TO THE TOP OF THE SCALP WITH TERRY
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF TOOK THE ADVICE FROM BORD FÁILTE TO EXPLORE IRELAND’S ANCIENT EAST, PULLING ON HIS HIKING BOOTS AND TEAMING UP WITH HILLTOP TREKS TO GO WANDERING ON THE BORDER BETWEEN DUBLIN AND WICKLOW
WICKLOW is part of the region being promoted to tourists under the brand ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’, with an extensive campaign to bring visitors to locations scattered across Leinster and parts of Munster, from Dundalk to Dungarvan.
Hilltop Treks tour guide Terry Lambert laughs at the notion that he should adopt the ancient and don a horned Viking helmet during his working hours, or maybe dress up in a druid’s cloak. Though he steers clear of such gimmicks, he fully agrees with the marketing gurus that a feeling for the past is valuable when it comes to bringing the countryside to life.
Terry is a man who knows his megalithic from his neolithic, and he is capable of lacing his commentaries with nuggets of knowledge about mediaeval church building or the rebellion of 1798 or Victorian industrial development. And the easy-going Dubliner also shares the conviction of the Fáilte Ireland executives behind the Ancient East concept that Dublin should be not the be-all-and-end-all for tourists arriving in Leinster.
The reality is that though a very impressive 22 per cent of foreign tourists come to the region now being sold as Ancient East, they only do 11 per cent of their spending there. For too many of them, the Wicklow stop is little more than a coffee break on the way to a more substantial stop elsewhere. Branding or no branding, Hilltop Treks has already been doing its best to shift the balance by persuading those who come to Dublin that they need to take a closer look at the mountains looming over the city. Terry’s love of Wicklow’s uplands was first nurtured by hikes in the hills as a boy scout while he grew up in Dublin, a native of Rathfarnham and a member of the 55th Rathmines troop. In early adulthood he rambled through some higher ground, exploring the Himalayas, and working as a mountain leader with groups in the Southern Hemisphere. It was in New Zealand particularly that he encountered the type of treks on which he modelled his current enterprise back home in Ireland. ‘Most tours take people to sit in the bus,’ he says – but anyone who signs up with him does not expect to remain passive for too long. ‘We spend as little time in the bus as possible – rain or shine.’
His customers are more independently minded travellers, probably staying in hostels, rather than those who are immersing themselves in five star luxury hotels. They are people like the Finnish couple Jaan Piironen and Jukka Bennanen who enjoyed looking around the Guinness brewery well enough but much preferred being out in the hills.
They are among a busload brought out from the metropolis to Enniskerry, where the rest of the day trippers opted to pull on their jodhpurs and go horse riding at Killegar stables. The Finns preferred to move about under their own steam rather than jump into the saddle.
‘This is so green,’ Jukka enthused as the
select walking party set off into the woods heading for Kahy Gallagher peak. ‘In Finland it is all the one sort of green and it is not such a lovely green.’
The other big point of comparison between Ireland and their Scandinavian homeland they noted with a laugh is that here there are no bears to worry about along the county border between Wicklow and Dublin around the Scalp. Though the forestry and wildlife service thoughtfully provided a picture of a squirrel on a noticeboard, the only significant sighting of fauna amidst the abundant flora was a magnificent hovering raven silhouetted black against the not so blue Irish sky.
Terry donned his Ancient Ireland (if 19th century qualifies as ancient) hat to explain the working of the Lead Mines as the landmark chimney of the old smelter was an obvious talking point. But he had to be prepared to run with whatever other conversation points happened to pop up during the stroll along forest trails. Topics covered included the links of the Finnish language with Hungarian and the way that tame versions of so many wild Irish plants such as foxgloves are to be found in gardens around Helsinki.
‘I was doing IT and working in an office,’ recalled 47-year-old Terry of his past life before Hilltop. ‘I said I don’t fancy doing this until I am 60 and that is why I set up the business.’
It began with just himself and one minibus but now there are five vehicles in the fleet and he spends much of his time fielding calls from customers and tourists office personnel. Destinations mentioned around County Wicklow include Powerscourt and Lough Tay, with Glendalough ever the top attraction.
The Ancient Ireland message is strong on storytelling, so his cast of half a dozen guides have to be able to entertain, with one an actress and another a former circus performer.
‘More people are walking than ever before,’ Terry enthuses, ‘and Wicklow is made for walking. The Dutch love it, and the Germans and the Canadians. They all love to get out of the city. Wicklow is an easy sell. It has so much scenery-wise.’
AT FÁILTE IRELAND, Ireland’s Ancient East director Jenny de Saulles is keen to mine the 5,000 years of history which is such a rich part of Leinster’s heritage. But she is also mindful that visitors are not looking for any academic lectures. They are on holidays and their attitude may be summed up by the tourist who told her researchers: ‘Don’t bother me with dates.’
Instead, they want stories. They want gossip. They want humour. They want to head back home to Berlin, Birmingham, Beijing or wherever with some little nuggets from Ireland’s past. Terry Lambert is a good man for the nuggets, ready to point his customers to stone circles between Enniskerry and Roundwood or introduce them to the German cemetery in Glencree.
Wicklow boasts two very significant tourist attractions. Glendalough up in the hills has long been a destination for just about every visitor carrying coach in the country for many years.
In more recent times it has been joined on the tour operators’ schedule by the Powerscourt house and demesne with their magnificent waterfall, all on the edge of the greater Dublin urban area.
The idea of the Ireland’s Ancient East promoters is that the big centres can bring business to the lesser lights. Large signs, each two and a half metres high have been erected referring people on from one centre to others in the region – not only Powerscourt and Glendalough but also Kilruddery, the National Botanic Garden at Kilmacurragh, Wicklow Gaol, Mount Usher Gardens and Russborough House.
Terry is happy to hit the well-known destinations but is also likely to pop up anywhere along the Wicklow Way, or on the mountainsides east of Hollywood at a the Piper’s Stones up in the hills.
Today, he was out with two Finns and an Irish journalist out admiring the views north across Dublin and then turning to the south east: ‘Bray is where they make the films in Ireland,’ he pointed to the town, listing off some of the movies that have passed through Ardmore, ‘PS I Love You’, ‘Braveheart’ et cetera.
On this occasion, his charges seemed not so much interested in matters cinematic as in the yellow flowering gorse, which is unknown in Finland, and the fraughan berries, which are very common.
‘Walking groups are popping up all over the place – there are three or four in Enniskerry alone,’ mused Terry, aware that the mountains are not just for the foreign tourists.
‘You always meet other people in the hill walking.’
He suggested that all the activity has to be good for the local economy and that there is scope for more trails to be promoted, such as the 30 kilometre trek from Glendalough to Hollywood, which is much under-used.
Our conversation came to a halt as the phone rang: ‘Seventy-one American students? Pick up at O’Connell Street or Suffolk Street? Have you got any walkers?’
LEFT: Jukka Pennanen and Jaana Piironen with Terry Lambert. RIGHT: David Medcalf with Charlie. BOTTOM LEFT: Terry Lambert.