Off the beaten track: Westmeath forest walks for all the family
Updated: Nov 3
This article was published as an 'Autumn Series' in the Westmeath Examiner on Wed. 21st October 2020 - full article below
In the midst of a global pandemic, in a world that's been enveloped in a cloak of fear and uncertainty, there are few constants. Except for nature that is; a steady companion offering a welcome reprieve from the tedium of ongoing restrictions. Outdoor explorations are something the whole family can safely enjoy.
Fill up your lungs with fresh, clean air in Mullaghmeen Forest, one of Westmeath's best-kept secrets. If you enjoy solitary hikes – the ones where birds and small creatures rustling in the leaves are your only company - then Mullaghmeen is the one for you.
Located in an isolated area of woodland in north Westmeath, close to the border with Meath and Cavan, Mullaghmeen is the largest planted beech forest in Ireland: the definition of a verdant sanctuary. There are a number of looped walking trails of varying lengths and for all levels of fitness, the White Trail being the longest at 8kms. For most of the route you are immersed deep in the belly of the forest, catching occasional glimpses through the trees of the scenic surrounding landscape. The Red and Yellow Trails are more suitable for all the family, at 3 and 1.5 kms respectively. The terrain is relatively flat throughout, with one or two moderately strenuous climbs. Landmarks include the remains of famine fields and a famine garden, a Booley hut and a number of cairns.
Off-track, a viewing point offers magnificent views north across Lough Sheelin and the surrounding counties. This is not noted on any of the signposts, though it is marked on the trail map. Park signage can be sparse on the White Trail in particular so if your inner compass is not well-honed, make sure your phone is charged or have a printed copy of the map to hand.
Practical information and facilities:
All trails start and end at the car park. There are picnic facilities here but no toilets. The nearest towns are Oldcastle and Castlepollard
A detour to Loughcrew
If you have time, a worthwhile detour is to Loughcrew Megalithic site. Less than 15 kms away from Mullaghmeen, Loughcrew is the lesser-known sister of Newgrange: a Boyne Valley site of equal historical significance and which is roughly contemporaneous, sharing many of the architectural & artistic features of its more famous sibling. It is estimated to be 5,200 years old, dating to the Neolithic period. The site is a megalithic cemetery, home to a well-preserved series of passage tombs, but it also served as a ritual site. Cairn T is the best known, standing on the highest peak at 276 metres above sea-level. The view up here is spectacular with an uninterrupted 360-degree panorama of the surrounding landscape.
The sheer skill and technical prowess of those Neolithic builders is impressive. Like Newgrange, Cairn T was also ingeniously designed: its alignment marks the halfway point between the winter and summer solstice. It also allows the first rays of morning sun to enter the passageway at dawn, and to light up the decorated back stone. Something to note - the climb up to the hill is quite steep, though a short ascent, so sensible footwear is advised.
Portlick Millennium Forest trail
Following the shores of beautiful Lough Ree is the Millennium Forest trail: a picturesque and tranquil place with native trees forming a lush green canopy overhead. The soundtrack – bird song and the hypnotic but subtle melody of water lapping at the lake’s edge. Every now and then, the trees give way to natural clearings with gorgeous views of the lake and lands beyond. Pull up a pew on some lakeside rocks, breathe deeply and take it all in. It’s nature at its best.
The full route is 5 kms though there are shorter alternatives. It’s not a taxing walk - the terrain is flat and suitable for all the family. About 2kms in you’ll stumble upon the ruins of Whinning House in a very pretty clearing. Skimming stones by the lake shore is always a winner with kids: searching for frogs, of which there are many in Portlick, might be a more acquired taste.
Portlick is one of sixteen designated Millennium Forests in Ireland, a nationwide project which commenced in 2000. The vision for this scheme was a grand one: the revival and regeneration of 1500 acres of native Irish woodlands for the enjoyment and benefit of the general populace. Once upon a time, Ireland was covered in extensive areas of forest with a broad variety of native trees. By 1900, less than 1% of the country was made up of woodland which had a huge impact on the ecosystem, and on habitats for plants and animals. This project sought to rectify that.
Today, Portlick Forest is home to a variety of native trees, mainly ash and hazel, with lesser numbers of holly, oak, whitebeam, alder, willow, hawthorn and birch. A Household Tree Scheme became part of the Millennium Forest Project which involved one native tree being planted for every household in Ireland. At the time, a certificate was posted with details of the forest, and the location of your tree. What a wonderful idea to give the nation a sense of ownership and pride in their natural heritage, and to create a lasting legacy for future generations to enjoy. Portlick Castle on the other side of the lake is a 12th century tower house which is still occupied to this day.
Location & Facilities:
Portlick is located about 5kms from Glasson. There is a small car park at the entrance and public toilets conveniently situated before the start of the trail.