Walk this way

THE memories of Christmas may be fading, but that pudginess around the mid-riff is a lot harder to shake off.

Walk this way

Combined with the January blues and a seasonal squeeze on sunlight, it’s not exactly a recipe for optimism.

How to blow off those winter cobwebs? Here’s an idea. Head to the Glen of Aherlow over the weekend of February 1-3, where a winter walking festival promises to pulverise that paunch, mince those moobs, and turn you sunny-side up for springtime.

The Glen, a sumptuous river valley slicing between Slievenamuck and the Galtee Mountains, is one of Ireland’s little Lost Worlds — and it’s not just for hardy hikers, either. Slievenamuck alone boasts eight looped walks, pretty much all of them suitable for kids (though not buggies). Put one foot in front of the other, and get cracking.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I remember the first time I drove into the Glen of Aherlow.

Heading south from Tipperary town, a lush patchwork of fields suddenly gave way to a thick swathe of forest. The R664 began to zig and zag, dipping downwards. My phone reception faded, and disappeared. I passed a shiny white statue of Christ the King, like a souvenir-sized version of the famous landmark in Rio. Finally, I emerged at a T-junction, in a valley sandwiched between Galtymore and Slievenamuck. My heart was racing.

Why do we keep putting off visits to the world-class attractions on our doorstep? “Ah, it’s only up the road,” we say. “We can see it any time.” But so often, we don’t. Since then — whether it’s the Book of Kells in Dublin, or the Cliffs of Moher in Clare — I’ve made a fresh effort to re-visit some of the big hits in my own backyard.

“Sure, they’ll always be there,” you might say. But as that little Glen of Aherlow epiphany reminded me: I won’t.

THE ROOMS

Given its small size, there’s a surprising amount of accommodation in the Glen of Aherlow — from B&Bs to self-catering, from hotels to camping and caravan parks.

If you like the personal touch, my recommendation is Ballinacourty House. Set in the 18th century stables of a long-vanished country pile, its rooms look out on a flowery, cobblestoned courtyard and are presided over by the wonderful Mary Stanley.

The digs are simple and comfy, with scatter cushions, Wi-Fi and en-suite showers, but the main selling points are the leafy location and Mary’s tireless hosting. When I arrived, she was helping walkers dry their gear after a soggy tramp through the mountains. When I left, I did so without my washbag, and she posted it to me at the earliest opportunity.

The original Ballinacourty House was torched during the War of Independence (Aherlow House, now a four-star hotel, was its former hunting lodge), but the outbuildings have been put to such creative use, you never really rue its absence. Mary’s husband runs a restaurant in the hayloft, and her sister-in-law, Ciara, manages the camping park next door.

THE FOOD

What kind of dinner would €20 buy you in Dublin or Cork? A main course and a coffee, perhaps? A decent Indian takeaway?

At Ronan Stanley’s restaurant at Ballinacourty House, €20 is the price of a full, four-course dinner. Set in a loft-style space deep in the Glen of Aherlow, the place was super busy and buzzy when I visited, with dozens of customers tucking into lamb hotpots, 6oz sirloin steaks, deep-fried cod and the like — and they were just the mains.

Ronan also does a slightly fancier four-course menu for €30pp — with an 8oz fillet steak, for example, or a honey-roasted half-duck as two of the mains. It’s reasonable food rather than fine dining, and a glass of house wine, a Tempranillo, cost me just €3.75.

Another under-the-radar restaurant worth the trip to Tipp is Inch House. Its Georgian dining room features remarkable floor-to-ceiling windows with splashes of ruby-red glass, and the food has been awarded an AA Rosette. A three-course early bird costs €35pp.

THE AMENITIES

The Glen of Aherlow — a lush valley carved by the River Aherlow and bounded by the villages of Bansha and Galbally — will never compete on size. You’ll easily get a sense of it over a short drive. But the longer you stay, the more there emerges to see — walks, wildlife, holy wells, bars, restaurants, megalithic sites, trad music, pottery shops and more.

Wander beyond the valley, and you’ll find lots in the hinterland too. The Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle and the Mitchelstown Caves are all within half-an-hour’s drive.

WHAT TO DO

Get into the fresh air, that’s what. During the Glen’s Winter Walking Festival (Feb 1-3; aherlow.com), individual walks cost from €10 to €15, and all of them are led by experienced guides who know the terrain inside-out.

The key to enjoying yourself is picking a walk suited to your ability. Helpfully, the festival grades its walks for this purpose, (A = very experienced walker, B = experienced walker; C = regular/casual walker), so a quick scan through the brochure is all you need to make an informed choice. Kids can join ‘C’ walks, for example, and you’ll get away with tracksuits and comfy footwear — but ‘A’ and ‘B’ walks require boots and waterproofs.

One of my favourite short walks is the Bianconi Loop, named after the early 19th century mail and passenger coaches (you’ll pass a stretch of the coach-way en route). It’s a gentle, one-hour potter through the old forests sloping up Slievenamuck.

The festival walks themselves range from 9km to a 16km ‘A’ walk up Cush Mountain and around Lake Borheen on Sunday, February 3rd. It takes five hours.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Ballinacourty House has two nights’ B&B with one dinner from €85pps. Contact 062 56000 or ballinacourtyhse.com.

ANYTHING TO ADD

If you fancy eating at Inch House, consider an overnight too. The old Georgian farmhouse was bought by John and Norah in 1985, and they’ve restored it from a rundown pile to a warm, friendly essay in country living.

Five bedrooms are filled with antique furniture, and breakfast is laid out in Nicholas Mosse pottery: fresh berry compotes, a Tipperary cheese board, and a farmhouse fry with bacon. You’ll be all set for your walk.

Inch House has B&B with an early bird from €70pp. Contact 0504 51348 or inchhouse.ie

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