Walking The Burren, Co Clare: A place of curved hills, acres of open limestone and a landscape in which to lose oneself

Fiona Reynolds eats her words about regular walkers avoiding showers during the wettest months she can remember - but it's all worth it.

Last month was the wettest I can remember. I often boast that, if you walk every day, as I do for two hours, you hardly ever get wet. However, I’ve had to eat my words, as time and again I’ve come home soaked. Once, even my wellies were drenched – from the inside.

I also had an unbelievably wet walk in the summer, on the Emerald Isle. I’d been invited by Fáilte Ireland to speak at a conference on developing a sustainable tourism model for the heartlands of the country.

I understand the challenge: most visitors head straight for the wild and beautiful west coast, yet Ireland’s interior is full of hidden treasures. We spent a couple of days visiting Strokestown Estate in Co Roscommon, a Georgian house with a poignant famine story, and Rathcroghan. A match for Stonehenge’s landscape, the area is barely known outside the island.

Co.Clare, The Burren, With Distant Cliffs Of Moher, Co Clare, Ireland

Thus stimulated, we also left for the west coast, as I have longed to see The Burren, Co Clare, a limestone landscape renowned for its wildflowers. By the time we reached our delightful B&B in Rathbaun, near the Cliffs of Moher, England was basking in record temperatures. Not so Ireland. We woke to low cloud and about 19˚C, but The Burren was on our doorstep, enthusiastically described to us by our hostess.

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Encouraged by her, we stopped first in Kilfenora, where the medieval cathedral has a powerful serenity and grace, enhanced by the remains of three ancient high crosses, then started one of many ‘Burren loops’ in the heart of the National Park.

Our 9km (5½ mile) loop began at Carron, a small village in the middle of this extra-ordinary limestone country. The Burren is a place of big, curved hills, their slopes apparently devoid of vegetation, as acres of open limestone strike a silvery-grey sheen across the landscape. I’ve seen limestone pavements before, of course, in the Dales and Lakes, but the sheer scale of this place was new and exciting.

‘In a grey-out, the path dwindled and the rain intensified. We were lost in this strange landscape’

We set off in an eerie light as rainclouds gathered. Close up, the limestone is far from bare, but full of life, with an intensity of birds and plants I’ve rarely seen. Hart’s tongue fern peeps up through the grykes; vivid pimpernels flower, clinging to the clints. Counting the species, we were soon out of fingers.

We began our walk along a green lane, winding up the hill past ancient walls and burial chambers, but, as we breasted the summit of Termon, we felt the first spots of rain. Shrugging on our jackets, we continued over the top, as the path became more vague and the rain stronger. Soon, it was lashing down, but, happily, we were distracted by a mass of orchids: some (such as the common spotted orchid) we were familiar with, but we also spotted a pink marsh orchid, a fragrant orchid and a striking white variety that just might have been O’Kelly’s spotted orchid, local to The Burren.

Co Clare, The Burren, Kilfenora, Cathedral of St. Fachtna, Ireland

By then, we were in a grey-out, the path dwindled to nothing and the rain intensified. We were soon lost in this strange limestone landscape with no landmarks to guide us, surrounded by grey pavements slick with rain and scrubby vegetation, through which multiple vague tracks wind.

I was reduced to navigating by mobile phone and, after an age, we came across a welcome purple waymark: we were back on track. We descended to the holy well of St Fachtna, joined a quiet country lane and walked slowly, dripping, back to Carron, where we were glad to find a warm and welcoming pub.

Rugged Landscape Of Burren In Ireland

As we dried out, we realised we hadn’t seen a single soul on our walk. Like Ireland’s heartlands, the Burren was a vast contrast to the crowded Cliffs of Moher we visited that evening, but our walk was truly inspiring and, as I walk in the rain this autumn, I’m reminded, wetly, of our special, rain-soaked communion with Nature.

Fiona Reynolds is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’