If you glance at a road map of Ireland you will notice that in the north west, just above Westport, there is a large blank area. The central part of which is the Nephin Beg Mountain range. The Nephins are a wild and empty place surrounded by blanket bog, riddled with small streams and lakes and, on the eastern slopes, covered in pine forest. While relatively untouched by man there is, however, an ancient path, which has been used for over a thousand years to travel through these mountains.
The path, known as the Bangor Trail starts in the village of Bangor Erris in the north west and winds its way south through a vast expanse of blanket bog before joining the road close to Newport.
The trail takes the line of least resistance through the mountains so there aren’t many long climbs, the trail’s highpoint is a mere 260 metres, but the terrain is difficult, wet and boggy, each step needs to be chosen with care. Though not one of the 43 National Waymarked Trails, the route is marked by posts at regular intervals. However, in many places the path isn’t obvious and would be impossible to follow in thick mist without a map and compass.
On a bitterly cold Friday evening in November three friends and I gathered near Newport, Mayo at our accommodation for the night, a one room stone cottage known as the Brogan Carroll Bothy. Bothies, which are common in the Scottish Highlands, are rudimentary shelters found in remote areas. The Bothy was renovated by Mayo County Council and An Taisce thanks to donations by two Irish-Americans, John Brogan and Barry Carroll . While the Bothy is spartan, just four walls, two windows, a roof and door, it’s ideal for an overnight stay and an early start in the morning.
Our plan was to walk the trail from north to south, starting in Bangor Erris and spending a night in a mountain shelter, build by Mountain Meitheal, before finishing the walk the next morning.
Mountain Meitheal is a volunteer trail conservation group who maintain and restore trails in the mountains and forests, with the aim of protecting the environment and promoting sustainable outdoor recreation. In July, to celebrate their ten year anniversary, Mountain Meitheal erected a mountain shelter in the Nephins, alongside the Bangor Trail. Robert Grandon, from Carlow, a member and former Chairperson of Mountain Meitheal, was one of sixteen volunteers who spend a very wet week working on the project “We prefabricated the hut at Coillte Headquarters in Wicklow and transported it down to Mayo. We had to carry the material 300m across the hillside in really wet weather.”
The shelter is a three sided wooden hut with a sleeping platform and a picnic table. It sleeps five in comfort and has great views overlooking the Srahmore Valley.
The most interesting aspect of the Bangor Trail is undoubtedly the sheer remoteness of the land it passes through. The word wilderness conjures up images of Alaska or Siberia, Mayo probably isn’t one of the first place that comes to mind.
However, there is a fascinating project under way that is about to challenge that perception. The Wild Nephin Project is a joint effort between Coillte, the state owned forestry company, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service to create an area of wilderness in the Nephin Beg Mountain range. The plan, which is ongoing, is to set aside almost 16,000 hectares (160 square kilometres) of bog and forest and allow it revert back to a natural state, creating Ireland’s first designated wilderness area.
Bill Murphy is Head of Recreation, Environment and Public Goods in Coillte and project manager for the Wild Nephin Project, explains “the project was initiated by Coillte three years ago. The idea was to take this forest and convert it over a period of 10 -15 years from a production forest to a wild forest“.
The project team defined wilderness as an extensive wild landscape that protects and enhances nature conservation and provides opportunities for primitive recreation. Murphy points out that it will be “a wild landscape as opposed to a pristine landscape, there will be no human management. Managing wilderness is a contradiction in terms but we want to make some changes to the landscapes before we let nature take over”.
According to Murphy the project will “offer visitors an unique opportunity in Ireland to experience a two or three day backpack or long day hike in remote and challenging country, a landscape free of vehicle traffic, house, power lines and light pollution”. The existing forest roads will be re-engineered as trails, with limited waymarking and a number of designated camping sites with shelters or tent platforms.
Joe McDermott, 64, from Newport is co-author, with Robert Chapman, of “The Bangor Trail” published by Mayo County Council. The guidebook has detailed maps and a step by step description of the route as well as plenty of interesting background information about the flora and fauna and local history of the route. McDermott, who wrote the history sections of the book, said that during the course of his research “it became evident that this trail was very, very old, it could stretch back to Celtic times”.
In more recent times the trail has become increasingly popular with walkers. Anna Connor, Walking Development Officer for Mayo County Council, explains “in the early eighties the concept to develop the route into a long distance waymarked trail was born. Shortly afterwards the route was signposted and in 1992 the guidebook was published”.
Mayo County Council has plans to improve the trail, “we would like to see as many people use it as possible and we have a plan to improve underfoot conditions and create access points so that people can do a shorter walk. The other thing we will look at is bridging some of the smaller streams and upgrading the waymarking. This is happening at the moment” explains Connor.
Barry Murphy, 45 from Castlebar leads walking tours in Mayo and Connemara, with his company Tourism Pure Walking Holidays. Murphy “has been bringing groups on the Trail for the last five or six years, I have had a lot of walking clubs, typically from Dublin and some individuals but mostly groups. French, German, Irish”.
Murphy’s experience is that Irish walkers, even if they haven’t done anything as long and hard as the Bangor Trail, have “an understanding that the west of Ireland is a boggy place and that the trail is an extraordinary manifestation of that” whereas visitors from Europe “experience something they would never find at home. Europeans are used to walking on bone dry ground, but they all love it.”
Murphy believes that while the Trail isn’t walked that often its popularity is increasing slowly, “in the overall context of more people out walking in Ireland, the numbers will certainly increase but it will never be like the Wicklow Mountains or Kerry in terms of numbers. The Bangor Trail is for serious walkers, it should be the top of the range, a serious undertaking.”
Bryan McCabe, 36, a lecturer in NUI Galway agrees “The Bangor Trail offers a challenging but inspiring trek through the North Mayo wilderness, it’s very scenic with distant views of Achill Island, Slieve Carr looming above and the Atlantic Ocean to the west”. In the summer of 2011 McCabe walked a section of the Bangor Trail en route to Slieve Carr (721 metres), considered Ireland’s remotest mountain. “In my opinion, the isolation and solitude of the landscape surrounding the trail is unique in Ireland” he says.
We set off on our walk from Bangor Erris on a clear frosty Saturday morning. From the very start the ground was very damp and muddy, you had to watch each step carefully to avoid the worst of the bog.
For the first few miles there are views of Croagh Patrick to the south and the Mullet Peninsula and Blacksod Bay to the west. As you move deeper into the wilderness all signs of civilisation are left behind and you can look down over the meandering Tarsaghaunmore River and across the empty valley to Slieve Carr.
Crossing the river leads to a narrow glen followed by a short steep climb, and from the top of the ridge it was possible to make out the next ten kilometres of the trail as it traverses the remotest part of the walk.
Shortly after passing the ruins of a cottage and a dilapidated wooden shed, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset. It was obvious at this point that we were going to have to walk the last section in the dark. As the light faded we splashed our way up and over the final ridge leaving the valley of Owenduff behind. After a quick check of the map we put on our head torches and begin the descent down to Letterkeen Wood. Nearly eight hours after setting out we arrived at the hut.
The night started off cold and crisp with a full moon lighting up the valley below, later in the night it clouded over and we all had a good night’s sleep. In the morning just over an hour of mostly downhill walking, found us back at the bothy and at the end of our walk.
The short winter days dictated that, if we were to avoid doing a lot of the walk in darkness, we had to stay overnight en route. This definitely added to the whole experience. There is a very primal satisfaction to be had walking all day, carrying everything you need on your back and sleeping out in the wilds.
Doing the trail in the late November may be a touch masochistic and it would be quite a different prospect on a long sunny day in June, but this long hard walk through such bleak and open landscape seems, somehow, suited to the cold grey skies of winter.
Following this ancient path through the most remote part of Ireland is an unique and special experience. Joe McDermott, who has walked the trail dozens of times, put it best “It’s a spiritual place, the smallness of yourself against the majesty and size of the surroundings, among the vastness and the remoteness. You aren’t been intruded on by the modern, mechanistic world, that’s what I like about it”.
Hiking while carrying all your gear on your back and camping overnight used to be know as backpacking until the term was hijacked to describe travelling the world on a budget. The term wild camping is used nowadays to distinguish between camping overnight in remote areas and staying in established camp-sites with facilities.
Carrying a heavy bag over rough ground is very testing and it’s vital to keep the weight of your pack to a minimum. Camping relatively close to civilisation will teach your through experience what you need and don’t. Always make sure someone knows where you are going and don’t rely on having a phone signal in the more remote hills.
The best way to learn the skills necessary to walk independently in the Irish hills is by doing a Mountain Skills course. These courses, which are run by providers all over the country, are designed as an introduction to hillwalking and cover topics such as map and compass, navigation day and night, route planning emergency procedures, equipment, and scrambling. To learn more about Mountain Skills training scheme check out Mountaineering Ireland’s website www.mountaineering.ie
Mountain Meitheal are always looking for volunteers to help with their trail repair and maintenance projects. For a minimum contribution of €20 and a commitment to give at least three days a year you can become a member, which brings with it the perks of Mountaineering Ireland membership. Check out www.pathsavers.org for more information.
The Bangor Trail can be walked in either direction, but traditionally the drovers used it to bring their cattle from Bangor Erris to Newport for the market, so this was the direction I chose.
The trail starts with a very short section of road leaving the village of Bangor Erris but quickly becomes a boggy track as it gains height along the eastern side of Knocklettercuss. After crossing a saddle there is a gradual descent to thebridge over the Tarsaghaunmore river. A very rough section of bog leads to the start of the Gleann, a steep sided gully. Shortly before the end of the gully the trails breaks out left to the steep but short climb over another saddle. From the top the trail is visible for the next ten kilometres as it winds its way across the Owenduff passing the ruins of an old cottage and a dilapidated hut. This is the most desolate and remote section of the walk. This is followed by the final ascent of the day, a long slog up and over a spur of Nephin Beg. Two kilometres of slightly downhill but muddy walking leads to the Mountain Meitheal hut and Letterkeen Wood. Thetrail follows the right edge of the wood crossing a foot bridge over the Attaconey River just before arriving at the Bothy.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.