Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 5)

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

If it's good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it's good enough for me.

If it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s good enough for me.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Part 4 is here

Day 7: Feohanagh to Cloghane

Distance covered: 21 km; total ascent: 650 m

It’s D-Day.

This is the day I have been both anticipating and dreading ever since I decided to hike the Dingle Way: the day I go over Mount Brandon.

Mount Brandon is the second highest mountain in Ireland. It has multiple peaks, however, and I won’t be climbing the highest one (952 m); the Dingle Way passes over it via a col between two of the lower peaks, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór (names which to me look as if they came straight out of The Lord of the Rings). At 650 m, it will be the highest I’ve ever climbed.

I’ve added something extra to my usual trail rations: a tin of Kendal Mint Cake. I’m sure I’ll need the extra energy, and reason that if it’s good enough for Sir Edmund Hillary, it should be good enough for me.

Over breakfast (which is every bit as absurdly splendid as yesterday’s dinner), the Englishman tells me he’s checked the forecast for today and it’s meant to be sunny, apart from some fog on the mountaintops.

‘Oh, that’s fine,’ I remark airily, gesturing to the window to my left. ‘Brandon looks totally clear.’

He bursts out laughing. ‘That’s Ballydavid Head you’re looking at,’ he says. ‘Brandon’s the other side of the house.’

I spring up and go to the far window and that’s when my jaw nearly hits the floor. A massive hulk of a mountain rises in green majesty, completely blocking out the horizon, its slopes splashed with sunshine. The highest of the peaks are cloaked in fog.

‘…Thanks for clearing that up,’ I mumble weakly.

Breakfast finished, we part ways (the English couple are off to Waterford; the Irish couple are hoping to visit Great Blasket) and they all wish me luck. I finish packing, thank my hostess profusely for having restored me to myself, pluck my pole out of the umbrella stand in the front hall and soon I’m on the trail again, the sun so gloriously warm that I almost immediately discard my hoodie and roll up the sleeves of my t-shirt (I’m wearing the bird one again, for good luck).

Mount Brandon 1

The first several kilometres of the trail are gentle, passing through farmland, mostly on the flat. Mount Brandon unfolds before me in a breathtaking combination of sun and cloud shadow. As I get closer, I realise that the gradient of the lower slopes, at least, looks fairly gentle. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

Mount Brandon 2

Mount Brandon fog

The trail crosses a small car park and goes through a gate and just like that, I’m climbing the mountain.

Mount Brandon trail

The ascent is easy at first. I pass two hikers, a middle-aged American couple; apart from them my only companions are the ever-present sheep. The sun is warm and the ground, despite two days of rain, isn’t particularly muddy. After I’ve gone what feels a decent distance, I stop for lunch, perching on a bit of old stone wall. (For something that looks like a bar of soap, the mint cake is surprisingly tasty, although not so much that I’m likely to add it my daily diet.)

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head seen from Mount Brandon

Ballydavid Head 2

The trail continues to climb, following the remnants of an unfinished British military road. It’s getting stiffer, but is still entirely within my abilities, and the reward for stopping to rest is spectacular views – behind me, Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters; ahead of me, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór, the former bathed in sunlight, the latter buried in fog. The col looks clear. And I’m rapidly approaching the top.

One more push and you’re there, I tell myself. I redouble my efforts and stride up to the crest.

Something’s wrong. The stone pillar with the Ogham carving that’s supposed to stand at the summit is nowhere to be seen. All I can see is the mountain rising higher and higher… into the fog.

I consult my map again and realise it’s missing a vital bit of information. The peak to my left that I took for Más an Tiompán is apparently a peak too minor to merit inclusion. No, Más an Tiompán and Piaras Mór are the two peaks buried under a huge cloud.

I’m going to be scaling Mount Brandon in the fog.

I find myself thinking things about the guidebook that, if I were to spell them out here, would make this blog thoroughly NSFW. But cursing out a useless guidebook will only get you so far. So I shove it back in my rucksack and consider my options:

  1. Turn and walk back to Feohanagh with my tail between my legs and beg the B&B owner to book me a taxi to Cloghane;
  2. Press on.

Option #1 is considered for about two seconds and thrown out. I wade into the fog. After I’ve gone about 100 metres I glance back over my shoulder. Ballydavid Head has disappeared from view. It’s just me and the mountain now.

There are times when I find myself rather regretting my atheism and this is one of them. It would be very comforting to be able to pray, to place my trust in some higher power – but I can’t. Moreover, surrendering my trust to something external is probably the very worst thing I can do right now.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath and wait for my pulse to stop thundering so loudly in my ears. You can do this, I remind myself. With the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up over my shoulders and the bandanna knotted over my hair, I reckon I look a bit like Rosie the Riveter. It’s a cheering thought, even if Rosie probably never would have worn hiking boots and a walking pole isn’t exactly the same thing as a riveting gun.

Luckily, the good people who maintain the Dingle Way are obviously aware of the problem heavy fog poses on Mount Brandon, and there are many extra waymarkers here – white posts, each placed about 10 m apart. With current visibility conditions I can see two white posts ahead of me. I keep my eyes fastened on them and strike off.

If I thought the trail between Tralee and Camp was boggy and rough, now I realise that was a mere warm-up for Brandon. Every third step I find myself squelching through boggy ground or mud. The ground is so watery that not infrequently sections of trail are, essentially, streams. My boots, which hadn’t entirely dried out from the last two days’ worth of rain anyway, are soon waterlogged. The air’s chill and damp, the fog swirled by wind, but I’m so warm with exertion that I give no thought to putting a jacket back on.

The world has narrowed to this: fog, boggy ground, the sharply-rising mountainside, and the line of white waymarkers that I tick off like beads on a chain. The only other living creatures I’m aware of are a few sheep cropping grass with supreme unconcern. I won’t deny feeling a bit frightened, but I also know I’ve rarely felt so focused in my life. One foot in front of the other. One more waymarker down.

After I’ve been battling my way up for what seems an eternity, I hear voices ahead of me. I can’t seen their owners but it sounds like several men and women, laughing and shouting to each other in German. For the first time on this walk I’m actually glad beyond belief to discover other hikers on the trail. If they’re ahead of me, it means that 1. the trail is passable and 2. I’m not as alone as I thought I was.

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

Ogham stone, Mount Brandon

At long last the ground begins to flatten under my feet, and through the fog I see a pile of boulders at what I think must now be the crest of the col. Five bright jackets are huddled around the boulders, and as I draw closer I see the German hikers perched on the rocks unwrapping their lunch. Ahead of me is a tall, narrow slab of red stone, slightly curved at the top: the famous Ogham stone.* I stop just long enough to snap a couple of photos and catch my breath, but I don’t spend too long congratulating myself. Everything I’ve read about the Dingle Way suggests that the descent of Brandon is much tougher than the ascent.

I press forward, searching for the next waymarker. I can just pick out one of the usual black ones with the little yellow hiker at the top, but ahead of it – nothing. Perhaps I should go right instead? I timidly venture in that direction but now there are no waymarkers of any description. I try my torch. It’s useless in the fog. I head back to the last waymarker and then realise my mistake.

I was looking ahead of me for the next one. I should have been looking straight down.

Suddenly I’m grateful for the fog. I’m sure that if I were actually able to see the descent in its entirety, I’d be paralysed with fear. As it is, I can see just far enough ahead of me to – I hope – avoid falls and obstacles.

I start down the steepest descent I’ve ever done in my life, keeping as close to the ground as I can, relying on my pole and on grabbing hold of chunks of turf and rocks to keep me from falling. It’s inglorious and graceless but nobody can see me and frankly, I’d rather make it down alive than die gracefully.

The trail on the ascent was boggy but the descent is worse – mud, mud, mud as far as the eye can see. It cakes my boots and makes every step treacherous, but it does at least have the advantage of slowing me down, of helping me fight gravity…

Or so I think. Just when the gradient is starting to lessen, I take one false step. Before I can blink I’ve landed in the mud. Right on my bum.

Shock gives way immediately to laughter. It’s undignified, I’m covered with mud but I’m safe. I haven’t fallen off the mountain. And I sit there in the mud for a moment, shaken by peals of relieved and merry laughter, before I pick myself up and continue on my way.

Mount Brandon descent 1

The gradient gradually becomes gentler, even if the trail is still ankle-twisting and rough, and the fog begins to lift. When I turn back I see Más an Tiompán soaring upward into the fog, its slopes littered with boulders and I gasp. I came down that?

Mount Brandon descent 2

Mount Brandon descent 3

Finally the trail comes to a junction with a gravel road. I stop to catch my breath again and gaze back at the mountain, its peak still hidden by the fog.

I’m exhausted. I’m pouring sweat. I’m liberally coated with mud. My right Achilles tendon is thoroughly unhappy with me.

I feel like the Queen of the Universe.

*

The rest of the descent from Brandon is surprisingly gentle and entirely over roads, first gravel and then paved, with majestic views of the mountain towering above a river valley. I pass two other hikers going the opposite direction but apart from that I’m on my own and glad of it again. The sheep on Brandon seem to be a more phlegmatic breed than the ones in the Emlagh Valley: none of them bolts as I pass, they just stare after me, no doubt thinking what are you, strange two-legged creature?

Pub cat, Brandon village

Pub cat, Brandon village

The trail winds gently down to Brandon village, which is small, charming, full of blackberry-laden hedgerows (I regale myself shamelessly, especially as they’re the first ones I’ve encountered today) and, most important, two pubs. The first one, O’Shea’s, looks shut (although I make friends with its cat) but this turns out to be a blessing – the other one, Murphy’s, is perched above the harbour and has plenty of outdoor tables. I’m not usually one to have a drink before the end of a hike but today of all days I think I’ve earned it. I order a glass of cider and drink it at a table overlooking the pier, watching the fishing boats come and go and feeling utterly contented.

Brandon harbour

Brandon harbour

The remaining 6 km to Cloghane are easy, over quiet lanes and minor roads, and I feel as if I’m floating, as if I could keep going forever. The guidebook describes the final descent to Cloghane as ‘rather steep’ and I have to laugh, because compared to the descent from Brandon the description is comical. All the same, it’s quite muddy and I go carefully, not really wanting a repeat of my earlier fall.

Ruined church, Cloghane

Ruined church, Cloghane

Cloghane is tiny and pretty and if my B&B is nowhere near as splendid as where I stayed the night before – it’s just rooms above a pub – I’m too exhausted to care, fatigue finally falling on me like a great weight now that I know I don’t have to go any further today.

26.8.14 Cloghane

As I’m drifting off to sleep, I realise something startling.

My knee hasn’t bothered me at all today. Not once.

 

*The inscription reads ‘of the priest Ronan, son of Comgán’. The purpose of the stone is unknown but it’s thought to be a memorial of some sort.

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 4)

September 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

Fifty shades of grey: Dingle Bay in the rain

Fifty shades of grey: Dingle Bay in the rain

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

Day 5: Dingle to Dunquin

Distance covered: 20 km 22 km (approx.); total ascent: 370 m

My room in Dingle is right under the roof, and I’m awakened in the small hours by the drumming of rain on the skylight. I lie awake listening to it, torn between hope that it will stop and resignation (this is Ireland, after all) before drifting back to sleep. I dream that I’m wandering the galleries of the Hunterian Museum and in each specimen jar is a small mermaid, very much alive, each one with a tail the colour of a half-ripe blackberry and beating her hands against the wall of the jar. Let us out! Let us out!

When I wake up properly, it’s still raining.

At breakfast I have a pleasant chat with the owner of the B&B, a retired fisherman whose first language is Irish and whose sister lives in… you guessed it, Chicago. Once I’ve sorted out with him the transfer of my big rucksack to my next B&B, I venture to ask him about the weather.

‘It’s meant to rain all day,’ he says. At my disappointed sign, he offers to give me a lift to Dunquin. I recoil as if stung. This is like someone offering Bradley Wiggins a lift to the Champs Elysées on the last day of the Tour – unthinkable. I get hold of myself quickly enough to refuse politely.

The rain, as I head out of Dingle toward Ventry, isn’t terrible – a light, steady drizzle. It’s not enough to drive away the birds, and I enjoy watching the herons gathered in Milltown Creek. The trail itself is more of a problem – it follows the main road, and there’s no verge.

I heave a sigh of relief when the trail branches off into an arc bending inland, but my relief is short-lived: the first part is on a small paved road, but soon I’m tramping along unpaved boreens that are really little more than cattle tracks. They’re all mud, as far as the eye can see, churned by countless hooves. I suppose it’s lucky that the scenery here isn’t especially spectacular, because I’ve no choice but to put my head down and grimly plod on.

Ventry Harbour

Ventry Harbour

At last the boreen spills out onto a paved road at the top of a hill, and I can see the lovely curve of Ventry Harbour spread out below. No doubt even lovelier in the sun, with sparkling water contrasting with golden sand – today I have to make do with a more muted palette of greys, duns and greens.

Ventry Harbour 2

Ventry rider

This is where I had hoped to go swimming. Now all I can do is walk along it in the rain. If ever I had a hard lesson in the importance of seizing the moment, this is it.

The trail winds inland again and uphill and I eventually find myself on the road to Slea Head – another place I travelled on my first trip. The weather had been as grey then as it is now and I’d been hoping that this time I would see the end of the peninsula, dramatic Dunmore Head with the waves crashing against its flanks, in the sun. It looks as if I’m going to see it the same way I did before.

Dingle Bay from Mount Eagle

Dingle Bay from Mount Eagle

My first proper mountain is ahead of me. The trail passes around and over the shoulder of Mount Eagle – nowhere near as high as Brandon (which looms closer and closer in my itinerary – I’m two days off from it now) but the ground is steep and uneven and sown with rocks that jut out of the ground like the earth’s bones. My feelings about the sheep grazing along the mountainside turn from respect to fierce envy as I lurch and stumble along the uneven ground – even more so when I lose my footing in a bank of ferns made slick with rain and land on my knees.

My knees. Oh god no….

I pick myself up and press on, but sure enough, the pain in the outside of the left one begins to make itself known again. I grit my teeth and keep going. I refuse to give in.

Clocháns, Mount Eagle

Clocháns, Mount Eagle

I forget about the pain when I glance down and see something amazing – dozens and dozens of clocháns (beehive huts) studding the mountainside in various states of ruin. All these ruined houses at the edge of the world. What would it have been like to live in them?

Clocháns 2

Not long past the clocháns, the rain stops and the fog lifts enough that I can finally see Dunmore Head – the westernmost point in Ireland and in Europe – with the Blasket Islands anchored off the tip. And – hallelujah! – the trail is about to descend.

Dunmore Head and the Blasket Islands

Dunmore Head and the Blasket Islands

My jubilation quickly turns to dismay. My knee wants nothing less than to make the steep descent. Every step becomes torture. I pick my ginger way down, my normally quick pace reduced to a hobble, leaning on my hiking pole. The physical pain is outweighed by burgeoning fear. How can I possibly tackle Mount Brandon in this state?

Dunmore Head

At last I make it to the bottom and, once on a paved road, the pain fades into abeyance again. Also, as the road swings round toward Dunmore Head, something extremely welcome appears in my line of sight.

A café.

I stumble in, toss my streaming jacket on a chair near the window, and order a scone and a pot of tea. The motherly proprietress brings them to me along with, unasked for, a jug of water, ‘because you’ll have got so thirsty walking from Dingle you’ll be wanting to lick the water off the rocks.’ I drink my tea at the edge of the world and watch the waves crashing against the cliffs with the comforting rise and fall of conversations in Irish and English in the background, and feel somewhat restored.

The Dingle Way itself doesn’t go out onto Dunmore Head, but a path does lead well out on it and, given that one of my frustrations with that coach tour was the fact that we got to stop there for a grand total of five minutes, I decide to take a stroll out there – maybe not all the way to the end but enough to get a good view of the Blaskets.

The wind is so violent that I’ve barely walked a hundred metres before it rips my bandanna (which was pinned into my hair) clean off my head. I only just rescue it from being blown into the sea.

Okay then. Maybe today’s not the day for a little cliff-top walk.

The sea from Dunmore Head

It rains and blows all the way to Dunquin, but the views are gorgeous and I find shelter near the end of the day’s trail in, of all places, a museum: the Blasket Centre. (Is this the westernmost museum in Europe?) I’d read a bit about the Blaskets before I arrived in Ireland so I had a general sense of their history and their desertion in the 1950s, but the display is not only highly informative but also very poignant. I make a mental note to put Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s Islandman on my reading list as soon as I get home.

House at the edge of the world

I have to backtrack about 2 km to find my B&B in Dunquin, only to learn when I arrive that there’s nowhere nearby to eat. The owner offers to book me a taxi to a restaurant a few villages over, but I decline. I’m too cold, wet and tired to face going out again. So, trail mix for dinner (grim perhaps, but I’m so hungry that almost anything would taste good) and once I’ve changed into dry clothes, I curl up in a chair in the conservatory with a book and my camera, hoping to catch the sunset over Inishtooskert.

No such luck. It’s a cloudset.

I fall asleep to the sound of rain against the windows.

 

Sybil Point and the Three Sisters

Sybil Point and the Three Sisters

Day 6: Dunquin to Feohanagh

Distance covered: 22 km 26 km; total ascent: 100 m

It’s cloudy when I wake up, and there’s fog lying heavy on the tops of the mountains, but it’s not raining. After yesterday, I’ll happily take clouds and fog. The air feels soft and there are a few encouraging cracks in the clouds so I set off with a sense of hope. Maybe it’ll clear up.

The trail starts out gentle and easy, a gravel round looping around headlands, and I soon come upon a fatal distraction – Louis Mulcahy’s pottery. I end up whiling away a very pleasant hour there; if I weren’t hiking I probably would have come out very much poorer, since the wares are extremely beautiful, but I know there’s little sense in buying a vase or a mug only to have it break in my rucksack within minutes or hours. Ah well.

Clogher Strand

Clogher Strand

The trail descends to Clogher Strand, another perfect little beach in the same mould as the cove below Minard Castle, but unlike that glass-smooth cove it’s sandwiched between two dramatic headlands, the black rocks jutting diagonally out of the sea. There’s clearly not meant to be any swimming here, but I enjoy exploring the rocks as far as I can go. Actually, given the vast numbers of jellyfish washed up on the sand, clear as glass and the size of my fist, not being able to swim is probably no bad thing.

Rocks near Clogher Strand

The trail continues uphill and along the edge of some cliffs, and when it spills out onto a road the first raindrops strike. This isn’t a ‘fine Irish mist’, it’s almost violent, and I don’t manage to get my waterproof on in time. The hood and cuffs of my hoodie get soaked and within moments my trousers are sodden as well. I sneak a quick look at my map before shoving it back into my rucksack and curse under my breath. I have some 16 km to go, most of it exposed.

There’s nothing for it but to carry on. There’s nowhere I can take shelter and wait it out, and in any case the rain looks as if it means business.

I reach the head of Smerwick Strand. I have a more than 3 km walk along a beach. I was, believe it or not, looking forward to this – when I thought the good weather would hold. But now… it’s raining so hard that the sand is pitted with it. The wind is blowing sideways as I struggle along the beach. The sense of peace and contentment that carried me from Tralee to Dingle is a distant memory. I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m miserable and for the first time in six days, I find myself not enjoying being alone. I never imagined I would feel this way, but right now I would give just about anything for company.

I suppose every hike has to have its nadir. I think this is mine.

After what feels an eternity, I finally reach the end of the beach. A little lane leads up to a road below the village of Murreagh. The waymarker at its head points left… and another sign across the road points right, toward Gallarus Oratory. It’s 2 km in the opposite direction.

I weigh an extra 4 km in wind and pelting rain against missing seeing the most perfectly preserved early Christian church in Ireland. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) how that turns out.

I strike off toward Gallarus.

The road goes along the flat but in the rain it seems endless and, worryingly, there are no further signs for the oratory. Just when the rain starts to get the better of me, a sign for the turnoff appears ahead.

Gallarus Oratory

Gallarus Oratory

Gallarus Oratory 2

Gallarus Oratory 3

Gallarus Oratory 4

Gallarus turns out to have been entirely worth the detour. The church is like an upturned boat made of stone, no roof but just walls curving up to meet each other at the top. It looks so perfect that just walking around it and standing in its dark (and miraculously dry) chamber fills me with the peace that’s been notably absent for much of today.

Gallarus’s other attraction is less… well, less exalted. It has a café. A warm, dry café with food and tea. I check my watch for the first time since morning and see that it’s after 3 o’clock. I’ve been walking without break for more than four hours, without food for six (nowhere to stop and eat). No wonder I’ve been feeling so downhearted.

A pot of tea and a ploughman’s sandwich later, I feel slightly more human and ready to hit the trail again. The walk back to rejoin the trail at Murreagh seems to take less than half the time of the outward journey. It helps a bit that the rain has let up to a light drizzle.

Ballydavid Head

Ballydavid Head

Soon the trail takes me out onto Ballydavid Head, onto beetling black cliffs with the Atlantic whipping itself to foam at their base. The views are breathtaking, but the rain has redoubled in force, as has the wind, which makes stopping to admire the view a less tempting (and often risky) proposition. The path passes perilously close to the edge in places, and it’s all I can do to avoid looking down into the void.

This is where I come across the funniest waymarker on the entire length of the Dingle Way.

It points straight on.

It’s at a place where, if you don’t go straight on, you will end up in the sea.

Full points for Stating the Bloomin’ Obvious. (I would have taken a photo if it weren’t so close to the cliff edge, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

Just when I begin to think I’m never going to see the end of these cliffs, the trail blessedly turns inland. Soon I’m back on paved road heading toward Feohanagh, where I’ll be spending the night.

I straggle my drenched, exhausted way uphill in the rain and then, when I don’t think I can go any further, I see my El Dorado, a grey stone farmhouse called An Riasc.

I knock on the door and a young woman with a round, pleasant face and curly ginger hair opens it. ‘My goodness!’ she gasps. I must present quite a picture – tendrils of wet hair plastering my face, streaming clothes, boots caked with mud. I think the only dry places on me are whatever is covered by my waterproof (bar the wet bits of hoodie) and the couple of inches of sock and boot covered by my gaiters. ‘Please, let me take your wet things!’ Her accent is unusual, a hint of a brogue overlaying something… eastern European? (I later learn she’s Hungarian and has been living here for five years.)

In no time at all she and the lady of the house have divested me of jacket, boots and pole and sent me up to my room with the promise of tea and cake after I’ve dried off. I don’t think a hot shower has ever felt so good, nor have I ever been so grateful to put on dry clothes.

Fifteen minutes later I’m in the sitting room, at last transformed from Drenched Hiker into something resembling a normal human being, with a steaming pot of tea and a saucerful of squares of freshly baked chocolate tiffin. And, even more important, agreeable company. A lovely older couple from County Cork had arrived just behind me, and we’re chatting pleasantly when a second couple joins us – two doctors from Northamptonshire. I like them too, but they’re ever so slightly more abrasive than the Irish couple, and I might be imagining it but I do sense a certain tension building between the two. I also sense that my presence may be slightly defusing things – I’m American enough for the Irish couple and British enough for the English couple (they all remark on my ‘interesting’ accent, which has, all along the Way, been a source of confusion – I’ve had a lot of people guessing that I’m Australian!). While we’re having our tea, something glorious and unexpected happens.

The sky clears. Sunlight pours in the windows. The B&B owner, a woman with a lovely smile, tells us when she comes in to clear the tea things that the good weather is expected to continue tomorrow. I want to shout with joy. Tomorrow is the most fearsome section of the trail. Doing it in weather like today’s just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Tea turns into a lavish dinner that more than makes up for the previous evening’s and we end up lingering around the table chatting away over tea and coffee. The dining room faces west and the sun is setting over Ballydavid Head and the Three Sisters, the sky ablaze with yellow, orange and lime green. A perfect end to a far from perfect day.

Feohanagh sunset

25.8.14 Feohanagh

Sleep takes me the instant my head hits the pillow but it isn’t peaceful. I dream that I’m about to sit a math exam and I haven’t cracked the textbook for the entire year. It’s a classic anxiety dream and when I wake up I know exactly why I had it.

Tomorrow I’ll be facing something a lot more demanding than a math exam.

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 3)

September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

MInard Castle

Minard Castle

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Day 4: Anascaul to Dingle

Distance covered: 22 km; total ascent: 340 m

 

I wake to quite possibly the most beautiful morning I’ve ever experienced in Ireland. The sky is a gorgeous crystalline blue, with only a few small clouds. It’s cool, but there’s a promise of warmth in the air. I want to pinch myself. My previous experience of Ireland was of more or less unceasing rain. I don’t know how much longer this is going to last, but I intend to take full advantage of it.

Minard cove

The trail winds gently uphill out of Anascaul and drops back down toward Dingle Bay, coming out in a small cove above which is perched the ruined Minard Castle. The sea is as smooth as glass. I could happily while away a whole morning here exploring the rock pools and the far reaches of the cove, but sadly the castle itself is off limits. Ah well, perhaps it’s more majestic at a slight distance anyway.

Minard cove 2

Minard cove 3 Minard castle 2

Minard cove rocks

The trail cuts inland again, curling around farm after farm, cutting between hedgerows. I’m glad for their shelter because by now the sun is beating down harder than I imagined possible in this part of the world: if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine myself hiking in the Santa Ynez Valley or the Santa Monica Mountains.

Fuchsia hedgerow

Ireland might be known as the Emerald Isle, but the hedgerows have been a constant surprise to me: an explosion of colour. The dominant hues are the crimson and purple of fuchsia (yes, really: an introduction from New Zealand in the nineteenth century, apparently) and the orange of montbretia, but nearly every other colour in the spectrum is present: pink stars of herb Robert, the occasional creamy yellow sunburst of honeysuckle, blue pincushions of scabious, and the purple-black jewels on all the brambles, none of which is safe around me.

Iveragh Peninsula and Skellig Michael

The village (hamlet, really) of Lispole behind me, the trail starts to climb in earnest. The first part of it is sheltered by trees, but soon I’m out in the open again, passing along the flank of a mountain, with a spectacular view spread out below me: Dingle Bay and the Iveragh Peninsula, with, from this angle, the spires of Skellig Michael just visible off the tip of the peninsula.

This is where the trail throws up a new problem, one I’ve never dealt with before. It sends me over stile after stile and straight into fields. Some of the fields are filled with sheep, which is fine by me: as already established, I have infinite respect for them and they, for whatever reason, find me the scariest thing in the known universe.

No, the problem is that most of the fields are pasture for cattle.

I have a shameful but, in this instance, reasonable confession to make: I am scared of cattle.

Well, not always. If there’s a fence between them and me, I find them mild-mannered and inoffensive. However, there’s nothing separating us. If I happen to accidentally startle one (or, worse, several), there’s the unavoidable fact that

  1. They outnumber me and
  2. Each one weighs at least eight times what I do.

Most of the pastures through which I have to pass contain a small enough number of cattle that I can avoid them relatively easily as I try to hurry past without startling any of the apparently placid beasts. But then I come to one where this approach won’t work. First of all, the trail is all squelching mud, churned by countless hooves (I am suddenly extremely grateful to whoever invented gaiters); second, there are at least fifty head of cattle in the field.

I do a quick survey of the pasture. It’s mostly young bullocks, too young to have acquired horns yet (small mercies!). I draw a deep breath, put my head down and march across the field as quickly as the mud will allow.

After what feels like an eternity (but can only have been about thirty seconds), the stile appears. I scramble over it and pause on the other side to catch my breath. Thank goodness that’s over. (Also, sphagnum moss has been officially displaced from its erstwhile position as most frightening thing encountered on the Dingle Way, even if it has technically caused me more harm than the cows have.)

Garfinny River

I eventually come out on the flank of another mountain overlooking the same splendid view of the Iveragh Peninsula and Skellig Michael and, in the shadow of sun- and wind-bleached skeletons of gorse, wend my way to the bridge over the Garfinny River. On the other side of the bridge I consult my map and then my watch and get a pleasant shock.

I have only about 3 km left to go to Dingle. This portion of the Way is supposed to take eight hours to walk. Taking into account the last 3 km, I will have done it in… six.

Dingle

As with Anascaul, Dingle lies at the bottom of a straight road that seems to draw out forever. There’s another unfortunate parallel with the approach to Anascaul: about a quarter of the way down, my knee begins to protest again. Through sheer force of will I manage to fight down the pain until once again it’s lurking like a wounded animal in a corner. I’m properly frightened now. Evidently whatever I’ve done to my knee doesn’t like descents – and I’ve got two rather tall mountains to tackle. The first of which will be… tomorrow.

*

Fungie

After tiny Anascaul and tinier Camp, Dingle feels like a big city, even if its population doesn’t quite reach 2000. Dingle was one of the places my coach tour stopped eight years ago, but as is the nature of such tours, the only part of it I saw (or at least remember) was the harbour with its statue of Fungie, the resident dolphin. All seen in a grey drizzle, of course.

However, Dingle in the sunshine, explored at its own pace, is remarkably pleasant. It owes a lot to tourism, thanks to its use as a location in Ryan’s Daughter, but it isn’t obnoxious in the mode of Killarney. The beachfront might have its share of tatty souvenir shops, but there are also a bookshop whose stock would put to shame quite a few in larger towns, two excellent music shops, and further temptation in the form of the shop of Lisbeth Mulcahy, weaver extraordinaire (and wife of Louis, whose pottery near Dunquin I will visit two days later). As for restaurants, it’s an embarrassment of riches – I wander around in a blissful agony of indecision before finally choosing Fenton’s, where I have a royal dinner that includes the best moules marinières I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Belgium) and would probably cost at least twice as much in London. And as Dingle forms the gateway to one of Ireland’s Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking regions), I hear people conversing in Irish in nearly every shop I pop into. Even if I don’t understand a word (and the conversation, for all I know, is probably prosaic) it sounds enchantingly lovely.

What I’ve most been looking forward to in Dingle, though, is music, and to make up for the lack of it the three previous nights, I manage to cram in three different sessions in three different pubs. The first is in a tiny pub called O’Sullivan’s just off the main street; I get there just as they’re winding down, but I catch a couple of rousing reels and then – wonderful surprise – a short session of sean-nós singing. The six musicians take it in turn to sing, passing the song around the circle and changing it subtly as it passes from person to person; the words are incomprehensible to me but the emotion is not.

The next session is in a pub decorated with posters for Ryan’s Daughter in English, German, French, Spanish, Polish and Turkish.* The décor might be somewhat questionable but the music certainly isn’t – Damien Mullane, an extraordinary young accordionist. Watching him play is a rather strange experience, as from the shoulders up he’s completely impassive and barely moves, a strange disconnect from the motion of hands and wrists – it feels almost like the musical equivalent of Irish step dancing (preternaturally still from the knees up, all wild motion below). I’m so absorbed by his playing that I nearly forget about photographing the sunset, but I remember just in time to dash down to the harbour and get one good shot.

23.8.14 Dingle

The third and last session (one door down from the all-Ryan’s-Daughter pub) is an equally excellent multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, flute and tin whistle) named Aoife Granville. Her name sounds familiar, and I realise I picked up one of her CDs in a music shop earlier in the afternoon. Now I’m kicking myself for not buying it.

By the time I leave the pub, it’s well past 11 (which, amazingly, is the latest night I’ve had since arriving in Ireland). There are still late sessions going on as I head back down to my B&B and I’m sorely tempted to stop and listen, but sleep wins out.

After all, tomorrow is going to be the first truly difficult day on the trail. I’m going to need every minute of rest I can get.

*In case you ever wondered what Ryan’s Daughter is called in Turkish, it’s Irlandali kiz (‘Irish Girl’). A matter of burning curiosity to many, I’m sure…

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 2)

September 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dingle Way: the trailhead, Tralee

Dingle Way: the trailhead, Tralee

(Part 1 is here)

Day 2: Tralee to Camp

Distance covered: 18 km 22 km (approx.); total ascent: 200 m

 

‘This is my Main Street,’ he said as he started off

That morning, leaving the town to the others,

Entering the high-woods tipped in pink

 

By the rising sun but still dark where he walked.

‘This is the way,’ he continued as he watched

For the great space that he felt sure

 

Would open before him…

 

‘This is the life,’ he said, as he reached the first

Of many outer edges to the sea he sought, and he buttoned

His coat, and turned up his collar, and began to breathe.

– Mark Strand, Dark Harbor

I wake to a worryingly grey sky, but I’m humming with excitement as I dress, feeling a bit like a knight arming for a quest (an impression reinforced by a few new bits of equipment – gaiters and a walking pole, neither of which I’ve ever used before). Under the excitement lurk nerves. I’ve never done this before – a hike of this distance, or of this solitude (apart from the weekend morning hikes I used to do on my own in Temescal Canyon when I lived in LA, but given that the trail was always jammed with Angelenos using it as an outdoor gym (which used to drive me mad), it hardly counts). Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

I head back to the gates behind the museum. The trailhead may look unspectacular – it starts in a town park – but a burst of elation takes me as I pass through the gate, the words of Strand’s poem (above) at the front of my mind. Never mind that the sky is getting steadily darker.

Swan family, Tralee Ship Canal

Swan family, Tralee Ship Canal

As I reach the head of the canal, I feel the first drops of rain. I barely have time to dig my waterproof out of my rucksack and put it on before it starts to rain in earnest – a light but steady drizzle. How… how absolutely typical. Could a hike in Ireland start any other way? Suddenly I remember how my stepfather (who is of Irish descent) always says, whenever it rains, in a comedy brogue, ‘Ah, ‘tis a fine Irish mist’, and I’m laughing uncontrollably. Because really, how else can you respond? I’m sure any passing driver must be questioning the sanity of the woman in hiking gear walking along the canal path laughing her head off, but I don’t care.

Five minutes later, the rain stops. There are a few more brief spells of ‘fine Irish mist’ that afternoon, but that’s it.

Blennerville Windmill

Blennerville Windmill

A few minutes after the rain ceases, I’m out of Tralee, crossing the bridge into its port, Blennerville. In contrast to Tralee, Blennerville is a lovely little town, dominated by a white-painted windmill, but I pass through it quickly. Soon I’m out in the countryside, walking past farms and shamelessly plundering the hedgerows of blackberries. (I don’t think I quite end up eating my weight in blackberries over the course of the hike, but I probably come fairly close.)

Near Blennerville

Near Blennerville

I’ve been following the directions in my guidebook without incident for the better part of an hour when things take an odd turn. The book tells me to go left, so I do – and left is onto the N86, the national road between Tralee and Dingle. There are at least signs pointing in the direction of Camp, but I’m not going uphill (as the books says I should be), I don’t see the three streams it tells me I’ll cross, and the conviction that I’m not meant to be marching down the side of a motorway is growing steadily (even if nearly half the Way is over paved roads).

After I’ve gone about 1.5 km, I encounter two road workers and ask them for directions. ‘Oh no, this isn’t the Dingle Way at all,’ the older of the two shakes his head. He points up to the mountains. ‘It runs along up there. If you take one of these small roads you should be able to find it again.’ I thank him and hurry off, feeling annoyed both with myself and with the guidebook.

I take the first turn off the N86 and head uphill. It looks promising, becoming smaller and quieter… until it dead-ends at the gate to a field. I know better than to try trespassing on a farmer’s property (right-of-way is virtually nonexistent in Ireland). Feeling defeated, I retrace my steps back to the motorway and head back in the direction from which I came. The turn must be somewhere back there…

A few minutes later someone shouts out of a car, ‘Are ye lookin’ for the Dingle Way?’ I whip my head round and see a man who’s pulled over. I admit, rather pathetically, that I am indeed.

‘Ah, I see lost hikers along here all the time. Everyone misses the sign for the turn.’ (Okay, at least it’s not just me.) ‘Hop in, I’ll give you a lift back.’

In London I would never in a million years accept a lift from a stranger, but this is rural Ireland, it’s broad daylight with lots of traffic, he seems friendly and my hiking pole would probably be pretty good in a fight if it came to that. I gratefully accept.

My saviour is named Sean and he owns a B&B in Camp (not the one I’m booked into, it transpires). When he asks me where I’m from, I hesitate only a moment before saying Chicago (I haven’t lived there since I was 18, but I have a feeling this is going to be a safer answer in Ireland than saying I’m from London). He beams. ‘I was born in Chicago,’ he says proudly. ‘South Side.’

Sean drops me at the bottom of another minor road and tells me it should get me back up to the trail. I thank him and head off.

The road dead-ends at another gate into a field. Today is really not my day.

I turn around and walk back down. There is only one possible option left, a little road just before the turning onto the N86 that wasn’t waymarked. I take it.

The road begins to rise, just as described. And about 200 metres on, there’s finally a waymarker, the little black-and-yellow hiker who will become my constant companion and guide over the next week. (For the record, this is the first and last time I ever lose the trail.)

Gate, Dingle Way

The farms and hedgerows fall away and the road comes out into open moorland on the side of the mountain. I push my way through a gate and suddenly I’m on a rocky path clinging to the mountainside, gazing down on Tralee Bay. If I felt a rush at the trailhead, the feeling is more than doubled as the gate clangs shut and I’m finally out in the wild.

Caherconree

Caherconree

The path snakes along the slopes. It’s rough and rocky, and I can tell my ankles are going to be protesting later, but for the moment I just enjoy the scents of heather and gorse and the spectacular views, the purple bulk of Caherconree looming ahead, its sides seamed with rivers and streams. It’s wonderfully quiet, the only sounds are the wind and birdsong and the soft metallic clank of my pole, punctuated by the bleating of my only other companions thus far – innumerable herds of sheep grazing on the mountainside.

My first name means ‘ewe’ in Hebrew and I’ve always furiously resented this – sheep are not, after all, known for their intellect, beauty, initiative or independence of mind. (Okay, without them my winter wardrobe would be considerably poorer and there would be no Pecorino or Roquefort. And lambs are extremely cute. But still.) But now, as I struggle and occasionally stumble over rock after rock, I begin to see them in a new light. They may not be bright, they may not be beautiful but they are awesomely surefooted.

Just ahead of me, a ewe picks her way delicately but without a shadow of hesitation up a particularly steep and stony slope and stands placidly munching away at the grass as I gape in admiration.

From now on, I’m not going to be a snob about sheep.

*

I’ve been walking along the mountain for perhaps an hour without encountering another hiker, and enjoying it very much, thanks. But it’s not to last.

I smell them before I see them – a whiff of cigarettes. Who the hell smokes on the trail? Ahead of me, sitting on a rock, sit a man and a woman, presumably a couple, dressed like serious hikers but both smoking. (Not something I ever encountered in California, needless to say.) I don’t really want company but I figure I should at least be polite and friendly, so I say hello as I pass. The man, who looks nice enough, returns my greeting; the woman doesn’t. I push on and soon lose them.

Curraheen River

Curraheen River

The trail gets tougher. It crosses three rivers, rivers flowing between almost tropically lush stands of fern with sometimes perilously steep banks. The views are stunning but I’m starting to worry – I probably added an extra 4-5 km to my hike by getting lost at the beginning, will I have enough stamina to get me to the end of the trail today?

I pass another couple, slightly friendlier but speaking an odd-sounding German, and struggle gamely on. And now is where the trail gets nasty. It’s starting to descend, but now it’s not just rocks, it’s rocks and mud. And then I step on an innocent-looking clump of sphagnum moss and suddenly I’m in water to the ankle.

A bog.

I bought my boots four years ago in a sporting goods shop in Santa Monica. They are excellent for hiking in a hot, dry climate. What a way to find out they aren’t waterproof…

The worst thing about the boggy bits of the trail is that there’s no predicting where they’ll be. They can be on high ground or low, between rocks or on open ground. Sometimes the only sign of them is the presence of sphagnum moss, which I quickly learn to fear and loathe.

At the base of the mountain, after I’ve begun to think it’s going to be nothing but rocks and bogs all the way to Camp, the trail is suddenly tamed into a soft green boreen bordered by hedgerow. There are thick clusters of ripe blackberries and I fall upon them gratefully, only now realising how tired and thirsty I am, before continuing on my way. For some reason I now have ‘The Star of the County Down’ stuck in my head:

Near Banbridge town, in the County Down

One morning in July

Down a boreen green came a sweet colleen

And she smiled as she passed me by…

I laugh inwardly. I am indeed walking down a boreen green but I’m in Kerry and in my wet boots I don’t think I exactly qualify as the song’s ‘sweet colleen’.

Killelton church

Killelton church

Killelton church: font (?)

Killelton church: font (?)

The path (which is now following the old Tralee-Dingle road) passes into a thick growth of holly and birch and then I start to spot ruined cottages – the ghost town of Killelton. I veer off to visit the ruined church. It’s nowhere near as majestic or well preserved as Gallarus Oratory (which I’ll visit on Day 6) but I enjoy the quiet melancholy of the place. Nor is it entirely abandoned – there’s a wish tree obviously very much in use standing just outside the walls.

Killelton wish tree

Killelton wish tree

As I emerge from the boreen onto a paved road, I pass the first couple I encountered earlier (how did they get ahead of me without my seeing them? Perhaps when I stopped in Killelton?). ‘So schnell!’ the woman remarks in an ambiguous tone that could be either admiring or disapproving, and when I turn round she translates, ‘So fast!’, her tone unaltered.

I’m a firm believer in not judging a book by its cover, but I also think there’s some justice in the idea that everyone has the face they deserve by the time they’re 40, and there’s something tough and cynical and ungenerous about this woman’s face. I flash her a quick grin and hurry on, eager to be out of her presence.

The last bit of trail crosses the Finglas River on a path of steppingstones. It’s dark and quiet, the river heavily shaded, and if it were earlier in the day I’d happily sit on one of the stones and watch the water rushing around me.

I reach my B&B just before 5. The owner, a redoubtable old Irishwoman, makes quick work of my boots, stuffing them with newspaper and putting them in the airing cupboard to dry overnight. 21.8.14 CampThe one pub in Camp has no music tonight, so this evening is a repeat of the previous – dinner, then photographing the sunset, then collapsing gratefully into bed. I’m bone-tired, my ankles do indeed hurt, but I feel triumphant. I can do this.

 

Emlagh Valley

Emlagh Valley

Day 3: Camp to Anascaul

Distance covered: 17 km 20 km (approx.); total ascent: 270 m

 

The second couple I passed on the trail yesterday turn out to be staying in my B&B, so they’re my companions at breakfast. The reason for their odd-sounding German turns out to be that… they’re Swiss. Thankfully it turns out they’re from Lausanne, so I am at least able to say complimentary things about their hometown. They’re nice enough, but dreadfully stiff and humourless, and I’m glad to get away from them.

As a reward for braving the rocky, boggy trail yesterday, the way from Camp to Anascaul is much gentler and almost entirely on paved roads. As I set off from Camp along roads ablaze with orange montbretia, it starts to rain. Remembering what happened yesterday, I simply find a nice big tree to stand under and wait it out. Sure enough, the rain is over in a few minutes and it’s sunny and warm for the rest of the day.*

The road winds through hedgerows and gradually rises to a pass between two mountains (Corrin and Knockbrack). I glance back one last time at Caherconree as I reach the top of the pass and then it drops away as I descend into the valley of the Emlagh River.

Sheep, Emlagh Valley

The most silent place on earth I’ve ever been up to now is the centre of Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley. The Emlagh Valley is very nearly as silent but its beauty couldn’t be more different from the canyon: green mountains sloping gently down under a glorious expanse of clear sky. I am the only living soul for miles around. For the entire length of the valley I do not pass a single other person, just flock after flock of sheep. (The Emlagh sheep are particularly skittish and invariably scatter at my approach. Maybe if I were the heroine of some obscure Celtic epic my epithet would be ‘terroriser of sheep’. Well, it sounds a bit more intimidating than ‘scourge of blackberries’…) Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the isolation, I don’t feel frightened. I feel safely enfolded in the valley and a great sense of peace descends on me.

Dingle Bay from the Emlagh Valley

The trail finally emerges from the valley near the mouth of the river and begins to wind uphill. For the first time since leaving Tralee, I can see the sea but it’s a different one now – Dingle Bay, glistening in the sun, with the mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula a soft misty blue on the other side and the vast golden expanse of Inch Strand stretching toward it.

Dingle Bay

Inch Strand

Inch Strand isn’t technically on the trail, but I’m making excellent time and I can easily afford to spend a couple of hours there. I’d planned to go swimming there but am scared out of doing so by the fact that the only people in the water are wetsuit-clad surfers. The air is more than warm enough for a walk on the beach, though, so I shuck off my boots, roll my trousers to the knee and go for a long walk at the water’s edge, on sand almost as fine as flour. The shallows are much warmer than I expected, so I promise myself that I will go for a swim two days from now in Ventry Harbour instead.**

Inch clouds 1

Inch clouds 2

About halfway down the beach I find a dune, sit down to eat my lunch, then lie back with my head on my rucksack and shamelessly indulge in a spot of cloud watching. Who needs a tropical beach? This is perfect.

Inch clouds 3

Inch clouds 4

All good things must come to an end, though, and eventually the wind picks up too much for lying in the sand to remain comfortable. I lace my boots back on and head back up to the trail. It begins to wind inland again, passing into another broad valley – this one is obviously carved out by a glacier, with Lough Anascaul (the source of Anascaul’s river) cradled between two mountains. Lough AnascaulAnascaul itself is nestled in the bottom of the valley with the road going straight down to it. As I start to descend I feel a twinge in the outside of my left knee. With each step it becomes more and more violent, until I have to stop at the side of the road, my heart racing. What’s wrong with me? I don’t remember having done anything to my knee. This is only my second day on the trail. If I’m injured how am I going to make it another five days, on much rougher trail, on a bad knee?

I gingerly take a few steps. It hurts, but by the time I reach the bottom of the hill the pain is gone – or at least at bay. Please, let it stay there….

Anascaul is a pretty village folded into the dip of the valley. It’s slightly larger than Camp, which means it has a grand total of four pubs, but one of them is head and shoulders above the rest – the South Pole Inn, founded by local hero Tom Crean (who accompanied Scott and Shackleton on no less than three Antarctic journeys) – and it also seems to be the only one with decent food. Well, that’s dinner sorted.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only out-of-towner in South Pole Inn. I’m halfway through dinner when I notice the Swiss couple a few tables away. They’ve spotted me and give me an awkward little smile, which I return equally awkwardly. At least there’s no chance of them asking me to join them (there’s no space at their table).

Then in the corner opposite I see the German couple. The woman has definitely noticed me and I find myself again on the receiving end of her equivocal-shading-toward-unfriendly gaze, her words from yesterday echoing in my mind. So schnell. I try to ignore her but every time I look up I find her eyes on me. Perhaps I’m just imagining things, but… I swallow the last few drops of my Guinness, hail the waitress and pay her, and stalk out of the pub without a backward glance. I hope I can lose them all in Dingle.***

22.8.14 AnascaulThe sunset isn’t as brilliant as it was the two previous evenings, but I’m not inclined to complain. The sky is wonderfully clear. I’ve had three days (mostly) free of rain. Please, let it continue…

*NB this is not always a wise or practical approach to the rain in Ireland: see Day 5 and Day 6.

**NB this is also not a wise or practical thing to do in Ireland: see Day 5. When it’s warm and sunny and you are on a beach, carpe diem and cold water be damned!

***I did. I didn’t see either couple again after I left Anascaul.

Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 1)

August 29, 2014 § 8 Comments

Blennerville: one of the first waymarkers on the DIngle Way

Blennerville: one of the first waymarkers on the Dingle Way

I was meant to spend my summer holiday in the Loire Valley and instead I ended up in western Ireland.

No, it isn’t because I’m cursed with a particularly poor sense of direction. Let me explain…

I don’t usually talk much about my personal life here, but there’s no way to explain the turn my travels took without temporarily breaking that self-imposed rule. Just over four months ago, my boyfriend and I split up. We had been together ten and a half years so as you might imagine, my life went through some drastic changes. Among other things, I suddenly found my holiday plans in ruins. We’d been talking about renting a cottage in the Loire Valley; it would have been my first time back there since my year teaching English in Tours. Even if I could have afforded the cottage by myself (I couldn’t) or could drive (I can’t), there was no way I could have faced going there alone.

Two days after we split up, I went to the cinema in desperate need of distraction. I ended up seeing Tracks and came out deeply moved and inspired by Robyn Davidson’s journey. I wasn’t deluded enough to decide to go on my own 1700-mile trek across the Australian desert in the company of three camels, but I decided to do something similar, on a more manageable scale, that I had never done before – a multi-day solo hike. Somewhere beautiful and relatively unpeopled, so I could clear my head and take stock, but not so far from civilisation that I wouldn’t be able to have a roof over my head at night.

The first place I thought of was Ireland and it immediately felt right. I’ve always felt a very strong affinity with the place – perhaps it has something to do with having grown up in Chicago, which has a huge Irish community and celebrates St Patrick’s Day like a national holiday (complete with dyeing the river emerald green – I also remember my dad coming home one year with green-tinted bagels for my brother and me and being simultaneously relieved and disappointed when they tasted just like ordinary bagels), or perhaps it’s more to do with my love of the literature and the music (and the wide, deep streak of melancholy that runs through both).

The rub, though, is that Ireland and I have ‘previous’. I had visited once before, eight years ago when I was a student. I was travelling with my mother, and as I don’t drive (see above) and she won’t drive on the left, the only really feasible option for us to see the country was a coach tour. We were fortunate to have good guides, I will say that in its favour, but after three days of being hustled on and off the coach, allowed only a few minutes to look at places where I could easily have spent hours or days (and, conversely, having to visit a few I could gladly have skipped – Blarney Castle, I’m looking at you), I was seething with frustration. To cap it all, I ended up having my bag (with my wallet, keys and passport inside it) stolen in Dublin. Everyone I dealt with in the aftermath couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful, but suffice it to say it didn’t make me particularly eager to return to Dublin (which by that point I felt I had properly ‘done’ anyway). So I spent the next eight years telling myself that someday I would go back to Ireland, avoid Dublin, and see the places I wanted to see at my own pace.

So now was the time to conquer my demons. One of the better aspects of that previous trip was a day spent zipping up and down the Dingle Peninsula, and even in that brief time (and rotten weather) I fell in love with the dramatic landscape. Eight days walking the Dingle Way sounded perfect. I spent the summer reading all I could about it, from guidebooks to J M Synge’s excellent In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (the ‘West Kerry’ section being devoted almost exclusively to the Dingle Peninsula), and gathering the various bits of gear I’d need for my walk.

And last week I landed at Kerry airport with my rucksack, about to embark on one of the best adventures of my life.

Slieve Mish Mountains from Tralee

Slieve Mish Mountains from Tralee

Day 1: Tralee

Distance covered: 4 km (approx); total ascent: 0 m

One of the places I stayed on that coach tour eight years ago was Killarney – which the tour visited while totally bypassing Killarney National Park (something which to my mind is akin to going to Paris and never leaving the Gare du Nord). I have encountered few places in my life (at least in Europe) as aggressively and unapologetically touristy. If towns posted ‘welcome’ signs that were brutally honest, Killarney’s would probably read ‘Killarney: The only good thing we’ve ever given the world is Michael Fassbender.’

If Tralee had a similar sign, it would likely say ‘Tralee: At least we’re not Killarney.’

Tralee may be the county town of Kerry, but it is deeply unprepossessing. My heart sinks as I come out of the station and doesn’t really rise again on the walk to my B&B. The town is nearly 700 years old but you’d never know to look at it – most of the architecture is modern and drab, or 19th-century and drab, and there are a disproportionate number of shops (for a town its size, anyway) selling really ugly shoes. (Not that I will be scaling Mount Brandon wearing faux-snakeskin platforms, of course, so I don’t linger to gape at their awfulness.) It is also the day after this year’s Rose of Tralee Festival, so the town appears to be in the throes of a collective hangover (not entirely of the alcoholic kind, more of the nostalgic kind, which, given the tackiness of the contest, I find it a bit hard to sympathise with).

The one interesting thing to do in Tralee is to visit the Kerry County Museum, which, although it initially looks small and poky, provides a good and thorough introduction to the history of the area. I end up learning a surprising amount about places and archaeological remains I’ll end up encountering along the Dingle Way. There’s also a moving display of photos of Kerry in the 1950s and 1960s (a time of continuing rural poverty and emigration) and an unintentionally comical one of dresses worn by past Roses of Tralee (okay, I’m being mean, but…)

The trailhead of the Dingle Way is just outside the museum, but I superstitiously avoid it. Instead I end up going for a walk upstream along a path that runs beside the River Lee. It’s quiet and pretty but very definitely still hemmed in by buildings. Apart from this walk and a turn around a rather dull rose garden, I seem to have exhausted Tralee’s possibilities already. I could wait until late enough to go to one of the trad sessions in the pubs, but as I had to get up at 4 am to catch my flight (there is only one per day from London, it’s early and from Luton of all places – damn you, Ryanair) I am already starting to melt with exhaustion. Despite my fatigue I still feel rather like a bird hurling itself against the bars of a cage.

I do manage to keep myself awake long enough after dinner to discover that Tralee has one wonderful surprise to offer – the sunset. I take my camera and walk down to a bridge over the Lee where it broadens out into a marsh. The Slieve Mish mountains loom in the near distance and every time I glance in their direction I shiver with anticipation – this is where I’ll be hiking tomorrow. The sky blazes and the water gives back the blaze in soft blur. Two swans glide silently by. A grey heron stands in elegantly frozen profile under the next bridge along. My eye is captured by the constant to-and-fro of a small fluttering creature that I think at first is a bird but then realise is a bat (the first time I’ve ever seen one in the wild).

Tralee sunset 1

 

20.8.14 Tralee

Tralee sunset 3

Tralee sunset 4

Once the sun has completely set, I head back to my B&B. As I’m laying out my clothes for the next day, I know exactly what t-shirt I’ll wear.

One with two birds in flight on the front and a golden cage, its door burst open, on the side.

The St James’s Cloud Appreciation Society

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Last weekend M, one of my oldest friends, visited me from Brussels. By now he’s been to see me in London loads of times, so the pressure to spend every waking minute dashing around sightseeing was off. Although we managed to get to the theatre (the Young Vic’s extraordinary A Streetcar Named Desire) and an exhibition (Matisse Cut-Outs), one of the best bits of the weekend was a few hours spent lying in the grass in St James’s Park talking about everything and nothing – as you do when you’ve known each other for nearly half your lives – and watching the clouds. (The same afternoon we ended up mooching around Foyles and came across a book published by the Cloud Appreciation Society and I was intrigued to the point of wanting to join… until I found out that you have to pay to be a member. It wasn’t the cost I quibbled with – a mere £7 for a lifetime – more the principle of having to pay for something that is everyone’s by right. So I think I’d rather have my own two-person chapter, free as it should be.)

I didn’t have my Diana on me, but I did have my (less glam but no less useful) little digital camera (the one responsible for the rest of the photos on this blog). And so, a spot of cloud photography, as random and rambling and spontaneous as our conversation.

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The Fringe for beginners

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve been wanting to go to the Edinburgh Fringe for as long as I’ve lived in London, but year after year, it didn’t happen. Lack of money, lack of time, lack of willing partner in crime – every time August rolled around, I’d sigh and think, ‘ah well, maybe next year…’

It probably says a great deal about the shape of my life over the last several months that the first time I finally made it to the Fringe, two weekends ago, it was almost entirely by accident.

I should probably back up a bit. Several months ago, a magazine for which I occasionally write exhibition and book reviews asked me to review a show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The only weekend I could make it up to Edinburgh before the deadline was the first weekend in August, so I booked train tickets and gave it no more thought… until I went to book a room for the Saturday night two weeks before and to my surprise and dismay found very few left in my price range. Oh… right… first weekend in August… the penny finally dropped. (In the end I did manage to bag a room that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It may well have been one of the last in all of Edinburgh.)

And so, the Saturday before last, without any prior planning, I landed in my first ever Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe: performers on the Royal Mile

Edinburgh Fringe: performers on the Royal Mile

*

About ten minutes north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the heavens open. It’s as if we’ve crossed a magic boundary – or, more likely, the Scottish border. (The day after I get back I tell a Northumbrian colleague about this stark border between decent weather and rain and she shakes her head and says ‘next time, just stay in Northumberland’). By the time my train pulls into Waverley, the only appropriate adjective for the weather is disgusting: leaden clouds, unending rain, Arthur’s Seat buried in fog and the streets streaming. Edinburgh is a grand and beautiful city in any weather but right now I would put it in a dictionary as an illustration for the entry for ‘dour’.

Only a few minutes out of the station on the way to my hostel, I notice an extraordinary difference to my previous four visits to Edinburgh. Despite the rotten weather, the streets are teeming. All the walls and street furniture are plastered with posters and flyers for performances, usually four or five deep. It looks as if every third doorway boasts an official ‘Fringe Venue’ sign. The Royal Mile is packed with street performers and, even more surprisingly given the rain, people watching them. Niddry Street is a gauntlet of performers and festival workers shouting ‘free comedy in five minutes’ and thrusting postcards for shows into the hands of any and all comers. (I acquire five in the space of about two minutes.)

Shows I didn't see (a tiny sampling)

Shows I didn’t see (a tiny sampling)

There’s an air of joyful anarchy over the whole city, and the rain and cold and all that wet dark stone throws it into much higher relief than any more forgiving setting ever could. I’ve never experienced Venice during Carnival but I suspect this isn’t a million miles away from it. Outlandishness – in dress, in behaviour – isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. This quartet of men in rainbow-coloured suits I saw walking down Cockburn Street is actually a fairly mild example. I’ve no idea if they were performers or just taking advantage of the chance to cut loose…

Cockburn Street, Saturday afternoon

Cockburn Street, Saturday afternoon

You find yourself having all manner of conversations with total strangers, which, when you live in London and are used to keeping yourself to yourself, takes some getting used to. To wit: on my first pass down the Royal Mile I’m accosted by a young guy who must be at least 6’6”, with a head of shockingly ginger hair and a huge, guileless but slightly mad grin. He wants me to come to his play, a romantic comedy. I make what I assume are suitably noncommittal interested noises and his smile broadens alarmingly.

‘Hey, you’re our target audience! You’ve simply got to come!’

I must admit I’m slightly baffled. What is their target audience? American? In their 30s? People carrying umbrellas and wearing sodden ballerina flats? ‘How so?’ I ask, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

‘You’re a woman!’ he exclaims triumphantly. I observe that he is indeed perceptive and make my escape from the ginger madman. The play actually sounds mildly intriguing, but it’s at 3 and I have to be at the gallery before then.

A few hours later I’m walking up the George IV Bridge and a worried-looking man with a broad Leeds accent hails me. ‘Oi, miss, you know you’ve got blue paint on your forehead, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I shrug. (I acquired it at the play I just saw, one of the occupational hazards of the Fringe is that an actor might just come over and daub blue paint on your face.) This doesn’t seem to assuage his worry at all.

‘Is it for religious reasons?’ he wants to know.

‘Nope, it’s from the play I just saw,’ I laugh and head off before he can ask anything else, because he still looks unpersuaded. Later I regret not telling him that I’m actually a Celtic warrior princess and the blue paint is in fact woad.

*

The first show I choose is something I first saw when I was sixteen: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It’s a show created by the Neo-Futurists (who originated in Chicago – hometown pride! – but have since spread to New York and San Francisco) and it consists of a troupe of writer/actors performing thirty plays in sixty minutes, against the clock. The audience dictates the order of the plays (the titles are hung on numbered sheets strung up on a clothesline at the front of the stage) and as they add and subtract new plays at every performance, it’s impossible to see the same show twice. It is as absurd, madcap, occasionally annoying and mostly sheer fun as it sounds.

The Edinburgh performers are a combination of members of the San Francisco and New York groups. A few of the plays fall flat – that’s the nature of the beast – but the vast majority are excellent, running from surreal to ironic to surprisingly touching (one actor doing a monologue about his extreme shyness and how performing the written word has freed him of it really strikes a chord with me). One of the plays is called ‘All my friends are here tonight’ and there is no dialogue at all – it consists of one of the actors smearing blue paint on the faces of his fellow performers, then everyone in the audience, and bringing us all up on stage to dance together.

If this had happened in the performance I saw when I was sixteen, I would have died of embarrassment. As it is now, I just laugh and go with it. Because, clearly, that’s what you do at the Fringe.

*

The second show I hit isn’t a play, it’s a gig: Camille O’Sullivan, an Irish cabaret singer whom I’ve wanted to see several times in London but have never managed to before. She’s a veteran of the Fringe (this is her tenth year) and this grants her the privilege of performing in the Assembly Rooms, which are rather larger and more glamorous than the back room of a pub.

The previous act overruns and the queuing system is downright Byzantine, so by the time we’re all into the hall the air is crackling with tension – which turns into an expectant hush when O’Sullivan sweeps down a side aisle onto the stage, a black lace cloak streaming from her shoulders, gently brushing a hand over the tops of the heads nearest her path. Even before she opens her mouth, it’s obvious we’re in the presence of an enchantress.

O’Sullivan doesn’t write her own songs – she interprets those of other artists, and that list of artists runs from Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to Radiohead and Arcade Fire. She has a powerful voice, clear and soaring with an undercurrent of gravel and grit, but it’s only one (important) element of her interpretations, which are as much about drama and storytelling as they are about singing. She seems to inhabit a different character with each song, from butter-wouldn’t-melt piousness (Nick Cave’s ‘God is in the house’) to heart-wrenching pain (Nine Inch Nails, ‘Hurt’) to glorious ribaldry (Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In these shoes’). She sings Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ a cappella, with the only accompaniment the occasional stamping of her bare foot, and I know I’ll never hear the song the same way again.

There isn’t a false note in the entire set, but the high point, for me at least, comes near the end. O’Sullivan, kneeling at the front of the stage, dons a beret covered in silver sequins as the stage goes dark and a single spotlight falls on her. It transforms her into a human disco ball as she gently sways her head back and forth over a shimmering, undulating guitar line. It takes me a while to pick out the melody but when she begins to sing, almost in a whisper, I realise it’s Radiohead’s ‘True love waits’. And I was wrong, her head isn’t a disco ball, it’s projecting a galaxy of stars onto the ceiling and walls. Halfway through the song, her voice vibrating with love and yearning, she raises her hands above her head and reaches out for the beams of light, as if trying to pull the stars out of the sky. By the time the last note dies away, tears are streaming down my cheeks. I don’t dare look at any of my neighbours but I’d wager I’m not the only one.

She announces her last song will be by Leonard Cohen and I find myself praying Oh no, please, not ‘Hallelujah’, I’ll go completely to pieces but thankfully it’s ‘Anthem’ instead, which is about as happy as Leonard Cohen ever gets. There are two encores and she says her goodbyes a few minutes before midnight, leaving me to float home in a tearfully joyful cloud.

Talking of clouds, they’ve finally cleared. I can even see a few stars.

*

Sunday morning, after a lazy breakfast, I’m in such a good mood I decide to take pot luck. I head over to the venue next door to where I saw Too Much Light…, ask what they have on at 11, and buy a ticket.

The 11 o’clock show turns out to be a new play, The Moth of August, written and performed by students from Cambridge in a tiny room with a set consisting of a table, four chairs, and a couple of biscuit tins. It’s a play being performed at the Fringe, about four performers at the Fringe, whose names are James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia… played by actors named James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia. It’s all a bit too meta for its own good. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the actors, and even if I might quibble a little (okay, a lot) with the script, I can’t help feeling moved by the ending. And it’s always nice to take a chance on something new. I think back over my theatregoing experiences over the last year, realise it’s been solid NT/RSC/West End and decide I could stand to do this a bit more often. I’ve missed it.

There’s another exhibition I want to see – a show about John Ruskin as an artist that is, rather randomly, on at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – so I only have time for one more show, which ends up being a street performer who’s set up outside the National Gallery. His act is traditional to the point of cliché on the surface – juggling knives, riding an eight-foot-high unicycle (while juggling knives) – but it turns out to be less about the tricks and more about working the audience and playing with expectations. Anyone who stands too close risks getting pulled into the performance, and I narrowly miss being chosen to throw the knives up to him while he’s perched on his unicycle – saved only by a woman standing right next to me who’s either more game or more foolhardy (so, Rona from Glasgow, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sparing me certain humiliation).

The Ruskin exhibition is excellent (if I’m honest, I prefer it to the one I was sent to Edinburgh to review) but after two shows and an exhibition with little break in between I’m starting to flag. Luckily, in addition to 3677 different Fringe shows and a decent number of museums, Edinburgh also contains a den of iniquity delights called Valvona & Crolla.

Dark as night and sweet as sin: Valvona & Crolla

Dark as night and sweet as sin: Valvona & Crolla

After I’ve polished off lunch (which, let’s be honest, was just an excuse for the chocolate tartlet and espresso), it’s too late in the day to take in another show without risking missing my train. I can’t help regretting what I’ll miss – a choreographed version of Macbeth, the ‘stand-up tragedy’ sessions in one of the venues in Niddry Street, the modern-dress staging of The Duchess of Malfi that I could have seen instead of The Moth of August, all the shows whose postcards I picked up (a mixed bag, I’m sure, but I’ll never know without taking a chance)… to name only a very tiny fraction.

As my train pulls out of Waverley (this time, in a sun shower), I make a resolution. Next year I’m going to come back for longer and do the Fringe properly.

But this wasn’t a bad introduction at all.

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