Start of the South Leinster Route and a generally miserable day

Friday, May 1st. Swings and roundabouts. One day you are walking on gentle grassy banks along a majestic river in the spring sunshine with a cool breeze on your face, enthralled by the verdant luxury of the surrounding countryside and the next day you are trudging along mile after mile of black tarmac, often along the side of main arterial routes carrying lorries and an endless rush of busy traffic, with a cold, wet miserable east wind pushing against you and a grey menacing sky hanging over your head, threatening worse to come. Feet hurt from the tarmac, the views limited and where they should be, clouds hanging in the valleys.


I have been waiting for today or one similar to it. I am well into the third week and, at present rate have about 8 days to go. I am averaging between 25 and 30 kms a day and am walking at an average of exactly 5km/h or a kilometre every 12 minutes. 30 kms translates into 6 hours walking, which with reasonable tea and lunch breaks along the way turns into a 7-8 hour walking day. 10 hours was the most we have managed so far.

The routes are

Kerry Way (¾) : 110 kmIMG_3135

Blackwater Way: 168 km

East Munster: 75 km

South Leinster: 105 km

Wicklow Way: 129 km

Total Distance: 587 km

To date, we have covered 376 kms which is approx. 2/3rds and I am expecting to take seven to eight days to complete that stretch, which will bring me to Sunday, 10th or Monday, 11th of May, two days earlier than scheduled, but in time for my wedding anniversary on the 12th, which I had set myself as my real target date. I may have to tag another day on to complete the walk to the centre of Dublin, which is a good way from the official end of the Wicklow Way in Marlay Park in the south of the City, but I can do that and still be “in budget”.


I am probably being more than a little unfair on poor old South Leinster, as it is not really its (her? his? their, even?) fault, that the only walking section on the entire trail so far (and by the look of it at all) had to be on my black dog day with probably the most inclement weather of the trip. However, anybody reading the comments on the Irish Trails Website will not be able to overlook the fact that most experienced walkers are seriously underwhelmed by the quality of the walking and the construction of the trails, especially if they are used to fell-walking in the UK or trail walking in the Alps or in Italy. My impression is that Ireland is fairly new to walking and trail hiking as a serious sport and outdoor pursuit and is only really beginning to come to terms with the potential that the great Irish outdoors has, as it were, on its doorstep.

I was expecting much less though. I was expecting to have rotten to non-existant signage and to have to construct my trails with the help of my GPS system and the rudimentary maps on the Irish Trail site. That was my biggest worry and I was sure IMG_3152that, before I set off, I would waste hours in losing the trail and having to retrace my steps, seriously dragging down my average speed and distance covered. I had been told to expect this as well by various people who had had partial experience of the routes. It is definitely a load of cobblers, because the signage has been nigh on perfect, failing me only at the start of the Duhallow Way and on the last off-road kilometer before Cahersiveen, that latter slip costing me over an hour at the end of a very long day (the first) and led IMG_3153to my being macerated by a bramble and gorse thorn attack. Apart from that top marks to the various Trail maintenance teams, to whom I extend my heart-felt thanks for their stirling work. The South Leinster seems to be well signed and there is no reason to expect it suddenly to disappear and I know for a fact that the Wicklow is excellently maintained, so that I should be able to report that a walker can in fact walk from the south-eastern most point of the country to the capital without once having to ask for directions. Just follow the little yellow man!
My favourite moment of what was, otherwise, a day singuarly lacking in favourite moments, was the discovery of a stone seat built into the outside of a long garden wall, which I passed at around midday, some 8kms past Piltown. This slate seat, easily IMG_3148broad enough for Stella and I to fit comfortably onto, smiled at us as we passed and even though I had not planned to stop quite then, it seemed somehow churlish not to sit as we were tacitly bidden and to rest with a cup of tea. I love these little signs of compassion and thoughtfulness for passers-by. They shine with the altruistic spirit that conceived of them and brought them into existance. They are empathy made flesh or stone and I am always grateful for them personally, always avail myself of them and am always touched by the affirmation of our goodwill towards each other and in particular to strangers. There was no benefit to the builder of that wall, presumambly the owner of the huse IMG_3136and grounds behind it, from including a seat on the outside. It cannot have been conceived and built for his or her use. And yet at some time during the building of the wall, the owner will have had the thought, born perhaps by the memory of a similar seat found in a wall somehwere far away, in another country and time perhaps, and on which, weary from his walk or merely stopping to admire a view, he became the temporary beneficiary of another’s largesse, compassion and foresight and vowed one day, if perchance he should ever come to build a wall, to include a seat for passing travellers in it.  And so the seeds of empathy take root in each one of us and are multiplied a thousand times over, as anonymous acts of generousity spur us instinctively to give on, what we have received. So it was with the seat today, so it was with the water cup yesterday. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad day after all.


Our day off

Tuesday, April 28th. There has to be something wrong with me, if, on my first real day off from this gruelling walk from coast to shining coast of the Emarld Isle, and after an almost 40 km route march the day before, I should choose to, well, go for a IMG_3094walk. But we did and what a walk it was too. First off – I was too tired to take much notice of where exactly I had landed and of the surrounding countryside, but on awaking on this crisp, clean, cold but bright sunny morning, the full splendour of the Knockmealdown Mountains, that rose quite literally behind the Ballyboy House B&B was revealed and it was just too much of a temptation not to attempt the closest and highest of the peaks. Also I was aware that the next morning I would be joined by Caroline Casey, one of Ireland’s most prolific and highly profiled social entrepreneurs for a days walk and I was keen IMG_3086not to have to start searching for the start of the East Munster Way first thing in the morning. After a lengthy and relaxed chat with Breeda, my very athletic, very authentic and quietly autocratic 60-something hostess, who I discovered was a keen hiker and trail walker and who encouraged me to explore the mountains in her backyard, we set off in the morning sunshine, not expecting to be out for too long and certainly not expecting any excitement for the day, other than a few good views.

I think I am going to have to give up expecting things, as everything in life nearly always turns out farcically differently to my well-reasoned IMG_3089and quite detailed imagination as to how they will play out. To begin with, the sunny morning was just a trap, to get me out of the house, straight out of the stratagems in the chinese epic “The Three Kingdoms”. Hiding behind the Knockmealdowns, where a large battalion of heavily-armed black thunderclouds was waiting until I had travelled just far enough for the “too late to turn around now” feeling to have taken root before ambushing me with the first salvo. This initial downpour had me wrongfooted, I admit, but I did have my rain gear with me (of course) and proceeded to struggle into my waterproofs as the rain came pelting down halfway up the road leading to the Vee (the saddle between the two largest mountains in the group). Hardly had I completed the costume change, but the onslaught stopped and the sun was there again and continued until I had reached the edge of the wooded part of the mountain and emerged onto an open piece of road hich formed a large viewing platform over the enormous stretch of Vale below.IMG_3093 A perfect place for a cup of tea and so backpack was duly unladen and Stella catered for and seat taken. It took about 5 seconds for the rain to come out again. Away went the thermos, away went the packet of biscuits, out came the waterproofs on went the woolly hat and so on – you get the picture. Hardly on and us on our way up the mountain road again, sun came out, dried away the rain and itsy-bitsy spider was climbing up the spout again. Far too warm for waterproofs and off they came again. Just then I discovered the purported reason for my coming up here in the first place – the first waymarker for the East Munster way – and could  (maybe should) have stopped and turned aroundIMG_3090 there and then. But something kept me going – the lure of a peak? The thought that 6kms didn’t count as a walk, more a trip to the bathroom? On we kept and sure enough, five minutes later, an almighty downpour this time accompanyied by such a cold wind that I had to add a pair of gloves to the costume to stop my hands from freezing any more than they already were. By this time I had changed clothes more times than Liza Minelli at a Las Vegas Review and without any assistance from behind stage and possibly not quite as elegantly, and was getting bored of this routine. Which was fine, as for the next hour the downpouring rain was unbroken, interspersed with snowy bits (not bavarian standard, but passable) until we reached the intersection of the two mountains, the Vee.

Again, at this point I could have chosen the short(er) route back to Clogheen, but I picked up a sign for the alternative Avondhu route that I could have taken yesterday (the long route over the mountains), but couldn’t manage and so decided in the name of completeness to finish the job and walk that section as well.


I am delighted that I did, even though the whole exercise ended up just shy of 35kms and some tough, but glorious walking over the fells with several very steep inclines. All walkable, of course, but not really relaxing. And a full assortment of weather – we had a hail storm which lasted for 20 minutes and came in at us horizontally, we had a little snow, lots of rain and even some sun again as we were making our way off the mountain. It was getting on for five o’clock as we arrived home, soaked through, knackered and again dying for a large pot of tea and a drying out session in front of the fire. All of which we received with good grace from Bernie, our stand-in hostess for the evening, as the mistress was away.


So much for the day of rest – this is an exquisitely beautiful area, ideal for walking, with gigantic views, magnificent mountains on both sides of the valley, the Knockmealdowns on the south side and their more famous cousins the Galtees on the northern flank. Definitely come-back country.


Our longest day (yet)

Too full at 0600 on Monday morning from last night’s “simple irish supper”, I skipped breakfast and quickly packed the last pieces of my kit that I had not been able to stow away the night before (most of it actually). I have become a dab hand at packing my backpack quickly and efficiently and have figured out the best way of arranging the pieces so as to minimise the waste of space and to distribute the weight evenly.


I had made the decision the day before, that I was going to take the final 38km section of the Avondhu Way to Clogheen (pronounced Claheen), in Tipperary in one go and determined to set off at 0700 in order to break the back of the trip before noon. Which we did and a very intense day it was too. We have passed decisively from sheep to dairy cattle country now and we were followed on almost every lane by curious young herds of cows, which Stella found very disconcerting, especially when they began stalking her, starting slowly at first at one corner of the field but increasing in speed as she pulled away from the lowing, stumbling, inquisitive herds, falling over themselves in their rush to get as close to the fence IMG_3073and us as possible. You know you have been on  the road a long time when you start talking to cows and mediating between them and your dog and not finding that fact at all curious.

The way out of Fermoy is on metalled roads for…miles. We wandered along main streets, past housing estates, on back lanes, back onto main roads, now contending with the morning’s rush hour traffic – admittedly this is not Shanghai, but nonetheless a lot more traffic than I have become accustomed to – even onto a motorway roundabout and slip road (with a sign pointing to Dublin which on that cold Monday morning brought on a twinge of homesickness, along with the thought that approx. 120 minutes away was home). 8,5 km later we turned off the country road into the Glashalston Reserve and the prettiest part of the days walk, at least for the first half. We walked through a beautiful woodland park,IMG_3078 following the mellifluous babbling of a stream gradually uphill, climbing steadily until we were on more open forest tracks with glimpses of the open countryside and hills through the spaces in the plantations. We spent a great deal of the middle part of the day on seemingly endless forest tracks which ran for kilometres in a straight line, before arriving at a junction at which we would turn left or right before marching for another interminable stretch along an identical path. I knew from studying the maps over the last days that the final section would be in a mountainous area and so I had a watchful eye on the hills in question from the moment we left Fermoy. This was the geography we were making a beeline for and as imposing as they had seemed from 30 kilometres distance, the more manageable they appeared to be as we came closer.

What I had underestimated – probably lulled into a false sense of security by the cracking pace we had set all morning – was the length of the final stretch over the start of the Knockmealdown Hills to Crow Hill where we would finally hit the road which IMG_3077would then take us down into Clogheen and Ballyboy House B&B, some 5, rest. 7,5 km away at the foot of the mountains in the sumptuous green valley below. The last two hours and 10 km to Crow Hill seemed to never want to end and by the time we hit the small mountain carpark I had 38km on the tracker and an average speed of just over 5,0 km/h. We had encountered every type of weather imaginable: rain (lots of it), sunshine, sleet, icy winds, even snow for a three minute interlude and a spot of hail and had almost every type of ground underfoot, from asphalt, through bog and fen track, forest path, broken stone ways (a peculiarity of Irish Trails, the purpose of which I have yet to fathom. These ankle breaking routes heaped with small stones and rocks are good for …nothing, except, possibly, ensuring that walkers do not hurt themselves by moving too quickly. I smell an EU IMG_3072health & Safety Directive lurking somewhere in the background.).
Late in the afternoon, ten and a half hours of almost non-stop walking with a full pack later, Stella and I arrived at Ballyboy House, a very idiosyncratic and characterful B&B just outside (and on the wrong side) of Clogheen, owned and run by Breeda and John, wet, cold, hungry, our feet pounding and well-pleased with our efforts for the day. Although I didn’t get the room with a bath which I had been dreaming of all day, we were treated to a pot of tea and fresh scones in front of roaring fire, in front of which, lying on the floor Stella and I duly fell asleep, her head draped over my lap.