At home with a hobbit

Simon Calder walks on the wild side of Ireland along the misty and mystical Burren Way
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The Independent Travel
As the third beautiful but breezy day began with a gale that howled as inconsolably as any bereft Clare widow, I finally realised what the west of Ireland resembles: an out-of-control quiff. Any piece of vegetation that dares to emerge from the rich, damp soil is obliged by the prevailing wind to lean heavily in the general direction of Dublin. Thus every tree adopts a cartoon-like tilt, as if it has just lost a hat and is now exposed to the elements and ridicule.

Luckily, my journey had begun at the south-west end of the Burren Way, Ireland's finest long-distance footpath. Propelled by a force 7, I embarked at a whimsical incline of about 45: amusing for passing motorists, handy for me.

When you try it, make sure your feet are nailed firmly to the rocky ground at the start. The walk begins at a geological calamity that will make you shiver with astonishment. The Cliffs of Moher are where Ireland suddenly stops. One moment the island's placid fields are rolling rustically towards America; the next they are savagely interrupted. The ground is sliced clean through, allowing you to teeter over the edge of a 500-foot cliff with only a million sea birds between you and the angry Atlantic.

Without binoculars, it is impossible to see whether the gulls have quiffs, too, but the racket created as they squawk from one perch to the next on the sheer chalk makes it sound like Monday morning in a particularly animated avian departure lounge.

Wobbling in the wind, the sign read "Burren Way"; it should have read "Bilbo Baggins Walk". If a hobbit ever sought a peaceable long-distance hike with nary a goblin nor a Gollum in sight, then he should settle for the 25-mile track that winds across the misty and mystical mountains of the Burren.

This is real hobbit country. Heavy-duty weather has been beating down upon the porous limestone slab that covers half of Co Clare for a million belligerent years. The result is enough holes-in-the-ground for a city of hobbits, and a terrain that lends itself to intense scampering. A claw or two would be handy on the wilder reaches of the Burren Way.

But you don't find this out until later ...

The first few leagues tumble easily beneath your leaning figure. The Way follows an ancient path through the foothills of the Burren, brushing up now and again against the Atlantic (which has calmed down a little after its outburst by the cliffs). Across to the left, the three Aran Islands show off their own odd little coiffeurs.

Suddenly you arrive at a village and feel quite alone. The village is Luogh, a place deserted since the horrors of the potato famine of 1846- 48. More evictions took place in Clare than in any other county, and 80,000 died. "Those who survived this holocaust," a monument nearby declares, "could barely bring themselves to speak of it to their children, and when they did, were never able to speak of it as other than An Drochshaol - The Bad Times". There are ghosts among the ruins, but they are invisible against the pale stone that creeps stealthily out of the soil. Tonight in Dublin, Van Morrison plays to commemorate the victims of those terrible times, but here all is silent - save the constant eerie shriek of the gale.

A few wind-assisted miles farther on, you reach the cheery antithesis of Luogh: the vibrant village of Doolin, now the preserve of drinkers and musicians in equal numbers. Traditional Irish folk tunes collide with be-rucksacked visitors and spend the rest of the evening drinking, beside a brook that tinkles melodically through the village.

You begin to climb steeply, your nose almost nudging the ground after particularly strong gusts. Now the landscape gets brutally serious, as the limestone sharpens with the gradient. A few dissolute remains reveal man's previous failed attempts at trumping the terrain. Yet the uncannily geometric rock formation makes it impossible to see where nature's work ends and human endeavours begin - and, as the heavens darken, to ascertain where the sky commences. When you reach the summit of the Burren Way, 1,000ft up on the shoulder of Knockasun Mountain, you feel humble rather than heroic.

Now, where were those claws? On the descent, the ground disappears beneath you in a reckless rockfall, stumbling down to a stream that emerges from the subterranean suburbia so beloved of hobbits. Then a final kick uphill again, scrambling towards the dark clouds under the watchful eye of a few cattle scavenging on the thin soil (and probably chuckling at your entertaining gait).

Beneath your panting breath, you thank the spirits of the Burren for safe passage. Before you, the track leads quietly down to Ballyvaughan, a fishing village that - caught in a stray glint of sunset - looks particularly fetching. Trying vainly to flatten my weatherbeaten hair, I wondered whether there was a good barber in town.