Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Ireland. Donegal. Last Day. Malin Head. Wild Atlantic Way.

On the way to Prestwick Airport via Glasgow Central Station I popped into the Goma to see what was on and was pleased to see the statue outside now had two traffic cone hats. A smaller summer themed one for the horse and the usual model for "The Dook". The generosity of Glasgow folk knows no bounds.
If you think this is no way to treat The Duke of Wellington and his faithful galloper the other statues in nearby George Square may disagree.

"Damn! Here's that dirty one legged shitehawk back again. Wish I was Wellington!"
Over in Donegal the murals are somewhat different from Glasgow. Bobby Sands and Che Guevara. I've seen the film "The Motorcycle Diaries" which was very interesting, scenery and culture wise , all about Che Guevara's early life. (He came from a politically minded family of Basque and Irish descent)
As those who read this blog will realise I'm not politically minded myself and with only one day to go to the big Scottish decision I have carefully weighted up all the evidence presented and decided I'm back to being undecided again. I prefer the feeling of being undecided instead of knowing who to vote for as people that come to the door ask you more questions if you sit on the fence. Between the strident shouty Yes's and the doom and gloom negative No's the quiet dignity of the undecided campaign shines out like a beacon of light yet their numbers are shrinking every day so I thought I would give them my full support. I don't get out much midweek and people are not usually this concerned, coming to the door asking for my views and opinions. In fact I've often been told in the past to keep my views and opinions to myself so its refreshing to give them an airing to passing strangers. I even had a guy from southern England, judging by the accent, canvasing round our scheme for some reason. He looked a bit jumpy when his mates left him to go indoors across the street but I soon had him occupied showing him my serial killer photo album and WWII commando dagger collection.
It pays to be polite and it was the same tactic I used to use when the Mormons  came around years ago to save my soul for Jesus. I'd usually tell them I felt compelled to embrace the dark side instead and was drawn to the plight of the fallen angels in the bible as everyone likes to root for an underdog.
" I already like spending time with fallen women a lot so I'll probably like fallen angels as well."
It was an honest opinion but sadly, they didn't see the world through my eyes.
Anyway, Malin Head is on the shipping forecast and is the most northerly point on the Irish Mainland at the tip of Donegal. It was Graeme's idea to go here which worked in well for the forecast as it was still unsettled and murky over the mountains though the wind had dropped. Malin Head, being out on a low peninsula jugging into the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the sunniest places in Ireland.
Some of the beaches facing west around here are unusual in that they are not made of sand but uniform fist sized pebbles, and semi precious stones like Jasper, quartz and agate can occasionally be found among them. This serrated peninsula also boasts some of Europe's largest sand dunes although we didn't explore them on this trip.
A large tower sits on the headland, built during the Napoleonic war to defend the coastline from invasion. Beside this the main car park is found up a narrow winding road to the tower. A coffee and soft drinks van and a tourist souvenir stall complete the picture. Views from here are panoramic but once again most folk did not stray far from their vehicles. After a long drive to get here a half hour stop was enough for most then it was back in the car for the long drive back again.
Despite an obvious well made easy trail and a glimpse of rugged coastline from the car park most folk spent an average of 20 minutes here and stayed near the tower as if trapped by magnets.
If they had children an obvious draw was to write your name on the grass in pebbles before you left. An earlier non internet version of a selfie.
It was a lovely day, warm and sunny but only around 5% per cent of visitors could be bothered doing the half hour easy walk to the real Malin Head. The same thing happens in most countries worldwide yet the same folk probably spend money on a Gym membership to get fit then lapse after a few weeks because it's boring. Maybe nature is boring to them also? It's certainly a mystery to me why they never explored further.
Anyway, here's what 95% of visitors to Malin Head miss out on. Maybe if they know it's out there they might be tempted to walk that extra half hour. Marion, Graeme's girlfriend, was with us today on her day off and she was right up for exploring around here, forging into the lead along the path.
Cattle on a hilltop near the sea cliffs.
Graeme and amazing cliff scenery ten minutes walk from the car along the white path.
A large sheltered cove.
The real Malin Head. The furthest point north in mainland Ireland. Marion and Nathan admire the view.
The Great Stack at Malin Head. An amazing sight. Probably the most impressive sea stacks of the trip.
Easy walking across short grass to get here. 30 minutes from car park.
On the plus side we had it all to ourselves apart from a few other folk. So much of life these days is merely following the herd, even walking seems to be about fashion and how "in" it is perceived. The Scottish Munros are packed out in good weather with rapidly eroding paths yet you hardly see a soul or any evidence of footprints just one hill away on a Corbett or Graham. Still the preserve of bearded weirdo loners and donkey molesters. Selfies, ice bath challenges and other daft crazes come and go while some of us just groan and scratch our heads in bewilderment. If I even get a whiff of a craze starting my natural instinct is to move up the grass in the opposite direction. This little black sheep has always avoided what the main flock are up to at any given moment.
A scramble over the limestone knife edged extremity got us within touching distance of the true limit of Malin Head.
The jaggy end of the mainland.
or is it?  Always a little further.
Limestone erodes into shark fin splendour here.
A great place.

Malin Head is also the start point (or end if travelling south to north) of the Wild Atlantic Way. A 2,500km (1,500 mile) drive along Ireland's wildly indented west coast from Donegal to Kinsale, County Cork. The longest defined ocean coastal drive in the world , the newly erected road signs of which (WW) had puzzled us last year when they suddenly popped up around Donegal.
This video is a bit Tourist Board orientated  but still spectacular and really highlights the full power of the North Atlantic Ocean rollers crashing against Ireland in the winter months. As it's brand new few folk are bagging it yet. Just the way I like it :o)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ireland. Donegal. Day Two. Arranmore Island Walk.

                                                ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
Flying out to Ireland via cheap flights with Ryanair. With 4 folk in a hired car plus flights, supermarket food and accommodation at Graeme's house the total cost worked out at roughly £100 pounds each which is great value for what we managed to pack into this trip. Obviously, the hospitality and willingness of Graeme to invite us over and put up with us for a long weekend was the key factor here. Thanks again to him for allowing us to share his house as a base for our collective journeys around Donegal. A view of Ailsa Craig from the plane. Graeme, Nathan, Bob R and Bob (me) made up the team this time around.
As the weather forecast was for dull skies, rain, and strong winds on our second day in Donegal the mountains were out as a venue. Instead we opted for Arranmore, one of the chain of islands off Donegal's western seaboard and the largest, with a sizable population living on it. This whole top corner of Ireland, islands and mainland combined, is the stronghold of the Gaeltacht, the native Irish Gaelic speaking community that still thrives here. A regular ferry service runs from Burtonport on the mainland over to Arranmore (Aran Island on some maps) although we had doubts it would still be running given the wind strength and the obscured, clouded in, view of the Blue Stack Mountains as we passed them. Although a dry, dull, raw day at sea level all the mountain groups we motored through on the way to the coast were either being lashed by rain or invisible under a murky curtain. It was also bitterly cold for late August- more like October. Midges were not a problem today.
Nathan walking up a lane on Arranmore from the ferry terminal in the photograph above.
Arranmore is a strange island for a first time visitor to come to grips with. Most of the residents seem to live on the sheltered eastern side, facing towards the mainland, as this part of the island is lush and reasonably fertile, sheltered by its escarpment of low hills. In autumn great patches of sprawling red fuschia, orange montbretia, (seen here) vivid black glistening brambles and bright flowering shrubs adorn all the hedgerows and verges and the majority of the houses are spacious and prosperous looking, many built during the Celtic Tiger years. Large areas of rural Donegal, to the casual visitor at least, appear prosperous, dotted with these spacious newly built family mansions. Compared to villages and towns in rural Scotland the countryside looks richer somehow but how many of these houses on the mainland are holiday homes I don't know. It's a jigsaw puzzle I'm still trying to fit together in my mind but Donegal must have its share of these, just like the Scottish Highlands. In rural Scotland most of the impressive infrastructure, town halls, library's, shops, public buildings etc. date from the Victorian era onwards but here a lot of it seems to have been built in the last 30 years  judging by the architectural style. Balance that against a lack of job opportunities now with many Irish young folk forced to work abroad, away from their families, static or still falling house prices, ghost estates lying empty and unwanted throughout Ireland and EU laws impacting on communities far from the suit and tie brigade in Brussels and the jigsaw puzzle starts to get complex and harder to piece together.  Obviously, with Scotland at a crossroads between full independence and staying put it's a jigsaw that is very relevant.

Fuschia hedge in Arranmore.

 Two different ferry companies seem to run over here out of Burtonport. One offering a passenger only service and the other one for cars and passengers. We boarded the car ferry as passengers in a rush just making it aboard before it sailed as the next one was in the afternoon and would limit our time on the island.
Burtonport is a strange place as well, the only village/town in Donegal I've seen with a real Jekyll and Hyde character. According to Alex, who used to visit it as a child it was a bustling and lively place back then, very popular, with a thriving fishing industry and packed harbour and home to more than a few self made millionaires. Famous for its seafood and lifeline connection to the myriad of offshore islands. When we arrived however, admittedly on a wild, overcast, freezing morning where few communities would look appealing, it appeared to have seen better times. Large prosperous houses and well kept gardens rubbed shoulders with boarded up hotels, massive, empty looking pubs, and several vacant lots containing the concrete skeletons of large buildings. Slightly reminiscent of Rothesay on Bute though much more pronounced here with echoes of  slowly fading grandeur. It was only when I returned and looked it up on the internet the pieces fell into place- a once buoyant fishing industry with large local workforce exporting produce Europe wide brought to its knees by fish stocks plummeting and consequent  EU restrictions on how much you can catch. A limited number of days at sea means it's only profitable for a few small boats now catering for local seafood restaurants. It relies mainly on tourism these days and is in a transition stage.
The main activity in the place seems to be centred around the ferry terminal. On a nice day this would be a lovely, sheltered crossing with great views and rock scenery as the ferry weaves through a succession of low lying shoals and  picturesque outcrops during the short 15 minute trip.
A map of the region, colourful history and amusing local joke page here in this smashing link to Eddie Quinn's Website which I found by typing in Burtonport. Hope he doesn't mind. If he does I'll take it off again immediately if he lets me know.
Well worth a look for a local take on the area. The funny chapter is just that. Some great jokes.

Autumn colours on Arranmore.
Away from the sheltered eastern side the interior and west of the island is a drab mass of peat bog and windswept open moor. A signposted circular walking track contours around this level part of the island and you can tell it gets hit regularly by winter storms as not much above six inches high heather and low level vegetation exists here. Most of the peat (Turf in Ireland) is collected here to fuel the residents fires.
Houses are few and far between in this drab hinterland, usually hidden in dips and coves, well away from the full fury of wind and wave.
Heading towards the lighthouse at the north western tip we came across this unusual structure in a small moorland lough.(lochan)
And this shrine beside it.
We bumped into two Great Lake residents  here proudly wearing Beaver Island jackets who had travelled over from Beaver Island on Lake Michigan. I think they were in a car and had probably visited the lighthouse as well before stopping here. A very interesting history links these two isolated communities together. What a story this would make in a film! 
Graeme on the sea stack walk.
As I said earlier the interior of Arranmore is rather flat and drab with no great scenery to speak of. I'd imagine most average visitors, especially those who come by car, visit this roadside shrine, the Beaver Island monument, then the lighthouse and ruined coastguard station built by the British then later used during World War One before being burnt down by the IRA in the early 1920s as the highlight of their trip across here. It's a long way for unremarkable scenery.
Thank God I'm a hill walker then and my fellow like-minded companions of Graeme, Nathan and Bob (the handsome one) shared the desire to explore further than the average tourist. Just below the bleak empty windows of the abandoned coastguard station with its monotonous concrete façade looking particularly forlorn on a dull day, a narrow staircase to heaven descended. 
The old coastguard steps leading down to a cove where supplies would be unloaded in calm weather.
Granted, it wasn't particularly calm today with a howling wind and impressive swell battering the coastline but once again our tendency to walk further than the average car occupant paid dividends for us.
150 odd crumbling steps and weathered nylon rope later we reached the bottom and a great view of waves which had travelled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from America to reach here. West coast Ireland is famous for the size and strength of its waves battering onto this exposed and fractured coastline.
Luckily, the wind was blowing west to east so there was no chance of getting blown over the edge.
 Even waterfalls were failing to reach the sea below, being driven back up onto the land in drenching curtains of spray 30 foot high. Bang on cue, at 2:00pm exactly, blue skies appeared and the sun came out although it was still grim and black over the mainland mountains. The weather forecast had predicted this and we had headed here in good faith because of that, despite a poor morning.
A natural arch being pounded by waves.
Cliff scenery around the lighthouse.
Even the seagulls were finding it hard to fly in this weather but we loved it. Exhilarating stuff now the sun was out.

We walked back along a faint path north and then east of the lighthouse along the cliff edge soaking up world class views of sea stacks, natural arches, and isolated bays.
Some of these sea stacks have been climbed by locals and visitors so I'll end with a short video filmed in calmer conditions of an ascent of one of the biggest stacks.
 What a great trip.
Sharks fin sea stack. Allow 4 to 5 hours to walk around the island, taking in the best of the sea cliffs from the Lighthouse then along the edge north and east back to the ferry terminal. 
 Even the ferry back to the mainland seemed to share our buoyant mood with its warm inside cabin décor aimed at children and Burtonport looked much more attractive in the sunshine. Doesn't everywhere?
Superb! You need to be a damn good climber to solo sea stacks without a rope though as they feel really exposed and can appear to move under you sometimes due to the wave action affecting  the edge of your vision. Respect! I was never anywhere near that level.


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Ireland. Donegal. Sperrin Mountains.Day One.. A Love Story.

The Sperrin Mountains near Barnes Gap.
A trip over to the Emerald Isle again via the usual cheap deal with Ryan Air. Flight from Prestwick to Derry/Londonderry then car to Donegal as guests of Graeme again. Recruits this time were myself, handsome Bob (not me sadly- I'll never post a selfie...sniff sniff.)and Nathan, an Edinburgh friend of Graeme
 ( N..."think they do salt and brown sauce in chip shops over here?" G... no. N... Why not? It's the only way to eat chips!) It's an Edinburgh/ East Coast thing.
 If Scotland becomes independent we will have to do something about that culture difference between two cities 30 miles apart. Maybe a small electric fence between Edinburgh and Glasgow will suffice... and one between Dundee and Aberdeen so they don't feel left out?
The television weather forecast ( Graeme preferred the seaweed hung on door method) predicted bad weather in the Donegal.... so we headed east next morning. To the Sperrins in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Indeed we crossed the border so many times during this multi day trip my pockets were jingling with Euros, Bank of Belfast notes handed back in change and Scottish currency all mixed together. Tricky work in supermarkets as it was hard to tell where the border was in the smaller towns and what should be used to buy stuff. It was far easier to tell the Catholic and Protestant communities apart just by the murals, colours, and flags than figure out where the line actually was between both countries at any given time.
No problems of that nature in Scotland going by the latest pony express news tidings as we will have proper giant sized electric fences and border guards if we dare to vote yes on the big day. I'm as clueless as everyone else about what happens then. If the SNP lose their battle that might be because too many important questions remained unanswered and people's natural fear or reluctance to change the status quo kicked in. If better together lose it that might be because their campaign seemed
negative and right wing hard line from the start, always threating with a big stick instead of highlighting any benefits of the union. (A privatized national health service, zero hour contracts as standard working hours, Austerity Britain and a Conservative government for the next ten or more years) Hmmm. Big stick then :o)
With a sunny morning ahead of us we parked near Sawel Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the range at 678 metres. Just past Sperrin itself we found a small layby at Goles forest and took the minor road seen above into the hills. Our hill of choice was Mullaghneany.( I think) I didn't have any small scale maps with me and Graeme was our guide for the day as it was a new area for the Scottish contingent.
No sooner had we started up this minor road when two young goats raced towards us down the ribbon of tarmac, obviously delighted to see us. They were both female (I think, no dangling bits on show underneath) and this is not the usual response I normally get from women.
Nathan takes a goat selfie. He's in his twenties and is into that sort of thing. Posting selfies I mean. Being of a completely different species... ie... much younger, he was amazed that we still used wrist watches to tell the time, that we still used paper maps to navigate, road maps in cars to find out where we were going etc.... and was puzzled that we were not streaming photos instantly onto facebook or "goats we fancy" dot com.  "Blogs. They are so retro but maybe they will come back into fashion again in 20 years".              I'll be under the goats teeth by that time :o(
Never has the generation gap been so wide.

We also had another new recruit to the team. Young Nathan. The son of Graeme's girlfriend who was with us for the day.

The goats seemed to delight in our company and shadowed us as we marched up the valley/glen. I soon christened them Britney and Miley as they were both cute and rather horny (pun intended) but ultimately irritating after a while. Knowing we were going up a sizable hill we tried to lose them a few times in the sheltered walk up the stream but they stuck to us like glue, even jumping three foot fences to stay with us. You had to be careful not to stand on their hoofs as they ran between your legs at times. I grew quite attached to them and wondered if they were somebody's pets as they seemed so tame yet all the cottages in this glen appeared empty or ruined. There was no one around to ask.
Still following.
Still with us.
Although we tried to ignore them they followed us faithfully up the hill like two little sheepdogs. I've had various animals follow me up the mountains over the years but never goats before. Weird.
They didn't seem interested in the yellow sheep that dotted these hillsides, just us. The Sperrin Mountains cover quite a large area and remind me of the Moorfoots and the Southern uplands around Leadhills. A scenic range of hills without being dramatically spectacular but good upland livestock
 country. At one point high up on the ridge I thought we were looking at the sea until Graeme informed us it was actually Lough Neagh, the largest body of freshwater on the island.
Two Nathans and two goats brave a sudden but brief squall of hailstones coming off the summit. This part of the Sperrins doesn't seem to get many ascents and paths were few and far between.
Still with us on the return leg. By this time we were growing quite attached to little Britney and Miley, having gone through so much together but they were stopping more often now to munch juicy bits of the landscape and we didn't want them following us out towards the main road. Luckily, hunger pangs proved stronger than true love between species and they soon stopped at a tasty bush and lost interest in us, as there hadn't been much to graze at high level. We made good our escape back to the car while they were distracted eating parts of Tyrone.
 I was distracted as well by a new thought. A large chunk of Scotland vote Labour every election. Faithfully. Like most working class folk of a certain age I've never voted for anything else. If Independence became a reality would England, Wales  and Northern Ireland ever see a non right wing Conservative leaning government again or would Labour just disappear south of the border? Would Nigel F or Boris J just take turns as PM? Now that's a scary thought to end with! Maybe we might need those electric fences and border guards after all when there's nothing left down south to privatize and sell off :o)
Britney and Miley... A true love story. Separated at last? Aw.