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.

The trail then brings you out onto the open hillside. I walked here on a grey February day with local conservation ranger Clare Heardman, as the rain came in fits and starts, and the grey sky dulled the colours of the late-winter heath.

From the hill there are wide-open views out to Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island, home to about 20 people, and to a large oil terminal. In 1979, 50 people died here when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded, an incident known as the Whiddy Island disaster.

Away to the north, Heardman pointed out the Priest’s Leap, a mountain pass named for the legend of a priest who took a giant leap on horseback from the top of the pass as he was pursued by British soldiers. In the valleys below, young birch woodland was emerging on the hillsides.

I asked Heardman about an expanse of mature woodland down near the shore. This, she told me, was the grounds of Ardnagashel Estate, once home to a fine arboretum. The original house here, since burned down, was built by the brothers of Ellen Hutchins.

Born in 1785, she was Ireland’s first recorded female botanist and a fine botanical artist. She spent most of her life living nearby at Ballylickey House. She is known for discovering new mosses, lichens and algae, but died at just 29. “This is the terrain where she would have been botanising, both in the bay and around the hills,” says Heardman.

Keep an eye out for the waymarkers that direct you across the open hillside towards more forestry, where there’s a map of the trail carved into wood. The trail then follows a fence, and soon you can just about see the wooded valley of Glengarriff to the north-west. The valley’s nature reserve is home to some of Ireland’s finest oak woods.

The trail heads down through more forestry and out to a road, where you follow the blue arrow and turn right (while the Beara Way goes left). You follow this quiet, tree-shaded road back to Coomhola Bridge and the trailhead.

It’s worth walking out onto the bridge for a fine view of the Coomhola River, a wild mountain stream that rises in the Shehy Mountains and descends to Bantry Bay, and gets a good run of salmon and sea trout when in spate.

Standing on the bridge, watching the white river running under ash, sycamore and willow makes for a rejuvenating end to this short, energetic hike.