I sit for a moment in the car, huddled against the blast from the heater. Peering out through the misty windscreen I can see cloud shrouding the top of the mountain. I don’t normally need encouragement to get out into the hills, but this morning I feel that I need a cattle prod to get me moving. It’s the beginning of May and the start of the summer but the weather looks more like mid-November. It’s cloudy, misty and quite cold and I grimace as I open the door and climb out, reaching for boots and waterproofs.
The car-park here in Glendalough is virtually empty. That’s unusual for this time of year and a clear sign of how gloomy the day is looking. I sigh and surprise myself by considering a retreat, but I’ve driven an hour from the city to get here and it would be silly to turn back now. Adjusting my walking poles, I start to stroll towards the upper lake, and turning left, head to the bridge that leads towards the Poulanass Waterfall.
The plan is to stroll along the ‘white’ loop-walk; up over Spinc Mountain, across the bridge over the Glenealo River and down through the Miners’ Village to the Upper Lake. I warm up quickly as step out towards the wooded trail. Birds are singing everywhere in the rain dampened trees and the crackle and splash of the waterfall gets louder as I approach. It drowns out the patter of raindrops but the birds still pipe loudly through the cascade. Pausing for a moment I wonder about the power of the water dropping here to pools carved out of rock, from a hanging valley formed in the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. I wonder what the water feels like, how cold? I always promise to stop here during the summer when I’m warm and sticky after a long hike, take off my boots and plunge my feet into the white froth. Somehow I always forget. This year I’ll do it; definitely.
I reach the junction where I need to swing right for Spinc or left for the Derrybawn Ridge. I hesitate, with no sense of urgency in my mind. I meant to train hard today, to set a pace and work on my fitness, but I’m reluctant to push up into the cloud. Instead I potter around the river and take some photos of the water tumbling over the rocks. I’m familiar with the terrain around here and I have a map and compass; and so on a whim, I veer off the trail and into the woodland pushing ahead on an adventure and leaving the high trails behind.
Within moments, the roar of the waterfall is behind me, along with the brash, glare of the multi-hued, green riverbank. I’m entering into a carpeted, hushed arena beneath the bared bark of conifers stretching so high and thick above my head that the rain and cloud are banished. The change of atmosphere is dramatic, like stepping from the light and noise of a busy street into the sombre chambers of a cathedral. The light is amber, shaded by the canopy above and tinted by the russet carpet of fallen pine-needles and cones beneath my feet. Invisible birds make sounds all around me. I think I’m treading softly, but they hear the fine snap of twigs beneath my feet and clearly keep their distance.
I follow a gentle incline, moving steadily upward through the forest. I know Derrybawn is on my left and Mullacor is on my right and slightly ahead; but I don’t intend to push ahead that far. Reaching a fire-wall, I veer left, to meet a small stream rushing down from the ridge. I come back out into the light. There is no trail here and I have the river to myself. I potter around taking photos; and find I’m smiling and grinning at the sight of saplings and ferns unfolding, and clover in flower. This little glen has infrequent visitors and it’s showing no hesitation in sharing its secrets with me. I can almost imagine fairies dancing here in early morning sunbeams. Briefly I remember how it felt to lie beneath the yellow gorse in Roscommon as a kid fresh arrived from London; smelling the vanilla-scented pods of the furze, trying to whistle through stands of grass, watching fluffy clouds against a blue sky and dreaming of fantasy and wonder.
Eventually, I drag myself away from the magic glen and follow the river back towards the trails. I swing up left towards Spinc and climb the 600 wooden steps to the observation post high above the valley. Taking in the stunning views, I catch my breath. That will do for training for today! I swing down past Kevin’s Bed; the now inaccessible cave believed to have been used as a retreat by St Kevin and later for St. Laurence O’Toole; and down to the Upper Lake, past the 11th Century Reefert Church, the burial ground for the Clan O’Toole – the local kings or rulers.
Walking back towards the car to dump my damp gear in the boot, I glance at a teenage girl, dragging herself reluctantly from her dad’s jeep with a gloomy sigh. I smile as we pass each other, and I comment that I didn’t feel like going up myself this morning, but it was worth it when I got out there. “Really?” she replied. Not a bored ‘teenage’ reply, more hopeful and pleasant. Encouraged, I laughed and explained how I nearly drove back to Dublin without getting my boots wet, but ended up being thrilled by flowering clover, clever birds and silver spider webs caught in herbs and heather.
She smiled and said OK and headed for the hill. She may have been inspired, or maybe she thought I was ‘off with the fairies’. Although, I suppose, that could be inspiring too. Who can ever know what lies under a mountain of cloud and gloom? Like life itself, it’s often worth pushing on and giving things a chance. I may not have covered many kilometres of incline today, but I had fun and fed my soul. Sometimes it’s good to put the training regime aside and just enjoy the outdoors for its beauty and timeless simplicity. I’ve learned already, you can move mountains, just by ‘walking your way to fitness’.
Back in February, six ordinary people from around the country met with myself and a production crew from Athena Media. We went for a short walk in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, while we discussed our plans to get out and get active in the great outdoors. It was our first day of filming for a six-part television show that will be broadcast on Setanta TV this September. In the months that followed, we ran and trained, climbed mountains, cycled bikes, learned to swim, took part in triathlons and became firm friends.
When I started this project, I was widely enthusiastic, exhilarated by the opportunity to preach my message once again – that if I could lose 13 stone and get healthy, anybody could. For me, the benefits of a healthy lifestyle have exploded into a life full of passion and colour and I can’t help but get carried away when I talk about the joy of waking up each day with my new-found health. I hoped my group of six ‘Get Off The Couch’ participants would have a similar experience; but I could hardly have imagined the outcome.
I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re not just talking about six people who got fit and healthy, we’re talking about new jobs, a return to college, a major sports deal, giving up smoking and whole families changing the way they spend their leisure time together.
Strictly speaking, we finished filming back in June. But on Saturday we met again, to catch up, and because I wanted to show them my lovely Spinc Mountain that I had been bragging about throughout our months of training together. They were invited to bring friends and family, but I was a little concerned when I saw the youthful bunch that turned up – our youngest walker was just 4-years-old, and I confess I didn’t think they’d last 5 minutes. To my amazement, they hopped around the mountain covering a 9km hill-walk with a climb of 380m in just under 4 hours; and 4-year-old Charlie was the most energetic of all of us. It just goes to show that sometimes our kids can be limited, not by their lack of strength or maturity but by the preconceived and erroneous notions of us boring old adults.
Thanks to my GOTC gang for a fabulous day – to the kids for the life lesson – and to Joan Kavanagh (local historian and member of the Glens of Lead Project) who met us on the trail along the way to introduce us all to ‘Paddy Byrne’ (wooden miner model) and to tell us about the history of the old lead workings and mines at Glendalough.
After a ‘Last Supper’ with the team, several of us went back out on the hill again for a night climb on Spinc – as part of my climbing mate Vera Baker’s preparations for a Concern hike to Kenya later this year. Staying in Wicklow overnight, the Concern trainees were back out on their bikes for some cycling exercise on the Sallygap on Sunday, and then I was back up on Spinc for a 3rd and final climb on Sunday afternoon, before I returned to the city and prepared for work and the gym on Monday.
My own training intensifies next week. I’m preparing for the Liffey Descent kayak and cycle challenge that I’m doing this September with ‘Mr Kayak’ Kipper Maguire, to raise funds and awareness for LauraLynn Hospice – Irelands ONLY childrens’ hospice. If you have a few bob, please drop it into our MyCharity page here – and please pass it on….