Wicklow’s Wonderful Playlist

The walk from the Dargle River to Arklow on the Avoca is about 54k, taking in, near enough, the coastline of County Wicklow. After Arklow, there is a short stretch to Clogga Beach after which Kilmichael Point marks the border with Wexford. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list.

All the way to Wicklow Town we kept to the coast, though after that access was restricted to select entry points. It’s been an epic in seventeen parts. The first seven were in Bray which certainly offers plenty, though we had barely covered a mile of our journey before embarking on the cliff walk to Greystones. That’s about a 7k stretch and you’d do it easily in ninety minutes. If you want to do it via Bray Head and Summit, it will take a bit longer with a climb to 240 metres. You can make it a loop walk or go station to station and take DART in one direction. 

Greystones all the way to Wicklow is along the beach for a little over 20k. Detours to Newcastle and the East Coast Bird Sanctuary were taken. The Bird Sanctuary is a good outing of itself. Greystones to Newcastle is around 8k, and it’s another 13k to Wicklow.

Wicklow was good for a bit of exploration. South of the town you can navigate the headland by way of the Black Castle and join the Glen Beach Cliff Walk as far as the Lighthouses. Wicklow to Arklow is a distance of about 25k, but there’s no one coastal path. We drove it and dropped into Magheramore Beach and Brittas Bay, the latter a splendid walk end to end of about 5k. After Mizen Head, the road runs close to the sea for 12k all the way into Arklow.

And of course, what kept us going was the travellers tales, the myths and legends, and the songs playing in our heads. Much of the playlist is provided by local artists, some a bit further afield. 

Double Cross, (Fintan Coughlan), Tired and Emotional/Mary Coughlan (1985)

Telstar, (Joe Meek) The Original Telstar – The Sounds of the Tornados/The Tornados (1962)

The Wanderer, (Ernie Maresca ), Dion (1961)

Mr Tambourine Man, (Bob Dylan), Mr Tambourine Man/The Byrds (1965)

Teenage Kicks, (John O’Neill), Teenage Kicks/The Undertones (1978)

Nothing Compares 2U, (Prince), I do not want what I haven’t got/Sinead O’Connor (1990)

Meetings of the Waters (Fionn Regan), Meetings of the Waters/Fionn Regan (2017)

Sloop John B, (Trad,. Arr. Brian Wilson), Pet Sounds/The Beachboys (1966)

Candle in the Wind, (John/Taupin), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Elton John (1973)

Wish You Were Here, (Gilmour/Waters), Wish You were Here/Pink Floyd (1975)

Holy Moses (Slattery/McCabe), The Cujo Family/The Cujo Family (2010)

The Herring (Trad), Drinkin’ and Courtin’/The Dubliners (1968)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (Robert Hazzard), She’s So Unusual/Cyndi Lauper (1983)

Zephyr Song (Balzary/Fruscianti/Kiedis/Smith), By the Way/Red Hot Chilli Peppers (2002)

Come Fly With Me (Cahn/Van Heusen), In the Wee Small Hours/Frank Sinatra (1955)

The Parting Glass (Trad), Hozier (2021)

Anchorage (Michelle Shocked), Short, Sharp, Shocked/Michelle Shocked (1988)

Suzanne (Leonard Cohen) Songs of Leonard Cohen/Leonard Cohen (1967)

Follow Me Up to Carlow (P.J. McCall), Planxty/Planxty (1973)

Do It Again (Brian Wilson/Mike Love), The Beachboys (1968)

The Meeting of the Waters (Thomas Moore), John McCormack.

The Streets of Arklow (Van Morrison), Veedon Fleece/Van Morrison (1974)

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 – 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 – 2

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, 

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

Round many western islands have I been 

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 

Bray Promenade looking south is Bray’s iconic vista. The waves fall to the stony beach on our left, the green Esplanade is arranged to our right, while the clenched fist of Bray Head rises up before us. Postcards, photos, paintings all convey the same scene, at different points in history. Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian splendour, the last days of sepia elegance in Edwardian times, more downmarket family fun post Independence, and the technicolour imagery of John Hinde postcards in the fifties and sixties. Still the parade goes on, everchanging, still the same. 

Off to the east, the blue horizon is constant, but even there chimeras lurk. Sometimes Wales leers up from the horizon, its diaphonous mountains and cliffs disrupting the pale blue emptiness. Then it shimmers into nothingness again. This is a rare sight, such that when it does appear it might be considered a mirage, just another trick of the light, and of Bray.

To the landward side, the curved, art deco facade on the corner wraps the vestigial remains of the Royal Marine Hotel. Bray’s first seafront hotel was built in 1855, the year after the railway arrived in its backyard. Sixty years later, as war raged in Europe and revolution simmered in Ireland, the upper floors were destroyed by fire. The site lay derelict for twenty years, when in 1936 the ground floor was recast as the Railway Buffet, with the current facade. This later became the Dug Inn, operated by the Duggan family, who now run several seafront establishments, including the Harbour. They have expanded these premises into The Ocean Bar and Grill, including Platform Pizza and the BoxBurger. To confuse matters, locals often refer to the spot as Katie’s, from the pub’s previous name Katie Gallagher’s. This itself derives from the name of a low rugged peak visible to the northwest, part of the Dublin Mountains in the vicinity of the Scalp.

The level crossing leads up towards the old town a half mile beyond. Some years back on rounding the corner, I ran into a nuclear family of African origin heading seawards, luggage in tow. The young boy was maybe seven or eight. His eyes opened wide with delight as he looked past me to the view. “Oh, look at the big, green, mountain!”

Though I well knew what was there, I had to turn and look. Yes, the Head, rising sheer from the sea, is nothing if not a big green mountain. Well, technically, at just under nine hundred feet, it is a hill, but greatly magnified in its drama. I saw it again with this child’s eyes, as when first  standing at that age before the big green mountain. 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Beneath the big green mountain, there were other wonders to behold: the amusement arcades and the seafront carnival with their dodgems and swingboats, calliopes and candyfloss. In any age, there is something in the seafront resort that reeks of rock and roll and all those seductive scents of fun, food, sex and machinery. All the crazy things to grab a youngster and carry them along like an amusement ride. In the sixties it was Beatlemania, mods and rockers, dancehall days, and holidays in Bray.

I holidayed here with my parents and siblings in 1963, stayed in a BnB by the Carlisle Grounds. I was seven years old. Uptown, the Italian cafe, Mizzoni’s on Quinsboro Road, had a Scopitone, a jukebox with a 16mm film insert. How modern can you get? As kids we were thrilled, though the choice was limited. My big song just then was I Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers but that wasn’t an option. Telstar by the Tornados was the best bet. The Tornados were Billy Fury’s backing band. But it was they who were the first of the English invasion to hit number one in the US. Telstar might be said to have spawned the sci-fi sound, with such later echoes as the Doctor Who Theme and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Telstar itself, was the name of a series of satellites launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. They were the result of a multi-national project between Europe and North America with the aim of developing transatlantic tv and telephone communications. The world of instant global communication was realised. It’s something we take for granted today but was a wonder sixty years ago.

Climbing Bray Head

B.Woods Aug20

Bray Head is the defining geographical feature of the town. Rising sheer eight hundred feet from the Irish Sea, the headland is capped by a large stone cross, erected for the Holy Year of 1950. The headland is a sizeable upland area. Its ridge consists of five or so mounds of exposed quartzite, like the knuckles of a fist. While the cross marks the headland, the summit is a couple more humps inland. 

The climb to the Cross is a must for visitors, and a regular pastime for locals. The route from the seafront is steep, though the incline can be tempered by zigzags through natural woodland. A longer but more gradual climb runs from the junction of the Southern Cross and Greystones Road, adjacent to Bray Golf Course. 

B.Golf Aug20

The lower entrance, through the gates, makes for a lovely start through dense deciduous woodland. Dappled green and umber, but allowing the occasional patch of sunlight through, this is a cool and mesmeric way to disguise the climb. Merging with the golf course path, the incline hardens, but compensates with fabulous views over the Sugarloaf Mountains, to the Wicklow Mountains beyond, with Bray’s urban landscape leading down to a blue sea, and South County Dublin’s rocky bays and inlets leading the eye on to the distant city. 

B.View Aug20

At the top of the path there’s a short, stiff clamber over rocks just above the treeline before the path resumes. Another option, is to veer right for a longer, smoother ascent, with some wonderful rugged scenery above the manicured golf course. Emerging from the scrubland, there’s a smooth path leading up to. the Cross. The headland offers dizzying views over ocean, coast and townscape, framed by the majesty of the Wicklow Mountains. 

B.Cross Aug20

The hummock is often thronged, but often not. People come and go, and you can linger as long as you like to get the best from the experience. And there’s a surprisingly large expanse of wilderness up here to explore, or just to be away from it all. We take the path towards the stile, but leave it to ensconce ourselves beneath the second knuckle in, and sitting on grass with the rock guarding our backs, relax for a while and bathe our eyes with sunshine and the blue and glinting Irish Sea.

It doesn’t take long before I feel a song coming on.

Somewhere beyond the sea

Somewhere waiting for me

My lover stands on golden sands

And watches the ships that go sailing

La Mer was written by Charles Trenet, a homage to the view of the Etang de Thau, a lagoon he passed on the train between Montpellier and Perpignan in the South of France. Jack Lawrence’s Anglo version gives a romantic twist to the descriptive thrust of the original. It was a major hit for Bobby Darin, which is how I know it. It features on his 1961 compilation, the Bobby Darin Story, the oldest, probably, and most bedraggled album in my collection.

B.Sea Aug20

Somewhere beyond the sea

She’s there watching for me

If I could fly like birds on high

Then straight to her arms I’d go sailing.