Portglenone Forest is rightly well known for its annual display of spring bluebell bloom. Given that this will only be at its best for a couple of weeks sometime around May and that the area is small – this might lead you to think of it as a bit of a ‘one trick pony’ and not somewhere to visit all year round. This however would be a mistake. Bluebells (like wood anemone) are very slow spreading woodland plants. Their presence is an indicator of ground which has been forested for considerable time – ie old forest. Old forest as we know is rich in biodiversity and rare. So where you find it, other riches follow.
|TYPE||Short circular walk around the wood and riverside|
|DISTANCE||1.5 miles / 2 km|
|SURFACES||Good level paths with gentle slopes. One short moderately steep section of climb.|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||110 feet climb|
This is a pay and display car park so you will be able to make a small contribution towards the considerable costs of making forest like this available for public use. There is an annual pass available from the Forest Service which covers vehicular access to the following areas:
- Glenariff Forest Park, Co Antrim
- Portglenone Forest, Co Antrim
- Gosford Forest Park, Co Armagh
- Castlewellan Forest Park, Co Down
- Tollymore Forest Park, Co Down
- Drum Manor Forest Park, Co Tyrone
- Gortin Glen Forest Park, Co Tyrone
Full details of this (and other forest charges) on the NI Direct public service information website
The route I describe largely follows the forestry Red Trail and the waymarks are in good condition so you might want to keep an eye out for them.
Head west from the car park along the Red Trail. The beech forest here is open and inviting, but no bluebells, or indeed any other ground cover forest plants. A look an an old ordnance survey map from circa 1830 gives at least part of the answer. The area between the car park and the riverside hill was then a field. Bluebells are plants of long established woodland and for all its attractiveness this area was not planted until mid twentieth century.
Drop down the broad spur and after 300m the path joins a broader track and you turn left.
This is the edge of the ancient woodland and the contrast is startling with the wood floor ahead rich in flowers, grasses and bushy growth.
Should you be fortunate to be visiting in the spring bluebell bloom (May-ish) and on a sunny day you should be able to see a blue mist on the ground under the trees before you are close enough to see the plants themselves.
The timing of the bloom is crucial for the success of the bluebell. Like other plants it needs heat and sunlight, but growing in deciduous forest it won’t get those if the tree leaf canopy is too developed. So – once the starting gun for spring goes off it is a race to bloom as soon as possible. I think this is part of the joy in our reaction to it – it is a plant which marks the sudden coming of the long awaited light and warmth and the end of the winter fallow.
The wood here is being managed for natural generation by the Forest Service – so no industrial clear felling of massive tracts. Instead small sections will be progressively taken out and the natural seeding of saplings on the forest floor will gradually produce the next generation of trees.
The route skirts the bluebell hill until, close to the river, it leaves the larger track for a level woodland path. This is forest walking at its best with the path almost as natural as the woods around it, with soft edges and occasional tree roots exposed. You could trip on these if you were really determined – but the sensible option is to enjoy them instead!
The path turns by an old stone boundary wall and joins the river bank. The river today is tranquil and almost completely bereft of water traffic. However, it was not always so. The footprint of Portglenone forest today covers a tiny fraction of the once great woodlands of Glenconkeyne and Killetra which rang along the Bann Valley and extended into the heart of the Sperrin Mountains. This woodland was almost completely felled in the 16 and 17 hundreds for its great riches of timber and to produce fertile agricultural land. The river in front of you played a major part in this as it allowed the great weight of timber to be easily transported to Coleraine and beyond. The “Cuts” at Coleraine were created at the beginning of this period to bypass the tidal rapids and allow boats to traverse the length of the River Bann. The extraction of timber must have been one of the main reasons for this early major engineering project. Imagine boats, barges or perhaps free floating timber rafts then on this strategic trunk route of its day.
After 300m the path bends from the River and comes to a Y junction. The route follows the signposted option to the right.
Ahead the nature of the forest changes suddenly. The planting is much more varied and less native. Rhododendrons and other exotic species appear. You might think that this is the remnant of a garden of the big house – but not this time. The answer lies ahead in the form of a memorial stone at the next junction where you turn sharp left.
Augustine Henry (1857 – 1930) grew up close to here and witnessed the felling of the great central forest. He was an administrator, a traveller and botanical collector, an academic studying and teaching the science of plants and an inventor of modern forestry in Ireland and beyond.
His ‘discovery’ of the Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine would change the face of Ireland and start a new reforestation – a partial undoing of previous clearances. While the largely monocultural plantations of today have shortcomings, they have created shelter and new habitats. Also increasingly through both enlightened management and nature’s own resourcefulness they are being enriched and diversified to become the foundation stones of the new woods of Ireland. I think Augustine Henry would be well pleased.
Ahead you can enjoy the memorial grove featuring at its heart the enigmatic ‘Lady’s Well’ which is recorded here in ancient forest in the Ordnance Survey map of 1830 – far away from any habitation.
The route now turns sharply uphill and after a short haul you find yourself on a wildflower and forest plateau. You will note that while the trees are mature there are none of great girth or gnarled appearance. This is because this area was completely clear felled just before it passed into the ownership of the Forest Service in 1947. Fortunately it wasn’t all planted with sitka spruce (perhaps because it was small and odd) – instead native species were used and the wildflower woodland floor survived and prospered.
The path bends to the south and to a junction where you continue straight ahead for 100 metres along the ridge of the hill. At the end turn left onto a straight track which forms the spine of the forest access (it is certainly on the 1930 map).
As you descend notice the unusual concrete core of the path. This is part of the extensive works which were carried out here in World War Two to build accommodation for the men of the US 25th Glider Infantry Regiment (motto simply ‘Let’s Go’). They were only here for a short time from December 1943 to February 1944 when they left on their way to a glider assault on the fields of Normandy. If you look around carefully you can see foundations of huts not quite absorbed back into the forest!
Continue straight on passing a very mature small conifer plantation on your left. A small path loops in here to visit another ‘Holy well’ again marked on old maps.
Beyond the conifers the path splits and you turn left to visit an attractive ornamental pond.
It seems totally integrated into its woodland environment and with reflections on the water it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Now cross a bridge by a waterfall pool and climb back up to your starting point, the car park ahead.
The information boards here are a little neglected, but on the plus side contain a lot of good quality content for grown ups and children!
Finishing with another Autumn view – different colours and bird life easier to see with cloaking foliage stripped away.