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.


A day in the shadow of Mt. Leinster

During the last week and a half, more or less since leaving Fermoy, my evenings have been pretty sad affairs. On the road with a dog in Ireland you are in a word homeless. Hotels won’t have you, pubs won’t have you and only very exceptional IMG_3211 (1)B&Bs are prepared to countenance putting you and your four-legged companion up in the same room. I have been lucky in that I have always found somewhere for us to stay and mostly the accommodation has been charming and my hosts delightful friendly and welcoming. I won’t have word said against them (pace downtown Thomastown). However, when it comes to getting fed in the evening I am usually reduced to nibbling the remnants of my packed lunch, as well, B&B doesn’t have a D for dinner in it, does it?IMG_3207 Added to which, I am car-less (funny that) and my dog-friendly B&Bs have all been located at least two miles from the nearest village or town and unreachable by foot (at least, after a long day’s walking – I have never been that hungry). Relying on a taxi or hackney in those remote parts is out of the question and irish country taxi drivers are about as far down the friendly customer-oriented service scale, as it is possible to be without being a female german shop assistant. So my evenings are mostly supperless and short and consist of me and Stella winding down – if we are lucky in front of a fire, me with Macbook, Stella whimpering in her dreams of chasing sheep across endless fells.


So it is a treat indeed when I end up at a B&B at the end of a good days walking with uncomplicated friendly and good-natured hosts, for whom nothing is too much trouble, for whom Stella is a welcome addition to their extended family (which includes an Old English Sheepdog and a bad-tempered cat) and who happily invite me join them for supper and then feed me, till I am fit to burst, with roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and rhubarb pie with ice-cream washed down with as much green tea as I can hold. Happy days. Matt and Anne run the Lugnaquillia View in Starankelly on the Wicklow Way and will be my hosts for the next two nights running me back and forth on to and from the Wicklow Way as I make my final way north. The view onto Lugnaquillia Mountain from my bedroom window is inspiring and I can make out my way from Thursday from where I stand.


My walk here, or rather to Kildavin at the end of the South Leinster Way, started in Borris, where I left off yesterday,  in pouring rain at around 0930. I had no idea what to expect, having only calculated that the walk could not be more than 23 kms, given that I had already walked 82 of the designated 105kms of this particular trail. And so it was – 23km from start to finish, most of them expended in a long climb up to the saddle which would lead up to the summit of Mt. Leinster. The first three hours of the four hour walking time were spent slowly approaching the magnificent Mt. Leinster which I had first seen in IMG_3214the distance on Sunday as I walked with Mick Kelly to Inistioge. Mount Leinster is the highest peak of the Blackstairs range and form a natural border between the counties of Carlow in the West and Wexford in the east. The view of Mt. Leinster and by extension the rest of the Blackstairs dominated the walk as we wound our way on quiet country roads higher and closer by degrees. The weather became more clement as the morning passed and, pretty soon, I was overtaken by a sky more blue than grey and changed thankfully out of my waterproofs.

Whilst the views were fascinating all day, the going underfoot was disappointing. We hardly left the metalled road at all – only on the section just before we dropped down from Brandish Hill into Kildavin – and by my reckoning almost 50% if not more of the IMG_3215entire Sounth Leinster Way was spent on tarmac roads, by far the most of any of the other trails we travelled on over the past three weeks. Also todays signage was a disgrace – I noted at least ten points at which a sign would have been essential to have a chance of following the route and several places where the signage only worked if you were travelling the trail from north to south, not the other way around. It didn’t impede me, as the route is well represented on the OS map, but for a walker relying on the signposting, it would have been impossible to navigate this section successfully.
Tomorrow we back-track after breakfast to Clonegal and pick up the Wicklow Way at the source. We are on our way home!