Rambling into spring
From lazy strolls to mountain scrambles, walking guru Christopher Somerville gives a guided tour to tracking down the best hikes in Ireland. Illustrations by Claire Littlejohn
'But ... but ... but where are all the walks? And the maps? And, um, the paths?"
See the poor innocent in times not long past, fresh off the boat or the plane, a pack on his back, sturdy boots on his feet and a smile of pure anticipation on his face, not destined to remain there long.
"I'll just go to Ireland," he thought, "and have the walking holiday of a lifetime. The soft green hills, the enchanting flowery boreens, the path that leads to the pub full of music and chatter. The friendliest folk in Europe, it says here, and the warmest welcome for the stranger."
Our friend would soon receive a rude awakening among those soft green hills where dwelt Grumpeen O'Bstruction, the fist-shaking farmer, the boreen with the bull in it, and the path that led to the Slough of Despond.
That was the scenario until very recently, all across the delectable countryside of this island.
Ireland is so obviously cut out to be the best country in the world for walking. But rights of way are rarer than hens' teeth. You just simply didn't know where you could go walking without the likelihood of being roared at or blocked off.
There didn't seem to be anywhere a walker actually had a legal right to be. If you were lucky, the landowner would allow you passage. If not, he might go up to 11 on the unpleasantness scale.
The locals all seemed to know where to walk, who'd let you through and who'd keep you out. But you didn't know the locals. Blocked, wired, un-waymarked paths? Ten a penny. Guide books? One or two, if you could find them, afford them, understand them and trust them.
Ireland is one of the best endowed countries in Europe for leisure walking. Yet it has been one of the least explored on foot. That's a bizarre state of affairs at a time when Europe's fastest-growing recreational activity is country walking.
Not yomping along the side of a main road in wobbly shorts with iPod plugged in and grim expression plastered on, hoping to shift a couple of kilos between lunch and tea, but the kind of wandering independent walking that puts you in touch with the countryside and opens you up to nature.
"There's a flowery lane, and a hill beyond with an old castle on top, let's go and have a look" -- that kind of walking.
We all crave a sniff of fresh air and a dash of the wild, and walking's the best way to get it. It's companionable, healthy, hugely enjoyable and free.
So where to walk?
From the remote bogland of Glencolumbkille in Donegal to the misty lakes of Rossmore in Monaghan, 250 National Looped Walks (and counting) have been established by Fáilte Ireland and Coillte. These looped walks emanate out from designated trailheads and range from easy strolls to tough mountain hikes.
You'll find them all across the country, on land privately and publicly owned, on farmland, coasts and hills, in woodlands and in the mountains with complete confidence that you will be welcome.
The Walks Scheme that was launched three years ago -- essentially a grant to landowners, encouraging them to maintain their paths and welcome walkers -- has been hugely beneficial in opening up the Looped Walks.
They are generally half a day's worth. They are well maintained, clearly waymarked and downloadable in the form of printable instructions and maps (discover ireland.ie/walking).
In Northern Ireland the Quality Walks fulfills the same function (walkni.com).
National Waymarked Ways
The long-distance Waymarked Ways -- 40 of them in the Republic and nearly 20 in Northern Ireland -- have catered for serious trekkers and yompers since the 1990s.
Quality Walks in Northern Ireland provide for ordinary mortals too who want a nice circular walk of five or six miles, properly marked, mapped in a way you can actually understand, and guaranteed not to be off-limits when you get there because the farmer has a headache and doesn't want to see anyone on his hillside today. Two of my favourites are Glenariff Forest Park in Antrim and Castle Archdale in Fermanagh.
A full list is at irishtrails.ie/ National_Waymarked_Trails. Examples range from the six-day Wicklow Way through the Wicklow Mountains near Dublin to the Kerry Way passing Muckross House, and from the dead flat Grand Canal Way through the Midlands to the wild and woolly Western Way that runs 250km/155 miles through Mayo and Galway.
Don't expect a featherbed experience on every trek. They suit self-reliant walkers who enjoy both rough and smooth, and who can look after themselves and use a map if need be.
Both the Republic and the North are full of thriving local walking clubs, most of them based on an easily accessible mountain or hill range. In a country with few rights of way, there's help and confidence in numbers -- and in walking with people who know the fields and woods and the individual farmers and landowners who live and work among them.
Many local clubs organise regular walks on specific days. They put on family days, challenge walks, sponsored hikes, and specialist interest walks. These clubs are delighted to have visiting walkers along and introduce them to the countryside they so clearly know and love. So don't be shy!
The Irish Heart Foundation (irishheart.ie) lists around 70 walking clubs. Ones that I have personally found wonderful are the following:
- Slieve Bloom Walking Club, Co Offaly and Co Laois. See slieve bloom.ie; offaly.ie.
- Tinahely Walking Club, South Wicklow. Contact Margaret Coogan on 087 285 2997, kylefarm@ eircom.net. Sundays in the summer.
- Ballyhoura Bears, Limerick/ Cork/Tipperary. See ballyhoura bears.com.
- Glen of Aherlow Fáilte Society in Tipperary. See aherlow. com.
- Boherquill Ramblers, Westmeath. See irelandwalking. ie.
- Ballyvaughan Fanore Walking Club, The Burren, Co Clare. See bally vaughanfanorewalk ingclub.com.
- Bailieborough local walks, Co Cavan. Contact John Ed Sheanon on 042 966 5342. Wednesday evenings.
- Peaks Mountaineering Club, Clonmel, Tipperary. See clonmel hillwalking.org.
Walking festivals present a chance to walk somewhere you don't know with like-minded people, guided by locals who are keen to share all the special places. Walks are graded, so there's something for both the lily-livered and the hairy-chested.
For a list of Walking Festivals in the Republic see discoverireland. For festivals in the North, visit walkni.com.
Some of my top picks are:
- Limerick/Cork: Ballyhoura Walking Festival, April/May; ballyhouracountry.com.
- Tipperary/ Limerick: Glen of Aherlow Walking Festivals, winter (late January) and summer (June Bank Holiday); aherlow.com.
- Waterford: Dunmore East Rambling Weekend, May; dunmore walks.com.
- West Cork: West Cork Walking Festival, September.
- Westmeath: Midlands International Walking Festival, May; irelandwalking.ie.
- Laois/Offaly: Slieve Bloom Walking Festival, May; and Slieve Bloom Eco Walks Festival, September; slieve bloom.ie.
- Clare: Burren Peaks Walking Festival, September; burrenpeakswalking festival.com.
Other avenues for great walks
All the organisations below are keen to spread the word about walking.
- Walking Ireland. See walkingireland.ie.
- Keep Ireland Open. See keep irelandopen.org.
- An Óige (Irish Youth Hostel Association). See anoige.ie.
- Walking In Ireland. See walkinginireland.org.
- Mountaineering Ireland. See mountaineeringireland.ie.
- Walkers Association of Ireland. See walkersassociation.ie.
'Walking In Ireland' (published by Ebury Press) contains 50 of Christopher Somerville's favourite Walks of the Week, together with extracts from Claire Littlejohn's maps. Most are based on National, Quality or Coillte Looped Walks -- so you can be sure you're in no danger of being turned away from any of them. The book features walks for all abilities, from buggy-friendly forest parks such as Donadea in Co Kildare to Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park (a proper mountain that kids can manage), and from long-distance hikes to gentle country strolls. All you have to do is get your boots on, go out and explore to your heart's content.