It was the best of times

It had to happen of course. Sods Law.

As soon as I opened my eyes, even before I had looked out of the window, I knew, I could sense that the weather had changed and the rain front had passed on. It wasn’t a sunny morning by any means, but the light was strong enough at six o’clock to suggest that the clouds were at least much higher than on the previous day and that the sun was not too far away. And so it was.

After the wettest and, from a walking perspective, most miserable day the day before, todays walk promised to be better by several degrees and indeed, though I hate to say it, it probably turned out to be the best day’s hiking of all. It was, in a word, IMG_0526breathtaking. From the moment I left Laragh at 0800 and climbed up the steep side of Paddock Hill in the cool clear morning air, I knew it was going to be a good day’s walking. The climb up Paddock Hill, away from Glendalough to the North, took me up over a grassy fell trail, amongst a herd of wild horses and levelled off at around 400m with marvellous views of the densely wooded mountains behind me and the more barren slopes of the Wicklow Mountains ahead of me. No hint of rain, a partially cloudy sky, but with the first hints of blue and a promise of sun to come.

And then I had my Bilbo Baggins moment: As I came over a brow about an hour into the walk, the views opened up onto a huge panorama of the northern section of the Wicklow range: Kanturk and IMG_0519Djouce mountains in the distance, the first glint of water as the North Sea appeared to my right, the ridge of Ballyfunishoge Hill between me and the higher ground of White Hill and Djouce and there, off to the right of my panorama, the unmistakable silhouette of Sugarloaf Mountain, my Magic Mountain and my marker for home. There, for the first time in 25 days, was my waypoint for the day’s walk, some thirty kilometers distant. And at the foot of Sugarloaf was home: Greystones and my family. It was an exhilarating moment.

And that view determined the rest of what transpired to be a beautiful, tranquil, varied and soporific section of the Trail. Perhaps it was because I was now approaching the last day of this walk; perhaps because I was going home and could see my home mountain, the one I had been up so many times already, alone and with my family, coming closer by degrees; perhaps it was even the relief of not having to battle against the rain and the cold and the growing IMG_0518sense of confidence in the permanency of an unexpected blue sky and cool breeze, but I was carried along that section as if in a trance, half euphoria, half melancholy, my thoughts wandering across the familiar landscapes towards the coast, replaying scenes of first visits and impressions from our three months here in Wicklow after almost thirty years and all my adult life in a different country. And as I walked down well-worn sheep tracks, along side stone walls and copses, into quiet country roads, lined with beech and ash and oak, slowly (and lately) coming into leaf, their various shades of bright lime green suffused with sunlight, their long-fingered branches stretching to each other to form canopies and arches of foliage, a growing sense of deep gratitude welled up and lifted my spirits, allowing me to savour every step, every uphill pull and downhill run with growing intensity. Grateful for the time I had taken and made my own, grateful for the time that I had been given, grateful for a body that worked without complaint or hinderance, that hadn’t broken or torn or given up, grateful for the country I had chosen and was slowly settling in and for the welcome I had been given at every station along the trail. Grateful also for the serendipitous choice of location on the eastern cusp of the Wicklow Mountains for our home and the gradual realisation, on that morning, that of all the beautiful, inspiring, wild and wonderful places I had passed through on my irish camino, the richest and most inspiring landscape was right in my backyard and in the place I was starting to call home.

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The road from Laragh to the first crossroad which hived my road off towards Roundwood was new to me, but from that crossroad I was genuinely on home territory, having cycled through here numerous times before. The sense of being almost home spurred me on and gave the coming kilometres a frisson that I had not sensed on previous routes. As the track turned up onto Ballyfunishoge Hill and away from the road through the forest track and along the brow of the hill, I could unravel the scenery unfolding below me after Roundwood in my minds-eye and walked two paths simultaneously. Before long, at the highest point of the hill, the large bodies water which held the reservoir to the north of Roundwood came into full view and I IMG_0520was astounded at how large and long they were, having only ever witnesses them from ground level whilst cycling past. A few kilometres passed and Roundwood was lost in the distance, to be replaced in my attention by the spectacle of Lough Tay and the dramatic cliffs that inform that spot of outstanding natural beauty at the start of the Sallygap road. The car park that caters to the Lough Tay park was crammed full of film crew vehicles, no doubt for the latest Vikings shoot, but they were evidently all on a day off, as the place was deserted, except for the trucks and camping vans and double decker buses and on the steady long climb up the road I was alone except for the usual occasional clutch of saturday cyclists whizzing down or grinding up past me.

You know you are getting near a city when the countryside starts filling up with people whose daytime activities evidently do not exhaust them physically enough and need to compensate for that lack of fresh air and exercise by running, biking and otherwise moving through the valleys and hilltops. Joggers and bikers are rarer animals in South Tipperary and North East Cork. My trail disappeared suddenly off to the right into a deep, dark Hansel & Gretel pine forest, the route literally cut out of IMG_0516the disciplined regimented rows of trees like a tunnel, before I could catch a glimpse of Lough Tay in the plunging valley below. Slightly disappointed at that, I marched on, thankful that there were no wolves in Ireland anymore (but not completely sure) until I came to a walk way of sleepers which led me sharply up the hill, hopefully towards the daylight. Out of nowhere there shot a mountain biker, barrelling at high speed down his rooty, mudden trail and eliciting a loud “Feck” (or the english equivalent) from me, as I was jolted out of my daydream. I twigged immediately that I was deep in mountain bike country and had quite forgotten that this forest formed the top part of the Ballinastoe Bike Park, to which many Dubliners migrate for the day at weekends to tear up and down the network of trails. Back to reality and the comforting thought that, at least, the wolves would not hang around in a forest full of madmen on two wheels tearing up the tracks at high speeds.

Now I was out of the forest, still climbing strongly through rocky outcrops and the decimated landscape of a recently harvested IMG_0524pine forest, looking like a cross between a moonscape and a scene from a war movie. And then I was there at the first of two points on my walk that day that, had I been talking at all, would have rendered me speechless. At the JM Malone monument, a large rock with a plaque commemorating the life and work of the creator of the Wicklow Way, I sat on a small bench made of sleepers with an astounding view of Lough Tay and the full panoply of the Southern Wicklows stretching as far as the eye could discern away to the south and all the way up to the barren mountains at Sallygap in the west. The commemorators had done well by JM and I thanked him for his foresight and congratulated him on having had such a fine spot selected for him by posterity.

Up and on from there, up the side of White Hill climbing steeply up a walkway of sleepers laid immaculately over the marshy browned heather ground. Off to the left, the peak of Djouce Mountain had come out of its cloudy cover and was bathed in noon sunlit and seemed eminently attainable. And then, as the ground began to level off and the brow of White Hill was IMG_0523reached, the second revelation, which this time had me gasping at the sheer massive beauty of the panorama laid out at my feet, as the entire coastal scene from Dalkey Head in the north across Brays Head and the bay below, past Little Sugar Loaf and the back of the Kilruddery Estate through the Sugarloaf Mountain itself, dominating the scene with its volcanic symmetry, past Greystones and Dalgeny, visible in sections on the coast and sweeping back down to Roundstones and the reservoirs. And all of this framed by the Irish Sea, calm and sparkling, a carpet of deep blue contrasting with the greens of the woods and pastures, the array of browns and yellows of the ploughed fields, the rapeseed plantations, the gorse bushes and the patchwork of hedgerows and tree-lined alleyways that constitute the irish countryside. This was home and I fell in love with it hopelessly standing on the ridge of White Hill, savouring a view that had impressed my months before from a much lower perspective, when I first climbed Little Sugarloaf. I had had no inkling of an idea then, that that view could have been superseded by a bigger, grander more gigantic panorama, but here it was and I was captivated. All this walking, all this countryside, these hills and the best was up the road from home – it had been worth walking 600 km just to be rewarded with that view on a cloudless sunny noon in May. The Garden of Ireland indeed.

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I had to tear myself away from White Hill. The rest of that days walk – and there was still a fair bit of it – under the summit of Djouce, across her flank down towards the woods and drama of Powerscourt, the Waterfalls there, the walk along the rocky path high above the valley floor, the scramble through the undergrowth back to the main entrance and the long walk up past Coolakay House into Kilmacanogue and then finally a long pull up Bohilla Lane in the shadow of Little Sugarloaf to where my family were waiting to accompany me back on the last mile of the trip, before I finally arrived home, I was lost in a trance. The panorama from White Hill had so thoroughly captivated me that I could think of litte else and a part of me was still out on the hill, when my physical self was stripping of boots, running a bath, pouring a cup of tea and catching up with four excited children’s litany of questions, information and presentation of latest acquisitions, that had been percolating for a month whilst I was away. I slept quickly and deeply that night, endlessly grateful for what had quite simply been a magical penultimate days walking.

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