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.