The usual collection of tartan-swathed American tourists is milling around near the Gresham Hotel on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, ready to board a plush white Mercedes tour bus – a huge double-decker affair, complete with microphone-wielding guide.
We’re going on a tour too – a new day-trip to County Wicklow, but in a more understated style. Our transport is a low-key blue van, capable of carrying a maximum of 14 passengers.
This outing, with an option to walk, horseride or cycle in the Wicklow hills, is the brainchild of local man Terry Lambert, from Hilltop Treks, who knows the area like the back of his hand. Terry uses no microphone as he talks us in witty and informative style, taking us from the crammed streets of Dublin to the open fields of Wicklow.
It’s a good day out for locals or visitors. How often have you put your hapless international friends in your car to head up to Wicklow, and found yourself lost, stressed or cursing traffic within half an hour? This new tour takes the strain out of the trip. Terry does it all for you, and his enthusiasm for the area’s history and archaeology is infectious – with a bit of irreverent Dublin humour thrown in. For example, did you know why the entrances to the swanky Georgian-style houses on the southside of the city are so colourful? When Queen Victoria died, all her subjects were ordered to paint their doorways black. Did we comply? Did we wha?
On a typical trip, we leave at 9am from outside the Gresham, and we’re in Wicklow within 45 minutes. Our small group is smoothly divided up into their activities of choice: walking is the favourite option, but a few peel away for a fantastic horseride hosted by the local Brennanstown stables, where the animals are happy, well treated, and well trained.
Not surprisingly, this area was the choice for filming scenes for the television show The Tudors. But sorry, no jousting. The well-supervised horse trek is a big hit with my six-year-old, who happily heads off with a group of other kids for his ride, leaving me to take a two-hour walk in peace. It’s a good hike, and pushes your lungs and heart into top form. But it’s manageable, and our group of six ranges in age from twenty-somethings to 70.
We scale a hill known about 2 miles (3 km) north of Enniskerry, known as the Scalp — a spectacular rocky outcrop rising steeply on either side of the road, strewn with huge granite boulders. It’s a good example of a ‘dry gap’ formed at the end of the Ice Age when streams from glaciers cut deep drainage channels. Then it’s time for the high point of our walk: a tall stone chimney once used to filter out the lead from nearby mines, where workers laboured long hours in conditions that often resulted in an early death due to lead poisoning. I told you it was a tour with a difference.
Here, the view towards Killiney and Howth is gorgeous, and our guide, Michael, who has kindly insisted on carrying my mother’s handbag the whole trek, tells us that on a clear day you can see Wales. Then it’s time to head back for the van, and pick up the horseriders before negotiating a truly beautiful drive along the Wicklow Hills towards Glendalough, with a stop to admire the scenery along the way.
Terry produces a bottle of wine and some smoked salmon to help everyone enjoy themselves even more. After a quick stop at Glendalough for lunch, we climb back in our blue van and head towards an impressive site nestled in the stillness of the hills at Athgreany called the Piper’s Stones.
Legend has it that people were turned into stones here as punishment for dancing on the Sabbath, and the ossified group of 14 merrymakers are frozen forever on the crest of a low hill with an outer boulder (the luckless piper) standing 40 metres to the north-east.
We climb back on board for a quiet return journey. The sweet fresh air of Wicklow has done its work, and there’s a nice lull as we listen to Christy Moore on the way back to Dublin, arriving at around 6.30. All in all it’s a good day, with a combination of exercise, good food and good humour. A great option if you have overseas visitors, or want to treat yourself to the magnificence of this beautiful region, known as the Garden County, that’s in our own back yard.
WE TRIED: Day tour walking, cycling or horse riding in Wicklow.
PLUSES: A stress-free day out, good for mind and body.
MINUSES: Having to choose only one activity – I’m going back for the horse ride.
COST: Only €25 for the tour, activities and lunch extra.
CONTACT: www.daytourswicklow.ie Tel: 085 2178858