IRELAND

Rambles on the Sheeps Head

On a gorgeous autumnal weekend we returned to West Cork on a visit, staying with a friend on the narrow finger of rocky land that points out into  the Atlantic between the Mizen and Beara peninsulas. With Dunmanus bay to the south and Bantry bay to the north there is usually a stunning sea view to admire from the network of way marked walking routes that the Sheeps Head is blessed with.

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Anyone living around the area is really spoilt for choice when looking for a wild and open hiking route. Not only is there the long distance (175km) Sheeps Head Way that circles the entire peninsular and now continues, via Bantry to Drimoleague and Kealkil, but there about 20 other loops and linear spurs that criss cross north and south, of varying distances . We only had time for a couple of loops but are determined to return.

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The logo for the Way features two rams with interlocking horns and is taken from some 6th century carvings on a standing stone near Bantry. They are supposed to illustrate the Gospel story of the people of Gidgeon and the Israelites who fought for many years. No-one won, no-one surrendered- they accepted to live together. So the interlocking rams symbolise togetherness and resilience. The route was opened by the then President Mary Robinson in 1996 and has since won awards and been chosen as best Irish Walk by Country Walking magazine.

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We headed down in the camper to the end of the road on our first evening to do the Lighthouse loop before the sun sank into the sea. Listed on the Irishtrails website as moderate/difficult the 4km route was supposed to take 2 hours but we found it easy enough though rugged in places which made it interesting. Starting off from the charming carpark cafe the Cuppa Tae ” the tea shop at the end of the world” we set off north to loop anticlockwise.

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A narrow rocky path led us steeply down into a little valley towards the deep blue sea and the mountains of the Beara. In such a remote spot we were surprised to pass the remaining stone walls of a simple dwelling.

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We continued on over marshy hollows and rocky outcrops to where our loop joined the Sheeps Head Way proper and turned west along a narrow undulating cliff top path .

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The bays both north and south of us are thankfully free of the jarring fish farm nets and mussel rafts that blight so many other once pristine seascapes off the coast of western Ireland. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about here called “The Peninsular” whose last lines describe this end of the world well. “Water and ground in their extremity”

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We puzzled over the enigmatic circle of white stones before spying the tiny lighthouse below us and realising its function as a rustic helipad. The small white building clinging tightly to the rocks at the grounds extremity is not very old. Built in 1968 to guide tankers to the ill-fated oil terminal on Whiddy Island off Bantry, its light is visible for 18 miles across the often ferociously turbulent waters.

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The primitive helipad must have been a busy spot during the construction when 25o helicopter flights were needed to transport all the materials including the lantern and optics from Kilcrohane 9km away. They also had to fly out all the poles needed to bring out the electricity to power the light.

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Gazing out west from the rocks above the lighthouse we weren’t lucky enough to spot one of the whales or dolphins that regularly appear on their migrations and so turned onto the now well worn and larger path back towards the car park passing some dramatic cliffs and then the still waters of Lough Akeen, where the surrounding fields still bore the memories of long gone residents in the form of the potato ridges, clearly visible in the slanting evening light.

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The stony path filled with sheep that scattered into the heathery grass as we slowly climbed up past the outlying farmhouses to the sadly closed “Cuppan Tae”.

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The following day we were blessed with more beautiful weather as we set off on another, longer loop walk. The Seefin loop is 13km and climbs to the highest point on the peninsular at 318m. The route includes a bit of quiet backroad, ancient old boreens, field paths and open and heathery hillsides. We would be hiking down the rocky old red sandstone ridge of what author, musician and walker Mike Harding described as ” the most beautiful landscape in Ireland”. Praise indeed!

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Setting off from Ahakista on a typical tranquil West Cork backroad lined with fuchsia we followed the stream passed the old burial ground, and leaving the tarmac behind, began to climb a boreen between the field hedges.

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Once out on the open hillside we followed the marker posts up the flank of Rosskerrig to Windy Gap as the vistas grew ever more impressive, with the sea views on both sides.

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At a meeting of routes we turned towards the Sheeps Head peak glorying in the sunshine. This area is blessed with perhaps the mildest climate in Ireland due to the warming effect of the Gulf stream that washes this coastline.

 

Ground down over countless millennia the skeletal bones of this landscape show through the thin covering of rough grasses. We spotted many sticky sundew plants hiding in the turves awaiting their insect dinners. It was a fairly steep descent from the trig point on Seefin, heading south with marvellous views to the Mizen Head and Mount Gabriel with Cape Clear and the other islands of Roaring Water Bay faint in the distance.

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Before long we had reached the highest farmyard on the slopes and crossing it, we carried on down an old Mass Path over a little bridge to reach the original Ahakista road now a charming 3km green lane complete with a stone seat to rest awhile.

On reaching tarmac again we turned to cross an impressive stone slab bridge spanning a stream to reach one of west corks many stone circles. This one was cleared of thick vegetation on rediscovery in 1995.

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A short distance through the bracken, heather and gorse and we were back at the fuchsia lined lane and our car. A pint in the waters edge garden of Arundels by the Pier completed a memorable West Cork ramble.

                                                    A BURREN RIDGEWALK

While I’m here at my blogging spot i’ll just do a brief post on my last hike, a 13km Burren ridge walk from the bottom of Abbey Hill to the top of Slieve Carron.

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Parking at the end of the grassy unpaved road that traverses the lower slopes of Abbey Hill I started across the narrow strip of grassland that borders the naked limestone whose shelves of rock reached up towards my first summit on Oughtmama. I followed the stone wall that separated counties Clare and Galway, the views of Kinvara Bay and the Gort lowlands a colourful and fertile contrast to the stark bare hillsides above me.

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A flatish stretch before the peak was followed by views down the wild and lonely valley that contains the remains of the 3 Ucht Mama churches, long roofless and abandoned.

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From here, over Turlough Hill and on towards Mt Carron, I was deeply immersed in the glaciologist-karst landscape, the only sounds the clinking and clanking of the loose rocks I strode over as I crossed the slabs and cracks of the clinks and grikes. A powerful and unearthly world with so many contrasts and contradictions. Seemingly a sterile desert- so rich in flora. Seemingly so empty of human life- containing a wealth of the ghosts of settlement through the ages. Huge areas of bare grey rock-alongside fertile fields of vivid emerald green.

Revelling in the “natural” world I had to remind myself that it all displayed the hand of man. The bare hills- denuded of trees by neolithic farmers, the massive man hours involved in the stone wall building and the sacred sites and defendable spaces of the burial cairns and hill forts.

Atop the huge burial cairn on the summit of Slieve Carron , yet to be excavated, I pondered all those passed lives , including that of a close friend whose memorial site was just below me, and felt deep gratitude that I also lived a life amongst these surroundings.

Return to the Galtee Mountains

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I first climbed Galtymore, at 919m the highest peak in the Galtees, nearly 40 years ago whilst tackling all of Irelands 3000 footers with my old chum Phillip who has long since passed away. I have thought of him on my other visits to the area but have always been thwarted in efforts to climb again in the deeply folded hills by the fact that I’ve been accompanied by unwelcome dogs- forced back by insistent signage and unwilling to incur the wrath of an irate sheep farmer.

But now our dogs have also passed away and Sally and I returned to hike unheeded, parking up the night before under the protection of the famous statue of Christ the King, his hand raised “in blessing the Glen, its people and all those who pass by”.

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The glen being blessed is the beautiful Glen of Aherlow, running east/west below Tipperary on the north side of the Galtees, the highest inland mountain range in Ireland.

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It looked fine in the morning light as I surveyed peaks and valleys and tried to follow the route we would take to Lough Muskry, the largest of the 5 glacial cirques lakes on the northern slopes of the Galtees. From there our 14km hike would take us up to the ridge above before circling around to the east crossing Greenane peak at over 800m before looping back down to the valley floor. Ground out of the mountain by rock and ice 25,000 years ago the 20 acre lake is over 100ft deep and a major source of water for the area.

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On our way from Christ the King to our starting point we called in to Clonbeg ,where St Sedna’s holy well and rag tree rest quietly beside the ruins of a medieval church in the grounds of the Church of Ireland chapel built as the Massey family memorial. The churchyard contains the graves of both catholic and protestant and has a tranquil and timeless vibe about it.

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IMG_3848I cleared the pondweed and had a sip of water to fortify me for the hike. The story goes that 3 local men off to the Crimean war visited St Sedna’s  well before heading off and their safe return was attributed to the miraculous powers of the waters.

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Healed, guided, protected and guarded by St Sedna we drove to the trailhead, (truth be told, after getting lost) and started up the forest track from the empty car park. We were the first onto the hills on this fine sunny weekend morning.

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The track followed a rushing stream up a long valley as we slowly rose to the forest boundary and the open mountainside. The formidable cliffs above Lough Muskry came into view as we continued up a grassy path alongside the sheep.

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Looking back northwards the rich and fertile Tipperary farmland lay like a green blanket to the horizon. We climbed steeper now, across the eastern slopes of Knockastackeen, forded a stream and reached a point above the still and dark waters of the lake. Originally known as Lough Beal Sead, the Lake of the Jewel Mouth, it was the dwelling place of 150 comely maidens who would be transformed into birds every second year, one of whom became The Most Beautiful Bird in the World and was allowed to wear a necklace containing the sparkling Jewel of Beal Sead.

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We were now at about 500m and had a very steep climb up the grassy slope beside the cliffs to an unnamed peak at 785m where we turned east towards the jumble of conglomerate rocks known as O’Loughnan’s Castle standing atop the ridge. These and other nearby rocky outcrops are former nunataks, the bits of rock that poked out above the glaciers.

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Crossing the broad peaty col through some peat hags we climbed the long and gradual slope to the trig point on the flattened summit of Greenane. The wonderful view from there was not only of the whole Galtees but also the Comeraghs and Knockmealdowns to the south and east and the Slieve Felims and Silvermines to the north as well as pale ranges in counties Clare, Limerick, Kerry, Galway, Offaly, Waterford and Cork. I was also sure I could see the sea around Dungarvan through a gap in the mountains. Greenane means ” sunny spot” and so it was, enjoying our sarnies and feasting on the view.

 

After a chat with the fit fellow we’d seen racing up the slope behind us we headed off down the ridge to a lower peak “Farbreaga”- False Man, from the pile of rocks at the summit that supposedly looks like a man from afar. The rocks could be the scattered remains of a booley house- a stone shelter used by farmers until the 1850’s when grazing cattle high on the mountains in the summer months.

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We turned off the ridge and descended through the maze of eroded peat hags enjoying spectacular views of Muskry and the cliffs.

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With our eye on the forest entrance we had left in the morning we clambered down the tussocky slopes to reach the rushing stream, its tumbling waters twinkling in the sunshine.

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It had been a fine hike and we determined to return again, realising in was as near to us as the more frequently visited Connemara. There were more people about now heading up into the hills for a post sunday lunch walk but by the look of the sky we’d had the best of the day and it was time to have a quick hidden skinny dip in the chilly waters before rejoining the forest track back to the now full carpark before the rain arrived.

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A Trip to Tipperary

Time to report on a modest Irish ramble after recent foreign escapades.

I’d been reading for a couple of years about a small village in deepest Tipp that has gone to great efforts to sell itself as a walking destination, setting up 3 Failte Ireland looped walks, guided walks and an annual walking festival. So when looking for a bank holiday hike location on line and seeing on the Irishtrails website that one of the loops was dog friendly ( a hard to find rarity) we loaded the camper and headed southeast… to Upperchurch.

West of the Nenagh to Thurles road the village is at the eastern end of the Slieve Felim mountain range and set amidst a beguiling landscape of rounded rolling hills of fine green grassland and forest in the full forty shades with a fair smattering of golden gorse.

Unusually for rural Ireland these days the village still has 3 functioning pubs, a shop, community Centre complete with crèche and climbing wall and an information center. We stopped there to try and get maps of the walks and discovering it to be shut tried one of the bars. The welcoming owner spent some time rummaging around but couldn’t find what we wanted so kindly got his coworker to open the info centre and furnish us with leaflets and maps.

We discovered that the Beara- Breifne Way, a (very) long distance hiking trail that commemorates the 14 day/ 250 mile forced march of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork to Leitrim, passes through here. Too late in the day to explore we headed up to the Ballyboy lookout to park up for the night.

In the very early morning we were surprised to be woken by increasing car activity outside. Still dark we couldn’t see what was occurring. We thought perhaps late night revelers or predawn hunters. But then I remembered some briefly scanned mention of an Easter Sunday Sunrise Mass happening somewhere in the area. I quickly got some clothes on and emerged from the van like a risen prophet to discover rows of seats had been placed in front of the camper and many folk in high viz looking expectantly towards me. Whoops- we’d parked in the alter-place. After a bit of banter I explained we were going to Upperchurch for a walk but as there were by then about 100 walkers heading up the road towards us was advised to go the opposite way, passing many more folk on their way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

With the full moon still hanging above the misty valley in the dawn light we headed off into the mountains named in Irish after an ancient goddess, Sliabh Eibhlinne- the mountains of Ebliu.

After stopping for breakfast and waiting for the sun to burn off the mist we started off from the village on the Eamonn an Chnoic loop. Eamonn, or Ned of the Hill, was one of the 17th century Robin Hood type outlaws championing the cause of the dispossessed natives and harassing the English planters. Born locally he roamed these hills after shooting a tax collector dead for confiscating a poor women’s cow before coming to a sticky end , murdered for blood money, and his exploits inspired a famous ballad.

Passing another local walk initiative , a bog walk and garden, we continued up the quiet country road accompanied by our first cuckoo song of the year.

At our first stile we were disappointed to see a no dogs sign. We’d chosen this walk because it was listed as dogs permitted so with our mutts on leads and best behavior we carried on across a series of fields and stiles slowly climbing through Glenbeg.

Passing a picnic spot overlooking the still misty river valley to the south we continued up on farm tracks beside a mass of sweet smelling gorse towards a band of forestry.

Turning east at the forest we followed an ancient sunken greenway through the gorse and bilberries and down towards a cottage near a ring fort.

We passed the site of a pre-famine hedge school where a schoolmaster named Burke held the only available classes of that period. Hard as those times were, the wildflowers in the “classroom” might have made things more pleasant than in the Industrial schools some of the children have have ended up in.

After only 500m of tarred road we were off cross country again for the rest of the walk. Climbing again to another block of forestry on the high ground we walked the fields beside what had been the official trail, now swallowed by gorse.

The forces of nature had overwhelmed other remnants from the past too. We failed to see the old potato ridges and foundations of a famine village supposed to be visible. 29 families from here emigrated to Monroe county in Iowa on one day in 1879. But we did see what’s left of a Bronze Age ring barrow and a little further along a rare bowl barrow.

Downhill all the way back to the village we had one slight route finding problem where signage was missing and fencing down but it was all very pleasant in the spring sunshine.

We took a quick detour to Holy Cross Abbey on our way to another looped hike at the Devils Bit. The restored Cistercian monastery has impressive stonework and a marvelous sloping floor beneath the pegged oak roof timbers.

But the real draw for pilgrims over the last 800 years is a silver crucifix containing a relic of the true cross on which Jesus is said to have died. This, along with another artifact were stolen in October 2011 and recovered by the Garda 3 months later in what the parish priest Fr Tom Breen said ” once again demonstrates the power of praying”.

Another cross was our next destination but at ,45 ft high and a span of 25ft , was somewhat bigger.

Standing at 480m on an outcrop ( known as the Rock) it boasts a view of 8 counties. I always thought that the devil had spat ” the gap” that he bit out of the mountain to form the Rock of Cashel but then I read that the Rock of Cashel is actually (!) the tooth he spat out after breaking it biting the mountain.

Easter Sunday and the car park was jammers with families setting off up the steep track towards the Rock.

Passing Carden’s Folly where Daniel O’Connell is supposed to have addressed a monster meeting of 50,000 tithe payment resisters and a mock ” burial” of the tithes took place, we reached a stone alter and Marion shrine- the scene of another open air mass and pilgrimage in July.

A steep stony scramble had us up to the looming cross and we rewarded ourselves by soaking up the 360 degrees views of the fertile plains and half a dozen mountain ranges faint in the hazy light.

We descended by climbing down a cliff face on the eastern side, down past another Marion shrine and into the gap that broke the devils teeth.

Nice to explore another unknown patch of Ireland and reaffirm that it’s still a varied and beautiful place to ramble around.

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.