Travel: Cycle trip on Waterford Greenway winds up taking in Wicklow and Wexford
Ireland's sunny south east lived up to its name when Fergal Hallahan set off on a cycle trip on the Waterford Greenway, via his native Co Wicklow and Wexford's Hook Peninsula
I GUESS it’s a sign of the times that “the man above” to which the two elderly farmers dining at the next table were referring was the satellite that guides their high-tech tractors, with unerring accuracy by the sound of things.
The weather being so glorious that first week of June as to instil even in a heathen such as myself a sense of spiritual exuberance, farmers were flat out cutting silage, and, like us, these men were in this eaterie near Wexford’s Hook Head for a feed after a long day.
By the way, as well as sunshine to rival the Mediterranean, a chilled craft beer, half a bottle of decent if pricy Rioja and being off work for a week are key ingredients of near-belief in 'the Man Above', in case you’re ever looking for a recipe.
Another sign of the times in the state with which we in the north share this astonishingly beautiful island (the effects of the drink might have worn off at the time of writing, but those of the weather haven’t) is that everywhere myself and my cycling buddy went, people assumed we were a couple. As in, not just a couple of cyclists.
“You can push those beds together now if you want, as close as you like,” the owner of one B&B told us. A fellow guest at another referred to the friend with whom I had embarked on what was, at just over 300km, the most ambitious yet of our annual cycling trips, as my “partner”. In the new Ireland, attempting to set the record, well, straight, seemed churlish.
I suppose I should go back to the beginning. Which was him texting something along the lines of “Waterford Greenway?” – he’s a man of few words – and me replying “Sounds good but let’s cycle there”.
I do the detail: if you see one of us at a junction studying an Ordnance Survey map, that’ll be me; he’ll either be gone on ahead – possibly the wrong way; he’ll still get there but what’s the point of planning if you’re just going to go any old way? – or be rolling a cigarette while I dither.
That crystallised into a plan – ish: cycle to Waterford city, via our home county of Wicklow and a bit of neighbouring Wexford; westwards to the coastal town of Dungarvan via the new Waterford Greenway; then back to Waterford and a train to Dublin. Some of the various musculo-skeletal issues that afflict the desk-bound middle-aged dictated that this be fine tuned eventually to “Let’s see how far we get”.
In terms of cycling challenges, the first day was the worst day but it was no harm to get the hardest bit out of the way early on.
“We could go east of the mountains or west,” my mate had mused, consulting his circa-1980 road atlas for the first time on the morning of our departure. “Or we could just go over them,” I said. It was the most scenic way, the way least likely to have much traffic and the only way that made sense, frankly, to get to the accommodation I’d booked.
Thus, our route took us along the R115, the Old Military Road the Brits built from Rathfarnam in Dublin to Aughavannagh in Co Wicklow to get to the rebels in the mountains after 1798. (Wicklow lads, eh?) It is a beautiful ride that brings you right up to the Sally Gap and down by Glenmacnass Waterfall but it takes no prisoners: you start doing some serious climbing before you’re even out of Dublin.
That was such a shock to the system that we made our first refuelling stop within an hour of setting off, at a garden centre cafe overlooking the city near the Hellfire Club, a landmark to which various superstitions and stories of bygone-days debauchery attach.
However, it set a pace and rhythm for the coming days – take your time, eat well, drink lots, quit while you’re ahead – which served us well.
For a 19th century footsoldier slogging to subdue the natives, this must have seemed like unforgiving country: mountains as far as the eye can see once you get to Kippure on the Dublin-Wicklow border, its peak these days bristling with masts. But though it is tinged with bleakness, there’s a splendour to Wicklow that you can only fully appreciate on foot or bike.
We lunched in Laragh, the next-door village to Glendalough, then on to Glenmalure, in the heart of the mountains, for the night. We stayed across from the Glenmalure Lodge, originally a coaching inn, and breakfasted well there in a fine olde-worlde dining room, alongside people walking the Wicklow Way and a group of Dutchmen heading up nearby Lugnaquilla for the day.
The day had climbing in store for us too: the hardest leg of the trip was up, the most exhilarating down, to Aughavannagh, the next valley over. It’s an indication of the extent to which Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond has been written out of history that although I grew up within 20 miles of the imposing former British army barracks here, I never learned until this year, the centenary of his death, that he once owned it. A hostel in my youth, it had previously belonged to Parnell.
From Aughavannagh we followed the Ow River (saying you followed a river sounds very adventure-y; the fact is, that’s the way the road went) into Aughrim, from there to Tinahely, both picturesque villages, sleepy on a bank-holiday Monday. A plaque says Mary McAleese opened the lovely if incongruous-seeming bowling green in Aughrim some years ago; it’s a place I associate with being dragged to GAA matches, home as it is to the county grounds.
A picnic lunch in a field under blazing sunshine broke up the day before we crossed into Wexford, landing in Bunclody, on the River Slaney. First stop: Redmond’s Bar, as it happened. No relation.
Being old school – that’s what OS might as well stand for on our maps – we took pot luck for accommodation after night one, knocking on B&B doors. Our farm guesthouse had a wonderful view of Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs, though heading south next morning in this softly scenic corner of the country, dense with foxgolves and whitethorn, we really only skirted them.
Following for the most part yellow roads on the map, the smallest, quietest ones, took us through countryside in full bloom; trees heavy with foliage, hedgerows and even the odd meadow ablaze with wildflowers.
New Ross, where the Nore and the Barrow meet, afforded us a bike shop – I’d lost a pannier nut coming full tilt down a Wicklow hill; a key ring had stood in for it. Arthurstown, on the shores of the mighty Suir estuary, was a highlight; a grand-looking but reasonably priced and very friendly guesthouse, Glendine, overlooking the calm body of water; good food and company, if dubious muzak, nearby at The Hollow.
We took the busy little ferry across to Passage East, Co Waterford, next day, a tall ship passing, as if on cue, to complete the morning’s picture perfection.
The greenway was... grand. Cycling along the banks of the Suir for the first few miles was lovely; the Comeraghs coming into view, the cow's parsley tumbling over ditches, the viaduct at Kilmacthomas, the dramatic first sight of the Atlantic as you near Dungarvan.
But, wonderful amenity though it is, with its flat new tarmac and its fenced-in-ness it was just a little tame for a couple – and don’t read anything into that – of Wicklow men.
:: Wilderness Lodge, Glenmalure, Co Wicklow: wildernesslodge.ie
:: Millview House, Bunclody, Co Wexford: +353 53 937 7779
:: Glendine Country House, Arthurstown, Co Wexford: glendinehouse.com
(The owner might offer you a bottle of his micro-brewery’s excellent Hook beer if you look thirsty enough.)
:: Glenmalure Lodge B&B (non-residents’ breakfast €10): glenmalurelodge.ie
:: The Hollow bar and restaurant, Ramsgrange, Co Wexford: thehollow.ie
:: Kiersey’s Bar and Tearoom, Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford: kierseysbarandtearoom.ie