I realised that spring 2023 was in the air when I saw the first crocus, snowdrops and daffodils appearing in our garden and at the roundabout at the confluence of Esmonde Street and the Coach Road, in Gorey town. I deserted my urban strolling route and headed for my annual return to the forest trails and open air of Courtown Woods to notch up my 10000 steps a day.
I parked in the main car park and headed off on my walk up by the side of the Active Tribe Premises and The Seal Sanctuary to the sounds of hungry seals waiting for feeding time. Overhead I saw equally hungry herons and seagulls hovering waiting for any spare scraps of fish. I promised myself that I would call in on my return journey because I knew it would be just about feeding time.
I turned left and headed over the chestnut walk. It was so special observing the skeletal forms of the trees shrouded in their winter clothing of a comforting wrapping of emerald, green moss. Looking ahead on the trail it was really a case of forty shades of green.
On the verges of the paths the first leaves of wild garlic were shooting up their lovely coat of green. I bent down and picked a leaf. It had that lovely pungent distinctive garlic smell which I inhaled. Yes, this was another sign of Anois teacht an Earraigh for us. As I strolled along, I saw that many more wild garlic bulbs were truly awakening from their winter hibernation looking resplendent in their emerging freshness.
I followed the path past the car park and the sign for The High Cross of Kilbride. Having rested a moment at this historic spot to absorb the peace and tranquillity of this unique patch of wood I carefully traversed the slippery downward track to The Ounavarra river and Ballinatray Bridge. This is the best time of year to get an unimpeded view of those lovely arches with the trees in their winter nakedness allowing me to take perfect photos of this beauteous old edifice. It is a great pity that the custodians of the bridge do not cut down the tree growing up in front of it. In summer when the trees are fully clothed in their leafy green finery, they block the grand view of this magnificent three arch road bridge lording over the Ounavarra river since 1847.
The river was in full flow after all the recent rains adding another nice calming sound dimension to my walk. It was the essence of true mindfulness.
Now I turn right to walk along the riverbank and absorb the sounds of the river babbling along as it quickens its pace on its downward descent towards the Irish Sea. The reflections of trees on the river were ever changing with the darting sun rays catching the ripples and becalmed pools on the riverbanks. They provided a great variety of shadows in the water.
I now progress along the riverbank, up the slippery steps, along by the protective fence and head for the Spike Bridge which I cross over to walk the Coillte section of the forest. I just love the ruggedness and variety of the enchanting Courtown ancient woodland trails but the contrast with the Coillte managed forest on the far side of the river is huge.
All the paths in the Coillte woods have been drained and widened and levelled and are buggy friendly. It really opens up and enhances this section of the woods and makes it an ideal safe walking place for all generations with some nice seating provided to rest the weary limbs and soak in the lovely forest atmosphere as you amble along. I met a lone young fisherman trying his luck at fly fishing, but nothing was biting for him during our brief encounter.
The trail now turns right over the old Ballinatray Bridge along the path, past the entrance to the water treatment plant and then onto the path as it stretches along by the side of the noisy Ballymoney road until I turn right with the old walled garden on my left and the giant Redwood tree on my right. Peace reigns supreme here.
Now I go down dale and up hillock as I head for The Spike Bridge, cross over it and turn left for that lovely ramble home along by the river. Here I met two ladies from Malaysia who were totally agog at the greenery of the moss and ivy covering the rough bark of the trees. It was particularly enchanting to experience the odd rays of the low winter sun spotlighting the greenery with shimmering glows of light. As one of them said it was a magical light show with the lovely sound effects of birdsong and the noise of the river splashing along over the underlying stones. Their iPhones were on overdrive.
Now I am on the home straight having covered 6753 steps thus far. I hear the excited yelpings of the hungry seals as lunch time approaches for them.
The gate of The Seal Sanctuary was open for a tour, so I popped in to have a word with Jeshua Taucher, Project Manager and Horticulturalist. He pointed out the herons and seagulls to me which were lurking around waiting for scraps of fish. Next the attendant arrived with the bucket of fish. The herons were now on full alert while the gulls swooped low totally oblivious of our presence. The fish were tossed in slowly, the seals ducked and dived and devoured fish. While I was there it was game set and match point to the seals with the herons forced to depart to seek other avenues of fodder. It was also time for me to head home to lunch,
And yes, I managed to finish the day with 10373 steps recorded and I was quite satisfied with the first of my 2023 walks in the ancient woods of Courtown.
Mick O Callaghan