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Sunday 19 August 2018

Opinion: Reconnecting with nature is so much more than a walk in the park

Castle Island, Lough Key Forest Park, Boyle, Co Roscommon
Castle Island, Lough Key Forest Park, Boyle, Co Roscommon
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

It used to be that visiting a wood was about connecting with nature and a blast of fresh air. A recent outing to Lough Key Forest Park and Activity Centre near Boyle, Co Roscommon revealed it can now also be about more.

Landing in the carpark in sunshine at 10.15am, we were gobsmacked to see hordes of people in running gear milling about. It turned out they were just finishing up the weekly 5K run, a free event organised by the park, which is a joint venture between Coillte and Roscommon County Council.

Before discovering that, we had time to take in the bucolic scenery, mature broadleaf woodland surrounding a millpond lake and, sitting on an island in its midst, a ruined castle.

A lot has changed since our last visit when our now 14-year-old was a toddler.

A new visitor centre opened in 2007 and a host of attractions have grown up around it. We had come Lough Key to do Zipit, Ireland's first high-wire aerial adventure activity.

We were delighted with every aspect of it, from the pleasant, enthusiastic, staff, the quality of the instruction and equipment, the length, variety and challenge of the courses. It was not cheap but there was value.

Lots of families, including teenage boys, were taking part. Anything that will get that age-group away from their game consoles is good.

Zipit was set up in 2011 by Eamonn Flynn and Chris Beattie after visiting a similar park in France. Locations in Tibradden Wood, Dublin 16 and Farran, Co Cork have followed.

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Having secured the exclusive licence for this type of activity on all Coillte-owned land, more are on the way.

I fell into conversation with a tree surgeon/instructor Ollie who showed me how the platforms are not bolted on to the trees but rather sit on them so they can continue to grow.

After four fun-filled hours, we set off to explore further.

Fine days have been little more numerous than hen's teeth this year, so there were lots of walkers out. Those who can go for a walk in such beautiful, safe, surroundings are very lucky.

Dotted along the main woodland walk at the park are items of an outdoor gym or, as they have been dubbed, senior playgrounds. This comprises easy-to-use gym equipment.

It's not all beautiful. The Moylurg Tower looks like someone started building a block of flats and got no further than the staircase. It came as no surprise to hear that it belongs to a school of architecture called brutalism.

Though, in a way, its very awkwardness serves to emphasis the natural splendour of the surrounding landscape.

The tower was built in 1973 on the site of the former Rockingham House, destroyed by fire in 1957, which had been built by the McDermott family because of the shortage of space at their main residence on nearby Castle Island.

Part of the Lough Key experience also includes a walk through 19th-century servant tunnels but we had our money for the day spent so didn't do it. Apparently the view from the top is fantastic! There are many other paying attractions, including electric bike hire, woodland Segway tours, boat hire, an adventure play kingdom, along with orienteering and Wheel-O (wheelchair orienteering).

Back at the visitor centre, we found a stunningly stocked (and accurately named) Lakeside Café, with everything from jars of baby food to full-size bottles of wine, a range of salads, savouries and home-bakes to artisan fruit drinks, fairtrade coffee and whippy cones.

What we had was tasty.

The Lough Key centre is also home to Boda Burg. It's a Swedish questing concept and only one of two Boda Burgs located outside of Sweden. Friends with similar aged kids who have done it say it is great family activity.

We'll be back to try it.


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