The British are by tradition (and necessity) an island race, a nation that does like to be beside the seaside. This is handy seeing as we are actually living on an island, but what (if we're brutally honest) is less handy is the seaside we've been landed with. Obviously it's not ALL disappointing (Beachy Head, North Devon, Arisaig, etc) but for a lot of us a very important part of our day trips or holidays is pretending that places like Skegness, Blackpool and Great Yarmouth aren't actually utterly useless. Some of us aren't very good at pretending, and so we tend to spend our free time slightly further afield. And if I go to County Donegal, it really is 'slightly' with a small 's'. A couple of hours past Belfast brings you to a dementedly diverse coastal wonderland at the northern extreme of Ireland, where titanic Atlantic breakers lap upon the most gorgeous of sweeping beaches, where peeling seabirds whirl and dervish about the hugest of towering cliffs, and where the 'characterful' locals eke a fascinating ongoing existence.
On Your Shore
The most staggering scenery in the county is in the south-west, where the horrifically beautiful declivities of Slieve League rear almost 2000ft above the waves, but as you continue clockwise towards the border at Derry the visual feast scarcely eases off. As the coast gradually turns the corner around Bloody Foreland one grows used to the inevitability of another golden shoreline, one more wildly remote headland and the succession of tenuous communities. It finally terminates in the 'Ireland in miniature' of the Inishowen peninsula, but a little way back from there, jutting northwards from the village of Dunfanaghy, is an even more compact summary of the Emerald Isle's seaboard...Horn Head. Here you'll find golden sands, varying granularities of pebble, flora, fauna, and feck-off cliffs. A bit lacking in pubs I'll grant you, but you wouldn't want to drive around this peninsula drunk anyway.
Strictly speaking there is the Horn Head peninsula and there is Horn Head itself. The former is a five-by-five-mile knot of land, an island until the overcutting of marram grass allowed drifting sand to join it to the mainland within historic times (land is always less permanent than you think), the latter its northern extremity, a place where the land gives out in the form of quartzite mandibles and the most wonderfully wicked gravity. It's all reached from the aforementioned large village of Dunfanaghy on the main N56 road less than an hour from the relative metropolis of Letterkenny (take the turn for the Holy Trinity church as the last couple of times I was there the Horn Head signpost was missing); the village itself is accessible by bus (although the very best of luck with deciphering the timetables) but the sensible and licensed will bring a car. And rail transport? Well, one of the locals might let you play with their Hornby train set if you ask them nicely.
As I Roved Out
For the avowed motorist the signposted Horn Head Drive is reasonably exciting (without being quite as death-defying as some accounts would have you believe). Leaving Dunfanaghy (and going anti-clockwise) the road traverses the dunes and skims the shoreline but once it starts angling up the hillside the driver might want to concentrate a bit and any nervous passengers might want to take a few deep breaths, seeing as the increasingly glorious view across the bay of Sheep Haven has an increasingly large/steep drop as a foreground. You're probably not going to die in the next few minutes but it's as well to bear in mind the consequences of missing a bend in such a situation, consequences starkly borne out in this harrowing documentary footage...
Rounding the corner the huge cliffs of Traghlisk come into view, hinting at the spectacular nature of the Head itself. A conveniently placed parking spot provides a fine vantage point for this vista, and also allows very easy access to the highest point of the peninsula. (This is Croaghnamaddy, and is about five minutes' walk inland. The view's great, and hopefully the fly-tipped washing machine has gone by now). Back in the car the tarmac loops still higher above the sea before salvation is reached at a T-Junction. A right turn here provides the closest road access to Horn Head itself; a left turn takes a gently declining and hugely picturesque line back to sea level.
Right so, it's a cracking drive, but inevitably there's a lot more to be seen if you leave the car behind. So here's a description of a walk around the western half of the peninsula (you can walk the eastern half too, but most of its wares are displayed from the road), relatively easy going and with an array of astonishing sights and sounds. Go on go on go on...
A Day Without Rain (fingers crossed)
The start is just past Horn Head Bridge (just over half a mile out of Dunfanaghy) where there's a notice board and space for vehicles; alternatively, drive a little further to a signed car park in the woods on the left. The latter option means you start with a sylvan shaded stroll beneath the branches (hopefully not assailed by billions of non-biting but bloody annoying insects like I was), the former with an open stretch along the river, but they soon unite on a beautifully smooth grassy path across a links that would make a tremendous golf course in an incredible setting if anyone ever dared risk my wrath by building one. After a mile or so the going becomes a bit more yielding and sandy underfoot, and a quick clamber over the dunes will have you tumbling down onto the beach. Or 'The Beach' as I prefer to think of it.
Wind Beneath My Wings
Tramore Strand is simply majestic; mile upon mile of pristine sand holding court over a fearsome battery of Atlantic breakers, backed by the brooding mountains of the interior. So friendly as to be the ideal venue for a picnic (if you can find someone mug enough to lug the hamper this far), so vast and wild that 'Big Wednesday' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' could have been simultaneously shot here without either production noticing the other. It's the most beautiful beach I've ever come across (and I'm old, y'know) and hopefully the shlep required to reach it will maintain its peace and quiet.
But onwards. A fun clamber up the rocks at the north end of the beach gains the continuation of the path, part of a waymarked trail whose focus will appear once you round the headland overlooking the strand. The coast becomes more rocky and fretted on the approach to the mighty (although not quite so mighty as once it was) blowhole of McSwyne's Gun, an obvious aperture in the rugged surface. Before erosion this was allegedly audible up to 20 miles away; these days it's a bit less dramatic but still worthy of notice and respect (the hole spits out rocks about 10cm in diameter at frightening speed, and there have been deaths here, so bear that in mind if approaching the opening during an incoming tide). The going underfoot is very easy so long as you don't fall over the edge (there are cliffs, although not 'cliffs' in the way that some things later in the day are cliffs) or stumble into a blowhole. Soon enough the corner is turned into the enchanting inlet of Pollaguill Bay, the path descending to sea level by an exhilarating (but safe) traverse across a steep hillside. The Bay is harsher than Tramore but even quieter, pebbly more than sandy, and supposedly a good swimming beach for the careful. (I have no experience to relate on this point because a) I'm not stupid and b) it's the bloody Atlantic. It'll be cold).
(Note that the walk can be shortened here by following the waymarked 'McSwyne's Gun Loop' back to the car park; indeed, turning east at almost any point will gain a road in time, even without an obvious path. Don't worry...most of the landowners will have the decency to ask questions before they shoot you).
To be continued…