Our taxi drops us back at Bweeng, in front of a forest of signs telling us where we’ve been – the Avondhu Way – and pointing us where we need to go. It’s the first of two days on the Duhallow Way and we know it will be a long one. Forty kilometres long if the route remains true to our maps.
Duhallow Way is one part of the much longer Blackwater Way, the other part being the Avondhu Way we have just traversed. But even that is but one small segment of a much longer trail, the E8 European Long Distance Walking Trail. It’s 4,700 kilometres long, stretching from Dursey Island in West Cork to Istanbul. A good deal of our Irish Coast to Coast Walk follows the E8 route: a little bit of the Kerry Way that we will encounter in a few days and the Blackwater Way, the East Munster, South Leinster and Wicklow Ways that we have already walked, and on into Dublin. From there the trail continues across the Irish Sea to the Trans Pennine Trail in Britain, and across the North Sea where it goes onward through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and, finally, Turkey.
The E8 borrows from history, using a network of pre-existing trails in each of the countries it crosses. Here in Ireland, it intersects with a chain of well-established routes. So, too, the trails in Ireland are intersections with a broad history of human occupation.
Take today’s walk. The route is not some whimsical passage designed to entertain us at a recreational level. The paths we follow are rooted in history. They could be products of recent history, such as the logging roads we follow through their scarred landscapes, or be new roads created to service the mammoth wind generators dotting the hills.
There are paths with a deeper history as well. Such as today’s wet ramble through the Nadd Bog. Always a source for peat, in the 1940s the army extracted 27,000 tonnes of of the stuff to make up for the lack of imported coal during World War Two. Today, as we walk sunken tracks through the mushy bog, tractors extrude bricks of fresh peat and lay them out in tidy rows on the ground to dry. Peat is still a common means of heating a home in winter.
Later on, we cross paths with pre-history. Knocknakilla is a Bronze Age complex of ritual monuments dating back to 1600-800 B.C.E. A slender standing stone leans precariously, surrounded by a ring of smaller stones. Who knows what rituals were practiced here. Observations of sun and moon cycles perhaps.
The day ends in Millstreet, a town that intersects with another historic route, the Butter Road. Millstream is the halfway point of this transportation route starting in Castleisland and ending in Cork. The Butter Road dates back to 1747 and was a means of transporting firkins (casks) of butter to the Butter Exchange in Cork, where it would be auctioned off. Peasants trudged along the 112-kilometre road, a hard journey going to Cork with donkey and cart and a harder return dodging highwaymen eager to steal their earnings.
Once again, the Blackwater Way has lived up to its own history for being unpredictable. The promised 40-kilometre trip has turned into 46 kilometres, making this a very long day indeed. The day had its ups and downs as well. Almost 1,000 metres of climbing. But it was doable. The varied landscape and our encounters with history helped.
On long days we try to walk as far as possible in the morning, while our energy level is still high. We glide effortlessly, lost in the landscape. Then comes lunch at the side of the trail, usually a pack lunch of a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a chocolate bar and a small juice. Thereafter, we follow a ritual of walking for an hour and then sitting down for a 15 minute rest. Finding a soft tuft of heather for a seat or an interesting view to distant hills or a herd of curious cows to gaze upon becomes an unnaturally important task each hour. We recharge our legs and spirits and then head off for another hour’s walk. Stride. Pause. Stride. It’s the rhythm of a long distance walk.
It helps that the last few kilometres to Millstream are all downhill. And that the sun is low, sculpting the green hills with low-cast rays. And that the road becomes more urban with locals eying us over stone fences, or trimming hedges, or walking down the road, greeting us warmly as we pass.
By the time we check in at the Wallis Inn for the night, its restaurant is closed. We head down the street to a take-out joint, pick up the biggest pizza we can get, drop into the Centra convenience store for a bottle of wine and climb back up to our suite for the night.
Take out pizza never tasted so good.
May 23: Bweeng to Millstreet