WALKING / You can't see the trees for the wood: Paul Gosling follows 80 miles of the conifer-laden Wicklow Way and finds it beautiful, if unadventurous

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The Independent Culture
WE WERE told that the Wicklow Way would be extremely beautiful, but dangerous. The Irish, though, have a tendency to exaggerate the characteristics of their landscape. While the long-distance path is, on occasion, very attractive, it is not so much hazardous as unadventurous.

Three of us flew to Dublin one Friday night, escaping England's heatwave for a consistently dry, warm and breezy Ireland. Global warming could be the making of Ireland as a setting for activity holidays.

The Wicklow Way begins in Dublin's suburbs - at Marley Park, an old Anglo-Irish mansion that is now a municipal park - before it crosses the Wicklow mountains, ending after 80 hard miles in the village of Clonegal.

We shared the path on the first day with dozens of Dubliners out for a weekend walk. As the path wound higher through the conifer forest, we glimpsed Dublin and Dublin Bay, by now far below us.

Over the next four and a half days, we lost our enthusiasm for conifers, as the Wicklow Way clung to forest tracks. The views were restricted and there was little sign of wildlife, except for a few pigeons, one red squirrel and more flies than we could tolerate.

Our first day ended at Knockree youth hostel, where we decided to stay on for a second night to allow us to visit Powerscourt Gardens. Happily, much of our next day's walking was across moorland, and I left my companions to go to the top of Djuice Mountain, just off the Way.

A gentle breeze become a gale on the hilltop, forcing me on to my haunches to avoid being blown away. The view was superb, looking across at the sea, down on lakes and valleys, and surrounded by other hills. The 'Sugar Loaf' mountain, a craggy pyramid amidst numerous round-tops, dominated the skyline.

Heading for that night's stop at Roundwood, we passed the memorial to J B Malone (who devised the Wicklow Way in 1966) at Lough Tay. The next day's journey was largely unremarkable, using almost exclusively conifer forest tracks and roads, until we reached Laragh, where a small but beautiful deciduous wood led to Glendalough, our stop for the night. Glendalough is famed for its round tower, part of St Kevin's monastery. Kevin is something of a cult figure here, giving his name to the bus service, ice-creams and tea-shops.

He was a monk who had run away from another retreat, and was then pursued by a local girl. Kevin pushed nettles in her face to get rid of her, and when this failed he murdered her by pushing her into a lake. This homicidally anti-social behaviour was regarded as proof of his devotion, so he was made a saint.

By now I had bought my own map - which I vowed to do after being left behind one night and walking a mile beyond our accommodation - and could appreciate its idiosyncrasies. South is at the top, and north at the bottom, which caused continual confusion.

Ireland's Ordnance Survey maps are even less helpful, as the 1:50,000 maps for most of the area covered are currently out of print, and in any case miss out some useful things, such as paths.

Another problem for us was that we were walking into the middle of nowhere - it was difficult to find a bar for lunch, impossible to visit a shop for supplies, and hard work to reach overnight stops.

We walked 17 miles the next day, via Mullacor Peak, the highest point on the Way, where we could see for probably 25 or 30 miles. This was where the Way could be dangerous in misty weather. It was also one of the few places where the waymarking was poor.

That night we stayed at Aughavannagh youth hostel, the former hunting lodge of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Anglo-Irish protestant who became leader of Ireland's home rule movement. With ironic symmetry, the building is now surrounded by a firing range of free Ireland's armed forces.

After another half day of conifers and roads we hit the joy of our walk, the boreens. These are ancient green lanes, bordered by hedgerows and stone walls, which have been used for centuries by travellers and to move livestock.

The lanes followed the contours of the hills allowing us to see for miles, over the valleys and back to the conifer forests, which only now appeared beautiful. We added to our packed lunches by eating wild strawberries and raspberries - the plentiful blackberries were not yet ripe.

We found civilisation again at Tinahely, which seemed to us a bright metropolis of bars, shops, a hotel and dozens, possibly hundreds, of residents. We slept here for two nights as our landlady offered to pick us up the following day from Shillelagh, enabling us to do a day's walking without packs. We considered this generous, until we were given our bill.

There was just one more day of walking to reach Clonegal, a small but beautiful village at the foot of Mount Leinster. We did not even complain about the final march in on roads, it was such a pleasure to finish.

We staggered into a bar, and celebrated with a drop of the black stuff. As a welcome bonus we stayed at our favourite accommodation of the walk, Clonegal House, a lovely 18th-century rectory. Behind it is Huntingdon Castle, built by the English, but used from 1926 to 1931 by the IRA as its regional headquarters.

Clonegal was the end of our path, although a more attractive walk might have started where the conifer forests end, at Moyne, just before Tinahely, and continued over the Leinster hills. We could have carried on to do just that, of course. But our priority was to head for the coast to recuperate.

The Wicklow Way: The Map Guide for Walkers is published by EastWest Mapping of Dublin.

(Photograph omitted)

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