Walk of the week: Killavullen Loop, Mallow, Co Cork
Daffodils and gorse blooms made a yellow spatter along the roadsides of Co Cork, and chaffinches were tuning up for spring in the trees around Killavullen.
A misty haze had thickened all through the Blackwater Valley and up over the Nagles, the modest range of mostly forested mountains just to the east of Mallow that we were planning to explore.
Many walkers looking south from the heights of the Ballyhouras admire the shapely little humps of the Nagles. But the mountains have never acquired the glamour of their sister ranges -- Ballyhouras, Knockmealdowns and Galtees.
So much the better for those who care for walking in their own company and with their own thoughts, with fabulous tumbled country to look at and few other folk to break in on the peace and quiet.
The old Cork road once ran in the foothills of the Nagles. This morning the ancient highway, reduced by time and technology to a forgotten green lane, lay thickly fringed with cow parsley and bluebells. We followed it up into the skirts of the mountain forest -- not drilled, characterless ranks of conifers, but a delightful mixed wood of beech, oak and big old hollies.
A chiff-chaff, just arrived from Africa, was practising saying his own name, the call-sign he'd be using soon to draw in a mate and warn off rivals. "Chiff-chiff ... chaff-chiff-chaff ... chiff-chaff-chiff!" He hadn't quite got the hang of it this early in the season, but there'd be all spring to perfect his two-note symphony.
Luxuriant ferns sprouted like a Green Man's moustachios from the countenance of an old hazel tree. The yellow hard hats of celandine buds were just on the rise from their beds of heart-shaped leaves. Spring seemed trembling on the threshold of the wood today. A wren sang its scribble of a song, with a tinny chuckle halfway through, from the peak of a grand old pine.
The tree roots were strewn with fallen pine cones, too hard and compacted for any squirrel's teeth to unlock. But there were signs of squirrels feasting, all the same, in the half-chewed green pine shoots that lay scattered beside the track.
As we climbed the stony forest road, the view opened west over deep wooded clefts towards the wide vale of Avondhu, the Blackwater Valley, and the lumpy Boggeragh Mountains beyond. So the map and our notes told us, but far valley and mountains were entirely hidden in a soft smear of blue haze this morning.
We didn't care. What was near at hand was fascinating enough: crinkle-edged fungi lurking like sea anemones in the cold shade of peat overhangs, the tiny white flowers of bittercress on leaves like strings of pearls, a shiny black millipede marching across a rock on an army of syncopated feet.
A raven flew across the mountain, clonking like a wooden bell, the 'huff, huff' of its wing beats in the still air as regular and sibilant as the panting of a steam engine.
Up at the summit of Corran Mountain, the wind fluted and sang through the lattice ironwork of a cluster of communications masts. We descended the long forest road towards the north again past patches of scrubby willow and dogwood, each leafless tree forming the shape of an open basket.
Further down the track, young larches were covered in fresh green buttons of foliage and miniature cones of creamy green, each one sticky to the touch.
Strong brush-headed coltsfoot sprigs were shooting up out of the road gravel, and the dark under the trees was luminous with three-lobed oxalis leaves.
Back among spruce and fir the forest exhaled a cold breath, a reminder that winter might not yet be quite over and done. But we were already facing into the spring, with gummy pine resin in our finger ends to sniff and savour as we dropped down towards Killavullen and the Blackwater once more.