‘The Wicklow Way’ ( or The Only Way Is Wicklow)
by Seamus Shea
Our aim – to cycle a distance of 80 miles over two days on a ‘National Waymarked’ trail (first to be developed in Ireland) starting in the suburbs of Dublin and ending in Clonegal, Co Carlow. The Wicklow Way, as it’s known, was completed in 1982 and covers wild upland terrain, forestry fire roads, mountain paths, boreens and quiet country roads. Our plan was to get to Glenmalure and stay overnight. This would mark the half way stage and then complete the second half of the The Wicklow Way on day two.
Day 1 – ‘The animals they came in two by two’ – almost. I met up with five others from the Blessington based cycle club the ‘Reservoir Cogs’. The peloton comprised of 2 x Johns, 2 x Séamus’s (one using his Anglo handle as James!!) and 2 x Marks (one to join later) but only one Lorcan, our route master, guide, guru and general group leader. We met at Marley Grange in the suburbs of South city Dublin, the designated set off point. After the statutory photos at the official start point we gingerly set off through the park lands of Marley Park. Once out of the park and under the M50 heading south towards Kilmashogue Mtn we encountered a feature that we would come to know and curse over the next two days, the ‘uphill’. We had no choice so on up we went. As we gained height the clear view over the city of Dublin and beyond was breathtakingly clear and was indicative of the good conditions we were going to be privileged to enjoy over our journey. The mood was jovial and banter ensued. Half way down the slabs of Two Rock, James broke the duck with the first technical, a cracking snake bite puncture, much to his incredulity and denial, but he had clearly underestimated the gullys with the sharp slate sides!!! It was at this stage I discovered he was indeed a ‘roadie’ and not a ‘tractor boy’ – oh well, at least that explained it!! As it was Dublin Horse show week Lorcan awarded him a further four faults, having already had four awarded for a school boy SPD moment earlier. Once re sealed we set off and safely made our way down to the first road crossing. The first section was good and whetted our appetite for things to come.
A nice bit of free wheel on the tarmac through the valley of Glencullen for a while before we entered the plantation to cross Prince William’s Seat and leave Co Dublin for County Wicklow. We maintained a good steady pace and with all of similar ability we keep in touch with each other and enjoyed the convoy. Some nice downhill trails and single track through the ferns brought us to the footbridge that crosses the Glencree river then up into the car park at Crone Woods. Guess what? Some more fire road climbing ensued – with Mark and John Og setting the pace. Then a civilised lunch break was called as we were about 3 ½ hours in. We sat overlooking the picturesque waterfall at Powerscourt – sandwiches and other treats were produced and a well earned sit down and re-fuel was enjoyed. We set off to climb to what would be our highest point over the trail while skirting around Djouse Mtn at an elevation of about 2,067 feet. We did so methodically and were overtaken by a marching man and his two dogs!!! Once regrouped and filled with the stunning views of the Wicklow coast in front of us we set off on the first truly wild sector. A sheep trail scarred in the side of the land with fairly sketchy drops and loose rocky terrain made for a fully concentrated thrill ride of balance and attentiveness. James had a gravity moment (up to 12 faults now) but bounced up from beneath the bracken to confirm he was still intact! That trails then leads you to the beginning of the ‘boardwalk’. Put in to protect the boggy topography. The narrow board walk comprise of 2 x wide railway sleeper style construction elevated 2’ approx above ground. So it’s slim enough for MTB tyres but takes a certain amount of concentration. It goes on for a good while, over a mile or so and offers up a few unexpected narrow troughs where the sleepers join, enough for a MTB tyre to sweetly get lodged in!! It had fencing post ‘U’ type nails knocked in its surface for grip but gave the sensation of riding on ice – very strange – would not enjoy it if it had been wet!
This brought us into Ballinastoe woods, home of Irelands first purpose built MTB trail centre, so it was strange to pass through it and not enjoy the groomed trails that a few of us knew well. We even passed the ‘Gravity Enduro’ sinage for the forthcoming event that weekend – but we persevered with the terrain less suited for MTB’ing and John suggested a bit of ‘off piste’ as it was more downhill friendly!! It was short but very sweet and did not stray us too far off track. Better than the cursed boardwalks that we would have to have followed. To leave Ballinastoe woods we approached a new downhill section. It was downhill boardwalk which looked like something out of an alpine ski jump arena, but stepped!! Not much fun so we carved our own trail through the tress and had much more fun! Finally out onto the road once more over looking Lough Tay. This marked about a ¼ way of our adventure.
The next section from Oldbridge to Glendalough was one of the more fun and memorable. There was lots of fire road, both up and down, a few agricultural trails and we even managed a glimpse of the ‘G-Ride’ (http://www.glendaloughhouse.ie/gride-mtb )at Annomoe. Of course we only ‘glimpsed’ longingly over the low wall at what we were missing out on and imagined as to just how sweet that wee single track must have been!! – Then back on uphill (again) and found ourselves at a hiker’s lodge – new to me, so I was educated to its background and merit. It’s a three sided lean too timber construction with sloping roof, called an Adirondack shelter, constructed by a volunteer group (http://www.pathsavers.org/) dedicated to trail preservation that has upgraded various sections of the Wicklow Way over the years. It’s for any traveller to avail of and they supply basic supplies. But as we stopped and rested it inspired a certain member of the ride to mention scones and coffee – Not ‘scons’ but ‘skoones’ – very posh!! So without further discussion of the variance of the English language we sped on towards Laragh for a ‘SKOONE’ stop. This last wee pootle flowed beautifully and culminated in a great drop in via a series of stepped trail and tight leafy single track where we managed to meet some stoners and then a film crew looking for a waterfall, not sure what they had smoked – random!!! Finally got to the coffee shop at about a quarter to five much to the temporary disdain of the land lady, but when she saw the six of us with arms full of various snacks and drinks she happily re-opened the cake fridge and sorted out tea and coffee all round – No scones though!!
It was now early evening and that lovely time of the day – we skipped the trail through the Glendalough visitors centre and took the road instead to begin what was going to be the harshest climb of the day – probably more to do with the belly full of baked goods and amount of riding already completed. But we eventually got to the top of the fire track nearing the shoulder of Mullacor and then down some more infernal railway sleeper boardwalks. We regrouped and took our time to marvel at the stunning views around us over Lugnaquillia. No car or tourist bus could ever get here, so it’s only enjoyed by those who make the effort, oh and of course the sheep. It was about here we encountered our first puddles!! A great testament to the conditions. Lorcan warned us of the ensuing descents that needed a bit of respect, so off set John and I with a view to ignoring Loran’s sage like advice. There were to follow a few scenes likened to ‘Bambi on Ice’ as we skittled, sketched and generally fell down the damp grassy decline. This led us to the top of what can of what can only be described as a dried out river bed of a trail! It was un-navigable by bike so we carved out our own trails through the tress either side. Finally onto the fire road again we raced on downhill with the smell of home in our nostrils into the welcome valley of Glenmalure and its lodge – where we would spend the night. First things first – A PINT each!!! It was well earned.
Day 2 – As we set off, refuelled and ready, via a classic motor bike rally (I felt like I was back on the Isle of Man) we stopped and posed for a group shot by the ½ way marker. I was shocked to come to the realisation that we were only half way!! I had it in my head that Glendalough was half way and that somehow we had broken through and were well on – so once the bottom lip stopped quivering we set off, yes, uphill. This was to be our last ‘big’ climb and we were assured by Sherpa Lorcan that there would be no more pushing! Last big climb? No more pushing? – me arse!!!! Lorcan was sent to Coventry and advised to only speak when spoken to and he was no longer allowed to offer advice!!! Mutiny was in the air! Still the climb up around Slieve Maan was steady and rewarding. A couple of ‘straight up’ pushes over rock beds and bog. We even had time to discuss the merits of our favourite films! Mark and I even admitted going to see Star Wars when it first came out in Dublin back in the day!!!! How old the youth asked???? Old enough we replied. John Og then decided to try a snake bite too – even with his first four faults he was way off James’s standing record of 12 faults, so far!!
Across tarmac to climb up into Carrickashane then down a cracking slabed trail with gullies that just had to be jumped!! Great big smiles at the end of that section, especially from James who cleared the lot with style and confidence and was now appointed officially as a ‘hairy arsed tractor boy’. We discovered another hikers hut which was remarkably clean and well laid out. We marvelled at the view to the SW looking over Aughavannagh and remarked how soft and rolling the landscape had become after the rugged beauty of the Wicklow. We were clearly moving into more agricultural environs. Some more downhill then across the Iron Bridge where the site of two men bathing in the river made the whole thing a bit ‘Broke back Mtn’ but quickly back up hill again to sweat out the anxiety – this was a relentless and continuous climb but levelled out eventually where we met the three Sweedish walkers who were backpacking around Ireland and it turns out that they lodged in the hikers hut. That explained why it was so clean!!! Blast blast blast on downhill and down tarmac, we were to leave the terrain we were used to for some time now as we started to ride a lot of road and farm track – it was a blessed relief as we were a bit concerned with out average MPH so this momentum would certainly gain us some time back – no scenery to speak of so no need to stop. We eventually came to some tiring grass track climbs that led up to very overgrown fern tracks. Sinage was infrequent and the gates were locked – we figured some persons were not overly happy with Wicklow Way going over their land! It was at some point along this traverse that James decided to fall off again!! 16 faults so was an automatic suspension, but he persisted and we let him come along for the spin. Besides, his youthful banter kept us all going. We spotted the town of Tinahealy in the distance and agreed we’d stray off track for some refreshments and some lunch. This completed we continued re-fuelled. Funnily enough while we were stopped we had the first mild attempt at rain, but it hardly cut through. If that was to be the worst we were going to experience, then we had struck VERY lucky with the weather. On up through what was just old grassy rocky farm trails with broken down walls and plenty of scared sheep and cow shit!!! Quickly off that then onto what was to be a significant run of tarmac. Again this was welcome as our MTB instinct was waning so anything that made the route easier was welcomed! We passed the famous Dying Cow Pub but resisted as we could sense we were nearing the completion of our journey (bollox were we!!!!). We got to a Wicklow Way sign post that indicated 13k to Clonegal, our final destination. It was the most welcome number 13 I have ever seen and we took a shot of inspiration from it until we rounded a series of bends to face up the steepest road climb of the trip. It was as steep as the price of a pint in the Westbury hotel and even had the statutory local toothless farmer shouting words of cynical enthusiasm at us much to his amusement and ours. Eventually at the top we entered Raheenakit Forest. With the respite of knowing that there would be few or no more gates or sty’s to contend with we made good progress. This was a good clear spin with both ups and downs to suit and possibly the last off road challenge before the finish. Once clear of the plantation we hurtled down a series of twisty grass tracks that led us to the last road assault before finishing – with weariness in the legs and lungs we ploughed on with a great sense of accomplishment and self satisfied realisation that we had achieved something fantastic. So while charging home in big ring, our little yellow man, who featured on the Wicklow Way mark signs, to whom we had grown attached to, suddenly pointed uphill through another plantation!!! WTF!!!! It was not so much the terrain, but the knock to the expectation that we were a yard from home! So, on up then up some more, with up followed by more up we eventually rounded the highest point and bumped into Mark No 2 who was our lift home (he had very kindly driven down in order to collect us, top man!!). He had trekked out on his bike to meet us. Seeing him was what it must have been like for Christopher Columbus spotting the first sea gulls on his Atlantic crossing, the relief that land is ahoy – so after a quick greeting we sped on downhill and finally on to tarmac – this was it – a final blast into Clonegal at about 5pm to finish the challenge! Ice creams and photos then into the back of Marks van and back to Blessington!
With 85 miles ridden in about 12 hours over ever changing terrain our expedition was completed. We all went home our separate ways having spent an inspiring and though provoking period together. I was left feeling very satisfied and inspired that starting and finishing something totally different like this is empowering and re-energise the senses that don’t normally get challenged – Would I do it again? No need really, I’ve done it now – besides it’s not mountain bike paradise – but it certainly has inspired me to want to take on another challenge of similar duration.
Great thanks to Lorcan and all the lads from RESEVOIR COGS
Strava for those interested is HERE.