Fermanagh is Northern Ireland’s Lake District. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the country, this slow-paced, pint-sized county may be no match for Cumbria’s Lakelands in terms of scale, but when it comes to natural beauty, it punches well above its weight.
The county is dominated by Lough Erne, a vast waterway that spills out into an intricate muddle of wooded islands, reedy inlets and sheltered coves, and the Cuilcagh Mountain range, a glacial landscape that is cut through by one of Europe’s finest cave systems.
Visitors have always seen this natural wonderland as a place of refuge. Even during the Troubles, Fermanagh drew people in. “The raw material has always been here,” explains Teresa O’Hare, founder of Orchard Acre Farm, an organic smallholding offering eco-friendly escapes in the region. “Fermanagh has such a precious, beautiful landscape. It’s just that now we’re emerging on to the global marketplace and appealing to visitors from all over the world. There are exciting times ahead.”
Exciting times indeed. As Northern Ireland enjoys a newfound stability, it is quickly emerging as a new travel destination. Yet while tourists continue to flock to the Giant’s Causeway, Mourne Mountains and the bright lights of Belfast, Fermanagh has dodged the hype and remains off the tourist radar.
But it’s not for want of trying. The magnificent Lough Erne, which covers a third of the county, is the least congested waterway in Europe, yet boasts an award-winning canoe trail and world-renowned fishing. The superb Cuilcagh Mountains are relatively untrampled by walkers, but that should change with the new Cuilcagh Way, a long distance path through an untouched landscape that has just been granted UNESCO Global Geopark status. It’s a place that’s waiting to be discovered and it’s for this very reason that now is the perfect time to visit – before the rest of the world wakes up to this undiscovered gem that’s small in size but big in natural wonder.
They say that Lough Erne is in Fermanagh for half the year, and for the other half Fermanagh is in Lough Erne. It’s this water that has whittled the county into the natural wonderland we see today; that has gouged the soft limestone hills into the sulky silhouette of the Cuilcagh mountain range, scooping out great sinkholes and running deep beneath the ground to create sinuous cave systems.
It wraps itself around the hillsides, creating a blanket bog habitat that is home to rare birdlife and unique plants, and finally, when it’s good and ready, it spills into Lough Erne, where it stretches out across 300 square acres into a maze of 365 gently wooded islands. Bryan Gallagher, author of Barefoot in Mullyneeny, grew up in Fermanagh and it is from the lough’s shore that most of his stories come. For Bryan, the mystic quality of the lough is spelled out in the rounded outline of the wooded islands: “Imagine weaving your way in a boat, in and around and through these islands, and you’d imagine you were on your way to fairyland. I often think, looking at the gentle wooded islands of Upper Lough Erne, that if you rowed through that passage between those islands you would simply go on forever.”
The island town of Enniskillen straddles the river and acts as a border between Lower Lough Erne, a choppy stretch of water some 5 miles across that flows for 26 miles to the Atlantic, and the gentler Upper Lough Erne, which ambles for 12 miles southeast of the town and offers boaters an intricate maze of wooded islands, reedy inlets and sheltered coves. Most of the Lough’s 365 islands are uninhabited, wooded idylls, scattered with early Christian ruins and Pagan statues. Some are crannogs (early Celtic loch-dwellings). Protected from invaders, these artificial islands were culturally isolated from the rest of Ireland and the number of Pagan idols on islands like Boa and White show the lingering influence of Pagan culture on the region. Fermanagh owes a lot to this warren of islands and waterways, which slowed the spread of potato blight and kept the Potato Famine at bay. Nowadays they are the main attraction to the county.
Leisure on the lough
To explore every nook and cranny of the lough’s fjord-like shoreline, hop in a canoe and embark on the 50km Lough Erne Canoe Trail. This is the first of five official canoe trails in Northern Ireland, and it offers a range of paddling opportunities.
For a bite-sized introduction, set out from Enniskillen and paddle the inky waters to Devenish Island, where a 12th-century round tower stands sentinel alongside a ruined Augustinian abbey. Better still, make a weekend of it – throw a tent in the back of the canoe and camp wild on one of the many uninhabited islands. There are castles, nature trails, even a Hare Krishna temple to discover along the way. Otter sightings are frequent in winter and American mink, pine martin and peregrine falcon are common.
Lough Erne is also legendary for its fishing. They say the lough has an average depth of 12 feet – one foot of water and 11 feet of fish. The lakelands’ loughs and rivers offer salmon and brown trout, while you may also catch sonaghan, ferox or gillaroo – trout sub-species that are indigenous to Fermanagh. Coarse anglers will also delight in the abundance of pike, bream and roach.
Walk on the wild side
Further on, behind the pristine waters of Lough Erne, the Cuilcagh Mountains paint a sullen silhouette. Wrapped in one of the largest expanses of blanket bog in Ireland, these brooding hills and the one true mountain in the county, Cuilcagh, remain relatively untrampled by walkers. That is until this month, when the UNESCO Global Geopark launches the Cuilcagh Way – a 33km route that threads along the spine of the range, through a patchwork of limestone pavement, bogland and a low-lying river valley.
Topped by a Bronze Age burial chamber, the Cuilcagh Mountains boast a fine example of karst scenery (features created by erosion from rainwater).
The ground is littered with sinkholes, dry river valleys, limestone pavement and erratic boulders. Beneath the surface, rainwater has carved out a magnificent cave system that flows into the Marble Arch Caves – some of the finest showcaves in the world.
On the middle slopes of the mountain, one of the best examples of blanket bog ecosystems in Northern Ireland harbours a fascinating spectrum of life. Sphagnum mosses act like a sponge in the wettest parts, while purple-flowering heather and shrubs play host to hen harrier and rare golden plover.
Lough Erne was strategically crucial to the English occupiers in the 16th and 17th centuries – the crossing between the two stretches of water around Enniskillen was one of only three land routes into Ulster for invading forces – and the colonists built a ring of castles around the lough to maintain their authority.
Today these castles and planter’s estates are fascinating to explore and one of them, Florence Court, is allegedly home to Ireland’s oldest yew. Originally a freak of nature, this ancient tree went on to be propagated in the 1800s and is now affectionately known as the mother of all Irish yews. Meanwhile Crom Castle, on the southern shore of Upper Lough Erne, boasts entwined yews reputed to be more than 800 years old.
Fermanagh may be a small county but it has big ideas. Along with five neighbouring counties, it has recently emerged as Ireland’s first eco-tourism destination with the Greenbox scheme, which offers a range of eco-escapes, aimed at helping visitors immerse themselves in local culture and promoting low-impact, sustainable and nature-based tourism. On a Greenbox break you can, for example, learn traditional willow weaving, take a course in sustainable architecture or unwind on a yoga retreat.
Maybe it’s the small scale of the region that makes initiatives like Greenbox flourish, or the fact that tourism in Northern Ireland is re-emerging after decades of conflict. Either way it would be a shame to miss out on a chance to visit Northern Ireland’s Lake District before it joins its Cumbrian big brother in the tourism rat race.
Subscribe to BBC Countryfile Magazine today and you can enjoy generous savings from the shop price plus, free UK delivery and discounts off special editions and back issues.