Letterkenny Stories and Tips

Horn Head, Donegal (part 2)

Horn Head from the east Photo, Letterkenny, Ireland

(continued from part 1)

Sleeping Satellite

The rattle of boots on pebbles grow silent as you grassily climb away from Pollaguill Bay aiming for the cairn on Rough Point on the skyline. The gentle pull uphill, the turn of the coastal corner and the continuing walk northwards are wonderfully easy: one can walk anywhere (so long as it's a sensible distance back from the edge) but paths can be found if required. A mile more of blissfully benign going brings you to the pull up Crocknaclogher. In a walk of ever-escalating highlights, here is the best yet: the magnificent Marble Arch forms a Olympian opening in the cliffs on your left, the sea within almost eerily calm amidst the shrieking seabirds and otherwise-crashing waves. Leaving the arch behind (and behind the wall on the left: a good way to keep safely back from cliffs that are gradually increasing in stature) the plod up to the skyline is heavy with anticipation, and when you crest the brow of the hill you catch your first glimpse of Horn Head on the horizon. It's a great moment indeed, its sawn-off antlers crouching moodily over massive Atlantic-bound declivities.

You're as well not to become TOO fixated upon Horn Head during the couple of miles leading up to it, although keeping on the landward side of the wall should eliminate all possibility of a really sticky end. The more adrenaline-addicted can utilise the seaward side and clamber over a couple of preliminary blunt spikes while admiring the impressively perpendicular westward plunges; the cautious can occasionally peer over at some vertically-walled inlets which are especially impressive on an incoming tide. This terrain is slightly tougher than what's gone before, but soon you debouch onto an Elysian tilted meadow of moss and heather which culminates in the horns. You can either follow the edge or take a more direct route; you'll find thin tracks on either course but only the former has a bloody enormous drop on one side to concentrate the mind, and either way the Head itself grows more ludicrously impressive with every step. Finally you reach a short cross-fence; it wouldn't stop anyone more than three feet tall but it does serve as a signal...from now on, no messing about. This is Horn Head itself.

Heaven Is A Place On Earth

From here the two horns extend seawards. The left (westward) one forms a platform of grass and bracken, its west wall collapsing in a shield of shattered streaked quartzite 600ft into a furious Atlantic. The other horn is similarly vegetated but narrower, a salient fin poking bravely northwards, separated from both its brother and the ground continuing eastwards by monstrously unfathomable chasms. The nervous may remain at the fence, but easy paths lead safely (in all but the worst of weather) onto both of them.

When I was there I met four other people, either lunching by the fence or wandering warily out onto the horns. Having engaged them all in conversation (they all turned out to be as nice as they looked but in the presence of 600ft cliffs it's wise to check that you aren't also in the presence of sociopaths) I did likewise. I can safely say that few bits of coast have made quite as much of an impression on me as this, the platforms on the end of each horn like thrones of sky, one of the very best places for experiencing the vertical from the comparative comfort of the horizontal. (Frankly, Conan Doyle missed a trick by not setting the Holmes/Moriarty death-struggle here). Everyone will find the excitement almost overwhelming, especially photographers, as they struggle and (like me) probably fail to capture the true scale of their surroundings. It's utterly sublime.

One could linger for a long while (or forever, if you're not careful), but eventually the matter of getting the hell out of here must be addressed. The coastline continues semi-eastward to a prominent Napoleonic lookout station above Traghlisk Point; you'll keep turning around to look at Horn Head (which is lost from sight after this) but the humungous cliffs upon which this ruin perches are scarcely less impressive. From hereon in the way is 'pleasant' rather than 'adrenalized' as a selection of eroded turfy trenches meander southwards over Coastguard Hill, past another derelict lookout post, before finally reaching the end of the road mentioned earlier. From here it's three miles back to the start (unless you've arranged a pick-up), and while the tarmac is unyieldingly tough it's softened by the charming rural foreground and dramatic mountain/maritime background. It's all downhill too, apart from the uphill bits, and make sure not to miss the necessary left turn after a couple of miles. And after all the coastal drama it makes for a calming coda at the end of a terrific journey.
(6 miles with transport, 9 miles without, 1000ft ascent, took me a lazy four hours)

Days In Old Donegal

Apparently there's more to life than idyllic beaches and incredible cliffs, so I'm obliged to mention 'other places of interest'. The Irish have always excelled at death and the afterlife, and a glance at the map will reveal a decent selection of megalithic tombs dotted about the peninsula. It's always an entertaining gamble to go looking for these locations, as they vary between 'huge dolmens that would have a visitor centre in England' and 'a bit of a pile of rocks in a field, possibly put down not so much by the Ancients as by a modern farmer having a laugh'. If one retreats to Dunfanaghy itself you'll find a Harry Vardon-designed golf course, a fair few craft shops, a smattering of galleries (one can well imagine this area forming a fairly decent artists' retreat) and a famine museum. In addition, a short distance west along the coast road is a car park giving access to the New Lake wildfowl reserve, the freshwater lake formed when the bay of Rinclevan Strand was sealed off by the drifting sands barely 100 years ago.

The Parting Glass

The coastline of County Donegal is probably the finest in Britain and Ireland, and its riches are almost embarrassing extensive. Even with that in mind Horn Head ranks very highly in its armoury of wonders, providing an excellent balance between accessibility and remoteness, combining wildness with tranquillity, and never forgetting to be blazingly beautiful while it's doing it. It may save the most extraordinary sights for the pedestrian, but it's hard to imagine that anyone could regret a visit here.

OSI Discovery Series Map 2 (you do need a decent map)
http://www.gulliver.ie for accommodation
http://www.buseireann.ie/ for bus transport; other private operators also serve the area
Nearest airport is Londonderry

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