OUTDOORS Sizing up a Newport to Ballybeg hike

Outdoor Living

Trail Sign

Sizing up Newport to Ballybeg


Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

There is no doubt at all there are better months than February in which long hikes may be undertaken. Long hikes, though, require careful planning, and more exceptionally so as the years pass. No more for me the spontaneous day long diversion ’cross hill and moor, no more the whimsical trek along deer paths into darkness or the eager pursuit of barely attainable heights with the sun fading before and the moon rising behind.
No, though the spirit is eager, the flesh indeed is weaker than it was. My knees utter mournful creaking at the mere contemplation of a dawn departure.
James is quick to jibe. I am, in his estimation, getting old and, he adds while prodding my ribcage with a podgy finger, a little out of shape. A few evenings rowing about on the lake will sort out that latter difficulty; as for the former, well there isn’t a lot to be done about that. I tell him I have learned to chew my food, metaphorically as well as physically (I might as well have spoken in Gujurati for he failed entirely to grasp my meaning, but gave another of those long looks that question my sanity) and have discovered as great a delight in looking at mountains as I previously did in scaling their sides.
As for long hikes, there is one that has been shelved year after year. It is 40 kilometres from Newport to Ballybeg along the Bangor Trail. The distance is daunting and so is the terrain. Nonetheless, this summer it must be done.
A number of noted adventurers have previously recorded their walking the trail, including Dr Pococke, who discovered it during his Irish Tour of 1752 and Robert Lloyd Praeger who, in 1937, referred to his experience there as ‘inspiriting’. Praeger was a great naturalist who thought nothing of the bloodletting inflicted by the army of clegs that inhabit the bogs of north Mayo, if only he could count numbers of breeding curlew or find bladderwort in boggy pools.
Pococke, Praeger and others have been at me for years to walk where they did and this year, if I find two fair days, I am determined to do just that. With this goal in mind I have work to do.
Standing atop the viaduct in the centre of Newport I looked across the harbour to the west, where a small number of boats veered at the tail end of the gale. The incoming tide crept under the road bridge, bringing shoals of mullet to feed where salt water met sweet.
The town was quiet, as if nobody lived there at all, until a grey car came from the Mulranny end and accelerated away toward Castlebar. Then all was silent again, apart from the sound of wind on water, wind at the arches, wind in the tall trees that guard the banks of the Black Oak River from flood and flooding tide.
It would have been enough to stand there at the start of my 40k hike until I’d had my fill. The first 15 minutes toward Bangor took me through the streets of Newport. One cannot help but feel something has been lost from the town since its early days in the 18th century, when multi-masted merchant shipping filled the quay. Now it needs somebody Medlicott-bold to paint the whole in the bright colours of Cobh, to help it shine through the sunny days to come.
Following the road soon brought me to the narrow plain with the Windy Hill of  Knocknageeha on the left and Barrackhill to the right. A stern breeze from the west drowned the foreign sounds of a modern town. A raven came to greet me, its great wings broadside to the wind, a primeval watcher of the dark hills ahead beyond Derryloughan and Derrintaggart where the whole world might be my own.
I walked a short way, just far enough to wonder what might have happened to the oak woods that lent these places their names. Fragments of forest still remain, small oaks giving shelter to an understory of hazel and holly. In summer we might find an abundance of small birds. Today there was just the raven flying back the way it had come, labouring.
Derrintaggart was far enough for one day. Dusk falls rapidly at this time of year and particularly so with those heavy, rain filled clouds roiling overhead. But I have begun and in a longer day I shall finish.
I shall need a tent. My map shows me two small lakes at Derryloughan, where there ought to be trout, most likely those small, half-starved, dark-skinned specimens so typical of western bog loughs. I would rather like to fish my way to Bangor.
Come on summer days.