Lush woods and open heath above Bantry Bay

Lush woods and open heath above Bantry Bay

This short, rugged trail follows in the footsteps of a pioneering Irish botanist

Irish Times, March 29, 2017 

In just a few short kilometres this fine little trail near Glengarriff explores lush woods and open heath high above Bantry Bay. The trailhead is beside a fine old bridge over the Coomhola River.

With your back to the mapboard, go left until you see the trail beside a house on your right, heading into the woods. You follow this hazel-lined path into a dark, damp forest rich in mosses and ferns.

Keep your eyes peeled for the blue arrows of the Coorycommane Loop as they guide you through the trees, eventually bringing you out to a muddy lane lined with brambles, gorse and pine. You are also following the yellow waymarkers of the Beara Way here.

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Hit your peak on home turf

Hit your peak on home turf

For a few brief weeks each winter, if the weather is just right, eager climbers grab their ice axes and crampons and head for the high, snowy peaks of… Kerry? Lenny Antonelli spends a cold day learning snow and ice climbing on Ireland’s highest mountain 

Sunday Times, March 5, 2017 

Even in Ireland, winter can bring a deep freeze to the mountains. It might seem balmy at sea level, but up in the hills you can find yourself walking through deep snow and surrounded by thick cloud. If you love hillwalking, this is an exciting time, as the mountains you know and love are transformed into strange, snowy landscapes. 

This is prime time for winter mountaineering, Irish style — ice axe, crampons and all. Which is what I was doing meeting mountain guide Piaras Kelly of Kerry Climbing, and a group of eager climbers, on a dark January morning at Cronin’s Yard, the traditional start point for ascents of Carrauntoohil. Through the dim light I could just about make out the snow-capped ridges of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks above us. 

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'A difficult place for the mind to grasp': walking the Indreabhán bog

'A difficult place for the mind to grasp': walking the Indreabhán bog

Irish Times, February 11, 2017

The vast bogs that lie just west of Galway city are a difficult place for the mind to grasp. Beyond here is Connemara, a region that – while its borders are vague – at least has a coastline, mountains and villages that give it some sense of structure and definition.

But between Galway and Connemara is an empty and nameless space, where few people ramble. In my adolescence, I would often cycle the mountain road here between Moycullen and Spiddal, and stare into these featureless plains, dumbfounded.

But these spaces have gradually been rationalised and civilised over the years. First by the arrival of forestry – there are big plantations here – and now by the development of wind farms rising on once empty horizons. The wild bog north of Indreabhán is one of the few untouched parts of this peatland, and from the coast road, long boreens stretch high into the bog.

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'What it lacks in length, it makes up with spirit': walking the Avonmore River

'What it lacks in length, it makes up with spirit': walking the Avonmore River

A new trail in Co Wicklow explores one of Ireland’s most spectacular rivers

Irish Times, July 27, 2016

The Avonmore in Co Wicklow makes a case for being one of Ireland’s great rivers. What it lacks in length and volume, it makes up with sheer spirit, flowing wide and quick from Lough Dan to the point where it meets the Avonbeg, below Rathdrum. Together they form the Avoca. A new trail launched in April, the Avonmore Way, explores this wooded valley.

I walked it southward on a hot June day. From Trooperstown Forest (just outside Laragh), cross the bridge at the back of the car park and go right at the junction. Soon you pick up the waymarkers for the Avonmore Way as you climb through Scots Pines. In the summer heat, botanical life seemed to sprout from every crevice: bracken and gorse, hawthorn and birch, rowan and wildflowers blooming in any open space.

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The wild streets of Galway

The wild streets of Galway

Take an urban safari on the city's waterways

Irish Times, February 22, 2015

I know few betters ways to see wildlife in Ireland than to walk Galway’s inner bay, and waterways. Start from the aquarium in Salthill and follow the prom towards the city. For me, Galway Bay seems most vital on calm autumn evenings, when the syrup-still water shakes with life as mackerel chase sprat inshore, while seals and gulls stalk the frenzy.

The prom brings you to Grattan Beach, where I’ve found everything from cuttlefish to sea stars to small conger eels in tidepools. Past here, you can walk the causeway out to Mutton Island, under an amphitheatre of mercurial light and weather. But don’t venture out here in high winds or very high tides. The causeway was the first place I saw an otter: when I approached at dusk, a lone walker, it slinked from the road into the sea and was gone.

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Walking with the tides

Time your visit to this mysterious tidal island with care

Irish Times, 10 January 2015

For years, Omey Island seemed a near-mythical place to me. Despite exploring much of the Connemara coast I had never been to this tidal island, which you can walk to at low water but which becomes cut off at high tide. Inishbofin, Inishark and Inishturk print their silhouettes indelibly on the western skyline, but Omey hides away under the Aughrus Peninsula.

You can cross the wide strand from Claddaghduff Quay to Omey around low water from roughly half-tide to half-tide. But tidal conditions vary each day, and with the weather, so ask in Sweeney’s shop and pub in Claddaghduff for local advice before setting out.

We crossed Omey Strand an hour before low tide one gusty October day, roughly following a route described in Paul Phelan’s book Connemara and Mayo: A Walking Guide (Collins Press, 2012). Rather than follow the signposts all the way over the strand, this route veers right towards a prominent house near the island’s northeastern corner.

As we crossed the beach, a hearse started out across the hard sands, followed by cars. The burial procession advanced slowly through the grey wind, bound for Omey’s graveyard.

As you reach Omey, turn right and follow the shore, passing the graveyard if you haven’t already. Ignore the sandy road leading inland towards the house and continue along the beach. You can now pick up a sandy track above the curving shoreline and follow the northern coast (no fence-hopping required).

You will come to one beach, then another. Where a fence turns inland above the second beach, follow it to the remains of Teampall Féichín. This medieval church was built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded by St Féichín. Omey’s Gaelic name is Iomaidh Féichín, the bed of Féichín.

Return to the beach and continue to follow the shore. This exposed corner of the island is called Guairín, meaning small dunes, according to Tim Robinson’s book Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, from which I have gleaned much of my information. It is mostly machair, a sandy grassland only found in western Ireland and Scotland. The grass is populated by snails that use the lime-rich sands to build their shells.

You will reach the island’s northwest corner, where there is another small tidal island offshore, and, further west, Cruagh Island. Follow the shore of Omey as it turns and heads southeast.

The wind was heavy and the sky grey – not a solid grey, but a fluid mass of moving shades and shapes. To the south, towards Slyne Head, the dim sunlight broke through in crepuscular rays. Keep the sea on your right until you come to a small bay. St Féichín’s well, where pilgrims have left strange trinkets, is above the shore here.

In 1841, Omey was home to 396 people; just 10 years later, after the Famine, this had almost halved. The island’s school closed in 1973, and today there is just one year-round resident.

Cross the beach, join the road by two mobile homes and go left, past the lake and back down to Omey Strand. Presuming you haven’t horribly miscalculated the tides, you can follow the posts back across the sand to Claddaghduff.

WALK: OMEY ISLAND, CO GALWAY

Map: OSI, Discovery Series Sheet 37.

Start/finish: Claddaghduff Quay, Co Galway. The turn for Claddaghduff and Omey is about 3.5km north of Clifden on the N59. Turn at Claddaghduff church for the quay, or continue straight for Sweeney’s shop/pub.

Time and distance: Roughly 8km, 2.5 to 3 hours.

Suitability: Easy to moderate walking. Head out well before low tide. Omey has no services.

Secrets of Slieve Bloom

Walk in a wooded valley in the Slieve Bloom mountains

Irish Times, 30 August, 2014

An experienced hillwalker once told me that his least favourite range was the Slieve Bloom mountains of Laois and Offaly. I can’t recall his reasoning, but I imagine it might have been that it’s boggy and fairly flat, with no soaring peaks, and covered in forestry.

But the Slieve Blooms hide glorious secrets. Having lots of wooded rivers in one small range is invigorating, and you can explore one of these by walking the Brittas loop at Clonaslee, Co Laois.

The Slieve Blooms were behind a wall of mist when I approached, after heavy showers soaked the midlands. From the trailhead, the blue markers followed a track into woods along the river, where there was plenty of hazel, beech, ash, and Douglas fir.

These woods are part of the old Brittas estate, held by MP Francis Plunkett Dunne, who built nearby Brittas House in 1869. The Dunnes were said to be descendants of the legendary high king of Ireland, Cathair Mór.

The trail passes an old weir and the ruins of an old bridge. You will pass new footbridges too, but stay on the right bank as the trail goes through a series of stiles. After a while the track climbs away from the river, leaves the wood and joins a grassy lane between two fields.

Hints of autumn were everywhere: blackberries ripening, bracken beginning to rust and birch leaves yellowing. The boreen emerges to a road, where the trail turns right, then immediately left into more woods of beech and holly.

The path brings you to Brittas lake, built as a reservoir for the old estate, with water pumped up from the Clodiagh river. There are picnic benches and old fishing stands.

Beside the lake is a grove of Scots pine, a graceful tree rooted deeply in Ireland’s ecological past. This species once thrived on Ireland’s uplands and marginal habitats, but was pushed out as the climate grew wetter, bogs expanded and early farmers cleared the land. It may have survived in isolated refuges. But most Scots pine across the country today is from Scottish stock.

The waymarkers at Brittas lake are a little confusing, but essentially they direct you to lap the lake fully. As you leave the lake behind, rather than turn left down the path you came from through the woods, continue straight to some barriers, and go left.

There was once a large oak forest here, and you can see old oaks along the track. When you reach a fork, follow the waymarker right. A bit further on, you swing left where a grassy track leads off to the right.

Here a fallow deer and her fawn stood on the path ahead of me. I expected them to bolt, but the mother strayed into the woods, leaving the youngster behind to stare dumbly at me. I moved closer, until the mother returned and both deer darted. The route then crosses straight over a forest road and onto a grassy lane. Where a fallen tree blocks the path, circle around it to the left. The path emerges through an old gate of the Brittas estate to the west side of Clonaslee village.

From here you can continue straight on past some houses to reach the crossroads, where you turn right for the trailhead to complete the loop.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 54, or download from coillteoutdoors.ie. Start/finish: Clonaslee, Co Laois, 14.5km west of Mountmellick on the R422. From the crossroads by MD Hickey’s pub, take the road south along Clodiagh river, towards the mountains. Trailhead is on your left. Time and distance: 8km, 2 to 2.5 hours, not including breaks. Suitability: Graded moderate. Trail follows woodland trails, forest tracks and farmland lanes. Some parts are wet and muddy.

Land of woods and water

Walk the woodlands and turloughs of little-known Garryland

Irish Times, 28 June, 2014

You’ve probably heard of Coole Park, the former home of Lady Gregory and setting of famous WB Yeats poems. But you might not have heard of Garryland, which is where Yeats’s hipster cousin might have hung out: it’s just around the corner but way less visited and that much harder to find.

The whole interconnected Coole-Garryland complex must be one of Ireland’s richest nature reserves, with 400 hectares of woodland, turlough, limestone pavement and grassland. But the Garryland side sees little footfall compared to Coole.

Leaving the Garryland car park, the woods along the trail are rich with hazel and ash. These trees are often found together on limestone, and they thrive here on the lowlands east of the Burren.

I recently heard a local farmer say that there’s no place on earth like the Burren in spring and, though you’re not really in the heart of the Burren here, you can sense its presence in the trees, wildflowers and rock.

The old building beside the trail, just after you enter the wood, is used as a summer roost by more than 60 lesser horseshoe bats. Close by there’s also a specially built hibernaculum, an underground chamber for the bats to hibernate in during winter.

We took a side-trail and followed it to a dead end, then continued on a rougher track into the woods. We startled two hares from the path and they hopped off, bouncing noisily through the undergrowth. All along, the trails were spotted with the scat of pine marten.

The air was so warm and sticky that Garryland felt more like primordial jungle than an Irish woodland: bugs attacked my neck, the air was thick and humid, and the wind dropped to nothing.

Later we took a side path down to the dry grassy bed of a turlough. These “disappearing lakes”, fed by groundwater during wet weather, are interwoven with the forests here, stretching their watery fingers deep into the woods. There’s nowhere else in Ireland where turloughs are so intimately associated with old woodland.

We passed a grove of oaks and one old yew, then rested on a rock in a clearing. “It looks like something out of Jurassic Park,” my walking buddy said, staring at the scene in front of us: a small turlough, surrounded by a grassy savannah that was dotted with boulders. I could see what she meant: it looked so green and primeval that we half expected Brontosaurus to emerge from behind the hawthorns.

But when the turloughs rise in wet weather, the trails flood. You probably won’t get far if you come here in mid winter, so visit in summer during a dry spell.

The full linear walk from the Garryland car park to Coole is almost 5km one-way, and you could make this much longer by exploring different side paths. This is what makes Coole-Garryland so special: there are few other places in Ireland where you can spend so long walking through woodland (unless you like walking in circles).

But the swampiness of the day seemed to call for a lazier approach. After resting we turned back, then took a different trail to another turlough fringed by steep limestone crags. Tired and thirsty, we walked back to the car park in the still May heat.

Go Walk: Garryland Woods

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 52 covers the area but may not show trail details.

Start and finish: Garryland Woods car park. From Gort take the R460 towards Corofin, but turn right for Kinvara almost 1km after crossing over the motorway. Follow this minor road for 2.5km and take the first right. The car park is 1.5km up on your right hand side. Room for only a few cars.

Time and distance: My walk was 7km / 2 hours with breaks, but this can easily be made longer or shorter such is the variety of trails.

Suitability: The main paths are flat and easy, but side trails can be rougher. Go during dry weather in summer as the trails flood in wet weather / winter.

Info: Coole Park Visitor Centre (www.coolepark.ie).

Services: There are seasonal tea rooms at Coole Park and full services in Gort.

Through the heartlands

Walking the Grand Canal Way across the bogs of Offaly

Irish Times, 26 April 2014

I left Tullamore on a proper Irish spring morning: icy wind on my face, warm sun on my back. My plan was to follow the Grand Canal Way west through the boggy heart of the midlands.

Just outside Tullamore the canal passes Shra Castle, built in 1588 by an English solider who married into a local family. But Ballycowan Castle, a bit further on, is even more striking.

Nearby the towpath crosses two aqueducts, engineering marvels that lift one waterway above another. Further on I spotted a peacock butterfly, my first of the year, its rusted wings spotted black, cream and lilac. The countryside here was flat and farmed. Some fields were wonderfully disordered, with overgrown hedgerows and rough grass. Others were smooth and symmetrical, their hedges hacked bare.

Seeing this, I thought of an eccentric landowner in the midlands who once who told me that when walking his land, I would know where his farm ended because the fields would suddenly become boring. He celebrated disorder, and I imagined him cursing the neatest fields beside the canal.

Later I was resting by a bog oak sculpture at Pollagh when a barge named the Cheerful Lady passed. She had left Tullamore when I did, but had fallen behind me waiting at a lock. “Maybe if you get tired they’ll give you a lift,” the man from Waterways Ireland had said. The barge and I exchanged pole position a few times until she pulled ahead at Pollagh, and that was the last time I saw her.

Past Pollagh the towpath vegetation was stripped bare, and I had to trudge through peaty mud. The Grand Canal Way stretches from west Dublin to the Shannon, and is marked along its whole length. The walking is flat, but in places the towpath is rough and muddy, so wear good walking shoes. Though this section follows quiet roads in parts, I encountered few cars. Make sure you stick with the waymarkers – if you walk on the opposite bank, you could find yourself hitting a dead end.

Then the land grew wilder, and the blooming gorse gave away its secret: I had entered bog country, where the canal passes through Bord na Móna’s great cutaway peatlands. The houses disappeared, and the land between towpath and bog filled with a hodgepodge of scrub, wood and field, more interesting that any single habitat. Nearby are the Turraun Wetlands, created when Bord na Móna flooded its exhausted peat fields. They form one section of Lough Boora Parklands, 2,000 hectares of cutaway bog where nature has retaken hold to create lakes, meadows, scrub and woodland. The parklands have walking trails, hides for birdwatching, bike hire and angling lakes.

Along the canal the towpath crosses one of Bord na Móna’s bog railways. Nearby something big seemed to tumble into the canal from the reeds. I scanned the water for an otter’s head, but none appeared. Later I watched a heron stalk fish from the towpath.

Early in the evening, I left the canal at Gallen and walked 2km by road into Ferbane. I had just enough time for a tipple before catching a bus out of the bog country.

Map: Trail maps at irishtrails.ie. OSI Discovery Series maps 48 & 47. Start: Bridge over the canal at the end of Colmcille Street ( a continuation of High Street & Bridge Street), Tullamore. Start on north side of the canal. Finish: Armstrong/Gallen Bridge, 2km south of Ferbane. Time & distance: 26.2km on the canal, plus 2km into Ferbane, took me 7.5 hours at brisk pace. But leave 10 hours of daylight for safety. Those preferring a shorter walk could tackle a stage: Tullamore to Pollagh (15.6km) or Pollagh to Armstrong/Gallen Bridge (10.6km).

The colourful and the curious

Step into the exotic at Massey's Wood

Irish Times, 22 March 2014

Heading through Dublin’s southern suburbs towards the mountains, I’m always buoyed by how quickly city turns to country. My curiosity piques as housing estates fade into small fields, wooded lanes and ramshackle farmyards.

Massy’s Estate lies just beyond the reach of the city, south of Rathfarnham. From the outside it appears a typical wood, but look closer and you’ll find something much more exotic.

I arrived on a February afternoon to hike the trail that follows the Owendoher River through the forest. In the 1930s, trees from Europe, North America and Asia were planted here. Plaques mark many of these specimens, and we tried to determine each tree’s identity before arriving underneath it.

My guesses were almost always wrong, but in my defence I had never seen a Bhutan pine or West Himalayan spruce before. There are western hemlock, cedars, limes and giant sequoia here too.

The exotic trees and infesting rhododendron make Massy’s feel almost sub-tropical. This was once the site of a grand estate, of which there’s evidence all around: stone bridges, garden walls, an ice-house where lamb was stored.

According to Frank Tracy’s book If Those Trees Could Speak, the estate collapsed due to the extravagant lifestyle of the sixth Baron Massy. In 1924 his grandson Hamon Massy was evicted from Killakee House and deposited by the road on his mattress.

The family later moved into a gate lodge on the estate, and Hamon was often seen walking in the woods thereafter. Killakee House was knocked in 1941. Part of the original military road, built by the British in 1803 for quick access to the Wicklow uplands, runs through the grounds.

The Owendoher is a glorious little river, dropping through a long series of falls, pools, and riffles. In 1931, the gardaí found a secret IRA weapons stash on its banks. The elaborate, booby-trapped bunker held a tent, bedding, tinned food, and a supply of rifles, revolvers and explosives.

The riverside trail looked short on our map but was tougher than we expected, climbing about 200 metres over its course. The wood narrows at its upper reaches, bordered by fields and farmyards. From here we looked out over the city, and tried to pick out urban landmarks through the pale afternoon mist.

Up here, high and unsheltered, the wind whipped into the woods, and we had to navigate around pines that had been torn up and dumped across the trail.

At the top of the wood, we turned back, and downhill we crossed the river and joined the nature trail. The Dublin Mountains Partnership has published an activity book for the trail on its website. But our legs were weary, and once someone ventured the notion of tea, we were making our way back to the car park before the light faded.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 50. Maps at dublinmountains.ie. Start and finish: Hell Fire Club car park, R115. Exit car park on foot, turn left and the entrance is 100m on. Note car park hours. Time and distance: Our route combined the Riverside Trail (white markers) and Nature Trail (orange): 7.5km/2hrs 30mins. Suitability: Won’t trouble experienced walkers; trails may be muddy and blocked by fallen trees. Deer culling may be taking place, heed safety notices.

A tale of two lakes

Walk the Sligo Way through woods, hills and lakeshore

Irish Times, January 25 2014

Hiding between the wild coastlands of Mayo and Donegal, Sligo’s landscape is less dramatic but more lush and green. Benbulbin draws most of the county’s plaudits, so other hills are forgotten. The 78km Sligo Way traverses the county’s less trodden, boggy uplands. I wanted to spend a day exploring it, so headed for the village of Collooney.  From here the trail follows the Owenmore and Ballysadare rivers into Union Wood, where old oaks and mossy crags sit uncomfortably beside spruce plantations. Further east it crosses the high heathlands of Slieve Daeane.

I had feared a dull slog over this hill but instead found real drama at Lough Lumann, a mountain lake with a backdrop of tall heather-coated crags. Showers passed over and mist erased the summit. This is the best kind of hill weather, an interplay of sun, cloud and rain that changes the light and landscape with each moment.

It’s impossible to write about Sligo without reference to Yeats, whose words have become a filter through which we see the county. He wrote “we should make poems on the familiar landscapes we love, not the strange and rare and glittering scenes we wonder at”.

According to John Cowell’s book Sligo: Land of Yeats’ Desire, a chamber tomb near the summit of Slieve Daeane is known as Cailleach Beare’s house. In a note to his poem The Hosting of the Sidhe, Yeats explains that Cailleach was a fairy who “went all over the world seeking a lake deep enough to drown her faery life . . . until, at last, she found the deepest water in the world in little Lough Ia” on top of this hill. But this lake’s name wasn’t on my OS map.

After coming off Slieve Daeane, the trail enters Slish Wood and follows a stream toward the shore of Lough Gill. Yeats was inspired by Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic account of life in the Massachusetts woods, to spend a night sleeping here. “I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep,” he wrote. He spent a night under the trees, but barely slept for fear of being discovered by the wood-ranger. “However, I could watch my island in the early dawn and notice the order of the cries of the birds.”

If anybody lived here like Thoreau, it was Beezie Gallagher, who was born on the lake’s Cottage Island and later returned to live there, rowing into Sligo regularly. She hand-fed birds and squirrels inside her cottage, and banned a visitor who threw stones at rats. She was rescued after a blizzard in 1947, then in her 80s, but rowed back to her island home after a week of recuperation. She died there in a fire in 1951.

Leaving the forest, the trail crosses rough bogland and woods before emerging to a slipway that looks out on Inishfree, the end point of my walk through Yeats country.

Map: OSI Discovery Series sheet 25. Maps at irishtrails.ie. Route: Marked by yellow arrows, description at sligowalks. ie. West of Slieve Daeane above the tree line a waymarker has fallen over – the trail continues under the power lines. Forestry operations at Balleygawley Woods may mean this section is closed over the next two or three weeks. Suitability: Moderate for hillwalkers,tough trail crosses remote upland, lots of boggy ground. Distances: Collooney to R284/ Ballygawley Woods: 6km. Ballygawley Woods to Slish Wood: 9km. Slish Wood to Inishfree car park: 5km

Take a lazy winter walk

A ramble around the woods and shoreline west of Galway City

Irish Times, December 28, 2013

If you’re like me, the idea of hillwalking the day after Christmas festivities is a tough proposition: my legs are leaden and I am in danger of dozing off mid-walk. Perhaps this time of year lends itself more to sauntering than hiking.

Living in Galway, one of best spots for lazy walking is around Barna Woods and Lough Rusheen, just west of the city. Here the city’s suburban fringe meets its best fragments of wild land. Over a few square kilometres, there’s woodland, grassland, streams, salt marsh, beaches, rocky shore and glacial cliffs.

Every town has somewhere like this – a rich, wild place that’s overlooked purely because it’s so close to traffic and housing estates.

Barna Woods and Rusheen reward those who pay the closest attention. Near the entrance to the woods, for example, is a holy well, where St Enda is said to have rested for a night before travelling to the Aran Islands in the 5th century.

I went walking here the morning after violent winds had cut up the west coast. Huge trunks lay violently severed on the forest floor: had these been fresh victims of the previous night’s storm?

The wind had calmed, but frequent passing squalls showered the woods with hailstones and sent me scurrying helplessly under leafless branches.

The chaotic weather made for a beguiling mix of colours: blue skies, deep grey clouds, green ivy and holly, and the white of hailstones on golden leaf litter. Heavy rain gave momentum to tiny streams, turning them into little cascades of white water.

I remember picking raspberries in these woods as a teenager, but despite searching for the plant many times since, I’ve yet to find it again.

After exploring the woods, head across the coast road to Lough Rusheen park on the edge of Rusheen Bay, a wide and muddy flatland that fills and empties with the tide. Migrating sea trout and salmon pass through here on their way to the Atlantic from the Barna stream, which rises in the bogs west of Galway city and flows into this little bay.

Rusheen is a great spot to indulge in some bird watching, that wonderful activity that starts when you stop walking altogether, and just sit and stare.

Local bird expert Tom Cuffe says the bay’s finest spectacle occurs at the end of summer, when hundreds of migrating sandwich terns gather before flying south to Africa. At this time of year you’ll find wintering curlew, widgeon, teal, grey plover, dunlin and more.

One of Galway’s best keep secrets is the small woodland reserve that Birdwatch Ireland own on the edge of the bay, which was the last stop on my morning ramble.

As I left the wood towards a backdrop of housing estates and the sound of traffic, I watched two farmers in the adjacent field roll out hay for their cattle, one last rural routine surviving in suburban Galway.

BARNA WOODS/LOUGH RUSHEEN

Start and finish: 7km west of Galway city centre on the R336 coast road towards Spiddal, there are car parks for Lough Rusheen (left) and Barna Woods (right) just after a petrol station. Birdwatch Ireland’s reserve is down a turn towards Rusheen Bay Windsurfing about 1km towards Galway City (not much room to park). Suitability: Easy, but bring waterproof footwear.

More than a rocky place

Exploring the trails in the Burren National Park

Irish Times, November 16, 2013

Words such as barren and bleak are used to describe the Burren so often, you could be fooled into believing them. Sure the region’s limestone plains can feel desolate, but on a bright day the Burren proliferates colour: silver rock, lime valleys, turquoise water. That’s before you add the summer orchids and wildflowers. And if you walk the Burren National Park you’ll see a rich mix of habitats – woodland, meadow, pavement, scrub, lake, fen. Early in November I cycled from Gort with the intention of climbing Mullaghmore, the hill that dominates the park. Then I got lost on the way and found myself pressed for time. The area’s web of boreens is gloriously bewildering. But if you see the Craggy Island parochial house you’re in the right vicinity – the house filmed for Father Ted is just down the road here.

When I arrived, I took the orange trail to Knockaunroe turlough. Virtually unique to Ireland, turloughs are lakes fed by groundwater during rainy periods, but they disappear in dry weather. I found a crevice where water seemed to bubble up from the limestone.

The word Burren comes from the Irish boireann, meaning a rocky place. The exposed limestone soaks up heat in summer and releases it in winter, making the growing season unusually long – one reason cattle are brought to the Burren uplands in winter.

Later I walked the nature trail through meadows, wood and limestone pavement. The hazel and ash woodlands may be stunted and fragmented but they are thick and lush, dripping with moss, ferns and lichen. The sun warmed my back, the trees blocked the wind, while bees and midges buzzed around: it could have been high summer if it wasn’t for the rusting bracken and yellowing hazel. I reached a slab of limestone and spotted fossilised corals in the rock. “Each fragment of the Burren is a mausoleum, each hill a necropolis of unthinkable dimensions, containing more dead organisms than there are humans who have ever lived,” Robert MacFarlane wrote in The Wild Places, his account of exploring the untamed landscapes of the UK and Ireland.

Mullaghmore was sometimes visible above the scrub. This hill doesn’t break 200m, but it offers one of Ireland’s most intoxicating vistas. Experienced walkers can tackle the looped trail that visits the summit. But even if you don’t aim for the top, you can still follow the markers as far as Lough Gealáin.

But I didn’t have time, so I followed the trail to the Knockaunroe turlough one more time under greying skies.

Start/finish: Mullaghmore/Gortlecka Crossroads. From Corofin, Co Clare take the R476 to Kilnaboy and turn right on to the L1112 before the ruined church. After about 4.5km you’ll reach a trailhead/car park before the crossroads. Suitability: The Orange Route (Knockaunroe Turlough) and Green Arrow Route (Nature Trail) are graded Moderate. Blue Route (Mullaghmore Loop) is graded Very Difficult, includes some light scrambling and enters remote uplands. Treat it as a full hill-walk with map, compass and full hiking gear needed. Time & distance: Orange Route -1.3km/30mins. Green Arrow Route - 1.5km/40mins. Blue Route - 7.5km/3hrs. Map: OSI Discovery Series maps 51& 52 cover the national park. Services: Corofin, Gort. No facilities at the park itself. Further info: burrennationalpark.ie/trails. The park visitor centre in Corofin opens in summer and runs free guided walks, talks and a bus service to the park.

The Banks of the Boyne

A long stroll beside one of Ireland's most legendary rivers

Irish Times, Oct 19, 2013

 photo: una mcmahon

photo: una mcmahon

Walking a riverbank gives you new perspective on a landscape. While climbing a mountain opens the land up around you, walking a quiet waterway hides you from the world. The river becomes your own private highway through the countryside. Was any Irish river historically more important than the Boyne?

Ancient landmarks line this valley: Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Trim Castle, the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the Hill of Tara.

We set out from the car park in Navan and followed the old towpath. Canals were built along the river between 1748 and 1800 to make it navigable for trade. Barges carried grain, coal, flour and other goods between riverside mills and the port at Drogheda.

Pleasure boating later became popular, but the waterway succumbed to competition from roads and rail and grew derelict. An Taisce acquired the navigation in 1969, and its seaward end is now being restored.

Above us the sky was heavy with cloud and the forecast was for rain. But the autumn light was clear and liquid, and the landscape full of colour.

The towpath was lined with tall mixed woodland. Autumn leaves were turning yellow and orange as chlorophyll broke down and other pigments took over. Some ash leaves were lemon yellow, and tall gnarled oaks were laden with acorns. We saw a heron fishing by a weir, and watched a moorhen take cover in canal-side vegetation.

I had only come from Galway, but the change in landscape felt dramatic. The trees were taller and stouter here, the fields wider and greener, their boundaries composed of shrubs rather than stone. The land seemed more colourful, though less wild.

My walking buddy picked up horse-chestnut seeds from the towpath, and we went over the rules of conkers to affirm we still knew how to play. “We used to paint them with nail varnish,” she said – to make them stronger in battle, naturally.

We stopped by the ruins of a lock, bridge and cottage. We passed the impressive red-brick manor of Ardmulchan Demesne, the ruins of Dunmoe Castle – which Cromwell’s forces are said to have fired a cannon ball at – and medieval Ardmulchan church and cemetery.

I knew it was unlikely, but I daydreamed that we might see someone rowing a Boyne currach down the river. Unique to this waterway, these ancient oval vessels were made from woven hazel rods and animal hide. Local artist and currach builder Claidhbh Ó Gibne is now helping to revive this craft. He’s building a 36ft version that he plans to sail from Spain to Ireland to mimic the journey of the ancient Celts.

Soon we arrived at six-arched Broadboyne Bridge – an information panel told us it was once customary to bring cattle across the river nearby to ward off fairies and certain diseases.

Then the rain arrived. We sat under a tree and ate lunch, then turned around for the long walk back to Navan in the fresh autumn drizzle.

GO WALK: BOYNE RAMPARTS WALK, NAVAN Start & Finish: Ramparts car park, Navan, just outside the town centre on the R153. If you have two cars you could finish at the car park/trailhead by Broadboyne/Stackallen Bridge rather than return to Navan.Distance: 16km (8km if going one-way).Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 42Suitability: Easy, flat path but there are no facilities or escape points along the way.

Restorative ramble

A stroll through one of Co Dublin’s oldest woodlands

Irish Times, Sept 14, 2013

There’s so little old woodland in Ireland it feels like an exotic habitat. Trees once covered our island, but today walking in woods is a novelty compared to walking on hills, beaches or bog. I was browsing a study of ancient Irish woodlands recently, hoping to discover those last places this primeval landscape survives and came across one listing for Dublin: St Catherine’s Wood, Lucan.

One Sunday evening in late July, I caught a train from Connolly station to Leixlip Confey and walked to St Catherine’s. The sun was coming out after a heavy downpour and a rainbow formed over a field where highland cattle grazed. This hardy, mountainous breed was introduced here last year to improve meadow biodiversity. The cattle will graze and trample some parts of the field more than others, encouraging a wider range of plants to grow.

The old wood is just inside the Dublin county border. St Catherine’s gets its name from a priory founded by Warisius de Pech here in 1219. At the time it was considered the duty of Anglo-Norman lords to establish religious foundations to save their souls and those of their ancestors.

Over the centuries the estate passed between different owners. Trinity College pharmacy professor Christopher O’Connor owned the lands in the 1940s and 1950s. He grew exotic plants such as poppies, carnations and deadly nightshade, which were sent to a pharmaceutical plant in Tipperary, according to an article by local historian Mary Mulhall in the Lucan Newsletter in 2012.

The OPW bought the estate in 1996.

My walking buddy and I followed the path into the woods which sit on a steep glacial ridge above the Liffey. The canopy here is dominated by ash and beech. The latter was introduced to Ireland in the 16th century. There’s plenty of sycamore here too, but only the odd oak.

Some rare woodland plants recorded at St Catherine’s suggest this wood may be ancient. The naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger found the yellowbird’s nest plant here in 1934, although it hasn’t been seen since. More recently the common toothwort was recorded.

We took a side trail down to the remains of an old sluice gate, where the Liffey is squeezed through a narrow gap in a torrent of whitewater. A kayaker was play- boating in the rapids. We startled a heron on the riverbank and watched a woodpigeon drink from the water.

Then we rejoined the main path and climbed to the upper woodland, following the trail back towards the cattle field and out of the woods.

Our stroll left me thinking that even though there are too few of them in Ireland, woodland walks always provide the most restorative kind of ramble.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in one of this travel essays, wrote: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

 

At one with wilderness

Hiking Ireland's first wilderness area

Irish Times, August 17, 2013

We simply need that wild country available to us,” the US novelist and historian Wallace Stegner wrote, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” This is an arresting idea: that wild places nourish our spirit even if we never enter them.

If there is true wild country anywhere in Ireland, it’s in the Nephin Beg mountains of north-west Mayo. In March, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service designated 11,000 hectares of bog, mountain and forestry here as Ireland’s first wilderness area, dubbed Wild Nephin.

And you can do more than just look in from the edge. Three looped trails at Letterkeen explore the southern part of this wilderness. In early July I set out on the 12km Letterkeen Loop (marked with purple arrows), crossing a footbridge over the Altaconey river and following the bank of a quick, shallow stream. The ground was thick with tall bracken, the trail hard to make out.

The trail crossed streams, traversed wet bog and climbed to over 200 metres in the first few kilometres. The track here is often sopping wet, but after warm weather it was mostly dry.

An hour and a half later I arrived at the Lough Avoher hut (pictured above), a small lean-to for backpackers, built last year by the voluntary group Mountain Meitheal. I had brought my camping gear; this would be my bed for the night. I cooked some pasta and climbed a little up the hill behind the hut to watch the sun set. Then I went back and settled into my sleeping bag. A swarm of midges biting my face woke me at 6am.

In 1964, the US became the first country to legally designate wilderness — public land without roads or mechanised transport, where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.

Conifer plantations are often unloved by hillwalkers, but they still offer remoteness and solitude, and plans to ‘re-wild’ the Nephin forests could provide an exciting blueprint for other plantations. The goals of Wild Nephin are certainly inspiriting. Coillte will set aside 4,400 hectares of forestry and re-wild it to improve habitat and boost biodiversity. Forest roads will be closed and converted to trails, and basic shelters and campsites developed for backpackers. Coillte says the region will offer solitude, challenge and “primitive recreation”.

After breakfast, I followed the trail above the forestry. I studied a damselfly, watched a group of ravens play over Nephin Beg mountain, and startled a frog from the grass. I followed the muddy trail up to a 311 metre summit: take care here and stick with the markers, there is very steep ground nearby. Then I descended through the forest to a track that soon joined the Altaconey river again. The mature forest here was thick with ferns, lichen, and moss. Soon I arrived back at the car park, and stepped out of the wild country.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 23, but older maps may show old trail route. Up-to-date trail route and map at mayotrails.ie. Time and distance: 12km, 3-4 hours Trailhead: Brogan Carroll bothy, Letterkeen, Co Mayo. From Newport, take N59 towards Achill but turn right after 1km, signposted for Letterkeen Loops. Continue for 12km, past Lough Feeagh. Turn left just after a small bridge for the trailhead. Two shorter loops, the Bothy Loop (6km) and Lough Avoher Loop (10km) also start here. Suitability: Remote and tough trail that climbs above 300m where mist is common. Wild camping experience is advised if you are staying in the Lough Avoher hut. Streams here swell quickly during rain. Practice Leave No Trace (leavenotraceireland.org)

A walk in the woods

Exploring the captivating woodlands on the shores of Galway Bay

Irish Times, 1 June 2013

You can climb mountains in search of wildness and yet find it in the most ordinary of places. Rinville is a typical park of woods and meadow near Oranmore, east of Galway city. When I first came here as a teenager the richness of the forest hooked me. The trampling of human feet made most suburban woodlands I knew barren, but here the understorey was thick with life.

The wild places we explore as kids dig themselves into our memories – their sights and smells never leave us, and it only takes the slightest sensory trigger to send us right back.

This place has changed little through the years. I went back in mid-May, when the forest floor was dense with the bloom of wild garlic. Glance quickly and you think the ground is covered in snow – only the bluebells poking through the whiteness give the game away.

The woods here are small, but big enough to feel pleasantly lost in – you can look in all directions and see nothing but sycamores. There’s plenty of beech, horse chestnut and ash too. On our island of few trees, this is the kind of place that reminds you what a wood is supposed to look like.

The evening was humid, the air thick with the scent of garlic, and when a heavy shower fell it seemed as if the forest was steaming. Swallows fed acrobatically in the meadows, and the call of the cuckoo was a constant presence.

Walking the dogs here once years ago, a fox cub came ambling up the trail towards me, its head down, sniffing intensely. It was just yards away from the dogs when it finally looked up, realised the gravity of its navigational error and dashed into the undergrowth, the dogs chasing after it in vain. There are otters in the pond and streams here too apparently, though I’ve yet to see one.

The park’s trails bring you to Rinville Castle, a 16th century tower house, and to Rinville Hall, a ruined Georgian manor. South across a narrow inlet of Galway Bay is the commanding facade of Ardfry House. Over the centuries these properties were variously owned by wealthy Galway families such as the Blakes, Athys and Lynchs.

It’s one our landscape’s great contradictions that, although our landed estates are symbols of gross inequality, they have given us some of our finest public spaces and nature reserves, partly because their owners could afford not to work all their land to the bone.

Once you’ve walked the park, head down to the sailing club and follow the track that heads out above the rocky shore towards Rinville Point. Here I watched a cormorant diving in the shallows, and an irritated heron fly up and down the strand trying to avoid walkers.

Outside the forest the scent of gorse floated through the air, and the sky was chaotic. To the west clouds edged slowly forward like glaciers, the sun slicing through in horizontal planes. But to the east a tremendous blue-grey wall of cloud obscured everything, and turned the sea the same colour.

Soon this monolithic cloud was over me, then it started emptying its waterload. Near Rinville Point, I turned around and faced into the long, wet walk back to the car park.

Island in the sun

Lenny Antonelli takes a spring walk on one of Connemara's less visited islands

Irish Times, April 27, 2013

Inis Ní always seemed elusive to me. I had often passed the seductive signpost for the island after coming over the vast and empty Roundstone bog. Just when you think you've found the wildest coast in Connemara, there is Inis Ní, stretching further into the sea. The island's new looped walking trail seemed a good excuse to finally explore it. On a grey April day the cone of nearby Cashel Hill had emerged from the mist to dominate this bogscape. But slowly the sun came out and dissolved the cloud, turning the sky blue-bright and revealing the Twelve Bens, which dwarfed everything.

You can see why this mountain range is iconic: their clustered, alpine profile pierces the skyline from north Connemara right down to the Burren.

Inis Ní is one of the most northerly outposts of the south Connemara Gaeltacht. But in Listening to the Wind, the first of his Connemara trilogy of books, Tim Robinson says use of the language has declined to the point that it is no longer a bona fide Irish-speaking community. The island's name, he says, might relate to the surname Ó Niadh.

The trail followed a quiet road past granite walls caked in lichen and moss, old peatland inundated by the tides, and patches of earth blackened by the burning of gorse. There were signs of modern Ireland too, like obtrusive bungalows and unfinished buildings, but the deeper into Inis Ní you go the further you feel from 21st century Ireland.

The trail runs down the west side of the island, looking over the water to sandy Gorteen Bay, Errisbeg Hill and the village of Roundstone that Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo founded in the 1820s.

According to Tim Robinson, the island's tradition says that local landlord Patrick Blake evicted what few tenants remained after the famine and turned Inis Ní into a sheep ranch. This was before the first bridge was built, when the island could only be reached by scrambling across rocks at low tide. But when the ranch failed Blake brought new settlers in from nearby Carna.

I walked down to a pier overlooking Roundstone Bay, and stopped to explore the tidepools. These habitats are our own miniature coral reefs, rich in biodversity. In just one I counted beadlet anemones, polychaete worms, a rock goby, tiny crustaceans, limpets, dog whelks, and all manner of algae and lichens.

In The Story of Connemara, Patricia Kilroy writes that a Mrs Faherty of Inis Ní, who used to walk for miles carrying a basket of fish on her back to meet the train to Galway, had recalled, "the joy of welcoming the travelling fiddler, the dancing in a cottage that night, followed the next night by crossroads dancing — for no house could contain the crowds. In fact, most elderly Connemara people remembered the happiness of their youth rather than the hardship."

The sun was, the coconut scent of gorse filled the air and cattle dozed on the grass — this felt like the first day of spring.  I left the marked trail and took a cul-de-sac towards the island's barren southern tip, where a cacophony of birdsong emanated from the heath.  Then I made my way back to the marked route and followed it past the ruined chapel of St Mathias with its graveyard, past another small harbour, and back towards mainland Connemara.

Inis Ní loop, Co Galway

Map:  OSI Discovery Series Sheet 44 or Tim Robinson's map of Connemara published by Folding Landscapes. Trail map at irishtrails.ie.

Suitability: Easy. Minor roads & tracks.

Start & finish:  The turn for Inis Ní/Inishnee is off the R341 2km north-east of Roundstone. Cross the bridge and the trailhead is on your left.

Distance & time: Inis Ní Loop is 6km (two hours). My extension added an extra 3km (one hour).

Services: Roundstone, Clifden

Dawdling along the Dodder

Irish Times, April 13, 2013

Lenny Antonelli walks the Dodder river through Dublin

By the time they reach cities, most rivers have deposited their personality: they're flat, dull, dirty. But the Dodder is different. Flowing from Kippure mountain to the Liffey, it's a river rich in whitewater and wildlife.

I set out from Ringsend, once separated from the city by the Dodder's sprawling estuary, until the river was brought under control and the marshlands were reclaimed in the 18th century.

But in the years that followed this area was lawless, a refuge for outlaws that was known for its burglaries and highway robberies, according to Weston St John Joyce's 1912 book The Neighbourhood of Dublin.

A little egret was foraging in the shallows of the river at Ringsend. Once rare in Ireland, these small herons are now common in coastal counties.  When breeding they develop extravagant plumage, which was once so popular for decorating hats that it threatened the species.

Walking the Dodder gives you an alternative view of the city, showing you islands of countryside in the suburbs, and fragments of architecture that remind you Dublin was once built around its rivers as much as its roads.

But this was the wrong time to walk the Dodder. It had flooded after heavy rain and deposited all manner of rubbish along its banks. But every year the group Dodder Action undertakes a big clean up of the river, restoring it to wildness.

Snow started falling, but anglers braved frigid temperatures on the riverbank. After Donnybrook and Clonskeagh, the riverside paths wind through parklands, passing weirs, waterfalls and rapids.

A watercolour painting titled 'On the River Dodder near Rathgar' by the 18th and 19th century artist John Henry Campbell shows a dramatic country scene: tall trees looking over a waterfall, a farmstead on the riverbank, the Dublin Mountains looming behind.

Near Rathfarnham a grey heron, surely the most zen of all birds, stood motionless on a branch high above the river. As passerby told me this was also a great place to see foxes, and that there were mandarin ducks on this stretch of the river too. And a minute later, a group of strikingly coloured males — white, brown, blue, pine green and orange — flew past. At Bushy Park another man pointed out the best spots to see kingfishers and dippers.

Then near Firhouse a flock of starlings — called a murmuration — floated in unison across the dusky sky, creating all manner of shapes that dissolved as quickly as they formed.

Starlings form these huge groupings to avoid predators, keep warm and exchange information such as where good feeding spots are, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In his poem 'Down by the Dodder', the Rev Matthew Russell, founder of the Irish Monthly, confessed that he had spent too long living near the river without exploring it.

"And so from life's loud, dusty road / A somewhat jaded plodder," he wrote, "I steal to this serene abode / And thee suburban Dodder!"

The Dodder, Ringsend to Firhouse, Dublin

Start: Ringsend Bridge

Finish: Dodder Valley Linear Park, Firhouse Road. Bus 49 heads to Pearse St from stop 3004 on nearby Ballycullen Ave.

Route: There are paths near the Dodder most of the way, but for some stretches you must detour away from the river. Bring any detailed street map to find your way.

Suitability: Easy, but the river rises quickly and floods during heavy rain so avoid it at these times. Walk on designated paths rather than on the bank itself. Bring walking footwear, rain gear, snacks, water.

Time: A leisurely five hours

Distance: Approximately 15km

High in the clouds in Co Mayo

Exploring the river banks and mountain passes on the Western Way

Irish Times, 14 March 2013

Mist can play tricks with mountains. Walking on the Western Way on a March morning, cloud had covered the body of Devilsmother mountain but left its summit exposed. Wrapped in cloud, you forget the mountains are there until you see a detached peak far up in the sky, higher than it ever looked before. But more often the opposite occurs: mist rubs out the tops, so you forget where the summits are and imagine you’re walking under the Alps or the Andes. The Western Way winds through Connemara and west Mayo, and I spent two days ambling on it north of Leenane. From Aasleagh waterfall, the trail heads under Devilsmother along the sandy, salmon-rich river Erriff. I met a farmer here with his sheepdog who told me he was sick of wearing wellies and asked me to recommend a brand of walking boots. Wagtails jumped between rocks on the river.

The trail leaves the waterway and enters Tawnyard forest. As I turned one corner here, frogs bounded chaotically in every direction: I had stumbled uninvited into their annual orgy. The common frog spawns in early spring – the male croaks to lure a female, then piggy-backs on her until fertilisation. But only a tiny fraction of the fertilised eggs become adults. Gradually the tadpole’s gills and tail disappear, lungs and legs form and in summer the froglet leaves the water.

I counted 22 frogs in a single puddle, but it was drying out and frogspawn lay desiccating in the mud. But most had wisely chosen deep ditches, where the males were croaking loudly.

The trail emerges to a platform overlooking Lough Tawnyard encircled by mountains, then joins a quiet stretch of twisting road cut into the mountainside. Ravens clucked over the precipices.

Walkers have two options after Sheeffry Bridge: follow the road for 5km to Drummin or head over a high pass in the hills. The latter is only for experienced hillwalkers – there is no path, only sparse waymarkers on the open mountain. The mountain route climbs to a stone wall on the hillside and follows this, then turns off right and ascends to a flat valley.

The sky was blue and bright, and I could hear the guttural and exotic sounds of a farmer commanding his sheepdog in the distance. The trail follows a stream over boggy ground up to the east side of a saddle above ice-scooped Lough Lugacolliwee. Don’t head up here if visibility is poor, and stick with the marked route - there are cliffs on the north side of the saddle, but the trail takes a safe route down to the east of the lake. Care is needed though as this section is steep and wet.

The trail follows the lakeshore and emerges to a road a little west of Drummin.

But I didn’t get that far: I had no transport from Drummin, so on my second morning on this intoxicating stretch of the Western Way, I sat looking over Lough Lugacolliwee to Croagh Patrick, then got up and started the long walk back to Aasleagh.

Map: OSI Discovery Series, 37

and 38. These may show old trail route, latest route at irishtrails.ie.

Start: Aasleagh Falls, just off the N59 northeast of

Leenane.

Finish: For Drummin, turn off the N59 about between Leenane and Westport at Liscarney. Turn at Drummin church for shop/pub.

Suitability: Erriff and Tawnyard forest are easy but remote. Lough Lugacolliwee route is a moderate mountain walk for experienced hillwalkers.