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Walk of the week: Dondadea Forest Park, Co Kildare


The determined lady in very short shorts leaped from her car and bounced away as if on springs under the dripping horse chestnuts of Donadea Forest Park.

That was our first 'serious pelter' sighting of the day, and not the last by any means.

Most of the competitors in the Donadea 10K race, though, seemed happy to take things at a rather steadier pace. In twos, fives and tens they went trotting off down the leaf-strewn path, arms pumping, adrenaline a-squirt.

The ladies and gentlemen of Donadea Running Club weren't the only folk out and about among the chestnuts and beeches this morning. Situated where it is, less than an hour's drive east of Dublin in the gently rolling landscape of north Kildare, the former estate of the Aylmer family has become a powerful magnet for outdoor enthusiasts in its present guise as Donadea Forest Park.

Coillte manages 10 of these Forest Parks across the country, and with their multiple facilities, well-surfaced waymarked routes and family-friendly atmosphere, they've proved a big hit with walkers, from toddlers to yompers, as well as with kite-flyers, tai-chi fans, kickabouters, and the sprinters who gallop their paths.

As soon as Jane and I had got in among the woods ourselves, there wasn't a sound to be heard. The panting and pounding runners might have been in another world -- Planet Pain, probably.

We trod a carpet of rich golden beech leaves under trees that steamed the vapour of yesterday's downpours. Stands of rosebay willowherb, iconic plant of disturbed ground, showed tall spiky stalks, the pinky-purple flowers so eye-catching in summer now shrunk away to nothing, the pale green of each spear-blade leaf edged with the dull gold of vegetable decay.

"Eerie light," said Jane, exploring the undergrowth. "Grimm's Fairy Tales!" Brackens spread their peacock tails, hart's tongues crinkled in the gloom. A mossy stump stood half-rotted, its velvety table piled with the tempting-looking fungi called Granny's Cakes.

Brambles, leaf mould and subtly gleaming fungi exhaled the dark, fruity smell that tells of deep old winter not far off.

It was hard to believe we were sharing these woods with 600 runners, until we rounded a corner and found them bearing right down on us. A bunch of tightly muscled greyhounds at first; then a whole river of runners in flood.

We stood right back and let them pass, sweating, snorting, grimacing, doing their best and then some. The strong whiff of hard-worked horseflesh hung in the air. A wheezing, malodorous, steaming army, but admirable, even enviable, for all that.

One little lad, spotting his uncle, suddenly leaped up in the air beside me, smacking his palms together and squealing out, "Go, Barney! Come on, Barney! Only six to go!" I wouldn't have been surprised to see Barney, struggling and well back in the field, fall dead on hearing that. Instead, he dredged up a watery smile and raised a tremulous thumb.

After the runners had passed we went on, through woods once more wrapped in silence. Round another bend we came on Competitor 332, a tiny baby slung in front of his mother and kicking fit to beat the band. Beyond stood the runners' friends and relations, water bottles and bananas at the ready, waiting beside a pair of dark stone obelisks -- a memorial to the dead of 9/11. McMahon, O'Rourke, Leahy, Callahan, Farrelly: no need to ask where so many of the Twin Towers victims had their family origins.

Perhaps some of their ancestors were those who, in the Famine years, built stone walls along the streams through the Aylmer estate to earn their bread.

We rounded the lake and came by the derelict hulk of Donadea Castle, unroofed in the 50s and left to rot. Blank windows crowded with ivy, battlements shaggy with bushes, gated and barred, the Gothic house seemed a desert island amid the waves of cheerful runners, their families and friends, all streaming away laughing and teasing at the end of the race.

Ah, the results? Mick Coyle won in 0.34.10, beating his nearest rival by a pretty whopping seven seconds. Baby 322 came in... well, 520th from first, let's say.

And last of all was... hmmm, quite honestly, a gentleman shouldn't tell. And this one won't.


Irish Independent