This walk visits the rocky wooded gorge of the O’Cahan’s – the ancient clan which controlled the Roe Valley area up until the time of the Plantation of Ulster. Even after they were displaced, the site of their castle remained a local seat of power and its associated community – the original Limavady (from the Irish Léim a’ Mhadaidh – the leap of the dog). Only later was Newtown-Limavady founded in its current location two miles to the north.
So this now uninhabited wooded riverbank was once a place of dwelling, agriculture and commerce. Few signs remain today save the ‘Holy Well’ (often an indication of pre-Christian origin) and the mound on which O’Cahan’s stronghold stood defiant high above the river gorge.
|TYPE||Circular riverside and forest walk|
|DISTANCE||2.2 miles / 3.6 km|
|SURFACES||Mostly well made compacted surfaces with flights of steps and some moderately steep slopes.|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||300 feet climb|
Leave the main car park and take the right hand path which heads towards the end of the pond (with the ruined Beetling Mill on your right). Now follow the track along the edge of the meadow on your right, with the Dogleap Centre and Cafe above on your left. Beyond these buildings the path drops down towards a small stream with the old Power House on your left. Skirt around the lower edge of this and you will find yourself walking towards a hidden dry arch of the Largy Green bridge.
Go under the bridge and climb the steps to visit a secluded walled viewpoint. Here you have an excellent view of the bridge, the rapids below and a strange rusty pipe spanning the gorge at high level. This is yet another part of the ingenious water power infrastructure. The pipe, presumably under very high pressure, took water from the race above across the river to where a further water-powered milling machine awaited.
Continue downstream through the rough rocky cutting with a large rusting pipeline above. There is a path to the right here which goes down to the river’s edge and a peculiar stone seat. If the river is high this may be flooded so take care.
The seat was probably added as a ‘garden feature’ for the grand Dogleap House. Around the Dogleap it is often hard to know where industrial history ends and gardening whimsy begins! Return to the main path and turn right downstream taking care on the rough steps. After 100m you come to probably the most picturesque of the mill ruins. A cornmill this time with rectangular rather than arched windows.
The path now climbs steeply past an old storehouse to a flat grassy area. In the 1970’s this was one of the many Forest Service Caravan Parks. Basic sites with running water, waste disposal and sometimes, as here, a toilet block. It is a long time since this particular site was used, but a handful of the original sites are still active. If the idea appeals see Camping and caravanning in forests for details! Now, turn right and pass through the white pillared traditional gateway.
The track now follows a level course along the boundary of the park with a high hedge on your right. After 300m the boundary route ahead is blocked by builder’s fencing – this option has been closed off for several years with no information available as to when it will reopen. However, today this is not a problem as your route here turns right and heads downhill on a steep path with steps. At the foot of these there is another closed path (similar to before – although this path used to follow a much more rugged and interesting route and therefore the long closure is more understandable). Here you can get down to the river’s edge with a good view over the weir pool and the precipitous O’Cahan’s Rock viewpoint, almost directly opposite.
Retrace your steps slightly and head up the river a short distance to cross the blue bridge over the upper part of the weir pool.
The old stone steps on the next section have been overlaid with a large wooden staircase – probably slightly easier to climb, but IMHO a less satisfactory addition to the landscape.
A the top of the steps you will come to a warning sign and access to the top of O’Cahan’s rock. There are no other signs, rails or restraints beyond this point so proceed carefully and remember the fear of heights is a natural and logical survival mechanism.
As you stand (or lie) here and look out – imagine a tower house on this rock (or a stockade or earth built fort). This is what the O’Cahan looked for in a building site. Their actual castle was built just upstream of the next promontory rock which you will see later. However, it has become hedged in and overgrown, so when you visit it – keep in your head the view from here!
From O’Cahan’s Rock you now want to get to the ‘Holy Well’. There is a dense network of paths here and no obvious ‘best route’ – the woods are natural, deciduous and rich in birdlife, ground level vegetation and wild flowers, so it doesn’t really matter which way you go. The marked route goes left as you leave the viewing point, immediately right and uphill to where it almost joins a lane which must have been the old road between the Dopleap settlement and Newtown Limavady. It then drops back down to a complex six way junction with the Holy Well clearly visible in a sharp hollow just below.
The well is marked on Ordnance Survey maps from 1830 onward and labelled ‘Holy Well’. In this period there are no dwellings recorded anywhere close to it. It hints at this either being once a focus for settlement or a religious place, or perhaps both. Christian monks would often deliberately establish their churches on existing pagan sites, so this wooden hollow may well be a link to a distant past.
Come back up from the well, turn left and follow the broad level track. The ground below to your left becomes increasingly broken, with small disused earth quarries hinting at previous human utilisation. You will soon arrive at the the O’Cahan’s Rock car park. In the 1960s and 1970s, before the creation of the country park, this was Limavady’s point of access to the woods. Continue straight through the car park and out on the path at the far end which drops down towards yet another mill race. This fed a corn mill and Limavady distillery (1750–1915) – power from water to aqua vitae or uisce beatha!
This is a lovely section of beech woodland, but wandering through it is not an option as you are corralled along an extensive stairway. After crossing the mill race you reach the lowest of the park’s bridges.
Formerly you could have crossed here and followed a low level path upstream back to O’Cahan’s Rock. This was a superb path, full of interest with waterfalls, crags and flights of rock-cut steps, twisting through the landscape. There was also a less interesting high level track which followed the forest edge on largely flat ground. Unfortunately both these paths have been closed for many years. The bridge however has been recently refurbished – this might indicate an intention to restore upstream access or it may just be to preserve foot access to the country park from the Roe Park Hotel and environs.
So ignore the bridge and turn left, heading upstream between the river and the mill race.
The path repairs on this section are encouraging – quarry dust rather than hard paving and wooden ‘snow fencing’ used to protect the river edges.
The woods of the country park are almost exclusively deciduous with much natural self seeding and regeneration, but in this section conifer planting has taken place. The sheltered location has allowed some trees to grow to a great height.
After 800m of pleasant, easy riverside walking you arrive back at the base of O’Cahan’s Rock and the weir pool. Upstream, the blue bridge you crossed earlier is just visible. A good spot to linger on a fine day – and the former owners of the Dogleap Estate thought so too.
The attractive conical ruin on the slight height was not a watch tower, a sluice keeper’s hut, or the beehive of an ancient Celtic monk. Rather it was a summer house for inhabitants and guests of the big house at the Dogleap – a base for picnicking and bathing!
Cross the mill race and head downstream a short distance to where a path branches right and climbs steeply back up to almost the level of the cliff top. Turn right here and you will recognise the path behind the cliff edge viewpoint from before. Continue past the steps you ascended previously and follow the path until it joins the old lane. Turn right passing the entrance to Boyle’s Wood and the outdoor forest classroom on your left.
If you would like to extend your walk, the path through Boyle’s Wood to the grandly named “Biodiversity Demonstration Area” and back is a good option. As a teenager growing up in Limavady I knew this area as “the wilderness” – there were no formal paths within it then and you could easily get lost exploring here. Even today it is the quietest part of the park with glorious mature woods partly cloaked with a holly and hawthorn understorey. However, be aware that the paths here (May 2018) are poorly drained and muddy in sections.
Continue upstream past Boyle’s Wood where the lane now runs with open farmland on your left. A short distance later a smaller path drops down to the right towards O’Cahan’s Castle. This section is undulating with several uneven flights of rock steps.
Around the corner you come to a hedged mound on your right – the site of O’Cahan’s Castle (Tower House).
As mentioned earlier, the hedging today hides the location to a point of absurdity – it looks like the O’Cahan built his stronghold in a small park or meadow! But strip away the trees and bushes and this site would be revealed as the crag top eyrie it once was. Similar to Mountsandel Fort at Coleraine, O’Cahan’s Castle once dominated its approaches by land and water.
After the O’Cahan’s were ousted from here, Sir Thomas Philips the soldier, adventurer and founder of modern Limavady, built his own house here. His house however was rather more fashionable and ornamental and featured some form of landscaped gardens. It is easy to see this as a transition which then proceeded to the establishment of the current ‘Big House’ and gardens, just upstream at the Dog Leap.
Now continue past the castle site along the largely hidden cliff edge to where a flight of concrete steps descend in the base of a natural rock gully.
Beyond this you come out at a restored mill pond and corn store. Exit onto Dogleap Road, turn right and carefully cross the Largy Green Bridge (see the end of walk RVCP Upstream for more detail of this section). You are now back at the visitors centre and cafe, hopefully with the availability of rest and refreshment options.