Leaving the station I cross the bridge on foot and admire the streetscape Waterford presents to the river. A pleasing prospect stretches from Reginald’s Tower at the eastern end of the quays all the way to the bridge’s landfall before me. Somehow Waterford City has managed not only to retain a wonderful unbroken streetscape from the river but even to generate a sense of pride and affection towards the line of shops and businesses, many dating back to Victorian times and beyond. No ugly modern cubes break this skyline. The only modernist touch is opposite the Viking era tower. There on the boardwalk a beautiful public space is created by means of canvas, wood and steel. Musicians at times play in this authentic representation of a boat. At other times the boardwalk promenaders of all ages enjoy sitting while skateboarders glide skilfully by.
Waiting for a bus along the quay, just below the Bus Éireann depot I am surrounded by rich rolling “r’s” of the Waterford/South Kilkenny accent. The bus I was waiting for was not easy to locate. Sometimes I despair at how difficult it can be to access information on travelling without your own transport in Ireland. The various websites supposedly offering timetables with destinations, route planners, fares and prices have been in my experience some of the most frustrating to navigate. How do tourists manage? They ask people. Once on a Dublin bus I had the pleasure of watching a middle-aged German couple wondering whether they were on the right bus, asking for help from various fellow passengers, pensioners all. The old ladies and gentlemen whipped out their smartphones’, checked their timetabling apps, cross checked with each other and with the kindest of smiles helped and reassured the visiting couple. Ireland of the welcomes, modern style.
The blue and white Suir Valley Transport bus was already waiting when I arrived. Regulars chatted with the driver while waiting for the off. As an unknown I was discreetly eyed up and down. Wearing hiking boots, haversack and sporting a beard makes me easy to categorise. It was to be a feature of my journeys that as a grey bearded rambler I was welcome everywhere and conversations began easily. “Where have you come from?” “Where are you going?” So many people still take the time to stop and talk when you travel at the speed of an ordinary walk.
The bus loaded at a leisurely pace, information exchanged along with fares, smiles and greetings part of the ritual. Smaller than the modern, sleek, air-conditioned inter-city buses the Suir Valley blue and white bounced along the quays. Turning round by Reginald’s Tower we went past Thomas Meagher on his bronze horse, sword held eternally aloft as if frozen at Gettysburg or the disaster at Fredericksburg, half the Fighting Irish, the 69th New York Regiment of the Union Army, wiped out in a day. Soon we left Waterpark behind and after the roundabouts by Ardkeen Regional hospital the open countryside beckoned.
The hospital at Ardkeen has grown and continues to grow through all the ups and downs of Health Services Provision over the years. It began life, as far as I know, as a T.B. sanatorium built by the famous, yet ill-starred, Dr. Noel Browne. A man fired by a burning desire to use a Ministerial position in the First Inter-Party government to eradicate the scourge of T.B. Dr. Browne raided the capital funds of the Hospitals’ Sweepstakes, a form of lottery, to build a chain of sanatoria across the land. These were designed to accommodate those suffering from the dreaded lung disease. Long covered over in an ever developing series of buildings and services the old sanatorium can no longer be traced and the folk memory of T.B. as a killer disease is finally fading away. The old people in my youth spoke of Dr. Browne in hushed and respectful tones, his lingering on in the oral tradition a mighty monument to the man’s work.
Beyond Ardkeen, after a few more bends and twists in the road we reach the official boundary between urban and rural Waterford. The city has now grown so far and so fast that where I remember fields and country cottages, now housing estates sprawl down to the very water’s edge on our left. The little bus passes by a sign proclaiming that we are now entering not only County Waterford but the very Barony of Gaultier, whose symbol, the horned goat, looks most lordly like down upon the approaching traveller. It never fails to make me smile and then the road divides at a “Y” junction, right for the fishing village of Dunmore East, left on the R683 for the estuary, Passage East and the ferry to Wexford and my true beginning, the start of the Slí Charmain, the Wexford coastal path.
Briefly the land changes again and we pass through an area of boggy, rushy fields, the signs of poor drainage and even poorer yields. Before that we slowly cross the narrow viaduct sheltering a pretty unique pub, Jack Meade’s Under The Bridge. Nestling under the arches of the bridge there is a centuries old pub where the discerning traveller can enjoy traditional food accompanied by traditional music enhanced by the fragrance of traditional turf. In winter the open fires are warm and welcoming. In summer the crowds, especially at the weekends, overspill along the length of a little nearby stream. Children enjoy the playground, adults the outdoor bar-b-q’s and the music, ranging from Saturday Blues to Sunday Jazz. Signs along the river warn that it is prone to tidal surges causing levels to rise and even the current flows at times in a contrary fashion. Such are the dips and folds of the landscape, allied now with an abundance of magnificently mature trees that any sense of being near the sea is only displayed in these signs by the little river. Yet the great estuary is now only a mere few miles away.
Almost bursting through a tunnel of overhanging foliage the bus quite suddenly brings us to a first view of the Nore, the Suir and the Barrow joined together in their last push for the sea, by Hook or by Crook. In Irish it is known evocatively as “cumar na dtrí uisce”, the confluence of the three waters. Across the wide river lies the Wexford shore where the trail will bring me in time to my initial major landmark, the old lighthouse at Hook Head. Yet I must also remember that the great anticipated landmarks are not always the highlights of a journey, it is often the minor key which reverberates longest and it is good to be open to these and to their noticing.
As we sweep downhill with a cliff fall on our left between us and the sea the Wexford coast presents herself as a wooded, steep slope dropping to the shore with no trace of habitation or work of human hands. Now the vista opens and down below the roof tops of Passage East appear. Grey in various shades and multi-angled they must surely be an artist’s delight. A slight glance left and the eye catches the ferry crossing from Ballyhack. There an ancient castle of the Knights Templar stands sentinel over the river route and the handful of houses clustered around a little fishing harbour and the slipway landing for the ferry.
As on the Passage side the cliffs around Ballyhack are close to the water, so close that I can see my onward path, cut as a ledge through the rock to take me from Ballyhack to Arthurstown. As always at this point on the road the little game begins, will the ferry have turned around from Passage before we arrive at the slipway? The next move in the game is to estimate the number of vehicles visible on deck and thus the ferry’s turnaround time. No such luck today, a single turn in the road means the ferry is out of sight and the bus enters Passage East.
Exiting in the square, thanking the driver, rearranging my knapsack, breathing in the saltier air I put one foot forward and walk to the ferry. A few steps take me out of the square, down a side street and along a little quay. From now on I am truly on my walking journey, free now from trains and buses I walk to the ferry and when we have crossed the wide water I will leave the ferry and walk along the road. I am content to wait on the quayside and admire all around me while the ferry approaches again from the other side.