Embarking on my Ballymunnelly Bridge to Ballycastle loop, the wind was in my face as I cycled eastwards towards Crossmolina. Not too strong, thankfully, but capable of slowing me nevertheless.
The sun was shining beautifully as I approached Bellacorick’s famous “musical bridge” over the Owenmore River. With a stone I had purposely gathered earlier for this very reason, I ‘played’ the bridge from west to east. A terrible musical beauty was born…
When I tweeted out where I was (you can follow me on https://twitter.com/barsguidedtours), Colm Cafferkey replied with “don’t finish it!”, reminding me that the bridge is cursed and must not be completed. For this reason, in the NW corner, the parapet is missing its final stone to this day.
My second stop was the little boardwalk at Eskeragh, to listen out for any birds present on the bog. Two Sedge Warblers singing in the willow trees easily won the title of “most interesting”.
Although this stretch of the N59 can be busy, I must say that every driver that came upon me was most accommodating, each affording me a wide berth. I arrived into Crossmolina after 22km and took in a view of the lovely Deel River that flows through the town, before continuing to my next leg – the trip northwards to Ballycastle.
A much quieter road, this was a very pleasant 22km stretch of my day, cycling through pretty Moygownagh village and alongside bird-filled hedgerows and tracts of blanket bog.
On the final descent into Ballycastle, I love the situation of ruined, ivy-covered Ballinglen Castle, a perhaps 15th or early 16th C tower house, attributed to the Barretts. Dominating the valley running northwards towards the sea, the castle was apparently later seized by the Bourkes (De Burgo). Legend has it that the Bourkes fought a long battle with another local chieftain named Finerth and, following its conclusion on the twelfth night, strange nocturnal forms have roamed the surrounding fields ever since.
In Ballycastle, I crossed the street to the wonderful looking Ballinglen Arts Centre, as yet not reopened. I determined to return later in the summer to explore its galleries.
Another 3km of bike on bóithríní brought me to the plantation forest entrance and the beginning of my hike back towards Ballymunnelly, along The Western Way.
The Western Way is a 200km-long hiking trail from Oughterard in Galway to Bonniconlon in north Mayo, near the Sligo border. While some of it is fabulous, most notably underneath the Maumturk mountains and along the Erriff River, much of it is exceedingly dull. Dominated by the non-native conifer plantations that blot our landscape and line the track on either side, much of this stretch between Ballycastle and Ballymunnelly is among the most uninspiring of all.
In addition, too much of The Western Way (though not this section) is on tarmac, a singularly unattractive proposition for hikers.
Nevertheless, it does get you out and about and that is perhaps enough to make it worthwhile.
A boardwalk in the middle of nowhere, 17km from the entrance and lasting for 2km, offers a welcome respite, thanks to an opening in the plantation. From the south end of this boardwalk, there’s another 9km to negotiate back to the start at Ballymunnelly Bridge. Along this stretch, I noted the abandoned cottages of the former Sheskin village.
This area is thick with Red Deer and Pine Marten. Today, I saw neither, but evidence of their existence is all around, with droppings and footprints regularly spotted. Instead, I was treated to the wonderful sight of a Merlin hunting Meadow Pipit over the bog right in front of me and a Cuckoo sitting on a pole barely 50m away.
Two splendid highlights of this May day.
Ballymunnelly Bridge to Ballycastle Loop – Distances & Time
Ballymunnelly to Crossmolina to Ballycastle – 44km on bike
Ballycastle to plantation entrance – 3km on bike
Plantation entrance to Ballymunnelly Bridge – 28km on foot and bike
Total 75km; 10h30, including multiple stops.