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.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” — Ernest Hemingway
Yes, it is.
The sun shone again on Sunday morning. I was at home, waking in a familiar bed, going through familiar processes, washing, making porridge for breakfast and yet, far away from the routine I had devised for myself over the last month. It felt strange seeing cupboards full of clothes to wear and disorientating not having the comfort of knowing that all the possessions I required were stowed in my backpack. ‘What on earth do I need all this stuff for?’ was a question that intruded itself into my thoughts several times, as I tried to concentrate on doing what I had done every day over the trail – ensuring that I had everything together, before setting off for the day’s walk. Kit, water, tea, lunch, dog.
I had imagined that the last day on the Wicklow Trail would be a slow amble downhill through an increasingly suburban landscape, Powerscourt park turning out to sparsely populated country lanes and these becoming wider, with more houses and cottages and cars, which in turn would become thoroughfares and housing estates before finally crossing the motorway and ending up in Marlay Park and the end of the journey. A gradual anticlimactic run-off of the drama of the Wicklows over the last week.
Again – my imagination and my reality were wildly out of sync and that, despite the fact of my GPS device having given me quite clear readings, that there was going to be a great deal of contour crossing and hills to be navigated, before we arrived at the final destination on the official trail. And, indeed, I really should have known better. It was there on the map and my own observations of the countryside surrounding Dublin should have been enough warning to realise: Dublin doesn’t start becoming a city until the great metal river, the M50 ring road, has been traversed. Before that there are mountains and wilderness and half-deserted valleys running to within less than a kilometre of the motorway. And so it was that my last day, instead of being a gentle run-off with a long acclimatisation phase over 10-15 kms proved itself a fully-fledged walk of some 26 km, taking in four substantial climbs, three valleys, a beautiful stretch of river bank, an almost alpine scramble up to the top of Prince Williams Seat and finishing with another spectacular panorama over the whole of Dublin Bay and the spread of the City on the descent from Dublin Mountain.
Britta dropped me off at 1015 at the gates of Powerscourt Waterfall, just down from Coolakay House and round the corner from the Crone forest carpark. I ascended the steep path I had walked down yesterday, following the markers of fallen trees through the undergrowth until my little footpath merged with the broader walkway at the upper edges of the Powerscourt demesne, which from the higher ground looks like a hidden garden of Eden at the foot of gigantic cliffs. The walk ways were already well populated by sunday excursionists, the sun was bright in an almost cloudless sky and the Wicklow Way appeared to all intents and purposes to have put the rugged, treeless uplands behind it and was settling down to the more genteel walkway suitable for city folk, exactly as in my imaginings.
As we dropped down onto Crone Lane from the carpark and disappeared into the woods after some 200m, there was nothing in the scenery that disabused me of that notion, although I did wonder how we were going to cram in all those contours and hills that the map was showing me we were going to have to traverse, before arriving in Marlay. The forest quickly gave way to open woodland and fields above a burbling stream and a strangely aggressive “Absolutely No Camping” sign hanging high in the branches of tree. This was Glencree and without doubt one of the prettiest and most bucolic of the passages I had yet travelled. It was perfect countryside: a beautiful lively stream, with an abundance of wild flowers, a profusion of bluebells, the remnants of daffodils, myriad primroses, cowslips and daisies, rolling fields undulating down a gentle slope from the woods above, and as a backcloth, the mountains of Wicklow rising up behind the stream, over which crossed a handsome sturdy wooden bridge with a kissing gate at the northern end. It soon became clear that we were on private land and that the right of passage had probably been wrangled after lengthy negotiation and silver-tongued diplomacy on the part of the Wicklow Way’s constructors from a less than enthusiastic landlord. It was one thing having the great unwashed come sauntering over your land, but quite unacceptable to have them tenting on it – imagine the mess?! That, at least explained, the profusion of Absolutely No Camping signage, which we soon left behind as we continued our delightful walk along the banks of the Glencree river, which we left after about a kilometre to head sharply up the bank and back into the forest.
After that is was a Grand Old Duke of York march for the rest of the day: Up through Knockree Mountain and down again. Along the road to the entrance to Carrickaspikeen Park and the long climb up to Prince Williams Seat and down again off Glencullen Mountain into Glenncullen Valley. Then up again, this time on a much steeper pull onto Dublin Mountain, which lasted all the way to Fairy Castle, before dropping down again, for the last time that day – to the aforementioned magnificent views over Dublin, with the enormous Dundrum shopping complex, looking like nothing so much as mini version of Dubai dominating the views to the south, the iconic twin towers of the power station out to the east in the bay before the city and the other identifiable landmarks scattered around within the city boundaries. Marlay Park, a vast green area with a sizeable house at its eastern perimeter, furthest away from my position, was clearly visible down below in the valley, tucked in just behind the flowing river of cars that was the M50 motorway.
And that was it. A long walk down the hill, which morphed from track to park way to quiet road, dropping steadily throughout before appearing under the motorway bridge and emerging on the far side some 300m from the south-western entrance to Marlay Park. I will admit that the last part of this wonderful trip is a pain in the arse. The Wicklow Way signage takes the walker coming from the south and who wants nothing more than to be finished through a circuitous route through complicated paths in a forest before spitting him/her out on the lawn directly in from of the Marlay House itself (a rather hideous 19th century mansion constructed by the Latouche family, prominent Dublin bankers of yesteryear, proving, if we needed reminding, that overpaid 19th C. bankers were no less devoid of good taste than their latter day descendants).
I had promised to keep to the official way right until the end, assuming (incorrectly) that the end (or rather start) of the Wicklow Way would be demarcated by some grand arch or worthy monument.
So I slavishly followed the signs of the little yellow man who had accompanied us since Waterville, some 620 km and 17.500 m of ascent ago, only to get lost on the last 100m. Honestly – the very last sign that was supposed to lead me through the Wicklow gate, the small stone stepping gate that indeed marks the start/finish of this magnificent trail, pointed me off in completely the wrong direction so that I missed the gate altogether, the only time since Cahersiveen that I had even been remotely off trail. At least there were no brambles this time.
Britta was there to greet me with my two daughters, Bunny and Georgie, and together we traipsed off to the open food market in the courtyard of Marlay House, just as a vicious wind was starting to whip up and frighten the park strollers and their dogs and children back to the safety of their cars. A few brace of exquisite hot dogs and chips washed down with fresh fruit smoothies and – thanks to Mick Kelly for this recommendation – a shot of wheatgrass later, we were done and ready to head off home. And that was that, more or less.
I didn’t find the time to be melancholy or sad or even a little triumphant or to reflect on the undeniable fact that I had completed what I set out to achieve, namely to walk from Waterville to Dublin, to discover and make my own my new home country, to reflect on what I wanted to do, now that I was properly here, to make a few new friends along the way and to get my head around the geography of the country or at least the southern half. The walk – apart from the last little 10km snippet into Temple Bar – was over and the days of living out of my backpack and walking a daily ration 30km finished for the moment.
I posted the following statistics on my Facebook Walk page after I had completed the download from my Garmin and totted up the scores from 22 days of walking and 25 on the road:
Total kilometers walked : 619,2
Number of days walked: 22
Number of days on the trail: 25
Average track per day: 28,5 km
Average speed: 5,0 km/h
Total Ascent in metres: 17.500 (!)
Total Descent in metres: 17.250
Number of iPhones trashed: 1
Number of Mars Bars devoured: lost count
I received a number of well-wishing comments, for which I am truly grateful, but the best one came from an old friend who simply wrote: “ You are rich now”.
Indeed I am.
In western lands beneath the Sun
The flowers may rise in Spring,
The trees may bud, the waters run,
The merry finches sing.
Or there maybe ’tis cloudless night,
And swaying branches bear
The Elven-stars as jewels white
Amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey’s end I lie
In darkness buried deep,
Beyond all towers strong and high,
Beyond all mountains steep,
Above all shadows rides the Sun
And Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
Nor bid the Stars farewell.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien