First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Swallow were skimming low over the buttercup meadows of Peatlands Park, fuelling up on insect food as they strove to put on fat before their great flight south to African winter quarters. The flies and midges, in great abundance here on the southern shore of Lough Neagh, had been forced almost to ground level by low pressure over Northern Ireland. Rain clouds and sun bursts chased each other, blowing in across County Armagh from the west over the grey misty hummocks of the Sperrin Hills.
We stood watching the swallows for a while, before following the path through woods of oak and wych elm where a little narrow-gauge railway track snaked among the trees. Before Peatlands Park was formed as a recreational area, this was a bog extensively cut for peat which was trundled away by the diminutive railway for processing.
Beyond the trees the purple heather moorland of Derryhubbert Bog stretched away, dotted with tattered Scots pines. Three hundred men worked here early in the 20th century, cutting, drying, loading and shifting the turf for livestock bedding and vegetable packing.
First World War soldiers had their wounds packed with sphagnum collected from Derryhubbert Bog. The soft material, known as ‘bog moss’, is capable of absorbing up to twenty times its own volume of liquid – blood and corrupt tissue – and also contains an antiseptic agent.
We passed bog pools as black as polished marble. A dip in the ground, juicily wet and full of hazels and willow, showed where Annagarriff Lake once lay. The landowning Verney family used it for fishing, for wild fowling and as a supply of water for their Big House nearby. The Verneys preserved these woods for chasing the deer, and some of the trees are splendidly old.
A rain shower hissed across, polishing every blade of grass and bringing fruity, rooty smells from the bog. We took to a boardwalk path, and soon had glimpses between the willows of the grey waters of Derryadd Lough, a big open expanse fringed with reedbeds.
The boardwalk encircled the lough, its margins bright with purple buttons of devil’s-bit scabious. Bees hummed between the flowers, laden with pale gold saddlebags of pollen. Meadowsweet stood thick with seeds ready to drop. Gaps in the reeds gave views over the lake to the far reedbeds where a fleet of wigeon bobbed in the wind-furrowed water.
The return route brought us along a squelching track through bracken and birch scrub. A patch of bog had been laid out to show the process of old-fashioned turf cutting. Such labour, such strength and energy, to harvest that versatile material from the bed where it had lain for thousands of years.
Start: Peatlands Park, near Portadown, Co Armagh, BT17 6NW (OSNI ref H897603)
Getting there: Signposted from Jct 13, M1
Walk (5½ miles, easy, OSNI Discoverer 19; downloadable map and instructions at walkni.com): From car park ahead through gate; left along tarmac path with fence on left; follow red arrow waymarks of Peatlands Walk. In 3½ miles, near Derryadd car park, left onto boardwalk of Lake Walk (blue waymarks) anticlockwise round Derryadd Lake. Back on Peatlands Walk boardwalk, right (red arrow), retracing route for 400m. Left over footbridge (red arrow) to return to car park.
Conditions: Surfaced paths and boardwalks
Accommodation: Armagh City Hotel, 2 Friary Rd, Armagh BT60 4FR (028-3751-8888, armaghcityhotel.com
Peatlands Park: 028-3839-9195; doeni.gov.uk