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Cycling the Tain Trail – Cooley Mountains, Co. Louth

October 1, 2011

On a lovely warm September day, I went to the Cooley Mountains in Louth to follow the Tain Way (about 50km or so) on my mountain bike.  This is designed for walkers, but actually makes a great mountain biking route, especially if you use the many little cross country routes used by locals across the hills. Its not to be confused with the Tain Trail, which is a road cycling route (but they do intersect at various points).

The Tain Way follows key points of the great Iron Age epic story the Tain Bo Cuailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), an epic story of a war between Connaught and Ulster over a great Bull hidden deep in the mountains (the inspiration for one of the mighty Horslips more surreal lyrics) .  The great warrior Cuchulainn battled the men of Connaught through every valley and hill of the region, culminating in his death further south.

The ride is highly varied, with a mix of rough tracks, moderately technical singletrack (especially the climbs after Carlingford) and road riding.  I was taking my time, did lots of little detours and I took lots of pictures, this took me over 6 hours.  As a straight ride, it should be doable in around 4 hours or less.  The village of Carlingford is a great place to stop for ice cream or lunch or, if you want to push the boat out, some great oysters.

I started off at the forest park in Ravensdale, on a sheltered south-facing valley side full of tall mature conifers sheltering some beautiful trails.

The forest road quickly climbs out of forest into clear-cut, giving great views to the south.

Inevitably of course, as I climbed to the high point of the ridge, along came a heavy mist carried by an easterly wind coming in from the sea. Visibility dropped down to about 50 metres. This sign here seemed a little reminder that Cuchulain was a head hunter.

I missed my turn, but decided to keep going up to have a look at the Windy Gap, a well named ridge crossing two valleys which seem to funnel every breeze into a gale blasting across the narrow pass between two rocky peaks. The Long Womans Grave is on the high point of the Gap.

Up above the Long Womans Grave there were some intriguing looking trails.

The descent down to the coast near Omeath was fast and lovely, down twisting country lanes.

The trail to Carlingford briefly follows the coast road, then goes up the hill again just after a small harbour – the route signs seem to have been removed by locals, so I missed it and rode all the way on the main road, then decided to go back and find the proper route. I’m glad I did, its a mix of rough tracks, boreen and forest road, giving wonderful views over the bay.

Carlingford is the only village on the route, a lovely place to stop. For a tiny place, it has an unfeasibly large number of castles (ok, two, but also a fortified abbey and old town wall forts, which shows it must have been a rough neighbourhood). I was tempted by local oysters, but I wasn’t sure how they’d go with the big climb ahead, so I stuck with ice cream instead.

Carlingford Castle, dating from the early 13th Century.

From the Main Street of the town the route runs through some residential areas before joining the walking trail up the heath to the west, where there is a quite spectacular climb to get over the 300 metre high ridge. There are splendid views back over the town and the bay, but the grades are very steep, its a backbreaking climb, with plenty of places where I had little choice but to push.

I made sure to stick firmly to the official trails after this warning.

One last push to the top.

Once over the top, the sky was clear, but a deep mist hanging over the valleys made it look like descending into a complete white-out.

At the valley floor, the trail follows some nice quiet roads before hitting another climb.

Some very helpful instructions.

The last climb of the trail - the Windy Gap with the Tall Womans Grave is over to the right of this picture.

In the story of the Tain, a key character is the Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of Death, who takes the form of a raven. So it seemed apt that unexpectedly a raven swooped over my head. In further proof that I’ll never be much of a wildlife photographer, I was late getting my camera out so the raven is just a dot in the distance. Still, it was lovely to see one, even if there is something distinctly unsettling about the shape and sound of a raven on a lonely hillside.

Once over the top, the route goes through eroded upland bog down to some forest trails.

A local rider I met said there are great informal trails running from this point over to ‘the mast’ which is the first hill on the route. Its a popular area for adventure races, and the single track looks good.

This is Ireland of course, so even in a heatwave, muddy wheels are unavoidable. The route veers into a deep, boggy firebreak.

Near the end of the trail I found what looked like a home-made mtb track. I followed it for its length.

I belatedly found out that it was made for the hooligan bike fraternity, who engineered some 2 metre straight drop-offs. Nice I’m sure, but not for me! I gingerly rode around them.

From here, it was a beautiful ride along roads overhanging with autumn tinted trees back to the carpark at Ravensdale.


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  1. looks like a gorgeous ride! lovely photos.
    new full susser??

  2. Yes its a great ride! At the end a local rider told me about some better ‘unofficial’ routes, I’ll explore them next year (mud is setting in now). And yup, new bike – after much pfaffing around, I went for a Canyon Nerve, brilliant bike, amazing value (at least a third less cash than the nearest equivalent). I never thought I’d like a full bouncer, but I feel like its made me into a proper rider.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Up and over Black Mountain in the Cooleys « Thoughts from the saddle

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