the Grand Canal at Ballycowan castle whose grouping of its 6 chimneys led it to be known locally as the 3-2-1.

We’d walked the Grand canal from Dublin to the Shannon about 15 years ago and had mixed feelings about the Greenway “improvements” that saw the grassy tow path converted into a tarmac cycle and walkway. It was still pleasant to meander along beside the reedy water towards Tullamore but we crossed over from the official surfaced route to the south bank over Srah bridge to take our chances on the rougher grass bank.

Passing Srah Castle, the 1588 defensive tower house of English settler John Briscoe we were soon passed the traveller halting site,( with adjacent sewerage plant), and into the 28th lock on the edge of town.

The 14km loop hadn’t taken as long as thought so we had time for tea in town reflecting on the pleasures of a walk on the mild side before returning to the station for the train home.

CANALWALK : The Shannon Greenway

Collecting the camper from a garage in Carrick on Shannon, ( don’t ask ), we decided to spend the night in it and explore a walk on the upper reaches of the Shannon Greenway/ Blueway, an expanding network of paddling, cycling and walking trails on and by 200 km of Ireland’s mighty river.

In 1817 a canal was opened to transport clay, iron ore and coal from the western shores of Lough Allen down to Battlebridge on the Shannon. As usual the faster railways muscled in on the trade and by 1930 the ESB had decided to raise the water level of Lough Allen ,( to create a reservoir for the new engineering marvel that was Ardnacrusha power station nearly 100 miles away), and the canal was abandoned.

A big drive to establish recreational boating tourism in the 90’s saw the canal dredged and reopened in 1996 and the current big drive to establish Greenways has led to the development of a 13 km looped walking trail from Acres lake in Drumshanbo to Battlebridge.

We started at Ireland’s first floating boardwalk, a 600m construction leading walkers out across the lake and into the canal mouth. The €500,000 cost has been declared well spent with 120,000 extra visitors attracted in its first year and ” Drumshanbo has just thrived on the back of it”.

Certainly thought had gone into encouraging use of the old towpath route with picnic tables and shelters appearing now and then. The new gravel surface made it bike and buggy friendly but avoided the unnatural and hard tarmac of some other greenways.

The verges and hedges were richly coloured and scented by summer blooms as we approached Drumleague lock where we crossed over to return to Acres Lake on the opposite grassy bank.

Although the new Greenways on the river and canal banks of Ireland have definitely increased traffic on what were already lovely walking routes the waterways themselves still seem sadly underused and must be costing Waterways Ireland dearly. The Blueways projects have received mighty funding for their facilities, signage and branding but we have seen very little activity so far on our rambles, although one boat came zooming passed.

Still, the empty canal made for a very tranquil walk beside the still waters.

We drove back to the lock to spend the night and continued in the morning down to Battlebridge, with the Shannon running alongside us towards the end.

The canal was raised a fair bit above the wet land to our west side that farmers accessed by lowering metal bridges and sheep grazed amongst the thick clumps of rushes.

At the lovely lock house at Battlebridge we gazed at the confluence of the waters. From here the Shannon would take you to Limerick and out to the Atlantic. Or you could branch off at Leitrim and explore the Erne waterways in the North through the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell canal (and then on to the Newry or Ulster canal) . Originally only open from 1860 till 1869 it was returned to optimistic leisure use in 1994. The cross border nature of the project meant the opening ceremony was conducted under very tight security in an area sealed off by police and soldiers and patrolled by camouflaged commandos. Or further on you could branch off down the Royal Canal to Longford and Dublin or you might choose to continue south to Shannonharbour and then turn left down the Grand Canal towards Dublin where, at Lowtown you could head down the Barrow canal and river to Waterford.

There is , again, a long trailing network of boating, cycling and walking trails open and in development across Ireland on the remnants of its industrial past. The abandoned canals towpaths and railway tracks are once again the scene of huge investment of labour and cash. This time it’s for the health of the people and the planet. Minister Eamon Ryan announced recently a €63 million allocation under the Carbon Tax Fund to 26 Greenway projects. For 2021 alone! You will soon be able to walk and cycle traffic free across the length and breadth of the country. Bring it on.

RIVERWALK : The Suir Greenway

After our last micro adventure on and around the waters of the midlands we decided to do a linear riverside hike in the south east down the Suir valley.

The Suir, one of the Three Sisters (along with the Barrow and the Nore) that come together to flow into the sea at Waterford harbour, rises in the Devils Bit mountains and flows for 185 km through the lush landscape of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford and for millennia has been a major commercial and transportation route providing access to towns and ports in Ireland, Britain and to the continent.

The Anglo Norman Butler dynasty had ruled over this corner of Ireland for 800 years creating castles, tower houses, quays and huge wealth and along with various Quaker families had made Clonmel an important commercial centre with milling, tanning, textile, brewing and distilling industries making it the largest inland town in Ireland.

The greenway runs along the tow path route from Clonmel to Carrick on Suir a distance of over 21km. We took 3 trains to get to the historic town, staying overnight in the fabulous Birdhill House and setting off bright and early to the starting point 4km down stream.

The riverside location has been embraced with new cycle and walkways through parkland and lots of sponsored tree planting. There is a longer “Blueway”, a kayaking route from Cahir to Carrick, and we passed a canoe slalom course running 300 m from Lady Blessingtons Weir with groynes, islands, poles, ledges and lines that is reputed to be the most exciting in Ireland , though the heron didn’t seem impressed.

Back and forth across Convent, Old and Gashouse Bridges we finally set off in the sunshine passed flood defences and the hotel on the opposite bank.

The path was busy with walkers and cyclists for a long distance out of Clonmel with quite a few access points along the way. We were treated to some quirky man made artworks and plenty of natural splendours.

In 1537 a right of way 7 ft wide was established along the riverbank to allow for the towing and loading of boats. The boat towing was done by men and ropes who had to negotiate rocks, gravel banks and other obstacles until in 1755 a petition for funds to create a tow path allowed the use of horses and reduced the costs by two thirds. The 60ft boats, called Yawls, would carry between 12 and 20 tons and be pulled by between 4 and 12 horses. The journey upstream from Carrick to Clonmel would take about 5 1/2 hrs. The horses would return by road in about 2 1/2 hr whilst the yawls would float back on the current. The trade dwindled after the railway came in the 1800’s and finally finished in the 1960’s.

The apple orchards of Bulmers were a pleasant feature of a stretch of the greenway where sheep grazed beneath the trees in a fine example of silvopasture. Established in 1935 by local man William Magner it’s become a global brand and here 17 different varieties of cider apple are grown to create the Bulmers blend all pollinated naturally by bees. The local authorities had also adopted the Pollinator Plan and No Mow May in an effort to increase the food source of bees and all the other pollinators. The path was rich in wild and planted flowers that we appreciated as much as the insects.

The river is world renown as a brown trout and salmon fishery, lying over limestone and having the best characteristics of a chalk stream. The fish get big having very few pike predators and no coarse fish competition and a record breaking salmon weighed in at 57lb. The fishing ” beats” are run by private and public clubs and syndicates and there are about a dozen little huts adorning the banks along the greenway.

The good folk of Kilsheelan, half way along the route, where we have enjoyed the greenway previously, have upped their game again with more planting of trees and wildflower meadows around the village and a riverside garden. We stopped for coffee and a snack and remembered our encounter with an otter last time we walked here.

The waters of the river flowed swiftly at times running over rapids which must make it exciting for canoeists although we were surprised not to have seen any on the Blueway since the slalom at the start. There were also 15 weirs on the route made to power mills, maintaining water levels, trapping eels and fishing. The light played on the surface to create constantly changing patterns.

The land around us looked top quality without the rushes of the west as we passed through bucolic scenes of productive countryside with the rising bulk of the mystical Slievenamon or Sliabh na mBan, the Mountain of the Women, in the background. We’ll have to come back for that to explore its 5000yr old tombs, portals to the Otherworld.

The vast agricultural exports and easy transportation had generated a wealth and power reflected in the impressive tower houses from the Middle Ages and mansions that line the river including castle Gurteen de la Poer from 1865 near Kilsheelan by the same Archetect and builder as Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. For over 20 years it’s been owed by controversial Austrian artist Gottfried Heinwein and been the venue for all sorts of celebrity gatherings including the marriage of even more controversial Marilyn Manson to Dita Von Teese.

The skilled and dedicated fly fishermen we passed in their waders were working the “slow pools and slick water”, ” shallow and deep glides, interrupted occasionally by shallow riffles”, but you probably guessed that. The names of the fly they would have been using, and possibly made, are equally poetic. Alders, reed smuts and midges, pale wateries, blue winged olives, black gnat, yellow stoneflies and various sedges. Access to the pools etc was by way of numerous metal ladders and care had to be taken when wading in a strong current.

Although there is a strict catch and release policy in place the value of wild salmon ensures that poachers will break the law and this can lead to nasty confrontations. In July 2020 gun shots were fired at Inland Fisheries officers who had come across poachers near Carrick on Suir who then fled. Their boat, net and 9 salmon were seized. Those fish were just a few miles from their final spawning destination after swimming all the way from Greenland or the Faroe islands.

Other, more damaging, environmental crimes may have been perpetrated here too by a far more powerful entity. Seeing a large factory partly hidden by trees approaching and a “Private MSD Fishery” sign I asked a fisherman we were passing what the place was. Turns out to be the Merck, Sharp and Dohme pharmaceutical plant at the centre of a long running sorry saga. The international pharma giant, 2nd largest in the world, arrived to the 188 acre sit in Ballydine in 1976. Within 2 years local farmer John Hanrahan had accused the company of air pollution that had caused a range of problems from still and deformed births to barren animals, cancer, unexplained sudden deaths of pets, rusting metal, poisoning of grazing and by 1986 the death of over 200 cows. In one of the longest civil cases ever heard in Ireland the High court eventually found for the company and he was ordered to pay over €1 million in costs. But he appealed to the Supreme Court in 1987 and won his 12 year battle bringing about a major change of attitude by government and the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency. A supposed victory by the small man over a Goliath but the Hanrahan family were never able to recover and have had to give up the farm after over 700 years. The episode bitterly divided the community with other neighbours reporting strange behaviour,illness and death among both stock and family and others afraid to speak out whilst the majority, unaffected, were happy with the employment offered by the giant.

A month ago in, May 2021, it was reported that MSD have applied to expand the plant with a new €140 million facility bringing in 300 construction workers for 18 months and adding to the 2,700 workers already at Ballydine. Hard to argue with that.

Soon after we came upon a sacred spring and a lot of memorials. Serendipity.

On the last leg into Carrick and into tidal waters we saw a lot of the narrow wooden traditional craft known as cots, sadly many half sunk. Another sunken vessel here was the cause of the worst Irish inland waterways tragedy ever in 1799. A large barge carrying soldiers, men women and children broke its mooring above the town bridge and was swept broadside into it shattering the boat and casting the passengers into the river. Over 100 died including 60 children.

Our last few Km, to the station for the return series of trains, passed the restored glories of the Butler Tudor manor, built to impress a visiting Elizabeth 1st with whom Black Tom Butler was reputedly having a ” liaison”. Now owned by the OPW, and unfortunately closed inside by Covid, we had a wander around before crossing the park to the little used station.

Lough Ree Rambles : Back to the Heartlands

A fine weekend forecast we headed back to the heartland of Ireland – literally – for a series of lakeshore walks and a visit to some historic and sacred islands by boat.

Lecarrow in Roscommon, on the midwestern shore of Lough Ree, is the nearest village to the geographical centre of the country and that was where we began and ended our trip.

First up a long anticipated exploration of St John’s Wood, one of the finest, biggest, most intact, oldest and species rich ancient native woodlands in the country. Although it has been used as a timber source for hundreds of years and no really mature trees exist it has survived as continuous tree cover and is now protected.

We parked up for the night in the blue dot car park and dived in to a sea of green on a damp evening, immediately enveloped in an otherworldly tree presence.

Mostly in State ownership and managed by the NPWS the wood is part of a Special Area of Conservation with rich and varied biological diversity. The main tree canopy is made up of fine big oaks and ash ( not so fine), wild cherry, wych elm, with an understory of hazel, holly, willow, crab apple, white beam and yew. The rich variety of forest floor flora testifies to a long history of uninterrupted woodland cover with species such as the rare Toothworth and Birds Nest orchid.

A stone wall bisects the wood and runs down to the lake where the shallow soil is washed away to reveal the limestone bedrock to which the trees cling. In a patch of deeper earth badgers have made themselves at home.

On the western side of the wall the wood is left to do its thing whilst on the eastern side it is managed for conservation which has involved some “coppice with standards” plots for a few years in succession as well as some limited grazing by ponies, bat and bird boxes, maintenance of nature trails including the cutting back of trees alongside to encourage herbaceous flowers and an educational program and scientific monitoring.

The Irish Native Woodland Trust, which does great work and deserves support, owns a small bit of the wood and has recently obtained more land nearby where it is planning to establish a native tree nursery using seed collected in St Johns Wood and to plant an additional 15,000 trees. This project has been part funded by Ryanair through their customers carbon offset donations.

The following morning we drove north through rich and fertile farmland, admiring the size and spread of the many mature hardwoods, and shocked yet again by the massive loss Ash dieback will cause.

We were on route to the Cloonlarge Loop, a lovely peatland walk put together by the proud citizens of the tiny village of Kilteevan, just east of Roscommon. With some development assistance and support from the NPWS and Dept of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht a 7km trail had been put together that meanders quiet back roads through the bog and woodland and features a host of creative and educational features. Fair play to them.

The way was dotted with a wealth of info boards explaining the importance of the peatland habitat and the regeneration efforts going on post extraction and displaying the various species of flora and fauna to be found on the loop. There was also rock art of the local national school, quirky woodcarvings and places to sit and be still.

The flowers were buzzing with pollinators and butterflies flapped past through the warm and sultry air. It felt like a timeless summer day as we wandered the lanes and callows to the lakeside, and agreed with the words of botanist and geologist John Feehan.

“Bogs are places of enchantment. …You feel drawn to them as though they awakened an echo deep within us of the open savannah landscapes in which our human kind had its origins……”

There were some photos and illustrations of past activities on the bog including the discovery in 1969 of a Bronze Age wheel while cutting turf. A locally made vintage hopper was on display with a message to Stay Safe laid out in turf sods.

The peatland had certainly played a huge part in the daily and historical lives here and the ending of turf cutting and closure of the Bord na Mona operations across the midlands involves a massive cultural shift. It seemed that the people behind the Cloonlarge Loop could celebrate their past close connection to the bog as a fuel and employment resource and embrace the current understanding of its vital natural qualities and need for protection. There is a 30-100year long term plan here to restore 70 hectares of degraded raised bog to an active state and help to capture carbon.

The future generations were being involved and stimulated in their natural heritage by the inclusion on the walk of fairy trails and bat and bird boxes, insect hotels and even a little library of nature and colouring books and a story telling chair. Top marks to the trail.

Next stop Strokestown House where an exhibition, “Memento Mori”, by Paula Stokes in the 6 acre walled garden commemorates the 1845 famine. The huge Palladian mansion which houses the National Famine Museum has been closed for some time but the Irish Famine Summer School international conference was being held on zoom while we were there and the exhibition opening was timed to coordinate with that. A work consisting of 1845 hand blown glass potatoes in the form of a cairn represents a burial monument to the million people who died.

The exhibit was housed in the Gazebo tower above the pineapple pit where the landlord classes could gaze at all they had dominion over, untouched by the horrors of famine.

Unfortunately the gardens, in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, are in a sorry and neglected state. Although impressive in size and laid out well the amount of volunteer workers they have cannot keep up with the work necessary and it’s all getting out of hand. But on a pleasant sunny day, with flowers in bloom, it was easy enough to ignore all the weeds and hope for future fulfilling of potential.

The museum is having a massive makeover due to open next year and a newly initiated National Famine Way walking route goes from here to the Royal canal and down to Dublin port where the coffin ships awaited those desperately seeking a new life abroad. I hope that an influx of tourist euros will enable the place to slough off its air of forsaken neglect.

Another looped walk on the shores of Lough Ree awaited at Lanesborough where the looming presence of the ESB turf power station, the last to close in December 2020, signified another seismic shift in the fortunes of the midlands. Ironically many of the Bord na Mona workers made redundant by the ending of turf harvesting are now employed in the peatland restoration programmes. An €11 million ” Just Transition” fund from government and the ESB is set to help Midlands projects that contribute to a move away from carbon intensive activities towards a more sustainable, climate resilient economy.

Parking up beside the lake I was tempted by the sunshine to go for a dip but the scum of millions of mayfly put me off and I contented myself with watching others for awhile before we set off on the woodland loop.

The 4km track led us through two old limestone quarries and a variety of woodland types past callows and reedbeds. Very pleasant in the dappled shade and well appreciated by the Lanesborough people.

Back in Lecarrow in the early morning we cast off in our hired punt and motored slowly down the canal linking the sheltered harbour to the lake at Blackbrink Bay a couple of km away. Opened in 1794 it was busy with boats carrying limestone, corn and flax ( grown on the canal banks and a popular midlands crop) out to the Shannon transport network. The railways bought about a steep decline and by the 1960’s the canal was choked and unnavigable. The start of pleasure boating instigated a dredging scheme and the canal was reopened in 1967.

Once out on the lake we slid across the flat calm waters for about an hour, all along St Johns Wood and then south west around Inchturk to Inchmore, the largest island on Lough Ree at 132 acres. Several families lived here until quite recently with the schoolhouse only built in 1927. We moored at a small quay at the end of a muddy lane leading to the houses and the old fishing lodge of the Marquis of Westmeath.

I have discovered that one of the intact houses has just gone up for sale as the owner is moving to New Zealand. You heard it here first.. €130,000 ( very open to offers) will get you a 2 up 2 down with 70’s extension on an acre. Off grid living. Compost loo. Cooking on the fire ( or less poetically -gas). Rain or lake water. And loads of Peace and Tranquility. Priceless.

Check out Island House, Inchmore on YouTube for drone footage or island house.site. Your new life awaits.

Further up the beautiful tree lined track we entered a wide field on the southern end of the island. Here was the remnants of much older habitation, a substantial ring fort. Hard to photograph effectively at shadowless midday the site had a timeless vibe to it sunk as it was in prehistory.

More recent relics were the lodge and scattered machinery nearby but we were unable to locate the remains of the early Christian monastery founded by St Lioban.

Back off in the boat we motored west past the tiny Nuns Island , site of another monastic settlement and nunnery and in 2014 the discovery of a cache of rifles, ammo and Semtex. It seems the island may have been used for IRA training in the past, somewhat of a tradition as other islands here were known as hideouts during the War of Independence.

We landed at Safe Harbour on the Rindoon peninsular- the scene of countless conflicts for over 1000 years. The vikings were here in the 9th century before Brian Boru saw them off in the 10th but the impressive remains there now are from the Anglo-Norman days when throughout the 13th century this was a very impressive medieval town of perhaps 1000 people. Abandoned after the Gaelic Resurgence of the early 14th century repeatedly attacked and looted the settlement, it remained left forgotten and overgrown for 650 years. Nowadays recognised as unique in Ireland and Britain the peninsular is rich in visible history with its rare windmill, castle, church, town walls, bee boles and a hospital. We spent a sunny afternoon on the looped trail.

One more stop to make on our scenic cruise of the lake we ventured north of Blackbrink Bay to land on Inchcleraun, another sacred spot with seven medieval churches and yet another monastery , this one founded in 560 by St Diarmaid the Just. We chatted to the farmer who comes to mind his cattle every day and left his dogs guarding the boats while we set off through the lush meadows to explore.

The monastic settlement lasted about 800 years before finally giving up the ghost after repeated raids by the Munstermen. The peaceful air and tranquility of the island belie the turbulent history of being frequently plundered and burnt by invaders.

From the cluster of churches, St Diarmuids, Teampall Mor- Great Church, Women’s Church, St Marys and Church of the Dead, we walked to the top of the island to find the medieval belfry church, Teampall Clogas with its unusual square bell tower.

Near here is the Sunny Place of Maeve, where the famous Queen of Connaught met her end at the hands of Furbraith, the son of her sister whom she had murdered whilst pregnant. The baby survived and grew up plotting revenge. Knowing Maeve liked to bath from the island he practised firing the distance from the mainland with his slingshot. However on the fateful day he spotted her at the Sunny Place he had no stones to hand, so used what he had to hand, a hard cheese for his lunch. His practise payed off and she dropped dead- ending the turbulent reign of the Warrior Queen.

And so ended our more peaceful visit to the islands of Lough Ree with their traces of otherworldly existence slowly smothered by nature and to the woodlands and bogs of the shore hopefully now protected and able to continue in their timeless cycles.

Clara Bog- A Hike in the Hidden Heartlands

I dropped a red pin into the heartlands of Ireland. Not quite dead centre and actually more Ancient East than Hidden Heartlands according to tourist board marketing.

We were off to explore Clara Bog and the native woodland and esker country beside it on the Ballinough Doorey Loop.

One of the few raised bogs in the midlands not fully exploited, and now protected by a wealth of environmental designations, we’d been before to the visitor centre in town and the 1km timber boardwalk that loops across the quaking quagmire of mosses, bog cotton and exotic carnivorous plants. The 450 acre nature reserve contains all the poetic forms of raised bog – hummocks, hollows, flushes, lawns and unique soak systems.

Taking advantage of the free travel pass afforded by my senior citizen status we let the train take the strain and arrived at Clara station after a relaxed hour gazing at the passing greenery.

From there we set off through the town on the Tullamore road to join the loop a couple of km away. We were confronted with vast derelict industrial buildings and discovered later that a Quaker family, the Goodbody’s had created a dynasty of benevolent employment in a succession of flour, flax and jute mills and textile factories helping Clara to be one of the only midlands towns to increase in size between the famine and independence.

The river Brosna runs through the town ( and powered all the mills ),as did the Athlone to Tullamore railway which transported all the goods produced, and by 1890 the Goodbodys employed over 1000 people many living in company built housing.

The family themselves lived in Inchmore House, now sadly deserted and becoming derelict, for sale with 20 acres and the adjoining Quaker meeting house.

Escaping the traffic on the busy main road we took to a lane that led us alongside the railway and an esker the area is renown for. The Esker Riada is the system of ridges of boulders, gravel and sand left by retreating glaciers that stretches from Dublin across to Galway.

Acting as the main east/ west highway for hundreds of years the elevated dry ground was a sure way across the sodden boglands of the midlands with an historical and cultural significance that has prompted Offaly county council to push for it to gain World Heritage status.

We soon turned off onto the official looped walk and set off through naturally regenerated woodland on what may have been old tracks laid down for turf extraction.

The turf extraction industries of the past had left less than 50% of the original bog surface remaining and maps of the changes over 200 years show the increases in tracks and drains.

A short side track took us up to a picnic table and benches atop Rabbit Hill where we lunched overlooking the Bog of Allen and the distant Slieve Bloom mountains.

This trail had been developed recently, about 2018, by Offaly council in response to the Get Ireland Walking Stategy supported by Healthy Ireland and judging by the number of cars at the trailhead ,Mulligans car park , was popular. The map board there displayed a number of different options and info.

A stretch of tarmac road took us passed a railway cottage virtually on the line and on to a track of esker gravel that wove between dandelion laden fields and into Doorey Woods.

The ancient native woodlands here were species rich and made up for the sad sight of Ash suffering from dieback with carpets of ransoms and bluebells and sturdy oaks over 500 years old.

Another tiny side track led us to the moss covered stones and remnants of wall that are all that remains of a prefamine village now lost to the woods.

A boardwalk of old railway sleepers took us out across a section of the raised bog, part of a restoration project funded by an EU Life programme. 200km of deep drains have been blocked by 15,000 peat dams to raise water levels and effectively increase the area of active bog on 12 special conservation areas.

A special place of special species with 24 different sphagnum mosses. A rare moss thought to be extinct was found here in 2014 and there are also (unfortunately) 2 kinds of rare midges in the area. The bogs, known as Ireland’s rain forest, are recognised as greatly important for bio-diversity, flood control and as a carbon sink- storing twice as much carbon worldwide as forests.

Leaving the boardwalk we cut through some trees to reach farmland and a old track that led us to the road that bisects the bog and a couple of km later were back at the station in Clara.

An easy leisurely walk of about 10 km made better by travelling by train. A good start to a recovery programme ( from a couple of stent implantations – the necessity of which explains the dizzy breathlessness on the Lycian Way) that hopefully will lead to the Portuguese Camino in September.

CONNEMARA NORTH: Journey into Joyce Country

The 5km restraining order finally lifted, allowing us to travel anywhere within our county so we headed back up to Connemara in the camper- this time to the far northeast.

Joyce Country is a wild, beautiful and often overlooked area of north Galway and south Mayo between loughs Mask and Corrib from Maam to Clonbur, from the mighty Maamturks mountains to the tranquil wooded shores of the lowland lakes.

Named after the Joyce family who arrived from Wales in the 13th c in the wake of the Norman invaders it kept its name and identity due to its remote inaccessibility. The family married into the O’Flahertys and other clans and ended up controlling a vast area of the Barony of Ross.

We parked up on the pier at Cornamona, last visited when our boat had broken down out in the lake and the rescue services had towed us to shore here ( a story told in my Lough Corrib: Walking on Water blog post)

On arrival I noticed a couple struggling with bailing buckets and ropes tied to a listing vessel and went to help. Incredibly, when I told the fella about the circumstances of my previous rescue there he said “That was me”!

He had been the duty commander of the volunteer team that fateful day- and now, coincidentally I was attempting to help with his leaking boat.

Unfortunately it proved impossible to get the holed aft back to shore and the boat was left on blocks for the night.

Our first hike in the morning was up Benlevy or Mt Gable, a 416m mass that dominates the isthmus between Mask and Corrib, guarding one of the major routes into Connemara from the east. It also has what is reckoned to be one of the most beautiful and scenic mountain walks in Ireland and supposedly gives a lot in return for not too much effort, with one of the reviews on the Mountainviews website reporting on a family birthday hike claiming ” an easy walk for first timers- our 9,6 and 3 yr old did it”! It wasn’t that easy!

Years ago we had walked the Seanbhothar route between Clonbur ( An Fhairche) and Corr na Móna, a 10km hike along the old road along the shoulder of Benlevy ( Binn Shleibhe) and had been enchanted by the views of the island dotted lake. The proper Irish names would often be used as most of this area is within an Irish speaking Gaeltacht, the largest in the country.

Pulling up in a small car park at the base of the mountain at Ballard we were happy and grateful to see we were welcome as hillwalkers and a stile and signage had been provided. The route was unmistakeable though as we followed the old turf cutters track steeply up the side of the hill passed some contented sheep.

The views down over the islands got better and better and in the distance to the west the high ranges glowed in the morning sun. The track went all the way to the broad and open summit plateau where we continued west for another km or so to reach the concrete trig point.

Crossing the summit passed the peat hags we gained views northwest over Lough Nafooey and Finny and further on northwest over Mask and Coolin Lough and the woodlands we were off to explore next.

Sally couldn’t resist collecting some bones that belonged to an unfortunate sheep that had died and was being subsumed into the bog.

The area we were exploring was all part of the 1500 sq km proposed Joyce Country and Western Lakes Geopark , a €1.2 million project running in 2020 and 21 to prepare a submission to UNESCO and hopefully be granted Geopark status in 2023 and join the Copper Coast (Wexford), Burren and Cliffs of Moher (Clare) and Marble Arch Caves (Fermanagh and Cavan). Unfortunately started during the Covid pandemic the plan was to run a series of events and activities and an educational programme for all levels.

Having explored all three of the other Geoparks I’d definitely say the area is worthy, with the contrasting upland and lowland landscapes and big range of rock types and habitats so good luck to them.

On to Clonbur to the glorious woodlands on the shores of Lough Mask. Part of the Ashford estate owned by the Guinness family ( along with another 20,000 acres of County Galway) until sold to the state in 1939, Coillte have restored/created 300 hectares of diverse native woodland here under the EU’s LIFE Nature programme.

We parked up next to the early Christian settlement and abbey of Teampall Brendain at Rosshill cemetery and headed off around White Island and then the 7km Ballykine loop.

The spring flowers were a glory as we followed the path over a man made causeway and around the island, stopping for a rest at one of the scenic benches.

Although there were some mature conifers and exotic non natives the restoration carried out had involved the removal of many to encourage natural regeneration of native species and the planting of many more. The yew wood had been extended by the planting of cuttings taken locally.

After our circumnavigation of the lake island we continued eastwards and out onto the limestone pavement that make this mixed woodland so special. Part of the much larger Lough Carra Mask SAC this is the largest area of limestone pavement outside of the Burren and is home to all the same species of tree , hazel, ash, white beam, buckthorn, black and hawthorn, spindle and yew.

Across a wooden bridge over the Clonbur river we passed small lakes to a track junction at the site of an old sawmill. There we had our antisocial lunch on the ” not happy to chat” bench, although I would have quickly moved if anyone had happened along.

Next up a strange collection of moss covered limestone boulders that was referred to as the Guinness luncheon house ruin, a reed bed haven for bird life, a stone built submerged jetty and the chimney remnant of a shooting lodge.

Not wanting to disturb the dead, (or be disturbed by them!), we moved for the night to a park up on the Lough Mask limestone plateau.

A remarkable spot. In the morning we ventured out onto the slab and marvelled at the walls, the grikes and clints, the egg box and boulder in socket formations ( unique globally to the Lough Mask region) , the bonsai tree microcosm and the tenacious orchids.

Our last walk was another circumnavigation, this time the 3.5 km loop of Big Island again joined to the mainland by another Victorian causeway. We were greeted by chainsaw carvings in the children’s nature corner and fine mature tree specimens.

With the sun shining we took advantage of another scenic bench to sit in the sun and admire the views of the Partry mountains before climbing up to the top of the island’s inner mound for more meetings with remarkable trees.

Venerable old trees, giving life even in death, we returned homewards along a fine wide woodland ride, planning our own journey into native woodland management.

SIERRA DE LAS NIEVES

A short journey of 15 km inland from the busy beaches and constant consumerism of Marbella on the Costa del Sol takes you to another world and the southern edges of the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of nearly 100,000 hectares.

We made 2 hiking trips to explore the park between lockdowns after finding a long distance route, the GR 243, traverses the area from Istan in the south to Ronda in the north, over 6 sections and 122 km with a couple of variants.

We discovered we could do a 3 day triangle at the southern end and avoid transport complications.

Leaving our car near the Cerezal recreation area outside of Ojen we headed off on the GR variant and PR-A 167 route to Istan.

Ojen is one of the half dozen or so tranquil whitewashed villages and towns surrounding the park that were Moorish strongholds and still retain the crumbling fortresses of the reconquest era. With a wealth of minerals to exploit in the Sierra’s rocky interior the area was at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Hard to imagine nowadays when the decreasing population is drawn to employment down on the coast. Ojen’s main export now is a anise like spirit that bizarrely is particularly popular in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

First few Kms were a rocky scramble up a dry stream bed and on a lovely path through a forest of pine with distinctive peaks rising above us. As the sun climbed and the heat rose so did the strong scents of pine needles and oil and I recalled the studies of the positive effects on the mental and physical health of “forest bathing” and the phytoncides, the chemicals emitted by the trees.

Emerging onto a forestry track on a high level plain planted with a variety of conifers and eucalyptus we passed a number of weekend walkers and a few parties of mushroom gatherers- all of whom had dogs that made us wonder if they used them to sniff out the fungi. They seemed to have been successful anyway and had baskets brimming with a mushroom similar to chanterelles that we were told bled red juice when cut with a knife.

Climbing a narrow rocky path up and over the ridge we found ourselves in wild untamed country with a vista of peaks disappearing into the cloud. The extent of the park became apparent. When originally designated in 1989 the Natural Park was 78sq miles and this was increased to cover 362 sq miles on achieving World Biosphere Reserve status in 1995.

We had passed signs warning us that our route demanded physical fitness, good mountain orienteering skills and experience and we began to see why when we started to clamber down the descent towards Istan on a, luckily dry, stream bed, the Canada de Juan Ingles gorge. Tricky going but rewarded by the magnificent views and flora, particularly the dwarf or fan palms and the masses of aromatic rosemary, thyme and lavender.

Istan is a place of water boasting numerous springs, fountains, pools, the rivers Verde and Molinos and a network of ancient irrigation channels built by the Moors. Once a place of great wealth with a thriving silk industry and forests of white mulberry, walnuts and oak, hillsides of vineyards producing wine and raisins that bought ships from France and England, all changed when after the rebellion and defeat of the Moricos ( Muslim converts to Christianity) in the mid 16th century the area was practically uninhabited until Christian settlers from other areas in Spain took over the old Moorish properties.

The next leg was a longer but easier 20km trek on mostly good tracks to Monda, over the Canada del Infierno and the high point of Puerto de Moratan at 600m.

Leaving town on a road passed the Nacimiento ( the birth or spring) of the Rio Molinos we headed into the wild hinterland with remote houses dotted here and there in the folds of the hills.

A tiny tree had been dressed for Christmas on the track that took us eventually up to the pass and a helipad- maybe for forest fires or mountain rescue. The landscape seemed to hold more moisture with lush grasses accompanying the palms.

From the Puerto it was a long descent alongside a massive fenced and gated estate of forest, orchard and arable strips between rosemary covered scrubland.

Crossing a river bed on the outskirts of Monda we climbed an ancient cobbled track before arriving into town to find our bed by the loofah plants.

The final leg of the triangle back to Ojen was a 16 km combination of GR243 and GR249, my old trekking companion the Gran Senda de Malaga. Starting off on the trail we had arrived into town on, we soon diverted under the road and into a forested area, eventually turning off onto a steep overgrown track that climbed up and over the mountains separating the two towns.

The views all the way down to the coast awaiting at the top made up for the scratching and effort involved in getting there and the difficulty in scrambling down the steep path back down to the Cerezal recreation area and eventually , with relief, the hire car, still safely where we left it.

The Sierra is very shortly to become designated a National Park, the 1st in Malaga province- 3rd in Andalucia and 16th in Spain, an upgrading to the premier league of protected environments that will mean an increase in investment in infrastructure to develop responsible tourism such as visitor and nature education centres, lookout points and outdoor leisure facilities. The dozen or so towns in the area are hoping this will help stem the flow of outward emigration and bring increased employment possibilities.

The logistics of returning from a multi day linear walk put us off returning to the GR 243 so our next trip to the area was centered in a couple of spots from which we rambled on a number of routes deep into the Parks interior.

Staying at a mountain hotel high above the town of Tolox for a night enabled us to tackle a couple of great trails, the first of which, the PR-A 282 route to Las Cascades, took us in a 11km loop around the steep slopes, deep valleys, gullies, ravines and precipices typical of the landscape with the added attraction of some mighty waterfalls in full flow after some days of rain and snow.

Starting off from the Puerto del Monte we climbed a zig zag track way marked with yellow and white dashes up through the red peridotite rocks this area is renown for. The lower altitudes of the Sierra are made up of the worlds largest massif of this rare rockform. The impervious nature of the rock holds the water that nurtures the lush vegetation and creates the dramatic cascades.

Somewhat alarmed at the signs warning of “fording rivers, landslides and falling into voids” we carried on around the deep creases and folds to a series of cascades where the more adventurous enjoy canyoning and we were satisfied with sitting and picnicking.

Beautiful, and if it had been a bit hotter I might have managed a cold power shower. Instead we descended to the valley floor and tried to stay dry footed while crossing backward and forward over the river before climbing again to our starting point.

In the morning, stepping out of the Hotel Cerro de Hijar, we were off on the SL-A 229 Rio de los Horcajos, supposedly only 9 or 10 km but , as usual, working out a fair bit more. Another loop, this one took us up and over a pass to a steep sided valley that we descended into to follow the river down into Tolox and up again to the hotel.

Climbing over the pass we could see the snowy peaks of some of the parks higher mountains including La Torrecilla at 1920 m ( 6300ft) Malaga’s highest. On its limestone slope, at 1670m, is the entrance to the 3rd deepest cave shaft in the world, dropping vertically over 1000m. Known as GESM it is one of a great many caves and shafts in the limestone mountains and a great draw for potholers and cavers.

The steep valley slopes were covered with ancient, much pollarded chestnuts which along with holm, cork, gall and Portuguese oaks and pine carpeted the Sierra up to the snow line.

We followed a beautiful old stone track down through the shrub to the Rio Horcajos. The whole area is covered with a network of trails, as is much of rural Spain. These paths between villages have been used for hundreds of years by shepherds, goatherds, muleteers, charcoal makers, herders and travellers of all kinds forming a web of communication and information.

It wasn’t long before we came to a recreation area at the hermitage of the Virgin of the Snows where natural springs emerged from the ground to join the river that we followed into Tolox on a verdant path between rampant crops.

The river had once supplied the power for many mills in Tolox , for grain and olive oil, but nowadays the local sulfur rich waters of the Balneario o Fuente Amargosa emerge at a constant 21* and supply Spain’s only medicinal spa. Famous for the treatment of kidney and urinary problems by drinking and respiratory dise