When I am driving northwards along the Antrim Coast Road I usually pass through Carnlough without stopping. But that, as I have now discovered, this is a mistake. It is well worth taking time out to explore Carnlough and its surroundings, not least for the gem of a Local Nature Reserve secreted away above the town. But let’s begin at the beginning, which, for this outing, is Hurry Head. This is the name given to the flat, raised area above Carnlough harbour where the quarry railway once ended, and where, around one hundred years ago, limestone was loaded on to boats headed for Scotland. The Hurry itself was the gravity based railway that ran down from the Gortin Quarry, a mile or so up the hill. It is now a very pleasant walk.
I ventured up the Hurry, which is straight - hardly surprising for an old railway - and slopes gently upwards. It was early autumn, and the route was lined with trillions of blackberries in various states of ripeness, interspersed with rose hips, sloes and haws. The September sunshine tempted out speckled wood, small white and red admiral butterflies, while rabbits scampered about in the fields on either side of the path.
It is about a twenty minute walk up the Hurry (if you don’t hurry) and soon I arrived at Gortin Quarry. It must once have been a noisy and dusty place as local workman hewed ton after ton of limestone out of the earth, and probably was not ideal for wildlife. In contrast, I was treated to goldfinches flitting through the young hawthorn bushes, a trio of buzzards circling lazily high above the white rocky faces, and families of swallows gathered on overhead lines. The sound of their excited chirping resounded around the quarry as they prepared for their imminent migration south to Africa. Perhaps they were discussing the route.
Small wooden signs indicate the way to Cranny Falls, my ultimate destination, and they led me across a narrow road into the Local Nature Reserve itself. The path curves gently around what are obviously spoil heaps of limestone waste. Over time these have become coated with fine soil and now support species-rich chalk grassland, similar to naturally occurring habitats found along the Antrim Coast. The meadows at Cranny contain a mix of fine grasses, ox-eye daisies, clover, pignut, wild carrot, knapweed and early purple orchids. As I was watching two painted lady butterflies, I was “attacked” by a pair of common hawkers. These dramatic insects are the largest of our dragonflies, and once seen are never forgotten. I followed their irregular flight patterns: they would frequently come to rest, only to lift again as I ventured too close. Like all dragonflies, they have huge eyes and 360 degree vision, making them tantalisingly difficult to approach.
There are several appropriately sited seats to enable visitors to catch their breath and enjoy the magnificent views over Carnlough Bay, with the Mull of Kintyre sleeping on the horizon. As I rested I became aware that I was not the only visitor to Cranny Falls that day. Several groups of walkers passed me, and then a family arrived with their picnic of fish and chips. Slightly bemused, I left them feasting and continued on. I peered over the edge of the steep bank at the Carnlough River below and caught a glimpse of a dipper flying upstream and under the overhanging trees. Dippers thrive on fast-flowing upland streams like this. They are able to feed on aquatic invertebrates underwater: the force of the current running over their backs helps to keep them submerged.
About half a kilometre farther on, the path leads through a gate into a wooded glen. The character of the reserve changes suddenly from grassland to deciduous mixed woodland made up of hazel, wych elm and ash. The humid conditions created by the river and the steep-sided glen are ideal for mosses, ferns and liverworts. Alongside them I found opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, wild strawberry and that most graceful of grasses, wood brome.
The river was my constant companion as I went up through the glen towards the climax of the reserve - Cranny Falls. I was able to get good views of the waterfall from the wooden platform built out across the river. It was a fabulous sight: the torrent of rushing water, the spray rising from the base of the waterfall, the ferns hanging from the sides of the gorge. A patch of bare earth indicated where the bank had recently collapsed after heavy rain. I could also identify previous landslips which nature was quickly repairing again with fresh growth.
I pulled myself away from the magical falls and began my return journey. The sign at the entrance to the reserve had indicated there were red squirrels in the woodland and that the hazels were being managed to encourage seed formation. Although red squirrels normally prefer conifer seeds they will eat hazel nuts. I searched branch after branch but sadly I was disappointed. I shall have to return another day in the hope of seeing them. Certainly I won’t be driving through Carnlough without stopping in future.