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.