Watching an episode of Canal Journeys with Prunella Scales and Timothy West last night, when they travelled by barge on the Shannon Erne Waterways, reminded me that I hadn’t posted a blog on our trip there a couple of weekends ago.
After all the years living in Ireland we hadn’t really spent anytime in the North, only passing through on our way back from Donegal once and catching a ferry to Scotland from Belfast. We’d had plans to hike the Causeway Coast Way and the adjoining Moyle Way as we’d heard that they were both dramatic and dog friendly but when we had a weekend free we realised that it would take us too long and so struck out for the nearest bit of the UK to us, the lakeland area of Fermanagh.
Being the depths of winter still, we decided against Trusty Tranny camper van, and found an Air B+B place on the shores of Upper Loch Erne. The OS map revealed a complex maze of rivers, canals,lakes big and small, islands and peninsulas-and near our destination, Crom Castle, as appeared on TV last night.
Not too much remains of the original plantation castle, scene of bloody battles in the Jacobite rebellion when the water of the lake are said to have turned red with the blood of the slaughtered. The nearly 2000acre estate, seat of the Earls of Erne, is now run by the National Trust, although the “new” 1860 castle is still in private ownership.
Although supposedly closed for the winter we’d been told it was fine to walk the grounds and it was a pleasant contrast to the hassles of “no dogs”rules in the south to be directed through sheep fields with a polite request to keep our hounds on leads. Fair enough.
On an ancient formal lawn next to the old castle were a pair of conjoined yews, a male from the 19th century and a much older and bigger female, reputedly the oldest in Ireland at 800yrs. They have a combined circumference of over 100m and ouse history.
The paths took us along a stately avenue of lime trees, across the deer park and alongside the castle gardens. It was a watery world, with islands strewn across the loch, some lived on, some farmland and one tiny one hosting a little folly of a round tower where estate workers would spend their wedding nights. A fine Victorian wrought iron bridge led us passed some fiery red willows onto Inisherk Island where the grand walled garden was sadly unused.
There was a rustic summerhouse, lovely ornate lodges and the old church and schoolhouse. A lot to keep together but the National Trust are a huge and wealthy organisation and seem on top of it. They rent out holiday cottages, run boat trips and a campsite, put on all sorts of activities and I’m sure the visitor centre gift shop and tea rooms pull in a few bob over the season. It would be nice to visit the place by boat and tie up at the Irish Waterways Jetty. That cross Border agency took advantage of a lot of post “Troubles” grant aid to restore the canal system leading into the loch and I hope that the Brexit decision does not adversely effect it in any way.
Another National Trust property was on the schedule the next day, but first we wanted tackle a section of the 65km Sliabh Beagh Way that runs over the high ground to the south and east of Lisnaskea, the biggest settlement in Fermanagh next to Enniskillen. The Way is itself a part of the 1000km Ulsterway that encircles the entire province and includes the Causeway Coast and the Moyle and will have to be added to the “must do one day/month”list.
We didn’t get very far or see very much of it when we ventured out into the Jenkins Lakes and Woods looped route along the Way and could only imagine the described views from the bogland boardwalk and lakesides.
We cut the 12km walk a little short and descended to lower ground, clearer skies and the landed gentry civilisation of Florence Court, another grand 18th Century house and estate in the care of the N.T. This one also had miles of dog friendly woodland, parkland and garden paths and again, although the house was closed for the winter, the extensive grounds were welcoming.
The walled garden here was very productive, supplying plants for the grounds and food for the cafe and a nice working environment for the gardeners.
On a long loop across the estate we stopped and paid homage to another famous yew tree.This was literally the mother of all Irish yews.
In 1740 a local farmer discovered a pair of strangely upright yew saplings growing on the slope of nearby Cuilcagh mountain and presented one to the Florence Court landlord, the Earl of Enniskillen and planted one at his own place. Unfortunately his died about 80 years later while the other lives on and has provided the cuttings to grow all the Irish Yews since. Wherever in the world a Taxus Baccata “Fastigiata” exists it is a clone of this venerable great great great etc..grandmother tree. Not so upright herself now ,due to hundreds of years of gardeners taking cuttings, a crime I am now guilty of myself, she stands modestly in a woodland clearing with some progeny around her roots.
At the end of the forest park we turned away from the rugged and wild Cuilcagh Mountains looming above us to the south and returned to the tamed nature of the gardens, where we admired the ice house, the waterpowered sawmill and the hydraulic ram pump that supplied water to the “big house”before sitting in the ornamental summerhouse to view the mountains from a safe and civilised distance.
We discovered the next day that even the inhospitable and desolate vastness of the 2500 hectare Cuilcagh Mountain Park, with a” county high top” for both Cavan and Fermanagh at 666m, could be domesticated.
We were up early to drive the 25km to the Park, gladly watching the misty cloud rise from the lakes and exposing the mountains as we approached. The sheer amount of waterways and lakes in the area must produce a lot of mists, fog and general overall damp even by western Ireland standards. But it makes for an moody and placid atmosphere at sunrise.
We’d been assured by our landlady that it was fine to take our dogs on leads so we tried to ignore the “No Dogs” signs as we left the empty car park and headed up the gravel track towards the now cloud free table top mountain.Empty and long abandoned cottages with their potato ridges slowly being swallowed by the returning bog dotted the lower ground.The protected landscape has meant that turf cutting has been stopped and the rangers spent years in the construction of 1000’s of little dams to block the drainage ditches dug by previous generations of fuel gatherers, in an effort to raise the water table and speed the restoration of the Blanket Bog. It is a fragile environment and so to protect in from the erosion caused by the many walkers on this popular route, a long stretch of boardwalk has been built at the end of the track.
This took us all the way to the base of the cliffs where a series of 36 flights of steps, complete with banister railings began. A fellow walker told us there were 450 of them and after climbing over 100m of height gain up the to the summit plateau my calf muscles led me to believe him. There’s been some criticism of this construction by hill walking purists who refer to it as a scar on a pristine landscape that allows the unprepared to reach a potentially dangerous environment but it’s costly build (£250,000) was purely to protect the environment and the walkers on what was a delicate and steep and slippery path.
It has certainly improved access to the mountain top and over the course of the day we witnessed dozens of folk young and old heaving themselves up the steps to the tabletop where many could go no further across the wet and rugged terrain in their inadequate trainers. But i wouldn’t begrudge them the opportunity or the reward of the view from the top and the stairs and boardwalk meant you couldn’t get lost if the cloud came down.
We headed along the ridge with one foot in Cavan and one in Fermanagh, a walk in both Northern Ireland and the Republic simultaneously, to the Bronze age cairn on the summit.Supposedly, on a clear day you can see both the Atlantic and the Irish sea, as well as counties Tyrone,Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon. As we had our sarnies I wondered what the view was like 4000 years ago when the cairn was built.
The whole area around us was part of the Marble Arch Geopark, made up of 34 sites of geological interest, and since 2008 when it was extended into Co Cavan, the worlds first cross border Geopark. After returning to the now full carpark we continued on past the closed Marble Arch Caves centre to explore the Cladagh Glen below and more flights of steps leading us down past limestone sculpted by water over millenia and the Marble Arch itself, to a lovely waterfall cascading into the deeply cut valley ravine.
We’d been lucky with the weather as it started to rain on our return to the car, the mountain now completely lost to the low lying cloud, and it wasn’t much better on the following day when we finished our exploration of the Geopark before driving home.
We couldn’t resist a visit to the Shannon Pot, where the waters of Ireland mightiest river rise from the ground into a small pool before starting their journey to the Atlantic ocean 360km away.
The pool has been explored by divers to a depth of 14m and it is now thought that some subterranean streams from the slopes of Cuilcagh 10km away flow into it. I wondered how hard it would be to follow all the way to Limerick.
A few km away was our last port of call, the Cavan Burren Park, another area of interest in the Geopark. This “relict” landscape is not as impressive or large as the Co Clare burren (meaning “rocky place”) but features an unusual number of different types of megalithic tombs as well as habitation sites and prehistoric field systems and a promontory fort. Geologically it boasts sinkholes, karstic limestone pavement, dozens of large erratics left lying about after the retreat of the glaciers in the last ice age and a pre-glacial dry river valley.
We followed a looped walk around the park, abruptly coming across its exhibits through the misty vista.
But the weather wasn’t in it for a protracted visit or picnic amongst the tombs so we turned our backs on the past and started the long drive home with ideas of returning while we’re still all Europeans and we can be Walkers without Borders.