Walk for the Weekend: Valley Loop, Achill island, Co Mayo

No matter the weather, a walk on the less-visited northern tip is a good choice

Valley Loop, Achill island, Co Mayo

Valley Loop, Achill island, Co Mayo

 

If you had never visited Achill island before and arrived on a dreary wet day, chances are you would about-face and head back the way you came, observing to anyone you met that there was nothing on the island except bogs and one-off houses. Should you persevere for a few hours, however, the rain will usually lift and, as the clouds roll away, the island begins to reveal itself in all its splendour.

Out of an apparently flat landscape, two great big mountains begin to take shape, huge cliffs appear and there are hills where previously there was just a wall of mist. As the visibility improves, grey lake waters turn to blue and golden sand beaches begin to look inviting.

However, no matter what the weather throws at the visitor, a walk on the less-visited northern tip of the island is always a good choice. The Valley Loop Walk is relatively new, and although it is marked with black poles and some stepping stones in the wetter places, they do not intrude on the pristine landscape.

The walk starts at the football pitch at a place called Fr O’Brien Park, which is a rather grandiloquent word for a windswept corner of the Sandybanks. There is a very faint track heading towards the sand dunes, which are covered in Marram grass.

While it may sound odd to mention the grass, it’s existence is very much under threat. Sixty years ago, the two beaches on these northern shores had huge sand dunes protecting the land behind them. Gradually, as ever more sheep were allowed to graze on The Commonage, the grasses were eaten and the dunes disappeared. Now, thanks to the efforts of a group of ecologically minded local people, the grasses have been reintroduced and carefully managed. New dunes have gradually built up on the Golden Strand, but if the sheep can be controlled, we may in time see them build up further along the shore.

The walk heads out along a headland – in high summer a possible source of field mushrooms. Look carefully and you will see some insignificant stones protruding from the grass. These are primitive headstones, marking the graves of unbaptised babies. (The Irish word “cillíní” is used on some of the Ordnance Survey maps to depict these sites.)

Very close by, an archaeological dig is unearthing some tiny stone dwellings and a midden of sea shells. It seems strange that there was a village here, right out at the very edge of the sea in the full blast of the north wind, but a ready source of shellfish may have been a reason. If islanders did actually live here, rather than use it as a Boley or summer village, they must have grown their potatoes elsewhere, as there are no signs of potato drills.

The very faint track now passes by a wild, totally unspoiled beach with teeming rock pools at either end. Children could tarry here a while. Then ever onward towards an old bog road, which eventually passes a lake called locally the Swan Lake. Rounding a corner you see a junction. Turn right on to a tarmac road through a village called The Valley, which is probably the most unspoiled village on the whole island.

Passing the gates to the historic Valley House, keep on going until you reach a crossroads and again turn right. In about 200m you come to the little boreen, leading back to Fr O’Brien’s Park.

Start and finish: Fr O’Brien Park
Time: About two hours
Distance: Ten kilometres
Difficulty: Easy
Map: Discovery Sheet 30

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