Monday 28 September 2015

River Finn. Ballybofey-Stranorlar. Central Donegal. The End.

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I've held this one back until last. This was a day when we didn't have a lot of spare time to climb a hill but did have a few hours in the afternoon to go a pleasant circular walk around the Finn Valley. We drove to Balleybofey-Stranorlar, two small towns that seem to run into each other but the boundary line appears to be the river. Above is a swollen River Finn that bursts its banks occasionally during extended heavy rainfall into the surrounding fields.
The Finn Valley Complex with swimming pool, playing fields and other sporting venues seems to be the fitness hub of the district. There does seem to be a slightly better sporting culture in the Republic, just from casual observation, with folk of all ages out jogging in the various towns and villages we passed through but maybe that's just an outsider viewpoint as you always notice the little things more on holiday but just take it for granted at home. Of all the mountains we climbed in the Republic I would say that hill-walking is less popular here, except for a few special peaks like Croagh Patrick or Brandon Mountain, with religious connections to the climb, but we were not bagging 3000 plus footers so it's hard to tell. Away from the current fashion trend of Munro-bagging in Scotland the lower peaks there are equally empty. Errigal is popular as are the Mountains of Mourne but they are both spectacular and Belfast is only a short drive from the latter. The equally scenic Dartry Mountains though, including the iconic Ben Bulbin and Ben Whisken had only faint paths to the summit, which was a surprise given how much they dominate the landscape. Maybe Ireland's recent history accounts for that though.
Heading out on our circular walk around town. It is sign boarded on the town centre info map and takes about an hour but you can easily extend it to 3 to 4 hours by using the network of minor rural roads that crisscross the upper slopes of the Finn Valley and give extensive views over the area.
A photo taken from the minor road network looking over the Finn Valley in central Donegal. Quiet minor roads ideal for walking or cycling with enough hill climbs and views to satisfy the energetic who think the town trail is too restrictive.
Walking the town trail. Brightly coloured shop.
Kee's hotel and bar.
A nice open stretch and a tree sculpture near the River.
The town centre. The hall is named after a person. Isaac Butt, a local worthy and MP.

A bizarre and colourful mural that has also been turned into a video game. Some Irish myths seem to be more whimsical and fantastic than the strictly practical Scottish equivalent. i.e. boy meets girl- boy gets killed in battle- girl grieves for her hero forever etc.
None of that mundane stuff here.
This link is interesting as it mentions an ancient myth in many cultures, including Irish, about a great eye that can destroy armies and wither the land. No surprise then, given J.R.R. Tolkien's knowledge of that subject ( well read and an expert in ancient mythology and medieval history) that it reappears as the main foe in the Lord of the Rings. Inspiration does not emerge from a vacuum.. but maybe a vacuum cleaner that sucks up everything learned during a lifetime then transforms it in a new way for a modern audience.
Bonner's Pub which has a good atmosphere and has traditional music nights. Seen an excellent folk band in here a few winter's ago singing mostly well known ancient songs I was already familiar with from the "Child Collection," another treasure trove of Celtic mythology, this time in verse.
Can't resist a Michelin Man. Something about a creature made of tyres just seemed to appeal to the child in me... which has never really gone away.. the child that is.
A replica of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B plane in the departure/arrivals lounge at Derry Airport commemorating when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean solo from Newfoundland in Canada to Ireland in 1932. She left the full sized one where she landed in a field nearby where the local cows apparently found the structure tasty and started eating it. The original plane was eventually rescued from the hungry cows and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
All too soon it was time to get the flight home. A fantastic trip, great company, weather and hills. Thanks again to Graeme and Marion for being perfect hosts.
Just to show I'm not a fussy eater this was one of my best DIY meals on the trip. A Lidl tin of unfamiliar brand Corned Beef and Baked Beans cooked together in a pot.
"Looks like cat vomit. " was Alex's opinion. "You're not going to eat all that?"
(The bowl has a deep middle section meant for soup so it's a larger portion than it looks here.)
I mention this because I scoffed the lot and it was delicious. So good I had it again the next night.
By comparison Alex and myself were on a walking trip a couple of summers ago and came off the hills starving, wanting a chip supper at a popular Scottish west coast tourist hot spot that shall remain nameless here, but one with a lot of passing trade. I had a steak pie supper, Alex had a hamburger supper and despite being hungry as a Derry cow we only had half of it before leaving it in disgust at how bad it was. There was a large bin on the premises and I opened it to toss in the leftovers only to find it was nearly full to the brim with other half eaten chip suppers of all varieties so it wasn't just our opinion of the meals on offer.
That is a true story and not very helpful for the Scottish tourist board's attempts to promote Scotland. I'm the last person to want posh food as I like cheap and cheerful stuff like Greggs sausage rolls or buns but surely there should be a decent lower standard of chip shop that should at least serve edible and tasty food as it's far from the first time I've had very poor chip suppers north of Glasgow or even in the city itself and throughout the central belt. This has been going on all my life and it's a lucky dip if you get a good one in an unfamiliar place. I don't want all of them to be excellent as you will always get a range but surely tossing away good food because it's so grim you can't eat it after you have paid for it is not acceptable. There are many excellent chip shops throughout Scotland in every area and it might be a difficult industry to earn a living in ( although many of the worse places still seem to stay open alas :o) but it does not create a good impression of Scotland. As I've mentioned before I've not had a bad chip supper yet throughout the English Lake District in different areas and valleys. As a proud Scot it hurts me to say that but it's true.
So my question is... How hard can it be to put out decent chip suppers of a reasonable standard as you would think even the bad ones would improve over time with experience, like in any other profession. This is a serious question. From a personal point of view if I opened a bin to find most of the food I cooked was being thrown away I would either think I wasn't cut out to be a fryer or I'd make sure I learned how to get better fast.
This is a puzzle I've yet to solve as takeaway chip suppers are the No 1 takeaway food I indulge in on trips away if I don't have my usual donkey chunks in the tent and luckily my local chip shop is excellent but why does the standard vary so much? If I buy a Greggs hot sausage roll I know what to expect every time. It doesn't change. Likewise, my favourite camp grub of heated up donkey chunks from a tin.
Not angry.. just disappointed... and genuinely puzzled.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Giant's Causeway. Causeway Coast. Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. Northern Ireland.

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This is a trip we undertook on the first full day over in the Emerald Isle which was exploring the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland. Marion kindly volunteered to drive us in her car on what would be mainly a sightseeing trip, visiting the famous locations, known world wide, like the Giant's Causeway, seen above, and the Carrick- A- Rede Rope Bridge to reach an offshore island. We would be passing Derry/Londonderry, then the scenic seaside towns of Coleraine, Portstewart, and Portrush to get there.
As both attractions have been featured on many television programmes over the years I was looking forward to seeing them in reality but nothing prepared me for the crowds of tourists, especially as most of the other world class scenery in the Republic had been empty with only a handful of other visitors. We had grown so used to having spectacular places to ourselves over in Ireland both on the sea cliffs and on the mountains that it was a real shock to find so many people here.
The Giant's Causeway, seen above, was absolutely mobbed. There must have been several hundred people swarming over the famous pavement of hexagonal blocks and more walking down the minor road to reach it from several packed car parks. Having taken several hours to get here from Donegal we were very lucky to get a space. Don't know if it's like this all the time or we just picked a busy day but if you put all the folk here on a single block each there wouldn't be many empty spaces left.
A view from the cliffs above the causeway. It was so busy we didn't stay long here as we already knew what it looked like from loads of magazines and TV programmes. What interested us more was the parts that had not featured as heavily and were unknown to the Scottish contingent. This included a walk along the red horizontal band of cliffs, seen in the first photo which was a nice elevated balcony trail. Unfortunately, it ended all too soon , as once through the obvious notch in the red band a massive rock fall had swept away the path which meant we had to retrace our steps until we reached a flight of stairs.
More hexagonal columns, similar to the ones found on Skye, Staffa, Arthur's Seat, and Dunglass near Strathblane, Glasgow.
The line of stairs to the top of the cliffs. Good to see the place at last but we were somewhat overwhelmed by the crowds.
Carrick-A-Rede came next, which is equally famous, with its rope bridge high above the blue waters to reach a small island, seen here.This was busy as well and we had to join a short queue at the ticket booth as you have to pay 5:90 euros per adult  if you are not a national trust member. There was also a short queue to cross over to the island as everyone wanted a selfie or a photo on the bridge, including us.
I opted for a classic distance shot as taking one on the actual bridge itself didn't look very good. Not that this bothered the selfie stick crowd who only wanted a photo of themselves in it and didn't seem that bothered about the quality of the background scenery. As long as they were there and had evidence of it that was enough. A good picture setting was incidental. Alex didn't cross as he had asked if it was free to walk the km long path up to the bridge but miss out the island and received an OK for that option. Marion stayed with Alex on the main footpath as I think she'd been before years ago and walked most of the coastal path around this district.
As it was a once in a lifetime event Graeme, Bob, and myself paid our euros and crossed onto the island but after the wild, empty sea cliffs in the Republic it was somewhat of an anticlimax. To some folk this would be a major and memorable event crossing here but with our background of scrambling, visiting remote sea stacks and mountaineering it was a bit tame if I'm honest and hands in pockets stuff. We soon returned as you couldn't actually go anywhere on this tiny lump with steep cliffs falling into the sea on all sides and a well trampled grassy centre about the size of a large council garden was the prize for arriving on the island.

Having said that it was a lovely afternoon and the islands out to sea were rugged and interesting, likewise the cliffs and coastline on the journey along the Causeway Coast.. Note the man-made concrete structure on the small island. Perhaps an overhead cable and presumably buckets ran from the mainland cliffs out to here for easy transportation onto ships for this precious material. Limestone.
A wild headland. Interesting link here with good maps and photos of the area.
Limestone or chalk cliffs. We were informed that limestone was mined commercially here in past times and a large lime kiln stood nearby. Also chalk, a type of limestone, was ground into paste from nearby cliffs then used in medicine to settle stomach complaints. Amazing to think these cliffs are the result of millions of tiny shells and skeletons from dead sea creatures built up over geological time. Marble is yet another form of limestone, altered by heat. The rope bridge was originally placed over to the island to allow local fishermen to reach the lucrative and plentiful Atlantic salmon as they swam past the island on their migration route each year. Now it's tourists they catch with the bridge.
Took a lot of finding but here's a link proving that chalk and limestone cliffs can coexist together. A personal puzzle for me that needed explaining. You learn something new every day :o) 
Motoring along the actual causeway coast itself was the highlight for me as it was quieter yet had some spectacular beaches, old clifftop castles, and interesting coastal holiday resorts, perched on cliff tops. Really scenic and a popular stretch of terrain for the Irish on summer holidays and visitors from overseas.
This entire area did seem to attract more tourists though compared to the places we'd been in the Republic detailed in  previous posts. Maybe being part of the UK it was promoted more widely there as the scenery on all our trips north and south have been equally stunning but it's the landscape in the Republic that stands out simply because it's less well known, mysterious, and a complete surprise usually every time we turn a corner.
Below is a famous and iconic castle on a rock plug high above the sea. Look at- In popular culture near the bottom of this link if you think you have seen it before

As if to highlight this global popularity and instant recognition the Giant's Causeway featured in Horizon a few days later when we were back in Glasgow, using the hexagonal blocks to demonstrate the concept of the Multiverse and almost identical separate worlds existing side by side, yet unaware of each other. A radical theory some eminent scientists are coming round to grudgingly accept might actually be real and one used to great effect in Bioshock Infinite which I featured on here around a month ago in a great video. The story line and especially the ending to this game is extraordinary and poignant- the equal of any film script. I might be dumb but I'm intuitively ahead of the curve when I see great ideas that always hit me like a brick in the face. For every ton of dross you have to shovel a small gold nugget is found buried in the mediocrity of life :o)
The Curran Strand beach near Coleraine, photographed around lunchtime with windsurfers, dog walkers, families and swimmers.
The same White rocks beach late evening on the return journey. Only a few folk left. The white limestone blocks can be seen here and they give the beach its name.
Thanks to Marion again for the driving and hospitality and Graeme for inviting us over. A great trip.

Now for something completely different. Surfing the "Silver Dragon", a massive tidal river bore in China through the middle of a large city. The largest of its kind in the world.

Saturday 19 September 2015

Erris Head. Downpatrick Head. Ballycastle. County Mayo. Ireland.

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A mix of photos here from the coastline around Mayo. Looking down huge blowhole on the Mullet peninsula. Needs a big sea and Atlantic rollers to jump up this height during winter storms.
This was a calm day in late summer with hardly any breeze but there was still enough wave action for dramatic views.
Atlantic Gannet looking for fish.
Erris Head Lighthouse. It's actually on a separate island off the Mullet peninsula coast but you can't tell from this angle. Eagle Island I think.
An area where you could scramble down close to the waves.
Very impressive coastline.
We then travelled round to Ballycastle, gateway to the Downpatrick Head sea cliffs.
Very different rock strata here leading to letter box shaped blowholes and sea caves. As you can see this massive blowhole has foam in it and is an impressive distance from the coast, about half a km inland. Although a calm day, head sized foam footballs still floated out this chasm occasionally high into the air so big seas here would be very impressive. This was taken from the viewing platform so this lethal drop is safely fenced off to protect people falling in. I was surprised that what looks like daylight can be seen in the back of it as it is a long way from the other seaward end to here.
Presumably, the other open end of the chasm. This cliff face has many deep sea caves forming along its length however. Tempting holes for sea kayakers to explore but you would have to be very experienced and confident in your own ability around here due to the constant swell.
Downpatrick Head and the famous sea stack.
Different angle,
Distant sea stacks.
Seabirds dancing effortlessly on the updrafts. Fulmars, judging by the distinctive notch on the beak. A sea cliff climber's curse given their ability to fire a torrent of foul smelling mix towards the faces of any intruders appearing near their ledge. Ful-mar means foul gull in Viking although they are not gulls but members of the petrel family of seabirds.
Fun to sit and watch them though. Daylight could also be seen in the photo below. Given enough time this should form an archway and eventually another sea stack when the weak point collapses.
The restless ocean. Downpatrick Head in County Mayo. The cliffs here are not fenced off so parents with children or unwary adults have to be very careful here as they are severely undercut in places or drop vertically straight into the sea. Rescue would be difficult and probably too late. A wild place.

Three minute long tourist promotion video but a good one featuring big winter seas along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Friday 18 September 2015

Achill Island. Ballycroy National Park. Wild Atlantic Way. Ireland.

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The next day, after leaving the hostel on Achill Island, (see previous post) we had intended going up Croagh Patrick, but the clouds were right down over the summit and at 764 metres, 2507 feet, most of its bulk had been invisible since we had arrived. At our age we have no inclination to climb mountains in thick clag or rain, preferring to get a view from the summit if possible.
It also looked like late summer rainstorm weather as ominous dark clouds were building inland in the direction of Croagh Patrick. After a swift consensus we decided to stay at the coast on Achill island and climb Minaun, 466 metres, signposted Barr an Mhionnain on the road sign. Although the mist was down over this summit as well it had been clearing now and then briefly so we had some hope of a view. It also had a large mast on a lower summit and a service road leading up to it so it was an easy choice to make. As luck would have it the weather improved enough to give us views over the island although the higher summits remained in cloud.
The top photo is the view from the summit looking over towards Croaghaun, our summit in the last post.
A wider view of Achill island with the beautiful curving beach below.
Transmission mast on lower slope.
Mary, Virgin and Mother, Star of the Sea. Pray for us. Inscription on plinth at the summit. Makes sense, when fishing on these turbulent waters for a living was commonplace and many drowned trying to earn their income at it. In Scotland, only the Outer Isles have similar statues erected for the same purpose and it's not widespread on the mainland over there.
As we had plenty of time after the hill Graeme took us on a tour of the highlights of the district. In essence, as we were already driving around the serrated Western Seaboard of the Republic and exploring, we were also taking in the best bits of the Wild Atlantic Way without actually following it precisely. We knew this as we kept cutting across the blue wave signs denoting the route on the way to the different areas of coastline that Graeme recommended.
This is the Ballycroy National Park, still in Co Mayo, an area of outstanding bog land which contains the Nephin Beg Range, which must be one of the remotest set of mountains in Ireland with long walks in just to reach the base of the hills.
These summits are over 2000 feet high, some with substantial cliffs, and Nephin itself is 2646 feet but they look small and insignificant just because they are far away.
A view of a closer summit just across the bay from the National Park. The panoramas were nice and the building is spacious, modern and free to enter but I found myself wondering what and who it was  built for. A pleasant circular trail of a few kilometers runs across the bog and is enjoyable but it's not really adventurous in any way and the building itself is antiseptic, not really to my tastes. During our time we were the only ones in it. For the money spent I personally think it could be better thought out but that's just me.
The displays were informative and the staff helpful but it was all a bit sterile somehow due to its ultra modern setting.
This stuffed pine marten looked just as bemused as we were. At 8 Euros for a slice of cake in the modern cafe (it was posh and nice looking with different layers) and oil paintings on the wall selling for between 650 and 1,200 Euros it was way, way out of our budget. I know the elite one percent who have all the money think nothing of spending £12,000 pound for an evening out for two people in a restaurant (fact from a recent London documentary on TV) but that's certainly not our attitude. Needless to say our wallets were never in any danger of being persuaded open in here. It's a growing trend everywhere that new businesses are either selling cut price budget goods or luxury items. There's very little in-between anymore.

The Cafe and oil paintings.
A sanitized Irish equivalent of a "black house"presumably? Too open plan and clean to give it an authentic atmosphere as any others I've visited outdoors required serious bending to enter a dark grim hovel that was mainly designed low to keep in the life giving heat in the depths of winter. Windows were not usually included in the plan. Even a more up to date Victorian humble abode, ie a cottage, would not feel like this. Interesting for a visit during a heavy rainstorm but I prefer my nature in the raw.. with dirt and wind and mystery included.
Rainbow in Mayo. Fortunately, the heavy showers didn't last long, you could see them coming from a long way off and avoid them easily, and it soon turned sunny again.
This was more like it. Scrambling on the sea cliffs near Erris Head with a truly majestic feel and a hint of danger.
Our next stop was just to the north of Achill Island, The Mullet Peninsula, which is only connected to the rest of Mayo by the thinnest of land bridges. To all intents and purposes it feels like an island and is another Gaeltacht district. Good zoom in Mayo Map here of the places we visited, including the National park area.
Although the cliffs are much lower on this coast they have a nice geometric feel to them and due to massive winter storms dumping loads of salt water inland, bare stretches of shattered rock cover large areas, turning the coastline into a virtual desert of clean individual slabs ripped off by the waves. Blow holes are a feature here also.
Sea Stacks around Erris Head.
And further adventure would follow...
For those wanting a glimpse of the power of the sea this excellent video gives you a taste of the huge rollers that can occur off the west coast of Ireland. I've seen pro surfers doing this looking slick and in control but body boarding in massive waves looks harder and more brutal somehow. 50% surfing- 50% painful wipe-outs. The Atlantic is consistently the roughest ocean on the planet and every year the storms seem to get bigger and more impressive thanks to climate change.