Welcome to our walking blog. The aim of this blog is to give readers a further insight into walking in Northern Ireland. The blog will cover everything from seasonal walking suggestions and events to information on how to best practice ‘Leave No Trace’ techniques and walk responsibly in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We will also be inviting local accomplished mountaineers and industry experts to give their thoughts and opinions into Northern Ireland top walking spots and other trails more off the beaten track.
For your definitive guide to walking in Northern Ireland visit www.walkni.com
Posted on May 26, 2016 @ 1:00 PM in
We are lucky to be always within 50 miles of the coast in N. Ireland-even in deepest Tyrone! In less than an hour’s drive in almost any direction , I can hop out of the car, look across the sea, and feel freedom and anticipation- rooted (in my case) in Sunday family picnics near Newcastle or Ardglass. Most walkers enjoy the coast; the sound and sparkle of breaking waves, the touch of a sea breeze on the skin, the cries of gulls and the sea smell, all have a relaxing effect. We were once told that sea air contained ozone, but "seaside smells" are more likely due to a mixture of chemicals-algae and decay products from the sea itself. Ice-cream and sunscreen oils add their own contribution.
The variety of scenery - beaches to dunes, shingle to rocky shores and salt marshes to coastal cliffs, all enhance the feeling of being alive. Seaside plants have evolved to survive and flourish in tough conditions along unique coasts. Wind seldom completely abates, sand, mud and thin soils with a high salt content dry out quickly and sea- spray is more or less continuous - Coastal plants need to be tough! Have a walk along the shingle and pebbles at the top of many beaches-the toughest environment of all for seaside plants. What might we see?
Common Scurvy-grass is hard to miss on the shingle of beaches in May. Along some motorway verges, the seeds of a closely related species (Danish Scurvy Grass) have been spread from wheels of lorries arriving off cross- channel ferries. No doubt, de-icing salt helps the plant feel at home! Why the name? The plant has fleshy leaves containing vitamin C. Scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, so eating the leaves gave some protection against the illness.
Sea Campion is found on shingle beaches, cliffs, dunes and waste ground near the sea. The almost pure white flowers are produced from mid-April until August. A plant of beauty, but often passed by.
Sea Milkwort, found growing in compact mats on the shingle of most beaches, has tiny pink flowers and small fleshy leaves .The compact and fleshy nature of the plant helps to conserve moisture.
Thrift at its best in May, produces drifts of pink flowers on rocks and along cliff paths. Most will not remember three-penny piece coins, you are too young! The globular flower-heads on the coin were thrift flowers.
In late spring, in thickets amongst dunes and sand-hills, Burnet Roses with beautiful pale cream flowers are in bloom.They are very spiny (the spiniest rose of all) and can cause unpleasant scratches. The hips are purple-black, other roses have red hips. Varieties of this plant have been used as garden plants.
‘There is pansies , that’s for thoughts’ wrote Shakespeare. Short grassland behind a beach will invariably have wild pansies with yellow or violet-blue flowers (two separate varieties), often in flower from April until late summer, but best in May.
Rest-harrow has pink pea like flowers throughout late spring and summer, among dunes or grassland behind the shoreline-but not found everywhere. The name comes from the difficulty caused to horse- drawn ploughs or harrows by the tough roots. Rest-harrow eaten by cattle taints milk, butter or cheese, so farmers certainly don’t like the plant. Fortunately it seems to grow mostly on the coast. The roots were once chewed like liquorice, but I confess I have never tried it!
Would I have a favourite? It has to be the Oyster plant and I have two good reasons. The flowers, out in late June are a wonderful shade of azure blue with touches of purple. The other is rarity. Oyster plants grow among shingle and pebbles on a few beaches along the Down coast Fleshy grey green leaves cut down water loss and were once used as either raw or cooked ‘greens’. The plant is much too rare for that now! We are at the plant’s northern limit, I hope you find it! The search is worth the effort. Tyrella or south of Bloody Bridge near Newcastle are likely spots.
Common Stork’s-bill. Pretty pink flowers of Common Stork’s bill arise from a rosette of dark green, finely and deeply cut leaves. The flowers open in the morning, are pollinated, and gone by mid-day. Examine the plant- the name Storks-bill comes from long beak- like seed pods. Common Stork’s bill is found on dry sandy heaths near the sea.
Spring Squill grows on short turf near the sea and is at its best in May. Grassy hillsides sloping west on Rathlin Island can become a haze of blue with Spring Squill. The plant is still be found on grassy slopes above the sea south of Ardglass. Yet, it is a plant often missed. Sorry about the poor photo which includes Kidney Vetch , I will take a better one soon!
Yellow Horned Poppy is found infrequently on rough stones at the top of storm beaches, you will be lucky to find it. The best site locally is a storm beach beyond Bloody Bridge, south of Newcastle. The plant produces bright yellow flowers in early July, and later, long narrow seed pods . Remember all parts of the plant is poisonous.
Long-headed Poppies are much more common and found abundantly in sandy fields along the coast from late June until September . The name ‘long headed poppy’ is descriptive of long narrow seed pods produced after flowering. Poppies ‘en masse’ must be one of nature’s finest sights. This is not the Remembrance Day poppy -much less common here in N. Ireland.
Harebell flowers in July- a colourful sight for walkers on coastal cliff-tops such as the Giant's Causeway or amongst dunes. The plant has been given many names, among them ‘witches thimbles’ and ‘fairy bells’. This is the true ‘bluebell’ of Scotland –not the woodland bluebell.
Explore rocky sections of coastline or coastal cliffs from July until the end of August and you might find Rock Samphire, once eaten as a vegetable and cooked like Asparagus,or pickled. Native islanders on St.Kilda scaled cliffs for samphire and fulmar’s eggs to supplement their limited diet-a dangerous business! Shakespeare refers to the practice in ‘ King Lear ’. ‘Half way down hangs one that gathers Samphire,dreadful trade’.
Orchids are my favourite wild-flowers. Rare ones are elusive, often requiring long journeys or patient searching. In July, amongst dunes and often only yards behind beaches, elegant spikes of ‘Pyramidal Orchid’ with magenta/pink flowers dot the dunes.
Green- Winged Orchids have only one site in N.Ireland - an area not much larger than a helipad,so you might not find it! You can’t get much rarer than that. However, the plant is fairly common in parts of England. The flower spike shown is a beautiful pale variant. Most specimens are magenta in colour. Early July is best time for this orchid on the only known site- 30 yds from the sea.
Sea Bindweed is very local with one reliable site, immediately across the Bush river, and where the dune system begins at Portballentrye. The picture shows the thick fleshy leaves needed for coastal survival.
In July, along the coastal path between Whitepark Bay and Ballintoy, look for ‘The flower of Dunluce’ or Meadow Cranesbill, a plant you should not miss. Not found elsewhere in Ulster, but quite common in England.
The little plant below with small succulent reddish leaves and star-like white flowers is English Stonecrop. A lover of warm hollows in seaside rocks, it produces flowers from June until September and is sometimes even invited into gardens. A close relative, Biting Stonecrop, bright yellow in colour carpets stretches of flat sandy ground in Murlough Reserve near Newcastle.
I have left many out and they don’t deserve it. Wild Thyme, Tree Mallow, Spurges, and lots of Orchids, so take that flower book with you, and maybe a camera , and dander along the coast.
Search for coastal walks on WalkNI.com and get out and allow your mind to escape from a busy world for a few hours.
Posted on May 16, 2016 @ 1:23 PM in
Birds singing, flowers in full bloom and the smell of freshly cut grass; there has never been a better time to visit some of Northern Ireland’s most spectacular gardens. From walks through arboretums featuring champion trees to winding paths through award winning rosebushes and historic houses with period features these walks with gardens are a must:
Listed in the top ten gardens of the world compiled by UNESCO World Cultural Heritage the gardens at Mount Stewart were planted in the 1920s by Edith, Lady Londonderry. On this 2.3 mile walk, beginning at the front of the mansion, you will soon spot the monkey puzzle tree and Californian Redwood, your first indication of the remarkable variety of species within the estate. Beech trees, Rhododendron’s and Magnolia’s will line your way along gravel pathways. With a rich tapestry of design and planting artistry, the formal areas of the gardens have a strong Mediterranean feel resembling an Italian villa landscape, while the wooded areas support a range of plants from all corners of the world.
The forest park's best-kept secret don't be surprised if you are the only one discovering the many secluded spots in this hauntingly beautiful garden and arboretum. The garden was founded in 1740, with the Annesley family planting the arboretum in the 19th century. One of the finest collections of trees in Ireland, it includes 42 champion trees and 20 of the oldest specimen trees in Ireland and Britain. Stop to admire the impressive American Giant Redwood (added to the garden in the 1850s) or take a seat under an archway of ivy. Once at the entrance gate, choose between the shorter 1.1 mile walk or the 2.2 mile route which continues uphill, circling the Duck Pond and Mitchell's Lake.
One of Belfast’s most historic parks set in the grounds of the Ulster Museum in addition to the beautiful landscaped gardens the park contains a tropical ravine with a fascinating collection of exotic species. The circular walking route is just under a mile and will take you past the impressive statue of Lord Kelvin, famous physicist and founder of the Kelvin temperature scale, who was born in Belfast in 1824. You’ll also pass the Tropical Ravine which was constructed by Charles McKimm between 1887 and 1889 and contains a fascinating collection of exotic species, herbaceous borders and a colourful rose garden. The most striking building, the Palm House, designed by Charles Lanyon and built between 1839 and 1852 is home to wonderful collections of tropical plants, many of which have been growing there since the 19th century.
Home to a quirky cat garden Belfast Castle occupies a prominent site on the slopes of Cave Hill and boasts spectacular cityscape views of Northern Ireland’s capital city. The pleasant circular 2.4 mile Estate walk is the perfect way to admire this magnificent sandstone building and learn of its close associations with Belfast’s past. According to legend, Belfast Castle is safe as long as there is a (preferably white) cat residing there. This myth led to the creation of the "Cat Garden" right next to the stately pile on the slopes of Cave Hill which boasts no less than nine cats for visitors to discover.
The 19th century garden, famous today for its colourful plant collection and rugged landscape, was started in 1860 by the Moore family and further added to from 1903. Tranquil and calming there are many walks to choose from which visit the famous Rock Garden Wood, walled garden, rugged Old Wood and Pleasure Ground. The walled garden was originally built for fruit and vegetables by the Reverend John Moore, but was changed to ornamental planting by his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore who inherited the garden. With such an eclectic mix of herbaceous plants, bulbs, herbs and climbers this part of the garden unfolds weekly from spring to autumn.
This short circular walk (2.5 miles) through one of Belfast’s most picturesque parks is rich in horticultural and historical interest. Famed for its International Rose Garden, which attracts thousands of visitors during Rose Week held annually in July the park covers more than 128 acres and is made up of rolling meadows, copses, woodland a walled garden and a Japanese-style garden with water features for quiet contemplation. During World War II, American troops were stationed in the grounds of the estate while their officers lived in Wilmont House. Lady Dixon was well-known for her work with the troops and was created Dame of the British Empire as a result. Before she died in 1959, she donated the estate to the city of Belfast in memory of her late husband, Sir Thomas.
Walk in the footsteps of Presidents and Princesses as you visit a working royal residence and explore the 96 acres of stunning gardens. The gardens, developed from the 1760s onwards, offer a contrast of ornamental grounds, woodland, waterways, and lawns and feature a magnificent ‘Cornish Red’ Rhododendron, which is in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the largest specimen of its type in the world. The 1.6 mile boundary trail will take you past spectacular gardens, impressive 150 year old Lime Trees, Quaker Burial ground, Ice House, a serene Temple water and Pond and of course Hillsborough Castle itself. Built in the 1770s, the castle is a working royal palace that functions as the official residence of the Royal Family when they are in Northern Ireland and has been the home of the Secretary of State since the 1970s.
Posted on April 19, 2016 @ 2:10 PM in
Posted on April 14, 2016 @ 11:02 AM in
Everybody loves puffins! The ‘clown of the sea’ is unmistakable with its black back and white underparts, black head with large pale cheeks and a tall, flattened, brightly-coloured bill. Although most people don’t realise that these trademark bills are only for showing off during breeding season and they sport a much duller beak during winter!
For most of the year, puffins bob about at sea, returning to land in April. Most puffins start breeding when they are five years old and often live for more than 20 years. Some young, inexperienced birds may change mates after breeding failures but most will mate with the same partner for many years.
Rathlin Island, which lies just six miles off the north coast of Northern Ireland and is accessible by ferry from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, is home to one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies, including hundreds of puffins.
Rathlin West Seabird Centre (Andy Hay); Puffin with sandeels (Chris Gomersall)
During the summer these comical creatures share the cliffs at the island’s west lighthouse with thousands of other seabirds, from kittiwakes to fulmars, but they are undoubtedly the star of the show.
Every year visitors from all around the world make the journey to Rathlin and the West Light Seabird Centre, which is run by RSPB NI, to enjoy stunning views of these birds. As well as the visual spectacle, the sound and smell is pretty crazy too! Between April and July the birds are hard at work raising their young (which are known as ‘pufflings’) and by August, the puffins and their charges are back off to sea.
Puffin and Common Guillemot on Rathlin (Andy Hay); Cliff Stacks beside the Seabird Centre
With Puffin season here now is the time to pay a visit to Rathlin where as well as enjoying close-up views of the wonderful wildlife you’ll also have the opportunity to explore the recently renovated Seabird Centre and access the ‘upside down’ lighthouse. Situated at the heart of the colony, it’s a spectacular feat of engineering, clinging to the cliff face with the lantern gleaming red at its foot. Along with 11 other lighthouses around the Irish coast, Rathlin West Light is now part of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland trail.
Opening hours of The Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre vary, check before travelling by calling 028 9049 1547 or contact RSPBNI via their social channels - Facebook or Twitter.
is open from 10am until 5pm every day until the end of September and can be accessed via the Rathlin Trail. Admission is free for RSPB members, £5 for adults and £2.50 for children. Please note that while the main visitor centre is accessible, there is an 89 step descent to the viewing platform and a similar number of steps down through the lighthouse.
Upsidedown Lighthouse; Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre
For more information about the Seabird Centre visit www.rspb.org.uk/rathlinisland.
Don’t forget there’s a lot more of the island to explore too! For keen walkers, I’d recommend taking on the Roonivoolin trail on the southern arm of the island. This ramble through the RSPB NI nature reserve is home to a rich variety of birds and wildlife, from common blue butterflies to wildflowers, soaring birds of prey to Northern Ireland’s only family of chough.
Clockwise from top left; View from the Roonivoolin trail, Guillemot. (Andy Hay); Kittiwake pair (Andy Hay)
Visit WalkNI for a full list of walk trails on Rathlin.
Posted on March 31, 2016 @ 4:34 PM in
We hope you enjoyed Part One of our Top Spring Flowers to Spot blog and are ready to find our more in Part Two…
Violets on sunny banks are a welcome sight in March and April. For many, a violet is simply a violet, but look closely and you may well come across three species. Always the earliest to appear, and often not identified, even though fairly common is Early Dog Violet, growing in light woodland and more likely on limestone.
Wood Dog Violets are more straggly than Common Dog Violets, with blue flowers tending towards purple. The purple spur at the rear of the flower is a good identification point, other violets have creamy spurs. Common Dog Violets are frequent everywhere on sunny hedge-banks facing spring sunshine.
Heath Dog Violets are mostly found on sandy heath-land or coastal grasslands. Also in early April, almost pure white flowers of Greater Stitchwort appear on grassy roadside banks. You might well see two closely related plants with smaller flowers, Lesser Stitchwort and Least Stitchwort.
You can identify them using that new wildflower book you bought! Wild Garlic carpets woodland floors and is a plant every walker is aware of. Tramping boots release the intense garlic smell from crushed leaves. Look up some of the many culinary uses for wild garlic on the internet. It is also reputed to protect from witches!!
Wood Anemones are common- no reason to leave out such a dainty and delicate flower which brightens woodland floors in late March and April with nodding white flowers. Wood Anemone is sometimes called windflower because the flowers tremble continually in even a slight breeze.
The earliest orchid to appear is Early Purple Orchid in May with magenta flowers and leaves with dark brown blotches. Shakespeare described them as ‘Long purples’. Some woods have this species in abundance, others have none.
White-pink flowers of Ladies Smock, appear for a few weeks in damp meadows, around the end of April. Often Orange-Tip and Green-veined white butterflies will be fluttering around Ladies Smock, looking for a suitable spot to lay rafts of orange eggs under the leaves.
There are so many other common spring species to see, all worth a place, so buy a flora book as suggested and you will open up a new world of discovery for yourself. Try it and see, and by the way there are at least another 100 or so spring plants to find.
No apologies for leaving out two iconic spring species-bluebells and primroses-everyone knows these beautiful plants well. Rare plants are always worth looking for, in the right place, and are more likely to be seen by those who walk or look where others seldom do. The cliffs of Binevenagh and Sallagh Braes (usually in May) have rare spring flowering alpines not found elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Cushions of Moss Campion dotted with pink flowers adorn the cliffs of Binevenagh in May.
Mountain Avens with creamy white eight petalled flowers which close up in rain, can be found on the cliffs around the same time.
You will however be very lucky to find Purple Saxifrage, and although reputed to grow on Binevenagh, I have never seen it there. You have a much better chance of finding this beautiful plant on rocky outcrops on the limestone hills of Sligo.
So, set out on a world of discovery this spring, don’t worry if the group gets ahead a bit. Better still, try the odd wander with a few friends or on your own. When you begin to notice and concentrate on the plants around you, your heart-rate will drop and your mind will relax-for a while anyhow!