Valerian provides a carpet of red in a Burren field
We want ‘A Susan Day’, we told her – and what a day we got! Readers may remember our visit (Showing off West Cork) from Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems. We’ve been planning a return visit ever since, so that Susan could show us HER Burren.
I’ve written about the Burren before – the unique karst limestone landscape full of heritage and wildflowers in West Clare. But this time we had the benefit of Susan’s intimate knowledge of the place – she lives there and has been exploring it for years. Since we only had one full day, she planned an outing that covered everything we love about this part of Ireland – you’ll see what I mean.
Our destination: Turlough Hill
Leaving the car in a convenient spot, we set off up a long green road, Susan pointing out the wildflowers as we walked, here and throughout the day. We stopped at numerous places to admire features in the landscape: Corcomroe Abbey, for example, lay below us in all its medieval glory.
Corcomroe – a wonderful site to visit if you’re in this area
Our first real stop was St Colman’s Holy Well. It’s a beauty, with all the remote wildness that lends such atmosphere to these ancient sacred spots. One of our blogging heroes, Ali Isaac of the wonderfully researched and entertaining site Aliisaacstoryteller had visited this same route a couple of weeks earlier. We were walking in her footsteps, although in reverse. She tells of her journey here and has extensive details about the holy well and St Colman here.
Robert and Susan at Colman’s Well and a peek into the interior of the well
Ali had walked through the Burren in time to see the last of the electric blue Gentians that grow here and in the Alps. They were gone by the time we got there, but we were not disappointed in the wildflowers, which were everywhere underfoot in the most prodigal abundance.
Bloody Cranesbill, left, and a white orchid
Brilliant magenta Bloody Cranesbill jostled with delicate Orchids and tiny yellow Potentilla (or Cinquefoil), while Wild Thyme scented the air. One field was awash in Valerian. A rare Lesser Butterfly Orchid was spotted in the long grass and lovely Burnet Roses in a hedge.
Clockwise from top left: Burnet Rose, Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Mountain Avens and Spotted Orchid
Milkworth lurking in the grasses
Hiking up Turlough Hill was an excellent opportunity to see how the Burren is laid out. From below, it looks like bare rock, but as you ascend, you realise that the hills are stepped in a series of terraces, the evidence of retreating beach levels after the ice age. These terraces provide important forage for sheep and cattle, who, in turn, help in the regeneration of the plant life. The going isn’t easy – we didn’t stick to any defined path but simply clambered up the steep slopes. The flat parts had been deeply rutted by cattle hoofs – we had to be vigilant to prevent stumbles and ankle injuries.
But the rewards were enormous – ever-increasing panoramas of North Clare, across Galway Bay and south into the hinterland.
We had an objective in mind. At the top of Turlough Hill, and most visible in arial photographs, is a prehistoric ‘village’ of over 150 hut sites and some larger enclosures. On the summit is an enormous cairn.
From the top: An aerial image of the hut circles and cairn (look closely!) from the National Monuments Service, a hut circle looking north to the sea, a hut circle looking towards the cairn
This mysterious site has been the subject of an initial investigation to establish the extent of it. The report had this to say:
Even though the hut sites, in a morphological sense, are domestic in character, it is very hard to see their role and function as primarily domestic, considering their location on this inaccessible and exposed hilltop. The activity that required the building of about 150 hut sites on this inaccessible and extremely windy summit, consisting mainly of bare bedrock, was most likely of a strong social and/or ritual character, with few direct links to secular way of life.
This will give you a sense of how huge the cairn is
Earlier this year, Dr Stefan Bergh of UCG conducted a preliminary excavation within the hut-site concentration. You can read about that in this Irish Times piece. We saw the neatly back-filled trench, and look forward to his results.
Coming down, as all hikers know, is often more difficult than going up – the knees certainly protest! In this case, some chunks of it were accomplished by dint of sliding down on my butt and picking the thorns out afterwards. Oh – and the tick! Do check yourself after all walks in long grass where cattle and sheep have been grazing.
The view from the cairn
We ended up at an early medieval site that quickly banished all thoughts of aching muscles – Oughtmama, of the Seven Churches. Meaning The Breast of the High Pass, there are actually only three churches at Oughtmama, but they pre-date the 12th century Cistercian foundation at Corcomroe, and as such they are excellent examples of early monastic structures in the Romanesque tradition.
There are several examples of churches built with ‘cyclopean’ masonry in Clare, and here at Oughtmama you can see the huge stones used in the courses of the outer walls that give it this name. Associated with St Colman (of the Holy Well) these churches probably fell into decline after Corcomroe was completed.
We hiked back to the car in the soft afternoon sunlight. It’s hard to believe that one day could be so packed with experiences. Thank you, Susan, for sharing YOUR Burren with us. We’ll be back – we’ll let you know when to put the kettle on again.