Sunday 15 September 2019

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

Avonmore Way
Avonmore Way

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.

Bray People