Throwing back the curtains, a stunning rainbow arches overhead, one end dipping into Donegal’s glittering Sheephaven Bay. The morning shows great promise for the day of greenlaning ahead, with the beautiful Irish coastal countryside beckoning invitingly.
My 1957 Series I’s engine springs into life (which is a relief, as we were up till 3.30am replacing the head gasket – more here). LRO’s Calum Brown successfully fires up his SIII 2.25 petrol, our new mate Denis Ferry jumps into his 88in SIII 2.25 diesel which rattles and puffs in fine style, and we all trundle down the steep hill into Dunfanaghy.
We’re on the way to meet up with LesmO’Donnell in his amphibious One Ten – stripped of its flotation devices, it makes an ideal greenlaner. Our convoy will be completed by Seamus Hunter and Denis McGettigan in his Td5 Defender 90 – Denis McG is the owner of Glen Valley Adventure Centre, our early afternoon destination, if all goes well.
The rendezvous is at a snug little café in the village for bacon butties and tea. You only get rainbows when rain and sunshine are competing for your attention, and this proves to be the case now. Leaving the village we turn right towards Horn Head, the massive headland that forms the westward arm of the bay.
After stopping for a group photo high above the north Atlantic swell, we complete our circuit back to Dunfanaghy and swing west onto the N56. It’s blustery, but bright and sunny.
The rugged coastal scenery around here is very reminiscent of parts of the far-northwestern Scottish Highlands – it’s beautiful. Our little group of classic Land Rovers looks perfectly at home, bumbling along these near-deserted roads.
After about five miles, just before Falcarragh, we turn left on to the tiny single-track Dunmore Upper Road, with vegetation doing its best to dominate its centre. After a mile and a half, we meet up with the R256 Falcarragh Road and turn left, then left again after about another half-mile.
We’re now on something that looks like a proper greenlane and immediately plunge down to the right to cross a ford through the Ray River. I follow Denis across. Having noted the bumpiness of the crossing and the speed of the water, I take a steady but committed approach and have no problems.
Unfortunately, Calum sees me ‘struggling’ and guns his 2.25 for an impressive launch into the river. He gets across, but pays the price with a
coughing and unhappy engine. He looks a tad embarrassed, casting a glance back at the wake he’s left behind. It doesn’t help when we all stare open-jawed at Calum’s actions. Still, the rest of the group cross the water with ease.
After the ford, we climb gently up quite a steep hill; water has washed out some of the surface - mainly the water puring out the cabin of Calum’s Series III, but straddling the central rut is easy enough. Denis’s Series III clears the hill and disappears round a blind right-hand bend at the top; my 88in is still running well and I’m almost at the top, when I notice that Calum is stationary. As I consider reversing, Les, Denis McG and Seamus gather around the stricken SIII. But by the time I’ve trundled back down, all is well(ish), the SIII’s bonnet is closed and forward progress appears possible.
At the summit of the 260ft climb, there’s an interesting double-hairpin to overcome. This puts us on to the track-bed of the long abandoned L&LSR (Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway) line. I’m chuffed – I’ve always wanted to drive my Series I along a disused railway, although I have no idea why.
It’s a fairly short-lived experience. After crossing a lovely single-arch stone bridge over a tributary to the Ray River, we leave the disused line and branch off right, heading in the general direction of Glass Mountain and into a wide, sweeping landscape.
The old line remains in our eyeline for a few hundred yards before our track turns more decisively to the right, leading into ever-taller sedge grass; boggy ground surrounds us in all directions. It must have been a real challenge for those railwaymen to build a line through here in the mid-1850s.
After a gentle loop across this vast expanse, the track swings back towards the ‘Old Swilly’, as the locals call the disused railway line. A few hundred yards further on, we take another right-hand fork. Here, it’s impossible to see the wheel marks we’ve been following up to now but Denis’s Series III trundles on fearlessly.
The drizzle that has been shyly trying to introduce itself for the last half-hour has finally burst into full-on rain. Undeterred, we press on towards Glass Mountain.
The ground is becoming very soft in places, the grass very tall and the little 205 tyres on my Series are on the verge of throwing in the towel. Calum’s Series III bounces over the terrain, his tyres struggling to continue forward momentum should he lay off the accelerator.
Denis calls a halt and we all precariously execute a three-point-turn on the ill-defined embankment we now appear to be on. As if to signal its approval, the rain eases off and the sun comes out again. Retracing our wheel tracks back to the Y-junction, we turn right and back on to the better-defined route.
We reach a junction with a minor, surfaced road and turn right. Glass Mountain fills our windscreens as the twisty little road leads us up to the old quarry where men toiled to extract and crush the quartz sand used to
make high-quality optical glass. Today the quarry is eerily silent. Even the metalled surface doesn’t have the willpower to make it all the way up to the site, 1130ft above sea level, stopping less than halfway from the junction.
The final few hundred yards is very rough, and lesser vehicles are parked at the end of the tarmac; our little flock of Land Rovers happily trundles on upwards. The view from this vantage point is superb.
The 2185ft-high mountain towers above us, casting a massive shadow over the broad expanse we’ve just rumbled across. Down below us, in the near distance is Dunfanaghy and the deep blue of Sheephaven Bay.
I’m happy and relieved that the replacement head gasket on my Series is still performing well. Calum’s smiling too – his SIII has more or less settled down after its early bath and we’re now heading off for the Glen Valley Adventure Centre, via another stunning headland lookout that forms the right-hand arm of our new-found favourite bay.
We bump and thud down the mountain track and on to the single-track country road towards Carrownamaddy. Abruptly, Denis turns sharp left into what quickly becomes a deep gorge, blasted through solid rock.
This is another section of the Old Swilly, and it’s narrow and dark in here. As we climb gently uphill, I’m aware that my Series I’s engine is revving noticeably higher than it should be, but the choke isn’t out – it’s a bit of a mystery. It doesn’t remain a mystery for long.
A few hundred yards later, the engine coughs and dies. It won’t restart. Denis, Les and I spend about 15 minutes tinkering and finally coax the engine into life. But unless the throttle is treated ultra-gently, the engine dies again.
We try to limp back to civilisation, and succeed in driving another mile or so before the engine dies again. This time it’s serious.
We swap leads and plugs and generally try everything we can think of. While he’s not looking, Calum’s bonnet shoots up and his coil makes a brief-but-critical appearance in my Series I’s life – it cures the problem. Now all we need is a new coil.
‘I’ll go and get the one I’ve got for Rich,’ says Denis. ‘Rich’ isn’t one of his mates – it’s a Series III 109in, as Denis explains before disappearing
off home. ‘I bought it off Ant Anstead from the Channel 4 programme For The Love of Cars – I’m going to restore it.’
Denis returns with the brand-new coil and within a few minutes we’re all back on the road, with Calum’s coil placed back in his Land Rover, and back on course for Glen Valley.
Denis McG and Seamus take the lead in the silver Defender 90. We quickly reach the main N56 at Creeslough, turn right and as we pass by Crees Lough on our right-hand side we take a left turn on to the R245 towards Glen and the village of Carrigart.
Bearing left through the village, past the Sandy Hills Links Golf Course and up the big hill ahead of us, we reach a gateway on our right and follow a rough track to the very top of the hill. The sun is beaming down again and we can see for miles, right across Sheephaven Bay to Horn Head in one direction, across to Glass Mountain and round towards the east. It’s a stunning panorama.
Time is racing on; Calum and I have a ferry to catch in a few hours and it’s about 120 miles away. We make our way down the hill and finally head for Glen Valley Adventure Centre. We’d hoped to have time to explore the site in one of Denis McG’s vehicles, but that’ll have to wait for next time.
A very welcome coffee and a slice of delicious apple pie fortify us for the ‘sprint’ back to Larne. Well, sprint in Land Rover terms: 55mph.
We both hope there is a next time. If you’ve never been to Donegal, make sure you add it to your list of future Land Rover adventures. It’s a brilliant part of the world.