MY JOURNEY ALONG ‘THE WICKLOW WAY’
A WALK THROUGH IRELAND’S GARDEN…
I stumbled into Huntington Castle’s coffee shop, a small yet charming little place around mid-morning, on the 24th of September 2018. I was served by a young American girl. I sat down with my ‘Irish’ cup of tea and my chocolate brownie (which was also my breakfast), and we got talking. It turns out that the girl was from Michigan, in midwest USA and was over in Ireland on a volunteer exchange programme. We continued to talk for the best part of forty-five minutes covering a range of random subjects from Harry Potter and fantasy culture, through to my photography work and what life working in a castle was like. By this point I had stayed a significant amount of time longer than I had planned, and by now it was pushing midday. I should have been walking for a couple of hours by now at least. So, we said our goodbyes and also exchanged numbers. We actually stayed in touch for the remainder of my trip in Ireland. Who knows. Maybe one day our paths will cross somewhere else in the world.
The start of the walk passes predominantly through lowland areas and farmland
I was now leaving the little village of Clonegal filled with inspiration and motivation to simply walk. From just the first few hours I had spent on the road I had already first hand experienced the power and joy that can come from walking and simply meeting and engaging in casual conversation with strangers. I think that what you get from walking places is that you meet real people living out their lives, however simple or complex, in their own little part of the world. People who still have such interesting stories and come from such an array of different backgrounds and cultures and that alone, for me at least, gives the encouragement to walk on to the next place, and then the next.
I was heading towards my overnight stop in another little village called Shillelagh. Today’s walk from Clonegal to Shillelagh, along The Wicklow Way route is approximately 24km. Although having done the extra little stretch earlier that day, my daily total would rise further to around 28km. That is without doubt, the furthest I have ever walked in one day.
The route followed the roads, generally small country lanes so no real traffic to contend with, passing by fields and farmland, traversing the low hills. It would be about 6km of walking, before heading away from the road into a woodland section named ‘Newry forest’. The first thing that I noticed from entering the forest, was the vast extent that the surrounding area was being deforested. My initial reaction was that it would most likely just be this particular area of forest that had been approved for this, but I would see that actually there is a significant amount of deforestation in the Wicklow area. I was saddened and initially surprised to see it on this scale. It is a real blotch on the scenery, felled trees littering the landscape almost where ever you would look. The way continued through the forest for the next hour of walking. The scenery remained pretty constant during that time, mainly following the logging track through the forest, before re-joining the road for a further 6km. The last section would again ascend into another forested area, called ‘Raheenakit Forest’. The initial climb up was the steepest section of the route so far, and although only a slight ascent climbing from around 200m to about 350m in one steep, rocky path up the hillside, it was the first real ascent of any notable kind. It was a small introduction to what was to come as the route wound its way further into the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. The path would then continue to follow yet another logging track for around 3km, before descending to reach another small country lane which would lead to the main road which would continue into the village of Shillelagh.
I arrived into Shillelagh in the early evening, and after walking nearly 30km, I stopped in the first pub I came across. This was my first pub, and in fact my first beer since arriving in Ireland. After almost 30km of walking, I’m not sure if a beer has ever tasted so good.
Day one views on the route toward Shillelagh
Stoops Guesthouse, my B&B for the night in Shillelagh
The next day I set off around 10am, heading for the very small hamlet of Moyne, which was around 24km away. Today’s journey would begin on small country lanes and would end traversing across the mountainside. Shortly after leaving Shillelagh, I noticed a problem. My knee was in agony. I could walk, but with difficulty. My initial thought was that it was just stiff after having completed the large distance the day before. I hadn’t felt pain overnight, or even when I woke up in the morning. The pain only set in once I had taken my first few steps. So for now, I ignored the pain, and continued on, albeit at a slower pace than normal.
The way would continue along small lanes, winding and weaving through small hamlets and past farm after farm. So far on this journey, the route had passed predominately through the lowland farmland. Despite this, today in particular felt very isolated and secluded. I’m not sure if it was the pain of my knee, or just the feeling I was getting from this specific area, but in many respects I felt a lot more out of my comfort zone here, alone on these empty and quiet lanes than anywhere else. I was longing to be away from any sort of civilisation and up on a mountain somewhere.
I reached a pub, called ‘The Dying Cow’ pub. This pub is featured in many of the guide books for this area and The Wicklow Way walk itself. The previous day, I had walked past two other walkers going in the opposite direction who had told me to make sure I stop off here for a drink. I reached the pub around 11am, and although still only mid-morning, I decided to stop and have half a pint. After all I thought a little beer might help with the pain from my knee which had been growing increasingly more painful over the morning. I found out there had been a pub on this site, in this remote setting since the 1750’s. The pub itself was minuscule, without doubt the tiniest public house I had ever visited! Inside there was an array of memorabilia, including old historic road signs and old photographs, hung up over the ancient stonework. Shortly after my arrival, a couple who were also walking ‘The Wicklow Way’ wondered into the pub and marvelled at the charming and adorable character of the pub, as I had done moments earlier. We spoke for a while, myself learning that they were from Indiana, USA and were both retired teachers and keen walkers, having walked across various different parts of Europe as well as the USA. It seems that Ireland has a large appeal to the Americans! Chance encounters with strangers such as this are my favourite aspect to walking on journeys of this nature and why the appeal of just simply walking places is so huge to me. The ability to stumble across a fascinating pub and just meet complete strangers and engage in trivial but ultimately intriguing conversation with them is what travelling to me is all about. I would leave the American couple in the pub and continue on my journey. I still had about 18km to complete today.
By late morning I had headed up onto the mountainside, leaving the roads behind. For the next part of the walk, I would traverse across the mountain, with heather and sheep grazing above me and farmland continuing on the lower hillside below. However, this was set to be the moment that would change my weeks walk. I had moved away from the relative flatness of the roads and had moved up into the more rocky and uneven terrain that accompanies being in the mountains. And suddenly, my knee was screaming out at me to stop. I was walking along the rocky grass path, through the side of the mountain and the pain was increasing more and more with every step I took. I was stopping every twenty seconds for a breather and to try and stand in a position that reduced the pain. Whenever I reached a downhill section, the pain would rapidly increase. I simply couldn’t put one foot in front of the other on these sections. I had to come up with an alternative for now. I ended up discovering that by walking downhill but backwards, the pain was reduced significantly. So, I employed this tactic until I re-joined the roads, some 3km later. In all 27 years of my life, having been active outdoors in numerous forms to this point, I had never once suffered a bad knee, or in fact any injury or pain from physical exertion at all (except a very small bone break in my foot from a football tackle when I was 12). So, I knew in this very moment something wasn’t right, but I was unaware of just how bad it was going to get.
The Dying Cow pub
The next road section was only a short one, before heading up once again into the mountains. Once a decent distance away from the roads, I stopped and had my lunch, which consisted of a few cereal bars and water. After a short rest I stood up and set off for the final stretch of the days walk. But, as soon as I set off, my knee was once more screaming out at me not to keep walking. It seemed that having stopped and rested for twenty minutes, during that time my knee had completely stiffened. As I set off to continue walking the pain was the worst it had been all day. I thought that if I keep walking, the pain would get better and after a few minutes I’d recover. I kept telling myself that with every step, I was getting closer to the overnight B&B, food and rest, which was now about 10km away. I staggered along for the next couple of hours, crossing the mountainside, through a small forest where I would take a slight left turn until I reached yet another logging track which led out of the woods and across some open mountainside. The walk was pleasantly peaceful. I hadn’t encountered another walker in either direction. I had heard the odd dog bark from the farms below but other than that, an pleasant stillness covered the hillside.
The pain hadn’t improved. I was desperately trying to ignore it and focus on the surroundings and enjoy the peace and quiet of the tranquil Irish countryside. However, I was now seriously struggling. Despite that nonetheless, I knew that I had still somehow covered good distance in spite of the on-going problem. Nonetheless, shortly I was to stop once again for another respite and this was when everything would nose-dive miserably.