Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 10

From Greystones Harbour, the direct route to the town centre is via Trafalgar Road heading uphill. Off to the left, Cliff Road follows the rocky seafront around the promontory. This continues on via Marine Road heading for the South Beach. You can make a loop back inland via La Touche Road which joins Trafalgar near the railway bridge.

About halfway along Trafalgar Road is the large husk of the La Touche Hotel. This was the town’s only hotel, and much the largest building. It vaguely suggests the outline of a castle. Four storeys with a tower at each corner and mansard roofs connecting along front and rear facades. The La Touche opened as the Grand Hotel in 1894. It was the height of elegance in its day and a setting for one of history’s subplots too. Michael Collins, en route to London for the Treaty negotiations, proposed to Kitty Kiernan there in October 1921. The wedding was set for November the following year, but in August Collins was killed in an ambush by Irregulars in County Cork. Kiernan had been educated at Loreto Convent in Bray, before a brief period at Saint Ita’s, Padraig Pearse’s experimental attempt to launch a St. Enda’s for girls.

After Independence, the hotel remained old world, and came somewhat stuck in time as the town grew. Extensive development in the late century included a conference centre and a large performance venue and night club. The venue hosted Mary Coughlan and other top local acts, while  Bennigans Bar gave onto a large terrace and gardens and was a boon in summer.

In 2004 the La Touche closed for redevelopment as apartments. The development has only recently been completed. Meanwhile, with the Beach House and the Burnaby the only other bars, Greystones suffered the reputation of being the driest town in Ireland, a dubious distinction that was made even worse by the closure.

David Digues La Touche was amongst the Huguenot exodus from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He fought at the Battle of the Boyne came to Dublin where he established his silk business, later moving into banking and property. His son David built the Bellevue estate near the Glen of the Downes, while grandson Peter expanded the holdings to include Luggala, a famous haunt of the rich and famous in the sixties at the hectic salon presided over by Guinness heir, Gareth De Brun.

La Touche acquired the lands of upper and lower Rathdown, where modern Greystones now lies. The Barony of Rathdown stretched from south Dublin to Delgany, but in modern times is confined to the Dublin side in the county of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown. Greystones first appeared on the map at the end of the eighteenth century. It was noted as a fishing village but the population remained under three hundred people until the coming of the railway. La Touche granted land and money for the building of St Patrick’s Church in 1857 and the roads of the new town were laid out by the La Touches in the 1860s. The population neared the thousand mark by Independence with two thirds of the population were Protestant. Even today, Greystones has proportionally the largest protestant population in the state at over ten per cent of the eighteen thousand residents.

The town’s Catholic Church lies east of the tracks. the Holy Rosary church was designed by WH Byrne in 1909. It is a Romanesque Revival building, attractive in design but rendered somewhat grim by the plastered exterior. Crossing the bridge La Touche Place leads to a t-junction with the main street, Church Road. This is named for St Patrick’s off to the north, serving the Church of Ireland community. Heading out of town it is tree lined and residential. Turning left, we slope downhill through the town.centre

In fact, Greystones is very much the modern urban village. Church Road, is low level sloping down to the station and the sea, its many eateries and coffee shops colonising the pavement, particularly pleasant when you can bask in the summer sunshine. Mind, if you topped up on caffeine at every opportunity, you’d be wired to the moon by the time you reached the station.

Temptations include the vegetarian Happy Pear, eccentric Italian Cafe Delle Stelle and that much sought after condition, Insomnia. Across the road the Hungry Monk is a famous evening eatery. Bochelli’s is a fully licensed restaurant with a streetfront terrace and a fine seafaring mural featuring Samuel Beckett, of all people. But I must go on

My impression of Greystones Railway Station, acrylic on canvas.

At the bottom of the hill is the rail station. Initially, the station was referred to as Delgany, a larger settlement a mile or so inland. Then Delgany and Greystones until finally Greystones was large enough to claim sole billing on the railway sign by the turn of the century. The Station was designed by George Wilkinson, who was also responsible for Bray Station and the Harcourt Street Terminus. It is a two storey building and is larger than most rural stations. The entrance porch with three high glass fronted bays, is attractive and opens onto a small plaza. Connection to the DART service was completed in 2000.

Across the road the Burnaby Pub, established in 1881, is a regular port of call. Inside it has large screen sports and is particularly thronged with worshippers for Ireland and Leinster rugby games. There’s a good food menu too for lunch and early evening. In the summer, the paved back garden is a favourite spot to cool down from a hot day at the bookface. The name derives from the nearby estate, and thereby hangs a tale or two.

The railway station stands on the dividing line between the estates of La Touche to the north and Whitshed to the south. The Whitshed estate became known as the Burnaby when a housing. development was laid out by Alfred Wynne in the 1890s. It has become a byword for the fabulously well to do, the epitome of posh. Local author Paul Howard no doubt mines his inspiration for such Dartline heroes as Ross O’Carroll Kelly from this rich vein. It is an estate of handsome detached period houses and quiet sylvan avenues. The Whitshed estate was the inheritance of Elizabeth Hawkins Whitshed, also known as Lizzie Le Blond, famous mountaineer and explorer, writer and film maker. The dashing name suited her larger than life image, though she wasn’t blond. Her third husband was Aubrey Le Blond. The Burnaby name comes from her first husband  the famous advenurer and soldier Frederick Burnaby

Born in 1860, Lizzie had been quite the belle in London of the Belle Epoch. She married Burnaby at nineteen and they had one child, but herself and Frederic were soon living seperate lives. She moved to Switzerland and set out to conquer the Alps founding the Ladies Alpine Club. She was a talented photographer, and an early  film maker, recording the sporting events of St Moritz. She died in 1934 and is buried at Brompton cemetary in London.

Some boys take a beautiful girl

And hide her away from the rest o’ the world

I wanna be the one to walk in the sun

Oh girls, they wanna have fun

Frederick was a swashbuckling hero of his day. He was a soldier and intelligence officer with the elite Royal Horse Guards. At six four and broad shouldered he cut an impressive figure, captured in a portrait by James Tissot which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. (There’s a print displayed in Greystones Library.) He fell into adventures which scandalised his superiors and thrilled the Victorian world. Most famously, in the winter of 1875 he set out from St Petersburg on a thousand mile journey through steppe and desert to the fabled city of Khiva in Uzbekistan. His account, Ride to Khiva, Travels and Adventures in Central Asia, was a bestseller, followed the next year by On Horseback through Asia Minor. His travels weren’t confined to horseback, in 1882 he crossed the English Channel to France in a gas balloon, prompting another book. Perhaps he would ultimately have circled the globe if given the time. Frustrated at not being selected for the force sent to relieve Gordon of Khartoum, he joined the campaign anyway while on leave. But it was to be his last stand. He died at the Battle of Abu Klea, in Sudan, in 1885.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun appears on Cyndi Lauper’s debut album She’s So Unusual in 1983. I’m sure Lizzie would have approved, though far removed from the more working class backdrop of the lyrics. Interestingly, the original was written by Robert Hazzard with a male POV. Perhaps both versions are tailored to suit this dynamic duo.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 9

After the Brandy Hole, the Cliff Walk takes on a more isolated air. The summit towers above us to the right, steep and rugged, thinly coated in green, while the deep blue sea sparkles below us all the way to the horizon. Dublin and Bray lie hidden behind us, and Greystones is yet to emerge. 

As the high headland recedes, the vista southwards broadens before us. We are around halfway  between Bray and Greystones. To the right the grass verge extends into a natural cutting backed by an exposed section of cliff face, a giddy boundary wall clinging precariously to its top. This makes for a good rest stop to take in the view and relax with picnic or flask. 

Some yards on to the right a steep narrow track leads to Windgates. The Wind is pronounced poetically, as you would do to a watch. There’s a gate at the top of the incline, and we emerge onto tarmac and a pleasing terrace of modern housing. There was once a hotel here, the Cliff House, with a picture window bar to take in the view, but that’s more than a quarter century gone. A pity, on a warm, sunny day it would be the perfect place to sink a few and watch the sun’s lazy arc. Current residents at least have that pleasure, and they were friendly as I passed. Don’t think of parking here, however, it’s a private car park. There’s not much opportunity on the access road either, though there was a decent pull-in further back towards the main road, which lies a mile west. At the t-junction, turn right for Bray. There’s a footpath all the way back if you’re doing a loop walk. 

Continuing along the Cliff Walk, it’s now downhill all the way to Greystones Harbour. A birdwatcher notice calls attention to rock doves and peregrine falcons, and sand martins who nest  in softer terrain further down. First, there’s a gap in the fence leading to a wide sloping green with views across to Greystones. Near the edge there’s an old World War 2 sign spelling Eire along with the number 8. The sign lay forgotten for seventy five years until recently uncovered by a gorse fire and restored by locals.

These signs originated with the establishment of the Coastal Watch in 1939, at the beginning of World War Two, or as we quaintly called it: The Emergency. The Watchers were housed in concrete pillboxes looking seawards, with a small hearth and barely room to swing a cat. From 1942 they were tasked with making the signs saying Eire. These signs were placed along the coast to warn bomber aircraft that they were over neutral territory. Reviewing the work on a flying tour, the Army Chief was horrified to see a huge disparity in style and competence, with many signs illegible. A uniform template was circulated, and the job was completed with Roman capitals formed from stones embedded and whitewashed. Each site was clearly numbered 1 to 82 which also provided a good navigational aid. Number 1 was in County Louth and 82 in Inishowen, Donegal. Bray is No 8 and the next sign on at Wicklow Head is number 9.

Éire is the Gaelic version of Ireland and used as the name for the independent Irish Free State after the Constitution of 1937. With the declaration of a republic in 1947, the Republic of Ireland was used as a description, but not as a name, usually in the context of differentiation from Northern Ireland as with, for instance, the Republic of Ireland soccer team. Ireland should be used when speaking English, Éire if speaking Gaelic. If you must use the Gaelic term, remember that Éire is the nominative, but in dative and genetive cases it changes. Erin, an Anglified somewhat poetic term which phonetically captures the Gaelic forms, is used in such phrases as Erin’s green isle or Erin go bragh!

The name Eire derives from an early Gaelic mother goddess, Eriu. It passed into wider usage with the voyage of Pytheas of Massalia. From the ancient Greek province at Marseilles, he sailed past the pillars of Hercules and on into the Northern Atlantic in around 325BC. He witnessed the midnight sun and described lands of ice and snow in the fabulous kingdom of Thule. Since seen as Iceland or Greenland, it was more likely Norway. He also navigated the Celtic Isles, and his name for Ireland, Ierne, refers to Éire.  

Pytheas’s works were lost over the centuries, but are woven into the works of subsequent writers and mapmakers. Claudius Ptolemy, of Alexandria, was a geographer and astronomer who mapped the classical world and its peripheries the first century AD. His map outlines the westernmost island with the city of Eblana at the head of a wide bay midway along the East Coast. Eblana was ancient Dublin. Ptolemy dubbed the island Ivernia which subsequently the Romans changed to Hibernia; the cosseted Mediterraneans seeing this as the Land of Winter. A notion proposing that Eire derives from old Celtic for Western Island is dubious. Nevertheless there’s a whiff of logic to it. After Ireland there was an ocean of nothingness, a ceaseless storm of salt water and sea monsters all the way to India.

Returning to the path, it now falls steeply and the vista of Greystones at the head of Wicklow’s coastal plain is swallowed up. The hard rock of the headland is behind us and the clay hereabouts is more easily eroded. The railway leaves the foreshore to pass beneath us. The Cliff Walk has been sporadically extinguished around here, though walkers will always find a way. However, it is being put on firmer footing as the Council convert the surrounding fields into parkland. We become immersed in the discreet charm of suburbia as the way into Greystones Harbour is through a modern housing development.

Greystones Harbour was once a partial structure with one stout pier to the east and a rubble groyne to the west. The modern harbour with a large marina was completed in 2013. It is impressive if unlovely, a stark, rather militaristic enclosure. The concrete wall surrounding doesn’t help much either. Where once was a stony beach, there’s now a hard paved esplanade well thronged with weekend strollers. Set disconcertingly against the steel and glass of modernity, a small cottage proclaims Fish and Chips in old english font. Sweeney’s is one of those Tardis type structures, with far more inside than you would think from the exterior There’s seating inside and out and also take away, a small amusement arcade is concealed somewhere within.

It’s a favourite of mine for breakfast and I like to go the full nine yards, with sausages, bacon, pudding, eggs and ‘shrooms. Best breakfast on the East coast if you ask me. You can even indulge in chips, though I prefer those later in the day and in the company of Sweeney’s most excellent and enormous battered cod. A sea monster in the best sense.

Across the road, the Beach House might be more accurately named as it’s a bit further from the beach than of yore. It’s a large bar with a good menu and outdoor terraces front and back. To the side, Dann’s Bar is a convincing facsimile of an old style pub. With music sessions, dark wood and darker pints, this is is the place to fully enjoy a drink free of such time wasting fripperies as television and food. A song hangs in the air, a sea shanty telling tales of monsters and men. It’s a common condition for those spending time in Sweeney’s and Dann’s.

There was a poor thing that flowed in with the tide

It was forty feet long, boys, and forty feet wide

And we called it the herring that came it with the tide

Take him away and don’t delay

One your leg, two your leg, three your leg

Throw your leg, over me Johnny sez she

From the Dubliners album, Drinkin and Courtin’ of 1968.

Hear the voice of Ronnie Drew, his black hair and beard framing those pale blue eyes. In many ways the epitome of the working class Dub, the hard chaw with the heart of coal, Ronnie was born in Dun Laoghaire in 1934 and moved to Greystones having married a local  girl. Both places are seen as heartlands of the upper middle class. Dartland personified. Things are always a little more complicated than they seem.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 8

After the joy of the summit, we magic ourselves back to where we began, beside the Scenic Car Park at the junction of the Cliff Walk and the steep path up Bray Head. A good walker can combine both paths in a loop, or take either route between Bray and Greystones. But with time on our side, we have taken both separately.

The cliff walk curves away to the left and from now on is a relatively level, well beaten path all the way to Greystones. It’s just over 6K and takes about an hour and a quarter to walk. It’s a path well travelled and particularly busy on a summer’s weekend. In the morning you’ll have the sun on your side and a glimmering coastal panorama. Shade falls after noon but the views remain captivating. There’s a surprising remoteness for such proximity to town and city, and a welcome seasoning of wild fauna. There are goats on the high headland, seals and sometimes dolphins in the sea, and the air alive with birdlife. Gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags and cormorants ply their trade along the cliffs. Herring gulls and great black-backed gulls circle ominously, and you might spot such elegant predators as peregrine falcons and kestrels. 

The Cliff Walk originated with the extension of the railway southbound in 1856. The Earl of Meath, whose Kilruddery estate stretched from Giltspur to the sea, did not want the railway line to bisect his demesne, but was willing to donate the land along the foreshore free of charge. The problem was this consisted of sheer cliffs and was going to require major engineering skill to construct a railway along it.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was given the task. Brunel was the star engineer of the time, born in 1806 in Portsmouth, England to a French father and English mother. Having completed his education in France, he returned to England in the late twenties to work with his father Marc on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. His subsequent career showed extraordinary invention and versatility over a wide range of projects. The famous Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol was an early triumph of design and aesthetics. Various difficulties prevented it being built during his lifetime, but, though altered in its final details, it is considered a fitting tribute to his genius. He became a central figure in the development of railways in these islands and pioneered modern oceanic travel with the design of large scale, propeller driven, all metal steamships. 

The Great Western, a paddle steamship, made the Atlantic crossing in 1838 in just fifteen days with fuel in reserve. Great Britain, the first truly modern ship, was made of metal rather than wood and driven by propellers instead of paddle. In 1852 he began work on the Great Eastern, the largest ship of its time. 700 foot long and holding four thousand passengers, it carried enough fuel to make the round trip to Australia. Finally launched in 1860, Brunel wouldn’t live to see the day; he died, aged fifty three, in 1859. As often happened with Brunel’s projects, it was not quite the success intended. Brunel was ahead of his time but world trade had not attained the economies of scale required to see his plans blossom. But, while it failed as a passenger liner, the Great Eastern found success as a cable lying ship, laying down the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866

Brunel first appeared in Ireland and encountered Dargan at the opening of the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in 1844. Dargan enlisted Brunel as engineer for the development of Bray seafront, with the building of the sea wall and Promenade. He was the obvious candidate for the job of extending the railway line to Greystones, and he surveyed and engineered the route in1855/6. 

The coastal route may seem the most logical route south from Bray, but it brought practical difficulties. Brunel was faced with the prospect of forcing the railway through high coastal cliffs. He opted for timber trestle built viaducts where possible. The original line had only two tunnels but since completion there have been four realignments. Erosion and rockfalls saw the route moved closer to the cliffs and the modern line passes through four tunnels, the longest and most recent built in 1917, almost a kilometre long. Such changes and high maintenance costs lead some to call the development Brunel’s Folly. But given the lucrative passenger trade, especially since electrification, this seems a misnomer. Whatever the cost, the benefit of this glorious route in terms of both engineering and aesthetics is well worth it.

The ten minute spin is the most spectacular of Ireland’s railway journeys. The hour long trip from central Dublin is a joy: exiting via the starred coast of the teeming city, past Dun Laoghaire, Ireland’s first train route, and then bursting upon the glorious scenery of Killiney Bay. Bray follows, and then to cap it all there’s this thrilling ten minute leg to Greystones. The route features on series three of Michael Portillo’s tv series of great railway journeys. These days the rail is electrified and trains travel every half hour. 

Bray Station has a mural of Brunel. He cuts a distinctive dash with his high beaver hat and bristling sideburns. He is said to have always carried a leather pocket case lined with fifty cigars. Now there’s a man who liked to plan ahead. Nothing more frustrating than finding yourself halfway along a railway line in exotic terrain and running out of your preferred cheroot. I reckon fifty should do between Bray and Greystones, maybe both ways if you fancy cutting down.

After construction, the walk was opened to the public, but with conditions. Lord Meath built a lodge to levy a toll of one penny, every day except Friday, when the Lord had it to himself. Lord Meath’s Lodge today lies in ruins, almost a scenic embellishment in itself. There’s a set of steps leading up the cliff just past the southern standing gable. This was for Lord Meath’s own guests, leading up to a scenic headland route, today overgrown. The view from the top of the steps is magnificent. I seem to remember that the lodge was converted for use as a tea rooms in the fifties and sixties, at the time of a major tourism upsurge. Such enterprise died off in the depressed seventies and eighties. It might fly again though. I’ve seen it work on many continental cliff paths. 

After a short uphill section, we come to a deep slice in the headland: the Brandy Hole . There’s a spectacular view into the ravine, illustrating the wonders of building a railway in such a hostile environment. You can still see where the old route lay seaward of the modern tunnels. This was the scene of a serious accident a decade after the line was opened. A northbound train derailed at Brabazon Corner on an August morning in 1867 and plunged off the trestle viaduct to fall ten metres into the landward side of the ravine. Two were killed and dozens injured. An investigation found no fault with the structure itself, though the railway was realigned. Ten years later the viaduct was removed and the route pushed further inland. 

The Brandy Hole was a smugglers’s cove up to the mid nineteenth century. It was used to smuggle brandy, wine and silk from France. The cut of the ravine kept activities out of sight of the coastguard in Bray and Greystones. There was entry to a vast cave at sea level and, it is said, a tunnel connecting to the landward side of Bray Head. Such traces were obliterated with the construction of the railway.

This aspect of the cliffs, to be hidden in plain view, lends an aura of mystique. The shimmering shifts of the atmosphere, birds and clouds and sparkling sea, can make the wayfarer feel unmoored in time. You expect to turn and see the promenaders of Bray in Victorian attire, twirling parasols or moustachios, politely perplexed at your modernity. Or rounding a sudden bend, a ruffian might lounge with dubious beard and earring. Tipping their tricorn hat for a lucifer, in that pleasant sulphurous flare you’ll catch a glimpse in their one green eye of the hidden cave and its glittering treasure.

I fled to the island where the animals roam

found a darkened cave and called it my home

at night I could hear the birds and insects

and lay my body down on a bed of regrets

Holy Moses, the devil’s after me

between the sea and the sky chasing me down

Holy Moses by the  Cujo Family, from their eponymous debut album of 2010.

Crossing O’Connell Bridge

Modern Dublin radiates from O’Connell Bridge. The River Liffey divides the city between North and South, flowing swiftly East to the port and the wider world beyond. The bridge marks the end of O’Connell Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare running due North behind us. We’re heading South of the river where the thoroughfare divides into d’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street. Four named quays meet, Burgh Quay and Aston Quay on the Southside, with Bachelor’s Walk and Eden Quay on the Northside. So, seven roadways and a river, and by the river the sea, and on to the whole world.

This acrylic catches us entering the nexus of the bridge. It’s a sunny winter morning and the sun pours down like honey from a vertiginous sky. Ahead, the centrepiece is a six storey Gothic Revival Chateau which seems to be the fulcrum of the spectacular weather patterns above. People and cars pass by, overhead a seagull circles, perhaps singing away to himself.

The feeling of space is emphasised by the unusually wide proportions of the bridge and connecting streets. The original Carlisle Bridge from the end of the eighteenth century was hump backed and narrow, but redevelopment in 1880 created a structure which was said to be as broad as it was long: fifty metres wide and forty five long.

D’Olier Street branches left, Westmoreland Street right. D’Olier Street is named for Jeremiah D’Olier, a Huguenot goldsmith who became Dublin City Sherriff in 1788 and a Wide Streets Commissioner. The Commission was established in 1758 and over the next ninety years transformed Dublin from a medieval maze of alleyways into a modern city of wide thoroughfares. D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street are each ninety feet wide.

The modern building to the left is O’Connell Bridge House. Built in 1964, the twelve story concrete and glass tower effectively marks Dublin City centre. It has pleasing clean lines and a strong vertical at its leading edge which functions as a clock tower. Coherently topped out, the ‘penthouse’ was originally a rooftop restaurant with fine views of the city centre, but it was quickly commandeered for office space. One of the few attractive buildings of that decade it was designed by Desmond Fitzgerald, also architect for the Dublin Airport terminal building of 1940.

If there’s a song in my heart, or I hear the seagull singing, perhaps this is it. Four Strong Winds is a Canadian folk anthem, written in New York by Ian Tyson in 1961 and recorded with his partner Sylvia Fricker. Neil Young’s version with backing vocals by Nicolette Larson is taken from his 1978 album, Comes a Time. That plaintive vocal takes you into the vast wilderness of Alberta, or anywhere at all, into a glass filled with the aching loss of loneliness, but bubbling with the permanence of hope.

Four strong winds that blow lonely

Seven seas that run high

All those things that don’t change, come what may

But our good times are all gone

And I’m bound for moving on

I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way