Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
31 October 2009
32. Tower Loop, Glencolumbkille, Co. Donegal
No matter which direction a traveller comes from, the final approach to Glencolumbkille is made across swathes of stark bogland. From this sombre setting, an archetypal west Donegal landscape of great but harsh beauty, the shock of the plunge into the long, sheltered green valley running due east inland between two high, rugged headlands had Jane and me gasping. We’d hardly pulled up at An Chistin café before Inga Bock, Donegal’s Rural Recreation Officer, suited and booted for hill walking, was at the car door with a big enthusiastic grin.
Poor Jane! It was Hobson’s choice for her – the exhilaration of high striding, of windy cliffs and giant views, versus the solitary bliss of an afternoon’s fossicking on the wild beaches of Glen Bay. The pull of the sea, always there in her heart and soul, proved the stronger. Off she went to the shore where Atlantic rollers were crashing, while Inga and I faced for the hillside, climbing up above the farm of Bíofán to the enormous cairn at the saddle that marks the rough stone-built well of St Columbkille. Offerings and leavings had been squeezed into every interstice above the still, clear water in the basin: crucifixes, rosary beads, keys, rings, delicately articulated mouse bones. Here we sat, looking back over the village in its green glen and listening to the sigh of waves on the sands of Skelpoonagh Bay below.
Glencolumbkille lies studded with monoliths, stone circles, ancient tombs and sacred wells. The remote western glen must have been a powerful magnet for worship and spirituality thousands of years before Columb, the Donegal boy with the holy burden on him, came here to establish a monastery in the middle of the 6th century AD. The saint and his acolytes blessed the wells and the stones. Columb was soon gone, following his destiny across the sea to Iona and the establishment of a Celtic church that would last a thousand years. He left behind him in Glencolumbkille an imperishable aura. His followers incised the standing stones with mazy crucifixes. They erected crosses and built tiny cell-like churches, still scattered across the valley cheek by jowl with the monuments of prehistoric belief. In Glencolumbkille, as much as anywhere in Ireland, one senses the intermingling of an old and a far older faith.
And what was a nice girl from the Frisian Islands doing in a place like this? ‘Oh,’ said Inga as we climbed on up the mountain track, ‘I came to Ireland 20 years ago to help start a riding school. “I’ll just stop here and look around a little before I go back to Germany,” is what I told myself. Well – the going back never happened!’
The old track rose across a wide upland of black turf and purple-bronze heather. A blasting south-west wind shoved us on, up to the gaunt old signal tower built on Glen Head early in the 19th century. Napoleon never came, but the tower still stands, outfacing the storms. Here we looked out across a sea whipped by the wind into long white lanes of foam. It was too blusterous to stay there long. With the impatient hand of the gale as a propeller we sped on along the sparkling mica rocks of the track, over the crest of Beefan & Garveross Mountain, past turf banks undercut by wind and rain into the semblance of ragged neolithic tombs. The view on the descent was a mighty one, all the way across the glen where the Slieve League cliffs rose in a great green wave to their 2,000-ft plunge into the sea.
Jane beat us into An Chistin by a short head, having roamed the beaches to her heart’s content. We looked at each other and laughed. Her cheeks were pink, her hair was a salty tangle. Inga had wind tears in her eyes. My beard was full of turf fragments. What a wind; what a great day.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 10; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
Bus (www.buseireann.ie): Service 490 from Donegal Town; or McGeehan Coaches (074-954-6150; www.mgbus.com)
Road: N56 Donegal Town-Killybegs; R263 to Glencolumbkille
WALK DIRECTIONS: Starting from Ionad Siúl Hill Walkers’ Centre, fork left at memorial; follow blue arrows along road and up to Bíofán Farm (OSI ref G 525859). To visit St Columbkille’s Well (525861), follow markers uphill to right; then join mountain track and climb to post with arrows (524866). Left to tower (519869); return to track; follow blue arrows for 1 mile uphill over Beefan & Garveross Mountain to road (536862). Right downhill for 1 mile to T-junction by St Columbkille’s Church (536849). Left past church and cross pillar to Ionad Siúl.
LENGTH: 5 miles: allow 2½-3 hours
CONDITIONS: Steeply up to signal tower; some boggy patches
DON’T MISS … !
• St Columbkille’s Well
• valley and sea views from signal tower and mountain
• cross pillar near St Columbkille’s Church
REFRESHMENTS: An Chistin café, Glencolumbkille (074-973-0213); ring for opening times
ACCOMMODATION: Ionad Siúl Hill Walkers’ Centre, Glencolumbkille (074-973-0302 or 086-211-3445; www.ionadsuil.ie) – €25 per person sharing; group rates available
GUIDED WALKS: Sean Mullan, Walking & Talking In Donegal, Clemenstown, Ballylar, Letterkenny, Co.Donegal (074-915-9366; www.walktalkdonegal.com)
GLENCOLUMBKILLE FOLK VILLAGE MUSEUM: 074-973-0017; www.glenfolkvillage.com
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking; www.coillteoutdoors.ie
Tourist Office: The Quay, Donegal (074-972-1148; www.discoverireland.ie/northwest)