Monday 10 December 2018

Travels with Charlie around a reservoir

Reporter David Medcalf and his Jack Russell Charlie did a circuit of Poulaphouca Lake - and they found a wonderland of hill, water, fine estates and rugged pasture to explore

It has become the playground of Ireland's Ancient East - Blessington Lake or, to be more correct, the Poulaphouca Reservoir. This impressive body of water not only keeps Dublin from going thirsty, it also provides plenty of recreational opportunities and some of the most gobsmacking scenery imaginable.

The geography is confusing, with roads skirting around the J-shaped lake in a way which allows very little in the way of straight lines to the casual explorer - but who needs straight lines? On a clear summer's day, there is simply no more pleasant place to be. Getting lost is almost a bonus. To the east are the hills with their gorse and heather, rising towards the mighty ridge of Mullaghcleevaun, while to the west the well-timbered countryside reflects the lingering impact of the Big House estates which dominated rural life here in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is strange to think that this gloriously varied landscape is a relatively recent creation, the product of dam-building in 1940 which prompted the traumatic evacuation of the village of Ballinahown as more than 5,000 acres disappeared beneath the controlled flood upstream from the Poulaphouca dam.

The mountainous areas are well served by hiking trails, while the circuit of the lake on public road is a regular challenge undertaken by cyclists all standards. Recently, the opening of the Blessington Greenway has bought both walkers and casual cyclists down to the lake shore south Blessington town.

This relatively short stretch of Greenway has proven so popular that plans are being laid to lay a similar path all the way around the reservoir, a distance long enough to require a full day's walk, taking in the villages of Lackan, Ballyknockan and Valleymount. While such initiatives are being plotted, the local tourist authorities have already come up with a lakeside heritage trail, a brochure designed to give some little sense of direction and purpose to motorists on a Sunday drive or casual exploration any other day of the week.

The colourful publication issued by Wicklow County Council in association with the Lakeside Heritage Group backed by the Heritage Council proved the ideal travelling companion for one man and his dog, an eight point programme for an immensely enjoyable afternoon ramble.

1. We started out our day in Valleymount - a place with a very puzzling name. A valley suggests a low, while a mount must be a high - so which is it to be, Valleymounters? Perhaps the Irish language name - An Chrois - could be deployed. On inspection, the site turned out to be neither valley nor mount, with the village - big enough to have a pub but too small to have a shop - located on a thin strip of land, a peninsula which juts out into the lake, with water close at hand to either side of the roadway. The most obvious point of interest was St Joseph's church which is a blocky, low-rise structure most untypical of Irish ecclesiastical architecture, topped by a cross which is clearly un-Celtic. The brochure explained that the building, which dates from 1803, was influenced by Mexican style.

2. Next stop along the trail, Valleymount Bridge, is no architectural gem, a concrete creation more functional than lovely. Yet on a blistering summer afternoon, the area was swarming with visitors who preferred this inland haven to the sea strands of the coast.

The air was heavily scented with sun lotion and with the mouth-watering whiff of sausages being sizzled for lunch on portable barbecues. The car parks were full, with no one apparently put off by the forbidding plethora of signs - 'No camping', 'No swimming' and be sure to remove your vehicle before the gate is locked at 8.30 in the evening.

A big lolloping labrador dog clearly felt that the no swimming rule did not apply to him, as frisbees flew, a ukulele was played and children enjoyed the feel of sand between their toes. This was an Irish costa, with willows rather than marram grass sprouting in the dunes. While 'Bay Watch' Blessington style is a relatively recent phenomenon, an older tradition was proclaimed on a plaque at the nearby Valleymount GAA grounds. The club is one of the longest established in the country, dating back to 1887. That represents serious pedigree.

3. To quote the brochure: 'In Boystown, a restored Quaker graveyard is located at the entrance of Blessington Lakes golf course'. The problem is that there are no signs assisting the amateur map reader to find either the golf course or the cemetery. Talk about The Hidden Ireland! We went around in perplexed circles before finally solving the mystery by asking a local for directions. The Quaker burial place proved an anti-climax for those who like grand spectacle but well worth tracking down for those with a fondness for the obscure.

Behind the graveyard wall, it comprised a small parcel of land hedged on two sides by simple elder and sycamore, with a view out over the lake on the remaining side across the old tyres of a massive silage pit.

The plot was a battleground for competing grass and docks, with just the one gravestone obvious. A genial neighbour told us that this solitary lump of rock marked the place where someone was interred in the 1920s, with nothing to indicate where the Quakers of 17th century lie buried. Folklore has it that they were put into their final resting places standing up - but folklore is almost certainly tosh. Almost.

4. Baltyboys was highlighted on the trail guide as the location of a privately owned house where famous ballerina Ninette de Valois - real name Edris Stannus - first saw the light of day.

Rather than peering through the very closed gates of the house, we preferred to soak up a few rays down at the adjacent strand, ignoring the stream of negative messages proclaimed in vivid red letters 'No Swimming', 'No Paddling', 'No Camping', 'No Fires'. No, no, no, no.

5. Blessington is very distinctive, with its main street dripping provincial town charm, while the rest of the place radiates modernity.

On the one hand it is a dormitory for workers who commute to the metropolis, while on the other hand it is also a substantial driver of the local economy through its shops and its business parks and its industrial estates.

And on the doorstep, we could not avoid the lake, which was the common thread running through our journey, with lanes of buoys here marking the rowing course.

6. Lacken lived up to its billing as a pretty village, its good looks lent hefty substance by the stone traditionally quarried in this area. The old national school is so solidly constructed that it looked as though it would require a nuclear explosion to demolish it - not that anyone wants to be rid of such a landmark. Meanwhile, high up in the sheep country above Lackan, we failed to find the advertised deserted village at Ballynultagh. Instead, we witnessed novice paragliders taking lesson, harnessed to their brightly coloured craft at a place perfectly situated in the saddle between Black Hill and Sorrel Hill to catch a westerly breeze. Complete beginners, they generally ended up tumbling in the heather rather than soaring out over the reservoir.

7. Templeboden gave an introduction to a holy man of local renown. On the gate post at the entrance to the cemetery is the message: 'Templeboden, burial place of Bishop Boden, bishop and saint'. A quick Google suggests that the ancient Scottish prelate is also well known in Donegal but it is here in County Wicklow that his remains are believed to rest, close to his holy well and to the long since levelled church he is alleged to have built.

Also in the neighbourhood is another burial place which, like the Quaker cemetery at Boystown, has just one stone. The Cillin was used to accommodate young children and terrier Charlie was reluctant to pose with the memorial.

8. Last stop Ballyknockan, The Granite Village, a place with even more rocks than Lackan, with so many stones to spare that they are used in making walls and outhouses as well as homes. Ballyknockan granite may be found in many prominent Dublin buildings, including the Natural History Museum. The original quarrymen came from over the Kildare boarder to colonise this place with their chisels.

The current generation of McEvoys are a very modern bunch but can claim the family has been quarrying and working granite here since 1865.

Wicklow People