Lyn was presenting at the European Conference on Reading—held this year in Dublin—so we took advantage of the opportunity to put together yet another sightseeing/hiking adventure vacation.
Trying to pick a focal point for a week-long stay in a lore-laden country like Ireland is perplexing. There’s a myriad choices; how does one choose between Galway and Limerick? or turn down a visit to Cork? We had six days to plan for. Using the Lonely Planet Walking Guide for Ireland we narrowed our focus to the best walking areas and finally picked the West coast. The Kerry Way is perhaps the best known area, but to avoid crowds, we decided to start in Dingle, on the peninsular of the same name, and then spend an equal amount of time in Killarney, only a bus ride away.
The Air Canada flight crew seemed surprised and a little put out to find passengers on their flight, and we were not relaxed by the time we landed at Heathrow. Then a crazed dash for an overnight visit to Canterbury, back to Heathrow for a flight to Dublin, a week in Dublin and we were ready for a holiday!
Thurday: Darting to Dingle
So after a full week in Dublin, Lyn was able to begin a vacation proper. We took an early morning cab to the bus depot, where we dumped a large bag containing conference paper, suits, and other excess baggage so that we don't have to drag it around for a week, and caught the bus for Tralee.
We're on our way!
Five of the six hours to Tralee are significant for their uniformity, lulling us gradually into Irish time. We pass through rolling farmland, then more rolling farmland, and rolling farmland. The bus occasionally pulls off the motorway and chugs through a charming village, where we stop so that a couple of ancient citizens can get off and two more can get on.
Then twenty miles from Tralee we see the peaks of the Dingle and Kerry peninsulars on the horizon, brooding under a mantle of grey cloud.
In Tralee, we wait twenty minutes for the Dingle bus, haul our packs aboard and take our seats; the bus rumbles out of Tralee along the foot of the Slieve Mish mountains, with Tralee Bay on our right.
'Peak' is not quite the right word, for these mountains are 'humps' rather than points—the same green giant hills that we hiked in the Lake District in England. (Ours, on Canada's west coast, are only a little bigger but more forbidding, with dense forests and rumpled sides scarred with deep ravines and grey, granite bluffs.)
These, in contrast, are open, grassy, rounded, and mostly treeless, with only the occasional rocky outcrop. The lower slopes are marked off squares of fenced fields where sheep graze, yet this serene green scarcely changes as the your eye travels up the slope: the fences and the sheep peter out; here and there is an isolated stand of trees.
We continue along the edge of the bay and at a town called Camp, half an hour later, the bus turns left and we wind our way up a valley towards a pass over these very hills, with glimpses back. At the top we gain an eagle's vista of the other side: Dingle Bay and beyond to the Kerry peninsula. It's all so peaceful.
There’s only room for a bus and a bicycle on this narrow road and I wouldn't like to be on the bicycle. We roar down the other side, heading along the southern coast, with unspoiled views forever. It isn't long before we seem to be approaching Dingle. Several people on the bus, who seem to know the driver by his first name, remind our bus driver (in case he'd forgotten) that we had asked to be let off at Ballingtaggart Hostel. We pull into a bus stop that must be marked with special runes visible only to the inhabitants because we never did figure out where one was; and after a brief chat with everyone, climb out. We hike back about fifty meters and turn into a driveway leading up to the large hostel, check in...and immediately head out to town. Nice view from the front of the hostel!
We have been told of a scenic walk into town and we find it without too much trouble. It detours out for a very pleasant half hour walk along the headland coastal path and back into the village of Dingle itself. [We took the picture of the house at the top of this article from this path].
After a quick bite at a funky little deli that offered vegi food and a garulous young waitress, then a quick beer at a local pub, we walk the 2Km back to the hostel and crash. Thankfully we are far enough from the younger crowd of hostellers that we do manage to get some sleep!
Our first walk in Ireland and we're looking forward to it. In Dublin, I had been assured by a man I met walking along a Howth Head coast path that "Connor Pass was far and away the most beautiful spot in the world”, so we had been hoping for clear weather for this trip. But when we woke, brooding dark clouds hung in the Pass [photo at right]. It wasn't ideal rain figured heavily in the forecasts for the next few days and we figured since it wasn’t actually raining now, we'd do Connor Pass today rather risk missing out altogether.
We ambled into Dingle first thing, picked up some lunch stuff at the Spar supermarket, had breakfast at Greavey’s (good breakfast; great washrooms!)and headed out.
We took the Connor Pass Road (simple enough eh?) and a nice lady doing some gardening as we passed directed us to a shortcut: a side lane, replete with fuchsia hedgerows (I'm stealing from the guidebook).
I was eying the big hill on the left, remembering our Lake District hikes and pining for both the exercise and the views. But the assigned path went straight up the middle of the valley between hills; not wishing to miss anything (particularly the route!) we trudged gradually upwards sticking faithfully to the trail. It isn't really a chore. Ahead and left our view is only of the higher ground, but to our right the peaceful hills roll blissfully away, and if we get bored with that there's still the pleasant panorama behind us of Dingle and the Bay.
The pass seemed to be about a mile up and we eventually came up over this brow...only to see the actual pass a couple more miles further off. We've come up on the main road again, and it crosses in front of us from the right, heads part way up the hillside on our left before bending back to continue in our direction below the ridge, and then in the distance, cuts back towards our route to go over what appears to be the pass dead ahead.
Following the instructions in our guide book, we crossed the main road and find that our lane had turned “green” (disused). This is the old Connor Pass Road according to our directions: presumably the horses could go straight up but cars and bicycles needed a gentler slope. As we slogged, on the green road, by degrees, became a trail, which then petered out completely. Our barely discernable route through moss, small bogs, grass, and hillocks, could now be found only with the aid of the stones that once lined the edge of the old road, but even this was iffy. There was one small group of walkers ahead of us that we soon passed, so without the reassurance of a throng to follow, we eventually just steered for the "end of the road", visible going over the pass ahead.
This might well have been nasty going in though if we’d been in fog but our luck was improving: as we climbed, the views improved from good to great and when we clambered up to and crossed the road to join another couple of walkers at "the pass" we gained splendid views in all directions.
We had a well-deserved sandwich, seated on this lookout higher up. To head back, we decided to try to make the peak right above us and from there make our way back down the ridge that I had been eying all the way up. We began our ascent but the cloud that had lifted for a while now came back down shrouded the peak. Hiking in cloud in this terrain didn't seem like a good idea. Apart from the difficulty in discerning direction without a view, there's the small matter of the occasional cliff!
So we headed across the slope keeping below the cloud. To give lie to my earlier view that these were rounded, friendly hills, we found that what looked like a minor blemishes in a distant hillside is a bigger obstacle to a human up close. Nothing we couldn't solve with an hour's scrambling but we preferred to detour around what looked difficult and it wasn't a straight line hike down.
Keeping the destination (Dingle) in sight below us, we navigated the occasional fence and rockfall and descended to the brow that I had been eying earlier. Our descent began easier when we picked up a small road that led eventually—past a school of horseback riders—back into town. Dinner at a local vegetarian restaurant later than evening was excellent!
Saturday: The Twilight zone
Most of our hiking trips are blazing successes so it wouldn’t hurt to relieve the tedium with report of an occasional major failure.
We'd learned from the previous day that there was no point in getting up early because nothing was open, so we sauntered into town around 9am. We'd hiked about 22Km yesterday over uneven ground and had sore knees, so something low key seemed appealing for the second day. A local guide book that we'd picked up confidently spelled out a local walk that took in a couple of thousand year old churches dating back to pre-Viking times. Sounds fine eh?
Had breakfast in Greavey’s again and guidebook in hand headed out along “Main Street”. We were curious about the commotion inside a pub that we passed and found out the Lions' game against the Wallabies in Australia was on TV in the pub. Lyn made me watch the game and have a Guinness while she did some shopping. Lions lost but the Guinness was excellent.
When the book botched the description of the turn off the main street we should have heeded the omen: “300 yards” turned out to be about 50 yards but when the estimate is that far off, it takes half an hour of to-and-fro to be absolutely confident that you are in fact making the correct turn off into goodness-knows-where.
We had a pleasant walk for a while, down lanes and across streams, but by degrees, the directions became more obscure and pathways difficult to discern. (Is that 141/2 telephone poles or 14½?)
We managed to beat a path down through a ditch and up through a bramble hedge, and then found the remains of the first old church in spite of the book. While I was looking for the “low mound 300 yards ahead” mentioned in the book, Lyn happened to look to our right and there was the remains of the church in the next field! [picture at left: the altar stone a little way off]. The church, one of two founded by two brothers in 800AD, was overgrown with weeds. In North America, people often abandon old cars like this, so it is refreshing to see the Irish have a similar habit with thousand year old churches!
From here, however, direction-finding went from bad to impossible. A couple of fields later, we could see our destination—the remains of the second church, founded by the other brother—faintly visible in a distant field but we were separated from it by a formidable combination of river, bog and bushes. Whatever confident passage to it had once existed was now gone.
Feeling somewhat peevish, we stomped back into town, but had dinner that night in the same excellent vegetarian restaurant to recover our good spirits.
In spite of the low point, this really had been two and some enjoyable days in Dingle. Now it was time to move on and we took the bus back to Tralee. This time as we came through Camp we ran into a caravan of about half a dozen Gypsy horsedrawn carriages coming the other way. They were spread out over about five miles from Camp towards Tralee, each with half a mile of traffic behind it, as the two lane road was busy and these things weren’t travelling fast. Hope they had a good PR person!
Took the bus to Killarney; two hours later we arrived in town and headed for the local hostel. Had one dreadful night there (be warned: some hostels are great; others are definitely not!) and moved to a local B&B just up the road still only five minutes from the train station.
With one eye on the maps and the other on the weather, we had set about trying to assess the possibilities. The problem in this part of the world is that the walking routes require you to be 20 years old and ready to hike 5 days at a time; there seemed to few attractive day trips from town. Eventually we decided that if we had a good weather we’d take a bus to a point about 20Km out of town, and walk back to town via the trail through the hills marked on the map. If not, we’d resign ourselves to major tourism. Well, the weather didn’t cooperate so we resigned ourselves to major tourism—both days—but it didn’t turn out too badly.
Muckross House and Torc Waterfall
We decided to stick to the lowlands and head out for Muckross House (photo above is from the grounds in front of Muckross House, looking over the lake, which we walked around). Taking our hostel keeper’s advice we cabbed the five miles to MH, and it was a good advice as a five mile hike along a busy suburban road isn’t fun.
We arrived at the entrance to MH, where Lyn took a quick tour of the house, before we headed off through the grounds to Torc Waterfall. It was only a half hour hike through the woods and there we spotted a leprechaun (photo at right).
According to our map, a trail went up behind the waterfall and then out and across to the lake trail, so we set out up a steep climb to the left of the falls. In the Lake District, we had met a 60 year old marathon runner from Colorado who used to run 10K around Buttermere each morning before she went hiking for 8 hours, so it is always with great glee that we hike past any people from Colorado, which we did on this trail. This they told us higher up the trail, where they caught up with us as we stopped to examine the maps (which didn’t tell us anything). They also weren't up to a walk around the lake which really made our day!
We ended up on the lake trail almost by luck, but we enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours walking the 10K or so around the lake, with interesting rivers and great views of the hills. One of the most surprising aspects of walking in this area is the rhododenron cover. We later heard the rhodos had been introduced about eighty years earlier and are now a major problem. They thrived so well that they are over-running the oak that used to cover the area and when you look up the hills, the “emerald” green you can now see is actually huge tracts of rhodos covering the hillsides. [We also saw some scattered thickets of bamboo—and they think the rhodos are a problem!]
That evening we hitch-hiked back into town, getting a ride with a young couple who had arrived here a year or so back, after struggling out of Russia and trying to survive in Europe for a while. They were extremely happy to be living in Ireland!
Day 2: Ross Lake
Ross castle is a relatively short and pleasant walk out from town, except where we had to dodge the dung left by the horse-drawn tourist carriages as we neared the Castle, and we made it to there in about an hour. After a quick look round, we and seventy five octogenarians from Newcastle opted for the hour long boat tour around the lake. Lyn and I sat outside (looking up at all the hiking we would have liked to do), and listened to loudspeaker, as yet another droll Irish tour guide provided an entertaining and informative account of the area..spiced with the now usual long list of indignities that the English had inflicted on Ireland, all of it unfortunately true.
The cottage actually has a very good vegetarian café, where we spent a half hour resting our feet after the boat trip.
Day 3, leaving Killarney meant getting up at the crack of dawn and catching the train to Dublin at 7:43am. We got in around 11:06 (a bit quicker than the bus!) and headed out to the airport, catching a Cheap-Air flight to Leeds/Bradford at 5pm. Brian—of Brian and Nora who we’d met in Nepal last year—met us at the airport and drove us to to their place in Knaresborough for a nice cup of tea while we waited for Diane and Max (also from Nepal) to show up from Northants.
Rambling the Ramparts of York (the City)
Max and Di, Lyn and I left Brian behind, and drove to York for some sightseeing (Foot and mouth severely limiting the walking that was possible). You can walk across the walled centre of York in half an hour, and in fact, we walked back along the top of the wall in less. We did your usual sigh tseeing: the Minster orcathedral, and then a guided tour. The tour wasn’t as good as we might have hoped, but we did end up in the middle of an archeological dig, which had gone down, in the space of a fifteen foot depth, through Victorian, Medieval, Viking and Roman layers! Mind you Betty’s Tea Room was almost as interesting, especially when it came to digging in our wallets.
End of the trip
Max and Di took off Friday night, and Brian and Nora drove us into York the next day to catch the train down to London. We missed the Lions game (thankfully this time), and ended up at Julia’s, of which more anon and elsewhere.