“ Beautiful coastal area in County Donegal, Ireland. „
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The British are by tradition an island race, a nation that does like to be beside the seaside. This is handy seeing as we are actually living on an island, but what (if we're brutally honest) is less handy is the seaside we've been landed with. Obviously it's not ALL disappointing (Beachy Head, North Devon, Arisaig, etc) but for a lot of us a very important part of our day trips or holidays is pretending that places like Skegness, Blackpool and Great Yarmouth aren't actually utterly useless. Some of us aren't very good at pretending, and so we tend to spend our free time slightly further afield. And if I go to County Donegal, it really is 'slightly' with a small 's'. A couple of hours past Belfast brings you to a dementedly diverse coastal wonderland at the northern extreme of Ireland, where titanic Atlantic breakers lap upon the most gorgeous of sweeping beaches, where peeling seabirds whirl and dervish about the hugest of towering cliffs, and where the 'characterful' locals eke a fascinating ongoing existence.
On Your Shore
The most staggering scenery in the county is in the south-west, where the horrifically beautiful declivities of Slieve League rear almost 2000ft above the waves (*cough*, see my previous review, *cough*), but as you continue clockwise towards the border at Derry the visual feast scarcely eases off. As the coast gradually turns the corner around Bloody Foreland one grows used to the inevitability of another golden shoreline, one more wildly remote headland and the succession of tenuous communities. It finally terminates in the 'Ireland in miniature' of the Inishowen peninsula, but a little way back from there, jutting northwards from the village of Dunfanaghy, is an even more compact summary of the Emerald Isle's seaboard...Horn Head. Here you'll find golden sands, varying granularities of pebble, flora, fauna, and feck-off cliffs. A bit lacking in pubs I'll grant you, but you wouldn't want to drive around this peninsula drunk anyway.
Strictly speaking there is the Horn Head peninsula and there is Horn Head itself. The former is a five-by-five-mile knot of land, an island until the overcutting of marram grass allowed drifting sand to join it to the mainland within historic times (land is always less permanent than you think), the latter its northern extremity, a place where the land gives out in the form of quartzite mandibles and the most wonderfully wicked gravity. It's all reached from the aforementioned large village of Dunfanaghy on the main N56 road less than an hour from the relative metropolis of Letterkenny (take the turn for the Holy Trinity church as the last couple of times I was there the Horn Head signpost was missing); the village itself is accessible by bus (although the very best of luck with deciphering the timetables) but the sensible and licensed will bring a car. And rail transport? Well, one of the locals might let you play with their Hornby train set if you ask them nicely.
As I Roved Out
For the avowed motorist the signposted Horn Head Drive is reasonably exciting (without being quite as death-defying as some accounts would have you believe). Leaving Dunfanaghy (and going anti-clockwise) the road traverses the dunes and skims the shoreline but once it starts angling up the hillside the driver might want to concentrate a bit and any nervous passengers might want to take a few deep breaths, seeing as the increasingly glorious view across the bay of Sheep Haven has an increasingly large/steep drop as a foreground. You're probably not going to die in the next few minutes but it's as well to bear in mind the consequences of missing a bend in such a situation, consequences starkly borne out in this harrowing documentary footage...
Rounding the corner the huge cliffs of Traghlisk come into view, hinting at the spectacular nature of the Head itself. A conveniently placed parking spot provides a fine vantage point for this vista, and also allows very easy access to the highest point of the peninsula. (This is Croaghnamaddy, and is about five minutes' walk inland. The view's great, and hopefully the fly-tipped washing machine has gone by now). Back in the car the tarmac loops still higher above the sea before salvation is reached at a T-Junction. A right turn here provides the closest road access to Horn Head itself; a left turn takes a gently declining and hugely picturesque line back to sea level.
Right so, it's a cracking drive, but inevitably there's a lot more to be seen if you leave the car behind. So here's a description of a walk around the western half of the peninsula (you can walk the eastern half too, but most of its wares are displayed from the road), relatively easy going and with an array of astonishing sights and sounds. Go on go on go on...
A Day Without Rain (fingers crossed)
The start is just past Horn Head Bridge (just over half a mile out of Dunfanaghy) where there's a notice board and space for vehicles; alternatively, drive a little further to a signed car park in the woods on the left. The latter option means you start with a sylvan shaded stroll beneath the branches (hopefully not assailed by billions of non-biting but bloody annoying insects like I was), the former with an open stretch along the river, but they soon unite on a beautifully smooth grassy path across a links that would make a tremendous golf course in an incredible setting if anyone ever dared risk my wrath by building one. After a mile or so the going becomes a bit more yielding and sandy underfoot, and a quick clamber over the dunes will have you tumbling down onto the beach. Or 'The Beach' as I prefer to think of it.
Wind Beneath My Wings
Tramore Strand is simply majestic; mile upon mile of pristine sand holding court over a fearsome battery of Atlantic breakers, backed by the brooding mountains of the interior. So friendly as to be the ideal venue for a picnic (if you can find someone mug enough to lug the hamper this far), so vast and wild that 'Big Wednesday' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' could have been simultaneously shot here without either production noticing the other. It's the most beautiful beach I've ever come across (and I'm old, y'know) and hopefully the shlep required to reach it will maintain its peace and quiet.
But onwards. A fun clamber up the rocks at the north end of the beach gains the continuation of the path, part of a waymarked trail whose focus will appear once you round the headland overlooking the strand. The coast becomes more rocky and fretted on the approach to the mighty (although not quite so mighty as once it was) blowhole of McSwyne's Gun, an obvious aperture in the rugged surface. Before erosion this was allegedly audible up to 20 miles away; these days it's a bit less dramatic but still worthy of notice and respect (the hole spits out rocks about 10cm in diameter at frightening speed, and there have been deaths here, so bear that in mind if approaching the opening during an incoming tide). The going underfoot is very easy so long as you don't fall over the edge (there are cliffs, although not 'cliffs' in the way that some things later in the day are cliffs) or stumble into a blowhole. Soon enough the corner is turned into the enchanting inlet of Pollaguill Bay, the path descending to sea level by an exhilarating (but safe) traverse across a steep hillside. The Bay is harsher than Tramore but even quieter, pebbly more than sandy, and supposedly a good swimming beach for the careful. (I have no experience to relate on this point because a) I'm not stupid and b) it's the bloody Atlantic. It'll be cold).
(Note that the walk can be shortened here by following the waymarked 'McSwyne's Gun Loop' back to the car park; indeed, turning east at almost any point will gain a road in time, even without an obvious path. Don't worry...most of the landowners will have the decency to ask questions before they shoot you).
The rattle of boots on pebbles grow silent as you grassily climb away from Pollaguill Bay aiming for the cairn on Rough Point on the skyline. The gentle pull uphill, the turn of the coastal corner and the continuing walk northwards are wonderfully easy: one can walk anywhere (so long as it's a sensible distance back from the edge) but paths can be found if required. A mile more of blissfully benign going brings you to the pull up Crocknaclogher. In a walk of ever-escalating highlights, here is the best yet: the magnificent Marble Arch forms a Olympian opening in the cliffs on your left, the sea within almost eerily calm amidst the shrieking seabirds and otherwise-crashing waves. Leaving the arch behind (and behind the wall on the left: a good way to keep safely back from cliffs that are gradually increasing in stature) the plod up to the skyline is heavy with anticipation, and when you crest the brow of the hill you catch your first glimpse of Horn Head on the horizon. It's a great moment indeed, its sawn-off antlers crouching moodily over massive Atlantic-bound declivities.
You're as well not to become TOO fixated upon Horn Head during the couple of miles leading up to it, although keeping on the landward side of the wall should eliminate all possibility of a really sticky end. The more adrenaline-addicted can utilise the seaward side and clamber over a couple of preliminary blunt spikes while admiring the impressively perpendicular westward plunges; the cautious can occasionally peer over at some vertically-walled inlets which are especially impressive on an incoming tide. This terrain is slightly tougher than what's gone before, but soon you debouch onto an Elysian tilted meadow of moss and heather which culminates in the horns. You can either follow the edge or take a more direct route; you'll find thin tracks on either course but only the former has a bloody enormous drop on one side to concentrate the mind, and either way the Head itself grows more ludicrously impressive with every step. Finally you reach a short cross-fence; it wouldn't stop anyone more than three feet tall but it does serve as a signal...from now on, no messing about. This is Horn Head itself.
Heaven Is A Place On Earth
From here the two horns extend seawards. The left (westward) one forms a platform of grass and bracken, its west wall collapsing in a shield of shattered streaked quartzite 600ft into a furious Atlantic. The other horn is similarly vegetated but narrower, a salient fin poking bravely northwards, separated from both its brother and the ground continuing eastwards by monstrously unfathomable chasms. The nervous may remain at the fence, but easy paths lead safely (in all but the worst of weather) onto both of them.
When I was there I met four other people, either lunching by the fence or wandering warily out onto the horns. Having engaged them all in conversation (they all turned out to be as nice as they looked but in the presence of 600ft cliffs it's wise to check that you aren't also in the presence of sociopaths) I did likewise. I can safely say that few bits of coast have made quite as much of an impression on me as this, the platforms on the end of each horn like thrones of sky, one of the very best places for experiencing the vertical from the comparative comfort of the horizontal. (Frankly, Conan Doyle missed a trick by not setting the Holmes/Moriarty death-struggle here). Everyone will find the excitement almost overwhelming, especially photographers, as they struggle and (like me) probably fail to capture the true scale of their surroundings. It's utterly sublime.
One could linger for a long while (or forever, if you're not careful), but eventually the matter of getting the hell out of here must be addressed. The coastline continues semi-eastward to a prominent Napoleonic lookout station above Traghlisk Point; you'll keep turning around to look at Horn Head (which is lost from sight after this) but the humungous cliffs upon which this ruin perches are scarcely less impressive. From hereon in the way is 'pleasant' rather than 'adrenalized' as a selection of eroded turfy trenches meander southwards over Coastguard Hill, past another derelict lookout post, before finally reaching the end of the road mentioned earlier. From here it's three miles back to the start (unless you've arranged a pick-up), and while the tarmac is unyieldingly tough it's softened by the charming rural foreground and dramatic mountain/maritime background. It's all downhill too, apart from the uphill bits, and make sure not to miss the necessary left turn after a couple of miles. And after all the coastal drama it makes for a calming coda at the end of a terrific journey.
(6 miles with transport, 9 miles without, 1000ft ascent, took me a lazy four hours)
Days In Old Donegal
Apparently there's more to life than idyllic beaches and incredible cliffs, so I'm obliged to mention 'other places of interest'. The Irish have always excelled at death and the afterlife, and a glance at the map will reveal a decent selection of megalithic tombs dotted about the peninsula. It's always an entertaining gamble to go looking for these locations, as they vary between 'huge dolmens that would have a visitor centre in England' and 'a bit of a pile of rocks in a field, possibly put down not so much by the Ancients as by a modern farmer having a laugh'. If one retreats to Dunfanaghy itself you'll find a Harry Vardon-designed golf course, a fair few craft shops, a smattering of galleries (one can well imagine this area forming a fairly decent artists' retreat) and a famine museum. In addition, a short distance west along the coast road is a car park giving access to the New Lake wildfowl reserve, the freshwater lake formed when the bay of Rinclevan Strand was sealed off by the drifting sands barely 100 years ago.
The Parting Glass
The coastline of County Donegal is probably the finest in Britain and Ireland, and its riches are almost embarrassing extensive. Even with that in mind Horn Head ranks very highly in its armoury of wonders, providing an excellent balance between accessibility and remoteness, combining wildness with tranquillity, and never forgetting to be blazingly beautiful while it's doing it. It may save the most extraordinary sights for the pedestrian, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could regret a visit here.
OSI Discovery Series Map 2 (you do need a decent map)
http://www.gulliver.ie for accommodation
http://www.buseireann.ie/ for bus transport; other private operators also serve the area
Nearest airport is Londonderry
(Previously on Ciao).