Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Best Visits. Ireland 2016

My Best Visits. Ireland 2016
Click on titles for short story of visit
Any tips for 2017? cork.billy@gmail.com

1 - Newgrange, Co. Meath

2 - Hook Lighthouse, Co. Wexford

3 - King John's Castle, Limerick

4 - Millstreet Country Park, Co. Cork

5 - Crag Cave, Co. Kerry

6 - Fota Gardens & Arboretum, Co. Cork

7 - East Cork, worth a visit

8 - Hunt Museum, Limerick
See also: Out and about in Ireland 2016. Best Walks (for amateurs!)

Out and About in Ireland 2016

Some of the best walks - for amateurs!
Just click on title lines (blue) for details.
Any tips for 2017? cork.billy@gmail.com

1 - Torc Mountain, Killarney

2 - Slieve League, Donegal
Sonia, in Cobh
Seven Heads Walk, Courtmacsherry, Co. Cork
Bray Head, Valentia Island, Co. Kerry
Ballycotton Cliff Walk, Co. Cork
Ring around Dingle (including walk on Dunmore Head), Co. Kerry

Urban/Suburban Walks

The Holy Ground Once More. A Walk in Cobh, Co. Cork
Blarney - Waterloo loop
The Old Youghal Road - Cork City Walk.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Crag Cave. Underground in Kerry

Crag Cave
Underground in Kerry

It was a wet and windy November morning as I pulled in to the car park at Crag Cave. Expecting to be more or less on my own, I was surprised to see lots of cars there and quite a few family groups heading for the entrance. 

“Ah, mid-term,” I thought. But it was more than that. It’s been many a year since I visited the cave (near Castleisland, Co. Kerry). Its not just a cave anymore. It’s the Kingdom’s Number One House of Fun, the Crazy Cave, a venue for Santa’s Winter Wonderland and for birthday parties too, school tours also of course. Wonder what Professor John Gunn from UCC and world renowned Welsh cave diver Martyn Farr, who discovered the cave in the early 1980s, would have made of it all!
Stalactite. Stalagmites grow up from the floor

We joined a queue but not the right one. Had we stayed where we were first, we might have been celebrating someone’s birthday. But we pulled out just in time and got our tickets for the cave, billed as Ireland’s Number One (they like that number down here) Showcave. We were joined by seven others and went underground with our young guide.

Discovered in 1983 and thought to be over 1 million years old Crag Cave is a magical wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites. Step into ancient history and wonder at Ireland’s most exciting show cave! 

At 3.82km long, Crag Cave is the longest cave in Kerry and the seventh longest cave in the Republic, offering one of the finest examples of limestone cave formation in Ireland. Etched over time into a natural wonder, this 350m show cave offers an amazing view of how a cave is formed. 

There are incredible examples of pillars, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, curtains and straws that have been forming incrementally over the last 15,000 years. And what you see is only a fraction of what will be available in the future, not necessarily the near future you understand!

It is easy enough to get around the various chambers and your guide is well versed in the detail, pointing out the main features, most of which are named: the big Stalactite (the one that develops from the top, think of the middle T as standing for top), the bog Chamber (“Minas Tirith”), the Flowstone, the Kitchen, Diarmuid and Grainne, the Crystal Gallery, and the Madonna. Bats dwell here but you are unlikely to see them as they retreat into deeper chambers once the tours start in the morning.

You are underground for about 40 minutes. Just wrap up well before you go down. The temperature is a constant 10 degrees, ideal for storing wine and growing mushrooms but I saw neither! The rain, which had been forecast for that morning, had vanished when we surfaced and the blue areas in the sky extended slowly as we headed off for an afternoon walk in Valentia Island. The Kingdom has much to offer!

When the 'tite and the 'mite meet, they form a column.

TEL: +353 (0)66 714 1244 10:00 – 18:00 MON – FRI / 10:00 – 18:00 SAT & SUN
FAX: +353 (0)66 714 2352 - WEBSITE: WWW.CRAGCAVE.COM

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sky Walk on Valentia. Islands in the Sun

Sky Walk on Valentia
Islands in the Sun
The showers were dying out as we drove through Portmagee and across the bridge onto Valentia Island last week. I had no detailed plan in mind. But I got lucky. And got to see some of the best views of the Wild Atlantic Way.
From the car park

I had a vague notion of crossing the island and starting at Knightstown at the other end. Then I spotted a sign for Bray Head. I haven’t been there before. I said to myself. So I followed the road to the left.

Soon I was in a decent sized car park and right here the spectacular views started, across to the mainland and out over the ocean to the islands including, of course, the Skelligs (the location for a recent Star Wars film). If I hadn’t travelled another step, I’d have been happy with the trip.
Portmagee (on the mainland), across the bridge

But there is a rough track (the soil has been stripped off) right to the top of Bray Head. Your destination is marked by the shell of a two storey building. The walk is easy enough and the rise is gradual but you will need good footwear. Rain gear too wouldn't go astray.
A passing shower!

We felt a few drops and could see the showers out by the islands but luckily the blue sky prevailed and we enjoyed the most fantastic views, the light changing as the odd cloud came and went.
Valentia left, mainland right

Then we saw a hare racing down the track towards us. He spotted us and broke off to his left. A good few seconds later, a pack of hounds came coursing down, noses to the ground, circling around where the hare had exited until they settled on his path. Think he got away though. A discordant moment, unexpected.

Back then to concentrating on the walk with lots of stops for photos, of course. I think it took us over 30 minutes to reach the old concrete shell and enjoy the views to the left and right. We could have continued a loop here but decided to go back down the way we had come.

On the way down, we stopped time and time again, looking back to the Skelligs, across to the cliffs and down towards the channel between the island and the mainland and the bridge of course.

Soon, we were climbing over the steps by the locked gate at the start/end of the walk. This is very close to the car park where’ll you’ll see a detailed map of the loop walk. By the way, there is a parking charge of two euro. A tiny price to pay for the opportunity to enjoy such beauty.

From Bray Head. The Skelligs, by the way, were the location for a recent Star Wars film.
See also:

Climbing Torc Mountain. Take the path to the top!

Climbing Torc Mountain
Take the path to the top!
On the summit. What else would you be doing on a Saturday morning?
You walk through the final gap on the ridge at the top of Torc Mountain and the most gorgeous view is suddenly revealed. You have no inkling of this, there is no gradual opening up. This is sudden and magnificent, the lakes of Killarney and the town in a beautiful blue and green and white setting. A view worth walking for, worth climbing for.
And let me make it plain. This is not real mountain climbing. For sure, the mountain is real, all 535 metres of it. But there is a pathway to the top, partly of well laid flat stones and partly of mesh-covered railway sleepers laid two by two. 

And let me also say that it is not that easy. It is 535 metres of climbing uphill, path or no path. And you also have to walk more than a mile from the start to reach the path. And a mile back when you’ve come down, but that is easy to complete in the warm glow of satisfaction.

Start of the track
Flat stones and (luxury!) sleepers
It is so worth it. I was up there a few years back and knew what to expect. But still the sudden sight of the beauty below took my breath away. Well, whatever breath I had left!

So where do you start? On the Muckross Road out of Killarney, keep an eye out for the sign on your left, just beyond the main entrance to Muckross Park (and house). The sign says: Old Kenmare Road.

Take that and drive up through the wooded slopes. You might well get lucky as we were on the two occasions that we did it to see a deer or two. Last Saturday, we saw a magnificent stag as he crossed the road.
The lakes and Killarney below

After a few minutes, you arrive at the car park. This car park is above Torc Waterfall. Leave the car here but don't leave your sturdy walking shoes and rain gear behind. Water and a little food won’t go astray either. Walking sticks will also help.

Leave the car park and go through the barrier on the old Kenmare Road. There is one steep section on the rough road, a hint of things to come. Before that though, you cross a small bridge. Here, follow the yellow sign to the left. 

About twenty minutes in (some of you will be quicker), we saw the small blue sign (on our right) and the first of the flat stones of the path to the top. You don't see the path stretching out, just a small section at a time. It is not a scar on the mountain or anything like that.

A group on the way up
Sometimes, the going is easy. The path has been laid out in a zig zag fashion to take the sting out of the slope. The stones are well laid and you usually find a solid spot for your foot. But be careful. The sleepers are the bonus, the going here is easy as they almost give you a bounce. Luxury on the mountain!

As you rise, you see that road to Kenmare sneaking away through the valley, runners and walkers making their way. You get a great view of the valley behind and soon you see some lakes to your left. Later, higher up, you see Lake Guitane to your right. But still no sign of the big view at the other side.

I think the climb, from the start of the path, took us over an hour, the descent less than an hour. We were among the first of the day’s climbers and there was little or no “traffic” on the way up. 

View to the left during ascent
It was different on the way down as we met quite a few but there is a lot of courtesy here and people step aside to let others progress, often with a smile and chat. Be careful though where you step off - you don't want to get stuck in a patch of wet muddy ground.

The lakes to the left and right were more and more revealed as we rose. Are we there yet? The answer in the mountains is often no. Sometimes you see just one ridge and you think that’s it. But that is seldom the case. There is another ridge beyond that and then another. So relax, take a break, take in the scenery and soon you’ll be there.

There’ll be words of encouragement from those coming down too. And it won't be long now. There is a short stiff bit just before the breakthrough and what a breakthrough, what a stunning view!

Clean and green in the valley floor
And no matter how long you stay at the top, you’ll won’t get that initial thrill again. Don't get me wrong. Stay at the top and soak it all in for as long as you wish. It is a rare delight and a privilege to be there.

I must admit, we didn't stay too long there this time. The biting wind was strong and uncomfortable and the ground was rather muddy. Overall, the day was dry. The forecast, on which we relied, was spot-on. So reluctantly, we turned our back on Killarney and headed back down. 

By the way, be just as careful on the way down. Watch where you put those feet and be sure and encourage those on the way up. But don't give them false encouragement. If the summit is thirty minutes away, don't tell them its fifteen!

Beginning the descent 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Ring Around Dingle

Ring Around Dingle
Slea Head
We can see the rain sweeping in towards our exposed hilltop position. There is a stand of small slanting rocks a 100 metres away. We get there, just in time, just before the sheep! The first burst of the rain is fierce but it rapidly eases off. Soon we are able to stand from our crouched position and take in the fabulous views out towards the Blasket Islands.

The Food Festival, including the Blas na hEireann Awards, is on in Dingle but Friday is a slack day and so we’ve headed out the peninsula. First stop is the long beach at Ventry and a long walk in the sun, always with an eye to the odd marauding black cloud, clears the cobwebs. Great views all around and this time, we just make it back to the car as that shower tries an ambush.

West along the road then, heading for the famous Slea Head but enjoying the many great views in between and, of course, those large tourist-friendly seagulls who come very close indeed, probably looking for a little food (which we don't have!).

View from Ventry beach
 We see the Slea Head beach as we drop and soon we are parked over it. But this time, we ignore the beach (until later) and take the path up the little mountain that leads to Dunmore Head. You leave a euro in a box at the start. It is a steep enough walk along grass and earth. And first there is a high stone wall to negotiate but that task is made easier as a few flat stone steps have been inserted at each side of the six foot barrier.

You rise rapidly, walking among the many sheep, great views behind you to the beach and indeed to another inlet further up. As you rise, more and more of the islands come into view, including lots of sheep, a few white houses and a beach. After that first shower clears, we continue our walk, comforted by the fact that we were now within reach of a concrete shelter on the top of the hill. We are there, standing on layers of old sheep shit, when another shower comes, so brief it is hardly worth mentioning.

The Blaskets, from Dunmore
 Time now to retrace our steps - there are other pathways but we are not that adventurous - and head back down and enjoy a few minutes on the beach before resuming the trip. We are being well fed in Dingle, as you might expect, but still we need something for lunchtime. The Blasket Centre is a regular stop for us on these trips, both for the marvellous portrayal here of life on the islands (when they were inhabited) and, more often, for its restaurant. And we enjoy a cheesy eggplant dish, with fries and salad, before resuming the drive.

A few minutes after leaving the centre we arrive at another great viewing point. This is Clogher Head and the walk is enhanced by taking the muddy wet path up to the high point. We use our sticks here! The path is pretty good - probably better in summer - and leads you though jumbles of mostly huge rocks until you reach the summit which gives us a 360 degree view, the sea, including the Blaskets again, accounting for most of it.

Slea Head
Sybil Head or Ceann Cibéal is one of the sights we can see from Clogher and now we are heading roughly in the direction. We are looking for Dún an Óir in Smerwick Harbour. Not too easy to find. So take note! At the edge of Ballyferriter, you will see brown signs pointing to a hotel (Ostan) and a golf club. Turn left here. When you reach a small bridge, take the right turn immediately before it. You still have a long narrow road and more to negotiate but now the signs for Dún an Óir appear.

Amazing it is not signposted from the main road as this is a historical site. It was the scene of a horrible massacre in 1580 of some 600 people, mainly Spanish and Italian soldiers of the Papal army which had surrendered to the British forces (who included Walter Raleigh). The memorial features heads and no bodies, a reminder that the prisoners, including women and children, were beheaded. You may read more of the details here

One of these large rocks on Clogher reminds me of a large reptile
 Today, instead of the groans and screams of the victims - the killing spree went on for two days apparently - all we hear is the lapping of the waves below and the odd sound from the sheep grazing on the grassy mounds that once were the defences. A memorial stone, featuring 12 heads, now stands here as a reminder of the 16th atrocity, a time when such crimes were quite prevalent. Not a highpoint of our trip.

The Dingle peninsula is full of marvellous sights and we saw another one at its best on the following day. On that Saturday evening, with the sun shining, we drove up to the famous Conor Pass and enjoyed the views down to Dingle on one side and towards Brandon mountain and Brandon Bay on the other side. Fabulous.
Silent reminder of a merciless massacre in 1580

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ancient Castle to Oldest Lighthouse. 24 Hours in Wexford.

Ancient Castle to Oldest Lighthouse
24 Hours in Wexford.
Castle window

Our 24 hour break in County Wexford begins with check-in at Killiane Castle. The welcome is warm and soon we are in a cosy room, just off the beautiful entrance hall, reviving with a cuppa and freshly made cookies. We are staying in the 17th century farmhouse which itself is built into the 15h century castle. There are also apartments in the yard.

This is a working farm and soon we are on a walkabout, past the gardens, the orchards and down through an archway of trees before turning right through the fields and completing the circle, with the river alongside, cattle, sheep and a horse or two grazing. And oh yes, we climbed the castle, being restored gradually.

Anyone for croquet this morning?
And the farm is family friendly - you can see the cows being milked. There is croquet on the lawn, tennis on hard courts, pitch and putt, a driving range, a place for the children to play with some big toys scattered around. And this is only three miles from Wexford and close to the car ferry port of Rosslare.

Armed with the best of local knowledge and a taxi called for us, we head for the town that evening. Unfortunately, the rain pelts down as we arrive, curtailing a planned walkabout but we do get to see the statue, on Crescent Quay, of Wexfordman General John Barry, widely credited as The Father of the American Navy.
John Barry
Our main purpose for the evening was dinner in Cistín Eile. This had been recommended, a recommendation that we can now heartily pass on. We enjoyed a couple of bottles of the local Cleverman beer there too.

Our taxi driver had earlier pointed out a “good pub” to us and we headed there. Little did I realise that Simon Lambert is the home of the very popular Yellow Belly craft beer. But, with some twelve craft beer taps along the counter, including four of their own, I soon realised I was in a micro-brewery. Loved their Pale Ale and also enjoyed Amberella by Cork brewery Eight Degrees link.
The following day started with a splendid breakfast in Killiane. I passed on the Full Irish and was delighted with their Baked Eggs with Wexford Cheddar Cheese, Cream, Chorizo and Mushrooms.

Then it was time to say goodbye to this lovely house and lovely friendly helpful family and head for the Hook peninsula. Our first visit here was to Tintern Abbey link built around the start of the 13th century by Welsh knight William Marshal in thanks for having been saved after a dodgy crossing from Wales. He populated his new abbey with monks from the original Tintern Abbey. The impressive tour costs a few euro, and is self-guided. There is also a cafe here.
Tintern Abbey details

And you might well need sustenance, as there are many walks (no charge) in the land and woods around. One such walk takes you to Colclough Gardens. The Colclough swere the family that later became associated with Tintern. Their gardens though fell into ruin but have recently been restored by a voluntary effort.

Again there is a small charge to see the 2.5 acre walled garden, which has a dividing wall. The first part is surrounded by a huge flower border, with fruit trees in the open spaces in the middle; the second part is largely given over to growing fruit and vegetables. The fruit and veg is available; you take what you want and payment is by donation.

Tinter Abbey, the Wexford one!

Our main visit was to the nearby Hook Lighthouse and that is described here. It was not our first time here but the visit, with digital aids and lively guides, is much more interesting nowadays. You may also have lunch here, as we did. See full report here.

Loftus Hall, Ireland’s “most haunted house”, is nearby but we were running out of time (or courage!) and gave it a skip. Anyhow, as I've read somewhere, if you like a place, it is wise to leave something unvisited so that you’ll return.

In the gardens.

We had entered Wexford by taking the motorway bridge over the river but now we would return by ferry link. There is a very frequent service - it costs eight euro one way and takes about twenty cars - between Ballyhack (on the Wexford side) and Passage East. Back in Waterford, we were soon on the internal ring road and heading, via Kilmeaden, for the N25 back to Cork, very happy with our 24 hours in Wexford.

See also:

Ferry home.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Hook Lighthouse. Ireland’s Ancient East

The Hook Lighthouse
Ireland’s Ancient East
If these walls could talk. You say to yourself as you enter the 800 year tower that houses the Hook Lighthouse on the tip of Waterford’s Hook Peninsula.

You soon find out, they do talk. In the first room, with its ribbed vault structure just like the two rooms above, a monk, a digital one, appears and talks about when he came here in the 6th century (maybe!). He was Welsh and called Dubhain. Having founded a small monastery, he and his fellow monks noticed the many shipwrecks in the area and set up an open fire to warn mariners.
An old lamp, now on the ground floor
 Good, but not good enough for the next person you meet, on the next floor. This is William Marshal, another Welshman and a powerful knight, who was very influential in the south east of Ireland at the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. He built the nearby Tintern Abbey and the town of New Ross and more, including this lighthouse (sometime between 1210 and 1230). Monks were again in charge, living here, keeping the faith, keeping the flame.

As you climb the solid building, you see where the monks cooked, lived and slept. Many changes then during the centuries, before, in 1996, the lighthouse was automated and the light keepers (no longer monks!) departed after almost 800 years. And the modern keepers are commemorated on the third floor, projected onto the wall to tell their story.

Ribbed vault roof
Out then onto the windy balcony to take in the fabulous views over the seas, over the land. The famous bird sanctuary of the Saltee Islands is visible to the east and to the west you can see The Metalman, another landmark for mariners, this on a cliff near Tramore in County Waterford.

As well as the light a fog signal was operated at the lighthouse. For centuries a cannon gun was fired off the edge of the cliff during fog. This was replaced by a hooter, which in turn was replaced by rockets. In 1972 a foghorn worked by compressed air was installed.

An old fog horn gets a turn
 That foghorn, about six foot high and with two “speakers”, can still be viewed in another room at ground level. Decommissioned in 2011, it still looks impressive. And then, Jason, our excellent guide, showed us another object. It looked like some kind of wooden box, except for the lever on its side. We didn't guess but it is an early form of foghorn, with nothing like the range of the big one, but still noisy enough when that lever is turned! Quite a few other ship related items here too, including a compass and morse code machine.

If you feel like a bite to eat after climbing and descending those 115 steps, well just head into the building next door where there is a cafe and bakery with soups and sandwiches and a selection of lunch plates available and plenty of space to sit and eat. And if the kids finish up before you do, they can wander out to the large grass area where there are quite a few big sturdy toys to keep them engaged. Watch out too for art classes and special events.

Quite a few walks too in the lighthouse area but be careful. Not all tragedies here have happened to people in boats.

Our guided tour was in English and it is also available in French, German, Spanish, Irish and Italian. Whales and dolphins can be observed from the shoreline around Hook Head with a good pair of binoculars. It is a great visit, to what is believed to be the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, and you can find out much more, even see a video visit, see the web cams too, on the website here.