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There has been a lot of publicity and promotion in recent years about hillwalking in the Sperrins. There is a also a nice new Ordnance Survey 1:25000 outdoor activity map. However, the strange thing is that this is an area with almost no access to the hill summits; or associated car parking; or stiles over the many mountain fences. Apart from the usual problems of lack of rights of way or permissive paths, these are soft, wet, peaty mountains where paths would rapidly erode without substantial human intervention. So walkers here are reduced to the usual options of roads, lanes and Forest Service plantations. However, it is not all bad news – there are some good options, and Loughermore, which actually contains a trig point summit and great views of the Sperrins, Donegal and beyond, is one of the best.
|TYPE||Circular walk to hill summit contained within a forest area|
|DISTANCE||6.4 miles / 10.3 km|
|SURFACES||Mostly on surfaced forest tracks and paths, but with a short optional section on rough open ground|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||1,100 feet of descent and ascent|
This is a very manageable hill climb using forest tracks for the whole ascent and being largely sheltered by trees. However, it is a climb to well over 1,000 feet and sections of the track are in felled and open areas and therefore potentially exposed to severe weather. Finally, also because of the height, there is an increased likelihood of hill fog which could make the relatively simple track navigation more challenging for inexperienced navigators. So – check the weather forecast before leaving home, carry wet weather clothing and wear sturdy walking footwear. I would also recommend carrying a compass and a proper mountain map with contours.
Parking here is an issue. The ‘official’ Forest Service car park, by the old touring caravan site at Loughermore Burn Bridge, has been greatly reduced in size in recent years to a small muddy circle. However, it is not much used, so for individuals or small groups it should be sufficient. The other two good start points have no official parking, but have room for a couple of cars to pull off the road. This is all very poor for a forest which, in the 1970s, led the way in many aspects of forest-based recreation. As you’ll see, there’s no reason why it couldn’t do so again, given new vision and a little local political will.
Route One – Tartnakilly Road – Back Bridge
This the best place to start if you wish to get quick access to the summit – a walk of just 1 mile. The full loop has more ascent than other options as it climbs to the Loughermore summit and then drops down the far side of the hill to a low point before climbing back over the hill again.
Parking is at the end of a blocked forest track – there’s just enough space for a couple of cars with other spaces possible on the road verges. The earth heaped on the track is actually quite tricky to negotiate, but once you do so, the way ahead is easy.
This is a relatively young commercial plantation of Sitka Spruce grown at high density on fairly featureless mountain bog – so the forest itself is of limited interest. The good news is that on the first section of the route the track runs in a broad ‘avenue’ and nature has taken full advantage of the light, shelter and relative warmth to add diversity and interest. On the May morning I surveyed the route, the high volume birdsong here was clear evidence of productive habitat.
Follow the track uphill and, after 160m, you will come to the first of one of the special features of Loughermore Forest – large tracts of unplanted ground contained and sheltered by the forest. Some of these may have been intended as Turbary or it may have just been far sighted planning on the part of the forester. Whatever the reason, these areas, like the broad track edge, are a throng of plant, scrub and natural tree growth and regeneration. The one on your left also features a long abandoned fire dam, now a repository for mosses and other moisture loving plantlife.
Continue until you reach a T-junction and here turn right. The track now shows extensive evidence of widening and re-surfacing. Unfortunately the purpose is not to make your walk easier, but almost certainly as a preparation for ‘clear felling’ this area, which is very mature by local forestry standards. I would guess the trees here are 40-50 years old.
Sitka Spruce, left to its own devices, is quite happy to live to hundreds of years old and achieve a girth of up to 5m. It ranks 5th in the world league of giant conifers by size and 3rd by height – up there with the giant sequoia and the great Californian redwoods. So why does Loughermore Woods not look like Muir Woods? Well, primarily because these are a planted crop for relatively short term return. In addition, the soft peaty soils here just don’t have the grip to keep mature trees upright in wind. If you look around, you will see many areas of ‘windblow’ – tangled heaps of fallen timber, all forest storm damage.
However, don’t forget the potential this tree has and watch out in sheltered forest valleys for a few majestic individuals trying to emulate their American cousins!
As you continue to climb, the track approaches the forest edge on your right hand side. You might like to take to one of the forest ‘rides’ to have a look. On the open mountainside a number of ‘trespassing’ trees have started to recolonise the largely featureless hillside. Given another 50 – 100 years this process could transform the mountain, with a mixture of native and imported species.
The track now turns away from the boundary and the verges vanish. In the restricted light and high density planting, mosses still manage to thrive.
You now climb to a T-junction by an old fire dam where you turn right and head towards the open mountain and the summit. Here, on a clear day, the 360 view is superb, illustrating one of the secrets of enjoying mountains – the best views are often not from the highest peaks!
So looking around you have Binevenagh, Benbradagh, Mullaghmore, Sawell and Dart (the paired highest hills in the Sperrins) and then further afield Donegal, the Derryveagh hills, Inishowen and Slieve Snaght.
I first visited here on an educational forestry outing in the 1970s. In those days Loughermore had its own on-site forester and staff. The forester himself, Willie Turner, drove us, a group of schoolchildren, up here in the forestry crew bus, explaining all aspects of forestry and landscape history. I remember him detailing the view and I recall he said 13 counties 1 could be seen from here – but I can’t remember which! It was a great day out and, in a very real sense, this blog is a result of that formative experience.
Retrace your steps back as far as the fire dam junction, but now travel straight ahead, bear right as an indistinct track continues straight ahead (the old route to the Fire Tower) and drop downhill to a T-junction where you now turn right. The trees here are mature and close to the track so there is little vegetation.
However, there is a change ahead as the track turns sharply downhill and then crosses a fast flowing stream (the Cullion Burn) and the forest in the valley to your left switches to deciduous Larch.
With lots more light the ground level vegetation now thrives with bilberry very prominent.
As the track gets steeper the impact of natural forces become apparent. In May 2018 I found the vehicle track extensively eroded and washed away by floodwater – even off-road vehicles could struggle here, but it is still OK for foot travellers.
After 300m you suddenly emerge at the head of a large area of fairly recently felled forest with a good view towards the hills south of Derry. However, what is likely to catch your eye instead are four giant wind turbines looking down on you from the hillside to the north beyond the forest. Some walkers may find these intrusive and disturbing – I don’t. The landscape we see, we can only see as humans and the marks we make and leave on it tell our story. Whether these turbines will be a permanent landscape feature, or a passing technology from a particular time, doesn’t really matter. They tell the story of an awakening to the finite nature of our traditional energy supplies and the finite capacity of the biosphere to adsorb the products of unintelligent, unconstrained, economic growth. So I am happy to see them stand here, with the hills, the farmland and the tall trees.
To your left the Cullion Burn, which you have been following, is marked by a procession of singular tall Larch trees leading down to a large fire dam – more of which later.
On my first visit to this valley as a boy in the 1970’s, when it was covered by mature forest, a winding path cut off into the trees to the right signposted, I think, “Giant’s Grave”. This site, a megalithic wedge tomb, made something of a impression on me then. The path was later lost with the felling (as sadly always seems to happen), but the tomb has survived and, with a little effort, you can still visit by a rather circuitous route. It is not spectacular, but the seclusion and slight oddness of the site (and the great views) may make it worth your while.
Giant’s Grave option (1.2km extra)
This option adds 700m of track and 500m of rough forest-edge walking with some wet ground (good footwear required).
At the staggered track crosswords turn right and walk to the forest edge. Here you get a clear view of the wind turbine farm and, if you look really carefully, a standing stone in their shadow below.
Turn right and follow the rough open ground between the fence and the planting for 190m to where the forest boundary meets a field fence. A rusty strand of un-barbed wire crosses your path and you need to duck under it to pass.
Now head at right angles away from the fence (see photo) along a chain of odd open marshy hollows for 60m to the megalithic site.
So here is the (rather small) Giant’s Grave – a stone lined south facing chamber. A few other stones follow the alignment – perhaps the entrance passage. Why here in this high and windy place? Why pointing this way. Was it built in a hollow in an ancient wood long gone? These places are full of questions with few answers and all the more educational for it!
The line of the old forest path is just visible here, but at the time of writing (May 2018) retracing the route along the forest boundary was the easier option.
At the staggered track crossroads turn left to cross the Cullion Burn. Just after the bridge a rough track cuts back to visit the Fire Pool and waterfall – on a fine day this is a good spot for a stop.
The substantial concrete dam wall is evidence of the importance which was once placed on fire fighting capacity in forestry design. Other features such as the creation of wide fire breaks or ‘rides’ between blocks of planting are still visible. Some readers will remember forest roadside fire warning signs, complete with ‘beaters’ for DIY citizen fire control.
Return to the main path and continue 500m to join a track lined with mature trees. Turn right here. This is an old farm lane which predates the forestry and linked the sites of several farms. There was once a network of fields here separated by earth ditches – these are still clearly visible especially in the mature forest to your left.
After 200m you reach a junction with a track to your left. Ahead you can see the barrier at the forest edge and beyond a small area of rough informal parking – the alternative starting point for this route.
Now turn left – immediately to your right is the site of a former farmhouse – the 1952 Ordnance Survey map shows two buildings (presumably dwelling house and barns) approached by a front access track suggesting a garden and several small areas of woodland/orchard. Now all signs of buildings are gone and only the tree-lined ditches, nettles (nitrogen enrichment) and plants of long established woodland (bluebells and wood anemone) hint of previous human dwelling.
Continue for 600m – the Sitka Spruce plantation on your right is unusually mature and mountain bikers have taken advantage of this to construct an elaborate trail which is clearly visible in places.
Continue up and turn left at the next junction and then right after 270m. You now have regained most of your height and a large area of recently felled forest lies below you to your left with views across the valley of Cullion Burn and the wind turbines beyond.
As you proceed you will become aware that the the level high land to your right is not planted. It was previously Turbary – an area where local people had the right to cut turf.
After 350m the track bends to the right as another track joins from the left. You have open peat-cutting land on both sides of the track which now reaches a high point looking south-west with the mountains of Sawel and Dart on the horizon ahead.
Look out for overgrown turf bank on both sides – these are about 6 foot high with a vertical face of black cut peat. Heather now tumbles over their top lips – often to the point of almost hiding the face. The ground immediately below is often wet and clear of heather.
I can remember this area in the 1970s with many banks fresh cut – their faces black and shining with the lines cut by the loy (long bladed turf spade) visible running vertical. Long thin cut peat would be stacked in tripods on the bank tops to dry and then gathered in small stacks ready to be brought from the mountain. Saving the turf dry, like saving hay, was always a challenge in our fickle climate, requiring skills, perseverance and luck. It was hard back-breaking work, often involving the whole family, but on a fine day on a mountain like this, good memories were brought back home along with the turf.
I suggest leaving the track and having a look for yourself. If you watch to your left after the high point of the track you should be able to make out a bank with a ‘sheep track’ running from the track directly to it.
The track now drops again to a junction where you turn left and head steeply back uphill, again with open mountain and views to your right. As you climb, ignore the track branching off to your left and continue to the high point where your track bends right, but a disused small track heads straight on along a fire break through the forest.
Continue along the forest edge for another 300m where the track bends left into dark dense wood and heads sharply downhill. Extensive widening has been carried out, presumably in preparation for clear felling. The forest here is relatively lifeless with very dense planting excluding most light. There is not much to see, but the steady downhill gradient facilitates a brisk pace and after 1.25km you rejoin your earlier route and turn right onto a track section rich in peripheral natural interest. A final 500m takes you back to your starting point.
Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)
1. [Willie Turner’s son Don contacted me through the blog about this post. He corrected me about the number of counties his father said you could see. It should have been 5 (but only 4 of these are in Ireland)! Childhood memories are important but not always accurate! 1]↩