Eight days in Ireland: Walking the Dingle Way (Part 6)
September 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here
Part 4 is here
Part 5 is here
Day 8: Cloghane to Castlegregory
Distance covered: 29 km; total ascent: 50 m
This morning I awaken in the grip of very mixed emotions – of which the most salient are elation and sadness. Today is the last leg of the Dingle Way.* Part of me is excited to see the end in sight… another part of me doesn’t want it to end.
All packed up and breakfast eaten, I’m standing before the mirror in my room putting on sun cream when I catch sight of a stranger. She’s bronzed and strong and looks tremendously calm. It takes a second – an endless one – to realise that the stranger is me. Have I really changed that much in the last eight days?
The last part of the Dingle Way is, in its own way, as much a challenge as the crossing of Mount Brandon. It’s almost entirely on the flat, but it represents the longest distance I will ever have walked on a single day. That said, 29 km on flat ground, more than a third of which is a beach hike, doesn’t seem beyond my powers – certainly not after what I’ve been doing for the past week.
I quickly leave Cloghane behind as the trail winds along empty roads. Mount Brandon is at my back and the sky is full of billowing clouds. The first road sign I see outside of Cloghane is bilingual – I’m officially out of the Gaeltacht (where all signs are in Irish only) – and that wave of elation mixed with sadness assails me again. I really am on the home stretch now.
In no time at all I’ve reached the gap in the dunes that leads out onto Fermoyle Strand, the longest beach in Ireland – 12 km of golden sand curving in a gentle bow around Brandon Bay. Normally I love beach hiking –it was one of a handful of things that kept me sane during my year and a half of exile in a small and deadly dull town in southern California – but the sky looks foreboding, and the memory of that miserable slog along Smerwick Strand two days ago is still fresh in my mind. Casting one beseeching look at the sky, I step onto the sand and head east.
The wind is fierce, but – true to the old Irish blessing – it is at my back (let it stay that way). The main source of disappointment is the clouds. I’ve seen countless photos of Fermoyle Strand spread beneath a blue sky, the sea an even deeper blue. Now it’s a near-monochrome canvas of greys and duns, but it’s got its own melancholy beauty.
About twenty minutes in, I feel the first raindrops. This time I’m a lot faster getting my waterproof on, and I manage to get the hood over my head before my bandanna gets soaked. The one downside to the hood is that, with the force of the wind, the rain pings against it like an endless hail of bullets.
Luck seems to be smiling on me today, though. After about ten minutes of marching in the rain (which isn’t heavy, but made worse by the wind), it begins to let up. The wind doesn’t stop blowing, but cracks begin to appear in the clouds. The sun breaks through. I turn back and see Mount Brandon dappled in sun and shadow and – oh, glorious! – the sky reflected in a pearly blur in the wet sand.
Fermoyle Strand teems with life. There are gulls everywhere, and flocks of chattering oystercatchers gathered at the tideline. The sand is dotted with the siphon holes of razor clams – and, although this couldn’t strictly be considered ‘life’, a lot of stranded jellyfish. Most of them are the same transparent, colourless blobs that littered Clogher Strand, but every now and then I come across a larger, more interesting one, its bell streaked with blood red and peach, feathery dark tentacles trailing away.
The strand keeps unspooling, and I keep going, buoyed by that feeling of being able to walk forever that overcame me the day before after I came down the mountain. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel relieved when I notice the end of the beach drawing closer and closer. When I reach the end, I will have walked, in one morning, about the same distance I walked the entire first day.
I come off the strand just before it ends and the road takes me into the village of Fahamore. There’s a pub overlooking the beach and I gratefully plunk myself down at a table and order a pot of tea. After I’ve finished it (and I wasn’t exactly drinking it quickly), it takes an age to find anyone to bring me the bill, and the wait is dangerous – I feel as if I stay there one minute longer, I would be content to sit there forever and never rise again. And I still have 12 km to go before I reach Castlegregory.
I do eventually succeed in leaving Fahamore. The trail cuts through windswept pasture and the sea is ever-present (I’m now at the tip of the peninsula) but I manage to find a bit of wall sheltered enough to sit on and eat my lunch. After the morning’s walk I’m ravenous, but halfway through I realise how heartily tired I am of trail mix and oatcakes. All right, maybe I have been on this hike just long enough….
The trail cuts right to the end of the peninsula and I find myself on another beach, Scraggane Strand. This is one of the only places in Ireland where naomhógs are still made, and sure enough, outside a cottage I see one lying upturned in the grass. The beach itself is as lovely as Fermoyle Strand but the wind, if anything, is even fiercer, and now it’s blowing me sideways, so I don’t linger and just push on across the sand. I end up in Kilshannig, another village on the other side, and spend a few cold and precarious minutes hunting around its tiny, weather-beaten churchyard for a seventh-century grave marker carved with a Chi-Rho. (To anyone planning to do the same, a friendly tip – walk clockwise once you go through the gate, you’ll save time and frustration.)
I pass quickly through Kilshannig and soon I’m overlooking another beach. For the time being, the trail isn’t on the sand but on the machair above it – just as well as the wind is brutal, many times worse than on Fermoyle Strand. The clouds have closed in again. Tralee Bay is a glowering grey-green, seething with whitecaps, and every few minutes I find myself pulling my hood back on against a burst of rain.
Unluckily for me, the stretch of trail eventually dips down onto the beach itself and this is where the going gets really rough. I’m walking directly into one of the most merciless winds I’ve ever experienced – so much so that I feel as if I must be expending roughly half my energy on pushing against it. The rain has stopped – who knows for how long? – but I still hear and feel that hail of bullets peppering my hood and my left cheek. It takes me longer than it ought to to realise what it is… sand. (Am I going to end the hike with half my face sandblasted?) To make matters worse, the beach here, in contrast to the broad expanse of Fermoyle Strand, is a thin ribbon of sand… and it could be my imagination, but as I bend my head into the wind and trudge on, it looks as if it’s getting thinner.
No, it’s definitely not my imagination. The tide’s coming in.
I push against the wind for all I’m worth, ignoring the protests of my Achilles tendon (which hasn’t really recovered from yesterday) and spurred by the sight of the tide licking steadily further into the sand and rocks. Just when I think I won’t be able to last much longer, the beach curves into an inlet and I see a waymarker directing me up, into the dunes. I want to cheer. Castlegregory can’t be far now.
Once out of the dunes, I’m onto a road, and much as I would normally prefer to be walking on earth or turf or sand, at the moment I’m not inclined to complain. There are cheering numbers of road signs pointing toward Castlegregory, and I’m starting to feel smug when I see another waymarker that is pointing, indisputably, back down to the beach. That can’t be right.
I consult my guidebook. ‘Return to the beach for two kilometres,’ it says. No getting out of it, then.
The last 2 km are another trial by wind, but at least this time I know (despite my trust of the guidebook being in tatters) that this really is the last of it. One final push, and I turn onto a road that takes me into Castlegregory.
As luck would have it, my B&B in Castlegregory is very nearly as absurdly luxurious as the one in Feohanagh, with a similarly lovely and hospitable owner who hustles me off to my room with the promise of tea and cake in the sitting room once I’ve cleaned up.
It’s only then, when I’m slumped in a huge armchair with the tea tray next to me, that it hits me.
I’ve done it.
Later that evening, after an appropriately celebratory dinner in Castlegregory’s nicest restaurant (which is called Pisces – no prizes for guessing what they specialise in), I’m curled up in bed with Around the World in Eighty Days, feeling drowsily content and my mind anywhere but on the book.
Tomorrow morning I’ll board a bus back to Tralee (the first vehicle of any sort I will have ridden in over a week – a record for me) and, several hours after that, I’ll be back in London. And in some ways, I’m glad. There are some aspects of London I’ve missed – the familiarity of my flat, sleeping in my own bed, good coffee, cooking, elegant dresses and pretty, impractical shoes. My friends, of course.
In other ways, I’ll be sad to leave Ireland. I’ll miss the quiet. I’ll miss being able to lose myself in nature, with the comfort of knowing that the next village isn’t really that far away. I’ll miss the easy friendliness I encountered everywhere. (Not a single person has asked me why I was walking the Dingle Way alone – the usual reaction was just one of surprise and admiration – and I feel grateful for their discretion and for not having once had to explain myself.) I hope I can take a large measure of the calm and contentedness I found on the trail back to London with me – and hold onto it for as long as possible.
Mark Twain once said (and I think I’ve quoted him here before), ‘I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I shall never have to do it again.’ Only half of that applies to my journey along the Dingle Way. It was well worth doing, to put it mildly. And although I very much hope that next summer I won’t be taking my holiday alone, would I do it again?
Yes. A thousand times yes.
Total distance walked: 162 km (including walking done around Tralee on Day 1: 166 km)
Total ascent: 2000 m
Weight of blackberries eaten: 58 kg**
*There is actually one further section of trail – from Castlegregory to Tralee – but most hikers who have walked the Dingle Way clockwise don’t do it as the route, apart from the 6 km between Castlegregory and Camp, is identical to the first day’s section.
**Just kidding, I obviously did not eat my own weight in blackberries.