Wicklow People

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Ambling through the oak woods

Reporter David Medcalf took a walk on the not so wild side of North Wicklow with his trusty terrier. They passed a happy hour or so completing the well-marked trail through the woods beside the Glencree River


David Medcalf and Charlie about to set off on their walk

David Medcalf and Charlie about to set off on their walk

David Medcalf and Charlie about to set off on their walk


That splendid organisation Wicklow Uplands Council has issued a very useful brochure - '38 Walking Trails in County Wicklow'. The contents, complete with county map, carry a picture on the front cover of strollers enjoying the sunshine on the Sugarloaf.

That is Number 31 (4.3 kilometres) on a list which ranges from easy saunter to stiff hike. At one end of the spectrum, at Number 22 (0.51 kilometres) is the gentle Kindlestown Trail near Greystones. And at the other is Number 24 (24 kilometres), the demanding challenge of the Miners' Trail across the high mountains from Laragh to Glenmalure.

Some of the highlighted walks are tributaries of the Wicklow Way while others strike out independently along the coastline or through the hills. All told, they add up to convincing evidence that the Garden County boasts much of the best countryside on this island for walking.

Your reporter decided to fill his lungs with fresh air and take to the hills on one of the trails included in the brochure. He had only his terrier Charlie for company and, in deciding which of the 38 to sample, he looked for circuitous routes.

Some of the featured trails - notably St Kevin's Way (34 kilometres) out of Glendalough or the Avonmore Way (13 kilometres) out of Rathdrum - are linear. This means that walkers reach the finish line to find themselves a long way from the start, so transport has to be carefully arranged.

A loop, on the other hand, means that the car or bus should be waiting at the end of the session and ready to drive away.

Charlie and I hit on Number 25 (2.6 kilometres) the Oak Glen Loop Trail adjacent to Glencree or Enniskerry - rated 'easy' on the Uplands Council scale.

Our Oak Glen Adventure began with a sign post which set us up out of Enniskerry and along the Glencree road.

This was a weekday, with Met Eireann predicting overcast conditions and the possibility of showers, so it was no real surprise that the car park was not exactly thronged - just three other vehicles to be seen. The place was liberally appointed with signs advertising the Oak Glen, with a claim this was once a royal forest.

Apparently the Norman knights of King Henry III enjoyed hunting deer hereabouts in the townland of Cloon, on the northern bank of the Glencree River and below the summit of Prince William's Seat.

The deer have survived, according to the official notice on display in the car park, and we were also advised to keep eyes peeled for foxes, badgers, squirrels and stoats. But, though the fauna may be impressive, the main selling point was the oaks - royal oaks, ancient oaks, new grown oaks. Just one problem: the oaks were out-numbered to the point of invisibility by the birches and conifers which had been liberally planted hereabouts.

Muttering about false advertising and misleading promotions, we transferred our attention - or at least I did while Charlie anointed the undergrowth - to the bye-laws posted by Coillte, the forestry company. No littering or abandoning of any vehicle - fair enough. No graffiti or postering - no problem. No firearms - as if we would. And no vandalism or alcohol either - absolutely out of the question.

Thus warned and on our best behaviour, we slipped through the gateway and along a forestry road. We passed ash. We passed Spanish chestnut. We passed more birch, not to mention a goodly sprinkling of alder. Okay, so there actually were a couple of oaks but they were the merest saplings, probably strays. This was no honest person's idea of an oak wood.

Weekday. Overcast. Threat of rain. Question: who else would be out and about in such conditions? Answer: other dog walkers of course. The first of these was a lady with two collies. She apologised over and over when one of the pair threw a few threatening shapes at Charlie before they scuttled up the road back towards the car park.

The second was a leisurely gentleman with a pack of ten canines, or maybe more. It was hard to count precisely as they kept moving about. He had at least three jack russells, two lurchers and one husky. Controlling such a motley bunch on the public road would be ill-advised and surely illegal though they all appeared very well behaved.

Mercifully they showed no interest in attacking my mutt, leaving us to amble down the track - past holly and willow but certainly no oak. The holly was intriguing. Most of the holly trees exhibited the characteristic dark green prickly leaves unadorned. And then every now and again, there would be a specimen loaded down with bright red berries. It seemed completely random.

Oaks may have been in short supply but there were plenty of the classic Coillte conifers, with views of the rounded hills beyond Glencree visible above the tree tops across the valley. We were on the trail for at least 20 minutes before first noticing that our way was marked by posts bearing white arrows on a green background. Very reassuring.

Then there were stones. An impressive big lump of mountain rock was the first. Then came some polished rock proclaiming with bilingual authority in big black letters 'Gleann Darrach - Oak Glen'. Another idle claim, more fake news, we thought - but we were wrong as all of a sudden, we found ourselves surrounded by oaks.

These were not the great oaks which from little acorns grow but small gnarly oaks growing in profusion to the practical exclusion of all other species. Presumably these oaks were planted by the hand of man in recent times, long centuries after King Henry's knights retreated from these parts.

With the last of this year's leaves still clinging on stubbornly like rags flapping in the wintry breeze, these oaks were not looking at their best. These oaks were not like the legendary forests which used to cover so much of south Wicklow around Coolattin until the loggers came seeking timber fit to create an Armada-busting fleet for the Royal Navy. These oaks were scrubby specimens not much more than seven or eight metres high, not fit to make a dugout canoe let alone provide the spine for mighty a man 'o war.

The white arrows sent us left at a fork in the road, the start of the loop which is at the end of the Oak Glen route, giving the trail the profile of a hangman's noose.

We had become used to the firm forestry company track made to take heavy machinery, but now the going underfoot became softer.

The stones dotted around under the trees were covered in moss beneath the crooked branches of the oaks, giving the scene the look of a tropical mangrove swamp - just 30 degrees Celsius cooler.

As we descended, the walk designers brought us into shadowy moist depths along a studded boardwalk, less than a metre wide.

We wended our way through the woodland, just about able to see the brown river gurgling cheerfully below to our left before we swung back up to complete the loop.

I peered into the forest, seeking to find the pattern in this apparently haphazard jumble of oaks.

Planted by man, it must surely be shaped by man's love of order and pattern.

Yet only occasionally could I make out any suggestion of lines or of even spacing between one tree and the next.

It was as though one of those medieval knights might suddenly gallop into view pursuing one of the royal deer.

In fact we had the place to ourselves - no Norman warriors, no deer and no foxes, badgers or squirrels to be seen either. Certainly no stoats. It could be that the presence of a dog prompted them all to lie low.

And though an occasional tweet echoed through the canopy, we spotted no great birdlife during our hour on patrol.

The entire exercise took 67 minutes, without our having to break sweat, though the advertised journey time is 90 minutes.

Perhaps the ever eager Charlie prompts me into speeding or maybe these always generous official predictions are calculated allowing for a picnic stop.

There was just one vehicle left in the car park when we arrived back, its driver nowhere to be seen.

But then a hire car arrived and two German couples alighted, fresh out of Nuremburg with guidebook in hand and eager to explore the Irish countryside.

One of the men kindly took our photograph as we stood beside the sign.

I wished them joy of it and warned them not to expect too many oaks for starters and, as they disappeared chatting cheerfully into the woodland, I wondered how Cloon compares with their majestic vast Black Forest in Baden Wurttemberg.

We pottered off back towards Enniskerry, our appetite for lunch well honed, resolving to explore more of the 38 walks on the Wicklow Uplands Council list.

Perhaps next time we will head for Laragh for a crack at the 'moderate' demands of Number 9 (5.6 kilometres) through the woods at Clara Vale.