MY JOURNEY ALONG ‘THE WICKLOW WAY’
A WALK THROUGH IRELAND’S GARDEN…
On Sunday 23rd September I woke at the offensive time of 2:45am to catch my flight from London to Dublin. I arrived into Dublin at around 8am and then discovered I’d just missed the bus I needed, so I had a two hour wait for the next service. I was due to head south, towards the small market village of Bunclody. This small market town is about 5km away from an even smaller and more rural, less inhabited village called Clonegal. Here in Clonegal, is the start of what is called ‘The Wicklow Way’. The Wicklow Way is a 127km walking route, stretching from Clonegal in County Carlow, up to Dublin. A route that walkers from all over the world, as I would find out over the next few days come to walk. The route takes on average around a week to complete, although some complete it in less, while others do it at a more leisurely pace. Most walkers will stay in small B&B’s or guesthouses along the way. It was opened in 1981 by J.B.Malone, known as the father or Irish Hillwalking. The route traverses over grassland, ancient woodlands, steep sided glacial valleys and mountain lakes, as well as some more laborious stretches along minor country roads and farm tracks. The route also passes numerous significant sites along the way, from historical monuments dating back to 400AD to geographical surprises.
I had booked my trip back in July and was super excited to not only be visiting Ireland for the first time, a country (that’s just over a one-hour flight away from England) I perhaps should have visited sooner, but also to be challenging myself with my first long distance, multi-day walk.
Me at the start of my journey along The Wicklow Way in Clonegal
I was sitting on the coach leaving Dublin, and looking out of the window at this city for the very first time. Immediately I was puzzled. Dublin, it seems, is a city that is very much stuck between the UK and Europe. In a way I feel sorry for it. Geographically, it is attached to the UK, but I got the sense it was being more influenced by mainland Europe despite the UK being much closer geographically than mainland Europe itself. There were elements present of both. I was passing down roads lined with smart looking townhouses, not dissimilar to what you would find all over London or even other UK cities. But aside from that, it felt like it was a city sharing more in common to mainland Europe. The parks had a European feel, the sort you might find in a quiet suburb of Berlin or Prague. Cycle lanes, a much more prominent characteristic over on the European mainland, EU flags on display, and a seemingly large hub provided by the River Liffey. Whenever I visit other European cities, I always get a sense that the river brings a real importance to the city and the people residing in it, and the river consequently provides a major social and cultural centre for that town or city. Here in Dublin, I sensed a similar atmosphere.
One other very noticeable characteristic to Dublin (and extending to the rest of Ireland as well) was the importance of religion. Now I’m not the right person to write a blog about Catholicism nor is Ireland’s history with religion a subject to get into right now, but what I did notice was how many businesses, or schools, or institutions had a religious title or symbolic connotation. That alone shows how deeply connected Ireland is to it’s religious culture and past. Between all of that, my initial feeling of Dublin from the forty-five minutes or so that I saw it through my coach window, was that it is, at least from the outside, far more aligned with the EU than with the UK.
Later that day, I arrived into Bunclody, via another town called Enniscorthy. I couldn’t find a connecting service from here, despite Google Maps telling me otherwise. Eventually, I realised that the minibus waiting just by the bus stop had a yellow sign positioned in the window saying ‘Bunclody’. I asked the driver if I could jump in, and despite not having the right amount of money – he let me on regardless. I then shared this 20-minute journey with a handful of youths, who were openly broadcasting the profanities that they were so proud of – of which included robbery and drugs! I never saw or heard about them again. God knows the terror that might have befallen the small little town of Bunclody that afternoon. Hopefully it was all just bravado!
That night, in my hotel, I repacked my bags, ate some Chinese food, and watched a film. My 127km walking journey through Ireland and back to Dublin would begin first thing in the morning.
My hotel was situated in the small market town of Bunclody, which was around 5km away from the start of The Wicklow Way in Clonegal. I had the option to jump in a taxi, or walk the extra 5km. Being the first day, and in good spirits I opted for the walk, starting as I meant to go on. I left Bunclody at around 9am. The walk was entirely along the road all the way to Clonegal. I arrived into Clonegal just over an hour after I set off. The first thing I noticed was a tall, brown sign, stating that Clonegal had been the winner of the ‘Tidiest Village Award’ in both 2015 and 2016. Now I am someone, as people who know me will openly testify, who has quite strong OCD. A village who wins such a prestigious award, in my eyes, can’t be a bad place. I mean, what other award could genuinely top that? I crossed over a small stone bridge and into the centre of the village. A shop to my left and a small recreational area to my right.
Clonegal is a small village, situated on the eastern side of county Carlow in a peaceful and rural setting. The name originates from the Irish ‘Cluain na nGall’ and is believed to have a population of just under three hundred. The main attraction of the small, remote village is Huntington Castle. A castle has stood on this site since 1625 and remains privately owned. The ownership has been passed down through the many generations ever since. By now it was mid-morning, and I had covered 5km, which was 5km that didn’t actually count towards the 127km of ‘The Wicklow Way’. However I was now in Clonegal, the official starting point. The 127km journey to Dublin was really going to begin from here. But first, before setting off, something inside of me hinted that I should go and see the castle. I had seen it marked on the map but hadn’t taken much notice of it as my main focus was on the walking and the route I was following. I had a long distance to cover today, especially with the extra I had walked already and thought stopping so early on was only going to significantly disrupt my progress, but something inside was saying otherwise. So, I decided I would stop, just for a very brief moment, have a quick look, and then get on my way. I entered the Castle grounds and stumbled across the coffee shop. It was here that I was to learn the true wonder you can get from walking – but it wasn’t the castle, or even the Irish tea. At this point, I was still yet to take one step on ‘The Wicklow Way’, but it was in that moment that I knew that travelling, and even more so, making journeys on foot was the right path for me.