Yesterday was my eldest daughter Bunny’s 18th birthday. After a drizzly morning watching the sun rise (sort of) on the beach at Brittas Bay at her request we spent most of the rest of the morning and early afternoon lazing at home, watching the weather get progressively worse. By one thirty in the afternoon we needed to get out and clear our heads and so decided (well, I suggested for want of a better alternative) that we drive up to the old mining village below the Wicklow Gap and attempt to find the second half of the trail that I had somehow missed on our St. Kevin’s Way walk on New Year’s Eve. I had spent some time poring over OS maps trying to find both the path we took (not marked) and the path we missed (clearly marked) and I was confident we would piece the two halves together if we approached the route from the east and walked it backwards. The key as always would be finding the right starting point from the main path.
Bunny, Ingi and I parked the car at the site of the old mining settlement perched at the top of the valley on the Glendasan river about halfway up the road on the way to the Wicklow Gap from the east (Laragh). The wind was whipping the drizzle around our ears as soon as we left the car and Bunny was wondering – semi-audibly – whether this was how she wanted to spend even a minute of her birthday.
We set off anyway, picking our way over the stones and boulders up to the first and largest of the ruins and onto the main path, whilst I maximised the screen setting on my garmin looking for the entry point to the mountain trail. If you are not specifically looking for it, you would never know that it was there: there is no signage, just a rabbit-hole sized break in the side of the path. The only clue that this might be the entrance is the glimpse of a well-cut path leading up to the left amidst the heather and foliage from there. It looked promising enough, so we dove in and were immediately rewarded with a perfect hill trail leading steeply away from the path and up the valley.
This trail continued for approximately one kilometre, climbing all the while, well-marked and unmissable until it reached a plateau at a small river, which is easily crossed to pick up the trail on the other side. Further up to the left at the far side of the swampy flat lies a large deposit of what looks like white gravel, mined from a pit there presumably.
The trail disappeared at this point and we we followed our noses and “maybe paths” where the heather had been flattened, keeping on a straight line west for about 100 m. The ground here is wet, muddy, and the path easily lost. The OS map marks this as the end of the official path, but having approached it on a very walkable trail from the other side only four days previously, I knew that there was a connection and that it was very close by.
Within about 100m we came across a second small river bed, which I recognised as being the same river at which we had lost the path and spent a few minutes trying to locate the point at which we had deviated from the trail. The connection point was marked by one large and one flater rock, almost touching, which create a little passageway between them. On the west (or far side from our perspective) of these rocks, the path on the far side was just visible, and became clearer as we entered and pursued it.
From there it was a sludgy but uncomplicated walk downhill, with the line of the path quite clear as it worked its way down the flank of the hill in a more or less straight line, ending at the river bed with its strange “Danger Sudden Water Surge May Occur” sign. Then across the river bed, up the grass ramp to the right and we were back on the reservoir trail we had left on our previous walk, after approximately 2,5kms.
The rest of the route back to the mining village was simple and well-marked, albeit still muddy from the last two days’ rain. Once past the St. Kevin’s Way marker the official and unofficial ways merge and the walk becomes an easy jaunt on broad paths, rocky until the river and thereafter on a brand new manicured path that allows walkers to avoid having to brave the traffic on the main road for approx. 1,5km.
Then over the bridge at the ruined church and the last 500m to the carpark.
By the end of the trail, the rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to show itself. Our cobwebs had been well and truly dissipated after the 4,7km circuit, I had sated my curiosity and need to complete the trail and we had enjoyed a fun expedition together. What more could we ask?
For anyone interested, I will be uploading the Garmin file with the track and a few waypoints marking the critical passages especially at the top onto the Peregrinations site. Happy walking.
For the past few years Britta and I have made a point of walking St. Kevin’s Trail from Valleymount to Glendalough on the last day of the year (or thereabouts) and yesterday, the last day of 2019 and the decade, we cement that tradition by setting off from our home in Delgany, pre-dawn, dogs, leashes, rucksack and provisions packed on our way to St. Kevin’s church in Glendalough for the start of our year-end adventure.
Having walked both variants of St. Kevin’s Way in both directions, in all weathers over the past five years, we have settled on our favourite permutation, which is to park the car by God’s Cottage next to the entrance to St. Kevin’s churchyard in the heart of Glendalough and to ask John from Glendalough Taxi’s (087 972 9452) to collect us, dogs and all, to drive us to the start of the walk on the west side of the Wicklow Mountains, over the Wicklow Gap to Valleymount.
John charges €50 for the trip – a price I note, he hasn’t changed in the four years we have been using his service – and could not be more accommodating or friendly. The trip takes about 20 minutes – depending on the weather and the state of the road – over the single connection between the west and east sides of the Wicklow Gap. It offers the only real option for managing the trip, unless you want to take two cars, which is a pain and probably only marginally cheaper all things considered. I never ceased to be surprised at the fact that the bus connections between both starting points on this well-known and much-visited walking trail are almost non-existant, given how much walking traffic there is, but there you go: Ireland is not noted for the excellence of its public transport infrastructure.
The weather forecast is for an overcast day with one raindrop and not even a hint of sun. The weather has been unseasonably mild and warm, even though Christmas saw some pretty wild wind. November and December have been wet and the ground everywhere in the Wicklows is soggy, boggy and treacherous, so we are primed for a day without any of the spectacular views which the Trail often affords and steeled for sludge trudges through the usual parts where the water collects. The latest addition to our family – our now 9-month-old Jack Russel puppy, Trudy, – is making her first long-distance hike and we are agreed that if she should start flagging, we would attempt to stow her in my rucksack, which in the event we have to do.
As John drives us up over the top, the Wicklow Gap is enveloped in thick clouds. It is drizzling there, although on the Hollywood side, the cloud cover is not as thick and we have lovely views off to the south as we make our way towards Valleymount. I notice a signpost for Valleymount 5km and Ballyknockan 6km and ask John what he can tell me about Ballyknockan. He informs us that Ballyknockan has a couple of good pubs, popular venues for visitors from Dublin at the weekend and that the road, which I had not even noticed on previous visits, runs the whole length of the Blessington lake, ending up (circuitously I later find on the map) at Sally Gap. That is now on the list of places to explore in the New Year.
For a well-known Trail, St. Kevin’s Way has a surprisingly large percentage of its routes on metalled roads, which are tedious both because of the need to deal with traffic (especially stressful with a pack of dogs in hand) and because walking on tarmac is always more tiring and elicits more wear and tear on boots and joints than on forest or fell tracks. Indeed the Hollywood Trail has exactly (the first) 20 of its 30kms on tarmac. As a consequence, we decide to skip the first kilometre of the official route, which starts outside the schoolhouse in the hamlet of Valleymount and ask John to drop us off at the top of the road by the Ballyknockan turn-off. At 08:55 we are ready to set-off on the approximately 20km walk back to Glendalough, in good spirits and happy to be together and alone on a dry morning at the end of a good year.
As always when I am walking with Britta, we start off at a cracking pace on the old road that rises away from the Blessington Lake behind us. The road is lovely, tucked between open fields on both sides and a permanent view of Silsean Hill on the left. Behind us increasingly breathtaking panoramas of the lake over the grass and farmsteads as the road climbs steadily to the brow after about 4km.
We hardly notice the climb as we are already deep in conversation and I am thinking what a joy and privilege it is after 22 years together and almost 20 years of marriage to still want nothing more than to talk to the woman at my side and to spend time in her company and how blessed I am that she should enjoy walking in open country for hours on end with me, as much as I do with her. Walking together has been such an integral part of our partnership since the very start and no matter how difficult our circumstances have been, no matter what trials and tribulations – from the outside world or self-manufactured – we have always walked together and always felt restored and closer for having done it.
Over the brow, the road descends in gentle undulations through a small forest and into wilder Wicklow territory in a dead straight line, carless, apart from the very occasional tractor or Landrover. From the top of the road, the side of Tonalagee Mountain on whose south flank the Wicklow Gap is nestled dominates the landscape in the distance and gives us our marker for the morning’s walk. The summit is invisible, blanketed in thick cloud, but the morning is still warm and dry and our pace strong. At the bottom of the road, some 500m after the stone bridge over the stream, the trail leaves the tarmac – finally – and disappears over a small ditch into the undergrowth. This critical waypoint is not particularly well-sign-posted and I remember puzzling over the map on my first attempt on this route before taking the plunge (almost literally) and trusting in my Garmin. The route through the undergrowth on the edge of the wood is intuitive and is well-trodden enough to make out if you trust your instincts and keep a dead straight line of travel.
The path drops slightly through a boggy patch of open land between two woods and continues through a wooden gate, in whose proximity there is a Kevin’s Trail signpost if you know where to look for it (a common feature of Irish trails, by the way). After the gate, the way continues in a dead straight line through an open wild grass and reed field, which ends up as thick gorse, through which the path has been cut and recently cleaned up, as attested to by a brand new waymarker pointing off to the right through an eery spinney of birch trees. We walk through this fruitless orchard to another wooden gate and the main road to Hollywood.
The trail follows the main road for about 200 m crossing over a romantic stone bridge and a rushing rock-filled stream below, before disappearing back into the woods on the left onto a decidedly muddy forest path up to the ruins of a farmhouse, where in the past we have often stopped to have our first cup of tea and break of the day.
As we are making such good progress, we decide to crack on and wait for our breakfast until around 11:00. The maintenance team has been hard at work over the past twelve months as there are numerous improvements to the trail. The most noticeable is the new track off to the left of the farm ruins taking us along a well-maintained forest path. This is now much easier to walk than the muddy, narrow track through the woods that we had previously been led along and which ended with a steep stile over a narrow ditch over which it was always difficult to manoeuvre the dogs. This new section ends with a kissing gate directly opposite the continuation path on the other side of the main road, making life easier and the amount of time spent on the main road negligible.
It takes us another 15 minutes of board walking to reach the bridge over the wildly romantic Glashaboy Brook
where we decide to settle down for a break at St. Kevin’s Pool, just off to the left and slightly above the path. In all the years of walking this trail, I had no idea that there even was a pool there and was only made aware of it by a small (new) sign that must have been erected during the late summer. We spend a delightful 20 minutes resting there, watering the dogs and enjoying the sound and sight of the clear mountain stream collecting in the quiet pool before returning to the trail and the steepest part of the ascent which takes us up to the road just below the Wicklow Gap itself.
As we reach the main road and begin to walk along it, we are in the clouds in a light drizzle. The Gap, which would under other circumstances have afforded an ideal spot to stop for lunch or rest before beginning the descent down into the valley and Glendalough, is miserable and cold, so we decide to eat “en route” and get out of the weather. The official path off the top of the Wicklow Gap drops in a straight line on the right-hand edge of a planted coniferous forest – one of those many blots on the natural landscape of which I have frequently complained in the past. It is badly drained and as a consequence always the boggiest and most difficult terrain of the trail. Even from just below the Gap, we can see onto that section and the mud gleaming wetly below. If we can see it from the top, we reason, it must be truly horrible underfoot and decide to give it a miss and find a detour. If anybody reading this post is linked in any way to the Trail maintenance organisation, might I respectfully submit a proposal that the official trail be rerouted at this stage to follow the track that we take,
forking right along the road to the hydropower station and lake at the end of the valley, detouring via the helicopter landing pad and following the road alongside the lake, which looks like the fake one from You Only Live Twice. A path leaves that maintenance road on the left after about 300m and presents a lovely sludge-free walk downhill to where it rejoins the official trail well after the swampy section. It is a much better walk in every sense.
This time, however, before we rejoin the official trail, Britta spots a track off to our right that appears to lead up and into the hills on the right flank of the valley and which I assume will lead us back to the trail at the old mining village further down the valley. I am pleased that it is Britta who has identified the track, as that makes it difficult for her to back out of my suggestion that we follow “her trail”. I think the phrase she dreads most on any of our expeditions is “Oh. I wonder where that track goes?” knowing I am pathologically incapable of not following the road less travelled. The track leads over a small rivulet, with a bright red sign on a nearby concrete hut warning of the danger of sudden water surges. I am guessing that it is a kind of safety valve for the reservoir above in case the lake’s water levels become too high and that it feeds into the Glendasan river lower down. Whatever, we cross it and follow a dream of a mountain path up the flank of the hillside towards the ridge, climbing steadly higher until we reach a rocky river bed. Up until that point the track has been clear and followable. At the river, it becomes very uncertain and we have to rely on my guesswork and ability to pick out probable tracks and to distinguish them from sheep trails, which inevitably lead nowhere.
By this time our puppy is flagging and spends the next half an hour of our traverse in my backpack. Britta manages to disappear thigh-deep into a muddy sinkhole with both feet, making it look as if she had been on a three-day survival trail after she extracts herself, and we push on, pathless and having to navigate our way down towards the trail by the mining village across fairly inhospitable, rocky terroir. There is definitely a route that connects the Trail with the first half of our path, but I will have to return and tackle it from the other side to find it properly. We just do the best we can, following our second dog’s uncanny track finding sense to guide us down through the heather, mud and rocks. I wouldn’t recommend anyone follow our route unless they revel in off-piste traversing (as I do), but I will post a GPS route map with coordinates for a Garmin as soon as I have mapped it reliably. Give me a few days.
Once we rejoin the path, we mingle with the New Years Eve daytrippers at the ruins on the last section before the trail follows the river down to the valley. There is significant repair and maintenance work going on on that section with the old, well-worn and partially crumbling sleepers being painstakingly replaced with new ones and the path turned into more of a staircase than a trail, for the benefit of the large number of short-distance walkers whose goal is to walk up and down the river trail from the carpark at the top. I cannot help but suspect that the vexatious and ultimately unsuccessful claim made by Dublin housewife (and experienced walker) Theresa Hall in 2016 against the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service, will have played a role in the now energetic repair of the walking infrastructure of at least the most frequented walking destinations in the Wicklows.
Personally, I don’t like walking on manicured paths, especially as the “staircase” paths tend to be harder on knees and ankles than the natural paths, but I accept that they are less dangerous and easier for those without suitable shoes or much experience.
The final stretch of the Trail takes us alongside the Glendasan river, quieted after the dramatic plunge down the steep side of the mountain and now gently flowing, in places almost imperceptibly, as the valley narrows and morphs into a calm tree-lined idyll, a perfect way to end an exciting and strenuous walk.
An ancient wall demarcates the boundary of the steep forest to the right of us. It is covered with moss and grass and has knarled oak and ash trees protruding from it at regular intervals. We select an inviting spot on the wall and enjoy the remnants of our lunch sitting on the moss and watching the river meander past us, tired, happy and grateful to have been able to spend the last day of a volatile year, rich in experience and learning in each other’s company on one of the Wicklow’s most iconic trails.
I have decided to call it a day and end this particular walk in Assisi. The trail has a natural break in this town, and with three fifths of the 530km route completed and absolutely no hope of my being able to complete the entire trip to Rome (230km) by my hard deadline of Thursday evening, it would seem to make sense to put a fullstop here and save the rest of the journey for later on in the year or next year.
Valfabbrica to Assisi and scenes from Assisi (28/29.5.16) Starting early morning 0730 at Valfabbrica
I am a little sad, that I will not have fulfilled my mission of tackling the whole fransiscan Camino in one go, but on reviewing my plan, drawn up before the trip and before I had the faintest idea of what sort of terrain I would be crossing, I realise that the stages I had naively bundled together, creating one day’s walking out of two, were hopelessly impractical and I will bow in deference to the reality on the ground.
A steep climb out of the village with Valfabbrica disappearing behind me.
I am writing this in the shade on an unseasonally hot day back in Greystones, County Wicklow, the sun belting down out of cloudless sky and temperatures more reminiscent of August than late May. The sun, blue sky, light breeze and the feeling of summer are making it a little easier to transport myself back a few days to reconstruct the atmosphere of Assisi on a hot weekend in similar temperatures, although I am still in decompression, rather than reflection mode, wondering where on earth the time went.
A small chapel on the brow of the hill with a prayer celebrating St. Francis and his taming of the wolf
My last evening in Gubbio was quiet and peaceful and I spent most of the late afternoon in the absolute calm and solitude of the Parco de Ranghiascio, to which I alluded briefly in my last dispatch. Although I had been given a tip for an osteria tipica, with excellent basic cucina casalinga, (Picchio Verde or Green Woodpecker) by a trusted local – Marino my driver to and from the camino, with whom I struck up a friendship – I was not much in the mood for talking or for any other company, than my own. Consequently, I prevailed on the concierge to organise a large bowl of risotto con everything and a tiramisu to be brought up to my room from the restaurant just below the hotel and, equipped with several large bottles of cold water, I spent the evening on my solitary terrace, seated at my large table on my comfortable wrought iron chair, watching the sun slowly disappear behind the hills stretched out in front of me, hills that my walk had taken me over heading south, on the previous two days and listening to faint sounds of the city below me, as it, too, wound down and disappeared into the restaurants and osteria and bars and dining rooms to finish the day. I read and wrote and reflected, slowly working my way through my steaming hot, sticky, delicious risotto and enjoying the untrammelled peace of my rooftop oasis. I love good hotels of character, the quirkier the better, and if I find a particularly good room, well-proportioned, with some unexpected aspect that renders the experience of living in it unique and memorable, then I am loth to leave it and am apt to milk the short stay for all it is worth.
The first dramatic and inspiring view of Assisi – a genuine ‘hold your breath’ moment as it appeared around the corner
I had arranged with Marino that he would pick me up shortly before 07:00 and return me to Valfabbrica, where I had completed the previous day’s stage. The weather forecast was for more of the same hot weather and I was keen to get as many of the remaining 17kms to Assisi completed in the relatively cool morning hours as possible, knowing that on this stage, there would be even less cover from woods and trees than on the days before. Also, my right foot was hurting from my wounded toe and I wanted to get cracking, hoping (possibly rather naively) that the experience of walking on it would be less unpleasant in the cool. I say naively, because on reflection, the temperature inside my boot was not going to be affected that much, whether the outside temperature was 18 or 35C, but I convinced myself that this was, indeed, going to help.
Moving closer to Assisi all the time – the trail from here was mostly an open view, making the approach all the more dramatic
Marino was as good as his word and, leaving the hotel somewhat reluctantly, we headed off to Valfabbrica on time, in the cool morning air, onto the more or less deserted streets of Gubbio. We then spent some 45 minutes travelling to my starting point, giving me the opportunity of digesting exactly how far I had walked in the previous two days and being not a little astounded to be reminded of how far 40km actually are. On the way, Marino, bless him, invited me to return in late autumn, accompanied by my wife, to join him for a day of white truffle hunting in the woods on the opposite side of the valley to Gubbio. It turns out that Marino is a seasoned truffle hunter and that the area around Gubbio is famed for its white truffati. Indeed, I had seen several signs indicating areas in which truffati were to be found (usually in conjunction with clear instructions not to trespass) en route. I am going to take him up on his offer and will report back when I do. He shot the lights out for me by offering to drop my backpack off at my hotel in Assisi, leaving me to tackle the trail with just my small leather shoulder bag, containing my essentials (a litre flask of water, a panino, a pear and my garmin).
The Chiesa de San Francesco clearly visible now on the right
By 07:45 I was on the trail, on a metalled road leading out of town and already starting to climb, slowly at first and then more steeply as the road wound its way up the hill, around whose base Valfabbrica is constructed. Within about 20 minutes the village was lying well behind me in the distance and as the road made its final turn around the brow of the hill, the views to the north, whence I had come, disappeared altogether. This hill merged seamlessly with the next and another longish pull up took me to the Pieve San Niccolo, a pretty chapel, with three of the characteristics I have most come to admire on the trail, namely a bench, some shade and a fountain with fresh, cold drinking water.
La Chiesa de San Francesco
So I sat, cooled off and washed my hands and face and drank the water happy that shortly after 0900 I had already scaled the highest point of the trip and the only significant uphill stretch, before reaching the foot of the mountain upon whose summit Assisi was assembled.
The first (of many) devotional statues of St. Frances. I watched fascinated as a woman of middle age spent at least 10 minutes, crossing herself and bowing to the image
With that early victory in my pocket and with my Garmin telling me that I should be in Assisi by 1030, I ambled down the southern flank of the hill, following the metalled road until it turned off onto a dusty track, which led me through olive groves and farm yards. Gentle walking in gentle countryside, with a rising sense of excitement at the approach to the storied hilltop centre of pilgrimage and the end of the northern section of the trail. When the view of Assisi first appeared it was – I own – magical. The large mountain appears, dominating the horizon, set between further hills on both the east and the west but alone and independent of them. Entirely visible immediately are the massive structure of the Chiesa del San Francesco on the eastern flank, built on a promontory, running away from the bulk of the rock and the fortress, not yet discernible as a ruin from the distance some 7 kms out dominating the apex of the mountain.
The north eastern gate
The remaining 5,5 kms were beautiful walking, exciting as Assisi drew closer and the details of these two buildings became clearer and the rock began to tower above the valley, until it rose, as a vast green cliff, with the trail ending abruptly at a devotional statue of the man himself. The final 1.500m led me up, up, up through olive orchards stuck to the side of the hill, on a path that appeared little worn as it snaked its way through the long grass and wild flowers. It was now exceedingly warm, the olive trees affording no protection from the sun, and I was slowly becoming caked in a mixture of pollen dust and sweat, which stuck like damp flour to every inch of me. After what seemed like an interminable battle up the side of the mountain, with only an occasional glimpse of my red and white way marker indicating that I might not be on entirely the wrong track, the trail spewed me out at the back of some large structure, just by the bins and with a large wall in front of me, indicating that I was entering the town through the tradesmen’s entrance (it turned out to be the cemetery). Following the road to the west and avoiding the the route up to the fortress, I was soon walking along a magnificent alley of cedars, which led straight up to the northern gate and my entrance into the town.
Inside the town and walking down towards the Chiesa de San Francesco
I will save my reflections and impressions of Assisi for a separate dispatch tomorrow, but I will close with one thought. I was quite prepared not to like Assisi very much – I had had such a delightful time in Gubbio, which is above all a merchant city, that I wasn’t particularly taken by the thought of a clerical city, particularly given my thinking on that particular theme and had none of the religious fervour motivating my walk that the dyed-in-the-wool pellegrinis had. I was – and I may lose a few friends here – expecting a catholic Disneyland, with all the usual accoutrements and cash-extraction amenities of a massively successful tourist attraction and religious theme park, and was, by and large, not disabused of this standpoint during my two days there. However, I will say this: the Chiesa de San Francesco, constructed on its own grounds apart from the bustle of the main thoroughfares and commanding the most dramatic of views over the massive plain below, is without doubt the most beautiful church edifice I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. It is quite simply gorgeous and not even the heaving mass of tourists, pilgrims and churchgoers, thronging on the walkways to the church and crowding the courtyard in front of the main entrance, could distract from the quiet dignity and powerful simplicity of that architecture as it stood gleaming in the midday sun. It was worth walking 300 km just for that.
Some scenes from my walk through town
La Fortezza fron the front this time – a beautiful structure that would dominate any other town, but in this one, stuffed to the gunnels with architectural gems, it is jusrt another site
Approaching San Francesco later on in the afternoon: the bus park is now full and the streets thronging with pilgrims and tourists…
Stunning view across the massive and endless plain below with La Chiesa di San Francesco perched serenely above