My top winter rambles
Ireland’s leading walking writer Christopher Somerville selects his favourite Christmas treks, from the Wexford coast to the crags of Leitrim
'Oh, you can't walk in winter, no one does! Too cold, too gloomy, too muddy. Now where's the remote?"
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Ireland's walkers know that winter is one of the best times of the year to be out and about on foot. Crisp days, blue skies, a nip in the air, a good red glow on your cheeks, the thrill of looking out over a frosty landscape -- and then the fire-lit pub, the hot whiskey and the post-walk craic. You can't beat it!
That's why there are great walking festivals all through the winter months, and walking clubs only too happy to introduce you to their favourite stretch of country.
If you fancy going it on your own, however, try one of our recommended walks, or just pick a Looped Walk at discoverireland.ie/ walking or walkni.com.
Wrap up, don't forget the flask, and have fantastic, healthy fun!
Vinegar Hill, Co Tyrone
For a frosty winter's walk in Northern Ireland, you can't do better than the wild but very walkable Sperrin Hills.
Starting from Barnes Gap beauty spot (memorable views of the hills), the recently opened Vinegar Hill Loop takes you round the rim of beautiful Gorticashel Glen, past old farmsteads and along quiet country roads, before ribboning back to Barnes Gap -- a superb half day on foot in lovely green countryside.
Map: Downloadable map/instructions at walkni.com.
Walk: Seven miles, three hours; easy. From Barnes Gap car park (signed off B74 Plumbridge- Draperstown) follows Vinegar Hill Loop and Craignamaddy Circuit waymarks up upper road; right along Magherbrack Road for one-third of a mile; left on dirt road round Gorticashel Glen for two miles to road (558873). Right; in two-thirds of a mile, across Scotch Town crossroads, then across next two crossroads. In two miles, right ('Vinegar Hill Loop'); stony lane for one and a third miles to road. Forward to Barnes Gap road; left to car park.
Info: Walk On The Wild Side. Tel: 024 8075 8452 or 0044 7714 835 977; walkwithmarty.com.
Fairy Castle, Dublin Mountains
When you can’t wait to get out of the bustling city to the wintry hills, try the Dublin Mountains on the capital’s doorstep. Follow the Wicklow Way and forest roads up to the Three Rock and a mind-blowing view over the city, the hills to the north, Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills. Then go on up for a ‘fortified’ coffee and hot pie (you did bring one, didn’t you?) at the crest of Fairy Castle (main picture shows Christopher and his wife Jane), with the snowy panorama laid before you.
Map: Downloadable map at coillteoutdoors.ie.
Walk: Six miles, three hours; easy/moderate. From Kilmashogue car park (M50 Jct 13; R133, R113; OS of I ref O 151245), follow waymarked Wicklow Way up forest road for 1½ miles. Where WW turns right up steps (OS ref 164232), fork left along gravel road for ¾ mile to road (175234). Right to Three Rock; return to radio masts; left, and climb to Fairy Castle (172224). Ahead on track for ¼ mile; right (166222) on WW to car park.
Refreshments: Picnic. Info: Footfalls Walking Holidays. Tel: 0404 45152; walkinghikingireland.com
Sliabh an Iarainn, Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim
This walk up Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountain, will blow away the cobwebs. It’s quite tough and demanding, but with rich rewards. Climb the eastern flank from Aghacashel Post Office (excellent advice from Jackie Lee here), skirting the grey cliffs and the beautifully hidden Mass Rock, to scramble up the crags. An exciting stretch of clifftop, a slog up across heather and then the domed summit of Sliabh an Iarainn and the breathtaking view — 100 miles from Donegal to Sligo, Leitrim to the midlands.
Map: OSI Discovery 26; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking.
Walk: 5½ miles, three to four hours, hard grade — map, compass, GPS advisable. From Aghacashel PO (OSI ref H 045135), up mountain road for 1¼ miles to Famine memorial seat (032147). On through gate; uphill (‘G’ waymarkers) for ½ mile; left across footbridge (025153); follow Gs (boggy ground!) to base of cliffs. Pass Mass Rock to escarpment end; scramble to top. Right along cliffs for ½ mile; cross fence and stream in gully; left uphill along fence, then right to summit (019159). Return to fence; downhill (very steep) by stream to track; return to Aghacashel.
Refreshments: Picnic. Info: Guide leaflet, advice from Jackie Lee, Aghacashel PO (071 964 1569) or John Burke (071 964 1255); leitrimwalks.com.
Slí an Easa, Guagán Barra Forest Park, Co Cork
Sit out a winter rainstorm over a cup of tea in the warm Gougane Barra Hotel, then get yourself along the lake road and into the forest park where the rainswollen streams that feed the infant River Lee are roaring down through the pines.
Walk up Slí an Easa, the Waterfall Trail, past secret grottoes where every fern and moss bed holds a million winking diamonds. Cross the stepping stones of a crashing waterfall, and go on up to the viewpoint.
From here, the whole Guagán Barra glen lies spread at your feet, while across the valley a dozen falls tumble towards the lake hundreds of feet below.
Map: Downloadable map/ instructions at coillteout doors.ie/?id=53&rec_site=88. Walk: 1¼ miles, 1½ hours, including there and back from hotel; moderate/ hard. From Gougane Barra Hotel, lakeside road into Guagán Barra Forest Park. From first car park, follow Waterfall Trail/Slí an Easa. At ‘Radharc/ Viewpoint’ sign, up steps, cross waterfall (stepping stones) to viewpoint. Return to sign; left across footbridge; return to car park.
Refreshments: Gougane Barra Hotel. Tel: 026 47069; gouganebarrahotel.com.
Info: Bantry TIC. Tel: 027 50229; discoverireland.ie/ southwest
Carne to Rosslare Harbour, Co Wexford
Choose a glorious winter's morning to start along the strand from Carne jetty, and don't forget a carrot for the donkeys in their field near St Helen's Pier. Bright little fishing boats bob, and the low southern sun lights your path.
Pass St Helen's Pier, then the ancient rocks of Greenore Point (1.7 billion years old), looking out for the shore waders that haunt these winter strands -- dunlin, turnstones, sanderlings, oystercatchers.
Map: 'Slí Charman' booklet guide available locally and at TIC.
Walk: Five miles, two to three hours; easy.
From Carne Pier, walk north along coast tao Rosslare Harbour. Best done on a falling tide.
If high tide makes St Helen's Pier and Greenore Point impassable, detour inland (see booklet map).
Refreshments: Lighthouse Inn, Carne. Tel: 053 913 1131 for opening times.
Info: discoverireland.ie/south east.
Carlingford and Slieve Foye, Co Louth
Cosy Carlingford with its warm pubs, historic castles and sensational setting is a great place to walk out from on a brisk winter morning.
There are three new Loop walks to choose from. Each begins with a stiffish climb and fantastic views to all points. Then you choose from green hillsides (Commons Loop), forest and mountain slopes (Slieve Foye Loop), or Maeve’s Gap and Cúchullain country (Barnavave Loop) via Golyin Pass.
From here experienced walkers can climb to the 1,930ft/ 588m peak of Slieve Foye.
Map: OSI Discovery 36; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking. Walk: Slieve Foye Loop, blue waymarks, five miles/three hours; Commons Loop, green waymarks, 2½ miles/1½-2 hours; Barnavave Loop, red waymarks, 8½ miles, four to five hours. Follow waymarks from Carlingford village square up River Road, then choose your Loop — Commons (up towards Golyin Pass), Slieve Foye (through forestry, then below Slieve Foye) or Barnavave (most of Slieve Foye, then via Golyin Pass and Barnavave).
Refreshments: Picnic; or PJ O’Hare’s, Tholsel Street, Carlingford. Tel: 042 937 3106; pjoharescarlingford.com.
Info: Setanta Tours. Tel: 0871 335159; setantatours.com. Carlingford TIC Tel: 042 937 3033; carlingford.ie.