Walk for the Weekend: Haunting beauty of Glendalough
Like St Kevin, you can still escape the world in Wicklow
It’s a relief to see how little Dublin’s unstoppable expansion has impacted on the Wicklow landscape
Not having been to Wicklow recently, I find the news on the car radio as I pass by Hollywood disconcerting. House prices in Dublin are shooting up like flowers in May and so hordes of people are escaping to the garden county: 3,000 new homes in five years, according to census figures. Crikey, that’s an almighty number. I hope Wicklow isn’t following now the ribbon development route that despoiled much of west Donegal and south Connemara.
Up the King’s River valley and over the Wicklow Gap to Glendasan brings reassurance, however, for the landscape remains delightfully desolate. Glendalough’s upper car park is busy, but, as before, the surrounding landscape retains its signature serenity.
I tag behind a group heading towards Pollanass Waterfall: a pretty little cascade that has carved deep channels into the underlying bedrock. Abandoning the snap-happy group by the falls, I head uphill by following the white arrows for the Spink Loop along a forest track. Next comes a seemingly interminable boardwalk ascent through dense conifers before I escape their claustrophobic embrace. Soon I am rewarded with hauntingly airy views over Glendalough’s Upper Lake.
With great declivities tumbling to my right, I follow the boardwalk until, above the west shoreline of the Upper Lake, the path divides. The right option blossoms upwards to deposit me on a highpoint of the Spink Ridge. Lingering awhile to imbibe the immense vista, I find that the vividly contrasting colours and tiny figures moving purposefully below bring to mind the image of a Constable painting come gloriously alive.
Descending benignly into the Glenalo Valley, I chance upon a herd of deer grazing nonchalantly in the sunshine, seemingly unbothered by my presence. Crossing a stream by a footbridge, I join an informal path that leads over a second makeshift bridge before descending alongside the hurrying waters of the Glenalo River. This is the granite end of Glendalough, and so tough is the rock that the river has failed to carve out a waterfall and so the Glenalo descends in a series of swirling rapids.
A mule track, built to transport ore downhill, descends from here in a series of dog-legs to reach an abandoned lead mine. A thriving and most welcome enterprise in 19th-century Wicklow, mining contributed much to ameliorating the effects of the potato famine, hereabouts. Ore extraction is, however, notoriously a boom-bust industry; falling product prices and increasing difficulty removing lead from the tough Wicklow granite meant that the business ceased operating after the first World War.
Onwards now to a sylvan path along the north shore of the Upper Lake. Here, a sign draws my attention across the darkly mysterious waters to a cave known as St Kevin’s Bed. After journeying to Glendalough to escape the world and devote his life to prayer and sacrifice, this was the saint’s first abode. His escape plan came badly unstuck, however; Kevin’s reputation for piety was such that others followed and created the renowned monastic city further up the valley.
On my final ramble to the carpark I reflect on just how little – despite Dublin’s seemingly unstoppable expansion – the proximity of the city has impacted on the Wicklow landscape, with Glendalough’s haunting beauty still setting it apart in the 21st century, as it did in the era of Kevin.
Spink loop, Glendalough
Suitability: Moderately demanding walk requiring reasonable fitness. Navigation skills unnecessary; just follow the white arrows.
Time: 3.5 hours.
Map: OSi, sheet 56