The Wexford Way and the Knights Templar

(ii)

In the footsteps of the Knights Templar

            “Where are you looking for?”

“Well, I’m walking to the Hook for now, but I was just looking at some of these paths and trails marked here on the map.”

My faithful friend, the 1: 50,000 Ordnance Survey Discovery Series, Sheet no. 76, showed me an interesting looking road towards the sea and branching off in two further paths.  On paper at least they looked inviting and surely worthy of further investigation.

“Have you been down that way?”  I asked.

The younger man was studying the map, lifting his gaze to scan the landscape every now and then.

“You’re well able to read the map,” I commented when he pointed to a meandering line of hedges to our seaward side, adding that was where one of the dotted map lines went.

“I’m an engineer,” he smiled, “I’ve been down that way to survey a site for a client.”

“Really?  That would be a fine place to build alright.”

We were both quiet then for a moment, contemplating the serenely calm scenes around us.  Behind me, Northwards, lay the twin bays of Booley and dollar.  The coastline, trending South West here, was composed of much higher cliffs.

Broomhill, at 66 metres the highest point on the whole peninsula, was just ahead.  From the map again I knew the little summit was crowned with a Triangulation Point.  Small wonder various rough surfaced tracks meandered over the furze speckled landscape.

“I noticed some of these,” said my new friend the engineer., “but I’m afraid they’re overgrown now.  I’d say they’re hardly ever used.”

“Would I get through to the cliffs; do you think?  I’m trying to follow the coast as closely as I can?”

“I’d say not.  Well, maybe you could, but it would be difficult.  You’re probably better off following the road for now.  How far have you come?”

With that we were launched into a fine conversation about walking the roads at your leisure.  He was just one of what would become many.  Travel along with at a natural pace with the uniform of the pilgrim, of the walker, broad brimmed hat, stout stick, good hiking boots and you invite many’s the pleasant chat with random strangers by the roadside.

Yet another simple pleasure to be had for free.

We went our separate ways, mine bringing me south again.  The road, still rising, brought me to a little pass between Broomhill and an unnamed, 55 metre stretch of relatively high ground.  This anonymous little summit was crowned with mobile phone masts, broadcasting signals around the region.

I didn’t bother checking mine, that was unnecessary.  My world for the day was quite simply my immediate surroundings and whatever and wherever I could reach on foot.

As I ambled along I couldn’t help but think about the little roads disappearing everywhere across the land.  There were various times I can recall when, as a young lad, I walked over hills and uplands with my father.  To this day I have few memories of specific journeys or destinations.  What I do remember are moments when he would make observations, teaching me to notice the world around us.

It was from him I learned to look out for the ruins of long abandoned cottages.  Nearby, he often said, there would be nettles growing profusely because the old people ate nettles as a rich source of vitamins in the hungry months.

The people suffered a gap in late Spring and early Summer when the last of the previous year’s harvest was being consumed and the present years potatoes were still growing.  He also taught me to identify the outlines of the distinctive ‘lazy beds’ which were “the gardens where the praties grew” as the old song had it.

Now the cottages and their remains are also fast disappearing, becoming mere humps of stone with some nettles growing through them.  It is a rare sight to find now, the outlines of the little plots and cultivation ridges which fed so many in their day.

I was travelling two roads, one being “bóithrín na smaointe,” as they call it in Irish, the little road of thoughts, when the mind meanders at it’s own pace and takes us places we hadn’t thought of before.  An apt term surely for a day where little roads, the “bóithríní” invited the curious traveller to take their path and see where they might lead.

Now the road was dropping again.  Not far ahead I could see my next destination, the square castellated tower of Templetown Church.

templars-church

Soon I could see on lower ground inland from me another notable landmark.  The tall and elegant tower house of Kilcloggan Castle rose sternly towards the sky.  Built by the Knights Templar in historical reality as opposed to modern myth and legend, the Castle is yet another testament to the doughty warrior monks of yore.

At the nearby pub called, what else could it be, ‘The Templar’s Inn’, good food and refreshments were to be had for the hungry and thirsty traveller.  It is reasonable to conjecture the same was true in the heyday of the Knights.

On a day like this, early summer, warm air, fresh growth, light and gentle breezes, the world emerging again after the long sleep of winter and the struggle to be born again in spring, on such a day contentment is easily found.  You just have to reach out your hand and touch it.

On such a day as this to put my hand on the door of a wayside inn offering rest and refreshment is surely satisfaction personified.

On a day like this to wait outside on warm decking while lunch was prepared inside is surely appetiser enough.

Content once more to merely sit and be I could slowly absorb everything around me.

The Templars Inn or some such establishment has surely stood at this meeting of two roads for centuries.  It is also likely that a trackway passed along this route for centuries.  The decking ran parallel to the North/South route.  The Inn was built at the junction where an East/West route from further inland linked with the North/South route.

Across the road another track led down to yet another little cove.  Saving that for another day it was the Old Church beside that path that most attracted me , there was plenty to explore in that ancient place.

templars-inn

Over lunch I shared the warm decking with a Canadian family enjoying their own Odyssey.  It was the hat, the pack and the staff which served to, yet again, break down barriers and launch conversations.  Universal symbols of the wanderer, the pilgrim, they invite tales of the road, stories pleasantly shared with strangers.

The descriptions of their journey so far were fascinating.  The familiar is always refreshed and renewed through the lens of others.  Surely after the vastness of Canada and the great remoteness of continental scale distance our little Island would seem dull and uninteresting by comparison.?

“It’s so different,” one of the younger travellers, “nowhere reminds us of home.”

“And it really is green,” another added with a smile, “definitely an Emerald Isle.”  there was much nodding in agreement at this.  Although at home in their great land there was green a-plenty, apparently it was not quite the same as our own forty shades of green.

“Where are you heading?” I was asked.

Again there was much agreement that the lighthouse was a fine destination.  They had been very impressed both by its wild setting and fascinating history.  A lighthouse in continuous operation for over a thousand years was something that spoke volumes to all of us about the common threads running through all our lives down many generations

“Where are you heading?” I asked.

“Cork next, then further West”

“You’re sure to love it, everything becomes much more rugged the further West you go.”

“We have family roots in Cork, be nice to see where our kin folks came from.”

I wished them well on both counts, exploring Ireland and their own Roots.  They were lovely people to meet, reinforcing again my belief, and experience, that the world is full of friends we haven’t met, yet.

Settling my hat, pack and staff I took the next few steps on my own odyssey, across the road to the old Templar’s Church.

All across Ireland the most obvious ecclesiastical remains are the “bare ruined choirs” of the great mediaeval monasteries.  Templetown Church is nothing like those.  A simple square tower, not particularly tall adjoins an equally simple nave, now unroofed, bare to the elements.

On some of the walls, particularly on the windward South and West, slates cling to the walls.  I know houses in Wexford Town where the same weatherproofing technique was used.  Slate is an impervious rock.  Being waterproof they help protect against the furious onslaught of the storm driven wind and rain.

slates-on-wall

Someday I will travel to the maritime states and provinces of the North Eastern U.S and Canada and look out for the same practical, beautifully simple style.  Some day.

In Templetown Church some walls still hold large areas of their slate sheeting.  Elsewhere bare stone gives way to patches of weathered plaster before yielding in turn to the ever encroaching ivy.

It is marvellous to see, here and there the work of the old masons’ hands.  Nails used to hold the slates in place can be found where the slate has fallen away.  The curls and swirls on once wet plaster left by the skilled tradesman can still be seen, centuries later.

ancient-nail2

This was a parish church, ordered to be built and paid for by the Knights Templar, who one time supported the living of a priest who ministered to the people round about.  The tower can be entered from the ground floor.  Here is the fireplace where the incumbent could warm himself on wild winter nights.  There are the stairs to his living quarters above.

That troubled times came here, that it was built by an Order, no matter how religious, of Knights, is evident just by stepping outside and considering the battlements crowning the tower.  This then was a tower to live in but also take refuge in, a place to defend yourself.

Such clues are truly signs of troubled times.

sailors-names-templars

Walking around the churchyard grounds on the North side I stop and consider awhile the little rows of simple headstones telling us tragic tales of more recent troubled times.  Here lie at rest the remains of mariners who lost their lives during the War Which Did Not End All Wars, 1914-1918.

You know how much you are in area closely connected to the sea when space is made in their graveyards to bury those who are returned from the deep.  All ages, young and old alike, lie here, some named, some not, from both sides in that war.  They were lost from submarines, merchant ships, armed trawlers.  Their final resting place is in these ancient hallowed grounds.  Here they lie side-by-side, enemies in life, neighbours in death.

unknown-sailor

Continuing around the church to the seaward facing wall I find yet another heart wrenching piece of history.  At about the height a man might comfortably work at there is a poignant mark cut into the wall.  Bearing in mind that this stone is millstone grit you can but appreciate that this was no easy task.  ‘E Lymbery 1847’ So reads the inscription, a name I can barely read and a date.

Graffiti, in the true meaning of the original Latin, to scratch upon a wall.  Carving certainly, incised in stone but not by expert hands or someone with the luxury of precision tools.  Poignant definitely, the date being that of ‘Black ’47’, the worst year of the Great Irish Famine.  The most awful of those terrible times when 1 million died of starvation and disease, when another million fled in horrifying circumstances, a trail of corpses across the Irish Sea and from one side of the Atlantic to the other.

There were countless thousands buried that year in unmarked graves, the dying often burying the dead.  In my childhood the story of the hungry grass was still told, still passed down the generations.  It was said that where someone had dropped dead from the hunger and been buried where they fell, that place was cursed forever.  If you stepped on such ground, you would be overwhelmed by a sudden and terrible hunger.

e-lymbery-1847

Did someone later remember that Famine dead were buried on  that spot and marked it as best they could? Perhaps someone, before they fled, marked the place where they had hastily buried their own, taking then to the roads and perhaps the sea.  The silent testament is there to our very own day.

Stepping back onto the road, over a stone stile that itself must be hundreds of years old, I settle my pack, grasping my faithful staff I head due south again.

Second Part of the Wexford Coastal Path

Slí Charmain, the Wexford Coastal Path

 

Chapter One

From quay to quay by bus

(ii)

            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.