Irish Independent Walk of the Week Christopher Somerville
26 March 2011
No. 89: Devil’s Glen, Co. Wicklow
On a cold morning, with rain threatened for the afternoon, Ballymaghroe Wood sighed like a lorn lover, or a poet with a tasty rhyme just beyond the tip of the tongue. It wasn’t long before Jane and I, ascending a soft pine-needle carpet under dark pillars of western hemlock, found the first quotation of the trail designated the Seamus Heaney Walk, carved into the back of a wayside bench. The poet and his family lived in the gate lodge of nearby Glanmore Castle in the early 1970s, and some of Heaney’s finest work was inspired by his walks and meditations here.
Beyond the bench stood one of Ballymaghroe Wood’s collection of woodland sculptures, a big globe of shaped spruce cuttings by Korean artist Jae-Hyo Lee, very striking and effective in its sheltered place under the trees.
Views from the forest today, out east across the glen of the Vartry River, were muted in the moisture-laden air to the point of non-existence. But what was near at hand more than made up for that – the scent of oak and sweet chestnut, the sound of rain-fattened streams chattering down through the woods, and the sculptures themselves: Nicos Nicolaou’s ‘Renovation’, a hollow trunk lying above a dark, wind-rippled lakelet, and Derek Whitticase’s ‘Pound’ of stripy ninepins in the trees beyond.
On the woodland path, as motionless as a carving, a black Alsatian the size of a small pony stood staring at us with ears pricked and that unmistakeable dog stare that says: ‘I don’t know who the hell you are, but I don’t like you, bud, on principle, so just keep moving through, OK?’ We were happy to oblige, turning aside to join the Waterfall Walk.
The trail led past more sculptures, fragments of tree trunks like flayed human torsos swinging in open frames, before zigzagging steeply downhill into the narrow cleft of the Devil’s Glen. How the ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian era loved this secret place in the woods, a slit of a gorge stamped out of the hills by the cloven hoof of the Devil. In its depths the Vartry River rushes over a rocky bed. In the early 19th century, before the Vartry Reservoir was built in the mountains above, the river came through the glen in full uninhibited majesty, its roaring in throes of flood so loud that locals said the Evil One was howling for sinners down there. The Vartry River’s raw power might be reined in by the dam these days, but it’s still a splendid spectacle after rain. Today it bounced and bashed its way seaward among boulders and hazel islets, spitting out spray as grey as glass, booming and shouting loud enough to half-deafen us.
We passed Cathy German’s split sequoia-wood sculpture ‘Wound’, then Portuguese sculpture Alberto Carneiro’s ‘Woodland Mandala’ – three barkless Douglas fir trunks upended with their roots in air. A roar and rumble from up ahead, and we were perched on the lip of a tremendous waterfall where the Vartry came jumping down a 30-foot step, to race and slide away over rapids into a rainbow pool smoking with fine mist.
The sky darkened and the cold riverside air thickened as we sat mesmerised by the fall. Time to climb back through the forest again, past more wooden benches inscribed with pungent drops of magic, Seamus Heaney’s translations from the Old Irish. The blackbird practising his scale: ‘Whet-beak, note-blurt, clear, airy,/ Yellow quill bill, ink-blot cowl.’
That was exactly what we heard and saw in the rain-laden woods; yet so much more than that.
WAY TO GO
Map: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 56; map/instructions downloadable at coiltte.ie
Travel: N11 to Ashford; R763 towards Glendalough; car parking spaces beside forest entrance on right in 2 miles.
Walk: Follow yellow arrows (YA) of Seamus Heaney Walk (SHW) up through trees and on for ¾ mile to join lower road. In 500 m SHW turns left (YA), but keep ahead to car park. Left by picnic place, following red arrows (RA) of Waterfall Walk. In 400 m, by ‘torso’ sculptures, RA (‘Cliff Walk’) point left, but bear right here. In 100 m, at another ‘torso’, bear left off track, zigzagging down hillside (white arrows). At bottom (‘car park’ sign), left along riverside track (RA). In 1¼ miles pass ‘Waterfall’ sign; ahead to waterfall; return to sign; fork right here up track. At top of rise (bench with ‘Birdsong from the willow tree’ quote), hairpin right. Follow track to barrier pole; left along forest road. Where it bends right into Tiglin Adventure Centre, keep ahead on track. In 100 m, left on muddy ride. In 300 m where ride bends sharp right, ahead on stony track. In 400 m at T-junction, right; follow SHW (YA). In ⅔ mile, at bench (‘Why I love Derry…’), left (YA); at T-junction, right (‘Entrance’) to car park.
Length: 5½ miles – allow 3-3½ hrs
Conditions: Good forest tracks and paths
• Sculptures along the trails
• The waterfall
• Bench-back poetry
Accommodation: Ballyknocken House, Glenealy (0404-44627; ballyknocken.com) – extremely welcoming guesthouse; good walking, good cooking.
Walking Information: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
Millstreet Hillwalking Festival. Co. Cork, 9-10 April: contact Michael Thornton on 086-172-1142; http://walkersassociation.ie/node/35797
New Book! – Walking In Ireland by Christopher Somerville (Ebury Press) – 50 of your favourite Irish Independent ‘Walks of the Week’!
Rathdrum Tourist Office: Market Square, Main Street (0404-46262); www.visitwicklow.ie