Beside the Scenic Car Park, the path forks. To the right, the steep walk up Bray Head. To the left, the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. The Cliff Walk is the main route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast. The path over the top of Bray Head is the high road.
We’ll take both. It’s a must. After all, no trip to Bray would be complete without a climb to the top of Bray Head. The direct route is a steep but manageable climb through deciduous woodland.
A flight of almost one hundred and fifty steps eases the burden early on. We rise through deciduous woodland towards Eagle’s Nest. In the fifties and sixties there was a chairlift along this ascent. This was the brainchild of Eamon Quinn who ran the Red Island Holiday Camp at Skerries, beyond Dublin Bay. Camp inmates had the free offer of a day trip to Bray, with a chairlift up the head to crown it. Clearly a favourite with the Escape Committee. Quinn’s son, Fergal, would launch Quinn’s Supermarkets in 1960, later Superquinn, Ireland’s first supermarket chain.
You can still see the chairlift ruins form a twisted sculpture on Eagle’s Nest. Up until the early seventies, this was a hub of activity, with Eagle’s Nest Ballroom, tea room and snack bar thronged from morning till night. Maybe the fabled eagle can return in the quiet that prevails. These days it’s shanks mare all the way up, but a fit walker should do it in about thirty minutes, and be rewarded with majestic views at the top.
It’s the sort of panorama that puts you on top of the world. The coast of Wales is sometimes visible on the eastern horizon, a chimera occurring only when conditions are just right. The view to the north includes Dublin in the mid distance, and you can clearly pick out the twin chimneys of the Pigeon House. The Mourne Mountains sometimes form a faint serration on the horizon. Around the western arc are the beautiful domed granite mountains of Wicklow.
There is also a longer, but more gradual ascent from the Southern Cross, along the boundary of the Bray Golf Course. This route offers superb views to the west with the Sugarloaf mountains particularly prominent. This distinctive low range which includes Bray Head, is formed of metamorphic rock, quartzite, of the Cambrian period, unlike the granite Wicklow range formed in more recent Devonian times
For mountain anoraks, the Great Sugar Loaf is a Marilyn, as distinct from a Munro. A Munro, denotes a Scottish mountain over three thousand feet. Wicklow’s only Munro would be Lugnaquilla at the southern end of the range. The Great Sugar Loaf is only sixteen hundred feet in elevation, but relative to the surrounding lowlands is very dominant. Its distinctive conical peak is white streaked, and often mistaken for a distinct volcano. It is actually a raised beach.
The Marilyn designation was a humourous response to the Munro. Marilyn Monroe is the inspiration here. I won’t labour the point, or points. Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in Los Angeles and raised in an orphanage and foster home. She became the icon of the sexual revolution of the fifties and sixties. Originally a pin up model, she used the exposure to break into film. Although she patented the dumb blond roll, she was neither dumb, nor blond. She founded her own production studio company as leverage against studios who were typecasting and shortchanging her. She was in fact a fine comedic actress, so good that people assumed she was what they saw, when she was something else entirely.
Bernie Taupin’s lyric captures the duality of a shining myth and a lonesome soul.
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in
Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like it Hot, won Marilyn a Golden Globe. One of the best movies ever, it bears repeated viewing. It is iconic itself, as the best films are, particularly that era of black and white, creating a monochrome memory that colours our formation.
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did
Of course, when you get to the top there is that unmistakeable Bray icon. At eight hundred feet the headland is the most significant on Ireland’s East coast, it would be notable even if unadorned. It wears a distinctive concrete cross atop, installed in 1950, the Holy Year. The cross, thirty feet high, enhances the unique profile of the head, making it perhaps Ireland’s most recognisable peak. Some fume at the religiosity of it, but are missing the point. Landmarks are essentially social and historical artefacts, nobody is concerned with their original purpose.
It may be a place of pilgrimage, but it’s not a compulsory factor for all. Most go to be there, to take in the moment and all the history it has witnessed. Some poke fun at it. For a while the monument was fitted with a basketball net. Of course, many graffiti on it, pledges of love, or. hate, or simply marking that moment in time. There’s plenty of room to twirl through three hundred and sixty degrees. You can clearly discern our route to the south, at least as far as Wicklow Head.
From the Cross, a path leads over a stile and you step into a wild uplands. Bray Head forms a surprisingly extensive upland area. You can be lost in a world of your own up there. Two distinct ridges become apparent, each defined by rows of rocky outcrops. The first falls behind us, marked by the cross on the easternmost dome. The other is before us, slightly higher and including the summit. A lazy hammock of furze and grass is swung between them, roamed by random groups of goats and ponies.
This high walk is balanced precariously above the cliffs. Up here, our eyes are drawn to the gleaming, blue sea. The headland slips with us into splendid isolation. The path is less well travelled than the lower one, though busy enough of a summer weekend. As we rise toward the second range the route is precariously poised above a steep drop to the left, and the old stone wall much eaten away. The last range of knuckled outcrops reappears and an ugly wire fence marks off the fall to the cliffs. There is a stile a bit further along allowing access to the lower walk.
First I must seek the summit. This is marked by a triangulation point and is reached by a quick clamber, no more than a couple of minutes off the path. The triangulation point is graffitied as you would expect. I seldom paid much attention to the detail of it until one day an addition caught my eye. As I filled my eyes with blue, a sunburst graphic distracted me, illuminating a familiar name. I read my youngster had immortalised himself on the stone. Helpfully timed and dated too, for a particular time and date when he should have been in school. With evidence displayed like that, why hire private detectives. Written on stone, on the highest point in town, the truth was there for everyone to see. Well, I just had to laugh.
Spend a few minutes on the roof of the world, no place more appropriate to lig do scith. A bit of r’n’r if you like. So, I’ll sometimes climb to sit beside it and consider this and other graffiti I have known. There are all sorts of ways we convey messages and meaning. Sit for instance and think of that most generic, but sometimes heartfelt of greetings: wish you were here. It’s a message in a bottle, a plea for company. Through it we include absent friends, memories of times past and good times to come. Usually a postcard, but it can be written on air. Greetings from Bray – Wish You Were Here.
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, the song is a fine evocation of isolation and yearning. It was the title track of their 1975 album