Secret spots to explore away from the crowds in Donegal

Yvonne Gordon takes a trip off the beaten track to visit Cashelnagor Railway Station
Secret spots to explore away from the crowds in Donegal

A river flows through a valley in the wilderness of County Donegal surrounded by mountains, hills, and grassland. A hiking path leads us along the water into the distance.

The road becomes narrow as we turn off the main road. The houses thin away, then trees disappear as we navigate the twists and turns. 

Thick hedgerows turn to low furze and the landscape soon opens up, with flat bog either side of the road and views to mountains way off in the distance. Looking along a straight stretch of single-track road ahead, just when I think it is leading to the middle of nowhere, I spot the gable end of the building in the distance. There it is — Cashelnagor Railway Station. My search for a remote self-catering place to stay has led us here, to a restored train station. In Donegal.

Known as a county where you’ll find plenty of remote places to visit, if there’s one other person on the beach or another car at a beauty spot in Donegal, there’s usually a joke that it’s packed. However, with everyone staycationing this year, a new phenomenon has been subject to much discussion among locals — the arrival of the ‘traffic jam’ at places like Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point. Car parks too are filling up at beauty spots at weekends.

With this in mind, I plan to avoid the crowds, keep socially distant and find the county’s really quiet, remote spots. First stop is beaches  — and with popular spots like Marble Hill and even Murder Hole beach getting busy, I set off with local tour guide Henry Doohan who grew up in Falcarragh, to visit some secret spots.

Marble Hill Beach, Donegal
Marble Hill Beach, Donegal

We start at Drumnatinny Beach (Droim na Tine) on the northwest coast, around 3km from Falcarragh. The car park has plenty of with dog walkers, swimmers and children in wetsuits.

A fence is lined with more wetsuits drying while nearby, a group of kids do a warm-up beside a sand dune, prepping for a surf lesson. The Mountain Melts caravan is sold out of its famous cheese toasties (named after local mountains like Muckish and Errigal) but is serving coffee. Past the dunes, there’s a long golden strand with plenty of space.

We move around the coast to Ballyness Bay — another local favourite. The beach here joins to Drumnatinny via the ‘Backstrand’, with plenty of dunes in between and lots of space for walking. There’s a small pier overlooking the bay. “I love it here because it’s so vast. It’s a nice peaceful place, the air is so fresh,” says Henry. ”And about social distancing — this is quite a busy day, there’s six people over there…” he grins.

The views stretch across the bay to the sandy banks and dunes on the Magheraroarty side.

Out to sea are Inishbofin and Tory Islands. Henry tells me about the legends of Balor of the Evil Eye from Tory and a local chieftain from this area, Mac Aneely (which led to the area’s name Cloich Cheann Fhaola or Cloughaneely), as well as nicknames for local rocks, stories of fairies and other local legends he was taught in school ‘as if they were history’.

 Malin Head in Donegal.
 Malin Head in Donegal.

Back at Cashelnagor that evening, I admire the Derryveagh Mountains far off in the distance, with a view which almost encircles us —  with Muckish, Errigal and the rest of the Seven Sisters chain. There is nothing but flat bogland in between.

So why is there a train station here? Well, in the heyday of the steam trains, from the 1860s onwards, there was a whole network of railway lines built in Donegal. Railways were brought to the area as a way to stimulate economic development and also ease overcrowding and poverty.

Cashelnagor station was built in 1902 as part of the Letterkenny and Burtonport Extension to the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway line. However, two world wars and the arrival of the car led to the decline of the Donegal railways and the Burtonport line only ran until 1947. Cashelnagor became derelict but thanks to a recent restoration, it’s now self-catering accommodation and you can stay in The Station House, where the stationmasters lived, or The Waiting Room, a smaller apartment.

As darkness descends, so does a mist — first of low clouds, then of biting midges. The station platform is still intact, leading to just a grassy track, but with the mist now obscuring the end of the platform, and the flickering of an old-fashioned streetlamp, it creates a magical air of expectation as if a train might arrive at any moment. I fall asleep that night wondering if ghost trains ever pass through… Next day we hit Glenveagh National Park early. The plan is to cycle to the Castle and find quieter trails to cycle or hike further into the park. The walking and cycling trail from the car park to the Castle is already busy. There’s mist (and midges) here too, but the views of the lake slowly open up and walkers thin away as we cycle from the castle along the Upper Glen trail towards the waterfall. The gravel lake-side path is lined with moss-covered rocks and trees which have bent over in the wind, as if to reach the water below.

In the afternoon, we make our way to Ards Forest Park further east. From the car park, we walk across a soft sandy beach and then on the 3.5 km Binngorm Headland Trail, which takes us on sand dunes and parts of a boardwalk, with beach on one side and wildflowers and long grass on the other. It’s a peaceful setting and there’s hardly anyone on the trail.

There are beautiful views across Sheephaven Bay to Rosguill and Downings and the return trail takes us back through a forest.

The next destination is the Inishowen Peninsula, and there’s a shortcut from this side of Donegal by ferry across Lough Swilly from Rathmullan to Buncrana. The sun beams down as we drive onto the ferry, with views of walkers, swimmers and sailing dinghies along Rathmullan beach as we leave. It’s a scenic 45-minute crossing so everyone leaves their cars to enjoy views and fresh air from the deck.

Cliffs and rock formations at the Inishowen Peninsula.
Cliffs and rock formations at the Inishowen Peninsula.

On the Inishowen peninsula, we drive north to stay at one of the most northerly houses in Ireland — Breasty Bay house, at Malin Head. It’s within a rock’s throw of the tower at Banba’s Crown, but on its own land of 60 acres, shared with just one other rental, Skildren Cottage. The location feels really remote and offers a total nature immersion. There are private coves full of interesting rock formations, plus grassy headlands with wildflowers and paths to the cliffs at Malin Head itself. There’s plenty of wildlife too — we spot hares and birds, and dolphins and basking sharks are spotted regularly too.

With no light pollution or nearby towns, it’s perfect for star-spotting — and the house has a telescope and a stargazers’ handbook. In 2016, you could have spotted stars of a different kind here as the land was used as a location to film some of Star Wars: The Last Jedi — the site for the construction of the Millennium Falcon.

There area has plenty of scenic walks, drives and empty beaches. You can sign up for a slow adventure with William McElhinney of Wild Strands for foraging, seaweed collecting and wild cooking demonstrations, or take a tour at Doagh Famine Village which tells the story of life in Ireland over the past two hundred years.

Our final socially-distant adventure is from Bunagee Pier on Inishowen, out to Inishtrahull Island, which is 10 kilometres offshore and Ireland’s most northerly island. We’ve signed up for a day trip on the Amazing Grace yacht and it’s about an hour and a half to the island where we moor in a small inlet and travel to shore by dinghy.

Our skipper Edward Doherty shows us the old lighthouse keepers’ houses, the graveyard, the schoolhouse and the lighthouse. It’s sad to see the old stone houses abandoned (the last families left the island in 1929) but a special place to visit thanks to the boat trip. Eddie is full of stories — he knows the island well having visited here since he was a child.

We spot seals, hear of shipwrecks and learn that the gneiss rock here is 1.7 billion years old, the oldest in Ireland. On the way back to the mainland, Eddie brings us on a detour to see if we can spot dolphins and when we see the cliffs of Malin Head again, this time from the water, I wonder how the traffic is… 

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