Walk of the Week: Westmeath Way, Co Westmeath
Heavy cloud moved across the flat lake country of Westmeath, shot through by sun and stirred by wind. Kayaks and rubber ribs lay piled against the climbing wall at the Lilliput Adventure Centre, and beyond, on the shores of Lough Ennell, a group of children whooped and called, delighted to be let out of the classroom to orienteer through head-high reeds and grass.
The soft yellow-grey catkins of the willows were alive with bees crazy for nectar, their bumbly bodies dusted yellow with pollen grains as they staggered half-drunk from tree to tree.
Westmeath seems a county made for early summer -- something about its thick black soil, somnolent cows and broad, low-lying pastures. The fields lie rumpled into ridges by the underlying gravel heaps called eskers, left behind when the glaciers packed up and went north 10,000 years ago. The Westmeath Way followed an old avenue of beech trees away from the lough, a green lane into the heart of a wide swath of bog where cattle stood chin-deep in lush grass under scrub birches loud with wrens.
Turf banks, tin turf huts and a bog farm way out in the wild. If you were looking for a place to sit easy with sandwiches and flask, this could be the spot -- or maybe a mile further along on the banks of the eel-brown Dysart River where, in a watery dell under hazel trees, Jane and I found a pair of gateposts leading to a poignant group of ruins.
Someone once loved and cared for this nameless farmstead, shaping the barn lintel into a pleasing bow, building a concrete porch whose front door now opens into nothing. Ivy and fern, those infinitely slow but sure invaders, are capturing the place.
"Isn't there a lovely sense of calm here?" Jane mused as she fingered the mossy stones. "They had fuel, water, shelter -- everything they needed. I wonder if they got rich enough to go off and buy a modern bungalow, and were they happier there?"
The Westmeath Way led off beside the gravel-bedded Dysart through sedgy fields where the brown water came squirting up at every step, making us thankful for gaiters and proper leather boots -- not those cloth-topped nonsenses that the outdoor shops try to flog poor innocent walkers. I've tried 'em and chucked 'em. You might as well be shod with sponges.
At Dysart, three donkeys looked over their paddock hedge, and a fierce little tyke of a dog mounted guard at his front gate with a brave show of soprano yapping.
Beyond by the ruins of Dysart church we caught a gleam of Lough Ennell, lying low at the foot of the slope. Held tight in the circle of a wildly overgrown graveyard, the ivy-smothered church stood knee-deep in bluebells. St Coleman founded a monastery here, above the lake; Cromwell's men smashed up the place, stories say.
In the fields on the way back to Lough Ennell we disturbed a partridge shivering in ecstasy as she gave herself a dust bath, scooping floury drifts of powdered mud over her back with stubby wings.
We were still looking for that special picnic spot, and found it at last on the footbridge over the Keoltown stream. Here we lay, cheese and brown bread in hand, staring down through gin-clear water at tendrils of lazily waving water weed, brilliantly green, trailing long strings of oxygen bubbles.
If there's a dreamier spectacle to soothe a weary walker, I can't think what it might be.
Way to go
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 48; downloadable at discoverireland.ie/walking.
TRAVEL: Rail (irishrail.ie) or bus (buseireann.ie) to Mullingar; then Mullingar Taxis (1800 600 800) or Ace Taxis (044 934 3333). Road (2 cars): Follow 'Lough Ennell/Ladestown' signs from R391 Mullingar-Clara; leave car at Ladestown car park. Return in second car to R391; left toward Clara; follow signs to Lilliput car park.
WALK DIRECTIONS: At lake shore, left along track (yellow man/YM waymark) for a third of a mile, through gate to road. Right for two-thirds of a mile; left (YM and Westmeath Way/WW fingerpost) along green lane which becomes gravel road.
After almost a mile, right on bend, through gate; muddy track. At ruined settlement, right across field; cross Dysart River; left along bank (stiles, YM) to road. Right (WW); in ½ mile, right ('Lilliput'); on first right bend, left across bridge (WW). Follow lane past Dysart church, past farm buildings.
Follow YM along edge of garden; then across fields with hedge on right. Aim for left corner of wood. Cross stream (YM); right to wood; left along its edge; in 100 yards, right (YM), following YMs through Keoltown Woods, along farm track, drive to Ladestown car park.
LENGTH: 7 miles: 3-4 hours.
CONDITIONS: Fields can be wet, muddy.
DON'T MISS: views of Lough Ennell; farmstead ruins near Dysart River; peaceful graveyard of Dysart Church.
ACCOMMODATION: Annebrook House Hotel, Austin Friar Street, Mullingar (044 935 3300; annebrook.ie).
GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: Westmeath Way booklet (enquire at TIC).
INFORMATION: Tourist Office, Market Square, Mullingar (044 934 8650).
Askamore Walking Festival: Co Wexford, June 5-6. For more information contact 087 254 5739; firstname.lastname@example.org.