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This place is really breathtaking! I cannot forget the trip I had there with my friends and I'm planning to caome back hopefully before this year ends. The cliffs were stunning and we were visiting on a beautiful spring morning. If you venture up the high path you can stop at any point for a breather and the views are just stunning - I hope you get a clear day for your visit as you will be able to see Ben Bulbin and County Sligo to the south. You can see this great place here: www.slieveleaguelodge.com
The British Isles are both literally and metaphorically defined by the sea. It provides both a fearsome line of defence, and an almost limitless avenue for attack: Britain has succumbed to the 11th Century Normans, held off the 16th Century Spanish and whupped the 19th Century French and 20th Century Germans (while insidiously succumbing to an influence far more ghastly and insidious from across the Atlantic). Ireland has had skirmishes with the Normans and the Vikings, but only really the English have ever properly conquered them (and that wasn't counter-productive AT ALL, was it?). But Ireland has taken, and continues to take, a right old battering from the Atlantic.
We constantly go on about coastal erosion over here, but frankly the North Sea, Irish Sea and English Channel are just playing at it: for instance, it's just a friendly maritime nibble that's being had at Norfolk, which is entirely understandable as nobody in their right mind wants to consume a large chunk of something as stodgy and unsatisfying as East Anglia. But Ireland looks rather delicious, and it's in that spirit that the ocean flings itself at the west coast with all the crafty self control of a starving tiger going after a slab of raw meat. And nowhere in these islands is the voracity of the sea more dramatically demonstrated than in south Donegal.
From inland, Slieve League is steep but lumpy: while obviously the highest thing in the neighbourhood, it won't attract a second glance from those dull folk whose eyes aren't habitually lifted to the hills. But there's a saying that most mountains have a good side and a not so good side...well, Slieve League's Good Side is a plunge of almost 2000ft from its summit directly into the sea. It is a quite joyously majestic sight, and is eminently capable of flabbering the gast of even the most jaded onlooker. Within the embarrassment of riches that is Ireland's coast, the scene is pre-eminent...long may it escape the fate of the other main contender, the Cliffs of Moher, which is now the centrepiece of the appalling 'Cliffs Of Moher Experience'.
The cliffs are often lazily described as the highest maritime cliffs in Europe, a piece of hyperbole that ignores the fact that they aren't even the highest in Ireland (the cliffs of Croaghaun on Achill Island are a smidge taller at 2192ft: they too are staggering, but slightly less scenically appealing and much harder for the less resilient visitor to reach...the author had a particularly fine epic there in mist and driving rain, acutely aware as he staggered upwards into the murk while occasionally being blown over that there was one very obvious tactic he could use to locate the edge...but it was one he could realistically only use once) and the Faroe Islands (home of the 2500ft Cape Enniberg cliffs) were part of Europe last I checked. It's their relative accessibility to mere mortals that renders Slieve League special.
Mind you, it's still, by the standards of the British Isles, a little bit of an adventure to get there, despite it being possible to basically drive all the way. Donegal forms the top left corner of Ireland, and can be accessed either by air (there is a small airport near Gweedore in the north-west of the county) or road (for instance, Dublin is three hours drive from Donegal town). Once you're there, decent accommodation abounds, both catered and self-catered (as it does in Ireland generally, to be fair: give me an Irish B&B or cottage over a five star hotel any day of the week), but if you feel the need to stay in a semi-sizeable settlement reasonably close to Slieve League, I can recommend Donegal Town (where I based myself), and the charming fishing port of Killybegs which lies midway between Donegal Town and the cliffs. Regardless of where you stay, the drive along the coast is charming, looking south over the bay to Sligo and Leitrim: it's all a bit twisty and turny, and it gets twistier and turnier the further west you go. Finally, just before you run out of land, you reach the inordinately rustic village of Teelin, where the drive becomes 'interesting', rather than merely interesting.
The road narrows to a single track, with gates to be opened and closed, and it's not that long before you reach a car park with two rather rickety-looking latrines. If you intend to 'properly' do Slieve League on foot, I recommend starting to walk from here: in order to reduce erosion on the cliff-top path, wayfarers are encouraged to take the old 'Pilgrims Path' on their return from the summit, and this car park is better placed for that strategy that the one at the end of the road. Whether walking or driving though, your next objective is the car park at Bunglass, the end of the road...
At this point, I heartily recommend that if you're the type of driver who has made the noseplanting of cars in ditches part of your motoring style, then you're probably better off turning round, finding a nice beach, and having a relaxing paddle for the rest of the day: this isn't the place for you. The road (which IS excellently surfaced, in case you were thinking it was a four-wheel-drive job), climbs a steep hill, and then the consequences of accidentally leaving it become quite grave if you aren't driving Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Sharp bends, blind crests (sometimes simultaneously, which is quite stimulating) and large unfenced drops to the sea all contrive to make the last mile or so one of the more urgent driving experiences available. It's genuinely exciting, but not genuinely risky. Unless you're James Dean or Richard Hammond, obviously. Anyway, if gravity doesn't drag you from the roadway, arrival at the Bunglass car park is inevitable. Those on foot have had a less emotionally draining journey over this section, but all and sundry will share the excitement once the spacious car park is gained, and the awesome southern front of Slieve League is revealed.
The scene is as if the whole mountain has been messily ripped in two by the corrosive force of the sea. Three miles of cliffs fall straight into the water: terraced rockfaces betray crazily contorted strata, with grass and bracken clinging frantically to the spaces in between. There are few areas of truly continuous and solid rock (it is significant that little or no rock climbing takes place here), but the whole crazily coloured and angled collage of stone and vegetation exerts an enormous amount of downward pressure on your lower jaw. Even if you have no intention of carrying on to the summit, it's worth walking a short distance along the path to gain the complete picture.
If you are merely a motorist, this is as far as you go, and vastly rewarding it has been. But the walker (assuming the cloud is not down: it would be a pity to attempt the climb in poor visibility. Also, while the navigation isn't especially taxing for the experienced, there is a lot of concentration required in misty conditions in a cliff-swamped area) has work to do. I recommend following the route suggested as part of the Sustainable Upland Tourism Project (as described in Joss Lynam's excellent book 'Best Irish Walks'), taking the classic route along the ridge on the way up, and returning by the Pilgrims Path. Statistically, it isn't that hard a trip, covering 8 miles and ascending perhaps 1600ft: there should be some hillwalking experience in the party (and 'proper footwear should be worn, really), but any fairly able-bodied person should be physically capable of completing it.
The path from the car park is initially gravelly: the full extent of the cliffs soon hoves into view, then the way becomes grassy and more steadily uphill. A steady plod up 500ft of said grass leads to the crest of the cliffs. (A note for those who don't like heights: while the path sometimes goes along the very edge, you don't have to follow it stringently, although much of the excitement is lost with that attitude. If you do go right to the summit, only at one point, the ridge between the subsidiary and main tops, are you compelled to place yourself in a semi-exposed situation, and that stretch really is just an airy walk). On you go, with the path still easy, before the crest curves left above the very impressive Eagle's Nest (a sheer rock wall quite conspicuous in the walk's early stages at the right hand end of the cliffs): take care here in high winds, as the drop is plumb vertical. Beyond here, after a slight descent, the crest becomes more ill-defined: likewise the path, which now becomes multiple parallel trenches in the peat.
The way now continues up the facing slope of Crockrawer. This is all very pleasant, with glorious views, but some may wonder if the day's excitement is done with. As the ridge becomes better defined, these are the same people who'll be hanging right and muttering something about discretion being the better part of valour...
Written descriptions of the ascent of Slieve League often dwell on a section called One Man's Pass. The problem is that it's not generally agreed exactly which section it refers to...it's often applied to the narrow section just before the main summit already mentioned, but there is another, rather more deserving applicant for the role. As you approach the turreted section known as Keeringear, the ridgeline sharpens to a rib of rock that, rather appropriately for Ireland, can put the absolute fear of God into the weak.
A clamber up to the bottom of this feature reveals a rocky pavement, about fifty feet long and angling up about thirty feet in that space, between a foot and three feet wide. The landward side consists of a fairly perturbing slab of rock, decorated with brave spriglets of bracken and about sixty feet high, that you would not want to fall off. But you'd certainly prefer sampling its comparatively modest dose of gravity, once you've peered over the edge and compared it to the seaward drop, which is a bit on the mortifying side. (A look at the map suggests it's a mere 1400ft down). On a dead calm day, the confident may feel able to stride across and up it: others,less imbued with the certainty of their own immortality, or beset by gusty winds as I was, will probably do it on all fours while utilising some form of psychological trickery (in my case the 'bubble' method). It's pretty technically easy, but if unsure of your ability to keep a steady head in a perilous situation, refer to the next paragraph, where...
...I point out that there's a path round the side of it on the landward slope that takes you nowhere near the drop. And a straw poll would suggest that this is the way that most people go. Ah, for the good old days, when men were men, and pansies were flowers.
It's not far now to Slieve League's lower East Top, where you are confronted with the other One Man's Pass. On a fine day this is an unforgettable promenade in the sky, uplifting rather than scary for all but the most utterly timorous. It's over all too soon, and the higher summit with its OS pillar awaits at the far end.
From here there is an almost infinite (ok, at least as far as Croagh Patrick 75 miles away) panorama of land and ocean. If you can prise your gaze away from the coastline for a moment, a stroll around the summit reveals Lough Arr in its upland hollow (conspicuous from the ridge between the tops) and the hinterland of rural Donegal. But you'll probably, as I did, spend most of the time sat plonked against the pillar and gazing along the coastline, at the ridge you've ascended, tracing it back to the Bunglass car park, or looking even further west, towards Rathlin Island where Robert the Bruce resolved to copy the obstinacy of a spider, and above all looking over the sea, so visible and yet, from this lofty vantage point, so profoundly silent.
After all that Sixth Form poetry it's time to go home. The way back starts by retracing steps over to the East Top, which is scarcely a chore. From there, you need to drop north-east down an ill-defined ridge with Lough Arr on the left: you should soon reach the site of an old church (I very very strongly recommend carrying the OSI Discovery Series Map 10 on this walk, especially for this section, even though it's very clear if the weather is) from where the Pilgrims Path wends its way down to the right. This soon becomes a broad track, weaving down the valley, past the lough of Croleavy, with the ridge of Slieve League up to the right all the way, looking much less dramatic from this direction. And finally, the road.
Well, not finally. While even the most avowed outdoors person will concede 'there is something quite reassuring about a road', you shouldn't assume your deed is done. There still remains the best part of two miles of mazy country lanes to negotiate, so pay attention to the map. (This is bluff seaman's talk for 'I didn't pay attention to the map, and went the wrong way. Don't be a prat like me'). There are some sharp little hills to climb too, which always seem more tiring when you're psychologically back at the car already. But just as the wall that you bang your head against eventually gives in, eventually you'll be back at whichever car park you started from. And you'll be a lot richer for the experience.
Now, be a good sort and don't prang yourself on the road back to Teelin, eh? Because you'll really want to talk about your adventure in the pub...
I like travel reviews to have pictures. So here are some relevant ones...
(Previously published on Ciao.co.uk)