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Monday, November 01, 2004

Getting There: October 27th

After many years of being invited, I was finally able to stop work long enough at the right time to visit my friends John and Lindy in Donard, Wicklow. I went overland and sea with my girlfriend Dana.

We caught the 9 a.m. train from Euston to Holyhead, wondering if imminent force 9 gales might prevent us crossing, but the forecast was updated and the time of the Big Wind kept on being pushed back, so we decided to go for it. The day in Wales was grey, warm and spookily calm, the winds were low, with just spots of occasional light rain, and the Irish sea was dead calm.

Our fast ferry had been cancelled for safety's sake so we travelled a little later on the big cruise ship which took 3 hours instead of one and a half. By the time we got to Dublin, the wind had picked up so much so that we had trouble standing on the port side to catch a cab.

We met Lindy at the opening night of the Hard Rock Cafe in Fleet Street, which was work for her, but which allowed us a night of free beer, music, chicken in breadcrumbs, and cheeseburgers made to Lindy's great recipe. A great young band "The Pirhanas" played and Mr Def Leppard donated a guitar. We hung out next to Jon Bon Jovi's glam stage jacket and a really nice Ovation-style acoustic guitar which I seriously considered borrowing.

That night in the Wicklow mountains, the winds got up to 90 mph and howled around Fauna Cottage, waking us up every hour or so. We felt safe enough under the eaves in spite of the drama, but as we saw on the news over the next couple of days, large parts of south east Ireland were underwater.

Calm After the Storm: October 28th

Next morning the valley was very windswept and the weather changed every five minutes. We went for our first walk and got into the amazing landscape, singing with Autumn colour.

Wicklow is a place of great beauty and history where Irish rebels fought and hid from the English. We walked all across the valley floor of The Glen of Imaal. We didn't know it yet but this is partly military land and partly forestry, and we were walking slap bang into an artillery range.

A Fine Crop of Rocks

Lindy told me that they say of the Wicklow Mountains that you can grow "a fine crop of rocks" there. The amount of different kinds and colours of stone is remarkable - white, black, green, grey, brown. This was caused by ancient glaciers as their tremendous icy force gouged and dragged various strata about the place. Lots of granite, limestone, and some kinds of stone that simply had no place being there.

Later as Dana finshed her book, I went to the pub in Donard with John, who in actual fact was still recovering from a monster period of work himself, and met some locals, including the man with the leaky house. He was building a place just next door, and living in a mobile home, but the water had been pouring in through the light fittings in this terrible weather.

A couple of pints of Smithwicks and a Crested Ten later, I came out of the pub and saw this sky. If I'd had a proper camera, I'd have spent the next 15 minutes (which was as long as it lasted) photographing. I was stunned. I could hardly believe the colours I was witnessing - God's own lightshow.

We ate fabulously all holiday. That night Lindy brought out the champagne as a great welcome to us, and we ate roast lamb with rosemary and garlic, followed by cocktails with raspberries in. We stayed up late and very drunk, and I don't actually remember going to bed... astonishingly, next morning, I didn't have more than ten minutes of hangover. Vitamin C, said Lindy. Same cannot be said of John, although it must be said, he bore it with his usual good grace.

Through the Floods: October 29th

Next morning, we went to the local organic farm shop and picked up the weekly vegetables. Fabulous greens, dark green wobbly-leaved kale, fresh garlic, gorgeous stuff.

John walked us down the lane to the river Slaney and we could see how much of it had burst it's banks.

Glenmalure: Underwater Cul-de-Sac

We set off by road for Glenmalure, one of the most beautiful spots in Eire. The roads were pretty wet but the sun was peeking through. As we climbed up into the clouds, we could see only occasional glimpses of the wonderful views, but we began to get an idea of where Fauna Cottage was, ringed by mountains banked with conifers, attended by sheep, deer, and a few cattle. There are lakes everywhere, and as the weather systems come over the mountains, clouds cling to them and precipitation forms before your eyes. If ever there was a place to witness all your geography lessons at once, this was it.

We turned into the glen and started up the longest cul-de-sac in Eire. A couple of miles up, the road dipped and there was a 50 foot stretch of water ahead of us. John slowed the trusty diesel - but not enough - we hit the water which was surprisingly deep and a huge wave washed over the bonnet. The engine began to whine and sound alarmingly unlike a diesel, steam billowed out from back and front obscuring the view and the car stopped mid-water. John kept the revs up and somehow got us out of there, but lost a part of the car in the process, and loosened the front number plate so it was almost falling off.

The car took about 10 minutes to recover, but it did so to everyone's relief. Less than half a mile up the road we came to the ford which has to be crossed to access the deep valley. Sheer sides rose up all about us, dramatic, red, rocky.

There was a memorial stone to the rebels of 1798, which we inspected, and we took five minutes to look around the place and relax after our hair-raising adventure.

While we were there, a 40-tonne log lorry from up the valley crossed the ford with ease. We could see the force of the water over the wheels.

There was no way we were going over the ford - the water was incredibly fierce, and it was obvious that even a car with four of us in it could be swept away, so we headed back.

The Coldest Paddle

Five minutes later we were back at the flooded stretch of road. We'd seen a couple of cars with single occupants successfully steam through VERY low in the water, and we realised the passengers would have to get out of the car to get us back - removing the best part of 30 stone was the best way of ensuring the vehicle wasn't going to conk out completely.

While John drove slowly through the water this time, we all prepared ourselves in best British seaside fashion and walked barefoot with trousers rolled up through 50 feet of ice cold mountain water.

Dana still could not actually believe we would have to wade, until she saw Lindy go for it and lead the way, so whooping and laughing she followed.

Having searched in vain for a path along the gorse-covered bank, I bravely watched the women go ahead, before submitting my feet to the pain and misery. I hate having cold or wet feet, and this was both at once. With my GORETEX (tm) walking boots strung around my neck, I walked into the water which came almost up to my knees. After four seconds, I walked straight back out and decided to stay there. I gave it a couple more minutes for my feet to adjust to the freezing cold, decided they wouldn't, and went for it. Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. I was the Little Mermaid.

Afterwards we had hot whiskeys in the pub as our feet glowed hot and warm again inside our boots.

Glendalough: Gay Murder

After lunch we went up to Glendalough and saw the lakes and the waterfall, which was as dramatic and torrential as you'd expect.

This is all part of Saint Kevin's Way. Saint Kevin was a nobleman sent into the church to sort himself out with booklearning and the like, and who lived halfway up the valley side. Apparently his betrothed fair maiden followed him to Glendalough and climbed all the way up to encourage him to come back and fulfill his marital duties. Being of the other persuasion he threw her down into the lake and killed her. This celebrated act of self-sacrifice (on his part) led to his beatification ! Bejazus !

The rain set in again, so we retired to the pub and then drove up to the top of the valley where the recent film Reign of Fire was shot. The set was built from an old lead mine - sadly now once again an old lead mine.

On the way back, the weather cleared and we visited a stone circle near Hollywood. I really liked it there, it felt good to me.

I left a plectrum as an offering, John found a really nice stone, and Dana found a single magic mushroom. I was very impressed.

That night Dana cooked (with my able food-gimp assistance) - cinnamon, allspice, eggs, meat, aubergine, spinach - lovely flavours.

Hallowe'en Eve

Fauna Cottage is up pretty high, looking across at Table Mountain directly opposite and Keadeen Mountain to the right as the valley slopes down from the road. It has it's own water supply which is fed by a bore hole - nice, soft drinking water, good for skin and hair.

Next day was our last full day, so we went for a long walk all around the forestry land above the cottage, down the Dunlavin side of the hill. We walked and talked about everything. At one point we entered the pine forest and went through about 200 yards of narrow clearing to a light well, where the sun penetrated down into the darkness and threw up an amazing array of moss, grass, lichen and fungus. I counted 18 different varieties, red, white, faun, chestnut, chrome orange, lemon yellow, some unattached to the earth and rising up magically, their roots suspended in a galaxy of bright green starshaped moss.

On our return, Dana and Lindy went to Blessington to be pampered, and John and I hung out and did precious little. This involved playing John's lovely Fender Strat and then John got out the Theremin to practise scaring the Hallowe'en children the following night. It made a spooky sound, and sounded far more bizarre standing in the lane.

My mood was further improved by Crystal Palace beating Birmingham, and so to celebrate, we went down the pub. We watched the last 30 minutes of Arsenal v Southampton and gasped as Southampton very nearly snuffed the Gunners. Then we laughed heartily as the Mighty Mancs lost to Pompey. Rise up, small, talented, well-managed teams everywhere, and take your rightful place at the big table ! That'll be the Smithwicks talking then...

Greta and Dec

Lindy and Dana returned from hot and cold rocks and flotation in a very good s p a c e indeed. The evening had finally delivered the fine weather that had been peeking through since the storms, and that night was chilly but clear, stars came out and it was generally picture perfect.

Lindy had invited the neighbours, Greta and Declan, over for dinner, as she and John had previously been invited over to their place and we were staying... so it meant a switch of venues. Dec had just started to learn the guitar and knew the chords of G Major, E Minor, A Major, A Major 7th, and D Major, so after Lindy's excellent food (roast chicken, honeyed ham, loads of lovely vegetables) we got out the guitar. Considering he's only just learnt the basics, he was pretty good. He strummed G and I pulled out my G Harmonica and we played.

The evening went on late into the night, fuelled by Long Island Iced Teas, apple pie, fruit flan, and Dustin the Turkey blasting out from the stereo... "Arklow, Arklow, Arklow, County Wicklow... boomchugga boomchugga boomchugga boomchugga" to the tune of "Born Slippy" and "Funky Ford Cortina" to the tune of "Funky Cold Medina". Dec played the guitar until he fell asleep in the chair and Greta kept us all entertained with her stream of cosmic and comic irishness and unbridled affection, until we collapsed up to bed, extremely full and highly relaxed. Thankfully we got our daylight savings time hour back and so, 8.30 am was going to be 9.30 am.. or whatever. Something like that. Zzzzz.

The Craic of Dawn

We slept like a couple of beans in a tin and woke up at dawn. It was The Last Day of October 2004.

I looked out of the window and I saw the sight of the holiday - the mist-filled valley with the sun coming up over the mountain.

As the sun came over the lip of the horizon, it heated the valley vapour and within 10 minutes the mist rose up covering everything in a cold white fog. An amazing way to begin our last day.

Back to Old Blighty

After a delicious farewell breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, John drove us to Dublin port through mists and past lakes, and in an hour we descended down to sea level and the fast ferry back.

It was bright and sunny on deck. We fortified ourselves with a nip of Jameson's.

We disembarked and caught the bus to Bangor, then the train to Euston. It was a long journey back, 12 hours more or less. I felt tired but as we came into London, my mind's eye was still full of the colours of Wicklow.