Misty Mountain Hop

Gary and I have just stepped off the road. It’s good to be away from the tar and traffic and back on the trails. We are retracing our steps, so we know there is a steep climb up out of the valley. We both stop, literally, in our tracks. Just up ahead, to our left, are two young deer. The deer stop too, and eye us up. Gary apologises to them for the lack of snacks. That seems to take us all by surprise. The leading deer takes a few nervous steps forward. We both fumble for our phones and take a few shaky pics. It’s a little moment of magic. We get on our way. The deer trot off under the pines. It’s a charming interlude, but the show must go on.

Gary a few strides away from Fairy Castle

It was an early start, with its own added chronological ‘wind chill factor’ of the clocks going forward an hour. I usually give myself an hour and half before a long run in the morning, regardless of the start, to clear the grogginess, get the porridge down, and generally wait for the body to wake up. Gary called in about half-eight, and we drove off to Marlay Park at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. No point in arriving any earlier; the car park opens at nine.

Finding the trailhead was one of the easier tasks of the morning. There is a little granite stile between the car park and the meadow, with a sign board detailing the first stage of the Wicklow Way. It’s a little affectation, but it’s nicely done, and a nod towards the all-pervasive rock that dominates the mountain range we are heading into. Granite is an intrusive igneous rock, forged, in this case, nearly 500 million years ago. It’s loaded with quartz, feldspar and mica which gives it its sparkly demeanour.

I have no idea if there is a corresponding gate at the other end of the Way, but I’m sure we’ll find out. Today was just the first of what will be several recce-runs along the Wicklow Way in preparation for my journey in June.

The weather is gloomy, to say the least. As we were driving south along the M50 towards Marlay, we could see the heavy mist closing in over the hilltops, and these first footsoldiers of the granite fortress that is the Wicklow Mountains, stretching down towards Wexford and beyond, are modest enough in height. I spare a thought for Jarlath and his colleagues who are taking on part two of the Glacial Lakes recce today, deeper into the mountains. They will surely have it worse than us.

We set off shortly after nine and our first few kilometres or so were through the leafy 300 acre parkland of Marlay Demesne. The place seems busy enough, despite the grey and damp. We follow the Way marker posts around and are soon emerging out from the genteel paths and onto a busy road which takes us back under the M50 motorway. But shortly we are on the relative quietness of Kilmashogue Lane, and from here, we are climbing for some considerable time. (I later learn there are 6.6 kms of steady climb to our first ‘highest point’). We leave the Lane and head left into the Coillte-owned car park and up on to a zig-zag fire road. Eventually, the pines fall away, and we are simultaneously enveloped in a heavy mist, and find ourselves on rugged, open paths. They are a different animal from a fire road, for sure, as they are maintained not by machine but rather by hiking boots. The narrow path would soon be swallowed by heather and bog, given the chance, but countless feet throughout the year keep it worn back to the bare granite rocks below, aided and abetted by rivulets of never-ending rainwater that cut channels and grooves into the gritty silt. It makes for a fun-run, that’s for sure. If you missed your footing here, you would undoubtedly have a nasty fall.

The visibility is poor, and as trailrunners approach, or we catch up on hikers, they emerge, pass and are swallowed once more by the delicate fog that not only plays with your visual perception of space, but also muffles sound. It’s a modest reminder, on the scale of things, that up here in the mountains, things are different. The terrain and elevation may be the thing that flat-earth runners like me are most concerned about, but the reality is that the changing weather at these altitudes will do for you more often than the tricky trails or the stiff climbs. My Garmin stats later tell me we topped out at 490 metres at this point.

Soon, ghostly shapes of tree begin to appear again as we gradually drop down from the side of Fairy Castle. The mist clears too, and soon the vista opens up to reveal Glencullen Valley below (from Gleann Cuilinn, meaning ‘valley of the holly’). The Way spits you out rather unceremoniously onto Ballybrack Road. I know this will be a regular feature of the Wicklow Way, so I am prepared to be mixing it with traffic on occasion. Most of this ‘on-off’ road and trail situation happens in the southern end of the route, but there are little segments like this, and you need to be aware of them. This particular stretch lasts for about a mile, and then we turn right down a little lane towards the valley floor and a date with the Glencullen River.

Our intrepid heroes on the bridge over the Glencullen River
Boranaraltry Bridge

We have a short pit stop here, and take on a gel and some water. It’s taken about an hour and twenty-five minutes to travel eleven kilometres and get to our turn point. The return leg will differ slightly as we must take a detour off the Wicklow Way and find a route via Fairy Castle to Three Rock and back down to Marlay via Ticknock Road. As we step off the road and back onto the trail proper, we have our deer encounter. Then we are plunged back into the mist, and a steady climb to boot. Gary is up ahead, making short work of things, and I am tagging along behind, trying to keep up.

Gary’s deer pic was better than mine. Thanks, Gary!

We reach the point where the paths split. Straight on is the Wicklow Way, and right is on up again towards the cairn at Fairy Castle (also known as Two Rock; you have to admire the economy of the person who named these little summits). Gary is doing a fine job of pathfinding – a job, of course, that I should really be doing. But he has been around these parts before, albeit some time ago, so he has been promoted to tour guide for the day.

We climb steadily, and soon Fairy Castle (536m) looms out of the mist. There are three hardy souls clambering around on the cairn (something that is unavoidable, alas, when monuments like this are open to the public, but the alternative is obtrusive fencing and restricted access, so pick your poison…). We navigate around on the narrow track of sleepers, embedded with metal staples, and before long, we are heading back down again, alongside a pine forest. There is a small gap in the trees, and I stop for a quick pee. Under the thick canopy, it’s a completely different world. Out in the open, it may be misty, but the light has a certain translucent quality. There are no bright shafts of sunlight today to pick out charming little cameos of wildflowers in a glade, or vast panoramics of glens and peaks. There is only mist, and it covers everything, and the soft light that permeates through is diffused, painting everything with the same giant brush. Colours and contrasts are sucked out, and in their place, an intricate interplay of billions of tiny droplets of water. Brownian Motion on a vast and incalculable scale.

But beneath the pines, it is thick with darkness. No mist can penetrate. There is a different kind of light here altogether. Indeed, the light has been all but sucked out of the gap between forest floor and the first, spindly layer of branches. It could be an entrance to the Otherworld. I want to explore further, but today is not the day.

Soon, different kinds of trees appears out of the gloom. They are angular, uniform, and man-made. These are the first of several telecom masts that blight the Three Rock area. I guess the hungry Dubliners below deserve their radio, television and internet, just like the rest of us. We stop again at this point to get our bearings. The Google Map pin for Three Rock is well wide of the mark, and I have suggested an edit online. Even though we know it’s wrong, neither of us are sure, now, where we should be going. We have literally come to a crossroads, and are peering at Gary’s phone, searching for inspiration, but finding none.

I stop a mountain biker and ask him where Three Rock is. The question seems to throw him. He describes Fairy Castle and how to get to it. I point out that we have just come from there (unnecessary detail, in hindsight) and that Fairy Castle is actually Two Rock. Again, I am proving to be a prickly lost soul. We start over. He reconsiders his position and proclaims that in fact, this is Three Rock! Right here! I ask him where the rocks of Three Rock are, but he’s not sure, and we part company.

I take my information back to Gary who points to a path, and we set off again. The trail leads us down quite quickly, below the treeline, and I am sure we are on the wrong path. We have another look at the phone, and this time, there is enough signal to get the satellite view, and sure enough, there are the three little piles of rock that give Three Rock its name.

We return up the trail and take another left at the masts, and there in front of us are the eponymous stones. It is here we will scatter Dad’s ashes in the Summer, though at first glance, I am not sure where exactly. I will return with my own immediate family when the weather improves and have a good look around. My Auntie Emer suggested she knew the best spot, so I will endeavour to get up there before the big day, and hopefully we can agree on a location.

We both clamber up and take in the views… well, okay, there are no views today, just more mist and fog, but I know from here you can get fabulous views out over Dublin Bay and beyond. No doubt even the higher peaks of west Wales. Fans of The Lord of the Rings books and films may feel as I do that Three Rock has a certain look of Weathertop to it. And if there was ever a day for Ringwraiths, then this it. Fortunately, we are spared this time.

After more map reading from the phone, we plunge back down a fire road, and soon we are mixing it with hikers and mountain bike folk, and picking our way through Ticknock Forest. The quads and knees are really feeling it now, though Gary is still cheerfully pushing ahead and keeping us honest. We reach a metal road barrier and slip out onto a public road, which I realise is just above the official entrance to the forest car park on Ticknock Road.

Soon we are jogging past my Dad’s old homestead, and I can feel the emotions rising. I stop to take a quick picture which I will later send on to the wider cousins’ group on WhatsApp. Today, as I write this, would have been my Dad’s 85th birthday.

Ticknock, certainly when my Dad was a nipper, was really out in the sticks. Now, the busy M50 motorway rattles on at the end of this once-quiet country lane. You can’t stop progress, as was said famously in Muriel’s Wedding (Bill Heslop, about the ficticious Porpoise Spit), and today, the capital city’s largely-wealthy southside conurbation has reached the Dublin Mountains. It remains to be seen if this will stop the march of development or simply slow it down. I’m not a betting man, but usually the house wins (if you pardon the pun).

The rain spills down as we hit the busier roads within the M50 curtilage, but we trundle on towards Marlay Park; my supposedly waterproof and pricey-enough Patagonia rain jacket is soaked through. We are nearly there. We find an alternative entrance to the one we used on the way out, and soon we are back in the more tranquil surroundings of the demesne once more. There are a few hardy traders at the rear of the big house, and the pizza van takes our fancy. Gary opts for a Coke but it’s hot chocolate for me. The wonders of modern science mean we can tap our phones to pay, and we retreat to the comfort of the car to warm up and scoff our early lunch. The pizza is magnificent, even if I factor out that hunger is always the best sauce.

My watch tells me we have done 24.75 kilometres in about three and a quarter hours, with a total ascent of 755 metres.

Later that day, S and I take the dogs out for a decent walk (after I’ve degunked in a hot bath). It’s the best thing for tired legs. The park is starting to bubble up with life, as it always does at this time of year. One of the park rangers informed me last week that he’d seen a woodpecker, and an hour or so later, with the help of binoculars and a large slice of luck, I was able to spot it too. A Great-Spotted Woodpecker, if you must.

Primroses in the park
Toothwort seem to out early, and in abundance
Bonnie and Odi caught in the act of being themselves
‘Did someone say pizza?’

I wonder if I’ll be in shape by June. I’m very much aware that I haven’t yet designed a programme of training, and this usually precedes any big challenge like the one I am taking on. I need more hours in the hills, and yet I am conscious of not picking up injuries, and certanly those few IMRA races I did seemed to aggravate the knees. There are about three months left, so I had best not think about it too much, and get out and get some miles done.

As an aside, I have mentioned this blog before. It’s from a guy called Gary who lives in the States. His choice of the most basic WordPress template and strange title (i like margarine) belies the fact that this is one of the most beautifully-written blogs around (your mileage will vary wildly, no doubt). Check this recent post: https://ilikemargarine.com/2023/03/26/its-not-a-buffet-dear-you-need-to-keep-running/

Gary’s posts are generally short, unlike my ramblings. In his case, it’s always quality over quantity. And this gem is no different. He has the economy of those that named Three Rock, combined with the nimble-footedness of a mountain deer, and a gentle dollop of obduracy. It’s something to aspire to, though I suspect I will never reach those heights. Still, something to aim towards, I guess 😉

Anyway, happy birthday, Dad. x

5 thoughts on “Misty Mountain Hop

  1. You’re right, “i like margarine” is a dang-fine, impeccably spare — even poetical — blog. But a ramblingpost from a rambling runner who brings you along every step of the way and lets you revel in the magic of chill mists and close pines, roll your eyes at a benighted bikers’ wayward directions, and feel both sad and glad to wish your dad a happy birthday … that’s a dang-fine blog, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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