I’ve read and listened to a lot of stories about long distance hikes over the last year or so. From Bill Bryson’s adventure on the Appalachian Trail (AT) to Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and recently Reg Spittle’s second book about trekking in the UK and Europe. I’ve just started yet another PCT themed audiobook, by Barney Scout Mann, entitled Journeys North.
In the opening chapters Mann mentions how some hikers walk long distance trails in sections rather than thru-hiking the entire trail in one go. This has been mentioned in every story so far but yesterday it seemed to have found more fertile soil in my brain and I started considering my own options for section hiking.
Close to home I have a number of waymarked walks. Of Ireland’s 42 National Waymarked Trails there are 5 in Donegal. Of these the only one I’ve walked is The Bluestack Way. I walked the Glenties – Lough Eske section of this almost 10 years ago as a charity walk for the Bluestack Foundation, approx 30km in 9 hours was, and still is, my longest day’s walking.
Three long distance walks also pass near my home. The Irish leg of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) approx 450km from the Slieve League cliffs in Donegal to Larne in Co. Antrim, The Ulster Way, a looped trail just over 1,000km that circles Northern Ireland and The Ireland Way that is also 1,000km from Castletownbere in West Cork to The Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim.
the international appalachian trail – ireland
the ulster way
the ireland way
All three routes meet and overlap at the border between Donegal and Tyrone and follow the same route until The Giant’s Causeway where The Ireland Way stops. The IAT carries on with the Ulster Way until Larne where it stops before skipping across The Irish Sea to Scotland.
Many years ago I read one of the few books on The Ulster Way by Alan Parker and first published in 1989. Alan was the first ever person to walk the entire Ulster Way in 1979. It’s a really interesting read for more than just the walk itself. Alan was a real old school hiker and used B&B accommodation all the way. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a different pace of life in Northern Ireland at the end of the 70s and surprisingly unaffected by The Troubles.
I was familiar with the Ulster Way having seen the signs on many occasions throughout Northern Ireland and reading this book gave me my first real desire to do a long distance walk. However, 30 days is difficult to fit into any life when work and family also need attention so unfortunately it never happened.
The idea though has never left me so it’s unsurprising that it was The Ulster Way that I turned to today to investigate the possibility of section hiking. WalkNI have a very detailed section on their website that details a variety of different 1, 2 & 3 day and 1 week suggestions and there are 2 that really appeal.
Belcoo – Belleek: a 47km section including the optional Lough Navar loop. This is an area I’m very familiar with and Lough Navar has an amazing viewpoint looking out over Lough Erne. Possible as a day hike but more enjoyable over 2 days.
Lough Bradan – Gortin: 60km and recommended as a 2 day walk. Being close to home this is a very familiar area and although I’ve walked or cycled some of it, most of the route would be new to me.
In the middle of a very wet, cold and stormy February it’s nice to look at these routes and dream of long days walking and camping in warm sunshine (ideally!).
I’ve written already about finding it difficult to get motivated. In particular I’m finding it difficult to get motivated to go out cycling. In order to distract myself from this and maybe create a new desire to go cycling I’m doing two things. The first is to start back on the MTB with the Club group for the winter evenings. I used to do this a few years ago until the rest of the guys switched to Zwift instead. I need to do a little bit of TLC to my MTB and get over this head cold so it will probably be another week before I get organised for that.
My second plan is to get out and do some hillwalking again. Once I started cycling I pretty much stopped hillwalking but I’ve always enjoyed both the planning and execution of walking trips. I’ve also included some hillwalking challenges in my 50for50 list.
I was off Wednesday last week* as usual so decided to start straight away. I wanted something reasonably easy in terms of both planning and navigation to get me started so I chose a small enough hill called Bolaght Mountain (345m) South of Castlederg and approximately 40min drive from home.
I’m not a fan of “there and back” routes so devised a circular route based on the comments of other MountainViews members starting and finishing at the Sloughan Glen car park. Just under half the route was forest trails, a couple of kilometres was across the upland moorland and the rest on quiet country roads. The route was 14km plus the diversion to and from the actual summit of Bolaght giving a total of 15.5km.
Getting out of the car there is an immediate awareness of the local windmills. The steady breeze had the windfarm operating at full capacity and the noisy whoosh of the blades was very evident. Windmills are a constant companion on this route and if you aren’t a fan then this walk is definitely not for you!
Turning left out of the car park you then take the first road on the left marked as a dead end. It’s immediately uphill on a short, steep gradient through trees and high hedges. After a few hundred meters it levels off and opens out slightly to give views of the surrounding countryside. For the first 1-2km the road is tarred but soon turns into a gravel track but not too badly worn. One of the member comments on MV must have been here at the same time of year as he mentions the rowan trees and the berries. They were laden down for my visit too and lining both sides of the track.
Keep following the track past the entrances to the windfarm. Eventually you reach a farm gate. Cross this into a rougher track and follow this, above the river glen, over the bridge and into the forest by crossing a second gate. Don’t be tempted to take any of the windmill tracks as they will veer off in the wrong direction or dead end leaving you with rough, boggy ground to cross.
In the forest follow the forest roads and signs for Bin Mountain Windfarm.
On my visit the forest was misty and moody with the trees heavily draped with thick, green moss. I’d say this is a pretty wet location and I doubt if The Forestry Service will get much timber yield from here. Near the top of the hill make sure you veer left, still following the signs. The track takes a big dip and ahead it looks like a wall to be climbed!
Near the top I caught the flash of a deer darting into the trees. I’d say it had plenty of warning as I puffed my way uphill!
At the top of the ridge the track opens out of the forest and on to the open moorland mix of heather and coarse grass. You’re now in the windfarm proper, once you pass through one final gate, and suddenly Lough Lee appears in the hidden depression.
At the Eastern end of the lough the Ulster Way meets (or leaves depending on your perspective) the windfarm tracks. I started off following this but I should have headed straight for the summit at the signposted junction.
I was a few hundred metres along the Ulster Way trail before I realised my mistake and that I was moving away from the summit. I left the trail and headed straight up the ridge towards two small conifers. This was tough, knee-breaker ground and it took concentration and a good eye to avoid stepping in a hole hidden beneath the deep heather and grass. Thankfully the ground was well drained and pretty dry despite the recent rains. Once on the ridge it was a simple matter of heading West to the summit coordinates. The mapped summit is just beside a low, worn down fence and despite there being no markings it’s a fairly clear grassy patch, slightly raised above the surrounding heather. There’s a clear view down to Lough Lee and great views North over the countryside towards Castlederg.
Standing at the summit and taking a bearing back to the Ulster Way trail I could see what looked for all the world like a road sign. It looked to be in the right location and was a perfect marker so I headed in that direction across the ridge. I was expecting this to be a real slog but once again the ground was much drier than expected and there were faint trails (probably from sheep) that made the going much easier. Before long I met the trail and chuckled to myself that the road sign was just that even if it was a bit the worse for wear!
The next few kilometres followed the Ulster Way to the alternative starting point at the head of a very minor rural road. The trail is reasonably well marked with a variety of very old, weathered and sometimes broken wooden posts and metal posts (about 25mm thick and knee high). The markers are every 100-200m but the metal posts are sometimes difficult to spot. I only had difficulty spotting the next one on one occasion where it looked like one marker post had disappeared completely. The next one was just about visible in the distance but took me a few minutes to spot. I don’t think this would be a great trail in poor visibility unless your navigation skills were particularly good. There seems to be recent quad activity along the trail which helps with route finding. So far it hasn’t torn up the ground too badly and hopefully it’s just local farmers getting access to the high ground and doesn’t deteriorate any further.
At the end of the Ulster Way the trail returns to tarmac roads and stays on them for the remaining 8km of the route. It’s not all bad though as this is a very sparsely populated area with only the occasional isolated house or farm. The roads are very minor rural roads and I only encountered one car the whole way and that was the postman. The scenery for the first few kilometres is really good with lovely views out over the valley below in the triangle between Castlederg, Drumquin and Newtownstewart. Clouds were low with incoming rain but on a clear day there should be a good view towards the highlands of Donegal and also the Sperrins.
The first section of road was very nicely lined on but sides with a fantastic display of fuchsia bushes. They’re a common sight on the North Coast, especially around Ballycastle and The Glens of Antrim but I haven’t seen them this far West like this before.
Lunch was had about a kilometer later in the shelter of a stand of conifers just past Slieveglass (in Irish: Green Hill) Windfarm. The trees gave a pleasant break from the strong, blustery breeze and allowed me to set up the gas stove and make a welcome cup of tea to accompany my sandwiches.
Heading off again I soon realised that the trees had protected me from more than just the wind. The cloud had closed in obliterating the view and bringing a steady, heavy drizzle that soon turned to proper rain. Hunkered down in a bit of a hollow for lunch I’d been blissfully unaware.
Although the area is now very sparsely populated there is ample evidence that it wasn’t always so. There are quite a number of old buildings. Some are almost ruins while others have been repurposed to shelter animals or to provide farm storage. There was even an old, abandoned schoolhouse. The inscription above the door was just about visible and suggested it was built in the mid 19th century. With so many buildings being abandoned it was nice to see one, close to the car park, being renovated and extended.
huge fireplace about all that’s left
A few kilometres later the road turns back towards Sloughan Glen. The terrain changes again and the roads are now protected by high hedges and small wooded areas. Some of these areas were grazed by sheep or cattle but most seemed abandoned, another sign of the decline of the local population.
The final approach to the car park is along the banks of a small river. Its seems to flow from the main glen and is most likely the same river followed and crossed near the beginning of the walk. This area is the hunting grounds of a large adult grey heron who didn’t seem overly impressed to have me plodding through. He kept rising up and circling around. He was a bit worked up but giving me a great display.
15.5km brought me full circle and back to the car. However, I decided to go into the actual Sloughan Glen to walk the path and view the waterfall. The steep paths and many steps were a challenge for tired legs and achy knees but more than worth it. The area is an ASSI and absolutely beautiful. Two of the waterfalls were in good flow but I was surprised to see one of them dry despite the recent rain.
In total I finished with almost 17km and a thoroughly enjoyable day despite the constant rain for the second half. The road walking may not suit everyone but I enjoyed the variety of the route.