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.


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.

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.


It was the worst of times…

Two days walking, 63 km of distance covered with a mere 2.500m of ascent roughly equally divided between the two days, but the experiences could not have been further apart.

Britta had been planning from the start to join me for a day’s walking on the final section through the Wicklow Mountains and had chosen the stage that ended at her favourite spot in our new home county, the magical valley of Glendalough, home to Irelands most ancient monuments, the Church of St. Kevin and the small group of buildings established in the 6th C. and still pretty well preserved. The route was to take us via forest tracks and fell ways through two valleys with steep ascents and descents, some dramatic views before ending at the Upper Lake of Glendalough. The final section of the walk that would bring us to the Heritage Centre just before the village of Laragh was a walk along the lake shore. In the few months that we have been settled (if that is the right word) in Ireland, I had not yet had the chance of visiting this famous spot of natural beauty although I had passed very close on my cycling tours. Britta, as I mentioned, loved it there and had been for day trips on numerous occasions alone and with guests. Perhaps you can imagine that after almost a month of walking, predominantly alone, I was thrilled at the thought of spending the day in the company of my wife and hoped for a good weather that day.

It couldn’t have been worse.

From the moment Matt dropped us off at Iron Bridge, the rain started. Light drizzle to begin with but turning up the volume by degrees, until after an hour of stiff walking up the first long pull up the side of our first hill, it was coming down in an unrelenting torrent of water. There are, as anyone brought up in England or Ireland, especially the North of the Kingdom, will know, many many facets of what is generically called rain. The most insidious and the type most likely to drench you completely is light almost dust-like in its consistency, but ubiquitous. It is as if the air has been replaced with water, tiny micro-droplets that never seem to fall but envelope everything in an inescapable blanket of water, soaking every pore of every garment and working its way past every protective barrier completely to occupy and own whatever finds itself in its demesne. The clouds had descended to valley level and added to the vapour like quality of the rain, brought the visibility down to about 50 yards. It wouldn’t really have mattered that much if the visibility had been better, as we were unable to raise our heads to look up anyway, so intent were we on preventing the rain from filling the hoods on our waterproofs. It was relentless. All day, without even a second of respite, the rain kept coming. Britta reckoned that, by the end of the day, we had experienced 5 different level of pissy weather, from mild to OMG, with most of the day spent at the upper end of the scale.

After two hours of stomping up and slipping and sliding through quagmires of mud on the descent, we arrived, looking as if we had just completed an assault course, in the Valley of Glenmalure, some 12 kms from our starting point. We had the chance of stopping at the Glenmalure Lodge, one of the few inns that are passed on the trail at all and though we were severely tempted to drop in, dry off and warm ourselves with a hot soup and tea, we collectively decided to press on up the next steep ascent immediately, fearing – probably correctly – that, once ensconced in the warmth of the Lodge, we would not have had the strength to complete our journey.

We arrived in Glendalough after 7 hours walking, drenched, mud-caked and shivering. Every single item of clothing we had on was dripping wet and I feared that most of the kit in my backpack would have been similarly maltreated, despite the protective shell. The view was non-existent, but even so, the magic of the place was undeniable, with the steam rising off the Lake, the dramatic tree-covered slopes looking jungular and impenetrable, plunging into the water. It was without doubt the worst weather I had experienced on the entire trip and disappointed as I was that we should have chosen precisely that day for our walk together, there is nobody I would rather have had with me to share what would otherwise have been a thoroughly miserable day on the trail. We did have our moments though:

– The extraordinary massive semi-natural formation of rocks and stones hacked into the steep mountainside as we approached the final mountain before descending into Glendalough, reminded us of nothing so much as a giant’s staircase. I half-expected to hear the mighty boom of fee fi fo fum as we scrambled up it.

– The young french girl’s golden labrador, with its own saddlebag ( Brilliant piece of kit, that had “I want” written all over it.

– The sight of a young man coming out of the mist towards us at the top of the last hill with the most enormous backpack on his shoulders, looking for all the world like a snail carrying its house and displaying roughly the same proportions. We stood and watched in amazement as he wandered, stickless, up towards us, we both asking ourselves the same question: how on earth can anyone manage to walk a yard, let alone miles, with that monstrosity on their back and how can anybody go trail-hiking with such a badly packed pack?

Britta left me at around 1700 in the carpark at the Heritage Centre, this time with Stella. We had taken the decision to send her back for the day, as I was worried that the last few days and todays weather had taken their toll on her and was keen to give her the opportunity to rest. Also – I was concerned that with the next day’s walk over fells and open hillside, through sheep country, I would have to have her on her leash for most of the time, something that neither of us really enjoy. I spent the evening alone attempting to dry as much of my kit as could physically be draped over every last inch of the available heating in the bathroom and bedroom of my little B&B, an attempt that by next morning had proven only partially successful. A surprisingly good dinner at the Wicklow Heather Restaurant in Laragh finished what was surely the most exhausting and certainly the wettest of all the days I have walked so far. I fell asleep praying that tomorrow would not be quite as relentless.

Unfortunately my phone gotwet during our walk on Friday – as soon as I get it working again, I will loud up some pictures and impressions from our day.


First blustery days on the Wicklow Way

First 55km of the Wicklow Way now under my belt: 80 km to go, of which 30 will be ticked off tomorrow between Iron Bridge and the glorious Glendalough, another 30km on Saturday, as I walk home to Greystones and the final 20km from Glencree to IMG_3232 Marlay Park on Sunday. The last two days have been intense ones in very mixed weather, some sun, mostly clouds, wild and blustery winds yesterday and the occasional drenching downpour, although never for long. I have become singularly adept at changing into and out of my waterproof outer layers and at deftly peeling layers of clothing on and off in a matter of seconds, and what two weeks ago was a constant irritation, has now become a routine wardrobe adjustment that I hardly notice. Great thing, practice.

The terrain from Clonegal – winner, I am reliably informed, of last year’s prettiest village in Ireland award – at the official start of the Wicklow Way was on gently and then aggressively rising roads for the first six or seven kilometres and then a splendid passage through theIMG_3228 first of two forests which took me over the first hills of the Wicklows and onto the storm-blasted tops. There were some heart-pounding pulls up grassy tracks as the Trail began demonstrating the steep climbs for which it is famous and at their summits spectacular views of the country I had passed through in the last days behind me. Brandish Hill and Mount Leinster were on full view, this time from the reverse perspective that I had enjoyed on Tuesday and I recognised my current hill as being the one I had looked across to only a few days previously.

As so often over the past weeks, the forest and woodland sections of the trails, usually over or around hills or mountains, are relatively short interludes to the longer sections of road connecting the valleys or running along them and need to be savoured for their IMG_3234gentler treatment of feet and joints. The route from Clonegal to Stranakelly, where Matt and Anne’s Lugnaquillia View B&B is situated, is perhaps half track and half road, but the trail today was much better proportioned, with only about 30-35% of the trail on metalled surface. This is an important statistic, as the quality of walking is significantly determined by how much time you have to spend pounding the tarmac: the more and the longer, the greater the pressure on feet and knees and the greater the overall wear and tear. Today’s route was glorious and just the sort of walking I had been hoping for on this section: miles of field tracks over steep hills, sweeping views of the Wicklows, as they slowly unfurled themselves before me, becoming deeper, higher and broader with every new valley traversed, as we headed ever closer to the big boys of Lugnaquillia Mountain and Corregaslegaun, whose sides we will travel across tomorrow. There were a few mighty pulls up long grassy tracks – one in particular I was waiting to experience as it shown as a vertical line across such tightly spaced map contours, that I could only imagine the ascent to be vertical. It wasn’t of course, but only just.

I enjoyed two conversations along the road today: one, with a farmer whose land I was traversing on Ballycumber Hill, who informed me, when I told him that I had been walking from Waterville, that he had imported his best lambs from a hill farm behind the lake there (of which I had a photograph from my first day’s walking) and that this breed were particularly hardy andIMG_3253 easy to handle. The second conversation was with a group of walkers on the far side of Moyne, one of whom, an elderly gentleman, took great delight in telling me, on hearing where I had started my journey, that his wife was born and raised in Waterville. He was not a little surprised when I told him that she was probably very hardy and easy to handle. He had to think about that for a minute before repyling, that indeed, on balance she was, but how the devil did I know that. I could only smile knowingly IMG_3256and hint to him that one learns a great deal from travelling a country on foot.

Today’s tour ended after six and a half hours at a place called Iron Bridge, exactly 30km from Stranakelly. The ascent tab for the day came in at 1.234m which is more than third of the stated 3.200 for the whole Wicklow section. My guess is that we will have at least 1.500m tomorrow, which doesn’t leave very much for the final 50 kms. Either that or the official stats are erroneous. Iron Bridge was one of the locations that had embedded itself into my consciousness from the first moments of planning the trail and reviewing this section on maps and trail guides. IMG_3246I had conjured up visions of a magnificent iron bridge spanning a chasm with a thundering mountain stream surging down the gorge below, a scene befitting the name and the importance of the spot as a marker on the Wicklow trail. My disappointment was therefore commensurate to the discrepancy between the size of the bridge in my imaginings and its dimensions in fact. To be honest, one blink and you would not even notice you were crossing a bridge at all, let alone remark upon the fact that there was any more or less iron used in its construction than any other piddling little bridge across a small, tranquilly flowing stream. Another notch on the scoreboard to reality and another nulle points to my preconceived notion (making the score right now look like FC San Merino versus FC Barcelona at half-time).

Matt – angel that he is – was waiting to pick me up on the track just up road from Iron Bridge and drove Stella and me back to Stranakelly for our well-deserved tea and fire and biscuits. Both Stella and my kit were in urgent need of a complete hose down after our many kilometres of tramping through mud and cow-muck. Dog, boots and chaps are now drying in front of the fire, we have been fed on Irish stew and mashed potatoes and there is nothing more to do IMG_3259with the day other than keep awake long enough to see the first results of the UK election coming through and hope that the right party garner enough votes to a) form a working parliamentary majority and b) utterly confound the pollsters who have been predicting a hung parliament or worse.