Thursday, February 26, 2015

The long road to Donegal

The Poisoned Glen

The choice was a short crossing to Dun Laoghaire from Holyhead or an eight hour trip on a lorry transport vessel from Liverpool. Eighty quid for two passengers, a car and all you can eat from the rolling buffet. Being a dyed in the wool cheapskate I  ignored the protestations from my partner who was rightly concerned about arriving late in Ireland and plumped for the latter. We rolled up at the Liverpool waterfront at a civilised late morning hour and I drove the Skoda up the ramp and parked up . Looking down from the bridge, the red Octavia stood out like a sore thumb. The only car to be seen amongst a sea of lorries and car transporters. Still...think of all that money we were saving and why not begin immediately to avail ourselves of the breakfast bar which even now was being loaded up by the ship’s galley staff with all manner of greasy spoon fare. Guaranteed to satisfy the hungriest trucker whilst knocking about five years off his life and putting about twelve pounds on his waist.

Looking over the smorgasbord of bacon, hash browns, black puddings, sausages, beans and eggs, I remembered someone telling me about the American tourist who went into Frank’s Cafe- a legendary dockers caff close to our embarkation point- and asking if they had a vegetarian option? “ Yes...we do have an option for vegetarians...they can fuck off!!!’ 

By late afternoon, the ship was in sight of Dun Laoghaire but it would be early evening before we could disembark and then we had to get out of Dublin and drive across Ireland to the wilds of Donegal. October with the short days and long nights was perhaps not the best time to organise a climbing trip to the north west of Ireland. I had been planning to explore Donegal for some time now. Seduced by tales of great soaring cliffs and romantic villages set in an area that was still a relative backwater. My old friend the veteran climber, Harold Drasdo was the first climber to explore and make first ascents on Ireland’s biggest cliff above The Poisoned Glen in the early 1950’s with his brother Nev. His activities and reports back to the mainland brought the great and good of the era out to the Glen to see for themselves, including hot shots like Alan Austin and Chris Bonington.

A young Harold Drasdo in Donegal

For myself and climbing partner Martin Davies, it sounded just our cup of tea. Long mountaineering routes on the great buttresses of the Glen and apres crag, we could investigate the bars of the local quaint fishing villages. Perhaps availing ourselves of freshly caught lobster, soda bread kneaded by the fair hands of a local  flame haired colleen and Poteen, distilled locally to a recipe handed down from father to son for centuries.

By the time we rolled off the ship it was after seven. Dublin appeared to be in the middle of a massive transport project. Was it a road or rail system? Whatever it was it was causing massive disruption and gridlocked and with blood pressure rising by the minute, we contemplated arriving at our Irish Youth Hostel destination at some ungodly hour. Driving on unfamiliar roads across Ireland in the dark was the price we paid for not taking the more expensive Holyhead option when we would have reached Dublin midday, enabling us to roll up at the hostel in the late afternoon-early evening.

Stopping at a phone box, I managed to reach the warden who in typically relaxed manner told us ‘no worries..O’ill leave der door open fur ya’. It was one in the morning when we eventually arrived.

Next morning dawned unfair; showery rain interspersed with brief flashes of sunshine. Still, it was enough to make us pack our rucksacks and head off into the peaty outer reaches of the Poisoned Glen. Hoping that by lunchtime we would be strung out on some classic route. An October sun beating down on our backs and a wheel of crows cawring our progress up the pale flanks of the cliff. Sadly it was not to be. We arrived in a soft drizzle with the rock painted  in a glistening sheen. Martin who was suffering with knee problems was not impressed nor enthused enough to tackle even a gentle V Diff. We turned around and headed out.

The cliffs of the Poisoned Glen resemble some of north Wales’s unfrequented backwaters, if the scale is a little bigger. Places like Yr Diffwys on Moel Hebog, The Craig Ysfa cliffs, some of the Mid Wales cliffs for example. In a way, coming here was certainly a bit of a bus-man’s holiday. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of big rambling vegetated cliffs back home!

Using the guidebook Harold Drasdo had gave me, we drove around the area looking for some more accessible crags that we might climb on which might be in condition, but every inland crag was pretty much the same. Dank and vegetated. We’re not having much luck here, still at least there are the quaint fishing villages and the surrounding countryside to explore.

The elegant Mount Errigal near the hostel appeared to have a Wind Farm planted on its flank. At least from memory I think it was Errigal?  Whichever mountain it was, you had to question why the politicians and planners allowed a wind farm to be sited on a unique mountain? However, entering Bunbeg which Harold had described as being a quiet little fishing village in his day-this is going back fifty years- the random spawl rather answered my question regarding planning laws. Here we were- in the middle of the Celtic Tiger boom era- and it appeared the planning laws had been ripped up and house building was being carried out along laissez faire lines.  Everywhere there were ‘Land for Sale’ signs and ugly modern dwellings were being thrown up.

I’d seen this in Northern Scotland where traditional crofts and houses are being jettisoned in favour of modern bungalows and houses. Leaving villages speckled with empty traditional properties alongside new builds.

Coming from Wales which has strict planning laws which seek to protect and preserve the vernacular architecture, it appeared that in rural Ireland, it was every man for himself with the planners and politicians on an extended holiday. Later I was told from friends in Dublin that in many parts of rural Ireland, The planners, politicians, builders and developers all drink in the same bar if you catch my drift!

Bunbeg in the late 1940's...before the Celtic Tiger got its claws into it.

Our three day trip was-from a climbing perspective-a total disaster. We did play a lot of pool and drink a lot of Smethwicks; met some nice people and I did catch old friends in Howth near Dublin on the way home. However, I had to report back to the old Bradford Lad that our trip had sadly come to naught.

Not longer after, I wrote in a similar vein to this piece, about the perceived shortcomings of Donegal climbing compared to the mecca that is North Wales and not surprisingly, provoked the ire of local climbers who understandably, are extremely protective of their local cliffs and traditions.

Looking back it was undoubtedly the wrong time in the year to go with the wrong partner who was not in good nick and who would soon give up climbing because of his knee problems, and certainly, as far as travelling over there was concerned, the wrong embarkation point. I imagine climbing in the Poisoned Glen or on the sea cliffs of Donegal on a fine summer’s day must be a totally different experience. Who knows...I might get back there someday?

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