Thursday, 4 February 2010

Walking and hiking in Ireland

Almost any walker will tell you that it is the footpaths of a country not its roadways that show off the landscape to best advantage. A walker is closer to earth than a person driving or even biking, and details that might otherwise be overlooked are more noticeable: incredibly tiny wildflowers blossoming cheerfully in a crack between limestone boulders, for instance, or a fox lurking in the shadows of the woods at dawn. And the scenery moves by at a slow speed, so that hedgerows, fences, and the green velvet pastures can be contemplated at leisure.

Churches and barns, old mills and lichen-crusted stone walls, and farms and villages are seldom far out of sight as a walker follows in the footsteps of neolithic man or Bronze Age gold traders or treads tracks first defined by smugglers, cattle drovers, abbots, or coffin carriers, whose ways would often be marked at the tops of passes by the stone piles where they rested their loads. Many paths were literally walked into existence by generations of country folk traveling to work, market, mass, or the pub. And in practice, it is possible to walk more or less freely on all of these paths, provided that what is obviolisly off limits is respected.

Forest parks in Ireland

Though some 100-odd forest parks exist throughout Ireland, the walks are mainly short and relatively easy. For longer tramps, it's necessary to head into the wild high country, mainly along the coast, where tracks are so rare and ill defined that walkers generally cross pathless hills and where map and compass are essential companions.

With summits that seldom rise above 3,000 feet, these mountains are no giants, but because the way up begins in valleys that are usually near sea level, the hikes turn out to be a good deal more demanding than one might at first expect.

The rewards are abundant, however: The ever-present sea and mountain views are awash in incredible blues and intense greens (thanks to the abundant rainfall). And chance encounters en route with fellow ramblers or with shepherds and their collies are a lot of fun.

This is true even when the weather turns rainy, as it may well do even at the height of summer, providing the visitor has come prepared. Stout walking shoes or boots are essential, as is a good rain parka, with leggings. And in addition to the usual walker's gear, a spare sweater is a necessity, even on a day hike especially in the Irish hills, where conditions can turn arctic within a matter of hours.

Historic castles forts and churches in Ireland

Ireland is a rich agricultural nation, and all the low country that is not boggy is checkered with fields separated by hedges and, with the exception of byways and the towpaths of waterways like the Grand Canal, is not particularly good for walking. This situation is not likely to change until the state's scheme to develop way marked lowland trails to historic castles, forts, and churches around the countryside is more fully developed.

For now, the walker and rambler in Ireland will generally choose to go to the hill areas near the coasts, where the scenery ranges from the limestone karst of County Clare's Burren to the bare, rocky quartzite peaks ofConnemara, from the dark, vegetationrich sandstone cliffs of Kerry to the rounded granite domes of Wicklow. The following are some of the most interesting areas, together with the names of maps and guidebooks that will be most helpful.

The Burren County Clare

The unforgettable karst plateau known as the Burren is mile upon mile of all but bare rock, almost desertlike and making no concession to prettiness; as one Cromwellian lieutenant quipped, it had not enough wood to hang a man, earth to bury him, or water to drown him. But there is magnificence here nonetheless.

Distances are short, views across Galway Bay to Connemara and the Aran Islands are magnificent, and in May and June the grikes (cracks) that seam the limestone sprout a stunning and eclectic collection of rare flowering plants unique in Europe gentians, cranesbill, brilliantly colored saxifrages, rosy Irish orchids whose seeds arrived on the winds from all over, like the topsoil that nourishes them. Sheltered from the Atlantic winds, their blossoms transform the landscape.

The mighty Cliffs of Moher, a few miles to the south, offer a fine clifftop walk, and the largest cave system in Ireland lies beneath. Most of these underground marvels are dangerous for the inexperienced or improperly equipped, but the Aillwee Cave, which is open to all, conveys the feeling.

County Donegal

Here in Ireland's northwest there are plenty of hills to walk and plenty of variety. Close to Donegal Town are the Blue Stack Mountains, granite domes rising from remote boggy valleys, with several attractive walks most notably that from Lough Eske on the southeast up to cragbound Lough Belshad and the 2,218 foot summit of Croagh Gorm. At the western extremity of the county, around Glencolumbkille, named for the famous Celtic patron saint of Derry and Donegal, stand. 1,972foot Slieve League and 1,458 foot. Slieve Tooey.

Though the altitudes are minor, the hIlls themselves are spectacular, since their clIffs fall directly from summit to sea. Scary tales are told about One Man's Path on the ridge of Slieve League, with a drop of some 1,800 feet into the roiling surf on one side and a nearvertical escarpment' on the other; for the inexperienced, it is certain}y not a walk for a less than perfectly clear day, nor the place to be when it's windy.

But tyros can avoid it by keeping on the inshore side of the ridge for about 100 yards, and the view out over a vast expanse of briny deep and into some five counties makes every skipped heartbeat worthwhile.In the north of Donegal, the 2,466 foot quartzite cone of Errigal, rising above Dunlewy Lake, is a dominant feature; it is quite easily climbed up the ridge from the road on the east.

An isolated summit, it has fine, expansive views across Altan Lough and Muckish to the north coast and southeast over the stark ruin of Dunlewy Church to the huge, gloomy cirque of the Poisoned Glen, so named, legend has it, because plants toxic to cattle once grew there. Nearby is Glenveagh, a national park that is notable for the very fine herd of red deer it shelters and the superb gardens attached to Glenveagh Castle.

Dublin and Wicklow

Stretching southward from Dublin City, these 1,000 square miles of granite domes and the deep valleys between them including Glencree, Glendalough, and Glenmalure offer some pleasant day hikes. The 1,654-foot summit of Sugar Loaf Mountain, which is easily accessible by bus, stands out as just one example: In the center of an area where the mountains close in on small patches of rolling farmland, it offers fine views out over the sea not far away and, beyond that, on a clear day, all the way to the Welsh mountains.

The ascent begins near Rocky Valley, off the main Dublin-Glendalough road; the descent passes through the wooded Glen of the Downsa steepbanked, 600footdeep ravine that the novelist Sir Walter Scott once termed the most beautiful view he had ever seen.

From Luggala, on the road from Roundwood to Sally Gap, there is a delightful walk down the valley between loughs Tay and Dan, descending through fields on the west of the river, which is crossed via stepping stones, and returning up through the woods on the east. The going is easy, and the views are superb, especially the reflections of the huge Luggala crag in the waters of Lough Tay.

Airport car hire in Ireland

If you are planning to hire a car from the airport at Galway, Dublin, Cork, Shannon or Knock, pre-book car hire before you travel. Ireland is the perfect place to explore by hire car and whatever you fancy doing, the most economical way to get around the countryside and city is by hire car.

Walking in Connemara County Galway

One of Ireland's most scenic and unspoiled regions, Connemara offers its share of the country's best walking. The quartzite pyramids known as the Twelve Bens, which are the most widely known of the peaks here and look like nothing more than minor hills, provide the quality of experience afforded by real mountains because of their cliffbound ridges and slopes of bare rock and scree. (In fact, the north face of 2,336-foot Bencorr offers some of the country's longest rock climbs.) There are several excellent walks in the Bens, but the going is tough, so allow plenty of time.

For instance, the circuit of Glencoaghan, encompassing six fine summits, is only 10 miles long, but it will take a strong walker at least 6 hours. To the east of the Bens is the long chain of the Maumturks, another quartzite range, whose long traverse is one of the greatest walking challenges ireland.

The less ambitious walker should not be put off, however; shorter walks like the one up Diamond Mountain near Letterfrack, easily approached through Connemara National Park, will provide vivid insight into the nature of thIs wonderful wilderness.

The Sandstone Markets

Counties Tipperary and Waterford, Irish Republic: South of Tipperary Town and the rich farmland of the Vale of Aherlow are the Galtee Mountains, a long ridge of peaks that provide pleasant walking, mostly dryshod, with fine views, especially over the northern edge. To the south is the Mitchelstown Valley, with its well-known caves, and beyond, the Knockmealdown Mountains, another pleasant ridge of rounded summits 20 to 25 miles long.

Farther to the east is the Comeragh Plateau, flat and boggy with huge hummocks of peat that would make walking very tiring but for the scenery the lakefilled coums, steepsided cirques carved out in the Ice Age, that fringe the plateau, and the dramatic Coumshingaun headwall that rises almost sheer to 2,500 feet.

The Antrim Coast Northern Ireland

This coast offers a whole range of attractions: the basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway; the high, clean, vertical line of cliffs at Fair Head; the chalk ramparts at Garron Point; the peaceful wooded glens of Glendun and Glenariff; and historic Dunluce Castle, perched on the very edge of the cliffs (so close that the centuries-old story of the kitchen sliding into the sea is almost believable). There is much fenced-off private land here, but all of the sites here can be reached by public footpath.

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