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.