Walk of the week: Slieveboy Loop, Co Wexford
'Welcome to Askamore," said the nameplate among its flowers as I entered the north Wexford village. Outside St Bridget's Church, the Byrnes -- Paddy ("born and bred on a farm right here") and Catherine ("a blow-in, all the way from south Wexford!") -- came hurrying forward, broadly smiling, to greet me.
Askamore Community Development Group are doing all they can, like so many other local groups all across Ireland, to get walking up and running in their area, and Paddy and Catherine had turned out on a busy day to see me well on my way along the newly developed looped walk in the flanks of Slieveboy.
Paddy, I'd been told, was involved in a road run round Askamore later in the day. I looked at him with deep admiration. A hill walk in the morning, followed by a half-marathon in the afternoon -- he must be fitter than the proverbial. "Oh, no," laughed Catherine, "that's a run-out on the roads for vintage tractors." Ah -- I see.
Slieveboy, the 'yellow hill', rose dark with forestry behind the village. We took to its cobbly tracks, climbing steadily up to turn off among the sitka spruce with their seashore roar. Ragwort swung bushy yellow heads in the wind, and rosebay willowherb barred the path with loose blooms like big, pink bottle-brushes.
Where a break opened in the conifer wall we stopped to take in a glorious view north across rolling farmlands to Croghan and the mountains of Wicklow, standing beyond with their sharp blue heads in the clouds.
Paddy's a man immersed in his native place, a raiser of cattle and broadleaved trees, a walker and organiser. "We're trying to create something good but simple, walks and drives, to bring more people here and point them towards our hills, our holy wells and standing stones, our historic buildings. You can do that best on foot, I'd say."
Talk turned to the intensely parochial life of former times, when the church told you how to think, "but education has changed all that for ever". Back then, Doran's shop and pub in Askamore (nowadays sadly "resting between engagements") acted as a strawberry depot for a big Dublin jam-makers. "Everyone would have a fruit plot. You'd bring your strawberries down to Doran's in a big, white enamel bucket. You could pay off your shop debt with strawberries. That's how we lived."
It was time for Paddy and Catherine to turn back to Askamore and make ready for the road run. I said goodbye and went on south along the eastern flank of Slieveboy, whose bald, brown back rose clear of the corduroy-striped conifers.
A dad and his lad passed me on mountain bikes, pedalling along the stony lane. The trees fell back, and I found myself for the first time in the walk with the sensation of being high up. Hayfields and sheep meadows sloped away east into the hedged green dairying country of the Wexford coast, where the sea gleamed like a newly silvered looking glass.
Then a roadway, a climb, a turn of the lane, and I was looking out west across green and gold plains to the great scalloped backbone of the Blackstairs along the Carlow border, and on away to a glimpse of the hills of Kilkenny.
One of the great joys of country walking is how a walk's perspectives can swing in a second from what's on the skyline to what's at your feet.
High up near the summit of Slieveboy I fell in with butterflies. Five minutes on my knees photographing a beautiful lemon-and-chocolate-speckled wood; another five admiring a small tortoiseshell madly pitching and yawing on a thistlehead as it extracted micro-drops of nectar.
Back down in Askamore, all was blue smoke-clouds and loud roaring. On the road, a gorgeous old Ford with curvy wings and plentiful chrome, cheek by jowl with a sleek 1970s roadster, someone's pride and joy. In the muddy field, venerable Massey-Fergusons, Fergusons, Fords and Fordsons, battered and bespattered or polished and pristine.
And on the wall, as their grandfathers must have done 60 years before, three little kids staring rapt in a row.
Way to go
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 69; downloadable map/instructions at discoverireland.ie/walking.
TRAVEL: Rail (irishrail.ie): Gorey (10 miles). Road: N11 to Ferns; follow ‘Askamore’, then ‘Carnew’ until Askamore signed to right.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Facing St Bridget’s Church, turn right by Doran’s along gravel road (‘Slieveboy Loop’, purple arrows/PA; ‘Ballybeg Loop’, blue arrows/BA; ‘Askamore Loop’, green arrows/ GA).
Climb for ¾ mile; left through metal gate (PA, BA, GA); follow forest track for 2 miles to road.
Askamore Loop/GA goes right here, but keep forward down road for 400m. On sharp left bend, go right up track (PA, BA).
In ½ mile, round big right-hand bend. In 150m, turn left (PA) and follow Slieveboy Loop for two-and-a-third miles (passing detour to summit on left), to rejoin Ballybeg and Askamore Loops.
Left here, and follow PA, BA, GA down to Askamore.
LENGTH: 7½ miles — allow three to four hours.
CONDITIONS: Forest tracks; buggy-friendly throughout.
DON’T MISS: Views — east to the Wexford coast, west to the Blackstairs Mountains, north to the Wicklow Hills.
ACCOMMODATION: Ballinahoun House, Oulart, Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford (053 913 6577; ballinahounhouse.com).
INFORMATION: Carnew Tourist Office, tel: 055 26247; Gorey Tourist Office, tel: 053 942 1248.