Tak­ing the scenic route in Wick­low

RE­PORTER DAVID MED­CALF PULLED ON WALK­ING BOOTS AND SPENT A HAPPY MORN­ING IN THE HILLS AND FORESTS BE­TWEEN LARAGH AND RATH­DRUM. THE AVON­MORE WAY IS JUST ONE OF A HOST OF WALKS AND TRAILS CRISS-CROSS­ING WICK­LOW.

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

IT takes no more than 20 min­utes to drive from Rath­drum to Laragh – and the walk back from Laragh to Rath­drum takes around three and a half hours to com­plete. Best to bud­get four hours, to al­low for con­ver­sa­tion and snack breaks along the route from Troop­er­stown to the Stump of the Cas­tle For­est.

The famed Wick­low Way is Ire­land’s an­swer to the Camino as a mag­net for hik­ers, wend­ing its way from Mar­ley Park to Shil­le­lagh, re­quir­ing the bones of a week’s hard walk­ing. And, like its an­cient North­ern Spain coun­ter­part, it has spawned im­i­ta­tors and trib­u­taries, shorter walks to tempt the day-trip­per.

The Ir­ish Trails web­site lists a se­lec­tion of these, in­clud­ing the Bal­li­na­fun­shoge Miner’s Path, the Bal­li­nas­toe Slí, the Bal­ly­cum­ber Loop and the Djouce Deer­park Walk. The list runs to more than 50, rang­ing from a 30-minute stroll around the splen­did grounds of Avon­dale to the stren­u­ous six hours of the Tinahely Loop.

Among the longer trails on this roll call is the Avon­more Way, named af­ter the river which flows south from Laragh to­wards the Meet­ing of the Waters above Avoca. Though it is well ad­ver­tised in cy­ber-space on the in­ter­net, the start­ing point of the walk is kept low-key on the ground, down a rough road from the main Laragh to Wick­low high­way.

Nev­er­the­less, your re­porter found the tell-tale sign con­firm­ing he was in the right place, in a car park and pic­nic area close to the Wick­low Moun­tains Na­tional Park of­fice. The sign set out

his mis­sion for a week­end morn­ing in sim­ple terms: length – 12 kilo­me­tres; de­gree of dif­fi­culty – stren­u­ous; me­tres of climb – 245; trail way mark­ing – yel­low walk­ing man.

It also of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion as to why Troop­er­stown is so called – ap­par­ently be­cause Crown forces sent to quell re­bel­lion camped here in 1798. It al­most looked this day as though the sol­diers never both­ered tidy­ing up af­ter their visit to the Laragh area.

The Avon­more Way – or Slí Ab­hainn Mór, way of the big river - comes with a prom­ise of fine coun­try­side and glo­ri­ous views but its be­gin­nings are run-down and unlovely. The car park was strewn with rub­bish, with the rem­nants of a long since aban­doned camp-fire and a moul­der­ing pic­nic ta­ble giv­ing the place an un­kempt air, of­fer­ing no ex­cuse to hang about.

The first of the ‘yel­low walk­ing man’ signs on a pole pointed to a bridge over the river. Yes, the Ab­hainn Mór was big, cer­tainly big enough to war­rant the bridge, which is more in­dus­trial and bru­tal in de­sign than cutesy and touristy. Then it was up, up, up away from the stream and into the pine woods as it be­came clear that most of the 245 me­tres of climb­ing is packed into the early stages of the route, across the lower slopes of Mweeleen.

Much of the round-topped moun­tain has been taken over by Coillte and the road was clearly in­stalled for ac­cess to forestry rather than for the ben­e­fit of hik­ers. Com­mer­cial forestry spells conifers but ef­forts to in­tro­duce some vari­a­tion from an un­re­lieved diet of spruce were ap­par­ent, with lit­tle oak trees planted. They poked their heads out of the white plas­tic sheaths de­signed to pro­tect them from greedy rab­bits and deer.

Also break­ing the monotony of conifers were a line of birches as well as a scat­ter­ing of stray rowan trees. And aren’t ferns won­der­ful? Much

un­der-rated but won­der­ful nonethe­less, with their fronds of rich green.

With 25 min­utes on the clock, the way reached a pub­lic road and a right turn. Hard-core hik­ers may turn up their noses at hav­ing to re­sort to pub­lic roads but this one of­fered amaz­ing vis­tas across the val­ley to the round tower of Glen­dalough. Closer up, a tiny bird – was it a gold­crest? – pro­vided a mea­sure of or­nitho­log­i­cal di­ver­sion as it skipped through the thorn bushes in the ditch.

This was mar­ginal agri­cul­tural land, nigh on wilder­ness though full phone cov­er­age came cour­tesy of a high-tech mast in­serted into this wind-swept ter­rain. Is it my imag­i­na­tion or are this­tles more abun­dant than ever this year? Cer­tainly there was no short­age of these nox­ious weeds in the verges here­abouts, their dirty brown seed heads nod­ding in the wind.

Down­hill walk­ing may take less en­ergy but fol­low­ing grav­ity proved more de­mand­ing on the legs than the slog up, ad­mir­ing the mak­ings of a de­cent black­berry crop in the ditches on the de­scent. Back among trees it was nice to note hazel, holly and ash as well as the pines.

The thought oc­curred that, an hour into the trek, I had yet to clap eyes on an­other hu­man be­ing – nice in some ways, but eerie at the same time. The yel­low man di­verted the fol­lower of the way off the tar­mac and into the magic of a dap­pled oak­wood, com­plete with danc­ing butterflie­s.

The joy was short-lived, how­ever, as de­cid­u­ous gave way to more for­est road – truly Sitka High­way. With its line of tele­graph poles, this re­lent­less straight line through Coillte’s em­pire re­sem­bled one of those end­less roads fea­tured in some Amer­i­can movies. Where were Thelma and Louise when they were needed? The com­pany would have been nice.

The fea­ture­less march was bright­ened only slightly by a scat­ter­ing of fox­gloves along the ditch and a few lit­tle yel­low flow­ers sprout­ing de­fi­antly in the long acre.

Then it was turn left back on to the pub­lic road which runs high along the east side of the Vale of Clara. Fi­nally, 103 min­utes into the walk, the first mo­torised ve­hi­cle of the day passed, with a cheer­ful wave from the driver of a Wex­ford reg­is­tered SUV.

Peer­ing over a gate it was no­tice­able that not all the crea­tures cor­ralled in the field were woolly and baa-ing and white. Some were brown. Goats, pre­sum­ably. No, hold on a mo­ment. They were deer, four in­ter­lop­ing does happy to graze along with the flock.

As the way un­folded, the coun­try­side lost its moun­tainy feel in favour of civilised gardens with flow­ers cas­cad­ing at the gate­ways. A man was busy with a chain­saw, too lost in his noisy work to no­tice the pass­ing hiker.

Three sun-tanned tourists on bikes passed with a cheery ‘good morn­ing’ be­fore the ar­row sig­nalled a switch back into wood­land, star­tling a pi­geon into flight. For­est track gave way to the nar­row­est of paths on the way down, even­tu­ally bring­ing re­newed con­tact with the river last crossed al­most two hours ear­lier.

A path-side statue of Our Lady in well main­tained white plas­ter on her grey plinth looked down over the Avon­more, well worth the 100 me­tre de­tour to share her view and maybe say a prayer.

A zig-zag gate led into the grounds of the church of Saint Pa­trick and Saint Kil­lian, in a set­ting be­side a 300-year-old stone bridge so quaint as to be off the scale for quaint­ness. A man who lives in this im­pos­si­bly lovely spot watched as a fam­ily party pulled and un­loaded their bi­cy­cles.

He con­firmed that this place was al­ways a mag­net for Sun­day cy­clists and Satur­day strollers, long be­fore the ad­vent of the yel­low walk­ing man: ‘I liked when it was a well-kept se­cret,’ he ad­mit­ted with a rue­ful smile be­fore your re­porter set off along the fi­nal stretch of his jour­ney.

This was cer­tainly no se­cret place, with plenty of cars parked in gate­ways, as their oc­cu­pants en­joyed the woods. The for­est here was no mon­strous reg­i­ment of spruce or larch but rather a chaotic as­sem­blage of trees of all makes and mod­els, all ages and stages – a de­light­ful place to be.

The yel­low man shared the di­rec­tion poles with lo­cal walks, in­di­cated by green, red or blue ar­rows. The trail ran at times close to the Avon­more, the brown wa­ter so clear that it was pos­si­ble to pick out each stone on the river bed.

The var­i­ous paths at­tracted plenty of pedes­trian traf­fic, in­clud­ing one cou­ple seen qui­etly oc­cu­py­ing a bench on the river bank while their cocker spaniel nosed around patently ea­ger to re­sume walk­ing. The cocker was just one of many mutts ca­vort­ing in the woods, giv­ing the lie to the ad­vice on the Ir­ish Trails web­site – ‘no dogs’.

This place was in fact dog city, the per­fect spot to let Fido en­joy the great out­doors. I asked one man whether the hand­some great brute pulling his arm off was of any recog­nised breed.

‘No,’ was the re­sponse. He ex­plained his pet’s ex­u­ber­ance: ‘He just wants to jump all over you.’

Maybe the yel­low walk­ing man should have a yel­low walk­ing labrador.

The ap­pointed path fi­nally veered away up the side of the river val­ley and, a smidge un­der three and a half hours af­ter set­ting out, the jour­ney came to an end at Stump of the Cas­tle be­side the Rath­drum to Moneystown road. As at the start, there was a map and a sign, telling any­one in­ter­ested that the Cas­tle in ques­tion was built around the year 1320 by Sir Hugh Law­less.

Thanks Avon­more Way for a brac­ing morn­ing walk and thanks to the yel­low fel­low for im­mac­u­late nav­i­ga­tion.

HARD-CORE HIK­ERS MAY TURN UP THEIR NOSES AT PUB­LIC ROADS BUT THIS ONE OF­FERED SOME AMAZ­ING VIS­TAS ACROSS THE VAL­LEY TO THE ROUND TOWER OF GLEN­DALOUGH

Start of the Avon­more Way from Troop­er­stown.

Clara Bridge.

Crony­byrne Trail.

Avon­more River.

Clara Lara Trail.

Avon­more River.

Start of the Avon­more Way from Troop­er­stown.

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