Often, I am asked my favourite season for exploring the countryside. Most expect it will be spring or autumn, but actually it's Christmastime that does it for me. I love the earthy tang of a December day, even when it isn't snowy, frosty or indeed blue-skied. Of course, this means the views aren't always Sheffield sharp, but they more than compensate with captivating subtlety.
In summer sunshine, the landscape is gloriously naked, revealing all; clothed in seasonal mist it teases with tantalising and unexpected revelations. Then the darkened uplands seem higher, more mysterious and secretive. A ghostly lake may appear and disappear even as we gasp, while in evening twilight, twinkling lowland lights create a special atmosphere of peace and timelessness.
So, whatever the weather this Christmas, make a resolution to wrap up and get the entire family out into the outdoors. With the important advantage of eliminating route-finding concerns, the outings below are designed to allow families of every age appreciate the captivating bleakness of our winter landscape.
Deise Greenway, Co Waterford
Newly opened and following the route of the famously scenic Waterford/Dungarvan railway, the Deise Greenway is Ireland's latest off-road cycling/walking trail. Highlight of the route is undoubtedly the 400m Ballyvoyle Tunnel, where eerily diffused lighting creates a spooky atmosphere kids will love. From the carpark at O'Mahony's pub, Durrow, push left. Beyond Ballyvoyle Tunnel is a beguilingly vegetated gorge leading to a spectacular viaduct, and if you persist for another kilometre, your reward is an enchanting coastal view. Turn when the mood takes you and enjoy the experience again on your return. Distance: 2 km (tunnel and back); time: 45 minutes.
Lower Lake Circuit, Glendalough, Co Wicklow
Start from the visitor-centre carpark, by crossing a river and then following a green road past the famous monastery founded by St Kevin. Push past the edge of the lower lake to gain Glendalough’s upper car park. Turn right and follow the supremely tranquil shoreline of the upper lake before going right again and continuing along a boardwalk. Follow the north shore of the lower lake and finish on a Green Road leading to your start point. Distance: 3km; time: one hour
Jenkinstown Park, Co Kilkenny
Signposted off the N77, Kilkenny to Durrow Road, this is where Thomas Moore penned his famously evocative ballad The Last Rose of Summer. Jenkintown Castle is now just a memory, but within the myth-laden parklands that remain, you can see how the bard found inspiration by exploring these deliciously atmospheric woodlands. The Walled Garden Loop and the slightly longer Jenkinstown Loop (purple arrows) offer the perfect outing for families wishing to briefly escape the claustrophobic clutches of holiday-time domesticity. Distance: 2km or 3km; time: 45 or 70 minutes.
Sculpture Park Loop, Lough Boora, Co Offaly
Located 20km west of Tullamore, Lough Boora Discovery Park is a lovingly reclaimed bog and nature reserve. From the visitor centre, follow the yellow arrows past a small lake and continue into the innovative Sculpture Park. Here, artists were inspired by natural and industrial heritage to create a series of impressive sculptures. Eileen McDonagh's Boora Pyramid will prove a highlight and instantly have older kids scrambling to the top. Push on past a series of other fine exhibits, including the Secret Garden and the Raised Circle. Then follow signs over a bridge and back to the visitor centre, stopping en route to investigate an old peat train, marooned high on an embankment. Distance: 3.5km; time: one hour
Stories to charm
Devil's Bit, Co Tipperary
From the Templemore/ Borrisoleigh road, follow signs for the Devil's Bit to reach Barnane carpark. Here, arrows point upwards to a tower known as Carden's Folly. This presents an opportunity to explain how a monster meeting was held here in 1834 when, according to local legend, Ireland's Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, addressed an assembled 50,000.
Next, it's upwards to the Bit itself, where you can recount a charming legend which holds that a fleeing demon, being pursued by St Patrick, took an angry bite from the summit at this point and later dropped it to form the Rock of Cashel. Kids will then love the final rocky scramble to the 15m-high cross. Descend by your ascent route. Distance: 3km; time: 1.5 hours.
Slieve Gullion, Co Armagh
Follow the Slieve Gullion drive to a parking place at (018:201) from where a path doglegs to the summit. Here, kids will enjoy exploring the highest Neolithic burial chamber on these islands. Point to the Gap of the North below and explain that here Cúchulainn single-handedly defended Ulster by defeating the armies of Queen Maeve. If the weather is clear, venture along the whaleback mountaintop to an unreflecting lough with a mysterious air. Here, regale the family with tales of a local witch who tricked Fionn MacCumhaill into entering the moody waters of Calliagh Berra Lake, which instantly transformed him into a wizened old man. Descend by retracing your steps. Distance: 3km; time: 1.5 hours.
Slievenamon, Co Tipperary
From the south Tipperary village of Ballypatrick, follow signs for Slievenamon's summit and park beside an enclosed lane. The lane leads to open mountainside and an obvious track that heads directly for the summit, where a huge cairn is reputedly the entrance to the Celtic underworld. Point to a large boulder known as Fionn MacCumhaill's seat and explain that it was from here he watched candidates for his hand in matrimony race to the summit. He cheated and helped his favourite, Gráinne, win. Unimpressed by this chivalry, she eloped, thereby creating the tragic melodrama, Diarmuid and Gráinne. Distance: 4km; time: two hours.
Cave Hill, Co Antrim
Viewed from below, Cave Hill resembles a sleeping giant and this odd-to-behold outline was reputedly the inspiration for Jonathan Swift's, fantasy, Gulliver's Travels. From Belfast Castle, which offers a bird's eye view over the city, tell the story of Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput as you follow green arrows through natural woodlands. Later, expansive vistas, brooding cliffs and ancient caves add interest before you arrive at the high point of McArt's Fort. Older children will now appreciate the story of how a group of United Irishmen, including Wolfe Tone, assembled here in 1795 to swear allegiance to the beautifully outrageous ideal of a 32 county Irish Republic. Distance: 7km; time: 2.5 hours.
Summits for families with older children
Torc Mountain, Co Kerry
From the N71 Killarney to Kenmare Road, take a minor road left beyond the gates to Muckross House to gain the upper carpark for Torc Waterfall. Follow the Kerry way south along a sylvan track to open moorland. After crossing a stream, take a track going right. This leads, without further incident, to the summit of Torc. Your reward is a stunning panorama over Killarney's world-famous lakes and fells with the angular Macgillycuddy's as a stunning backdrop. Retrace your steps to your parking place. Distance: 7km; time: three hours.
Diamond Hill, Co Galway
From the visitor centre at the Connemara National Park, Letterfrack, follow the Sruffaunboy Nature Trail before branching towards the quartzite pyramid of Diamond Hill. Footpaths and boardwalks now grease the wheels of the ascent to the mountain ridge. Here, it is about 500m to the summit cairn and a spectacular 360 degree vista commanding the coastal islands of Connemara, the Twelve Bens, Kylemore Abbey, and directly north, the summit of Mweelrea, Connacht's highest mountain. Descend a steepish path, circling the south side of the mountain, before re-gaining the route of your ascent. Distance: 7km; time: three hours.
Mullaghmore Mountain, Co Clare
A magnificent swirl of naked limestone, Mullaghmore is a jewel, even within the Burren's rich treasury. From Corofin, take the Kilfenora road. Go right at Kilnaboy and right again at a parking place. Start your walk by following the arrows from the roadside at Lough Gealáin, where fossilised skeletons embedded within the limestone will fascinate younger folk and prove that the Burren originated on the ocean floor.
Point to an isolated house; the kids will instantly recognise this as Father Ted’s bleakly unadorned dwelling from the eponymous comedy series. An enjoyable scramble leads to the summit, where a great panorama unfolds. Mullaghmore could truthfully be described as Ireland’s biggest little mountain; despite its modest stature, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the views from loftier eminences such as Carrauntoohil and Errigal. Return by your ascent route. Distance: 7km; time: three hours.
Mount Brandon, Co Kerry
One of our highest mountains, yet it offers a reassuring summit path at a modest angle. Start west of Dingle at Ballybrack (434 094), and follow the Stations of the Cross upwards past a prehistoric standing stone. Afterwards, the path veers right and becomes increasingly rocky before coalescing with a wall and swinging left to the summit. In good weather, Brandon offers arresting views stretching from Carrauntoohil to the outrageously photogenic Blasket Islands and up the west coast to the surreal outline of the Aran Islands. Descend by retracing your steps. Distance: 5km; time: four hours. Suitable only for families with some hillwalking experience.