Walk for the Weekend: Rhododendron Walking Festival

A great place for viewing the annual pink/purple extravaganza is the Knockmealdown Mountains, and canny locals have come up with the wonderfully innovative idea of a walking festival

The rhododendron puts on a memorable display of colour in early summer, with clusters of bell-like flowers that create insanely unforgettable vistas.

The rhododendron puts on a memorable display of colour in early summer, with clusters of bell-like flowers that create insanely unforgettable vistas.

 

It’s a tough cookie. Introduced to Ireland in the 18th century, it immediately liked the ambience. Damp, warm conditions and acid soils are what it appreciates and, where these existed, it quickly established itself as a woodland bully by invading many of our native forests with sun-block foliage. Denied photosynthesis, the natural vegetation perished, forcing the fauna to migrate as the landscape beneath its canopy became a damp, gloomy desert.

But things weren’t all negative. Compensating, perhaps, for its generally self-centred behaviour, the rhododendron puts on a memorable display of colour in early summer, with clusters of bell-like flowers that create insanely unforgettable vistas. A great place for viewing this extravagant blooming is the Knockmealdown Mountains, where the shrub has heavily colonised the mountainsides around the Vee Gap.

Now, the canny locals have awoken to the value of this annual pink/purple extravaganza. Built around exploring the Knockmealdowns, their Rhododendron Walking Festival went ahead recently as the mountainsides were in fullest bloom and I went along to sample the colour.

Clogheen was once a thriving hub at the intersection of the Cork/Dublin road and the Vee Gap route into Co Waterford. Now it’s a quiet place, but this morning it is a hive of activity as people from across Ireland arrive to witness the great rhododendron flowering. Choosing the Baylough walk, I soon find myself under the leadership of local man Mark Rylands. About 150-strong, we head south along the R668 before swinging right to join a path waymarked the Blackwater Way, but known locally as the Soldier’s Road.

This was the original highway over the Vee before being superseded by the renowned switchback route that was originally begun as a Famine relief road. The going is pleasant, if unspectacular, until we surmount a crest and there below is a great expanse of flowering that almost entirely envelops the secluded Kilballyboy Valley. Gasps, exclamations and selfies immediately pay homage to the dappled mosaic of green, purple and pink unfolding before our eyes.

Outrageous colour

Upwards then to where glaciation has re-engineered the mountain to create brooding Baylough. Here, the rhododendron has subsumed the lake and acrobatically scaled the vertiginous mountainside beyond in an extravagant array of outrageous colour.

A local tradition warns aspirant bathers that the ghostly arm of witch Petticoat Loose – who drowned in Baylough – will rise from the depths to ensnare those bold enough to enter these lonesome waters. Unlikely though, for Petticoat Loose was actually a local woman named Mary Hannigan, whose crime was, in all probability, not witchcraft, but that of daring to be different in misogynistic times.

Downhill now on a rough path to a welcome water stop provided by members of the industrious local committee at Loughglenbridge. Then, it’s on through a glen swathed with rhododendron blossoms to reach an intersection with the East Munster Way. Following the arrows left over a pretty footbridge and then along a series of sylvan trails conveyed us back to Clogheen. Here, over bia blasta in the community centre, everyone agrees the Rhododendron Walking Festival represents a wonderfully innovative idea that is surely here to stay.

Start: Begin from a forest carpark on the right about 1km south of Clogheen, Co Tipperary on the R668. Take the left of two forest paths and alternately follow the Blackwater, Tipperary Heritage and East Munster Ways to complete the circuit.

Suitability: Generally unchallenging outing on reasonably sound tracks. Walking poles are useful, however, on the rough descent from Baylough to Loughglenbridge.

Time: Two hours

Distance: 8km

Map: OSi Discovery Sheet 74

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