Arresting Erris Head

 

Remote, rugged Erris Head is on Europe’s edge, with the ice cap to the north and Newfoundland to the west. But a walk here is easy and rewarding, says MICHAEL FEWER

THE EXTREME west coast of Ireland is the last frontier of Europe, where the rugged, rocky skeleton of our terrestrial world is in constant battle with the Atlantic Ocean.

Erris Head is the northernmost point of the Belmullet peninsula, one of the most remote parts of that west coast, so this short but exhilarating walk is very much a walk on the wild side. It’s also a route that touches upon a fascinating aspect of a period known in Ireland as the Emergency, and elsewhere as the Second World War.

Drive as far north from the town of Belmullet as you can, to reach, at the end of the road, a small car park. There you will find a Fáilte Ireland sign and the beginning of one of its Loop Walks.

Climb a stile into the fields and follow the walk across a sheep pasture and over another stile but, as it heads away from the cliffs, leave it, bearing right to follow the clifftop, keeping a safe distance from the edge.

Ten kilometres away, across Broad Haven off the cliffs of the north Mayo, the Stags of Broad Haven pierce the sky with Skellig-like pinnacles. While the ocean creates thunderous booms surging into caves at the bottom of the cliffs, fulmars, those wonderfully aerobatic seabirds that are seldom absent here, sport along the updraft at the cliff edge.

With long narrow wings ideal for fast gliding, they are perfect flyers, and often come so close you can see their wing and tail feathers constantly adjusting to keep them in steady flight.

In an age when much of our wildlife is in decline due to loss of habitat, the fulmar is a success story. Less than 200 years ago the bird could only be found on the remote Outer Hebridean island of St Kilda, where they were used as a source of food, oil and feathers. Since then they have multiplied and spread, and today can be found almost everywhere on the coasts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

Our route descends to circle a little promontory called Gubastuckaun, the Beak of the Headland, before following the cliffs towards the tip of Erris Head.

Keep an eye on the sea: dolphins are frequently sighted in the bay, and sometimes schools of pilot whales can be seen investigating the possibilities of a feed of squid.

A little more than a kilometre from Gubastuckaun, the tip of Erris Head is reached: a large section of it once came adrift to create a small island separated by a narrow chasm from the mainland. In good weather this is an inspiring and thought-provoking place to sit and observe.

To the north and west is an illimitable ocean. If you were to head north you would pass between the Faeroes and Iceland, then between Greenland and Spitzbergen before reaching the Northern ice cap.

Directly west there is nothing until you reach Newfoundland. Because of this very remoteness at the edge of Europe, a weather report broadcast from Blacksod lighthouse played a major part in the D-Day operation in June 1944. It led to the invasion of France being delayed for a day to avoid poor conditions, and going ahead successfully on June 6th.

To return to the car, walk almost directly south and uphill to a little structure you can see crowning the highest point of the island. This is a Local Observation Post, one of 88 constructed around the coast of neutral Ireland during WW2 to observe shipping and aircraft and to watch out for signs of invasion.

Locals manned the posts on a 24-hour basis, equipped with radio transmitters so that urgent reports could be made directly to Army headquarters. The log books for this post tell of frequent sightings of warships, and many aircraft from the US passing by, heading for Northern Ireland.

It must have been a lonely place on a winter’s night and, as one stands inside its cramped space, one can imagine the stories told here and the card games played. Below the post the giant legend “EIRE” is still spelled out in stones that were put on the flat bog in 1940 to inform aircraft that they were approaching neutral Eire.

Continue south until you are diverted east and back towards the car park by a long and narrow inlet called Ooghwee (the Yellow Hole, probably referring to the lichens on the cliff face).

Watch out for choughs here, red-legged and red-beaked members of the crow family that are only found now on coasts: Ireland has 70 per cent of the red-legged choughs in these islands.

Keep on the same route to reach the outgoing path 500 metres from the inlet, to return to the car park.

Route Erris Head loop walk

Getting thereThe walk starts and finishes at the car park at the end of the Erris Head road out of the town of Belmullet.

Distance5km.

Accumulated ascent 40 metres.

TimeThe walk could be done in an hour but that would be a pity, as there is so much to see and enjoy.

SuitabilityGrassy terrain, suitable for all except in windy weather.

MapOS Discovery Series Sheet 22.