Moyle Way: from Ballycastle to Breen Forest

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This was a much-anticipated hike. Early in the planning for my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure), I learned of the Moyle Way, a 26-mile hiking trail in the Glens of Antrim near Ballycastle. A special connection is that Moyle is my mother’s maiden name – so of course I had to hike at least part of the trail! In fact, the afternoon I arrived in Ballycastle and started exploring the town, I made it a point to find the Moyle Way trailhead so I wouldn’t need to waste any time on my hiking day.

The Moyle Way is one of several hiking trails in the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Natural Beauty (AONB). The AONB’s are so designated because of the natural beauty of the landscape, as the name suggests. The Causeway Coast Way, where I’d hiked a few days earlier, is in the Causeway Coast Area of Natural Beauty.  And Rathlin Island is part of the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Natural Beauty.  I’d made excellent choices for my hiking adventures!

I planned to spend two days hiking on the Moyle Way, and this was the first day. The weather promised to be wet, and it was perhaps the rainiest of my stay in the area. This hike turned out to be the longest, at close to 20 miles. I started at the B&B where I was staying, just northeast of the red dot labeled Ballycastle on the GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

Way-finding was quite straightforward, as the Moyle Way follows well-defined trails and/or roads in the portion I hiked on this day. However, I eventually succumbed to the inclement weather and turned around before I reached my goal, McQuillan’s Grave. My actual turnaround point was the highest elevation of the hike, about 950 feet, and the weather seemed to be getting mistier and mistier. Based on what I could see, I’m sure I missed out on some spectacular views. But there was no way I was going to skip the hike entirely due to less-than-perfect weather!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

When I started the hike, there was just the prospect of rain, reportedly some remnants of Hurricane Bertha; the Irish weather forecasters seemed rather excited at the unusual prospect of having hurricane-related weather so far east and north of the usual pattern. The left picture below shows the beginning of the trail just after turning away from the town street at the trailhead. As a preview of the results of the day’s weather, the right picture shows the same area as I returned to the trailhead almost 7 hours later, after rain had collected at the low point in the trail. There was no way to walk around the standing water, so I had to go through it! Fortunately I knew that there was nothing tricky about the terrain under the water, since I usually avoid wading into water when I can’t see the bottom. At the lowest part of the dip, at the underpass, the water came up to a few inches above my ankles. I was really glad that my B&B proprietor makes his kitchen available to guests to dry their boots overnight, since my feet were quite waterlogged!

photos of Moyle Way trailhead at the beginning (left) and end (right) of the hike

Moyle Way trailhead at the beginning (left) and end (right) of the hike

This initial section of trail follows a former railroad route, probably the reason for the sturdy underpass. The trail is known locally as the Glentasie Trail, and I think it continues into Glentasie, the northernmost of the Glens of Antrim, after the Moyle Way branches off.

Each of the glens has an Irish name, and Glentasie is Gleann Taoise Taobh Geal, or Glen of Tasie of the bright sides. Tasie was a princess of Rathlin.

Since the trailhead is literally at the edge of town, the trail immediately has a remote, woodsy feeling. It passes through a lush area not far from the Tow River, which empties into Ballycastle Bay less than a mile downstream. This is a beautiful, almost giant-size, fern that was next to the trail.

picture of fern next to the Moyle Way near the Ballycastle trailhead

Fern next to the Moyle Way near the Ballycastle trailhead

Shortly the trail emerges into a stretch of more open area and passes by grazing areas for sheep. I was getting the idea that, if an area looked anything like open grassland – especially if there was a fence around it – it was probably grazing for sheep, or possibly cows. As I passed this flock, the sheep exhibited a very typical behavior: they intently watched me walk past, as if to make sure I wouldn’t suddenly vault the fence and try to harm them. (In other instances, one sheep would decide to run away and the others would quickly follow suit.) The blue marks on their backs appear to be like brands, indicating ownership, since I saw other colors on other flocks and never mixed marks within a flock.

image of sheep watching intently as I passed their pasture next to the Moyle Way

Sheep watching intently as I passed their pasture next to the Moyle Way

By the time I had hiked only about 45 minutes, it was sprinkling. The trail passes into a wooded area, goes around a kind of switchback, and begins the first climb. There are paved sections and sections of crushed gravel. The paved sections seem barely wide enough for single-lane emergency vehicle access. Here there is a small stream rushing by next to the trail. The mist was a good indication that I would be challenged to experience any distant views. In fact, I didn’t even notice a short side trail shown on my map as leading to a view across the lower end of Glenshek to the Sea of Moyle and Rathlin Island.

photo of Moyle Way

Moyle Way

About 2¾ miles from the trailhead the trail enters Ballycastle Forest, which includes areas quite densely populated with trees. It is apparently a “designed” forest, having been initially planted in 1931 and subsequently logged and replanted. Especially with the mist, the forest had an almost eerie feeling.

picture of Ballycastle Forest

Ballycastle Forest

After a short descent, about 200 vertical feet, the trail tees at Drumavoley Rd, which goes up Glenshek, another of the Glens of Antrim, along the lower part of Knocklayd. Glenshek, or Gleann Seist, means the sedgy glen. Knocklayd is a prominent and recognizable hill, easily seen from the surrounding area, including from Rathlin Island on my previous two days’ hikes (see here and here and here). It serves as a high point separating the glens Glentasie and Glenshek. The Moyle Way follows Drumavoley Rd for about 2.8 miles. Happily, Drumavoley Rd seems to be considered a secondary road, running parallel to Glenshek Rd (B-15) at the bottom of the valley. There was very little vehicle traffic to interrupt my enjoyment of the countryside, or for me to be a traffic hazard with limited visibility due to the off-and-on rain.

The road passes the former homestead of the McMullan family, one of several home sites in the area that were occupied by this family from the 1600’s to 1954. It was interesting to encounter a little bit of the long local history right next to the road.

There are several streams that course down the slopes of Knocklayd toward the Glenshek River, along which Glenshek Rd was constructed. Here is one.

image of stream on the lower slopes of Knocklayd

Stream on the lower slopes of Knocklayd

In most cases grazing pastures are separated by fences. However, there were occasional hedgerows. Here is a particularly nice example, looking down into Glenshek.

photo of hedgerow leading away from Drumavoley Rd

Hedgerow leading away from Drumavoley Rd

Drumavoley Rd tees into Glenshek Rd at Breen Bridge (see the dip in the elevation profile around 6.5 miles), which crosses the Inver Burn; a burn, or bourne, is a designation for a stream arising from a spring. I did not specifically notice a bridge. In any case, the Moyle Way continues straight ahead after crossing Glenshek Rd. Signage at the junction indicates the edge of Breen Forest, which is unusual because it may be native oak forest. Breen means “fairy palace” in Gaelic. It used to be considered unlucky to interfere with land belonging to the fairies, and it is theorized that this may be a reason why surrounding areas were logged and this forest was left essentially intact.

The Moyle Way begins to climb again as the trail winds through the forest. The trail is climbing toward a hill labeled Brohilbreaga on my map. Just after the last sharp turn on my GPS track, I turned around for a pretty view across the valley I’d just crossed, to the lower slopes of Knocklayd and the low-flying clouds above.

picture of view of green pastures and mist on Knocklayd

View of green pastures and mist on Knocklayd

I continued for about another ½ mile. The road gradually curved around to the right and entered a more densely forested area. The trees and mist made a kind of tunnel to walk through, and there was brilliant green moss on the ground. Since I was uncertain of the terrain ahead, I somewhat reluctantly decided to turn around and return to the trailhead. The weather had been too frequently rainy for me to get out my map and use it as much as I might otherwise have. In retrospect, I think I turned around about 0.6 mi (1km) short of my goal, McQuillan’s Grave.

After I turned around and emerged from the tree tunnel, I had this view over a sea of pink flowers and through the mist into the glen.

image of glen view near my turnaround point

Glen view near my turnaround point

There was also a pretty patch of bell heather, each blossom with a rain droplet hanging from the tip, and a large field of ferns just at the edge of the forest.

Ironically, during my return hike the mist lifted just enough so that I could get a better idea of what I’d missed on the outbound hike. Here is a pretty view from Drumavoley Rd down the hillside into Glenshek.

photo of view from Drumavoley Rd into Glenshek

View from Drumavoley Rd into Glenshek

From what turned out to be the last small rolling rise on Drumavoley Rd I could barely see Rathlin Island and Fair Head. Coolaveely Wood was in view on the other side of the Glenshek valley. And as I approached the location where the Moyle Way departs from Drumavoley Rd I turned around for this nice view looking up Glenshek, away from the coast.

picture of view from Drumavoley Rd up-valley into Glenshek

View from Drumavoley Rd up-valley into Glenshek

As the weather remained clearer than it had been in the morning, I enjoyed more wildflowers by the side of the trail: fuschia, montbretia, common ragwort, and cow parsnip (or its Irish cousin). I even noticed a very wet bit of some kind of animal poop on the road with mushrooms growing in it!

I also saw some beautiful honeysuckle, also known as woodbine. This native plant is a different species from the honeysuckle plants encountered in the US, which are usually the japonica species.

image of honeysuckle, or woodbine

Honeysuckle, or woodbine

About ½ mile before I arrived back at the trailhead I could see the steeple of the Church of St Patrick and St Brigid, possibly the highest point in Ballycastle. According to the parish web site, the Ballycastle terminus of the famous first commercial radio transmission, carried out by Marconi and his assistants between Ballycastle and the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island, was on a mast connected to the church’s steeple.

After negotiating the puddle at the trailhead, I decided to walk around in town some more, even though I’d already hiked over 17 miles. From the Diamond, which is the junction of Ann, Fairhill, and Castle Streets, I first went a couple of blocks up Castle Street to the Presbyterian Church. Then I returned to the Diamond with another mission: I’d discovered that there is a Moyle Road in town, and I wanted to see if I could find it and walk its entire length.

I found Moyle Rd, and moments later I found myself in front of the Church of St Patrick and St Brigid. Moyle Rd continues northwest at the top of the town, reaching nearly 200 feet elevation before a T junction with Clare Rd. Here I turned right to return toward the dock area.

Near a bend where Clare Rd becomes North St there is yet another Marconi Memorial near the North Street Ballycastle Viewpoint. From here I had expansive views of Rathlin and Fair Head, and if the weather had been clearer the view would have included the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. As it happened, the Rathlin Ferry was chugging past on its way from Ballycastle to Church Bay on Rathlin. In this telephoto view it seems to be passing right in front of the Rue Lighthouse. The Viewpoint is high enough in elevation that I could see just the top of the East Lighthouse.

photo of Rathlin Ferry and Rathlin’s Rue Lighthouse, viewed from Ballycastle

Rathlin Ferry and Rathlin’s Rue Lighthouse, viewed from Ballycastle

After pausing to enjoy the views I continued down North St, where I stopped for an early – and well-deserved! – dinner. The next day I would hike a different section of the Moyle Way.

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2 Responses to Moyle Way: from Ballycastle to Breen Forest

  1. Pingback: Moyle Way: from Trostan to Waterfoot | trailhiker

  2. Pingback: Causeway Coast Way eastern segment: from Carrick-A-Rede to Ballycastle | trailhiker

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