In May and June 2019, Matt and Jack, two friends from New Jersey, US, walked the Wicklow Way with Hillwalk Tours. Here, Matt recalls their experience walking Ireland’s Wicklow Way on our 8-day Gentle hike from Tinahely to Marlay Park in Dublin.
DAY 1 – Arrival
As my friend Jack and I headed to Newark Airport, we knew storms were in the forecast and they had the potential to be severe. When we backed out of the gate at 8:45, we hoped we had beaten them. At 8:30 we got the first of several tornado warnings on our phones, urging us, strapped into a plane, to “Seek Shelter Now!” At 9:20, between lightning strikes, the pilot put the pedal to the floor and we were skybound with Ireland the destination.
We landed earlier than expected but it was still too late to make the train. We took a bus and had time for lunch at Katie Daly’s, a pub with equal amounts of charm and history and where we made our first set of new Irish friends.
We were helped along the way by Laura, a computer scientist who works at the American Embassy. She was delightful and completely and thoroughly opinionated, especially in all matters concerning our President.
Madeline is the 20-year proprietor of Madeline’s B&B, transformed from her childhood house in Tinahely. She graced us with scrumptious scones and piping hot coffee and promised packed lunches for tomorrow’s trek.
Day 2 – Tinahely to Iron Bridge
It took but a New York minute to rediscover the calming effect of the special beauty that is Ireland as we took to the trail. We had to flag down a tractor driver who assured us that we hadn’t gotten lost, less than a km out of town. Our first hills revealed the surrounding countryside, and the boreens (small roads), thick with gorse (my personal favorite weed), said “Welcome back to Ireland.”
We had just one misadventure but of course it was a doozy. We missed a (rather obvious) signpost and found ourselves in Knockananna, 2km off the path. Our guardian angel, in human form a painter named Jon, listened to our sad tale and drove us back to where we should have been.
We left Tinahely with four good knees. We arrived at Iron Bridge with only three. Jack’s right knee checked out with about four miles to go. We still arrived at the Ow River with 40 minutes to spare, so we sat at the river’s edge with our feet submerged in the very chilly water. I would suggest that the Ow River be renamed the Ahhhh River for the soothing sensation it imparts to aching feet.
Our B&B host, Gavin “Gaffer” Byrne, gave us a lift into town, where Jack met a pharmacist to begin the healing process, while I was meeting a fellow named Guinness. Gavin is quite a local legend, being the owner of the all-time low round, a sparkling 65, at Wooden Bridge Golf Club. “Gaffer” also shared that he once ran the Wicklow Way in 22 hours. Oh, and he’s still playing rugby at age 45.
It was here that Jack and I made the acquaintance of two lovely and funny young women, Lara and Koen, from Holland. We would run into each other six more times along the trail and out to dinner.
Day 3 – Iron Bridge to Glenmalure
Today’s expedition began with a seriously steep climb into Mucklagh Forest and the climb continued until we skirted the summit of Carrickashane Mountain. Jack and I could only imagine, as we were enclosed by a dark forest, what spending a night in the woods, with winds howling unceasingly, would be like. We hope to never find out.
Steep up and steep down was the pattern for the day. Jack’s knee loved the uphills as much as it hated the downhills. As promised, we were treated to many beautiful views of the valley and serenaded by the constant music of the forest’s streams and birds.
Before we emerged from the forest, we met Horst and Susanne and Hadi and Aline, two German couples whose enthusiasm for all things related to hiking, including loading a backpack with Guinness and wine for a noon-time celebration each day, I had never encountered. With children now grown, they are putting great energy into living life. (And yes, they left no trace.)
Day 4 – Glenmalure to Laragh
A gloomy forecast and a still gimpy knee dictated our game plan for this day. We elected to take the kinder, gentler path into Laragh. While we knew this meant missing one of the true highlights of the Way, the lookout by the Spinc, we were persuaded that the weather might deprive us of the photo-op anyway. Jack’s knee was too angry to thank us for our decision.
Before any of that, we took another walk in the woods before we passed the impressive Carrawaystick Waterfalls. A turn off the path had us climbing wet rocks up a very steep hill. This was probably the most challenging part of the walk.
We ran into our new German friends again, when we heard Horst playing a trumpet to celebrate another day to “Live life.” Horst applied an ointment, “available only in Austria”, to Jack’s knee. Coupled with my prayer to St. Kevin, patron saint of bad knees, the healing began.
I didn’t expect to see such a splendid view of the upper lake as we descended towards Laragh. The park included a number of surprises, including the tree flexing its muscle and the popular beach. We were delighted to check in at the very accommodating Riverside B&B.
Day 5 – Laragh to Roundwood
Little did we know what the day had in store. The first surprise was when I met two new hikers at breakfast, where we also caught up with Koen and Lara. Annemie (funny) and Nathalie (fun) are fellow Hillwalk Tours clients who were a day ahead of us and persuaded me to do Scarr Mountain.
We took the “shortcut” to the Way and the walk up to Paddock Hill featured my favorite hill walking stretch to date. Slipping out of the brilliant sunshine into the dark forest was just enchanting.
We reached the top of Paddock Hill and we were due for another blunder, so I supplied it. A wrong turn just before the trail to Scarr Mountain had us hugging trees when we should have been mingling with sheep. We cut back through deep heather to find the elusive path, but we were now guaranteed a long day.
I got goose bumps as we approached the summit, a “hikers high” if there is such a thing. Here am I walking with a high school classmate, 49 years after graduation, and I have the privilege of challenging myself in this beautiful land.
The winds of Scarr snapped me back to reality. I would estimate the wind gusts to have reached or passed 60 miles/100 km per hour. I expected to see a young lad of about 50 pounds simply lift off the mountain like a kite.
After Jack and I exited the mountain area, we noticed a young mom and 3 kids working in a garden. We exchanged “Howrya’s” as we passed, and I heard the mom ask how we did. I was startled because this level of friendliness is, to be kind, unusual in America. I said that it was a great walk but that the winds were like nothing I had ever experienced. “Well, you’re no worse for the wear,” she said kindly. “Not exactly,” I said as I removed my hat. “At the start of the hike, I had a full head of hair.”
Day 6 – Roundwood to Enniskerry
Jack and I boarded Gerry O’Toole’s bus for the ride to Roundwood. It was already occupied by Father Pat and 16 of his parishioners. We were unloaded at Baltynanima Junction because we had the longer walk, while the bus continued on to Slemaine Forest, where we would shortly run into the parishioners’ pilgrimage once again. Father Pat asked me where we were headed. “To Enniskerry, after a few mountains.” “Staying in the hostel, are you?” he asked. Uh, no Father. “You’ve got money then?” (Chuckles from the faithful.) “Not really, Father. I believe this is why God created credit cards.”
Beautiful Lough Dan was a lovely distraction for a long stretch of the trek. We climbed into another enchanted forest (sorry, but that word came to mind every time we entered another dark, sometimes sun-dappled; usually just underlit) forest, half expecting gnomes to be romping about.
The walk to the summit of White Hill was demanding at times but it was clear that the view from the top would be worth it. We encountered many walkers, casual and serious, and bikers as we entered the White Hill Rec Area. I have to admit to some relief that we weren’t ascending War Hill. It had “vertigo” written all over it, especially with winds blowing across the cliffs.
After reaching the Wicklow Way’s high point, we continued on to Djouce Mountain, and while the summit looked quite attainable, we also surmised that we had a pretty good sense of what gale force winds felt like and that we’d already collected enough pictures of Sugarloaf Mountain to allow ourselves to take the easier way. Naturally, we ran into Koen and Lara for perhaps the fifth time.
We were in Enniskerry by 5:00 which allowed just an hour before a terrific duo, The Rivals, kicked off a couple of hours of Rock and Roll at the Enniskerry Inn. From The Waterboys to Bruce Springsteen, which pleased these New Jersey natives, The Rivals dared to sing some Roy Orbison and took on Sultans of Swing. Great fun, until well after The Rivals had become part of the Inn crowd themselves.
Day 7 – Enniskerry to Marlay Park, Dublin
A driving rain inspired the decision to cut our last day short, and Jack and I have no regrets. As we climbed in the direction of Fairy Castle our “waterproof” gear sprung a few leaks. Descending into Dublin, the sky brightened slightly, and the driving rain eased up.
Our first highlight of the day was the entrance to Marlay Park. Despite the weather it was alive with walkers. Even in the rain it is clearly a jewel of a public park. We stopped to take our first pictures of the day.
We congratulated each other as we reached the Wicklow Way’s official end. As we damn well should! We agreed that the moment’s elation and sense of achievement are things we are proud to have earned and that we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
Our day ended at the elegant Haddington House where we enjoyed a superb meal just yards from the Irish Sea.
Day 8 – Departure
For all of my steps-obsessed friends, our slightly shortened expedition of 5 ½ days hiking yielded 177,000 steps and 79.8 miles of total walking.
Truly no regrets, but one of my “takeaways” from this hill walk is a reminder to be sure to add an extra day, or two. It is difficult to take in places of interest after long and challenging walks. I missed much of what Glendalough has to offer. I would explore the waterfront of Dublin, where we stayed but didn’t leave time for venturing out.
This was my fourth Ireland hike with Hillwalk Tours. Each one offers its own special memories. I have been asked, “So is it the people or the hiking that keep you coming back?” There is no “contest” as to whether the people of Ireland and its delighted guests or the landscape of one of God’s masterpieces is better than the other. There is plenty of opportunity on a Hilllwalk Tour to enjoy both in full measure.
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