When the group began to discuss what historic area of Raphoe we should examine, we found ourselves in difficulty, as the obvious places like The Castle, Cathedral, and Beltony Stone Circle had already been well documented.
One member of the group Heather Cromie discovered while looking on some old maps, a portion of an old bridle path, which is on the private lands of Ralph and Liz Shepphard and Harry Wallace.
The bridle path is familiar in the local neighbourhood; however, it is not familiar further afield. It is about three miles outside of Raphoe, and not far from Carnowen Church. As it is still very much in its original state, and unchanged, it seemed that it was a historic area that should be documented.
A bridle path, as the name suggests was a route used mainly by people on horseback and dates back over a thousand years. They were direct routes from A to B, would have crossed mountain, bogs where the paths would have been made by weaving sticks and layering stones, and were inaccessible by wheeled transport. As an ancient route way, the Banstown Lane would have been carved out of the landscape at a time when wildflowers were abundant and varied throughout farmland, and there would as well have been many uncultivated corners with woodland cover. The lane itself might have been taken through uncultivated land, which would have been too precious to sacrifice for the wider good. As farming intensified, the diversity of wild species would have dwindled, and the lane became the last refuge in the locality for many of them.
After a visit to the bridle path on the 16th March 2010, we decided to do a survey incorporating the history, structure, old buildings and changes that have occurred throughout the years including the flora and fauna.
Part of the bridle path that remains extends from Carnowen to Powderly Middle, through Powderly Lower/Banstown. Most of the path remains passable, although a section in the middle is closed. It is a right of way to farming land; it is one mile from the road to Powderly and a half-mile from the road to the river. The lane was at a time more twisted; however, the Wallace’s quarried a straighter path along this remaining section.
The lane would have crossed the river Deele and runs towards Beltany and Raphoe. It would have crossed the river Finn at Killygordon. Banstown lane was the main road from Powderly to Carnowen until approximately 1872. It was considered as the main road from Donegal Town and believed to be part of a pilgrim route to Lough Derg.
There is also a small stream, which crosses the lane further up, and stories have been told of a highwayman who robbed travellers at this point.
Houses and land use along the Banstown Lane/Bridle Path
The dwelling house at Harry Wallace’s premises was occupied until 1975 by his uncle, Jim Wallace and his wife, and for a few years in the 1980’s by Jack Bryson. The house has now been converted into a farm building.
The substantial wall stead on the opposite side of the lane at that point is said to have been used as a Manse at some stage. The first minister of the Presbyterian congregation at Carnowen was Rev Robert Law who arrived in 1755 or 1757 and died in 1793, so he would seem to have been the most likely occupant.
The next minister at Carnowen was Rev William Dickey who arrived in 1795 and he certainly lived at the next house down the lane, where it crossed the Convoy-Castlefinn road. In those days, ministers had to buy, their own house, and were presumably known as manses. This was a two-storey thatched house, which was built during the 1600’s, as there is a strong tradition that King James slept in it at some stage around the time of the Siege of Derry.
William was succeeded as minister by his son, John who died in 1888. The family remained as farmers in Carnowen, and the house was largely rebuilt around 1890, although a section at the back of the original house was retained, and is still there. The stone barn in the farmyard was used for Sunday school parties before the school opposite the church was built in 1912. Liz Sheppard (née Dickey) and her husband Ralph presently occupy the house.
The cottage just across the road from this house was originally a schoolhouse, connected with Carnowen Church. It was built sometime after 1832 as the map of that date shows a school building at the rear of the church grounds. It is likely that a new school was built when the church itself was replaced in 1875, and it remained as Carnowen National School until 1912 when a larger two-roomed school was built opposite the church. After 1912, the building was converted into a farm-worker’s cottage on the Dickey farm. The Montgomery family occupied it for many years. Today occasional weekenders and summer visitors use it.
The cottage next door to it may have been built as a teacher’s house, but in living memory was always a farm worker’s cottage. The McBride family occupied it for many years; occasional visitors now use it also.
A few hundred yards further down the lane are the (very slight) remains of another dwelling house, which was occupied until around 1950 by John McCormack. A lovely bed of snowdrops, which survives here, is a nice reminder that this was once someone’s garden.
Land use in this area has been one of mixed farming, with grass being the dominant use. Tillage goes back a long way, with cereals and potatoes in the rotation. Oats was the preferred crop as it was the most suitable for the soil type. In addition, oats were a necessary feed stuff for working horses, along with straw to give them the strength to carry out their work. Working horses, on average, consumed a third of everything that was produced on the farm.
Flax was grown for a period to supply linen for the linen industry, up until the 1950’s, when man-made fibres replaced it. In more recent times, forestry has been planted in some of the land.
Study of the flora growing on the banks of the Bridle Path/Banstown Lane
Banstown Lane, like any other lane, retains an important role in maintaining what remains of nature's great biodiversity. It is especially important since modern farming methods have seen the loss of many species of flora and fauna. The lanes provide not only area for wild plants to flourish but also pathways for the fauna to feed, reproduce and rest. The establishment of plantations also plays a part in this creating woodland area, which attracts flora and fauna specific to woodland habitats.
On our first visit on Tuesday 16th March 2010, the banks of the path were still in their dormant winter state. It had been a long hard winter with more snow yet to come and the signs of spring hidden except for the snowdrops flowering near an old abandoned settlement. The remains of last year’s growth abounded.
On the first part of our lane walk we could glimpse the fallow fields lying above on either side - some were awaiting spring planting/sowing while others would host grazing animals.
Ivy wound its way over the banks, up, and around the bare trees. Through the thick old grass bramble canes arched their way onto the path while the stalks of old cow parsley remained upright. Ferns-some green with their old browned fronds draped the banks in places. The tall trees guarding the banks stretched their bare branches into the sky – especially beautiful was the bare gnarled branches of an elm killed by Dutch elm disease.
We then came to the first of the managed broad-leaf plantations. On this our first visit the trees stood bare of leaves, straight and elegant reaching far above us. Some younger and hence smaller trees replaced those, which had been felled. Unlike the trees of the lane, no thick swards of ivy clung to the trunks. Much of the ground was carpeted in last year's fallen leaves, which were blanched and turned tissue thin by the severe winter. The plantation was, at that time a nearly silent space radiating a tranquil peace.
Our second visit on Friday 16th April 2010, changes had occurred. The winter had come to a sudden end about ten days previously and we walked the path in brilliant sunshine. Now the banks were covered in a mass of fresh greenery almost as if the plants were vying with each other for room. Prominent were celandine, ground elder, nettles, dandelions, ferns, cow parsley and grasses. The tips of the bluebell leaves were pushing through giving promise of colour to come.
In flower were the celandine, dandelion, saxifrage, wood sorrel, primrose and chickweed. The hawthorn bushes were coming into leaf, as were the chestnut trees. The chorus of birds, the drone of agricultural machinery and an unidentified white butterfly possibly the Green Veined white accompanied us.
Little had changed in the plantation, the trees still stood in their winter state. The tree trunks were bathed in the bright sunlight which will soon be all but excluded once the new canopy of leaves appear.
Our third visit was on Monday 10th May 2010, a cold north wind accompanied us on this walk. The developing canopy of leaves on the trees lining the lane has begun to cut down the light, while the plants along the banks have become thicker, taller and busier, fighting for their space.
In places, the bishop’s weed was dominant with cleavers (sticky willie) growing up and away in solid masses behind, clinging to hedging, bank and tree. Shooting through wherever possible were the ferns, nettles, brambles, cow parsley, grasses and flowers. The ivy growing along the ground no longer looked so prominent.
The hawthorn was in full leaf awaiting its flowering while the blackthorn was swathed in a coat of white blooms while it awaited its leaves. A solitary cane of the dog rose with its newly opened leaves let us know its presence by arching over the pathway. The celandine flowers had withered to blobs of dull yellow but their succulent leaves were to be seen in masses feeding their bulbs below the soil. The Wood Sorrel flowers had disappeared leaving masses of leaves and letting us know that we had missed a big display as we saw only a few on our last visit. The golden saxifrage had proliferated.
Just into flower was the bluebell - their drooping blue flowers nodding daintily from their bent stalks. Another flower just coming into bloom was the stitch-wort which favored the top of the mossy banks where little else grew at present. Clinging to lower parts were numerous clusters of yellow primroses. We also found the wild violet growing from the moss-encrusted stones that had been positioned unknown years ago to lay the banking of the lane. The fragile flowers of Sweet Cicely were also seen.
Although there were plenty of Dandelion leaves, few were in flower - but all that changed when we entered one of the plantations, for there to our right lay a meadow, unseen from the deep lane, full of dandelions and cuckoo-flowers in full array. The yellow being dominant interspersed with the pinkish hue of the cuckoo-flower. The plantation itself was still light and sparse as apart from the hawthorn the trees were just coming to leaf. On the ground hundreds of tree seedling, mostly sycamore and ash, were poking their heads through the remains of last year’s foliage.
In the lane, the central strip where no tractor wheel touches has also come to life. There we spotted daisies, docks, saxifrage, speedwell, chickweed and dandelions among the grass. A solitary broken blue egg (Robin’s possibly) still containing albumen but no yoke lay - one can only guess why it fell or was taken from the nest? Likewise, we did not know why bird song was sparse. Were they feeling the cold or was the noise of agricultural work silencing them?
June 1st 2010, early summer. The group with a few others interested in Banstown Lane met on a warm but overcast day for a walk, accompanied by Ralph and Liz Shepherd who both have intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna present.
We saw at once that nature, unhindered by man’s hand, had been very busy producing a glorious hectic growth of plants all continuing to jostle for space and light.
Bishop’s weed, nettles, brambles, hog-weed, Cleavers and ferns predominated - indeed, Ralph was able to identify six species of fern within a few yards. By far the most eye catching, at first glance, was the cow parsley its flower stems reaching up to seven feet and baring frothy clouds of white bloom. They lined the lane in great profusion. The flowers of Sweet Cecily were now nearly passed and replaced by seed heads. We had the pleasure of tasting this edible seed. Yes, it was very sweet and tasted of aniseed. One could just imagine children enjoying this treat on their way home from school generations ago.
The flowers of the Hawthorn that seemed extra abundant this year supplied extra bursts of white bloom. There were other delights to see.
The trees lining the lane were now in full leaf with many of the trunks hosting climbing ivy to great heights. Wych Elm, Sycamore, Ash, Hazel and White Willow were spotted.
The masses of ground ivy seen on our first walk had all but been hidden by the luxurious growth of the annual plants.
Not far into the lane the first of many bluebells were spotted, their leaves flattened by a spring storm but their fragile, bent stems carrying the azure coloured bells. Beside them, the small pink flowers of herb Robert grew.
Stitchwort was in full bloom, its leaves now unfurled. The bush vetch carried its purple pea shaped flowers while the wild strawberry promised fruit to come with tiny white flowers. Other plants in flowers were Chickweed, Speedwell, Tutsan, dandelions while the Wood Avon’s were in bud. One spent dandelion, its seeds gone in the wind, in the fight for light and space had grown its stem over a meter in length.
We passed a field entrance and saw on the skyline Croaghan Hill - a hill top enclosure and central mound that dates from the Bronze Age or possibly earlier, can be seen from miles around including from the Beltany Stone Circle.
At the entrance to one of the plantations, Ralph had set a moth trap the previous evening. When opened a myriad of different moths were to be seen. The stick moth really did look like a stick while the adaptability of the peppered moth to different environmental conditions was very interesting. Apparently, this black moth with white spots indicates the clean air in Donegal. In heavily polluted areas, the spots would be brown!! It literally changes its spots to suit the environment.
One noticeable change in the lane from our last visit was the bird song. The air was alive with many different calls including the robin, black cap, Chaffinch, willow warbler, wren, song thrush, great tit and Cole tit, wood pigeon and pheasant among others.
Since our previous visit, Harry Wallace and John Patterson had been busy. They had laid a large stone, dug up from a field across the burn at the ford. This allowed us to keep the feet dry. They had extended the lane at the top that had been overgrown. Here, the vegetation was even more luxuriant than in the lane below, and the intensity of the smells around more marked. It is difficult to explain the combined smells - some sweet, some rank, some earthy.
They were just part of a very interesting outing that reminds one of the beauty, power, persistence and diversity of nature when allowed to flourish.
Along the path three different tree plantations occur. One on land owned by Harry Wallace the other two on Sheppard’s land. These plots were planted in three ten yearly intervals (1980, 1990, and 2000), of two plots that were planted in 1980, one was not actively managed showing, in contrast to the other 1990 plot how nature manages when left to her own devices.
Attention was given to the layout and method of the planting to create the appearance of natural woodland. There are 29 species of native Irish trees planted and 11 others but Oak, Ash, Alder, and Birch outnumber the rest. One of the main reasons for the plantations was to create a habitat for wildlife and birds and judging, especially by the variety of birds present it has been a great success.
Map showing Banstown Lane/Bridle Path