A brightly-painted red fence marks the entrance. I follow the path under a canopy of leafy trees and within seconds I know I've discovered somewhere a little bit special. A cheerful wooden panel depicting a large sun above rippling water welcomes you to Derryounce Lakes and Trails, while trees lining the path are decorated in a vibrant blue and white swirling pattern. The effect is both joyful and memorable.
Let me assure you that no trees were harmed in the making of this artwork. A sign tells us that the medium of choice is organic paint, harmless to trees and the wildlife that surrounds them. This is the first of a number of pieces by local artists Beta França and Brian Flynn which can be found throughout this lovely trail. Here they've made use of reclaimed scaffolding boards and railway track, in keeping with its bog land location.
Derryounce Lakes and Trails is a fabulous public amenity which straddles the counties of Laois and Offaly. The main trailhead starts off the Edenderry Road, just outside Portarlington and close to the picturesque Barrow Bridge. At this time of year, the landscape is lush and verdant with picture-perfect views from the bridge
The 355 acre site is a scenic one comprising lakes, walkways, greenways and forest trails, and is home to a variety of wildlife, birds, plants and insects that thrive in the area. It has been recently redeveloped thanks to a grant from Laois Partnership, and now boasts three looped walking trails, pedestrian-friendly access points, brightly-coloured bird boxes and other quirky features for kids to find.
There are three looped trails to choose from: Yellow loop (3km), Blue loop (5.5km) and the Red loop is the longest at 14km. There are two main access points to the site: the trailhead entrance next to the nature reserve is a longer linear route but a second access point is located closer to the lakes. Parking is available at both entrances and signposting is excellent from the start. If you have the time, I recommend the longer option. The newly-developed walkway is entirely flat and well-surfaced, and is suitable for all ages and abilities. It’s also incredibly scenic.
The first thing you’ll notice is how quiet it is. It’s just a few minutes from Portarlington but feels like another world. Within minutes you’re in the heart of the countryside surrounded by rolling hills and a patchwork of green fields. Delicate flowers were bursting into bloom along the way while the air was heavy with the intoxicating coconut scent of yellow gorse - a reminder that summer is on its way.
After a few days of rain the landscape was lush, fresh and green. The remnants of train tracks running parallel to the path are a nod to its past life as a working bog and they’ve been incorporated beautifully into the redeveloped site.
On this particular day, the sun was shining, butterflies flitted across my path and the only sound was a happy chorus of bird song overhead. It’s pretty idyllic and an easy place to be completely mindful. Dotted along the route are some brightly-painted red birdhouses for our little feathered friends to nest in.
After a few kilometres you arrive at the gates to the second entrance – from here the lakes are just a short distance away. In the woodland stands the striking Entwine: the second artwork by artists Brian Flynn and Beta França. Again they’ve made use of the natural environment with a vibrant mural of interwoven patterns dancing across the trees.
Follow the signs to the lakes, or extend your walk on the Red Loop to take in the Badger Pass, the Hare Path and the Deer Run. You never know what you might meet. Children will be enchanted by the Fairy Forest, complete with tiny homes and a toadstool seating area. There’s even a special post box where they can send a note to the resident fairies. The experience is complete with the Gruffalo Grove walk, yet another fabulous series of tree murals by the local artists.
And now for the lakes. There are two on this former bogland site: Lough Lurgan, a naturally occurring feature, the result of flooding after peat production ceased, and Derryounce Lake which is manmade.
As I caught my first glimpse of Derryounce through the trees, I could see why this spot is so popular with local families, especially throughout the summer months. There are expansive views with big fluffy clouds reflected in the still waters of the lake, surrounded by areas of abundant forest.
It came as a surprise to me that Offaly has a beach. On this glorious sunny day, people were picnicking on the shore as kids made sandcastles and jumped in the water. Research tells me it came about when an area of sand was deposited at the edge of the lake during its formation. There are lots of picnic tables and benches dotted around the edges, and I was particularly impressed with the number of bins and waste recycling facilities provided.
All looped trails meet at the lake shore and branch off in different directions. Follow the signs for Nugent’s Hill, a wooded area at the top of a slight incline. In the clearing stands a tree, beautifully decked out in Christmas decorations, a slightly disconcerting sight on a warm sunny day.
Head downhill through the woodland and it feels like you’ve stepped onto the set of The Hobbit. Dappled sunshine through the trees creates dramatic shadows while the velvety moss carpeting the forest floor looks almost luminous.
Make your way back towards the water’s edge via the scenic Greenway with soft grass underfoot through a tunnel of trees. Enjoy a final glimpse of the lakeshore before heading for the exit.
Derryounce Lakes and Trails is a fantastic public amenity which exceeded all my expectations. A thriving community spirit lies at the heart of this project: the site is developed and maintained by Portarlington Community Development Association and a group of local volunteers who give their time to make this an enjoyable experience for all visitors and to showcase the outstanding natural beauty of the region.