Wandering in a Wicklow Wonderland
By Seán Ó Súilleabháin – Dec 2016
In Joni Mitchel’s song River, as everyone is busy preparing for Christmas, she sings of skating away on a river, wishing for her feet to fly and escape the city. I suspect that this may be a sentiment felt by some people over the next few days. For me, the perfect antidote to the thronged shops and high street shopping is to escape into the great outdoors that Wicklow has to offer. Early morning is my favourite time to set off, when the winter light inches its way over the sleeping hills, awakening every col and glen in a golden glow. Sitting on top of the deep brown bogs, patches of snow glisten like a freshly iced Christmas cake. On close inspection, you might see the occasionally frozen deer print that past this way; the only sign of movement in the still night. Weather permitting, Djouce, Scarr, Tonelagee and the majestic Lugnaquilla are just some of the peaks in this county that await the intrepid hill walker, but a shorter walk up the Great Sugar Loaf is also a popular climb with families. On St. Stephen’s Day, families who wish to work off the previous day’s excess, choose to climb the steep rocky slope where spectacular views of both Wicklow and Dublin Bay can be seen from its quartz capped peak. Looking south, the skeletal trees of December rise up the glacial valley of Glen of the Downs. Not so long ago, this entire valley was a blaze with the ochres and reds of autumn, but now the branches of the bare oak and rowan twist in black inked rivulets against a low winter sky.
December is also a great time of year to meander along some of Wicklow’s fine river walks. You may not see Joni Mitchell skating away, but what you will hear and see is the splash and spill of snow melt pumping life into the Avonmore, the Dargle and the Avoca River. Devil’s Glen Wood, which lies about 6km west of Ashford village, is also one of my favourites places to visit when the voice of the winter river can be heard echoing up through the chamber of ash and alder lined cliffs. Along the Waterfall Walk, you will see many woodland sculptures and poetry quotes from Seamus Heaney that are infused within this natural landscape. Heaney would have walked these woodland paths when he lived and worked in Glanmore Cottage close by, and it is here where poems such as Glanmore Sonnets and the Blackbird of Glanmore were composed. Following the path along the valley, the trail eventually slopes down towards the river where the source of the great tumult finally emerges. It is here where the Vartry River bursts out over polished stone, before cascading dramatically into the frothy brew.
Glendalough on a cold frosted morning in December is also a perfect time to visit this hallowed ground. A deep silence resonates from the ancient stones of chapel, cathedral and tower, which is especially welcome after the hustle and bustle of the tinseled tumult of shopping streets and malls. Following the trail that leads up around the Upper Lake, some of the finest views in all of Wicklow can be seen from the top of the Poulanass Waterfall. From there, the boardwalk leads you over Scarr mountain, which eventually brings you back down through the trees, before arriving at the Upper Lake once more. The view from the top of the waterfall is breathtaking. Snow patched mountains are mirrored in still lake water, with the monastic settlement framed by the distant trees through the mist beyond. It is truly a winter wonderland.
Whatever morning winter walk you choose, once you have recharged both body and mind, a mulled wine or hot chocolate awaits in the Killruddery Christmas Fair market. Here you can taste and buy delicious local produce and beautifully crafted gifts in a relaxed festive environmant. My kind of Christmas shopping. Then with belly full and heat restored, there is nothing left to do but sing along with the minstrels to welcome in the season.
And who but listened?–till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And “Merry Christmas” wished to all.
Minstrels by William Wordsworth.
Seán Ó Súilleabháin
After ten years of living in and exploring Wicklow, Seán Ó Súilleabháin has composed a magnificent and unique guide to Ireland’s Garden County: ‘Wicklow Bound’, A Seasonal Guide.