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.


Offa’s Oscars – one week later

Gee, I’ve been missing this post and the writing, not to mention the exercise, the fresh air, the views, the movement, the freedom, the rain and yes, even in moments of post-Trail delusion, the mud. What I have really missed most though, was all the great feedback and encouragement and kind words from those of you who logged in every day whilst I was en route and commented or liked my posts. That was one of the best parts of the two week tour and I am very grateful for it. My last dispatch saw me, feet steaming in the freezing North Atlantic looking out eastwards towards the Bay of Liverpool and the hideous off-shore wind farm that now dominates the view from Prestatyn, at the end of a long, inspiring Trail that took me from the Severn Estuary  to the northern coast of Wales along Offa’s Dyke. Instead of spending a blustery cold January afternoon and evening in Prestatyn, daydreaming in the Offa’s Arms pub by the railway station, or enjoying a tea and welsh tea cake at the Offa’s tea room by the beach or even shopping for souvenirs in the Offa’s gift shop, I decided, standing there on the beach, that the best thing I could do was to jump on a train or three and take a ride up to my home town of Poulton-le-Fylde on the west Lancashire coast, pay my parents a surprise visit, have a proper hot bath, an evening of my mother’s cooking and some home comfort for an evening before heading down to London. And what a good idea that turned out to be! The very strange feeling of heading back to civilisation or normalcy was palpable and surprising to me, given that I had not even been away a full tow weeks and that Wales wasn’t exactly the Antarctic, but nevertheless, there it was, a distinct feeling of melancholy and displacement , sitting in a train full of early evening commuters, in my muddy boots, full backpack (remember, “nobody goes walking in January” ) and grizzled beard and feeling as if I had arrived from a different planet. I may have smelled a bit gamey, too, after a week of wearing more or less the same clothes, well-aired and dryed though they may have been each evening,  since my last encounter with a washing machine at the Benchmark B&B.    In that feeling of melancholy I started jotting down all the great things that were hung out in my memory like so many hats on a hat rack  and started wanting to award prizes to them for their special role in making the two week trip along Offa’s Dyke Trail (ODT to insiders) the unforgetable experience it truly was. So here they are, Offa’s Oscars:

Best Sausage: Brynhonddu Country Hose B&B – specially made pork monster with spices and herbs and grilled to perfection

143350699_28ea17fba9_oBest Food: Without doubt at the Black Lion Inn in Hay on Wye. The landlady there came up to me at the end of my dinner asking if I wanted dessert. When I declined citing serious overfeeding, she grinned and said “Well, that’s one nil for me then, isn’t it”. I love competitive publicans and I would return to Hay just for that experience.

Best Bath: Best bath tub was definitely in the Kington Inn cause it was big and had Jacuzzi nozzles installed, but the best bath was, without a shadow of a doubt, the tiny little bucket of a bath which in a grander hotel would probably have passed for a bidet, that I collapsed into after the first day in Monmouth at the Riverside Inn. I have never been so glad of a bath in all my life as that one, so that gets the prize.

Best bit of Kit: Difficult one this and the jury was out for a long time deliberating. After much heart wringing it came down to a close tie between my retractable Leki walking stick, which saved my from injuring myself on many a grassy slope or my beloved Salewa 1,5 litre Thermos flask, which held my daily ration of green tea hot all day and well into the evening. And the winner is…The Salewa Thermos Flask, which is a good thing, because I left my precious stick at Prestatyn station in my rush to make the train. Now there’s gratitude for you.

IMG_0967Best View: A close tie between the magnificent view onto Tintern Abbey from Devils Pulpit just north of Chepstow or the sight of the Clywd Mountains stretching out in front of me in the early part of the walk to Bodfari. Given that it is the big views that have etched themselves indelibly onto my consciousness, the prize goes to the Clywd range.

Best Section of the Walk: No question – the two hour walk from Huntington to Kington over the beautiful Hergest Ridge. I was in a filthy mood that afternoon having lost valuable time earlier in the day and was worried that I would not have enough hours of daylight left to make the trip over Hergest Ridge safely. As it was, I was rewarded with a glorious evening walk over glorious heather moors and a walk that could have gone on for ever as far as I was concerned.

The monkey puzzle spinney at the top of Hergest RidgeMost memorable act of Kindness: Has to go to Gary, manager of the Bodidiris Hotel who not only cleaned my boots and leggings in the evening but also got up very early to make my breakfast and then drove me down the first mile from the hotel to the Trail, knowing that I had a hard and testing day ahead of me.

Best One-liner: Goes to an unnamed farmer, who stopped his Land Rover as he passed me on the last day at 07:30 in the morning, wound down the window and asked “Wet your bed , did you?”

Ghastliest mud: The fields after Cym Maria, south of Prestatyn were more like swamps garnished with sheep excrement and seemed to get progressively worse the closer I got to the coast. There were plenty of candidates of course, but these were the worst of the pack.

That feels like a good place to finish my little awards ceremony. There is still much that I would like to relate, that with the distance of a week is still coming into focus. There are also the first outlines of next walks (two in England one in Italy and one possibly in Greece) to be tackled during the course of the year. My wanderlust has been well and truly ignited and there really will be no stopping me now.