A walk for the weekend: Under bare Benbulbin’s spell

Ascending Sligo’s celebrated rock formation rewards the eye and the imagination

Benbulbin in Sligo casts a little spell on all who come close. It is one of our most celebrated mountains, and a real stimulus for the imagination. Its symmetry of slope and summit, its dramatic shape-change from long “mesa” to ship’s prow, its deep vertical fissures full of light and shadow in a westering sun, and its wet, grey limestone crags washed by clinging Atlantic mists never fail to impress.

Ironically, it doesn’t fit one’s idea of a “mountain”; there is no peak that one’s eye is drawn to, its level “summit” seeming instead to suggest a magical hidden space. Indeed, somewhere on the Benbulbin massif is a “fairy door”; it’s the entrance to our world, through which the fairies come to play and dance and “chase the frothy bubbles, while the Earth is full of troubles . . .” and, more ominously, to seduce a solemn-eyed “human child to the waters and the wild”.

We walked up a series of turf extraction tracks, keeping as close as possible to the steep, grassy flanks of the mountain

It’s a mountain that thus rewards the eye and the imagination, but gives even more to those venturing onto its heights. So on a blowy early September day, three of us took on the ascent. We started at the ample parking at Luke’s Bridge, having stopped, on the way, to admire the great slump near the eastern “corner” of Benbulbin – definitely not a quarry, as it’s sometimes referred to. We walked up a series of turf extraction tracks, keeping as close as possible to the steep, grassy flanks of the mountain. Eventually the track becomes a path that climbs, in a southeasterly direction, up to a distinct gully where a brook exits the plateau. Judging by the numbers of fellow hikers we met and/or saw taking this route, it may well be the most popular and trouble-free access to a mountain – and indeed a mountain range – beset with access problems on nearly all sides.

Collapsed caverns

At the top of the gully our route swung to the right of the brook, curving around to a northwesterly direction, and up over a gently sloping, hummocky “cratered” area; in fact these depressions are evidence of collapsed caverns in this cave-riddled mountain range of soluble limestone. A hint of a path took us over some high ground and onto the long, flat “mesa” of Benbulbin.

To the south and southwest, cloud was flowing ominously around and over Knocknarea and the Ox Mountains

Now lovely views opened up for us: the Blue Stacks in bright sunshine under a perfect blue sky, and all the way along the lovely silhouette of the north shore of Donegal Bay to Slieve League; the beautiful north Sligo coast below us boasting lovely Streedagh Beach and the equally attractive sands around Mullaghmore Head. To the south and southwest, cloud was flowing ominously around and over Knocknarea and the Ox Mountains, hastening our step.

After a short hangout to savour just where we were, we turned at the Benbulbin summit trig point and reversed our steps back down to our car at Luke’s Bridge. A more leisurely exploration would await another day.

Benbulbin, Co Sligo
Map:
OS Sheet 16
Start/Finish: Luke's Bridge, direction signs to right coming from south on the N15, about 5km north of Drumcliffe
Effort: about 8km, 350m of ascent, about 2.5 hrs
Suitability: mountain navigation skills needed; otherwise moderate fitness; good boots.