Walk of the Week: Nore Valley Walk, Co Kilkenny
There are few rivers as diverse and exciting as the Nore in its course between Bennettsbridge and Kilkenny -- at one moment flowing slow and stately at ambling pace, the next minute charging round a bend in a flurry of white horses.
The Nore can abruptly rise, too, flooding the adjacent meadows in quick time.
Near Bennettsbridge, it flows through a flattish part of Kilkenny, green countryside with a gentle roll to it.
The handsome stone curve of the little town's seven-arch bridge has withstood the rages and tempers of the Nore for some 250 years.
We stood admiring it, looking through the arches to the tall old mill that houses Nicholas Mosse's pottery.
Evidence of recent floods lay all around -- thick stands of rushes with their feet in fleets of water out in the middle of the meadow, and a draggle of sticks and straws caught high in the willow branches beside the river.
We walked upstream against the river's flow, watching a cormorant hurrying up the valley like a black torpedo bomber, following the line of the Nore.
The water slipped silently by, the colour of tarnished copper, carrying twigs, strings of bubbles and nonchalantly sailing mallard drakes.
Under the swish and thump of the M9 bridge and on in a tunnel of hawthorns, where long-tailed tits flirted their sterns and a chaffinch with a brilliant rose-pink breast sidled down a branch before flying off.
Half-fallen willows leaned long pale arms into the water, as if for support.
"Good God!" Jane called out suddenly. "What's that?" A heavy splash into the river right under our feet was followed by the appearance of a sleek brown back, curving like a dolphin's before vanishing.
A neat round head emerged a little way upriver. It belonged to an otter swimming ahead of us along the bank, pushing a bow-wave in front, then ducking into a tangle of vegetation.
Out flew three mallards, quacking in terror.
We stood stock still, but the otter had gone to ground. It was an episode that you could never plan for, the kind of moment that leaves a sweet taste in the mouth and a flutter in the senses.
Letting out our breath and grinning like lottery winners, we walked on through riverside woods where daffodils were just pushing their yellow, crinkly flowers out from tight green buds.
Celandines were beginning to show shiny yellow stars among the ground ivy, and we passed a solitary clump of crocuses, whose long purple petals lay half open to give a glimpse of a brilliant orange stigma far down in the long throat of each flower.
A pair of kingfishers darted out from an overhang of the river bank and sped downriver in twin flashes of electric blue.
Rock faces of the famous Kilkenny marble formed walls like railway cutting sides. Between them, the Nore began to race and bounce down a succession of broken weirs.
This powerful stretch of the river was very heavily used by water mills in times past -- some drove the machinery that cut the marble ready for the polishers, others ground corn or made paper.
We passed their skeleton hulks, one after another, blank windows rising six storeys high, walls tottering, roofs long gone, stones squared and grooved by nameless millwrights to hold the long- forgotten machinery that ground and sawed out Kilkenny's industrial prosperity for several centuries.
Now, the Nore mills stand lost like fairytale castles, each in its own enchanted thicket.
Nearing Kilkenny, I spied a piece of graffiti that revealed a dark secret. Naughty Dylan woz 'ere with Becca -- but also, on another occasion, with Ruth. Both girls luvd Dylan. Bit of a tangle to sort out there, my rash friend.
The view ahead showed a foaming weir laden with trees dumped along its lip by floods on the Nore. Above it rose the houses of Kilkenny.
It was the end of one of the most delectable river walks in Ireland, an unfolding tale of kingfishers, otters, Sleeping Beauty castles and wicked young princelings -- pure distillation of magic in the floodlands of Kilkenny.