Errigal Glen and the Gortnamoyah Inauguration Stone

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TYPECircular walk through deciduous glen and gorge, then road walking, with ancient church, souterrain and conifer plantation with Clan Inauguration Stone
DISTANCE2.3 miles / 3.7 km
SURFACESUndulating natural woodland paths, asphalt roads and forest tracks. Can be muddy in places.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS230 feet climb
  • Unguarded drops along gorge
  • away from path
  • section walking on ‘B’ road with one blind hill requiring extra care

This short walk features a great diversity of attractions. The deciduous glen and gorge woodland is a beautiful mix of mature planted beech on the level ground and native species populating the steep sides. The glen is part of the grounds of the Grade II listed Ballintemple House (once described as a ‘Thatched Hunting Lodge’ when owned by the Bishop of Derry) which dates from the late 1700’s. An ancient graveyard and church ruin associated with St Adamnon (of Iona fame) is visited. Adjacent to this is a Souterrain and further along the route, in the section through Gortnamoyagh forest, you visit a low hill with a clan Inauguration Stone .

Parking should be available just beyond the bridge

Getting There

The easiest approach is probably along the B64 Churchtown Road from Garvagh. The turning of the A29 Carhill Road is just past the speed limit signs at the south end of the town – signposted to Dungiven. After 2 miles you come to a T junction with the Temple Road, there you turn left downhill to Errigal Bridge and the sign marking the start of the Errigal Glen trail.

Informal parking in a layby should be possible just across the bridge on the right. If this parking area is full, an alternative parking and starting point would be at the entrance to Gortnamoyagh Forest (see map above).

Enter the Glen beside the information board. This is the first of several along the route and they are all well worth taking the time to read. Now cross a footbridge (just after a second information board) up along the edge of the woodland, flanked by an impressive line of mature beeches. This is a planted environment – non native beech, straight alignments and uniformity of maturity make this clear. However, these close to 200 year old trees are impressive in their own right.

It soon becomes clear that this is a woodland of two parts. On the relatively flat and well drained Glen edges live the beeches, on the increasingly precipitous valley side, native specifies including much oak and holly hang on. This is designated as a PAWS (Planted Ancient Woodland Site) and while the trees have changed, the rich native plant-life below the canopy still breaks through and enriches the ‘modern’ wood.

Keep an eye to your left and look out for the stone built walls of a ruined building near to a waymark post. The OSNI first series 1832-1846 shows this structure and the second series suggests it may have been associated with a walled garden located just behind, in the relative shelter of the valley edge,

Waymark post marks the way to the higher ground

The path is largely natural but with short sections of boardwalk and many waymark posts. In places these may seem excessive but in other less well defined sections they provide useful reassurance.

You now come to a high spur above the gorge below where the path keeps well from the edge. Walkers with children or dogs please take extra care. It is well worth diverting slightly here to carefully view the rich native wooded slope plunging down to the gorge below. Those familiar with the Roe Valley Country Park may well be reminded of the cliff top at O’Cahan’s Rock.

Even in mid winter the intense greens of mossy rocks bring depth and colour to this landscape

The path now bends away from the gorge edge to the woodland edge and you soon come into sight of Ballintemple House.

The information panel here by the memorial seat gives a good account of the house and family history

We tend to think of the built countryside in former times as a mixture of a few great houses, like that of the Cannings of Garvagh, small utilitarian farm houses and tenant cottages. However, study of old maps of the 1800’s show many in-between properties with walled gardens, woodland planting and the hallmarks of the demesne in miniature. The changing economics of farming and the drive for efficiency and modernity has stripped much of this built and planted record of our history away. So it is heartening to see a little preserved here in Ballintemple House and lands.

Interestingly the mid 1800’s OS maps show a network of high and low level paths along the section of Glen you have walked. Given the steepness of the valley sides, building these must have been a significant undertaking. There is no associated mill race below so it is likely this was a recreational facility for Ballintemple House. The survival of this Glen today as a place of beauty owes much to the ‘discovery’ of the natural world by those who came before us!

As you proceed, the drops steepen again to your right and larger stands of mature beech wood appear ahead and to your left.

Just after a glimpse of a footbridge on the river far below (possibly originally associated with the system of mill races and the Flax Mill which once operated downstream from here) the path swings sharp left into a square of mature beech wood. Another 70m and you arrive at a wooden pedestrian gate which opens onto the potentially fast B road – take care.

Cross carefully and turn left. Confusingly there are no waymarks here although you are still walking on the officially documented Errigal Glen Trail. This is a straight and potentially fast B road and, while not busy, should be treated with care. Walk on the right facing oncoming traffic, wear light clothing, don’t walk at night or in poor visibility and be prepared to use the verge if necessary!

After 400m the road ahead rises to a blind hill. There is no pavement, just a narrow roadside verge – take additional care here!

Ballintemple House courtyard style farm buildings back on to the road here.

Look out for an old-style postbox built in to the stone wall opposite, now retired and painted black.

Ahead is a junction on your right with the Ballyrogan Road. This junction is marked on old OS maps as Churchtown although few building were shown here. The use of ‘town’ here is probably more akin to its use in ‘Townland’ which derives from the old English ‘Tun’ an enclosure of land. The Ordnance Survey Boundaries Commission mapped pre-existing Gaelic divisions of land in order to assist with the levying of a land ‘cess’ tax. So while townland boundaries may not be particularly accurate – they are likely to be ancient, as here, where the ruins of St Adamnan’s Church sit as you turn right – just around the corner.

The ‘Watch House’ overgrown and ivy clad still retains its roof unlike the nearby church

There is a detailed information sign just outside the graveyard gate. This is a fascinating place to explore. A rectangular outline of low ruined walls on top of the low hill mark the footprint of the old church. This was already a ruin in the mid 1800’s and local tradition has it that the church (then in use by the planters) was destroyed in the rebellion of 1641. A largely intact ‘watch house’ sits to one side of the site – a link to the funeral rituals of another time. The headstones however largely post date the church and the residents of Ballintemple House continued to be buried here into the Twentieth Century.

The shapes of modern farm buildings provide a strange backdrop to the graveyard stones

Looking out from this site provides a whole additional layer of interest. Due west lies a section of Gortnamoyagh Forest and, partially hidden on a small crag at its edge, the Inauguration Stone where the people who once controlled this land pledged allegiance to their leader. In this field a ballum stone was found – these dimpled, almost doughnut shaped, carved rocks were Iron Age ‘cursing stones’ which were sometimes ingeniously re-purposed by the Christian church as fonts!

Outside the North West corner a badly overgrown fenced enclosure and derelict sign marks the location of a Souterrain – a man made underground system of passages cut out of the rock, used for storage and defence.

A large souterrain, roughly cruciform, 8 ft. underground, chiselled out of an interbasaltic layer. It is 50 ft. long, composed Of 6 chambers connected by a narrow passage. There are 2 narrow entrances to the structure. Excavated by Messrs. A. McL. May and D. C. Cooper in 1935.

extract from an official government publication (1940)

This along with the ballum stone suggests pre-christian use of this elevated site.

Return to Ballyrogan Road and turn left along it. This minor road is quiet and straight with good visibility and fine views over the surrounding country. Walking such little roads is underrated and in my opinion much more satisfying than many forest ‘trails’ which often lack natural variety, views and the interest of surrounding human enterprise.

You pass a large area of wooded bog on your right hand side

After 500m you come to the junction with Gortnamoyagh Road where you turn left.

A further 250m slightly uphill takes you to the entrance to this part of Gortnamoyagh Forest (be aware that the Forestry Service often names forests on an area basis so several totally unconnected blocks of trees may share the same name). This is the start of the second section of waymarked trail.

Limited parking is possible here – so it is an alternative starting point for this circular walk

The ageing signage here refers to ‘Glenullin Waymarked Trails’ including the Drumbane Walk. Unfortunately the Drumbane Walk is currently closed. Hopefully it will be restored in some form in the future.

Enter the forest and follow the vehicle track through the mature sitka spruce plantation for 400m. As you converge on the forest edge on your left you become aware of a line of low crags running parallel to the track on your right and it is at the foot of one of these that you will find the information board and signpost for the short path up onto the Inauguration Stone.

The view out from the stone to the ancient church site is unfortunately obscured by boundary trees. An official inspection report from 2011 noted “Some judicious pruning could restore the views for which this site was formerly renowned” – unfortunately it has not been acted upon.

At the top of the rock the two small carved footprints are clearly visible (size 8 apparently). In front of them two round holes may have served to rest the end of a stave

Rituals associated with these inaugurations include the incoming chief swapping his sword or spear for a hazelwood rod – a symbol of authority and correction – perhaps the round hollows where were these items rested.

Some accounts of inauguration rituals involved the chief, having received the hazelwood rod, turning himself three times around clockwise and then three times anti clockwise – reviewing his territory and subjects – now Lord of all he surveyed. This thrice-turning was called deiseal, a Gaelic term which also relates to the south and the turning path of the sun across the sky. This makes sense of this low hill facing east to the rising sun. It also suggests the land here must have been at least partly cleared of forest. Perhaps his inauguration view may have included the clan’s cattle (the ultimate symbol of wealth and power) grazing in enclosures below.

A local tradition alternatively attributes these prints to St Adamnan who once stood here and left a lasting impression! While this is rather improbable, the Saint would have been unlikely to miss the opportunity to use this (much older) symbolic place to address, and maybe even convert, the local people, claiming an overarching authority from God.

Whatever the details this is undoubtedly a place where you follow in the steps of the ancients.

The waymark makes clear the start of the indistinct woodland path.

Return to the forest road and continue on to its end – a large open area of hard standing. Here you will find a waymark post marking the start of a small unsurfaced path which twists through the conifers to the woodland edge and a stile.

Cross over and bear left through the young plantation (a mixture of beech, birch and larch) until the path reaches, and then follows, the forest edge.

Looking south through the gaps in the trees you get a fine view of Glenulin and Brookaghboy Wind Farm on the slopes of Coolcoscreaghan beyond.

As you approach the end of the young forest, parallel linear walls and thorn hedging mark a much older way running alongside. There is a tradition of a giant’s way or saint’s track in this area associated with the Inauguration Stone and this old lane is as good a candidate as any for its path!

The path now leaves the woodland and runs between two hedges along the old lane and out back onto the the Churchtown Road.

The gate is tied closed, but the stile to the left is still serviceable.

Now turn right down to the T junction where the Churchtown Road meets the Temple Road.

Turn left downhill leaving the B road behind. On your left a small copse of mature Scots Pine mark the corner of Ballintemple House estate.

Just opposite this there is a small derelict cottage with a rusting tin roof. The countryside was once full of such dwellings, the homes of agricultural labourers and small farmers. Most have long since been ‘tumbled’ and their stone used for ‘hardcore’ for silos and cattle sheds. Architecturally unremarkable and unlisted these rapidly vanishing humble dwellings tell an important story from our rural past.

A another 200m downhill takes you to our starting point and the handsome old Errigal Bridge which crosses the Agivey River here.

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

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