Finally getting my fingers to the keyboard to write about a couple of micro adventures- weeks separated in time but sharing many similarities.
First up was a little side trip from our visit to this years Covid constricted Sproai festival, Waterford city’s annual street performance jamboree. We drove west up the Suir valley to the super wide streets of Portlaw, the 19th century model town created by mill owning Quakers. From there we took the oddly named Scrouty road to the car park entrance to Tower Hill woods to begin a 4.5km loop.
There are 100’s of acres of glorious mixed oak woodland hereabouts, mostly owned by the Curraghmore estate, and although this particular patch had been described as representing one of the larger remaining tracts of oak woods in the country, it seemed mostly coniferous to us. We passed an old stone boundary wall which obviously predates the supposed “ancient woodland” and reached an open area with stunning views to the Comeragh mountains.
We emerged from the shade of the trees into a fine sunny day under blue skies and followed the track across the shoulder of the hill till reaching a road at Hussain gap where one of the Marquis of Waterford had his faithful war horse buried. The gravestone of Jock the Charger had been removed to the house for safekeeping after some inaccurate tree felling had broken it.
Some of the 12 miles of estate boundary walls we passed along the road were being restored with traditional lime mortar aided by state and European GLAS grant aid- an ironic twist on the fact they were originally constructed as famine ” relief” for a penny a day and food.
Shortly turning off the road and into the forest again we climbed on a path past seeding willow herb and spindly holly towards the De la Poer tower.
Sitting atop the 230m hill the tower was built in 1785 by the 1st Marquis of Waterford in memory of his eldest son who died aged 13 in a riding accident jumping his horse over the courtyard railings. A solid construction with walls up to 7 ft thick and a 92 step spiral staircase that leads up to a view over 5 counties.
We sat at the top looking down at our next destination, the house and grounds of Curraghmore. The 2500 acres of the estate make up the largest private Demesne in Ireland and are home to a remarkable tree collection including the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka Spruce planted in 1830’s and about 180ft tall.
The De la Poers have been here since the 12th c and the original Norman keep with its 12ft thick walls has been encased by a Victorian mansion. The fine back courtyard, where we took our luncheon in the cafe, is overlooked by St Huberts Stag sporting a crucifix between the antlers.
Traditionally hosting polo matches in summer and shooting parties in winter the glorious grounds of lawn, lake, woodland, borders, parterre and formal gardens were the unlikely setting for the All Together Now music festival in 2018 and 19 and are signed up for 3 more. 15,000 people camped and danced and partied in these refined surroundings over long weekends with no damage done- but leaving tell tale traces dotted incongruously about like objects implanted from a future reality.
I wondered what Lady Catherine, the Countess of Tyrone, would have made of it. Being a creative herself I feel she would approve. In 1754 she took 261 days to construct the Shell House with “her proper” hands and instructed captains leaving Waterford harbour for exotic destinations to return with shells with which to decorate its interior- unfortunately hidden from our view.
We had to return to Sproai and so left without fully exploring the planting Lady Catherine was instrumental in. Exotic trees as well as shells found their way to Curraghmore. Chinese Fir, Japanese Umbrella Pine, Lebanese Cedar, Western Hemlock, Mexican White Pine, Caucasian Fir, Chinese Plum Yew, Serbian Spruce, Bhutan Pine, Japanese Red Cedar, Chilean Southern Beech, Cappadocian Maple- it’s an impressive list, and an impressive landscape. We will return.
Another historic estate that hosts a music festival, and has done annually for 13 years, is Charleville, just outside Tullamore, Co Offaly. It also has a remarkable collection of trees as we discovered on our latest ” train and trail trip”.
Alighting the Dublin bound train in Tullamore it was a short walk to the entrance to Charleville Forest where we were immediately gifted with the presence of The King Oak.
This approx 700yr old venerable being is one of many in the ancient forest that has survived here after 1700 acres were given to the Moore family by Queen Elizebeth 1. Voted third in the European Tree of the Year in 2013 the oak has a girth of 26ft and the lower branches spread 150ft. It was struck by lightening in 1963 and survived, split but still strong.
The forest here has been considered magical for centuries and was sacred to the druids. As we continued up the lane towards the castle we were in awe of the majestic towering oaks that formed the top canopy of a multi story woodland.
The arboreal senior citizens sported some huge burrs that masked hidden wonders for a wood turner.
At the end of the drive we passed through an entrance to the castle itself, built over 14 years from 1798, the year of the crushed rebellion, and designed as a neo gothic statement of power. The round towers were supposedly positioned on the crossing point of key lines and create a powerful energy in the tower rooms. Reported to be full of hauntings the castle hosts overnight paranormal investigations.
Uninhabited from 1912 it fell in disrepair but was saved from ruin by the work of volunteers and supporters from 1970’s and the creation in 1994 of the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust. In 2006 the first small scale Castle Palooza festival was held, raising money for the continuing restoration, increasing in size to 5000 over the coming years.
Skirting the castle we followed the track over a stream and past a wide assortment of mature trees- mighty chestnut, ash and sycamore. There is a planting of yew here in the shape of the union flag, impossible to determine from the ground. We continued our walk down through an avenue of limes from the farmyard and out onto open pasture.
Out through a gate onto the Lynally road and we carried on northwards through farmland that although productive seemed somewhat of a mishmash with abandoned old cottages and sheds alongside brutish new development.
This area was part of a major ecclesiastical centre for centuries when the monastic site founded by St Colman Elo in 590 grew into an important place of faith and learning. The ancient oak woods of Charleville were part of the settlement back in the day and we stopped for a picnic lunch at the atmospheric ruins, kindly shown around by the knowledgeable owner of the land, Mr Mooney.
An unofficial caretaker of this OPW site he had protected it from much official vandalism and seen a partial improvement with the removal of damaging ivy by the county council a few years ago. When I asked him if his family had been here for a long time he replied, No they’d only come in 1668 from another part of the county. “A blow in so”, I replied, ” have the locals accepted you yet?”
A mine of historical info and a welcoming custodian, he left us to tend to his farm and we carried on up the road another couple of km to join the Grand Canal at Ballycowan castle whose grouping of its 6 chimneys led it to be known locally as the 3-2-1.
We’d walked the Grand canal from Dublin to the Shannon about 15 years ago and had mixed feelings about the Greenway “improvements” that saw the grassy tow path converted into a tarmac cycle and walkway. It was still pleasant to meander along beside the reedy water towards Tullamore but we crossed over from the official surfaced route to the south bank over Srah bridge to take our chances on the rougher grass bank.
Passing Srah Castle, the 1588 defensive tower house of English settler John Briscoe we were soon passed the traveller halting site,( with adjacent sewerage plant), and into the 28th lock on the edge of town.
The 14km loop hadn’t taken as long as thought so we had time for tea in town reflecting on the pleasures of a walk on the mild side before returning to the station for the train home.