The Journey to The Miners Way and Historical Trail
Until recently, I’ve always been in a hurry to get somewhere. The Final Destination was the name of the game and if there was a motorway option for a speedier car journey, all the better: no public transport in this part of rural Ireland..
Thankfully, all that changed when I shared a lift in my best friends camper van across Suffolk in the UK a couple of years ago. We stopped on the side of a picturesque Tudor village green for a brew, perched on the van step and tucked into cheese, salad and crisp rolls made in the tiny kitchen. We soaked up the sunshine and felt the warm breeze tickle our skin before we clambered back into the VW and headed off for the last leg of the journey. The scenic route that took us along ‘B’ roads and past old beamed houses was factored into the preparations as we headed further east. From that moment, I realised how much I’d missed out on the pleasures of the journey by my fast-paced desires and have endeavored to slow down ever since.
I mention that memory now as it came back to me when I was relying on google maps to get me to the magnificent Kilronan Castle Estate & Spa, my luxurious destination for a two night excursion in County Roscommon.
I was under time pressure as I drove through Counties Longford and Leitrim, but I began to notice blobs of blue slowly moving past on the small-screened map, indicating nearby rivers and loughs. I couldn’t see them; ahead and to either side of me the road stretched on indefinitely, flanked by national road hedgerows. However, my little moving map was enticing and I longed to glimpse over the tree tops.
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long. The two day excursion *expertly organised by Úna Bhán Tourism Cooperative was about to take me on a fascinating tour of this historically colourful county where megalithic tombs and cemeteries nestle close to discarded mines and deep loughs.
I was about to experience County Roscommon for the first time, as well as meet, sing and laugh with some new adventurers. It’s tales of those trails that I’m about to share with you now.
The Miners Way and Historical Trail
The focus of our trip was on the recently developed Miners Way and Historical Trail and my fellow explorers included Mayo based Rachel from Rachel’s Irish Adventures, B2 and her sister Ali from Two Blondes Walking in the UK, and Wexford based Graham and James from The Irish Experience.
We spent two days with our knowledgeable guide, Philip James, exploring different elements of the way-marked routes that take walkers through Counties Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim. I hadn’t truly understood the benefit of hiking with an experienced guide until this trip. Though Mr G and myself are confident compass and map readers, Philip brought the landscape to life in a way the contour lines couldn’t as he eloquently shared tales of miners, chieftains and gods among the heather tracks and limestone tombs.
The circular Miners Way and the Historical Trail combined take in over 118 km of tracks, ascending to 1300 metres in places, offering a range of walks and hikes to suit all levels.
The trail is suitable for a week’s walking but it has been broken down into a series of 12 sections, allowing visitors to pick the walks they want. For each trail, there is an accompanying 1:50,000 scale map available (where 2 centimeters equals 1 kilometer) all available to download, print and laminate from the website. A small booklet version is available in local tourist shops and is accompanied with general descriptions of nearby attractions. Philip helped update the guide and has walked all the paths, ensuring they are accessible and marked.
Accommodation is available along the Trail to cater for all budgets, including bed and breakfast, four star hotels like Kilronan Castle, beautifully crafted self-catering eco log cabins at Riverhaven pictured below, as well as campsites such as the one at Lough Key Forest & Activity Park.
The walking trails along the Miners Way were once used by generations of local teenagers and men as they made their way to work in the Arigna mines. The colliery opened in 1765 and employed several generations of families right through until 1990 when it finally closed its gates. These days there’s a visitor centre offering a different kind of employment for ex-miners, but more about that below.
I’m glad I’d packed my walking boots and waterproofs. We experienced Ireland’s four seasons in a day phenomena, but being prepared I remained dry during the short showers of rain. The following brief slide show contains some images I snapped along The Miners Way and Historical Trail during our autumn trip to give you a taster of its delights.
The Miners Way links up with the Historical Trail, a track that features many ancient sites, including Carrowkeel megalithic tombs and Labby Rock, taking travellers across the Curlew, Bricklieve and Arigna Mountains. Carrowkeel is very accessible with sturdy boots, and is the first passage tomb I’ve visited – what an introduction! It’s one of a complex of 14 passage tombs that are spread across the Bricklieve Mountains and is older than Newgrange in County Meath and Stonehenge in the UK.
There were magnificent views from the top of Carrowkeel and just down the hill from the cairn it’s possible to see the site of the earliest known neolithic village in Ireland on a limestone plateau in Mullaghfarna. Over 160 circular stone foundations have been identified on the plateau and it’s of huge prehistoric significance and completely unspoilt.
More information can be found about the Trail on the Walking Wild Ireland website or take a look at this short clip below that explains how it came to be.
Along the Miners Way and Historical Trail
Arigna Mining Experience
There are many sites and local attractions to see along the Miners Way, not least the Arigna Mining Experience itself. The visitor centre opened in 2003 and charts the history of the mining community as well as the mines themselves. There’s a small exhibition, interviews recorded with various mine owners, miners and their wives. There’s also a café that looks out towards the Kilronan Mountain and information points.
The highlight of the Arigna Mines Experience is a tour of a mine that lasts around 45 minutes. Visitors are invited to put on a hairnet and hard hat before being led into the softly lit tunnels by an ex-miner.
During our tour we were accompanied by Ger, a cheerful man who worked in the mine from the age of 14. He explained how the coal was excavated, mostly by hand, and showed us the tight passages he worked in. He shared his memories of the hard-working day and night shifts, the pay rates and the way the older miners looked out for the younger ones. This is all quite astounding given the men were working in that same environment up until relatively recently.
“What’s history, he said
I’ll tell you what it is
History is the other man’s story
The man who owned the pit
Not the story of the likes of us
Who worked in it.”
by Vincent Woods
I couldn’t imagine being the wife of a miner before the days of running hot water, having to scrub the clothes in tubs heated by water on an open fire, with water fetched from a nearby spring, no doubt with several young children running around. I’m tempted to send my teenagers to the mine for a visit next time they complain about having to do the washing up…
The visitor centre is open for most of the year with tours that are run on demand. More details including entry fees etc., can be found on the Arigna Mining website, but keep an eye out for special offer vouchers in tourist spots around the county.
Along the trail and just over the border in County Leitrim, we were introduced to the Gunpowder Gin Distillery. Serial entrepreneur PJ Rigney opened The Shed Distillery with its copper pot stills in Drumshanbo in December 2014. He chose the area as his parents both worked there when they first met and his staff now include several local people who make, decant and label every distinctive Gunpowder Gin bottle by hand. The distillery aims to be as eco-friendly as possible, drawing water from their own well, returning spent waste to farmers and re-distilling any batches of gin that aren’t up to standard.
Initially to still whiskey, the Shed soon began producing gin as it can be bottled within 21 days and not the years it takes for whiskey to develop. There are plans to develop a potato vodka as well as other products in the pipeline.
Gunpowder Gin contains 12 natural botanicals including Juniper Berries, Angelica Root, Orris Root, Caraway Seed, Coriander Seed, Meadow Sweet, Cardamom, Star Anise as well as vapour-infused botanicals Chinese Lemon, Oriental Grapefruit, Kaffir Lime and Gunpowder Tea.
We tasted a small sample neat and were able to pick up several of the different scents before the spirit reached our throats. Apparently, if we enjoy our gin with tonic water, the ratio should be two parts good quality tonic water to one part gin.
Unfortunately inquisitive gin drinkers will have to wait a while before viewing the distillery; a new visitor centre is under development nearby but won’t be open until the end of 2018.
King House Tea Rooms, King House and Úna Bhán Tourism Centre
Our lunchtime in County Roscommon was spent in Boyle where we visited the welcoming King House Tea Rooms for a well needed lunch after our wet and windy Carrowkeel passage tomb walk. The place was spotless and bright, the food wholesome and the service cheerful.
Next door to the tea rooms, we found where our hosts were located in the Úna Bhán Tourism Centre. Funded by Pobal under the Community Services Programme, the friendly little community tourism centre was founded in 1990 and now employs several local people. It’s full of regional crafts and supports a number of local authors, musicians and artists. The centre is well worth a visit for information, help and advice, particularly on market days, held on Saturdays from 10am until 2pm where fresh organic produce is sold under blue and white stripey canopies, alongside cakes and bakes, artisan food and crafts. If you’re a fan of Chris O’Dowd’s Moon Boy, you can pick up a wooly hat in the centre knitted by a local woman.
After Lunch we were taken on a short tour of King House, situated opposite the little tea rooms. This is definitely a place to take your time, perhaps on a wet day as the magnificently restored Georgian mansion was surprisingly warm and comfortable. Originally built in 1730 as the seat of the King family, a landowning dynasty, the house later became a military barracks and recruiting depot for the Connaught Rangers. At the end of the Civil war in 1923 it was taken over by the Irish Free State Army and following years as a merchant’s store, it was restored to its former style in the late 1980s by Roscommon County Council. King House is now a museum, event venue, the location of a contemporary art collection and is home to among others, the Mary Mcaleese Collection.
Next to King House in Boyle town is the well-preserved Boyle Abbey a Cistercian Monastery that was founded in the 12th century under the patronage of the MacDermotts. Here, Philip told us about the vegetarian monks who attended Mass seven times a day and lived simply, sleeping in their habits in basic quarters. There’s usually a small admission fee and daily guided tours (see the website for details), but as it’s OPW owned , there’s free admission to all their sites on the first Wednesday of every month which is worth bearing in mind.
Lough Key Forest and Activity Park
After Boyle we headed out to Lough Key Forest and Activity Park for our final short trek. It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking about this historical park and activity centre, there’s so much to do there.
The park is a joint venture between Coillte and Roscommon County Council who established a private company that now operates the park. Originally, the land was the official residence of the McDermott clan who ruled the area for hundreds of years. In the 17th century the land was granted to the King family under the Cromwellian settlement (seriously, is it any wonder the Brits were so disliked) and a mansion was built there in the 1800’s. Unfortunately for the Kings, the house burnt down in the 1950’s due to an electrical fault and the ruins were finally cleared away and replaced by the Moylurg viewing tower, built in the ‘Brutilisation’ style in the 1970’s.
These days, the 350 hectare park with majestic Redwood trees, follies, bridges, native woodlands, bog garden, conifer forest and canals is for the people, offering several moderate to easy trails, including one that forms part of the Miners Way and Historical Trail. As well as the walking trails there’s Zipit Forest Adventure, a tree top canopy walk, a crystal maze type Boda Borg challenge, tours of the worker tunnels and historical tour, orienteering, Segway and bike hire, a marina, caravan park, café, visitor centre and more.
Thankfully in October it was a quiet and peaceful place to be, but I found myself wishing for a short while that my kids were younger and we could stay in the campsite and give them the opportunity to try all the activities on offer in the park, I’m sure they’d have had a ball.
For more detailed information about the park, the various admission fees to some of the attractions, as well as seasonal events and opening times, take a look at the Lough Key Forest and Activity Park website.
Our last stop during our stay in County Roscommon was at the Moorings Bar at Knockvicar. It’s open daily from 5.00pm until 9pm and offers a warm welcome by Patrick and Conor with delicious food served in a restaurant that overlooks Lough Key. There was a great choice of food on the menu that looked inviting for meat eaters and vegetarians alike and the fires were blazing, very welcome at the end of a day of walking trails and museum tours.
To give you an idea of the varied menu, I chose the Potted Garlic Mushrooms in Creme Fraîche with Garlic Bread followed by the Pan Fried Sea Bass, Confit Baby Potatoes, Sautéd Greens and Citrus Beurre Blanc with Warm Amoretti and Rhubarb Cake with Warm Custard and Ice Cream to follow (but don’t tell my fitness trainers!). The Guinness was tasty and the regional songs that were sung by my companions on the minibus back to the hotel, a delightful end to the trip.
Check out at Kilronan Castle was at noon so I took the opportunity on my last morning to visit the calming Thermal Suite and Spa before the journey home, taking the opportunity to rest my aching limbs in the bubbling hydrotherapy pool and under the rainforest showers, feeling the slight stiffness from the walks ease away from my muscles.
A symptom of modern life, it struck me while I was relaxing, how many of us drive across Ireland on the ‘way to somewhere’, missing out on some spectacular scenery and poetic tales in our hurry to reach our final destinations. There are several beautiful counties to see in the middle of this small green isle, including my own in County Carlow or others like Tipperary and Offaly in the Midlands, and yet they are so often overlooked.
I’m very much looking forward to returning to County Roscommon with Ian in our camper van and making it our destination for a few days. I know he’d enjoy the historic sites and trails as much as I did and I hope, if you choose to visit, you do to. Stopping by the small towns and villages throughout this island of many colours helps to support and create a sustainable future for the communities living and working in them, and at the same time offers visitors the opportunity to learn more about the lives of others, both past and present.
Do you take your time on journeys or are you prone to rush from place to place. Can you recommend any more places to visit in County Roscommon when we return?
* This initiative was made possible by the Department of Rural and Community Development under the Funding Scheme for Outdoor Recreational Infrastructure 2017. While all activities, food and accommodation were included with the trip, I was not financially compensated nor asked to write about anything in particular. All observations and opinions are completely based on my own experience.
I’d like to thank Eilish and Patricia from Úna Bhán Tourism Cooperative for organising the trip and introducing me to a part of Ireland I hadn’t yet discovered. Thanks also to my fellow adventurers for your entertaining company. Looking forward to meeting again sometime.