I wanted a fine day to explore The Burren in depth and to soak up the atmosphere of this unique landscape. The Burren is an area of north western County Clare and covering around 250 square miles and is the best area of karst landscape in the British Isles. The place is almost unique in the British Isles and is almost a stone desert. With very poor soils, the area is criss-crossed with stone walls where farmers eke a meagre living off the land. I had briefly visited the area before many years ago, but not to walk. Many pre-historic monoliths litter the landscape the most famous being the Poulnabrone Dolmen which has up to 200,000 visitors a year. Today however, I shall be nowhere near that location and will have the place almost to myself.
I’m staying in Ennis, and with an early start I’m off towards the coast of County Clare where I intend parking at Fanore Beach. On the way I want to make a diversion to visit the ‘Parochial House’ near Corofin, famed as the setting for the BBC comedy series ‘Father Ted’. With some research I’ve tracked the place down which is down a long lane in the middle of nowhere. The ‘Parochial House’ looks much the same as on the TV series minus its characters. Leaving, the weather now takes on a showery theme for awhile but thankfully this clears well before I reached Fanore Beach.
Today I will be following the way-marked Black Head Loop for much of the way.
Parking up I set off south on foot along the road with a view out over a deep blue Atlantic dotted with the Aran Islands. I soon manage to leave the R477 and take a track parallel to this road and later continue on a lane uphill giving wider views. After a long gradual ascent I turn sharp left onto a stony track running between low limestone walls. My pace is steady and after nearly a mile I leave the main track where my intention is to get to the summit of Slieve Elva. Following a side track for a short distance I head across to a holy well which is marked by a simple cross. It is hard to believe that there is water in the well in this arid limestone countryside.
I am expecting an easy walk to the summit of Slieve Elva but I am wrong. The area around Slieve Elva is unlike the rest of The Burren. To my surprise, an area of blanket bog and thigh deep tussocky grass sits on top of the limestone and covers a large area around the summit and so it is slow progress as I toil towards this rather flat and featureless summit. The trig point only comes into view from a couple of hundred yards from the top and is located on a low man made bank deep in tussocky grass. The trig point on Slieve Elva which at 344 metres marks the highest point of The Burren but frankly it isn’t worth the effort getting to this featureless top. I retrace my way back before cutting off a corner to join the main track once more and soon the karst scenery is becoming more pronounced. Now this is more like it! I pass a few other walkers coming the opposite way and we speak briefly. Later I begin a descent into the silent valley of the Caher River and this is The Burren scenery at its best. With deep blue skies and fair weather clouds, the day is turning out perfect. The landscape hasn’t changed for centuries and without the sound of any internal combustion engine or manmade noise it feels as if I could be walking in the 18th century. I join a minor lane in the Caher Valley where the crystal clear waters of the shallow Caher River trickled over the rocks.
It is now an ascent up another stony track in this silent landscape. Nearing the crest of the ridge a troop of pony trekkers came over the hill. Several people were walking with their horses and it really seems that I had stepped back in time. Another descent leads me into another almost deserted valley albeit one or two farms. Turning left I soon stop for my picnic lunch and observe a small herd of feral goats grazing and resting on the opposite side of the valley in the warm sunshine. Not a sound can be heard on this fine summer’s day as if time had stood still.
A winding track leads up towards Poulenegh Hill and I contour along the hillside northwards. Ancient field systems can be made out across the valley to my left, and later I emerged onto open ground. Ahead Galway Bay is an emerald blue with a backcloth of the mountains of Connemara on the horizon.
It is a rocky descent towards the coast through rocky countryside with thickets which would have been near on impossible had there not been a path. At the foot, the path contours along the hillside but proves to be very overgrown and uneven and now my progress is slow. It seems to go for ever and nearing the end I meet some walkers coming the other way. I am glad to join an engineered track further on, which again contours along the hillside and now with good open views. I disturb a herd of cattle which now follow me at a distance for the next mile until they lose interest. I contour around Black Head and continue southwest with a new view, now towards the Aran Islands on this perfect afternoon. It is a gradual descent towards the R477 once more and there is a little road walking at the end to reach the car.
There are times when you forget the outside world and travel back in time to a different century and on much of this walk I felt that I was a traveller walking through a landscape in a completely different time. For several hours, the only sounds were the natural ones around me, from skylarks overhead, to the sound of the hoofs of ‘pack horses’ if you can call it that, coming over the hill each being pulled by their rider. Sitting having lunch in a remote valley, and in the warm sunshine, I watched a small herd of feral goats just on the valley side opposite me, grazing and resting, and it is at times like this when you got to pinch yourself that this is the twenty first century. It’s on a day like today that you really appreciate that you have the ability to walk to these remote locations and savour these magical moments.