Marble Arch and the Marlbank Karst

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TYPELinear walk – riverside paths, minor road and mountain lanes and paths
DISTANCE7.9 miles / 12.7 km (both ways)
SURFACESMostly well made compacted surfaces. One short section potentially wet open mountain ground
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS900 feet climb
  • 1.5 mile walk on a minor public road.

  • Upper section of the walk is in exposed mountainous terrain

  • No Dogs allowed on Gortmaconnell farmland.

Karst is a scientific term for a kind of landscape created by limestone and water where the normal behaviours of rivers, rocks and landforms don’t apply and indeed are turned almost inside-out! Rivers abruptly vanish underground to later re-appear at some apparently arbitrary point. Dry hollows, sink holes, rocky valleys and heights form a strange, sometimes dangerous alien landscape and everywhere is underlain with an ultra complex 3-D maze of wet and dry passages and caverns. There is nothing else quite like it and in the Marble Arch / Marlbank area of the Fermanagh Geopark we have a superb example.

This Karst walk follows a river upstream from deeply wooded Cladagh Glen, past the lower entrances to the Marble Arch cave system, up onto the Marlbank plateau and then along an initially dry mountain valley, past a sinkhole to join the Owenbrean river as it flows from its head waters in the blanket bogs of Cuilcagh Mountain.

The Route

I normally aim for circular walks but this is not possible here. However, the quality of this landscape makes a return leg re-visit a minor hardship (and the view is always different the other way). So I have broken the overview route maps into two partly overlaying sub-maps to maximise clarity.

This also would facilitate breaking the walk into two days using the Marble Arch Visitor Centre for parking for the upper route. However, the car park here is provided for visitors to the caves and is locked when the visitor centre closes – be aware!

To get to the starting point, Cladagh Glen Car Park, leave Enniskillen on the A4 Sligo Road and then turn onto the A32 and then B52, following brown signs to Marble Arch Caves / Florencecourt. After Florencecourt, go past the left turn to Marble Arch Caves and continue on the B52 towards Blacklion for a further 1.6 miles to Cladagh Bridge and car park (see main map above for tricky last section).

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Leave the car park heading upstream past the scout centre on your left. The track enters the nature reserve and narrows to a path. The river can be glimpsed in places on your right and is worth a visit especially as there is always the possibility of seeing dippers ‘flying’ through the splashing rocky river bed.

As you begin to climb a little more steeply the glen walls close in and moss envelopes rock and trees alike.

Then the first limestone oddity appears on your left.

The cascade which tumbles down here is attractive in its own right, but what makes it remarkable is the absence of any feeder stream above. Fissures in the rock layers here connected to the subterranean watery maze of passages allow water to return to the light and progress in a more conventional manner downstream.

Here the slightly angled beds of limestone are undercut by the Cladagh River under a mossy cliff

As you proceed the far side of the Glen becomes progressively steeper and more interesting.

You are now approaching the head of the Glen where the path switches to stairways and the curtains of limestone cliffs twist and holes, caves and caverns become apparent.

This modest person sized hole is said to be the “Marble Arch” which gives the area its name

Most features here are on a much grander scale – exposed cliffs of strangely weathered rock, great boulders heaped in the dark mouths of darker caverns and all over-laid with a soft green mat of woodland, rich in moss, fern and lichen.

After a final steep section the path levels off and you emerge from the woodland at the Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre. This gives you your first of two opportunities to visit the Cafe and use the facilities. Opening times vary throughout the year. The guided tour here is well worthwhile (booking required at busy times) but probably best left to a separate day and having explored the surface Karst you will be in a much better position to appreciate the subterranean part!

Leave the visitor on the access road – no footpath on this section but visibility is good and the traffic generally moderate.

To your right there is a fine view over semi-wooded hills and valley of Crossmurrin and beyond to the unique limestone farmed grassland of the Marlbank area.

Looking into ‘Cradle Hole’ a collapsed doline (a surface hollow created by underground cavern collapse)

As well as ‘Cradle Hole’ this area is full of small sinkholes and rocky hollows. The moist shelters each dip provides are often home to mini ‘bonsai’ scrub woodland. Add to this sections of broken limestone pavement and low crags and you have a challenging and complex terrain to transverse. The area is used for Orienteering races and running and navigating here provides tough challenges for mind and body!

After 700m you reach the Marlbank Road where you turn left. Take normal precautions, walk on the right facing oncoming traffic, take particular care on bends and be sure to wear bright clothing. There can be significant traffic here, both travelling to the Marble Arch Caves and to the popular Cuilcagh staircase walk nearby. You are now heading to a much quieter and (IMHO) much more enjoyable destination!

This road is also part of the official ‘Cuilcagh Way’ Florencecourt section

You are now walking through the limestone grasslands proper. It is still an Irish upland landscape but strangely different in many ways. The land looks deceptively smooth but the sink-holes and dolines are still all around you. The road passes between the doline Pollnagollum of the Boats (to your north) and Pollthanacarra (to your south). Multiple animal remains including boar, wolf and early domestic animals have been found in these caves along with Bronze age human bones.

As well as these hollows and caves there are multiple rocky high points all around. Many of these feature the remains of raths. For many thousands of years this has been a landscape inhabited and modified by humans.

Farm tracks across fields are white, rocky and dry!

After 0.75 Km of road walking you reach the Gortmaconnell Rock walk access point and signage.

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There is no car park here as such but there is room for a couple of vehicles to pull off the road. If you make use of this please ensure you do not block access to the lane and farmland beyond. Also please note that you are now entering farmland and no dogs are allowed here.

Starting point for the Gortmaconnell Rock Trail

Climb the stile and proceed to a lane junction where you bear right following the black and red arrows. The lane now climbs to an open farm yard passing a shed and up over a low hill through a gate.

Not the oldest tractor you may see in the hills but nature seems to want this one back!

Here the ruins of several cottages remind you that this was once a much more populated landscape. The OS map of 1850 shows three houses here surrounded by a complex mesh of small fields.

Pollasumera the sink-hole which swallows the Owenbrean River now lies to your south hidden by woodland. Beyond this lies the curiously named “Glass Rock” a large collapsed doline (perhaps the shape of the enclosed hollow suggested that of a glass bowl)?

The Owenbrean River just about to descend Pollasumera sink-hole

The track now drops down and you pass a way-mark post indicating the turn-off point later for your return leg, closely followed by a second turning to a derelict farmhouse. Ignore both and continue straight ahead to meet the Owenbrean River converging from your right.

This wooded spur conceals a hard rocky heart which the river has diverted around

You are now following the rocky bedded river upstream as it meanders in a pleasant shallow valley beyond which you are increasingly surrounded by a blanket of relentless bog. After about 700m you come to an information board describing the adjacent exposed Cuilcagh Dyke . This is an intrusion of once molten rock which pushed up into cracks in the limestone before hardening to form a tougher rocky rib which diverted the course of the river here.

Shortly after Cuilcagh Dyke the river bed turned dry (on the day I walked)

The next strangeness you may well encounter is the vanishing river. Nothing unusual in dry weather you might think – but here the running water may come and go within a few metres as underground and overground options are taken. Again the domain of the Karst has to be understood in both ways to make sense of its ways!

In a bleak treeless landscape a lush natural woodland thrives!

The track now climbs away from the river which disappears in a different way – now into a remote wooded glen. If I were tasked with commercial promotion of the Geopark I might be tempted to say that this is where the dinosaurs hang out (getting families excited about VERY OLD SLOW MOVING ROCKS must be difficult!) However, as I am not I will just say that places like this appeal to my imagination!

Mountain tops create their own weather and (as in this case) cloud.

Around the next corner you come to the Cuilcagh viewpoint with associated board. The great heavy plateau of millstone grit may lie stretched out on the skyline – or as in the photograph above it may be sulking under a cloud!

The laneway doesn’t end here but drops to ford the river and climb again on the far side. However, as the scenery uphill becomes increasingly bleak, I agree with the official trail designers that this is the best point to turn back.

On the return leg the view is different the other way around!

Turn your back to the high blanket bog and retrace you steps along the solid wet drained track. The view here over the rolling limestone pasture land of Marlbank and beyond is particularly fine.

It is almost 2km back to the point were the waymarked black trail leaves this lane for the summit of Gortmaconnell Rock. This alternative loop to your right is an excellent walk and I would strongly recommend it unless you challenged by time, weather, light or tiredness.

The waymaked path junction clear – but as an additional aid it sits immediately after passing a lane into a ruined farmhouse

The track is vehicle width and cut through rock but little used today. It curves around a low hill climbing steeply and bypassing the old wooded farmstead to your right. As you reach the high point Gortmaconnell Rock appears almost due north ahead,

Gortmaconnell Rock ahead – without a cloud top!

The old vehicle track ends here and you become dependent on following the black arrowed posts for the next 500m. Please note that there is no surfaced or clear trodden path here (August 2019) and that the black arrows are on one side of the posts only (so a reverse route would be significantly more difficult to follow).

Sharp eyes are needed to spot the posts

On the plus side it is good to get off hard tracks for a little and this excursion through rushy fields, thorn hedges and ruined stoned walls gets you a little closer to the land.

Your route continues towards Gortmaconnell Rock, bearing left slightly to climb over a low saddle and then dropping to join the well trodden main thoroughfare up the hill. Turn right for the short but steep climb uphill.

The path corkscrews slightly clockwise as it reaches the summit.
To the north there is a lush patchwork of fertile farmland and low rolling hills

Hopefully conditions will be clear and you will be able to benefit fully from the 360 view on offer here.

In total contrast to the south-west lies the bleak mass of Cuilcagh
In the mid ground you can review your black trail approach route. In the foreground an intriguing rocky hollow suggests perhaps the site of a chambered grave or maybe a trace of fortifications.

Now descend as you came, past the junction with the black trail bearing directly downhill along a well made vehicle width track. After 400m you will recognise the lane junction you forked off at earlier. Continue ahead to the road.

It is now a simple retrace all the way to the Marble Arch Visitor Centre where, given the right time and season, refreshments may be available.

On your final section down Cladagh Glen you have the option of a short variation on your upward route. Immediately after entering the woodland, take the left turn signposted ‘The Cottage’. This will let you explore a different section of this attractive natural woodland, including the small cave shown below.

‘The Cottage’ a rather more accessible Marble Arch Cave – no tour guide required.

Just before the Cottage loop rejoins the main Cladagh Glen path you pass an gated intriguing access stairway descending to the dark depths blow (access via guided tour only).

No entry (or littering) here!

Shortly after this the path rejoins the main Glen route and you bear left downhill. Please take extra care as you descend the steps as you are likely to be tired and more prone to mis-stepping!

With the steps behind you 1.5km of gentle downhill walking will return you to your starting place at the Cladagh Glen Car Park.

External Link

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDFs)

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