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|TYPE||Circular walk through the estate visiting mature oak woodland, oak parkland and a wooded island with mixed woodland.|
|DISTANCE||5.2 miles / 8.2 km|
|SURFACES||Mostly well made compacted surfaces with gentle slopes. Inisherk section and parts of Culliaghs wood soft underfoot in places.|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||400 feet climb|
|HAZARDS||Some walking on estate roads. Some walking on difficult soft ground.|
We are told that Ireland was once an island covered in great forests and in those forests the mighty oak was the dominant tree. Today this is hard to envisage with oaks a rarity, generally confined to rocky ravines like the Ness Woods or Roe Valley Country Park. Even in these places they tend to be small with limited canopies. This walk in glorious Crom estate looks at alternative oak woodlands which hint at the possible true ancient landscape of Ireland.
It is fair to say that, for the road traveller, Crom is not really on the way to anywhere else – it is somewhere you need to choose to go to for its own sake, and all the better for it. Nineteen miles south-east from Enniskillen (which is itself perceived as far flung by the average inhabitant of the greater Belfast area) it requires a little effort to visit. However, to turn a positive, it fully justifies a Fermanagh mini-break for those needing to travel. Stubborn go-back-home visitors from the big smoke will miss the glories of early morning or dusk exploration as they chug back to base each night!
So get yourself to Lisnaskea and follow the brown tourist signs to Crom Estate National Trust. There is an entry charge (Adult/ Child Family £5.85 /£2.93 /£14.63 Nov 2019) which may be collected at a small hut along the estate driveway. Follow the signs to the visitor centre and main visitor car park.
The estate is open all year round daytime with the visitor centre and cafe times varying considerably with the season. See the NT Crom Estate Website for current times or the National Trust Members’ handbook for a year round calendar.
The visitor centre is located in part of the old farmyard, a beautiful courtyard of stone built barns and cottages, which dates from the 1830’s. Today the cottages are self catering accommodation and the cellar ‘cloisters’ have been converted into pig themed glamping pods! A large adjacent jetty caters for motor cruisers, fishing boats and canoeists. Boat hire is also available.
Route (Section A: Old Farmyard to Culliaghs Wood)
Starting at the main visitor centre car park follow the signs for Culliaghs Walk. Initially the path runs along the edge of the estate parkland.
Coming from a traditional farming background I have always found this type of estate parkland with randomly placed trees an attractive, but impractical throwback to gentility and inefficient farming. Trees take up precious space, get in the way of machinery and have to be worked around leaving little islands of unproductive land. Like living in a grand country house – nice if you can afford it. I never asked myself – where did the ideas behind this landscape come from?
Our walk today visits Culliaghs Wood, a rare mature oak woodland where the precious timber has not been harvested and replaced by beech as in so many of the Demesnes of Ireland. I think particularly of Drum Manor near Cookstown, formally called Oaklands. Today in Drum the deciduous woodland is largely beech based and within the forest Oaks are a rarity.
Culliaghs Wood possibly survived because it was developed (around 1860) as a woodland garden. The high mature oaks would have provided shelter for the introduced rhododendrons, azaleas and other exotics.
The path turns sharp right away from the parkland, across an old stone bridge into Culliaghs Wood. The well spaced oaks here, like the examples in the parkland fields, have fully formed canopies – the classic broccoli shape of a child’s idea of what a proper tree should look like!
After 100m follow a small path signposted of to the left. You now see the downside of the exotic garden heritage – rhododendron thickets. Here there has been extensive work done to cut and control the all-consuming rhododendron creep which monopolises light, food and space to destroy all other vegetation cover. However, cutting and removing is only the beginning of the fight as the root systems will rapidly re-sprout, hydra-like, to continue the invasion like the red weed in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds!
Your path now swings to the right, crosses the a wider track and enters an area of Culliaghs Wood largely free of the exotic additions.
The path winds and climbs (wet in places) through an open woodland landscape fit for stories and adventure.
The many open and semi-open areas here are populated with a bracken carpet but it is not difficult to imagine this landscape with grazing animals, both wild and domestic. Perhaps this is a glimpse of the ancient woodlands of Ireland – a far cry from the Gothic dark woods of Germanic fairy tales!
Continue until your path rejoins the access track turning left to leave the wood and retrace your steps to the old farmyard. If you enjoy a puzzle, look out for an overgrown ruin just off the path on your left shortly before the car park (it is unstabilised so keep clear of the walls). This substantial stone building has a pier-like platform on its left and a grand high arched doorway on the lake facing side making it ‘split-level’. My best guess is that it was a hay barn with the platform for carts from the hay fields to unload through its side and the a door of at the front to retrieve the hay as needed the following winter. See if you can come up with something better!
Route (Section B: Old Farmyard to Inisherk Wood)
Now continue past the fine stone built houses, barns and courtyard looking out for the buttress pillars and barn ‘arrow slit’ windows. Farm buildings of this age and solidarity are unusual in our countryside – ordinary farmers would not have had the wealth to build with such style.
Continue along the access road passing through the narrow band of wood and turn left (signposted to Crom Old Castle). The grassy path now runs along a low ‘dyke’ which divides the pasture from the wet semi-wooded scrubby lake edge. The trees here are covered in moss and lichen, an indication of the cleanliness of the air.
In 1877 Crom was described “an expanse of lake, swamps, meadows, low lying fields with patches of demesne lands and a liberal supply of bogs”.
After 500m you come to the ruins (and mock ruins) of Crom Old Castle.
The plantation castle (or tower house) was built here around 1610 to control and defend – not to decorate the landscape. Today we tend to see water as a barrier to terrestrial transport, but in past times waterways were the transport arteries. Sites like these were therefore strategic control hubs for the whole surrounding area.
The fortified building which once stood here was besieged unsuccessfully twice in 1689. It survived but was destroyed in a fire in 1764 and probably replaced with another house in the same location.
However, the ruins you see around you today are not what they seem. The flat grassy bounded rectangle is essentially a Victorian garden constructed beside a much smaller square tower house castle. The low bounding walls and gateway, as well as about half of the ‘castle walls’, belong to an 1830s reinvention of this spectacular site – a romantic garden! Old Crom Castle today is an amalgam of military and gardening history!
Looking south from here there is a small island with a Victorian folly, Crichton Tower. Beyond this lies the entrance to the restored Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal (re-opened 1994) which links the Erne navigation to the Shannon navigation. This has created an inland waterway over half as long as Ireland itself! It is only used by pleasure boats today, but it is fitting that this mega-waterway should be overlooked by old Crom Castle!
For a final twist to the problems of decoding this landscape, take a look at the two massive co-joined yew trees in the heart of the castle garden. While these were a key part of the Victorian garden (and a famous must-see site of their day) one of them dates from well before the building of the 1610 plantation house. Surprisingly its actual age cannot be determined by current methods. So we are left with the local belief that it may be as much as 900 years old and the intriguing question of what sort of earlier settlement it might have grown up alongside!
Continue past the castle along the lough shore. The higher ground here to your right is the fenced deer park. Should you be walking here in October you are likely to hear the unmistakable sound of the deer rut. The calling of the stags add a quality to a landscape which harks back to a much older place!
You now are close to modern Crom Castle and its immediate grounds which are private and not part of the National Trust property. However, the pathway brings you past several other historic buildings associated with the estate.
As you approach the white bridge which links to Inisherk you pass above the old boathouse. Sitting well above the lough shore this rather elaborate building setting seems sadly forgotten. However, it was once the home of the Lough Erne Yacht Club and the hub of the Victorian boating social scene. The river here must have thronged with elegant yachts and dinghies along with the more utilitarian Lough Erne Cots (more of which later).
Continue on and cross the white bridge to Inisherk.
Fermanagh in the twentieth century seems to have had an inexhaustible supply of concrete and most of it seems to have ended up in its bridges. As a material it is utilitarian, and seldom beautiful, but here in Crom the addition of an elegant wood and steel railing lifts and lightens the drab sub-structure.
Cross over and pass the Bridge Cottage (private) with its neat and attractive garden.
Beyond the cottage to your left the terrains opens and mature trees and grassland merge with more distant forest. Here we were fortunate to spot a stag and small group of hinds grazing and watching us from among the trees. Oaks here again are in their element with full canopies and the addition of large grazing mammals adds to the sense of a glimpse of a past lost Irish landscape.
Head up the hill passing between the Gatekeepers Cottage (private) and the east wall of the former walled garden. The track now drops again to a junction where you should bear left and continue down to the waters edge.
The track ends abruptly in a ramp into the lough. Almost directly ahead another track rises out of the lough and continues on its way. You might almost be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of ford but it would take an aquatic ‘Bond car’ to drive between these two points! What you are looking at is a crossing point for flat bottomed, double wedge ended Lough Erne cots.
Their flat bottomed design made them easy to land and for passengers to board and to load with goods, but difficult to propel in a straight line! These versatile humble craft were the principal means of moving people and goods around the lough for hundreds of years. For residents of Crom Estate to attend church or to go to school would have involved a cot journey which would have been as routine to them as a car journey is to us today. They also played their part in leisure and at regattas – the cot men of the various estates would end the day with their own boat races contested just as much as the grand races of their employers.
To your right there is another architectural puzzle. This substantial stone structure may have been a waiting room for those crossing on Cots, or just a decorative landscape feature, but why has it been topped off in relatively modern times with a great slab of concrete?
Now return to the main track turning left to skirt around the walled garden.
Cut off the track to visit the south pedestrian gateway of the walled garden. This three acre site and associated orchard on its north side would have once supplied all the fruit and vegetables for the estate. Today the walls have been stabilised and repaired, but sadly it seems unlikely that the enough volunteer labour could be found to bring it back into production again.
Return to the track and continue straight ahead past the walled garden and into Inisherk wood.
The route through the wood here follows an old vehicle width track. However, it is grassed over and boggy in several places. Comfortable walking here certainly requires good boots.
The trees here are close together, visibility horizontally and vertically is limited. This is very much the traditional idea of a wood – a ‘forest’ of vertical trunks supporting a green canopy which largely excludes sky and significantly reduces light. OS maps of the 1800s show a systematic grid of service tracks here – this was a managed wooded environment and is perhaps better described as a plantation rather than a wood. A painting of Crom Estate from around 1760 shows Inisherk as largely treeless again suggesting that this is not an original woodland.
Notice that the oaks here tend to be tall and thin – the thick stumped ‘broccoli’ profiles of the parkland are largely absent.
After 500m the track crosses a forest ride – a man made linear clearing designed to separate managed blocks of plantation. Notice that a number of large oaks have colonised here and seem much happier than their dark wood neighbours. There is an indistinct grassy path which follows the ride uphill and you can follow this, if you wish, for a corner cut which will remove just under a kilometre from your route.
The main route continues straight ahead along the grassy track with occasional wet and soft sections. You are never far from the loughside on your left, but the glimpses over water are few and far between. Eventually the track bends right and gently climbs and turns to double back parallel to itself along the higher spine of the island. You will cross the ride again in a semi-open area where the corner-cut path rejoins the main route.
The final Inisherk wood section is where we encountered a stag facing us on the path ahead, before quietly melting into the surrounding stands of trees. Moments like these gift glimpses of a wilder world now almost completely lost. The ancient woodland of Ireland would have had boar, primitive cattle and horses. Recent thinking has come to see these large herbivores as ecologically essential to the maintenance of complex and diverse ancient woodland pasture of mature trees, semi-open ground and species-rich scrub land. It is likely that our ancient ‘forests’ would have had much in common with the scrubby semi-open parkland areas of Crom intermixed with blocks of denser woodland.
The path continues skirting the edge of the extensive orchard to north of the walled garden, rises slightly and then rejoins the island roadway close to Bridge Cottage – turn left and cross the White Bridge back to the estate mainland.
Route (Section C: Inisherk via Deer Park to Visitor Centre)
Turn left here and follow the track past the quaint yellow summer house (open for inspection). The track now continues through thick woodland passing between the loughside ‘Turf House’ and the stable yard (toilet facilities here). Swinging south it crosses the main drive into the modern Crom Castle (private). Here the vehicle track becomes less well defined before ending at the start of the Deer Park Trail grassy path. Follow this along the edge of the fenced deer enclosure with residents hopefully on view. Lough Nalughoge lies to your left here but is almost totally screened by woodland and scrub.
As you pass the end of the deer enclosure the landscape opens up again hinting at wooded pasture of another time.
A further 500m takes you back onto a surfaced track which passes through a narrow band of woodland to join the main access road. Turn right and after a further 500m you will arrive back at your starting point the visitor centre car park.