IRELAND

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

THE CAUSEWAY COAST WAY : 52km: June 2018

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It was now almost 2 months ago that we finally got round to heading north to experience the Antrim coastline over a couple of days hiking the Causeway Coast. In the middle of June we drove north through Storm Hector, listening to the government warnings on the camper radio telling us to stay at home and not to risk venturing out. A long blustery drive up the west from south Co Galway, we were surprised when we reached Donegal to discover we were only half way there.

However by midday we were parked up in the harbour at Ballycastle, the finish of the Way, where we left the camper and took a taxi over to the start of the walk in Portstewart. It was another of those slightly irritating journeys when you ponder the sense of taking 2 days to walk a winding route of 52km whilst sitting comfortably in a car that takes a bit over half an hour over a straighter road.

The Blue Flag beach where the taxi dropped us was basking in sunshine, and vast. Owned and managed by the National Trust which tries to protect the dunes and has established bird hides to admire the wading birds and waterfowl.

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We took a look at Tubber Patrick, St Patricks well, originally used by prehistoric communities as a source of water and medical cures. When St Paddy past through around 450AD he blessed the well and started a pilgrimage which developed into a fair on the last monday of August with horse races on the beach. Locals would sell the holy water to tourists right up until the 1940’s.

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Setting off on the 10km section to Portrush we past a salmon fisherman’s cottage, part of a once thriving and prosperous industry all along this coast until quite recently. Maybe the occupant of the grave of an unknown sailor, a little further along the shoreline, was a salmon fisherman himself.

On the rocky sections of this coast, between the sandy beaches, we came upon numerous swimming pools over the next couple of days. A little bit of well placed concrete and some ladders and steps turned the wild waters into placid bathing places.

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There were also a lot of golf courses and beautifully positioned houses amongst the cliffs and dunes. The whole causeway coast is an AONB, an area of outstanding beauty, and within it there are a number of SAC’s (special area of conservation), SPA’s (special protection area’s), ASSI’s ( area of special scientific interest) and an NNR (national nature reserve). The Giants Causeway itself is a WHS (world heritage site) and with all these protected areas the owners of these houses are obviously living where no planning would be granted now.

 

The Rosa Rugosa plants obviously liked it here and were running wild and rampant along the Way for miles. They had colonised the edges of the many golf links and must have made the retrieval of errant golf balls a prickly business. Passing a grassy promontory where we struggled to make out the remains of Ballyreagh Castle before we crossed the wide sweeping bay of the West Strand and on to Portrush harbour with its neat display of  boats made fast with a network of ropes.

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Unfortunately the route east along the Curran Strand, a glorious 2km stretch of fine golden sand to our bed for the night at White Rocks, had been closed off for filming Artemis Fowl and rather then walk along the busy A2 we decided to try climbing over the dunes and cutting across the famous and expensive Portstewart golf course. A bit of a mistake as we hadn’t realised the size of the three 18hole courses and the number of fairways we were going to have to negotiate whilst wealthy players waited for the rucksack ramblers to get out of their way.

We eventually and somewhat miraculously made it to the back door of our airbnb where we discovered that the winding coast road we were to continue on in the morning was also due to be closed for filming. We went off to the neighbouring hotel for a drink and to mingle with the stars supposedly staying there. And to complain to Kenneth Branagh, the director, about the inconvenience his movie was causing us. Maybe. If we saw him.

We couldn’t find Kenneth so hung out on the patio soaking up the moody sea views and discovered from security that the road wouldn’t be closed till 8am, giving us time to claim it.

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Bright and early we were down on the shore admiring the limestone cliffs backing the beach that give White Rocks its name. Amongst the white were many hard black boulders of basalt, spat out of volcanos in one of the 3 great outpourings of lava over 60 million years ago that also created the Giants Causeway.

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The car parks above the beach were getting very busy with film crew and we figured it was time to get going. There are numerous locations along this coast made famous through the filming of The Game of Thrones and the roads can be full of tour buses rushing from one to another. Luckily for us the A2 we were walking down had been closed to vehicles but filming had not started, allowing us the rare opportunity of sauntering down the middle of the usually busy and noisy road, admiring the magnificent sea views in peace.

We stopped to explore Dunluce Castle a medieval masterpiece perched spectacularly on a rocky promontory high above the sea. The castle was still not open when we got there but we were able to explore around the outside and imagine the “lost town of Dunluce” recently unearthed by archaeologists.

Back to join another, open road, we passed through the small town of Portballintrae, down to Runkerry Beach and crossed the river Bush (of Bushmills whiskey fame) to join a wooden boardwalk alongside the bank for a bit before turning onto a gravel path through the sand dunes and crisscrossing the old Bushmills to Giants Causeway railway line.

At the far end of the long beach we past under the impressive victorian edifice of Runkerry House, around the Point and climbed up on to the grassy clifftop we were to follow for the next 10km. Next up was the tourist honeypot of the Giants Causeway, and it was heaving. Declining the offer of £11.50 tickets to visit the Visitor Centre we instead joined the human snake down the access road to the (free2view) causeway.

The legendary basalt rock formations and columns were impressive enough to overcome the distraction of hundreds of other sightseers although the cliffs and coastline beyond were equally impressive and devoid of people.

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From the sea level we climbed the steep “Shepherds Steps” to rejoin the cliff path and walked along the highest part of the Way rising slowly up to Benbane Head from where we looked back down to the final resting place of the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship wrecked with the loss of 1300 lives. In 1967 the wreck gave up many treasures to a team of divers which are now displayed in Belfast’s Ulster Museum.

From this highpoint of 100m we steadily descended south east, passing above the beautiful Port Moon bay, an historical fishery now home to a bothy for kayakers and down to sea level again at the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, an ancient promontory fort once important enough to lie at the end of one of the 5 roads emanating from Tara. After being sacked by vikings it fell into ruin and little remains of it now.

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A little way passed the ruins we made a mistake. We believed our guidebook, published by WalkN.I., when it told us that the way forward along the coast had been blocked by landslides and it was necessary to divert along the busy A2. We did think about risking it and trying to find a way through but with the evening approaching and a fair way to go we didn’t want to get stuck on some cliff face and have to retraced our steps so we reluctantly turned on to the pavement less road and put our heads down for the couple of kms to Portbraddan squeezing ourselves into the hedge as cars and buses roared passed.

From there we were able, just, to negotiate the slippy boulders at the foot of the cliffs as the tide was sufficiently out, and to clamber around to White Park Bay, one of the first places in Ireland to be settled by Neolithic communities.

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Nearing the end of the beach we turned off route, away from the rock arches, stacks and islets that lead towards Ballintoy harbour, (another Game of Thrones location) and up a farm track to find our accommodation for the night. A long day of nearly 30km with the diversion was celebrated with a good dinner and some samples of local ale.

In the morning we backtracked slightly to visit the scenic harbour before continuing on a path between the potato fields and along the cliff tops with fine views down towards Rathlin Island and Fair Head.

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From Larry Bane Head it was a short distance to the car and coach park, tearoom, giftshop, toilets and ticket office of another National Trust money spinner, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. For over 350 years fisherman raised a rope between the mainland and a small island on the migratory route of the salmon to access their nets. The rope bridge has been remade into a sturdy permanent structure with enough wobble to thrill a stream of tourists as they cross 30m above the waves for a brief visit before returning to claim their certificate.

Avoiding the groups queuing to leave the reception at timed intervals, and the £8 fee for crossing the bridge, we walked the 1km to the island to see what all the fuss was about.

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The salmon are gone and the fishermen with them but what was once a scene of hardship has been modified to satisfy the booming industry of today, tourism.

After the previous days experience of avoiding the tourist buses hurtling down the road we decided to avoid the remaining 8km of tarmac to Ballycastle and take the bus. In the towns tourist office they told us that they recommended to all walkers on the Way to do likewise as the traffic was so bad and there were no footpaths or pavements. They also told us that the diversion we had followed was no longer in use and we could have followed a lovely coastal path.

They still had the misleading WalkNI guide on their shelves.

Overall it was a beautiful hike with some of the most impressive coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. You certainly can’t blame the masses of tourists for wanting to visit the sights, but its a pity more of them didn’t get out to explore the equally spectacular sights a little further down the trail.

 

 

 

 

KEENAGH LOOP :Into the Wilds of Mayo

Last weekend we headed off in the camper to tackle a hike that i’ve been trying to get to for a while. Listed in the “1001 Walks you must experience before you die” book, and also  perhaps more surprisingly, ” The 50 Greatest Walks in the World”, the Keenagh Loop does a 12km circuit into the vast and empty blanket bog of Mayo.

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We’d parked up for the night at Windy Gap, atop a pass on the hills to the southeast, and indeed it was. The misty, murky morning cloud slowly rose to reveal the hills we were heading towards.

By the time we got going it was, at Met Eireann had promised, turning into a fine day.

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Nephin emerges from the cloud

The road from Castlebar to Bangor passes along the shore of Beltra Lough and alongside the beautifully wooded Boghadoon river before passing between the solitary bulk of Nephin mountain and the peaks of the southern end of the extensive Nephin Beg range. The trail starts where Bellanaderg Bridge spans the river and heads south down a tarmac boreen for a couple of km through the townland of Dereen.

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We had started out with the dogs as the notice at the trailhead had only asked for dogs to be on leads but annoyingly after awhile we came to the all too common NO DOGS sign so had to retrace our steps to leave them in the van before carrying on again, complaining to each other about the severe lack of dog walking opportunities in Ireland and the general lack of access for people too. Having just returned from the 650km Gran Senda de Malaga in Andalusia which, typically, crosses all kinds of farmed land with open access and no dog restrictions it was frustrating to be confronted with this attitude of landowners again. But it seems we must be grateful for any ability to stray off public roads or forest tracks.

Many Mayo landowners may have a much bigger problem than walkers and their dogs. The threat of foreigners. Invaders. Of the flora variety.

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We had passed dozens of these signs and their associated clumps of noxious weeds as we drove alone the highways and byeways of Mayo and this one was deep into the hinterland, past the only farmhouse on the boreen, just as the tarmac ran out. And Knotweed was not the only rampant plant taking over the land. Rhododendron ponticum is marching across the bogland of the Wild Nephin Wilderness Area, a huge tract of land where a “hands off” land management approach to “rewilding” the landscape could see it buried under the smothering blanket of the evergreen leaves of a bullyboy shrub that takes out any competition with toxic chemicals. Giant rhubarb, gunnera tinctoria, has also taken over large areas of once productive arable land with well over 1000 sites recorded on Achill alone. The speed with which it can take over is understandable when you know that one plant can produce 750,000 seeds and a square metre of ground can have 30,000 seedlings crowding out any other species.

We were accompanied for a while by a farm dog that was seemingly surplus to the requirements of the farmer and top dog herding some sheep around a derelict cottage.

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The black road became a green road, the old route to Newport, and we passed more forlorn and abandoned homesteads, still containing remnants of their previous occupation including an old bed heaped with sheep wool.

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As we climbed to a rise on the shoulder of Letterkeeghaun an amazing view lay before us southwards down the wide valley of Glen Hest, beside Beltra Lough, all the way to Croagh Patrick whose pyramidical summit was still hidden by clouds on the far side of Clew Bay.

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The old road was slowly disappearing under a layer of grass and moss, the mountains reclaiming the hard won mark of mans toil through the ages. In places it was now wet enough ground to warrant the placing of wooden bridges and boardwalks, although they didn’t stop me getting a wet foot at the bottom of an unnoticed bog hole.

We followed the ghost of the old way for about 3km under a big open sky until we reached the somewhat surreal edifice of a concrete waterworks where we stopped for a time to soak up the peace and have a sandwich, the only sound that of an unseen waterfall.

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We left the track here, as we approached a large block of forestry, and followed a line of fencing towards the sounds of running water. The erosion of delicate vegetation by overgrazing had caused big areas of waterlogged turf to be exposed, that plentiful rain and the padding of hooves were, bit by bit, sending sliding into the river and off into the lower lakes and sea. Since the end to headage payments, which saw the marginal hillsides covered by overstocked flocks of sheep, the numbers of animals has certainly reduced, but once uncovered the turf takes an age to repair itself and the presence of even a few trampling hooves can slow or stop the regeneration of a covering blanket of grasses.

It was still glorious out there, despite the signs of environmental degredation, and it got better as we reached the river and followed it upstream into the remote Glendorragha valley with the summit of Birreencorragh as a magnificent backdrop.

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Ahead of us a lone tree stood out, a surviver in its youth of the grazing sheep that have kept any of it’s prodigy from surviving. It’s not the climate, or even the waterlogged conditions that stop the expanses of western Ireland returning to forest, it’s the nibbling teeth of a livestock that makes little economic sense. Maybe we should pay the landowners more to grow hardwoods rather than undervalued wool and meat.

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Under the deep blue sky the mountains looked inviting and the thought crossed my mind that from here you could wander for days towards the west and north without seeing a soul. You could head out across the entire Nephin Beg range and work your way along the old Bangor trail or across the bogs of Ballycroy National Park to the sea. Tempting enough under these conditions but I knew what it could be like in the wild west and thought better of it. (See other posts on the Bangor Trail)

Instead we turned away from the river to follow the line of a disused fence passed the patches of scree on the flanks of Knockaffertagh towards a pass on it’s shoulder at about 250m.

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It was a fairly long but gradual climb across the tussocky grass and heather and a pleasure in the sunshine, to be savoured with repeated stopping to turn and admire the landscape we were leaving which seemed to glint in the crystallised light. Food for the soul. Another stop for edible nourishment at the pass and a different view to the north, of Nephin and passed our starting point towards the forests of Tristia and the sea at Killala bay.

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It seemed like we were rejoining the civilised and tamed world as we climbed down on the sheep paths to join a farm track and eventually a tarmaced boreen. A couple of red jacketed hikers passed us on their way into the wild and we hoped they had time to finish before the light went. The days were getting shorter and the clocks went back in a few hours time. Summertime was over for the year and with it the likelihood of any long hikes into the hills. The Letterkeen Loop was a nice one to finish with and the autumnal colours in the trees along the boreen made the new season welcome.

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As summer ends in the northern hemisphere however, it starts in the southern, so my next posts- while visiting family in Australia- will continue in the sun.

 

Stepping Stones – the Burren Way

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In the northwest corner of County Clare, halfway up the Wild Atlantic Way coastline of Ireland lies a unique environment.

250sq km of a glaciated karst landscape, with swirling terraced hills of limestone rising up from the ocean to the west and standing guard over the plains to the east. Scoured clear of earth and vegetation by ice age, erosion and man, the pale grey rock appears otherworldly and from a distance, denude of life.

But the naked stone stores and radiates the suns heat, the grikes or narrow channels between the slabs or clints provide shelter and the calcium rich soils undisturbed by the plough all make for a botanical wonderland and botanists and plant lovers from across the globe come to marvel at species from arctic-alpine and Mediterranean habitats living happily together in the west of Ireland.

The rock has discouraged intensive farming and this has helped to preserve ” a vast memorial to bygone cultures”, with the stone itself used over the last 6000yrs or so to create the tombs, cairns, homesteads, forts, castles and churches and holy wells that litter the maps like freckles on the face of the land.

The Burren Way meanders for 100km, with additional spurs to towns and villages, with Irelands most famous natural attraction- the Cliffs of Moher forming a southern gateway.

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Setting off from Liscannor I planned to take 4 days to cover the route, ending my ramble in Tubber to take in the splendours of Mullaghmore in the Burren National Park. The first leg was 20km to Doolin and the long straight road headed west past field walls made of the flag stones the area is renown for. The movements of sea creatures millions of years ago are etched into the surface of these slices of time as a record of the oldest journeys on earth and the flags are used as hardwearing floors and heavy roofing.

300 million years ago the Burren was the floor of a tropical ocean, and the Cliffs of Moher were formed by layers of shale and sandstone building up and up in a vast river delta. As I climbed up from the coast past the last farm with its brimming car park supplying a modern cash crop I was joined by others on the way towards the tower at Hags head.

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There is a cliff face here that supposedly resembles a womans head where, the story goes, the hag Mal crashed into the cliff while pursuing her love interest, Cu Chulainn, who stepped across the sea stacks to escape her advances.

As we reached the tower the dramatic views opened up and the number of people drawn in to the area by the successful marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way since my last visit became apparent.

Moving on along the cliff path I past a Liscannor flag quarry producing the stone for the nearby walls and a public gallery of miniature sea stacks in a dramatic setting.

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The nesting seabirds were a constant distraction as they wheeled around the cliff face with perfect timing and grace and I stopped to watch their acrobatics and spy on their domestic activities.

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Living as I do in a very quiet rural pocket and not getting out among mass humanity much, I found the antics of my species nearly as fascinating and spent a while photographing them photographing themselves. The ‘selfie’ phenomena .

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My favourite selfie photos were many years ago and accidental. A friend working in a photo lab had developed a roll of film taken on a tour of Europe’s top tourist destinations and was puzzled to see pictures of only bits of head and ear and crowds of people before realising that the hapless photographer had held the camera the wrong way round.

At the highest point in the cliffs, near the car and coach park and the “visitor experience”, is a tower built as a viewing platform in 1835 by local landowner, M.P., and descendant of Brien Boru, Sir Cornelius O’Brien. He once fell very ill in London and asked for some water to be sent over from St Bridgits well near the Way at Liscannor which he attributed to his recovery and payed for the construction of a well house, still much used today.

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700ft below me the atlantic rollers crashed onto the base of the cliffs and it would certainly be the spot from which to watch the worlds top big wave surfers try their luck riding Aileen, the 50+ft wave that can form here.

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It was a beautiful sunny day and I certainly didn’t begrudge sharing the natural splendours with so many people but by the time I had had my lunch around O’Briens tower I was ready to escape the hordes and carry on towards Doolin another 8km away.

Although Doolin is another of Ireland’s tourist hot spots and the coastal path goes all the way there this was definitely a quieter section, allowing more space for contemplation of the surroundings and take notice of the birdsong and wildflowers.

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In a couple of places streams tumbling over the cliff edge were being blown back up on to the top creating a kind of natural perpetual motion of water as it tried to reach the sea.

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The Aran islands were visible to the north west, strung out in a line towards the mountains of Connemara and as I approached Doolin the first sight of the rounded grey hills of limestone made me keen to get amongst them.

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The path descended to near sea level and continued along the shore past strange diamond shaped rock formations and blowholes to the colourful shops and pubs at Fisherstreet where a ferry goes to the nearest Aran island, Inisheer, and people come to swim with Dusty, a dolphin that likes to hang out with humans.

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Back on tarmac I made my way past the 16th century Doonagore tower house on the outskirts of Doolin to my bed for the night at a friends house.

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The next days stage was a 30+km hike, mostly on ancient green roads, into the Burren uplands where I planned to meet Sally and the Trusty Tranny camper van at the top of Corkscrew Hill above Ballyvaughan.

But first I had to make my way along about 10km of country roads through a sometimes gorsey and rushy landscape under a leaden sky, which coupled with a number of neglected and abandoned homesteads made for a slightly melancholic atmosphere.

Climbing up the backroad from Ballylacken castle at about 200m the tarmac gave way to track and the green road leading over the shoulder of the Burren’s highest hill, Slieve Elva, began.

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There was a stiff wind and from the look of the contorted vegetation there usually is. The lack of shelter on this exposed hillside must have made it a tough place to live and the remnants of stone cottages told their own tales of hardship.

Finally moving beyond the sandstone and shale and onto the limestone the track became stripped for awhile as it revealed the underlying formation of clints and grykes in the adjoining fields(?).

After roughly 8km of the high plateau I was led down into the Caher valley where the only surface river in the Burren to make it to the sea runs down to the beach at Fanore. The porosity of the limestone means that water easily eats it’s way through to create a network of underground caves and tunnels, another feature of this area that makes it special and contributed to the famous saying by one of Cromwell’s generals that ” it is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury them”.

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Up and over the long southern plateau of Gleninagh Mountain on another green road and I landed back on the tarmac of a cul de sac backroad running down the Feenagh valley.

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A couple of kms later I was off up another ancient green road, lined at first by another section of river, then hazel scrubland,and winding past megalithic tombs, ring forts and enclosures with fantastical views of the surreal landscape surrounding me, to eventually, and suddenly, leave the limestone and find myself atop an upland of turf bog and forestry.

The wind was still blowing and now as evening approached it was cold so, getting to our meeting point early after 30km, I was happy enough to do an extra couple of km down Corkscrew hill to the warm embrace of the Gregan House hotel bar and a pint of Murphys while I awaited the arrival of Sally in our mobile kitchen and bedroom.

We woke the next morning to a nasty drizzle blowing in on a horizontal wind and with only about 20km to do that day we decided to trust the forecast that the rain would clear in a couple of hours and take a quick spin to Kilfenora, location of The Burren Centre and   cathedral ruin.

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The Catholic cathedral, part of which is used by the church of Ireland has a glass roofed transept, built to protect some ancient high crosses and there are other fine carvings.

Back on track we had a fair bit of road walking to do but it was pleasurable hiking along tiny backroads through a varied landscape dotted with megalithic and early christian sites, including an impressive baptismal font in the ruins of Kilcorney church.

Crossing the high ground above Carron it started to drizzle again and we ducked into Cassidy’s bar for a drink in the dry before carrying on along the eastern shore of the turlough, or seasonal lake. These loughs are another unique feature of the area, with the groundwater beneath the limestone rising and falling with the water table and creating what can be huge areas of flooding in the winter and rich grazing land in the summer.

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The hazel woods were thick alongside the road and rich with wood anemone, ferns, sorrel and mosses and lichens. All of which make good feeding for the herds of feral goats that keep the vegetation in a bonsai condition and sometimes end up as burgers in Cassidy’s when the population is deemed in need of a cull.

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To end the days hike we had another green road stretch, leading us eastwards into the National Park. The sun was out and it was a truly beautiful path, a match for anywhere in the world in weather like that. A little over halfway along is a charming cottage in what has to be one of the finest locations in the country. (Teas available in the summer).

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Another good dinner and comfy bed courtesy of friends just off route and we were ready and able for our last day on the trail. I had walked nearly all of the Burren Way previously but not continuously and I had never walked one section of the days route so it felt like the highpoint of the Way to be climbing the iconic terraces of Mullaghmore and gazing at the virgin territory ahead.

We were a little early for the glories of the wildflowers for which the area is famous but we were lucky enough to have early purple orchids, wild garlic and gentians strewn around our feet that day.

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As we climbed above Lough Gealain to the summit at 200m the full effect of this special place became tangible. Feeling deeply connected to the surroundings and yet looking out onto a strange and foreign land, it’s no wonder the area has attracted “outsiders” for many years with the magnetic appeal the landscape holds.

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Clambering down the rough stony track on the north of Mullaghmore we turned to follow a wall below Slieve Roe down to a crossroads at Cooloorta where some of the pre mentioned “outsiders” have created homes for themselves.

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3km up the road we turned to come 3km back down on another green road through an area of limestone canyons studded with ash woods until, passing through a swing gate, we walked towards Lough Bunny on a long straight and flat track to the grassy farmland.

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Surrounded by green fields and grazing cows again, with the bare grey stone of the Burren behind us, it wasn’t long to the end of our journey where friends conveniently living right on the Way supplied tea and biscuits and a lift back to the Tranny.

Walking the border:Cavan and Fermanagh

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.img_2752

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.

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A TRIP TO TIPP: St Declans and the Tipperary Heritage Ways

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For awhile i’ve been hankering after another Irish pilgrimage route and this one in particular.

St Declans Way runs for 96km between Cashel in county Tipperary and Ardmore on the Waterford coast. It had been resurrected a good few years ago in the nineties, but had started to fade back into the landscape again until recently, when the current resurgence in interest in Caminos took hold. There’s now an Irish Pilgrim Passport that you can get stamped along various routes that qualifies you for an Irish compostella or certificate but having already done most of the Ways i won’t be applying for one.

Made up by stringing a collection of ancient highways together on the route supposedly taken by St Declan, who was preaching Christianity to the heathens of Ireland before St Patrick’s arrival, from his 5th century monastery in Ardmore to the seat of the Kings of Munster at Cashel.

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I didn’t have the 5 days needed complete the entire walk so devised a circular hike starting in Cahir and going north up St Declans Way to Cashel. After a night there i would circle back down on the Tipperary Heritage Way along the Suir river and skirting over the end of the Galty mountain range to Cahir a trip of approximately 60km.

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The river was with me from the start when i set off under a clear blue November sky through the market town, passed the churchyard sensory garden

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on the route of the Rian Bo Padraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow. Folklaw has it that the path, still visible in sections as a depression in the turf flanked by grassy banks, was created by St Patricks Cow pursuing the cattle thief who stole her calf. As she thundered furiously through the landscape her horns raked the lines of the trail into the earth.

Unfortunately the poetic license of the origin myth is not matched by the prosaic modern reality and i saw no sign of the age old track as i made my way along 25km of unrelenting tarmac. However, once i’d got over the motorway that had signalled its presence with a long aural introduction of hums and roars

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i was off down very quiet back roads through the rich farmland of South Tipperary .The fields were big and open and the farmers seemed to be growing grain rather than the rushes we’re used to around us.

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On it’s way to Ardmore the Way climbs over the Knockmealdown mountains through Bottleneck pass at 540m, but i had my back to that range as i headed north, with the Comeragh mountains to my right and the Galtees to the east on my left.

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The names of the townlands i was passing through were a mixture of the Anglicised, like Mortlestown, Chamberlainstown,Farbankindry and the Irish, like Carrigeen, Carron, Knocksantlour. As i neared Cashel later there was a sequence of places called Lot’s, which seemed to be named after the owners the land had been sold or given to. From south to north i traversed Lalor’s Lot, Bigg’s Lot, Owen’s Lot, Waller’s Lot and Ashwell’s Lot. The houses were mostly pretty grand with big gates and sweeping drives with none of the clusters of close quarter cottages seen in the west.

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Most of the houses had security gates firmly closed to the outside world but perhaps the most down market property on the route had the road going straight through their yard.

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One feature of the landscape stood out for me and that was the size and health of the trees that grew in the deep rich soil.

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The area must have a good reputation amongst arboriculturists as this was where the Annaveigh wholesale tree nursery set up in 2004 and now exports to Holland and Germany which is pretty impressive as was the 70 acres of well pruned and tended trees i walked past on my way toward Cashel.

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My journey up the Rian Bo Padraig had not been rich in sacred sites or monuments of the past but near the end i passed, in quick succession, memorials ancient and modern.

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I was grateful to arrive at Cashel after what had been an early start after a very late night and a long day on a hard road surface. I was too late to visit the castle atop the Rock that the devil had spat at St Patrick so retired to my hostel for a rest by the fire in the lounge.

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Heading out into the sunrise the following morning the sky was bright, the air was crystal clear and a sharp frost sparkled on the grass. It’s coming to that time of year again as autumn turns to winter. It’s been a beautiful season here in Ireland with lots of dry weather and a fine display of red, gold and orange on the trees. The unusually dry weather was enabling me to return to Caher on the Tipperary Heritage way which followed the banks of the river Suir for the first 10- 12km and was officially closed to walkers along the stretch to Golden from October to March due to the common winter floods. I knew from the water levels in the turloughs and rivers around us that there was no risk from that at the moment so set off confidently westwards down the 4km of road to the river.tipp-heritage1

On the outskirts of the town, adrift in a field of cattle, was Hore Abbey, founded in 1266 by the Benedictine order but expelled by the Archbishop of Cashel 6 years later after dreaming that the monks were about to kill him. He didn’t make himself popular with the folk of Cashel as he gave over land and property belonging to the town, and the Abbey, to the Cistercians of Mellifont. Even more grevious was to tax the 38 local brewers 2 flagons out of every batch of ale.

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Looking back from the Abbey the bulk of the castle stood out against the lightening sky.

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Going against the flow of cars ferrying workers and school kids into another day in the hurly-burly of modern life, i felt very privileged to be heading towards a dead end in the road and a peaceful riverside path devoid of the activities of humankind. An illusion of course, as all around me had been created and managed by man. And well managed. I was admiring of the efforts of the landowners along the trail to facilitate the walkers.

The rising sun had still not generated enough heat to thaw the frost that made art of the vegetation and held the moisture off my boots as i laid a new trail through the whiteness.

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I could see why the path was often impassable in winter when a footbridge over a stream revealed the height level of seasonal flood waters.

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There was, as the name of the Way implied, a lot of heritage alongside the river presumably as it was a means of transport in the days before the road network was established. On the opposite bank lay the ruins of Ballynahinch Castle patrolled by a lone swan.

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The gently flowing and winding river is one of the Three Sisters along with the Barrow and Nore, all of which come together to leave the country at Waterford. Rising from the slopes of Devil’s Bit Mountain it takes 185km to reach the sea making it Ireland’s third longest river. There was little evidence of it’s might on this tranquil stretch.

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On my print out maps from the Irishtrails website the Way leaves the riverside on a couple of sections but whatever difficulties there were with landowners has been resolved and now you can stay beside the Suir all the way to the road bridge at Suirville, about 6km south of Golden. At times the path is on the riverbank fenced off from the adjoining farmland and at others you are in fields with cattle that could be muddy in wetter weather.

The day warmed up as i followed the meandering flow, the stillness only broken by startled birdlife splashing a retreat and the gurgling rush of water over weirs.

I’m not sure if the weirs were constructed to slow the flow and alleviate flooding or what but anglers appreciate fishing for Brown Trout and Salmon in these waters and there are plans to attract more people on leisurely pursuits with the creation of a cycle and walking Greenway from Carrick on Suir to Clonmel and a canoeing Blueway from Carrick to Cahir.

Before long i was in Golden, with its 15th century castle sitting on a mid stream island.

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During the 1641 rebellion the castle gave shelter to 120 men , women and children and 10 years later was taken by Cromwell himself. A more impressive structure lay another few km further down stream where what was once the largest abbey in Ireland stands in ruins.

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Athassel Abbey. Dating from 1200 this majestic pile, of which only a fraction appears in the photo, used to have a sizeable settlement around it of which nothing now remains.

A little further on another medieval towerhouse ,Suir Castle, appeared above the trees.

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And then a well kept track had been cut through a copse on a section that had previously been out of bounds and a riverside water meadow with grazing horses sporting hair accessories before i sadly came to the bridge that led me away from the Suir.

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As can be seen from the map above there was a long stretch of road ahead and after less than a km i’d decided to escape what i could of it. The 25km of tarmac the day before had left it’s mark on my feet and with a fair climb to do over the last 8km or so up through Ballydrohid Wood i thought i’d chance my arm- or my hitching thumb.

I must have made the right decision as fate was with me and a car appeared and stopped.    A charming and chatty lady swept me down the road saving me over an hour of wear and tear in minutes, letting me out to cross the main N24 and head for the hills.

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I had my first ascent of the walk as i rose up through beech woods and conifer plantation onto the easternmost shoulder of the Galty mountains. I’d spent a couple of days eyeing up this range when i hiked the Ballyhoura Way and there is something about Galtymore, the highest peak and one of Irelands few that reaches over 1000m, that attracts me. I did climb it decades ago when i tackled all of the county’s “Munroe’s”,but it calls again.

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The views from the edge of the forest unveiled the rich patchwork of fields of the Golden Vale, the heartland of Ireland’s productive agriculture industry.

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A network of forest tracks switchbacked up the folds in the hills leading me deeper into wilder country with patches of bare rock and scrubland, a welcome contrast to the manicured and managed farmland i’d been travelling through over the last couple of days.

But this was Ireland where an area of bogland and conifer forest in Mayo is declared a “Wilderness” so my impression of walking in the wild is relative to the general lack of anything approaching it. The levelled gravel track led me through the serried ranks of the conifer crop and then, thankfully and unusually, a more attractive stand of Scots Pine.

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Cahir appeared in flashes between the trees, nestled down below me at the base of the hill. As the forest track morphed into a farm track and then a road overlooking ,(and overhearing), the busy M8 i noticed the sky, clear and blue all day, turning a little dark. So i was grateful that after going over the motorway and under the N24 i had only a km of suburban street to go to reach my car and complete my Tour de Tipperary.

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Beara Peninsular : Dursey and Derreen

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On a trip to our old stomping grounds in the south west to visit an ailing friend we had the pleasure of exploring a couple of places we had never been able to get to. Dursey Island and Dereen Gardens.

Connected to the mainland by the steel wires of Irelands only cable car, Dursey, on a gorgeous  summers day at least, is a stunningly beautiful and tranquil place. 6 1/2km long and 1 1/2 wide it rises from the sea like the whales that swim in the surrounding waters, (along with dolphins and basking shark).

Once home to around 300 people there are now only two permanent residents although the more benign months see an influx of visitors, both day trippers and others staying in the renovated houses in the three tiny villages.

Our long drive down from Galway became seriously rugged when Serena, our sat nav, decided we would be up for some off roading  beyond Eyeries and sent us up a switchback track, through a couple of luckily unlocked gates and onto an old mountain pass that is now part of the Beara Way walking route. We couldn’t imagine how a well heeled tourist in a hire car would have reacted to the directions.

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The Tranny is made of sterner stuff and we relished the views from our high road as we climbed over the Slieve Miskish mountains and approached Allihies past the copper mines

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Keen to take full advantage of the fine weather we pushed on the remaining 10km to the end of the road where the signpost indicated a long swim would bring us to the mystical land of Tir na nOg.

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As you can see this also the starting point of the Beara Breifne Way, a 500km hiking route linking up 12 separate Ways that finishes way up in Leitrim and Cavan. This follows the route taken by Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, clan leader and Lord of Beara, and 1000 of his remaining followers after horrendous defeats in the Nine Years War. 2  very tough weeks later only 35 of them arrived at the allied O’Rouke castle in Leitrim.

Dursey is the trailhead of an even longer walk. It is the beginning of the European E8 that ends in Istanbul 4,700km further on. The Irish leg is about 600km. Making it’s weary way along half a dozen Irish Ways to Dublin and then across Europe we did a bit on the South Leinster Way a few weeks ago and a tiny bit in Slovakia last year.

In 1969 Dursey became one of a very few islands anywhere to be joined to the mainland by cable car. It made sense as the water separating them is well known for it’s dangerously strong rip currents and hidden reef. Storm waters can make a boat trip inadvisable for days on end so the cable car is a reliable means to transport nearly everything.

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6 people, 4 sheep or 2 cows at a time, the car sails 80 ft above the waves in a quaintly dishevelled fashion with a little swaying and creaking and the passing view visible through the gaps in the floorboards.

Arriving shortly at the islands station ( stuffed full of sacks of sheep wool for the export market) we headed off on our 14km hike.

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This was our third visit to an island this year and yet again it fuelled fantasies of an extended stay in a simple cottage, watching the weather approach across the atlantic, bird spotting, whale watching and producing a book or paintings or photography exhibition, or maybe merely reaching a state of true enlightenment.

Stone built tables and benches had been erected on the way to encourage the contemplation necessary to achieve the higher consciousness by imploring us to “sit down and take it easy”.img_1199

It hadn’t always been such a peaceful place however. We were looking out over the scene of the “Dursey Massacre” where 300 women, children and the aged of O’Sullivans clan gathered, ironically, for their safety in his castle stronghold were attacked by English forces and, tied back to back, were hurled from the cliffs or shot by musket. The chieftains family vault is in the graveyard of the monastic ruins of St Marys Abbey lying below us.

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Maybe the first, Neolithic, settlers had a tranquil time of it erecting their standing stones and alignments but the Vikings bought trouble and strife by using the island as a holding pen for the Irish slaves they had gathered before shipping them off to their fate elsewhere.

All was tranquil as we walked the islands only road up towards Ballynacallagh, the first of the 3 little villages that punctuate the route to the west end.

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The fields on either side, covered with a swathe of rich green grass, were fenced and grazed by cows and sheep but didn’t seem to have the old potato ridges that had been so prominent on our visit to Inishkea last month. Unlike that island there were quite a few smart homes in the villages, which have the luxury of electricity and water, but also many abandoned old stone farm buildings stoutly built to withstand the wild winds and driving rain.

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The sea glinted in the sunshine and the clear ozone filled blue sky meant we could see across it to the mountains of the mainland and the Sheeps Head and, dimly in the distance, the Mizen peninsulas.

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We had past a surprising number of rusting cars resting or rotting by the wayside but I guess once they had made the crossing by boat they weren’t going to be worth the expense of a return trip. Used by the local landowners to tend their stock they didn’t seem to need tax or test and there was little danger of collision on the single lane track only shared with a summer mini bus that shuttled tourists from one end to the other.

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Speed limits still (jokingly) applied !img_1212

The island was almost completely tree less although one fenced farmhouse garden we saw as we neared the final village of Tilickafinna proved it was possible to grow sheltering scrubs and the end house had a little plantation of pines struggling against the wind.

The tarmac ended and a path led on, up the open hillside, to our first view over the sea to the north and the islands of Bull Rock  and The Cow.img_1220

Bull Rock had an automated LED lighthouse nowadays but the old keepers house could still be seen on the summit of the sheer tower of stone. Easily desending towards the western head over the springy but shallow turf another old lighthouse appeared clinging to The Calf, a much smaller island that was overwhelmed by a storm in 1881.

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At the tip was a fine cut stone building whose purpose is a mystery to us but maybe connected to the Napoleonic signal tower that topped the island. The waves crashed relentlessly on the colossal slabs of rock that are favoured by all manner of nesting seabirds including at times visitors from both arctic and mediterranean waters.img_1227

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It was a place to savour and the hypnotic beat of the sea and the hazy divide between the earth and the heavens induced a feeling that the sign to Tir na nOg was possibly accurate.

Finally turning away we retraced our steps to Tilickafinna and started up the steep slopes of the islands high point rising to 252m with the 2oo year old signal tower still waiting for an invasion.This was the site of another giant EIRE layed out in whitewashed stones to warn WW11 pilots they were heading over neutral territory. The third we’ve seen this summer, but only the third we’ve seen in 3 decades of exploring the west of Ireland.

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The undulating spine of the island was laid out ahead of us, the broad ridge offering us serene views in all points of the compass. Atop the next rise we stopped to puzzle over a small area of denuded ground, with the turves piled and covered, and a neighbouring patch of turned sods. Some experiment in erosion and regrowth ?

The coating of soil was certainly very thin but seemed tough and well drained and supported a fine crop of dwarf gorse and heather, both vibrant in the sunshine.

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An ancient, skilfully constructed, ditch and wall ran beside us with stonework that would not have looked out of place in a gallery but was a beautiful and effective sheep barrier.

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Looking back up at the signal tower it was with a slight sense of regret that we climbed the final hill and came back down to the sound where we watched a lobster boat being tossed about in the swirling gyres while waiting for our ride to the rest of Ireland.

Driving away from Dursey we had one more sight of an island artefact. A few miles down the road the old cable car was now serving as a chicken coop in a farmyard garden.

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We parked up for the night outside Allihies at the site of an old copper mine and marvelled at the bands of rock making Knocknagallaun into a really groovy mountain.

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I’d read about a mine collapse around there recently,suddenly  creating a hole big enough to swallow a couple of tractors so was a little wary of the ground opening up beneath me but had to have a look at the copper streaked quartzite seam that been extracted from the old red sandstone during the days of this short lived but large scale local industry.

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A fine night slowly segued into a misty morning where the low visibility made the WAW signboard useful for determining our whereabouts.

The day was spent with our friend in Castletownbere and the night at the top of the Healy Pass hugging the sheltering mountainside as a gale funnelled through the cleft in the rock that the serpentine road wound it’s way through.

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The 8 mile road was built during the famine times in 1847 “to help prevent starvation”! from Adrigole Bridge in Co Cork to Lauragh Bridge in Co Kerry on the route of an ancient track known as Bealach Scairt, The Way of the Sheltered Caves, and the pass was the county border. At dawn the following morning I set out up the dividing line in an attempt to scale the 2nd highest peak on the peninsular, Knockowen at 658m.

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The line from the Thin Lizzy song Whiskey in the Jar was reverberating in my head “As I was goin’ over the Cork and Kerry mountains”and the light,very slowly, revealed a wild landscape of rock and bog.

As I climbed higher Glamore lake and the Kenmare River estuary to the north came into view but i was soon in the clouds and decided the summit, lost in the mist, could not compete with the breakfast that awaited in the Tranny and retreated.

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And so to our second destination of the trip, Derreen Gardens, nestled into 60 acres of a sub tropical like sheltered cove at Lauragh. In 1870 the Marquess of Lansdown embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the bare rock and scrub oak around his house into a luxuriant woodland garden. As Viceroy of India and Governor of Canada he was able to bring back many exotic specimens and many of the trees and rhododendrons in the gardens were planted at that time. The mild moist microclimate is ideal for the huge collection of tree ferns that line the 12km of paths we explored, winding through the slabs of sandstone down to the seaweed shoreline where seals and otters are often seen.

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This is one of the few places where the “little people” live. Called Derreenies they are elusive folk and the last known sighting was in 1855. It was fairly easy to spot their houses amongst the mossy boles but they often seemed vacant.

It was a still and dreamy environment of which I have little to say other than to recommend a visit if your ever in the vicinity.

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