Kim & Martin’s Ireland trek 2011.

Hello readers it’s the tired trekker here again with more tales of damp dawdling; this time in the Emerald Isle. As part of our mission to walk across or all the countries of Western Europe, Ireland had to be conquered. To be honest we had left Ireland well down on the list supposing it was going to be somewhat drab but we were pleasantly surprised mainly due to the warm welcome we received from the locals. Our definition of walking across is getting somewhat flexible now so we don’t necessarily chose the longest route, but not the shortest either. Ireland has it’s own version of Lands End to John o Groats, namely Malin Head to Mizzen Head. This can be achieved by staying in the Republic of Ireland and not venturing into the North at all. This sounds strange but Northern Ireland should be called North East Ireland because the Republic of Ireland continues all the way up the west side of the island to the most northerly point (Malin Head). We wanted to visit ‘Northern Ireland’ and we wanted to visit the ‘Giant’s Causeway’ so we decided to start there. The end point was going to be the sea somewhere near Cork. As ever our route plan leaned towards a straight dash from A to B with the only detours being made for accommodation. Many people had told us about how attractive the west coast was but a cursory glance at the map reveals that any attempt to follow the coast would turn a 500km walk into a 1,000km slog. This dilemma was solved when we discussed our plans with friends Andrew and Vicky who were planning a golf trip around the same time. With a little adjustment we were able to target our end date to coincide with their last golf day and then spend a few days on the west coast in the comfort of their car. Getting to the start point of these treks can sometimes be a logistical challenge but given that the Giants Causeway is such an attraction we managed to make it in three legs from Geneva. There was no direct flight from Geneva to Belfast (outside the ski season) so we linked two Easy Jet flights via London Gatwick which put us in Belfast on the late afternoon of Sunday May the 1st. We had already checked the bus service to White Park Bay just east of the causeway and by chance our hotel was 200mts from the bus station. The taxi driver from the airport was our first taste of the Irish hospitality and he was please to throw in a commentary on the geography of ‘The Troubles’ as we arrived in town. It took virtually the whole journey to full understand what he was saying as the

Belfast accent takes some getting used to. The marching season had just started and as we saw a Parade making it’s way along the road the taxi driver revealed his religion by telling us ‘he would not be welcome anywhere near the marchers’. As we arrived at the hotel he gleefully announced that the neighbouring hotel (Europa) held the title of ‘most bombed hotel in the world’, but assured us that was all in the past. We managed a quick stroll around Belfast centre which is nothing to write home about but seemed to be bustling with activity even on a Sunday afternoon. Kim managed to track down an Indian restaurant recommended by the taxi driver so that satisfied her curry fix for a while. Having checked the bus timetable we knew that we had to be at the bus station in time for the 9:10 bus via Ballycastle to White Park Bay. Fortunately we gave ourselves plenty of time (despite the fact that it was a holiday Monday) because the Belfast Marathon was that morning and eager marathoners were pouring out of the bus station. Once underway we had another tour of the city as the bus negotiated the back streets to avoid the road closed for the marathon route. The number 217 bus to Giant’s Causeway via Ballycastle takes a scenic route along the coast for much of the journey, but on the moorland section before Ballypatrick we saw the bushfires that had been triggered by weeks of dry weather. It was too much to hope that the dry spell continued. We hoped off at White Park Bay wanting to take in about 10km of the coastal path before we arrived at the Giant’s Causeway. The weather was cool but sunny with a strong breeze coming from the south east as we started out on the sands of White Park bay heading west and climbing up to the coastal path.

We didn’t see too many people until we cleared the headland before the Giant’s Causeway then the crowds suddenly appeared. The causeway is a strange sight with columns of rock which look individually hand carved rising out of the ground. The formation was the result of rapidly cooling lava flows which erupted in the area around 60million years ago. However I prefer the Legend, which holds that the causeway was built by a giant (the wonderfully named) Finn McCool to enable him to walk to Scotland and fight his counterpart Benandonner. It turned out that Benandonner was much bigger than Finn had assumed and after seeing Benandonner's size he ran back home. He asked his wife to disguise him as a baby and when Benandonner saw the size of the 'infant', he assumed the father, Finn, must be gigantic indeed. So Benandonner in turn fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by the baby’s father. Whatever version you choose it’s a huge attraction especially on a holiday Monday.

This shot shows the ‘back’ of the causeway (before the crowds start) with the basalt columns rising from the earth. After tea, scones and jam at the shambolic Causeway Hotel we pushed on to Bushmills using the cycle trail at the side of the Tramway and so to the

Bushmills Inn. The Bushmills whiskey distillery claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world, so I thought I’d better try some. Day 2 saw a late start through the town of Bushmills, not much to look at but the first sign of the vast number of new houses that we would be seeing throughout our journey. Although we had heard a little about the Irish housing boom (and bust) I had assumed it was confined to the south. Not at all; we soon realised that the banks had been as profligate with their loans in the North as they had in the South. In Bushmills we noticed another strange phenomenon which remained constant throughout our journey, there were a significant amount of derelict houses, even in the towns. There seemed to be little appetite to fix up the old housing stock and in the countryside new houses were sometimes a stone’s throw from a derelict ruin. During our planning stage when we started to look at the detailed 1:50,000 scale maps we realised that Ireland did not have a network of footpaths or agricultural tracks. Although there are trails in areas of particular beauty like the Dingle and the Ring of Kerry our route was sadly lacking when it came to off road choices. We resigned ourselves to a hard surface all the way but determined to seek out the smallest single track back roads. This lead to a bit of zigzagging and on day two almost back to the sea before we headed south just to avoid the B17 which looked busy. We were pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic on the chosen routes and the courtesy of the few drivers we met. Everyone waved friendly hello as they passed us and for the most part slowed to a very safe speed. Something that can’t be said about drivers in many other European countries. The new house boom had certainly taken off near Portrush with some questionable architecture on the high ground overlooking the sea. There were few examples of ‘original’ architecture with the exception of a few two room cottages and some very functional (read ugly) farms. The result was the architects appear to have run riot. Another strange sight was the amount of trampolines in the gardens of these new houses. I’m sure 80% of the new houses had a trampoline; perhaps the builders threw one in as a promotional incentive. Coleraine was our first major town since Belfast and here again new housing estates were sprouting. Coleraine centre was quite pleasant with a large pedestrian area and what appeared to be vibrant shops. Kim had found a hotel about 3km out of town so we pushed on to count 20km on day two which was a reasonable warm up. The next day we passed through Gavagh where a Lasagna lunch was waiting and on to Dungivin. All these towns are classic agricultural market towns with wide main

streets and wonderful hardware shops. The shops are refreshingly privately owned not the ubiquitous chains you see in the UK mainland. Despite the permanent wind we had remained dry so far but on day 4 we wake to heavy rain, the TV weather promises that this will ease so we don’t start until 10:00am in light drizzle. We knew that accommodation was going to be a problem on the next leg with very little in the way of major towns for 60km. Our usual strategy is to get to a village pub and inquire about accommodation hitchhike or bus or taxi to the nearest major town knowing we’ll have to get back the next day. As we neared Plumbridge in a wet gale Kim decided we had gone far enough for day 4 and demanded that I tried to call a cab. (we pick up taxi numbers as we go along). Of course there was no phone service in this particular bit of wilderness. I tried hitching a lift but we soon realised despite the friendliness of the locals Northern Ireland still had ‘Troubles’ and no one was going to pick up to strangers in the middle of nowhere. After a wet and windy 30km Kim was nearing the end of her tether and she marched up to the first house we came across. Amazingly the lady answered the door and Kim asked if she could call a taxi, after a suspicious pause the lady announced that she was going to Plumbridge to pick up the children from the school bus and the bus turns round and goes back to Omagh (where we knew there was lodging) and we could go to Plumbridge with her! She was the school run angel. Of course we took this opportunity to ask about the new houses and the trampolines, but the school run angel just gave us a knowing wink concerning the houses and denied knowledge of the trampoline plague. We weren’t quite sure what to make of this it immplied that there was some shenanigans going on, EU grants perhaps? Unfortunately the bus didn’t go back the next day so we had to taxi back in the morning. Despite the backtrack if we stay in the same place two nights, it does have benefits, mainly the fact that you can leave a considerable weight of kit in the accommodation and only take the requirements for the day. Walking with 3Kg instead off 12kg., feels like floating on air. On our way back to Omagh we managed to get off road in the Gortin Glen Forest Park and saw the destruction that recent moorland fires had caused due to the dry weather. The recent rain had extinguished any remaining fires and most of the forest smelled of damp smoke. As if to make sure no embers were still shouldering a 30minute thunderstorm set in around midday. Fortunately we managed to make it into a conveniently placed bus shelter and sit out the storm.

Omagh has a certain charm; especially the bridge over the river Camowen but I wouldn’t make a special detour. On the way to Enniskillen we were faced with another accommodation problem, knowing that we could find shelter in Irvinestown but that it was a serious dogleg detour to our destination. As we arrived in Dromore the solution was provided by another friendly local. He had seen us 10km earlier and on seeing us for the second time pulled stopped to ask if we insisted on ‘walking all the way’! He was on going to Irvinestown so we could get a lift there and get back to Dromore the next morning. We gladly accepted despite the fact that the distance for the day only amounted to 18km., better to have a short day with a rest than slog all the way to Irvinestown and not be any nearer to Enniskillen. Our new friend was pleased to hear about our journey and offered suggestions about places worth a visit. Of course we asked him about the new houses and the trampolines. He said the banks were to blame they had gone mad lending money to all and sundry, he didn’t know about the trampolines. Irvinsetown was a pleasant market town with a large comfortable old hotel, it’s only about 5km from Loch Erne and I think we detected a trace of tourism. We were off to bed early as usual on these outings, but it was Friday night and we got our first taste of an Irish musical evening. Things didn’t seem to get underway until about 10:00pm and if I’d known it was going on until 1:00am we’d have dressed and joined in. Kim managed to sleep through it but I lay awake humming ‘Danny Boy’ until everyone went home.

The taxi driver on the way back to Dromore had more information on the new houses and the trampolines. He said that the banks were convinced that house prices would go on rising and when people asked for 200 000€ to build the bank offered 300 000€ and said ‘buy a car, go on holiday’. The trampolines he said were the result of a special offer from the low cost supermarket Aldi, everyone bought a trampoline! En route from Dromore to Enniskillen we called in at a pub in Ballinamallard and the cheery lot inside were almost scarily friendly, although it being Saturday afternoon they had downed a few Guinness’s. (What is the plural of Guinness?). Entering Enniskillen from the north is not a pretty sight, acres of drab estates with partisan flags flying from every lamp post. We are only 15km from the border with the Republic and it looks like ‘The Troubles’ are not over here. As we neared the centre of town we saw a brighter side to the town with hundreds of parents waiting outside church. When we enquired about the event they told us it was the Scouts and Guides special service. We didn’t dare enquire if Scouts and Guides are protestant, catholic, or mixture (I doubt the latter). The town centre was run down but Kim had managed to track down very comfortable accommodation. The Belmore Court Motel doesn’t sound much but the modern building was just what we wanted after a long day. There was no restaurant but Kim sniffed out the Indian restaurant which delivered to the room while I set off to the brand new Tesco store for the wine supplies. Enniskillen was not looking so bad after all. Our route out the next day took us over the water way linking Upper and Lower Lough Erne, this part of town is much more attractive.

We were going to cross the border today and we were eager to see if there were any differences between north and south. The day brought the usual wind and showers but a surprise pub at Arney provided protection against the worst hail storm and excellent carrot cake. (Still lots of new houses and trampolines.) The border had no sign and we didn’t know we had crossed until we got to Swanlinbar. Swanlinbar looked like it should have tumble weed blowing through the streets but the pub was open and we were welcomed by the inmates and a surprisingly pretty ‘barmaid’. We knew there was no accommodation here and had determined to taxi to Balinamore, the pub occupants and barmaid were more than please to help and started calling various taxi friends to rescue us. The B&B at Ballinamore was not up to much but it was the only game in town and once again the owner gave us a warm welcome. Here we learned that towns like Swanlinbar had virtually died during ‘The Troubles’ as the IRA would dash across the border to escape the authorities in the north. Back to Swanlinbar in the morning and a blustery wet first day in the south. The decision to stay on only the narrowest of back roads offered another benefit in addition to the lack of traffic. Most of these tracks had hedge rows which offered some protection against the permanent wind.

As you can see in here this road doesn’t get a lot of use!

This close to the border there seemed to be fewer new houses (but still some) and we wondered if the south had less of a boom than the north. Once we passed Ballinamore we realised that this was not the case. The badlands around the border must have deterred development, but south of Ballinamore the boom was back on. Various taxiing back and forth in this area got us through Cloone and on to Longford where we manage a two night stay at the excellent Mountview Guest House. Unfortunately their restaurant was closed on the first night so I maked a trip to the Irish competitor to Tesco, ‘Dunnes’ and stock up for an evening picnic. Tesco seem to have a monopoly in the north but the home grown Dunnes is giving them a run for their money in the south. As you know a two night stay means one day with a feather light pack so second day’s 30km from Cloone to Longford seemed like a breeze. We were back in plenty of time to get ready for the best evening meal of the trip. Although I can’t imagine why you would end up in this part of Ireland, if you do, stay at the Mountview Guest House and tell Beryl that I sent you. It will get repetitive if I go through every day as most were very similar, showery and windy! So I’ll mention the towns and any highlights. On the way to Longford we saw our first serious peat cutting areas with the rows of peat lined up to dry, although in this weather I can’t see how it ever does.

Ballymahon was yet another market town, but Athlone nestling on the south tip of Lough Ree has a certain charm despite the fact that we arrived in pouring rain. On the way to Athlone we chanced upon our first and only Gastropub lunch stop in the quaint (for this part of the world) village of Glassan. The excellent ‘Fatted Calf’ is worth a stop. This area was looking prosperous and the new houses were back to normal levels (complete with trampolines). We even saw craft shops, (a sure sign of disposable income and tourism) where we learned that the black wood we had seen in some gardens (I had assumed was charred) was in fact ‘bog wood’ dug out in the process of peat extraction. This hard ebony like material is carved into animals or left in the interesting forms it took while in the ground. On the way to Banagher from Athlone we routed through Shannon Harbour, convinced that there would be tea rooms and pubs galore. The ‘harbour’ marks the intersection of the Grand Canal and the river Shannon. What a disappointment, we picked up the Grand Canal for around 4km before the harbour. We saw one boat underway and half of the boats moored were sunk or distinctly derelict. I think the economic decline had hit the boating community hard. Fortunately there was a multifunction pub/shop/chandlery, which served the few boaters left in the area. A town worthy of mention is Birr (pronounced Bur) for it’s castle and beautiful Georgian housing. We didn’t get to visit the castle but it certainly looks like it would be worth the trip.

For some reason you can’t see into the pubs in Ireland, perhaps so you are not tempted to sin (obviously doesn’t work) or so you can’t see who’s inside.

This tradition (or law) results in some interesting decoration in the outside window. This one in Birr is decked out for President Obama’s visit to Moneygall which is only 10km down the road. At Roscrea we stop at the first pub to have coffee and ask directions to the B&B. The new landlord ‘Dippy’ was very excited about our mission and offers to drive us to Mary’s B&B as it is just out of town. (in the wrong direction). The Irish welcome is continued at the B&B as Mary insists we have tea and cake while we describe our journey. She asks if we would like any clothes washing and offers to drive us into town for the evening meal! Washing clothes is a permanent problem on these treks and an offer like that can’t be refused. The next night at Templemore our B&B host ‘Connor’ was effusive in his welcome and once more put his washing machine and his computer at our disposal. It looks like we are the only guests he’s had for a while and he’s very pleased to see us and wants me to see his motorbike. Thurles is not worth a detour but the coffee shop and book store has excellent chocolate biscuit cake! We arrived in Holycross in time to have a quick look at the Abby then off to Abbyvale house B&B run by another Mary who recommended the excellent Parkers restaurant for dinner. Mary had to set off early and her husband had left for work so she gave us the keys and told us to lock the door on leaving and pop the keys in the letter box! Our next target was Cashel home of the ‘Rock of Cashel’ with it’s ruined Abby and distinctive round bell tower. The rock was the place where the Kings of Munster used to be crowned. More important than all of this as far as Kim was concerned was the fact that the Queen of England happened to be visiting Cashel the day after we arrived. Now this may sound contrived but those of you who know my republican tendencies will know that it was truly a coincidence There had not been a visit to Ireland by an English monarch since 1911 and since then the English had done a lot to fall out of favor. As a result the visit was ringed with a security cordon to rival that of President Obama (who was coming next week). The Queen had already been in the country two days and the visit to Dublin had gone smoothly. The media seemed on the whole to be in support of the whole thing and everyone we talked to about it seemed enthusiastic. There had been a sizable anti royalist demonstration in Dublin but Cashel only had 10 protestors according to the policeman we talked to. .

We had feared that the police were sure to see us as potential threats, arriving from nowhere with large backpacks, but we were greeted with as warm a welcome as ever by the three strong force guarding our tiny entry road. All around we could see police in their high visibility jackets dotted around the rock and this was the day before the event. I dread to think how much all this cost for a 1hr visit. Cashel was the first truly touristy place we had been since the Giant’s Causeway and it showed. Coffee shops, craft shops, and pubs galore, but still a sleepy dated feel about the place. The Indian restaurant was open at 5:30 so we obliged them by being the first customers. Meanwhile ‘The Rock’ was floodlit and manned all night; I’ll bet the overtime bill was impressive. The next morning the visit was going to happen at 11:00am our hotel window had a (distant) view of the rock so we watched on the TV and from the window simultaneously before joining a jolly band of officers outside for more discussions on the security situation.

We push on south through layer after layer of police security; there must be every police person in Ireland here. At Caher the castle looks like it may be worth a visit but unfortunately were are in too much of a hurry and want to push on to Ardfinnan.

The route from Ardfinnan to Cappoquin took us over moorland through a pass at only 300mts above sea level but the weather forecast was the worst we had seen. Fortunately the morning stayed dry (ish) but as we reached the pass the rain came in the form of horizontal bullets. It was a pity because the scenery had the potential to be the best so far. We were pleased to find the pub a few kilometers before Cappoquin with all the fires roaring but the stay wasn’t long enough to really dry out any kit so after a 30minute rest we had to struggle back into wet gear and brave the elements for the last 4km. Richmond House guest house offered a warm welcome and we were pleased to meet Laura and Humphrey before dinner. They were married here exactly a year ago; fortunately the weather had been better on the same day last year. They were from Cork and offered a mine of information on what to do during the the short visit to the town we were planning after we had finished. Richmond House was excellent and deserves a detour if you are in the area. Next morning after an excellent breakfast the weather had changed for the better and we set off to Youghal following the west bank of the Blackwater River. Perhaps one of the most scenic days of the whole trip.

Youghal is on the mouth of the river and has a seaside feel to it. It looked like it had seen better days during the Victorian era but it’s pretty shambolic now. Andrew and Vicky were nearing the end of their golf holiday so we decided to make Shanagarry the end of our trip. Shangarry is south east of cork on the coast so we agreed that it constituted a reasonable ‘end to end’. We hoped to walk some of the way along the beach but the wind which had plagued us from day one was now a roaring gale coming from the south west and straight at us. We managed about 3km on the beach and turned inland to the shelter of the hedgerows. Andrew and Vicky with impeccable timing arrived at Shanagarry at the same time as we did and the walking section of the tour was over.

We were whisked away from the elements in the cushioned comfort of the car stopping to pick up more friends Errol and Kathy (from the golf course) on the way to Cork. It was Kathy’s birthday so we had a double celebration (birthday and our finish) at; you guessed it the best Indian restaurant in Cork. Cork is not much of a tourist town but it has a vibrant feel and strolling around the English Market is a pleasure. We visited the Coffee shop recommended by Humphrey and Laura (Cafe Gusto) and found it as quirky and tasty as promised.

Kathy and Errol left for home the next day and we set off with Andrew and Vicky on our Ring of Kerry adventure. Despite the continuing bad weather the Ring of Kerry was beautiful and we discovered the Kerry Way, a 200km route round the ring of Kerry and the highest mountain in Ireland ‘Carrauntoohill’. Two projects we shall have to put down on the ‘to do’ list. Many thanks to the people of Ireland who made our trip so enjoyable and of course to Andrew and Vicky the number one back up team.

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