Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
25 July 2009
20. Slievebawn and Tomduff Hill, Blackstairs Mountains, Co. Carlow
The Clerk of the Weather was brewing some ominous stuff up there over the Blackstairs Mountains. What he had up his sleeve for Wexford, though, never quite made it to the Carlow side of the county border. So Jane and I had the rare smug satisfaction of watching all those rain towers toppling on someone else, while ourselves escaping with only a sprinkling. As Brian Gilsenan, the wry Monaghan-born walker who came over the misty hills with us, observed at the summit of Slievebawn: ‘If it isn’t raining somewhere in view, then you aren’t on the Blackstairs.’
The OS map can be deceptive if you don’t count your contours right. Looking at all those brown squiggles packed tight together like elvers in a sieve, I’d anticipated quite a pull up from the Nine Stones car park. But in fact the climb to the cairn on Slievebawn is no more than a steady-breathing doddle. The view is the only breathtaking aspect of the ascent: a fantastic stretch north-west across the chequerboard lowlands of Carlow and Kilkenny, cradled between the slopes of Slievebawn and Croaghaun.
Up at the peak we climbed onto the huge boulder of dully glimmering white quartz that marks the summit of Slievebawn. Far below the Nine Stones stood in line abreast. These stumpy standing stones were set up facing that incomparable view as a memorial to a group of shepherds who died after becoming lost in the mist on the Blackstairs. Or maybe, as a more sinister story insists, they are nine sheep herders turned to stone by St Kevin of Glendalough because they refused to share their picnic with him. Kevin was rather prone to rash and vengeful acts, by all accounts, so that version might have a pinch of truth to it. Don’t be mean, seemed to be the only moral extricable from the fable.
We hastened to share round the sweeties, and headed south-west along the ridge path. Here was the place to take in the noble aspect of the whole Blackstairs ridge, rising in a series of gradually diminishing undulations on our left hand. This is one of the classic mountain panoramas of Ireland, only truly appreciable from the viewpoint we had gained, the spine of Slievebawn that sticks out a little way to the side of the main range.
The prospect began in the north with the tallest and most dramatic of the Blackstairs mountains, the great 795m pyramid of Mount Leinster, crouching today under mist like the head of an old woman hunched in a lacy shawl. From there the ridge swooped south over Knockroe, dropping to the saddle of the Gap of Scullogue before climbing over Blackstairs Mountain and descending once more towards the twin tumps of Carrigalachan and Carrigroe. ‘Caher Roe’s Den,’ said Brian, pointing out a wilderness of rocky outcrops below Blackstairs Mountain. ‘Now he would have been an O’Dempsey, a Laois man, a robber who had his hideout among the rocks. Difficult to winkle him out of there, I’d say.’
It was not only Mount Leinster that stood cowled today. The south-east wind had driven up an enormous roller of cloud, a hundred-foot-high wave that clung all the way along the Blackstairs ridge, backgrounded by a threatening sky the colour of unpolished slate. It was one of those sights you don’t forget, however many more impressive hills or mightier mountains you might have climbed.
The sides of Slievebawn were scattered with quartz boulders, like so many white sheep grazing in the heather. All of a sudden there were real animals on the hill – a herd of horses, maybe a dozen, moving along the summit, as unheralded as if they’d been dropped from the sky. At the end of the ridge we halted on Tomduff Hill to catch the southward view over the stormy plains of Wexford, and then started our homeward circle along the lower edge of the mountain. A sharp shower went slanting across, the orchids in the grass sparkled with raindrops, and the horses faded behind the rain curtain as if they had never been there at all.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 68
TRAVEL: N80 from Enniscorthy towards Carlow; leaving Bunclody, left on minor road (OSI ref S 908569; brown ‘Mount Leinster’ sign). In 5 miles, left (835567; ‘Nine Stones and TV Transmitter’ brown sign) to parking place at top of road (817546).
WALK DIRECTIONS: From car park, turn your back on Mt Leinster and walk up Slievebawn to summit cairn (806548). Then follow ridge for 1⅓ miles to Tomduff Hill (792536); continue downhill, to bear left along wall/fence. Soon it turns uphill; in 400 m, bear right through wall and continue with fence on your right to meet road (801540). Return to Nine Stones car park along road, or along mountainside.
LENGTH: 5 miles: allow 2-3 hours
CONDITIONS: Mountain paths, one easy/moderate climb
DON’T MISS … !
• The Nine Stones
• Stunning views from ridge path
• Lark song that always seems to be present
REFRESHMENTS: Picnic (Tomduff Hill is a wonderful spot)
ACCOMMODATION: Moss Cottage, Bunclody, Co Wexford (053-937-7828; www.mosscottageireland.com) – beautifully kept house and garden.
GUIDED WALKS: Contact Brian Gilsenan at Moss Cottage (see above) or on 086-838-6460
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking; www.coillteoutdoors.ie
Tourist Office: Tullow Street, Carlow (059-91-31554; www.carlowtourism.com)