Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 7

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

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -6

The Boathouse marks the southern end of the Esplanade; now a cafe where you can sip your coffee with close up views of Bray Head. The Promenade extends three hundred metres farther to the foot of the Head. This cul de sac was home to Dawson’s Amusements and other arcades. Dawson’s arrived as a travelling show in the 1920s. They launched Bray’s first amusement arcade in 1941 from a rickety timber pavilion. As the amusement scene caught on, this developed into a swish art deco concrete building in the fifties. In the eighties, a huge aircraft hanger type structure took its place. Towards the end of the century the amusement business waned and Dawsons departed leaving a sizeable crater now used as a car park. Star Amusements next door remains. 

Seafront paraphernalia abounds in a huddle of small premises. There’s ice creams, candyfloss and a few good chippers, including Cassoni’s, my favourite, established here in 1949. The family had left their Italian homeland in 1910, bound for America. Ireland intervened, and they opened business in Derry, moving to Athlone, Dublin’s Thomas Street and finally Bray. One of my first painting commissions was from Victor who ran the seafront premises. Victor, keen soccer fan, wanted an action portrait of the two star players of his motherlands, Ireland and Italy: George Best and Roberto Baggio. Liam Brady could have been a candidate, but Best was a sexier prospect, being fifth Beatle and all that. Baggio was at his peak then, playing in three world cups in the nineties, scoring in every one, nine goals in all. 

Past the amusements, a large white building nestles into the headland. The Bray Head Hotel dates to 1862 but has been in decay for many years. Weirdly, it tends to be used by the film business and frequently features as a seafront hotel in Irish movies. Many viewers must regard it as the place to stay. But for decades its hotel operations have been very discreet. Hotel and bar continued to operate, but within a time warp that seemed indifferent to the outside world. 

Seven years ago, RTE sent writer Deirdre Purcell to stay for a month and write a tv play inspired by the experience. She had never written drama before, but the noirish decadence of the Bray location resulted in Shine On. Yet the light continues to dim.

The hotel was one of a chain owned by the Regan family. This haunted heritage is part of the baggage of modern troubadour Fionn Regan. He has been compared to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, with a touch of the Mike Scott too, methinks. Such labels are only useful as introductions. Regan’s vision is unique, and very much born of the environment where he was formed. All the quirks of a Fawlty Towers hotel, the relentless pursuit of fun in a seaside town, and the wonderful contrast of natures vulcanism and urban verve.

‘I have become an aerial view of a coastal town you once knew,’ he sings on his debut album the End of History, in 2006. He recently released his fifth album, Meetings of the Waters. It’s not that Meeting of the Waters, which we’ll come to later, I promise. Moore has permanent rights to the No 10 jersey, as it were, but Regan’s a worthy folky successor.

The meetings of the waters

Just below the ribs

To the higher reach

From the roots of love

The road becomes a path and reaching the end of the seashore veers left to launch us onto Bray Head. This is where the road really rises. The Irish for bon voyage, ‘go n-eiri an bothar leat,’ translates directly to ‘may the road rise with you.’ The only person ever to get this right was John Lydon in the Public Image song Rise. Released as a single in 1986, Rise is an anti apartheid song, the good wishes of the refrain intended for Nelson Mandela. The phrase is usually. mistranslated as ‘may the road rise up to meet you,’ or ‘may the road rise up before you,’ neither of which are particularly promising. Falling face first onto the road is an approximation of these manglings. In Irish, rise denotes success, in this context a pleasant and agreeable journey. Walking up Bray Head or along the Cliff Walk should achieve such good wishes.

But first, downhill to the left, a narrow path leads to Naylor’s Cove. Tucked into the first stack of cliffs, this was established as a bathing area by local fisherman Bart Naylor in the 1890s. Naylor later joined the British Army and lost his life in the Great War in 1917. In the 1930s the local council developed the natural amenity as a designated bathing area with the installation of three swimming pools, diving boards and changing chalets for ladies and gentlemen.

For four decades this was the focal point for swimmers, divers and fun seekers. You can still sense the echoes of the screams and the laughter, a vast and hectic tableau of fightin’ and courtin’, acted out to a soundtrack of some good old rock and roll. Times and fashions change, and the area fell into disuse in the seventies. An air of dereliction prevailed for some time and following failed attempts to renew the structure, ten years ago the concrete ruins were largely removed. It lies unsatisfactorily between natural amenity and a shadow of what it once was. Still, you can sit here and listen out for the ghosts singing.

Back on the main path, we cross the railway track as it burrows along the cliff heading south. Steps to the right lead up to the Scenic Car Park, a free carpark with panoramic views. An uphill track to the southwest leads towards Bray’s oldest building, Raheen a Cluig. Raheen a Cluig, translates as little fort of the bell. Rath refers to the typical Celtic dwelling of pre Christian times, Raithin being the diminutive. Raths were often mythologised as Fairy forts. Here, a small dwelling with a bell accurately describes a Celtic church anyhow. 

Land was given by the Archibolds, powerful lords of the rocky shore after the Norman Conquest. It was run by the Augustinians, inspired by St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine taught that nothing conquers except truth, and the victory of truth is love. Love and the pursuit of knowledge was the doctrine of the monks who followed his lead. They had evolved into an organised order of hermetic friars by the thirteenth century. Music was another vital component following the adage that whoever sings prays twice. 

The church was dedicated to either St Michael or Saint Brendan the Navigator. The latter seems appropriate for the setting. Brendan is most associated with his 6th century church at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula. From there he is said to have set sail on a seven year journey to find the promised land. Some say he discovered America five centuries before the Vikings. The fantastical descriptions could well describe the ice and fire of Iceland, which was first discovered by Irish monks. Adventurer Tim Severin established the possibility of Brendan reaching America in sixth century craft. Severin’s intrepid voyage was the subject of Shaun Davy’s orchestral suite, The Brendan Voyage, in 1980. You might spot Davy’s house from here, off to the west towards Rocky Valley.

The dissolution of the monasteries unhoused the Augustinians and the church fell into disuse. It became a hideout for smugglers and an inspiration for ghostly tales. A small enclosure nearby was a graveyard for suicides, shipwrecked sailors, strangers, unrepentant murderers, and unbaptised babies. 

A flat area in front of the ruin provides a perfect viewing spot. Bray is laid out below. You can pick out such landmarks as the Neo Romanesque tower of the Holy Redeemer Church on Main Street. Dargan’s new town makes a geometric pattern from the harbour to the head. The sounds and aromas of the seafront are carried on the breeze. Chips and salt sea air, suntan oil and fairground music. Sometimes it’s the hush of the wind rustling heather and pines. Close your eyes and hear the ghosts of times past, caught in endless bonhomie at some Last Chance Saloon, or tan and wet down at Naylor’s Cove. Search for the song they might be singing, flicking through the menu of the Wurlitzer in some chrome and formica palace.

So hoist up the John B’s sail

See how the main sail sets

Call for the Captain ashore

Let me go home, let me go home

I want to go home, let me go home

I feel so broke up I want to go home

Sloop John B dates back to 1916, originating in the Bahamas. The Beachboys were influenced by the Kingston Trio version of the late fifties. It’s on the Beachboys album, Pet Sounds, 1966.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -5

Swingboats are a metaphor for love. You are both in the same boat, swinging together, held close and apart by centrifugal force, sawing between ecstasy and nausea, seeing nothing but your love and a swirling sky. Shortly after moving to Bray, M decided to test this particular equation with a full on swingboat ride. When my head stopped spinning, a half hour or so after touchdown, I realised I had enjoyed it. This proved useful in rearing our children. Children, I soon discovered, like nothing better than being propelled through space at dizzying speeds with clashing trajectories. Helter skelter, ferris wheel, and dodgems, and several infernal modern devices, are magnetic attractions. There is no opting out. The only way to keep nausea at bay is to scream or, and certainly if you’re a man, shout. 

Where better to try it out. Bray was granted its license for market and annual fair by King John in 1213. At the southern extreme of the Pale, it was defended by a couple of castles from the Wilde Irishe, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles, who had been banished to the mountains. I somehow imagine them in checked shirts, ragged beards and jugs of hooch, with names like Zeke and Zeb, but that might be a later incarnation of the hillbilly tribes overlooking Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast.

By the early nineteenth century Bray had developed from a small manor town into a sizeable industrial town with milling, brewing, distilling and lucrative inland fisheries. The first seeds of the seaside resort were sown in the Romantic era, as poets, painters, writers and philosophers extolled the virtues of the sea air and the spectacle of mountain scenery. Bray is rich in both.

Dargan, having brought the railroad, established the seafront in its current form. The middle classes could make Bray their home and it became the fashionable resort in Victorian times, dubbed the Brighton of Ireland. After the war torn years of the early twentieth century, Bray went more downmarket. But the funfair still buzzed and the masses thrilled to dancehall sweethearts and rock n roll stars, dancing and romancing until the lights finally dimmed. Then, in the eighties, a new wave of migration from Dublin was greased by the coming of electric rail. Where would we be without DART? 

Brays promenade is populated as much by locals as daytrippers and tourists. Bars and eateries with large sea facing terraces abound. Opposite the bandstand, a trio of long established premises are prominent. The Martello is a hotel and venue, home to Bray Arts soirees and music gigs. The original Porterhouse, with branches in Dublin, London and New York was next door, but in recent years changed ownership to become the Anchor. Jim Doyle’s is a renowned rugger pub. with goalposts at the gate and an elegant Jacobean facade. All serve food and segue into the wee small hours as night clubs.

The legacy of grander times endures. Victorian terraces line the seafront, top o the range residential and summer homes for the great and the good migrating from Dublin. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu stayed in the 1860s in a house with the Yeatsian name Innisfree. Lennox Robinson, dramatist, also lived here for a time. Robinson was manager of the Abbey Theatre for almost fifty years until his death in 1958. As Organising Librarian for the Carnegie Trust he was instrumental in founding Ireland’s public library service. Bray’s Carnegie Library, towards the old town, is part of that legacy.

Le Fanu grew up in Chapelizod, west of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his father was Church of Ireland rector. The House by the Churchyard is drawn from that environment. Written in the 1860s but set a century earlier, it is full of Le Fanu’s characteristic gloom with a plot that blends mystery and history. Le Fanu was later persuaded to set his stories in a more lucrative and British environment which he did with Uncle Silas. Using an earlier Irish based story Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess as template, it became his best known work. Le Fanu fell ill on completing the novel and came to Bray to recuperate. The bracing sea air was thought to be a boon. Le Fanu’s literary mind stayed focussed on darker things. His final collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, a year before his death. It includes the novella, Carmilla. Carmilla, like Uncle Silas, has a first person female teenager narrator. She falls under the seductive spell of the eponymous Lesbian vampire. Both concept and execution made for a provocative mix in those days. The story influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and anticipated the more erotic modern depictions of Vampirism. It was said he died of fright, implying that he was a man with a window to the supernatural. In fact, Le Fanu’s narratives were carefully ambivalent about the supernatural, maintaining the possibility of rational explanation. But they would make your hair stand up in fright.

Chanteuse Sinead O’Connor lives nearby. O’Connor was an early protege of U2’s Mother Records, making waves with her first album The Lion and the Cobra. Her version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2U was a breakthrough hit for her in 1990.

I go out every night and sleep all day

since you took your love away

it’s been so lonely without you here

like a bird without a song

Never without a song, she has courted success, adulation and controversy ever since. A man I met in a bar told me his curiosity was piqued by a note pinned to her porch window. He snook up the drive to read it, squinting to decipher the small writing which demanded: Please do not peer into this window!

Farther on, the architecture blossoms into the extravaganza of the Esplanade Hotel. Built in the late nineteenth century, it is a three story red brick crowned by three conical turrets giving it the profile of an exotic chateau. Next door, the Strand Hotel, originally Elsinore, was owned by Oscar Wilde’s parents, Sir William, the renowned surgeon and Lady Jane. Jane, wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was a poet, folklorist and passionate advocate for Irish revolution and women’s rights. In the 1860s William was accused of molesting a female patient and Jane, leaping to his defence, became embroiled in a court case which she lost, incurring expenses but, tellingly, damages of only a farthing. When William died bankrupt Jane lived out the remainder of her life in poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London

Oscar’s trials began with his inheritance of the property. Problems with the sale in 1878 resulted in a legal suit which was sorted in his favour, but he was stuck with costs. His more famous trial in the 90s saw him imprisoned for two years for gross indecency with other men. In literary terms it yielded the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which may have been influenced by his mother’s writing. She died while he was in prison.

I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every drifting cloud that went

With sails of silver by.

The Strand Hotel for a long time hosted Abraxas writers group, where I honed my skills alongside bridge clubs, poetry slams and Lions gigs, aye, with football on the telly and many’s the pint of beer. The Strand itself suffered unhappy demise some years back. Under new management, it is now known as Wilde’s.

The Snow Tree

In the recent snow, myself and M took a walk through Kilruddery on the Southern outskirts of Bray. The estate is a working farm, with sheep, pigs, cattle and more besides. It’s a popular location for film shoots, with Ardmore studios nearby. Hell and Back is located here, an annual obstacle course event for the fitness fanatic, or for fools and mad. 

Kilruddery, from the Gaelic, means the church of the knight. The knight was Walter De Riddelsford. In 1171 he was granted the lands hereabout by Strongbow, in thanks for killing John the Mad. The Brabazon family gained the estate in the reign of Henry VIII, and the title Earl of Meath was granted in 1623. Formal seventeenth century gardens surround the house, a damaged but grand gothic fantasy in its most recent incarnation. Beyond the garden walls, paths wind up to higher ground. Up in the hills, our hold on reality slackens further. A Brigadoon of sorts emerges, with wilderness, woodland and forest picturesquely arranged, fields loosely patchworked, unpaved paths, rugged outcrops of rocks suggesting a hinterland of wilder flora and fauna, perhaps bandits and other colourful originals. 

The spell is seasoned by the intrusions of commercial farming, the glimmer of the city on the horizon, and Bray hugging the nearby coast. Paraphernalia from Hell and Back intrudes, technological towers poke through trees, there’s a war games enclosure. Times, you enter a clearing where Vikings or Merry Men are taking a smoke break. Once, I paused with M on the outskirts of a post-apocalyptic village as the fury of tribal weapons erupted some centuries from now. The assistant director was filling us in on the shenanigans. He was unusually solicitous. Turned out he thought we were Lord and Lady Meath. Oh I should have prolonged the ruse, but it was hard not to laugh. I know the quality dress down when out and about, but not in a Dublin 12 accent. Still I felt raised up somehow. Exalted.

At other times, the ambience is Hardyesque. The modern world folds into the haze and you are lost in time. This acrylic painting is the biggest I’ve ever attempted. A metre tall, its size helps to capture the grandeur of the scene. I hope. Ahead, a magnificent tree spreads its arms to catch the noonday sun. We have stopped between showers of snow, the morning fall barely covering the greenery. The rugged Giltspur, or Little Sugarloaf, rises to our right. Off to the left the ground falls into woodland with the clenched fist of Bray Head off frame. Dublin is behind us on the north horizon. Far ahead, a loan figure gains the southern horizon and gazes over sea and mountain. He is an echo, perhaps, of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Or my own silhouette, waiting for me to catch up.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

I could see the city light

Wind was blowing, time stood still

Eagle flew out of the night

Solsbury Hill was written by Peter Gabriel when he left Genesis in 1977. Solsbury Hill’s in Somerset, England, but any hill will do. Anywhere. To me, the song conjures up that feeling of ecstasy, peculiar to finding yourself face to face within the most sublime scenery. You move from the humdrum to stand within the perfect moment, and everything becomes possible. And all on a day’s walk.

I was feeling part of the scenery

I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom boom boom!