Stepping Stones – the Burren Way

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In the northwest corner of County Clare, halfway up the Wild Atlantic Way coastline of Ireland lies a unique environment.

250sq km of a glaciated karst landscape, with swirling terraced hills of limestone rising up from the ocean to the west and standing guard over the plains to the east. Scoured clear of earth and vegetation by ice age, erosion and man, the pale grey rock appears otherworldly and from a distance, denude of life.

But the naked stone stores and radiates the suns heat, the grikes or narrow channels between the slabs or clints provide shelter and the calcium rich soils undisturbed by the plough all make for a botanical wonderland and botanists and plant lovers from across the globe come to marvel at species from arctic-alpine and Mediterranean habitats living happily together in the west of Ireland.

The rock has discouraged intensive farming and this has helped to preserve ” a vast memorial to bygone cultures”, with the stone itself used over the last 6000yrs or so to create the tombs, cairns, homesteads, forts, castles and churches and holy wells that litter the maps like freckles on the face of the land.

The Burren Way meanders for 100km, with additional spurs to towns and villages, with Irelands most famous natural attraction- the Cliffs of Moher forming a southern gateway.

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Setting off from Liscannor I planned to take 4 days to cover the route, ending my ramble in Tubber to take in the splendours of Mullaghmore in the Burren National Park. The first leg was 20km to Doolin and the long straight road headed west past field walls made of the flag stones the area is renown for. The movements of sea creatures millions of years ago are etched into the surface of these slices of time as a record of the oldest journeys on earth and the flags are used as hardwearing floors and heavy roofing.

300 million years ago the Burren was the floor of a tropical ocean, and the Cliffs of Moher were formed by layers of shale and sandstone building up and up in a vast river delta. As I climbed up from the coast past the last farm with its brimming car park supplying a modern cash crop I was joined by others on the way towards the tower at Hags head.

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There is a cliff face here that supposedly resembles a womans head where, the story goes, the hag Mal crashed into the cliff while pursuing her love interest, Cu Chulainn, who stepped across the sea stacks to escape her advances.

As we reached the tower the dramatic views opened up and the number of people drawn in to the area by the successful marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way since my last visit became apparent.

Moving on along the cliff path I past a Liscannor flag quarry producing the stone for the nearby walls and a public gallery of miniature sea stacks in a dramatic setting.

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The nesting seabirds were a constant distraction as they wheeled around the cliff face with perfect timing and grace and I stopped to watch their acrobatics and spy on their domestic activities.

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Living as I do in a very quiet rural pocket and not getting out among mass humanity much, I found the antics of my species nearly as fascinating and spent a while photographing them photographing themselves. The ‘selfie’ phenomena .

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My favourite selfie photos were many years ago and accidental. A friend working in a photo lab had developed a roll of film taken on a tour of Europe’s top tourist destinations and was puzzled to see pictures of only bits of head and ear and crowds of people before realising that the hapless photographer had held the camera the wrong way round.

At the highest point in the cliffs, near the car and coach park and the “visitor experience”, is a tower built as a viewing platform in 1835 by local landowner, M.P., and descendant of Brien Boru, Sir Cornelius O’Brien. He once fell very ill in London and asked for some water to be sent over from St Bridgits well near the Way at Liscannor which he attributed to his recovery and payed for the construction of a well house, still much used today.

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700ft below me the atlantic rollers crashed onto the base of the cliffs and it would certainly be the spot from which to watch the worlds top big wave surfers try their luck riding Aileen, the 50+ft wave that can form here.

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It was a beautiful sunny day and I certainly didn’t begrudge sharing the natural splendours with so many people but by the time I had had my lunch around O’Briens tower I was ready to escape the hordes and carry on towards Doolin another 8km away.

Although Doolin is another of Ireland’s tourist hot spots and the coastal path goes all the way there this was definitely a quieter section, allowing more space for contemplation of the surroundings and take notice of the birdsong and wildflowers.

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In a couple of places streams tumbling over the cliff edge were being blown back up on to the top creating a kind of natural perpetual motion of water as it tried to reach the sea.

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The Aran islands were visible to the north west, strung out in a line towards the mountains of Connemara and as I approached Doolin the first sight of the rounded grey hills of limestone made me keen to get amongst them.

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The path descended to near sea level and continued along the shore past strange diamond shaped rock formations and blowholes to the colourful shops and pubs at Fisherstreet where a ferry goes to the nearest Aran island, Inisheer, and people come to swim with Dusty, a dolphin that likes to hang out with humans.

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Back on tarmac I made my way past the 16th century Doonagore tower house on the outskirts of Doolin to my bed for the night at a friends house.

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The next days stage was a 30+km hike, mostly on ancient green roads, into the Burren uplands where I planned to meet Sally and the Trusty Tranny camper van at the top of Corkscrew Hill above Ballyvaughan.

But first I had to make my way along about 10km of country roads through a sometimes gorsey and rushy landscape under a leaden sky, which coupled with a number of neglected and abandoned homesteads made for a slightly melancholic atmosphere.

Climbing up the backroad from Ballylacken castle at about 200m the tarmac gave way to track and the green road leading over the shoulder of the Burren’s highest hill, Slieve Elva, began.

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There was a stiff wind and from the look of the contorted vegetation there usually is. The lack of shelter on this exposed hillside must have made it a tough place to live and the remnants of stone cottages told their own tales of hardship.

Finally moving beyond the sandstone and shale and onto the limestone the track became stripped for awhile as it revealed the underlying formation of clints and grykes in the adjoining fields(?).

After roughly 8km of the high plateau I was led down into the Caher valley where the only surface river in the Burren to make it to the sea runs down to the beach at Fanore. The porosity of the limestone means that water easily eats it’s way through to create a network of underground caves and tunnels, another feature of this area that makes it special and contributed to the famous saying by one of Cromwell’s generals that ” it is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury them”.

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Up and over the long southern plateau of Gleninagh Mountain on another green road and I landed back on the tarmac of a cul de sac backroad running down the Feenagh valley.

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A couple of kms later I was off up another ancient green road, lined at first by another section of river, then hazel scrubland,and winding past megalithic tombs, ring forts and enclosures with fantastical views of the surreal landscape surrounding me, to eventually, and suddenly, leave the limestone and find myself atop an upland of turf bog and forestry.

The wind was still blowing and now as evening approached it was cold so, getting to our meeting point early after 30km, I was happy enough to do an extra couple of km down Corkscrew hill to the warm embrace of the Gregan House hotel bar and a pint of Murphys while I awaited the arrival of Sally in our mobile kitchen and bedroom.

We woke the next morning to a nasty drizzle blowing in on a horizontal wind and with only about 20km to do that day we decided to trust the forecast that the rain would clear in a couple of hours and take a quick spin to Kilfenora, location of The Burren Centre and   cathedral ruin.

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The Catholic cathedral, part of which is used by the church of Ireland has a glass roofed transept, built to protect some ancient high crosses and there are other fine carvings.

Back on track we had a fair bit of road walking to do but it was pleasurable hiking along tiny backroads through a varied landscape dotted with megalithic and early christian sites, including an impressive baptismal font in the ruins of Kilcorney church.

Crossing the high ground above Carron it started to drizzle again and we ducked into Cassidy’s bar for a drink in the dry before carrying on along the eastern shore of the turlough, or seasonal lake. These loughs are another unique feature of the area, with the groundwater beneath the limestone rising and falling with the water table and creating what can be huge areas of flooding in the winter and rich grazing land in the summer.

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The hazel woods were thick alongside the road and rich with wood anemone, ferns, sorrel and mosses and lichens. All of which make good feeding for the herds of feral goats that keep the vegetation in a bonsai condition and sometimes end up as burgers in Cassidy’s when the population is deemed in need of a cull.

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To end the days hike we had another green road stretch, leading us eastwards into the National Park. The sun was out and it was a truly beautiful path, a match for anywhere in the world in weather like that. A little over halfway along is a charming cottage in what has to be one of the finest locations in the country. (Teas available in the summer).

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Another good dinner and comfy bed courtesy of friends just off route and we were ready and able for our last day on the trail. I had walked nearly all of the Burren Way previously but not continuously and I had never walked one section of the days route so it felt like the highpoint of the Way to be climbing the iconic terraces of Mullaghmore and gazing at the virgin territory ahead.

We were a little early for the glories of the wildflowers for which the area is famous but we were lucky enough to have early purple orchids, wild garlic and gentians strewn around our feet that day.

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As we climbed above Lough Gealain to the summit at 200m the full effect of this special place became tangible. Feeling deeply connected to the surroundings and yet looking out onto a strange and foreign land, it’s no wonder the area has attracted “outsiders” for many years with the magnetic appeal the landscape holds.

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Clambering down the rough stony track on the north of Mullaghmore we turned to follow a wall below Slieve Roe down to a crossroads at Cooloorta where some of the pre mentioned “outsiders” have created homes for themselves.

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3km up the road we turned to come 3km back down on another green road through an area of limestone canyons studded with ash woods until, passing through a swing gate, we walked towards Lough Bunny on a long straight and flat track to the grassy farmland.

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Surrounded by green fields and grazing cows again, with the bare grey stone of the Burren behind us, it wasn’t long to the end of our journey where friends conveniently living right on the Way supplied tea and biscuits and a lift back to the Tranny.

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