Bray Head to Greystones Cliff Walk
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When you create extra time in your schedule for outdoor adventures beyond Dublin, Bray Head and the famous Cliff Walk become a premiere choice. The largest city in Wicklow County, Bray (the term means "hill, rising ground") is the longest established seaside tourist town in Ireland. The railway's arrival in 1854 allowed easy passage from Dublin and grew the area from a one-street town in 1838 to a busy urban centre serving County Wicklow and the southern part of County Dublin. Reminders of its medieval past are present in architecture ranging from churches in ruin to exquisite Georgian and Victorian architecture.
But we're here for the seacoast, not the town, today, so off we go to the strand. It's the Beach BBQ Festival weekend and after less than one block walk from the DART station we are inundated with BBQ smoke, carnival noise, and the happy screams of children on the high swings or Helter Skelter rides.
For everyone who hasn't eaten, this is the place to be. Stop for a burger at one of the restaurants right at Dart when the Festival isn't in session. Your appetites will be satisfied with the Festival's stuffed jacket potatoes, tinga chicken tacos, burgers, fish and chips, or a plethora of ice cream and sweet choices. Sit and eat with the classic rock blasting from the bandstand or walk further along the strand.
The seafront is everything you could want in a scenic Dublin coastal town or village. You'll see families and couples and singles on the rocky beach, and walking South, we found one of the more isolated and beautiful sandy beaches where I saw dogs and families sunbathing in the Irish Sea.
Perhaps a kilometre along the strand, past the longstanding playground and the temporary blow-up slides, continue along the seacoast. Up the hill, you'll start the Cliff Walk. It's listed as easy, but there is a section about four kilometres into the 7-kilometre walk that I found challenging. The Windgates steps are uneven, and often a foot deep. It can leave you winded. Rockslides have caused the walk to be intermittently closed and some portions have protective barriers that remind hikers to take care. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The walkway along the cliff between Bray and Greystones has existed, they believe, from medieval times. It was developed in the 1840s to provide access to railway workers to bring materials cliffside during the rail construction which linked Bray to Greystones and placed them within easy reach for Dubliners interested in getting out of the big, overcrowded city. This suddenly turned these sleepy little settlements in the mid-1850s into fashionable seaside resorts.
But back to the walk itself … The most fun right away may have been watching the children bet their parents about who could get up this first steep hill fastest. The homes on the cliff sides are lovingly restored, with one gentleman with a single paintbrush touching up his trim as we pass. The children lost steam within 50 yards but the parents, as most of us do, kept encouraging and let the wee ones capture their victory.
Look back over Bray's beach and the festival with the Dublin Mountains in the background. Then out to the Irish Sea. With the naked eye today, I can't see Wales, but I'm told it's not uncommon to be able to do so. After all, it's only 86 miles away. Walking forward along the path, though, we reach the first signage discussing Bray Head's past. There's a lovely beach down the first path off to the left. There's a separation in paths, upper and lower, that go along the cliffs. I instinctively took the lower path and learned it was a great decision. The upper path is much more challenging and comes with a warning to be sure to have enough clothes, food, and water. Makes it sound as though you could be caught in a great storm or fog, but, if you're injured, it does take time for emergency personnel to reach you. So lower path it is.
Stop to see the ruins of the ancient church, Raheen na Clig. This "little church of the bell" or "little fort of the stones" stands in the middle of Raheen Park. It dates from medieval times, circa 12th century. We could see the cut granite remains of a door and the round-headed windows. Signage tells us there's a similar church, St. Crispin's Cell, just off the cliff walk at the Grove, about 2km south of this church. Now you'll know to look for it.
You'll spot a train passing at some point in your journey. Built between 1847 and 1856, the site for the railway is a surprising choice due to the engineering challenges it created. Posted signage tells us that the "more obvious route from Shankhill to Wicklow would have been through the Glen of the downs, it's a natural cutting in the landscape. However, the landowner, Lord Meath, didn't want the railway to divide his estate. Instead, he gave the railway company the Cliff route free but, because of the geology, it is still one of the most costly stretches of railway track in Ireland. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the celebrated engineer, was called for consultation, and under his direction, a single line, with several tunnels was constructed and continued round the head and South as far as Wicklow."
Stop at the next sign to learn about the Bray panorama before you. Take a picture of it. The sign and the panorama. But take care that your photo actually includes everything mentioned. I learned too late that I didn't have the western edge of the panorama in any of my shots. Sigh.
ProTip: Be sure to take insect repellent. I only had sunscreen and the insects were thriving.
Along the walk, most of the path is wide enough for two people, but overgrown areas make it single passage only. At first, when I saw so many people coming in the opposite direction, I thought it was people coming from Greystones. I later realised that it was all before the steps, and those people had turned around. I didn't see anyone coming from Greystones Harbour once we passed the difficult section. Most people dressed to walk and were in comfortable walking shoes, which are especially recommended if you take the more challenging upper course. Two women were in strappy sandals and cute dresses and looked quite miserable as they returned from the Windgates steps.
Rather than turn around, where you reach the most difficult section of this lower Cliff Walk, you're offered the option to take the Bray Head Loop. The route takes you up over Bray Head to reach the Cross. This provides stunning views over the Wicklow Mountains and the Irish Seas. And you can continue back to Bray over less steep terrain.
But steep yourself in the peace and history of the land, and you'll learn that there were once smugglers in these here hills. Lord Meath owned a lodge in the area and charged a penny for entry through his gate any day but Friday. Just beyond his lodge is the area known as Brandy Hole. The cave, since destroyed, was immense. With an entrance at sea level and, legend has it, a connecting tunnel to the top of Bray Head, brandy, wine, gin, tea, and silks were smuggled from France. The smuggler would leave these illicit goods in the Brandy Hole as they sailed to other ports to deliver their legitimate cargo.
As we complete the difficult portion of our hike, and traverse three cattle (perhaps goats, here in this region) guards, I can imagine how nice it would be to take the plunge into the waters in front of such a cave. But there were still a couple kilometres to traverse before we reached a proper beach.
Most people stopped at Lorraine's ice cream truck
parked along the path. This is one of the more enterprising business ideas I've seen with surprisingly reasonable prices, like two euros for an ice cream cone. The prices at the Festival were higher and this was still a remote place. Once past the ice cream truck, the walk is strictly pastoral. The golden fields of waving grain look very similar to the Midwest United States, until you look to the left and see the beautiful Irish Sea.
Continue past Greystones' beach and enter the harbour. Know that the path to the left will take you to the best views of the marina and seacoast, as you're walking along a seawall, but does not connect to the mainland and you will have to make a return trip on the same path. We watched fishermen as well as groups of young boys jumping from the seawall. They take great delight in these high jumps into the safer waters of the Marina, just like at Coliesmore Harbour in Dalkey.
When you've decided you've finished the Cliff Walk and return cityside, it's more than a kilometre up to the DART
station. Don't worry, though, with restaurants, ice cream, sweet shops and a SuperValu along the way you'll be able to take care of any of your needs before you hop on the train (mind the DART schedule, you can get the APP for your phone).
For a few last-minute tourist stops, visit the Catholic Holy Rosary Church, or just visit the garden with the statue of Mary. Artist Tom Byrne
is featured over Bochelli's Ristorante Italiano. He's a local, Irish artist, who studied at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design and paints portraits and landscapes. I think I like his Beckett and Happy Bridge the best.
There are so many things to see in this region, it'd be easy to fill a weekend or more. But this first taste with the Cliff Walk is the perfect amuse bouche to the region.
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