Irish Coast to Coast
The Irish Coast to Coast extends 370 miles from the city of Dublin across the southern countryside to Bray Head on Valencia Island. It is actually five different footpaths linked together beginning with the Wicklow Way and ending on the Kerry Way. The three trails in the middle: the South Leinster Way, the Munster Way and the Blackwater Way, are lesser known trails. Even on the well-known sections, this trail will seldom be busy with tourists. In fact, you may seldom see anyone; not surprising since Ireland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe and overwhelmingly rural.
Th trail begins on the outskirts of Dublin at Marley Park which is accessible by bus. Walkers are quickly transported from the bustling city to the quiet of the Wicklow Mountains. For several days Dublin harbor can be seen to the north while miles of rolling green farmland stretch southeast to the Irish Sea. Since much of the trail is on forest roads, river tow paths or country lanes, a pattern that continues throughout the hike, walking is easy underfoot and despite several days of long mileage, is not taxing. The trail contains more road walking than I prefer, but even that has its advantages as route-finding is easy, peat bogs are short-lived and you can make good time.
If you’re looking for dry weather, go to Ireland in the spring. We set off during the last part of April and hiked for 12 days without ever putting on our rain jackets. Not bad for a country that sees around 240 days of rain per year. As one pub owner noted, “We know it’s summer when the rain is warmer.” On rainy days showers last 30 sections. Then just as you’re about to zip up your rain parka, the sun is brilliant. Likewise, by the time you stop to think about whether to abandon your coat, a dark cloud warns of more to come. Ireland is also one of the windiest places on earth, yet its climate is much milder than that of Britain. You might be surprised to find a palm tree in almost every yard, something so strange for a country as far north as Newfoundland.
It is important to note that this trail is not a backcountry experience. While carrying all our belongings on our backs and traveling by foot, at day’s end we indulged in the luxuries of intimate bed and breakfasts. Many Irish B&Bs are purpose-built and provide high quality accommodations, with separate sitting and dining rooms for guests. Orthopedic beds are widely advertised. We voted them the best beds in the world. Breakfast is always huge beginning with an assortment of cereal and fruit followed by a plate of eggs, bacon, sausage and black pudding if you so desire. Although white toast is almost always served, the best part of breakfast is the Irish soda bread, a dense brown bread that tastes wonderful with lots of pure cream butter. Don’t worry about the calories or carbs. Guilt-free eating is a walker’s perk. Ireland is not cheap. A good B&B, however, is an extremely good value and the best way to meet the locals.
Booking this trip was easy. We contacted the Irish tourist board for the strip maps of each individual walk. Inside each packet was a list of accommodation along or near the route. Small icons denoted whether they provided evening meals, packed lunches or would pick you up and drop you off at the trailhead if located off the route. Unlike most of the long-distance trails in England which make a point of connecting with small villages, the Irish Coast to Coast at times tended to leave you out in the sticks. In the world afoot, added distance can be a nightmare. Accommodations that catered to walkers understood and rose to the occasion. I counted 26 times someone picked us up, took us to a pub, a restaurant or grocery store or returned us to the trail.
The Irish tended to go out of their way for us. Dan’s Bar in Bweeng (on the way to Nad’s Bog) like most pubs, did not serve food. But he had drinks, peanuts protection from the elements and a warm peat fire. We sat inside for a break. Next thing we know Dan is bringing baskets of hot french fries, a full plate of sausages and a pot of tea. Since he couldn’t sell food we pleaded for him to take a generous tip. He flatly refused. “There is one thing you can do for me,” he said. “When you return home, send me a postcard.”
Walking may be the best way to truly see a country, yet on this particular trip it took me a while to feel I had grasped what really made Ireland…Ireland. it’s not part of the British Isles nor is it Europe. There’s a sense that it sits on the outskirts of a much larger and more cohesive part of the world, doing it’s own thing. People live in the towns where they were born. Community events, weddings, funerals, these are important to the Irish. I remember riding the bus and hearing on the radio about every funeral within 50 miles. On leaving a pub during bingo night, which raised support for the local rugby team, an older woman questioned David on why he wasn’t staying to play. Thinking she would be impressed and surely sympathetic, he explained that we had walked almost 25 miles and had a long day tomorrow. She immediately straightened her shoulders and retorted as if he were a mere schoolboy, “Well! That’s a poor excuse.”
As for walking 370 miles, it really wasn’t that hard. It’s amazing how fast the miles add up when you walk everyday. My pack weighed just over 20 pounds and was never a concern. I was disappointed that although becoming very fit, I didn’t lose much weight. They say that as a woman approaches 50, weight loss, even from hearty exercise, becomes more difficult. While it could have been due to the fact that muscle weighs more than fat, most likely it was due to a fondness for Irish soda bread.
Bill Bryson, well-known travel writer, noted as he walked the Appalachian Trail that every twenty minutes the long-distance hiker walks further than the average American walks in a week. This may be a sad fact, but I’m convinced it’s because Americans have not discovered the secret. Walking is an intoxicating experience and once discovered, it can change your life. It can also change the way you travel. Over and over I hear foreigners lament about the American obsession with visiting as much territory in as short a period of time as possible; rushing from one destination to another, thus seeing and experiencing nothing of the real place. Walking is slow and absorbing. There’s also a freedom in just walking out the door and heading down the road.
Whatever way you choose to travel, Ireland is beautiful and welcoming and the prospect of middle-aged Americans walking, not only evoked interest, but seemed to elicit a hope that more would follow. As one pub owner said when giving us his business card, “Do me a favor and pass this along.”
HOW IT STACKS UP
Although I enjoyed the middle of this hike, the Wicklow Way and the Kerry Way were by far the most beautiful sections and the easiest to follow. Private property is a big deal in Ireland which means that a lot of this trail, especially in the middle, is on pavement. There are also some gaps between the different sections which must be negotiated. Accommodation is not readily available right on the route which requires contacting your lodging beforehand and setting up pick-ups etc. For this reason, I probably wouldn’t recommend this trail to a novice long-distance walker. Food is frightfully expensive, but B&Bs are nice and a very good value.
Ireland – Coast to Coast