Inspired by the sudden and unfamiliar sunshine of last week, I headed for the Galtee Mountains to find a few pleasant routes for my Walk-a-Week column on the Monday Outdoor page of this paper. It isn’t always easy to capture the glory of a walk in the space available — setting down clear directions, so that the walker doesn’t get lost, is the priority and this tends to precludes any heartfelt rhapsodising or quirky observations on the numerous wayside attractions.
Almost any walk one takes in Ireland is replete with interest, Coillte walks down endless corridors of Sitka or Norway spruce being the exception. Not that we should not be grateful to Coillte for supplying these off-road itineraries, and not to say that there isn’t anything but endless Christmas trees to break the monotony and the claustrophobia. There may be forest fungi, interesting mosses and lichens, encounters with frog spawn or frogs, and, often, there is a cordon of varied deciduous species along the forestry edges, alder, silver birch, and mountain ash.
Meanwhile, other walking routes in Ireland offer great diversity — old woods, pastures, clifftops and seashores. They regularly deliver surprises, even revelations. Places picked from Ordnance Survey map names turn out to be landscapes of great beauty and fascination, and rich in natural and human history when explored.
Flora of one kind or another is present where ever one walks. Rarely, on this planet, other than on the ice wastes of the poles or the sand wastes of the great deserts, is there a landscape devoid of vegetable life; but in Ireland, thanks to the rain and the temperate climate, we have an extraordinarily rich diversity in every ‘unimproved’ acre.
A simple guide to flora greatly enhances the interest of a country walk. I think one could never learn the identity, let alone the intrinsic qualities, of all the plants one encounters. On our Galtee walks, we were struck (indeed smitten) by the flamboyant beauty of the mountain ash trees in full berry, clumps of orange-red fruit resplendent against the blue of the sky, sunlight glancing on their waxy skins and made all the more striking for that the branches on which they hung were, this year, almost leafless.
From gentle slopes above the Aherlow River, we stood and gazed in surprise at the field boundaries below us made up almost entirely of these trees, shining in the sun — not trees but shrubs, apparently, as REPS rules define them: farmers are not allowed afforestation grants for planting mountain ash, also known as rowans.
At the Clare Glens, where the river Clare ran in spate through a narrow gorge, a single rowan arched a single branch heavy with berries over the water between the little wooden bridge we stood on and a waterfall.
The middle current of the falling water was amber-yellow — an earth-carrying flow contrasting with the rock face behind it — with cascades of white water on either side. If a famous landscape artist or set designer had tried to achieve such a scene I cannot but think he would fail.
Nature is so prodigal in its loveliness. Were we not there to see it, the rushing river, framed by its garland of red berries, would flow on regardless, presumably unnoticed by the jays and the red squirrels in the nearby trees, or the fox that might come to its banks to drink. Walking brings surprises; it behooves us, and it rewards us, when the weather is tolerable, to step out of doors.
Meanwhile, at home in west Cork, on these sunny days, butterflies haunt the garden and moths knock on the lighted windows at night. Harvestmen, those harmless, waist-less spider-like insects with one-piece bodies supported on eight hair-thin legs, bask on the walls in the sun. Creatures of the harvest, they are so called because they walk over the bare earth in harvested fields.
While summer’s lease, as Shakespeare said, “hath all too short a date”, this year we have had no summer to shorten. May we hope, now that the grain is ripening and the hay being brought in, that nature may lengthen the season, and warm us with a late-maturing sun.