Walk of the week: Black Head Loop The Burren, Co Clare
The grass verges of the Caher River lying spotted and spattered with bright points of colour, brilliant blues, fiery crimsons and sulphurous yellows of wild flowers. The trilling of larks pouring over immensities of cracked limestone pavements from a windy sky.
A hornpipe from last night's session in McGann's bar still leaping around in the back of the brain pan, lending wings to boot leather. Domed grey hills that frame a slaty blue sea flecked with whitecaps. Field walls of axe-blade stones delicately balanced, so that the sky shines through in blue and silver like a celestial stained-glass window. Where else but the Burren region of north-west Clare?
You could rummage around in this botanical jewel-case for the simple pleasure of bedazzlement by colour, shape and scent -- especially with one of Tim Robinson's incomparable Folding Landscape maps to hand.
But on this windy morning, walking a shortened version of the Black Head loop, Jane and I were lucky enough to have the company of Mary Howard, a Burren resident and devotee who really knows her plants. "Field scabious," she said, sweeping her hand across the blue powder-puff flowers as we climbed the narrow road up the Caher valley. "Bloody cranesbill in this lower grassland -- I love that deep winey colour. Oh, and look -- grass of Parnassus!" A cup of slender, porcelain-white petals with delicate green veins rose from the rocks. "Now that is gorgeous!"
I dipped my beak into a fragrant orchid -- a faint and pungent smell, more like a nice piece of steak than a flower. A beautiful, orange-and-black chequered butterfly skimmed a clump of nodding harebells. "Pearl-bordered Fritillary," Mary murmured. "Everyone we take walking loves those."
People adore the incomparable Burren landscape, especially when they're exploring on foot.
"My husband Gerry and I love walking, so we got into providing walking holidays for small groups. It started as just one weekend in March, but ended that year with every weekend busy till October! I get such a mix of people who are interested in so many things, literally from cloud formations down to the smallest flower and insect."
There were Connemara ponies on the skyline and goats on the limestone terraces, white, black and brown against grey stone and blue sky. Up on the ridge between Caher and Rathborney rivers we explored the ruin of Cathair an Aird Rois, a ring fort of wind-tight walls enclosing the crumbling shells of a Mass house and a shebeen -- the Lord and the Devil, cheek by jowl.
Over on Poulanegh Hill I filled my water bottle from a sweet spring under a fuschia bush. "Deora Dé, the Tears of God," said Mary, indicating the flowers hanging like scarlet and purple lanterns.
Wild flowers spattered rock and sward, as if a mad painter had dipped his thickest brush in every pot and flicked it all over the land. We found pale pink squinancywort -- "A cure for a smoky throat!" -- and mountain avens, a creamy bowl of petals with an intense yellow centre. "The summer is wonderful for them. You look over Black Head and it's carpeted like snow."
Towards evening we dropped down a concertina path and followed an old drove road back along the cliffs of Black Head. "I had 10 American poets on a walk along here," Mary reminisced. "You should have seen the arm-waving and striking of poses -- marvellous!'
The Burren was holding back two very special botanical treats. Almost at the end of our walk we found them -- Irish eyebright on a long bronze stalk, and the very beautiful white spiral of autumn lady's tresses. Raising my eyes from ground level to watch the sun dip seaward over the Aran Islands, I knew this was a little slice of heaven on earth.