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.