Walking Hiking Rambling

A Trip to Tipperary

Time to report on a modest Irish ramble after recent foreign escapades.

I’d been reading for a couple of years about a small village in deepest Tipp that has gone to great efforts to sell itself as a walking destination, setting up 3 Failte Ireland looped walks, guided walks and an annual walking festival. So when looking for a bank holiday hike location on line and seeing on the Irishtrails website that one of the loops was dog friendly ( a hard to find rarity) we loaded the camper and headed southeast… to Upperchurch.

West of the Nenagh to Thurles road the village is at the eastern end of the Slieve Felim mountain range and set amidst a beguiling landscape of rounded rolling hills of fine green grassland and forest in the full forty shades with a fair smattering of golden gorse.

Unusually for rural Ireland these days the village still has 3 functioning pubs, a shop, community Centre complete with crèche and climbing wall and an information center. We stopped there to try and get maps of the walks and discovering it to be shut tried one of the bars. The welcoming owner spent some time rummaging around but couldn’t find what we wanted so kindly got his coworker to open the info centre and furnish us with leaflets and maps.

We discovered that the Beara- Breifne Way, a (very) long distance hiking trail that commemorates the 14 day/ 250 mile forced march of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork to Leitrim, passes through here. Too late in the day to explore we headed up to the Ballyboy lookout to park up for the night.

In the very early morning we were surprised to be woken by increasing car activity outside. Still dark we couldn’t see what was occurring. We thought perhaps late night revelers or predawn hunters. But then I remembered some briefly scanned mention of an Easter Sunday Sunrise Mass happening somewhere in the area. I quickly got some clothes on and emerged from the van like a risen prophet to discover rows of seats had been placed in front of the camper and many folk in high viz looking expectantly towards me. Whoops- we’d parked in the alter-place. After a bit of banter I explained we were going to Upperchurch for a walk but as there were by then about 100 walkers heading up the road towards us was advised to go the opposite way, passing many more folk on their way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

With the full moon still hanging above the misty valley in the dawn light we headed off into the mountains named in Irish after an ancient goddess, Sliabh Eibhlinne- the mountains of Ebliu.

After stopping for breakfast and waiting for the sun to burn off the mist we started off from the village on the Eamonn an Chnoic loop. Eamonn, or Ned of the Hill, was one of the 17th century Robin Hood type outlaws championing the cause of the dispossessed natives and harassing the English planters. Born locally he roamed these hills after shooting a tax collector dead for confiscating a poor women’s cow before coming to a sticky end , murdered for blood money, and his exploits inspired a famous ballad.

Passing another local walk initiative , a bog walk and garden, we continued up the quiet country road accompanied by our first cuckoo song of the year.

At our first stile we were disappointed to see a no dogs sign. We’d chosen this walk because it was listed as dogs permitted so with our mutts on leads and best behavior we carried on across a series of fields and stiles slowly climbing through Glenbeg.

Passing a picnic spot overlooking the still misty river valley to the south we continued up on farm tracks beside a mass of sweet smelling gorse towards a band of forestry.

Turning east at the forest we followed an ancient sunken greenway through the gorse and bilberries and down towards a cottage near a ring fort.

We passed the site of a pre-famine hedge school where a schoolmaster named Burke held the only available classes of that period. Hard as those times were, the wildflowers in the “classroom” might have made things more pleasant than in the Industrial schools some of the children have have ended up in.

After only 500m of tarred road we were off cross country again for the rest of the walk. Climbing again to another block of forestry on the high ground we walked the fields beside what had been the official trail, now swallowed by gorse.

The forces of nature had overwhelmed other remnants from the past too. We failed to see the old potato ridges and foundations of a famine village supposed to be visible. 29 families from here emigrated to Monroe county in Iowa on one day in 1879. But we did see what’s left of a Bronze Age ring barrow and a little further along a rare bowl barrow.

Downhill all the way back to the village we had one slight route finding problem where signage was missing and fencing down but it was all very pleasant in the spring sunshine.

We took a quick detour to Holy Cross Abbey on our way to another looped hike at the Devils Bit. The restored Cistercian monastery has impressive stonework and a marvelous sloping floor beneath the pegged oak roof timbers.

But the real draw for pilgrims over the last 800 years is a silver crucifix containing a relic of the true cross on which Jesus is said to have died. This, along with another artifact were stolen in October 2011 and recovered by the Garda 3 months later in what the parish priest Fr Tom Breen said ” once again demonstrates the power of praying”.

Another cross was our next destination but at ,45 ft high and a span of 25ft , was somewhat bigger.

Standing at 480m on an outcrop ( known as the Rock) it boasts a view of 8 counties. I always thought that the devil had spat ” the gap” that he bit out of the mountain to form the Rock of Cashel but then I read that the Rock of Cashel is actually (!) the tooth he spat out after breaking it biting the mountain.

Easter Sunday and the car park was jammers with families setting off up the steep track towards the Rock.

Passing Carden’s Folly where Daniel O’Connell is supposed to have addressed a monster meeting of 50,000 tithe payment resisters and a mock ” burial” of the tithes took place, we reached a stone alter and Marion shrine- the scene of another open air mass and pilgrimage in July.

A steep stony scramble had us up to the looming cross and we rewarded ourselves by soaking up the 360 degrees views of the fertile plains and half a dozen mountain ranges faint in the hazy light.

We descended by climbing down a cliff face on the eastern side, down past another Marion shrine and into the gap that broke the devils teeth.

Nice to explore another unknown patch of Ireland and reaffirm that it’s still a varied and beautiful place to ramble around.

HIKING IN THE HIGH ATLAS

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I received a text.

“Hi Steve, how’s it going? I’m going for a walk in the Atlas. Wondered if you wanted to come”

It had come at a tricky time to justify going for a ramble, not long back from an extended trip to Spain. On the other hand, Bill, my mate for 55 years, had been going to the Atlas regularly and inviting me to join him for many years and so far I hadn’t managed it. As my mortality became more obvious my belief in “seize the day” became more obvious too, so I approached my significant other with the idea.  Keen to see a husband stressed out by a building project return to a more chilled state of mind she approved the plan.            10 days trekking with Bill and hopefully one of his Berber acquaintances from the mountains would be good for my mental health and my waistline. Not speaking French (or Berber!) and not being one for organised group tours, this would be a perfect opportunity for me to explore an exciting and exotic area within reach of a Ryanair flight.

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The Atlas mountain range stretches around 2,500km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. I was headed for the High Atlas sub range in central Morocco, to the area near Jebel Toubkal- North Africa’s highest mountain (4167m), still deep in snow and off limits for us. Just 65km from the hustle and bustle of the Marrakesh souks and Medina, the snowy peaks were clearly visible from our shared “grand taxi” as we set off for Setti Fatma, a popular day trip from the city- where escapees from the exhausting heat of the plains can rest and dine beside the clear ,cold waters of the Ourika river valley and visit the snowmelt waterfalls, complete with groups of Barbary apes.

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The tarmac road runs out here and after a meal with Mohammed, a local guide and friend of Bills to get the low down on snow conditions on the high passes, we shouldered our packs and set off upriver in the glorious spring sunshine.

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Mohammed had talked about the problems arising from the terrible murder of two Scandinavian women hiking in the area last December. Although an increased police presence and security meant that the High Atlas was probably one of the safer regions in the world presently, the numbers of tourists and particularly hikers, was down significantly. This had a big impact on the Berber guides, muleteers, tour operators and gite owners who rely heavily on the flow of visitors to the mountains. Also damaged was the reputation of the people of the Berber villages in the mountains, an unwarranted slight on some of the most welcoming, friendly, happy and hospitable people I have come  across, despite their relative material poverty.

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The dirt track followed the river bed with numerous bridges over a multitude of water courses before turning up on a zigzagging route that climbed the steep valley sides to present us with fine views back down towards Setti Fatma and deep into the mountains to the west.

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We passed a succession of earthen walled and roofed houses stacked up on the mountain slopes and immaculate layers of terracing with their iridescent green covering standing out from the buff and ochre surroundings.

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It took us nearly 4 hours to climb the 12km to reach our goal, Timichi, at around 2000m. We were very warmly greeted at their gite or hostel by Brahim Oussalm and his family whom Bill has been visiting for over 20 years.

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Over sweet mint tea and then a filling dinner a plan was put together. Brahim was now 80 and no longer a muleteer and guide but Abdelhadi, one of his sons, (he has 13 children), agreed to join us. A clockwise circular route was devised keeping us mostly between 2000m and 3000m with some lower valleys and higher passes. We would find places to stay in the Berber villages over the following 9 days and hike between 10km and 20km a day through  varied  country, some of which is truly off the tourist trail.Atlas map

(I managed to get hold of a map after a couple of days on the trail, but unfortunately it didn’t include the northern end that we tackled on the last couple of days.)

We needed to make an early start in the morning with the next day involving a climb of 1200m into snow, so with the altitude already making itself felt a little- I retired to the simple sleeping quarters.

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Setting off into the chilly dawn after a substantial breakfast we climbed a steep mule trail between rocks and scrub before emerging onto a gravel track. Big changes have occurred over the last few years for the Berber villages dotted around these mountains. The dots have been joined by a string of pistes or vehicle tracks, although we would only see a handful of jeeps and trucks over our 10 day journey. Electricity has also arrived and with it the surreal combination of centuries old earthen and stone houses adorned with satellite dishes and street lights to brighten the narrow warren of rough footpaths.

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The track ran out after passing the strangely painted building in Labassene and a narrow trail wound its way on up towards the pass of Tizi n’ Tacheddirt entering the Toubkal National Park as the landscape became harsher, devoid of vegetation but for some ground hugging cushion plants and ancient juniper trees.

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The patches of snow around us grew into a smooth blanket we traversed before reaching the pass at 3230m and the vista towards the west drew us down to eventually join a piste that led to Tacheddirt village, at the far end of which we were able to rest and warm ourselves on the balcony of our gite.

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We sat and watched the passing life, friendly kids shouting hello as they played risky football on the tiny patches of flat land and young girls and women returned with their small herds of sheep and goats, the occasional cow led from behind by holding fast to their tail and huge bundles of fodder and firewood on the womens’ backs. Every family seemed to have a few hens and cocks that all mixed together in the streets/paths and chased each other from rooftop to rooftop.

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The well tended terraces obviously produced a lot of vegetables judging by our dinners. Onions, beans, cauliflower, carrot, marrow, greens and particularly potatoes. Barley was also grown for the grain and also cut repeatedly for fodder. There was also large variety of fruits and nuts with walnut the main, most important crop.

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We were fed very well in all the houses we stayed in- the very simple kitchens preparing fresh bread and olive oil dip with mint tea on arrival- a tagine of veg and chicken or couscous for dinner and breakfast of pancakes and jam, yogurt, omelette and fruit.           Including our accommodation the bill was normally around  120dirhams or €12. Abdelhadi had friends and relatives in many of the villages and we were often offered mint tea, pored from a height into tiny glasses, along our way.

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Brahim’s cousin owned our next nights gite, in Mzik, a couple of km above Imlil, the main base for climbers and trekkers heading off for Toubkal. We reached it after crossing the valley and climbing to another pass, Tizi N’Tamatert at 2280m where there was a roadside cafe/shop/gite and muleteers transported the luggage of climbers setting off to scale the peak of Adrar Tamalroute.

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We descended from the pass through a sparse but shady pine forest, the trees bedecked with the white fluffy cocoons of the processionary moth. The valley widened out before Imlil and the relative prosperity of the town was revealed in some new and grand houses, the presence of cars and the amount of productive land. There are jobs here too, for guides, expedition and tour companies and shops selling outdoor equipment and the gear left behind the gear left by trekkers after returning from Toubkal.

Prince Harry and Meghan had been in the area the week before, visiting a secondary boarding school for girls in Asni set up to enable them to continue an education where only a quarter of them would normally get beyond primary level.

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Our gite was in a less developed area surrounded by unfinished buildings and roadworks but the view from the rooftop was lovely with the minaret of the mosque positioned between the peaks that echoed to the muezzin’s call to prayer 5 times a day.

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The washed clothes I hung on our open window grill that night were as wet in the morning and we got out the waterproof jackets before heading off into the drizzle up into the cloud on a rocky track through clumps of broom, pine, holm oak and juniper to Tizi n’Mzik at 2500m. Damp and cold, with the juniper dusted with snow, we replenished our energy with dates and nuts before starting down the slippery scree slopes towards the Azzadene valley, still lost in the mist.

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Eventually the cubist forms of the mud houses of Tizi Oussem emerged from the gloom and we were very grateful to have some hot sweet mint tea after finding the gite clinging to the slopes. I watched a women repairing her mud roof after the rain and  later our host invited us up to the kitchen for dinner- a thick barley soup and tagine- while we dried our clothes near the fireplace, and he made a huge bowl shaped loaf for breakfast.

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The clouds had lifted by the morning and we left the village to follow the Azzadene valley on a red earth piste past a string of hamlets built of the same vivid mud. The landscape was made up of different mineral rich rock types with hues ranging from black to purple, pink, red, grey, and green.

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Climbing through Tizi n’Techt we left the piste and turned to descend on a twisty scree trail towards the Ait Mizane valley, stopping for lunch among the sheep and goatherds whose flocks had nibbled the juniper into artful topiary.

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Clambering down through the buildings and tree blossom we crossed the river and climbed around the side of the mountain to another pass at Tizi el Bour to reach Imska after a 4 1/2hr hike. We were greeted by a smiling old women at the gite who was now running the place on her own after the loss of her husband. The Berber women seemed to be more independent and socially outgoing than I had imagined and although we were only witness to a snapshot of their obviously hard lives, I was often impressed by the great amount of shared laughter and joyful chat amongst groups of animated and smiling women and girls dressed in flamboyant and colourful clothes. ( They weren’t keen on being photographed so I didn’t).

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The next 2 days saw us climb up the Valle de Imenane from Imska on mostly gravel tracks through a scattering of villages to a gite at Ouaneskra and from there a steep trail up to the pass of Tizi n’ou Addi at 2954m and down through a beautiful high broad valley where clusters of shepherds houses awaited their seasonal occupation.

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We started to see the ski lifts on the outskirts of Oukaimeden, Morocco’s only real ski resort and although there was very little skiable snow on the Sunday we were there the place was very busy with a big car park full of flashy motors, and  a mass of Marrakech day trippers walking or donkey riding up the slopes and eating and drinking in the wealth of restaurants and cafes. It was all a bit of a shock to the system after the empty trails and although we had planned on staying there the night we were relived to discover it was way too expensive and meet a fellow who had a simple room available in the village of Ait el Kack another 6 or so km down the valley to the east.

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The geology of the landscape had changed again and the deep canyon like red sandstone gorge we hiked through had little quarries where the paving and building slabs were teased from the rock and transported by mules to the roadside for sale. (About 70c a flagstone!)

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Our host for the night must have been doing ok from the overspill trade from Oukaimeden as he had a cow tethered on a little patch of ground joining the house and a great big  flat screen TV that the family gathered round all evening, although it was only showing the channel listing anytime we passed by. In the morning we disappeared off the top of my map on a new track being made that will eventually be tarmac and link all the way around to the Timichi valley and on around to Oukaimeden again creating a high level circular route through the currently remote and peaceful mountains.

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We reached a beautiful, broad and verdant plain high in the folds of the mountains with emerald fields of grain separated by rocky paths and walls in a landscape somewhat reminiscent of my local Burren stonescape complete with carpets of a delicate alpine flower. We were hoping to stop for the night here but the gite was shut forcing us to carry on another couple of hours on the empty and surreal highway cut through the red rock.

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We found a bed in the small village of Uouiri where the gravel track ran out, in a house run by the young daughters of a couple gone off to the souk in Marrakesh.The children here as in all the villages had simple pleasures- a game of marbles or stone tossing- riding recycled bikes- passing chase and football on levelled village pitches and other DIY pastimes. No screen hours here. We managed to capture a small bird and undo the string attached to its leg, only to discover later it was the small boy’s pet !

IMG_E2291IMG_2249Although a charming place and hosts I was unfortunately ravaged in the night by not only bedbugs but fleas as well leaving me with big itchy lumps for days. Having done a long day we were left with a short walk in the morning so we went off piste and took a scenic route round to Boulzgarn, where we were invited in for tea by a relative of Brahim, and admired his hamman or sauna. These structures are popular washing and social places in the villages, segregated by sex- where the women bath naked together but the men remain costumed, another surprising feature of supposedly modest muslim women.

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On our way out of the village on the maze of narrow paths we passed a fine example of the Berber village “downpipe”, a smoothly rendered line that takes the water from the earthen roof.

IMG_2316IMG_2317IMG_2319IMG_E2323Back to the trail we continued on to Chiker, our last stop before our return to Timichi and the first place we had encountered any other hikers – a group of students from Holland. On route we passed a flattened threshing area, similar to the many “eras” I have passed on my Spanish rambles. The views we encountered up and down the Ourika valley were the same as 9 days previously but from an even higher level.

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The next morning we set off past the diggers and trucks constructing the new road snaking through the steep sided slopes of rock, scree and  terraced fields, and Abdelhadi pointed out the spot where one villager had lost their lives falling into the gorge whilst collecting fodder. I wondered if and how a tarmac connection to the outside world would ease their harsh labour intensive lifestyles. Winding relentlessly down to the lush water meadows of the valley bottom, we rejoined our original route to Timichi where we were again received with a warm welcome from Brahim and that night were presented with a feast of couscous and chicken worthy of heros.

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Brahim declared that he was going to market the following day and would accompany us on our final leg back to Setti Fatma from where we could get a bus to Marrakech. Abdelhadi was happy to be reunited with his young family whom he proudly took us to meet in the small and smokey building he called home. Adjoining it was a pile of concrete blocks and a small patch of levelled ground from an obviously long stalled extension project that Bill and I were happy to help fund in an (unasked for) gesture of thanks for all his time, effort, knowledge and company.

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After saying our goodbyes in the morning we shouldered our packs for the last time and followed Brahim out. Rather than go back on the track the incredibly nimble 80 year old led us down through the green and shady woods and fields of the river valley stepping lightly over the numerous irrigation streams and channels. As we worked our way down stream the valley walls closed in and the watercourses merged to form a fast flowing turbulent body of water that we were frequently forced to cross on wobbly boulders.            While Brahim stepped lightly and quickly across we quivered and quaked somewhat before stumbling towards the octogenarians outstretched hands. An exercise in humility.

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It was a beautiful way to finish our journey around the mountains, in the company of a man whose deep connection to the place and its people had existed for over 80 years and alongside, (and finally and inevitably IN), the waters that give it and them life.

An awe-inspiring landscape, a welcoming population. Good food and great trails. An exciting history and culture and a lesson in the possessions/happiness equilibrium . And all on the doorstep of Europe. Go before its bound with tarmac ribbons.

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Sierra de Aracena

The largest Natural Park in Andalucia, the Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche is 184,000 hectares of prime walking country.

100km northwest of Seville, in the province of Huelva, this is where the cross Spain ridges of the Sierra Morena finally run out and the Atlantic weather systems drop their water bombs after crossing Portugal unchecked. Lush, green and 90% forested, the softly rounded hills, covered in their blanket of oaks and pines and chestnut are less rugged and wild than many higher, steeper and rockier Sierras but the Aracena is a hikers paradise with long or short walks on moderate gradients winding along the wealth of old drovers that string the pueblos and villages together.

We did 5 long looped rambles over 5 days, and felt we could have lost ourselves in the shady valleys and over the high ridges for months tramping the cobbled mulo trails.

Our first couple of days were spent around Aracena town itself, a charming centre famous for its fantastic cave system right in the middle of town. Supposedly discovered by a shepherd and first opened to the public in 1914, the km or so of passageways and caverns visited on the tour feature a truly awesome ( not a word I use lightly) display of all forms of stalactite and stalagmite, the likes of which I have never seen before. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I can only illustrate by showing a poster of just one interesting element.

We started early on our first 11km walk on a misty and then drizzly day, a loop to Corteconcepción. The moisture was a good illustration of how the region is seemingly so fertile and lush. Most of the fincas had fine huertas, or garden areas, which even out of season had a wide variety of fruit and veg, irrigated by various systems of water control, including one way stream gates.

A very catholic rural people, there was an abundance of roadside shrines and gatepost tiles depicting the Virgin Mary, and the entire landscape was dotted with chapels, churches, convents, monasteries and hermitages.

Passed the gardens of brassicas, root crops and the last remains of peppers, tomato etc and the orchards of orange, lemon, chestnut, pomegranate and persimmon was rich Dehesa country. Tracks lined with Arbutus, the strawberry tree, their fruit littering the ground, their flowers decorating the branches in a fitting Christmas style, were surrounded by oaks of every kind, under which the Iberian pigs snuffled and snorted, hovering up the plump and plentiful acorns.

Unlike a lot of our Spanish treks we were often accompanied by the gurgling and burbling of running water and had to ford streams on a variety of stepping stones and bridges.

We spent the drizzly afternoon in the caves and in museums of jamon (ham) and setas (mushrooms), both of which, along with chestnuts, the region is rightly famous for. Autumn is the time to be here with a rich harvest going on and the chestnuts turning golden brown. The huge variety of mushrooms is amazing with many kinds gathered for the kitchens and tables.

And as for the jamon, as much as we relished seeing the pigs enjoying their free ranging freedom, ( indeed we came upon many living feral in the open hills) the sad truth displayed in the museum of jamon was that it all ended in butchery.

But at least the end product was treated with a reverence rarely seen bestowed upon food unfortunately. There are many outlets in the area and indeed across Spain that are akin to cathedrals of pork, with the Iberian acorn fed pigs from Jabugo and the Aracena area on the high alter, and the jamon costing many hundreds of euro.

Next day was brighter and drier and we took off on another 16km circular route from Aracena west to the village of Linares de la Sierra.

Finding or way out of town past the sports arena , swimming pool and football pitch we soon found ourselves among the freshly peeled alcornoques or cork oaks on a path shared with walkers and riders.

The amount of material gathered sustainably from the cork oaks is very impressive and must involve some hard graft with ladders and mules needed to harvest the trees across the hard to reach sierra. Although the wine industries adoption of plastic corks created worries for the indigenous industry there seems to be a big revival of other cork products and an impressive selection of goods are on sale in the area.

The trail climbed a ridge and then descended towards Linares, tucked deep into the folds of the green hills. We walked on sandy tracks, rocky trails and cobbled paths accompanied by birdsong, cowbells and snorting pigs.

The village itself was an exhibition in the art of cobbling. The houses had individual designs in black and white marble cobbles at their front doors, the streets were intact and maintained and there was new and restored cobbling going on around the church.

On our return to Aracena we passed through some more open country with big fincas, the gate posts displaying the hieroglyphic initials or signs with which their stock was branded. There was also one signed with the distance to Santiago de Compostela, presumably a returned pilgrim. And then on the approach to town some tasteful and expensive looking holiday rentals.

Finishing our circle we drove to our next days starting place outside Alájar, another attractive town in a beautiful setting with towering peak of Pena de Arias Montano rising sheer above it. We drove to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels half way up and hiked up to the mirador for mighty views across the Sierra.

A shortish 12km loop with plenty of ups and downs circled from Alájar back to Linares by way of the once abandoned but now being resettled hamlet of Los Madroneros.

A new concrete track covers most of the distance to the isolated hamlet where solar panels and mobile phones have made living or staying out here a more viable option. There has been a fair bit of reconstruction going on and there are places to rent for anybody looking to avoid the rat race for awhile.

Our route now lead us through an area with broken down walls where the resident pigs had access to miles upon miles of open territory and even abandoned houses. Remarkably tame they joined us for a picnic.

Our approach to Linares was marked by a lot of wilder, less managed Dehesa with horse and scrub replacing the grazing grasses.

After a couple of cafe con leches in the bullring bar we climbed back up towards the camper on a steep track past the poolside Riberas recreation area where a dammed stream has become a popular picnic spot.

Alájar was busy with visiting school kids and people preparing the village for Christmas so we headed for the hills to stay in Castano del Robledo, ready for an 18 km circle from there to La Pressa, Alájar and back.

From our fine (and quiet) park up next to the cemetery we descended in the morning through a misty mixture of chestnut and pines with views out across the forested slopes.

Coming to the valley floor we crossed various streams many times and on one I came a cropper and ended up on my back in the water.

The riverside walk was obviously visited by school kids who had left pictures and poems celebrating nature along the route and even had a little library in a grove of trees.

It was here we met a bunch of escapee piglets who showed no fear as they rootled past.

Past an enclave of holiday haciendas built by Dutch settlers, on a lovely track into Alájar and then up a cobbled way past the hippy hamlet of El Calabacino.

Abandoned and then squatted the community has now been regularized and some of the houses/ fincas look very settled and established.

Above the hamlet the cobbled gave way to a concrete track that turned into a rutted sandy one that climbed up through our first large scale chestnut groves. Brought to this part of Spain by settlers from the north and Galicia after the reconquest the ancient and venerable trunks, pollarded for hundreds of years, have born witness to many changes to an area which on first impressions seems timeless.

The final leg back to Robledo was down through deciduous oaks where the wildlife was dangerous, and into the town square woolbombed for Xmas.

More knitted decorations at the start of our last days loop, from Almonaster La Real, up the Cerro de San Cristobal mountain and around through Arroyo and Acebuche, a distance of around 14 km.

Looking back towards town on our steep onward bound trail the 10th century hilltop mosque was impressive with its adjoining bullring.

More glorious tracks, chestnut groves, clear streams, happy pigs, settlers idylls and forested slopes marked our last day in the Aracena.

Before setting off southwards to Seville at van speed we soaked up the view of the Sierra from its highest point on San Christobal. From a tad over 900m the whole landscape looked glorious.

We had discovered it looked just as appealing when deep down within it and vowed to return.

Parque Minero de Riotinto

A few days work done on the finca and time to head off in the camper on another hiking/ exploring trip. This time we were off Northwest, to Huelva province and only about 60 km from the Portuguese border.

The hiking around the Sierra de Aracena is renowned for its beauty so we were going there for a few days – but en route we wanted to stop at Riotinto the birthplace of the river and the global megacompany.

In a way the landscape was the exact opposite of Aracena’s carefully nurtured or natural and wild countryside. Riotinto’s has been torn asunder for millennia for quick material gain, literally clawing the earth apart to get to the wealth of minerals hidden in the Iberian Pyrite Belt.

A massive area of open cast mines both current and exploited and abandoned coupled with vast spoilheaps of vivid and florid colors make for a man made,surreal, and toxic, environment. A (un)healthy balance to all the gloriously bucolic green and pleasant lands we’ve been wandering through.

The largest open cast mine in Europe is here, recently flooded and left. But it’s been going on for 5000 years with the Iberian miners leaving many Neolithic reminders of their presence around the area. Then Phoenicians mined copper and mixed it with tin from Cornwall to make bronze. The Romans followed after but preferred the gold and silver in the rocks, as well as copper, lead, iron and sulfur.

After admiring (?) the view from the mirador on the edge of town we headed to the abandoned wastelands of Pena de Hierro.

The setting sunlight emphasized the already red hills and heaps but there was a host of other colour too.

It was soon dark so we postponed our exploration till the morning after checking out our route on a suitably bizarre map.

The rising sun made for an equally effective lighting of the land as we wound our way up the hill above the derelict buildings.

Within the hill lay the crater whose multicolored walls spoke of a riches of minerals.

The entire mountain side around had suffered a devastating fire fairly recently, increasing the apocalyptical look and feel to the place, although we were glad so see signs of recovery in the eucalyptus if not the pine.

The Brits had planted these sierras originally, to use in the mines. They had arrived in 1873 in the shape of the Riotinto Company, taking over the unproductive state owned mines and transforming ( and soon enveloping) a town of 4000 into a behemoth of industry with 200,000 workers.

All very weird, and it got weirder when we drove down to Riotinto town and stopped at the source of its namesake. The river waters are full of copper and iron oxide and sulfuric acid and other lovely things, something I didn’t know when I tasted it!

I suppose the danger/ stop shade of vivid red should have warned me. The strongest taste I’ve ever had the displeasure to rapidly spit from my mouth. I found out later the stuff can dissolve iron and has a ph of around 2.

In fact it’s so inhospitable to life that NASA have been studying it, and the surrounding toxic landscape as a Mars substitute. And actually, even though no plant, amphibian, fish, insect or mammal can survive in it, micro organisms that can have been discovered there. So Mars could be full of similar. Maybe.

We visited the museum in town for an exhaustive exhibition of the history of the mines and the exploitation of the earth and local people wasn’t something to celebrate but there were some pretty rocks.

The British Bosses had built themselves a little separate enclave modeled after an Edwardian village and named Bella Vista. There, at the English Club, they could enjoy the lifestyle of the Home Counties and play croquet, cricket, polo and tennis. And Riotinto was not only home to Spain’s first golf course but also it’s first football pitch and is where the game was first introduced to the Spanish.

So the legacy of the mining activities is not just a hugely polluted landscape and watercourse all the way the the coast and beyond but also the “beautiful game” of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Anyone wanting to make an ” end of the earth” sci fi/ horror movie could do worse than come here and our next location was perfect. A few Km north of town on the way to Aracena lay the Embalse Gossan and here the out of this world cranked up a notch.

Water levels were low, revealing strange mineral encrusted life forms. Trunks and branches of long dead trees and stalks of amazingly surviving reeds were coated thickly in ? And the orange mud surrounding them was worryingly quicksand like. Not a way I’d wanna go.

And another strange thing was that footprints left in the muck we’re not indented – but raised!

One other disquieting thing before I finish this post. While looking at Google maps satellite view of the area I spotted a funny landscape/ crop formation next to Pena de Hierro, so I went for a look when we were camped there. It’s miles and miles of orange grove on terraces around the mines.

We’d heard trucks up and down to it half the night. I found a car park full of pickers cars. It’s harvest time and there’s a big area to pick. Huge operation.

Turns out it’s all RioTinto fruit. Europe’s largest citrus farm at 3000 hectares. They are big into the use of Boron in agriculture. Boron is one of the common minerals in the spoilheap landscape. There’s also lots of unpleasant ones.

A lot of RioTinto Fruit is classified as organic. Tesco buy their organic oranges from there. Just saying.

Sierra de Andújar

The Natural Park of Andújar is larger than its neighbour Cardeña y Montoro,at nearly 75,000 hectares and its wilder. With more pine forest and scrub and rock and less Dehesa country with grazing livestock the drovers trails strung between the villages around Cardeña are not so much a feature. But there is still a wealth of tracks and routes all over the Sierra, varying in length and difficulty. Walking and wildlife spotting are big business these days and there is plenty to spot.

This is one of the last strongholds of the Iberian Lynx and there are a good few wolves too. Unfortunately we only saw deer in the flesh and a statue of a mighty Jabari (boar) in the area recreativa we stopped at for our first night.

There was a fine fuente there allowing us to wash off the last few days on the trail and road before heading cross country to a high Mirador, or viewpoint, to catch the sun setting over miles of unbroken forest like green waves on the rolling and rising hills and valleys.

The road that wound further up the mountain past our camp passed by an imposing building we could make out firmly fixed atop a high crag of granite. Our target for the following morning, the Santuario Virgin de la Cabeza was the site of an apparition in the 13th century when a Shepard named Juan saw strange lights atop the Cabeza ridge and when he investigated came across the lost image of Mary who spoke to him, asking for a church to be built there. She also cured his paralyzed arm.

So we studied a map of part of the route and when to sleep under a sky ablaze with stars and filled with the call of owls and foxes.

In the morning the way climbed between rounded granite boulders steeply up a rocky/sandy track at times through shaded forest at others across more open country of aromatic shrubs and herbs. We passed an ancient ruin- maybe the home of Juan?

As we climbed the Santuario came closer into view and we able to make out its massive bulk. Apparently the 13th century building was very badly damaged by Republican forces during the Siege of Cabeza and subsequently rebuilt in ” a grotesque mishmash of Fascistic architecture, similar in style to Franco’s tomb outside Madrid”.

The strange slender shape we’d spotted and pondered over the evening before turned out to be a towering madonna sporting a crucifixion on her torso looking out over a gloriously sunlit panorama of hills and mist.

On exploring the cavernous interior I discovered a gallery of ” our ladies” from towns and cities in Spain , in fact the long corridor housed over 450 different Madonnas. Here’s but a tiny sample.

One of Andalucia’s biggest fiestas is the annual romeria , or pilgrimage, to the sanctuary on the last Sunday in April, when 500,000 pilgrims trek up on foot, horseback, carts and donkeys from Andújar, about 25km away. After days of celebrations in the town the pilgrimage proper starts early on the Saturday morning, arriving all evening and night, with hourly masses. Then on the Sunday morning the Virgin is paraded down the hill in her ornate carriage.

All of this has resulted in a massive fiesta/ party/ sales opportunity for centuries and there were some old photos of the huge tented village that springs up surrounding the Santuario.

It had started to get busy up there so we headed off, on the pilgrimage route, down to Lugar Nuevo, the half way point from Andújar, where half a million pilgrims have a picnic once a year.

It was a beautiful route, with the church bells peeling as we strode down the cobbled track worn smooth by the hooves and feet of a multitude.

We stopped briefly at a pretty mirador but were saddened to see loads of rubbish by a rest area. God knows what it’s like the end of April.

Thanks to the wonders of GPS and google maps from Lugar Nuevo we were able to work out a route back up the El Jabari area recreativo, so after a rest by the river we headed back up.

A long trek up a sandy track and a cross country scramble got us back to the van for a late lunch before driving south again to another area recreativa alongside the Rio Jandula and up to the dam at the Embalse del Encinarejo, looking good in the evening light.

The waters attracted the birds, the birds attracted the bird watchers, serious folk with big lenses on their cameras and camping chairs and binoculars, prepared to put the time in for a rare spotting. They were with us last thing at night and first thing in the morning when we set off for our own exploration.

It reminded us very much of Australia with all the Eucalyptus trees and also the facilities of sport and picnic( or barbies). There was obviously a fishing competition coming up with pitches marked out. And there were picnic tables everywhere, even a wheelchair boardwalk (board wheel).

The “birders” were still at it on our return and we too admired the avian life, and the hides,down the river.,

From the Santuario we had gazed across mile after mile of this Parque and it would have been wonderful to loose ourselves in its depths, but there were things to do elsewhere so we returned to the van and the road , sad that the only Lynx we had seen in the Sierra de Andújar were on the signs.

Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro, Andalucia

We’ve managed to get away to Spain for a few weeks avoidance of the inclement weather of an Irish winter and to explore some hiking areas in the south we haven’t been to before.

Driving hurriedly down through a rain lashed France through the Yellow Jacket’s blockades the sun emerged as we journeyed south of the border. Stopping for the night to visit Toledo we meandered around the narrow streets soaking up the ambience of this historic city.

Pushing on south the next morning we arrrived in Cardeña, the main town of the Parque Natural, early afternoon and headed off on an 18 km circular hike through the Dehesa ,open Holm , Cork and Portuguese Oak pastureland, famous for its free ranging Iberian pigs which fatten on the copious quantities of acorns and become the highly prized Bellota jamon.

The first leg took us down an old drovers road to Aldea del Cerezo, an ancient hamlet which had been more or less deserted until renovated and turned into a study Centre a few years back. Cattle and sheep are also important livestock here and the sustainability of this centuries old farming system is being intently studied at the moment in the light of climate change and other transformations.

The 41,000 hectare park is home to a rich variety of wildlife and a wide range of habitats. Forests, scrubs, pasture and crags provide homes and food for a wealth of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish. Perhaps the most exciting of animals to be found here,and in the neighbouring Sierra de Andújar, is the Lynx, a rare and solitary animal of which there are now reckoned to be only 250, most surviving in this area.

But pigs, there are plenty of. It was lovely to see them living a life of relative freedom, with vast areas to roam at will, or soak up the sun, or wallow in the mud. At first scattering on our approach, curiosity brought them back, snorting contentedly.

The walk was pleasantly easy going with gentle undulations and sweeping curves in the track and plenty of shade from the evergreen oaks.

Arriving at Aldea del Cerezo after 7 or so km we had a little refreshment break and watched dogs, farmer in Jeep and wife on foot struggle in control a flock of errant sheep.

We were glad to see them restoration of the little hamlet and hope it gets plenty of use. It seemed a lovely spot with the advantage of water running through it. There were even rushes to match any at home in the soggy boglands.

From here we headed up a smaller, rougher, no vehicles track towards Azuel for about 4 Km before turning west again to reach after Cardeña 6 km.

There was another steam to ford with more birds flitting about and we had seen rabbits but otherwise all the animals had been domesticated.

There had been plenty of raining over the last month or so and the landscape shone an iridescent green. There was another interesting landscape feature, huge granite boulders like Henry Moore’s or Barbara Hepworth’s artworks scattered around the green carpet of a gallery floor.

On our return to Cardeña we passed a few flocks of sheep with their dog minders. These remarkable canines not only spend all day guarding without human guidance but also escort them home at night and out again in the morning.

A little weary on arrival at the van, we drove to the Mirador above the village of Azuel a few km north where we slept soundly under a clear and star studded sky.

It’s slow to get light here around midwinter thanks to Franco setting his clock to Hitler time and we didn’t get going on the next days 11km loop around Azuel till after 8.30 but it was another glorious day and the temperature soon starting rising, especially as we spent the first hour rising up through the trees towards the southeast. A similar landscape but subtlety different, with sparser trees and more open views to the Sierra to the north.

The granite base to the landscape had provided walls to match the Aran Islands and hundreds of lovely slender fence posts.

There must be a fair bit of rain in these parts and the air must be clear and clean judging by the copious lichens hanging from the trees and adorning the walls.

We walked right through a remote and deserted farmstead where the steadfast dogs minded the sheep mums and their newborn lambs and then off down a series of autumnal trails.

Nearing the end of our walk we passed a load of pigs leading a lifestyle a lot more restricted. I’m not sure if these were those grain fed farm reared pigs that obtain “Cebo” status or what but “Bellota” is a happy pig.

Next stop -the neighbouring, but wilder Parque Natural Sierra de Andújar and another chance to find the elusive Lynx.

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.