My day ended yesterday in my less than salubrious, damp, joyless room in a dingy courtyard somewhere off the main street in Thomastown. I awoke at dawn and watched out of the window as the sky began to turn from orange to blue and another cloudless morning slipped out of its nocturnal chrysalis. Even my dank little cell seemed cheerful in the cold, sun-sparkled happiness of the morning. I packed my backpack quickly and efficiently, having perfected my routine over the last few weeks and deftly stowing the packages of clothes, washbag, cable holder, laptop, teabags, Stellas bowl and my walking equipment within five minutes. The hackney that I had arranged to pick me up to take me back to the trail at Inistioge was due at 0800 and I used the time I had to sit on the sad plastic chair outside my cell with a cup of green tea and the remnants of the chocolate cake I had taken with me from the Circle of Friends Café the previous afternoon, and let the sun warm my face as I waited. There are worse ways to start the day.
Inistioge was empty when we arrived there shortly after 0830. The cars that had filled the parking spaces in front of the village square yesterday afternoon and disgorged their Sunday afternoon families of walkers, gawkers and coffee shop tourists were mostly gone and the village was quiet and, I suspect, still asleep or at least just settling into holiday morning porridge. I wandered around the square admiring the ancient buildings, still in remarkably good repair, the perfectly kempt square, with its apple and cherry trees in full bloom and wandered why it was that some villages, blessed with similar virtues, were thriving centres of tourism, attractive to visit and with burgeoning local economies and others faded, loveless, poor and depressed. What was it that made the inhabitants of one village or small town, deck their gardens and window sills with flowers, keep their communal spaces clean and with evident pride, decorate and maintain their houses and others to neglect theirs? I have seen many villages and small towns on my walk across this magnificent country, many with almost identical properties: a location close to a gentle river, a splendid ancient bridge leading into the town, an abbey or monastary or castle in some advanced stage of ruin on the edge of the town and a small square or place in the centre with a few municipal buildings more or less grand that spoke of time when the market there thrived and the town was well-off and self-confident. Some of those towns have re-invented themselves, most of them have fallen into decay. I will admit that Inistioge is very beautifully situated, but no less so than Clonmel or Carrick, and yet it has obviously thrived and adapted and the latter have not and that begs the question, why?
Or rather, what? What has the one village done, deliberately or accidentally, that generated pride of ownership, collective investment in the appearance of the village and through that economic benefit and success that fed back into investment and pride, that the others could or would not muster the effort to do? Is it lack of imagination? Is it a collective acceptance of gradual decline? Is it a sense of helplessness or a lack of ability to think strategically about options for renewal? Europe is littered with once prosperous towns and villages who have lost their economic foundation either recently or many decades previously, whose infrastructure is decaying and whose children are leaving and whose fortune is spent? It is desperately sad to witness these declines and then all the more surprising – and heartening – to see how a successful version, reversing that decline can look.
My walk today was amongst the most varied and enjoyable of the tour so far and quite redeemed my hitherto less than enthusiastic view of the South Leinster Way. From the first steps crossing over the River Nure on the bridge leading out of Inistioge, the steep climb up the bank on the opposite side through delicately greening trees, out into the fields and along a wonderful path with a view over Brandon Hill in the distance, the walk was full of surprise passages and rewarding views over the valleys and woodlands of the area. I climbed up through the forest approaching Brandon Hill, gaining height and with the height glimpses of the next valley around the corner to the north of Brandon, the glorious Blackstair Mountains, with Mount Leinster forming the highest point, came into view and dominated the horizon for the whole walk along the upper north side of Brandon Hill, which itself squats opposite the gracious Blackstairs peaks like a sumo wrestler waiting to engage. From the side of the mountain, the small town of Graiguenamanagh came into view and the walk took me down quickly into the heart of the village, built like so many here in the area, around a monastery on the river, this time the River Barrow.
The trail then picked up a path on the banks of the river, which afforded some deeply relaxing and soporific walking for some 10kms on a grassy path along side the broad brown fast flowing river as it snaked in large sweeping arcs towards Borris, my destination for the day. My only excitement, in what was really a wonderful days walking, came at the very end as I decided to leave the towpath and risk a short cut, which I had divined on my navigation aid, and which led me along the banks of a smaller tributary river, through wild woodlands on a deserted path. I had a sneaking suspicion that I may have wondered onto private lands, when I saw a numbered peg by the river bank, marking a shooting position at the foot of a wooded bank to my right. These suspicions were confirmed when I was confronted by the first of a series of “No Trespassing – Private Property” signs and the full consequence of my detour made blatantly apparent when the path, now metalled, that I had been following ended at a locked and utterly unscalable wrought iron gate set into a high, but dilapidated stonewall, behind which was Borris High St. Brilliant navigation, but unforeseen obstacles to my progress. This little problem was solved by finding a point on the wall which was slightly lower than the rest and unceremoniously throwing Stella, my walking stick, her lead and my backpack over the wall, before scrambling over the top and dropping, less than elegantly, the two meters onto the pavement on the other side. Much to the amusement of a small group of american tourists, who had watched this little spectacle from the other side of the street. I am sure that one of them must have taken a photo.
My afternoon was rounded off by a serendipitous meeting and an invitation to tea in the lovely Stephouse Hotel from Bernadette Phillips and her partner Stan, both writers and Bernadette an avid follower of my walk on Twitter, who were in Borris to visit Borris Castle, which was opening its doors to the public for the first time this year today. Bernadette is founder of New Insights for Change, a platform for initiating greater awareness amongst business practitioners for change and conscious leadership. They were generous, welcoming hosts and our conversation and the tea and scones I was treated to were a delightful finish to a hugely enjoyable 30km walk.