We explored the ruins of the ancient monastic settlement (monastic city) of St. Kevin's, founded in the 6th Century by St. Kevin, a deeply religious Christian hermit who was attracted by the area's remoteness. Followers followed, as they do, and a monastic city eventually sprang up, in its heyday one of the greatest religious universities in Ireland. Among the interesting things to see here is St. Kevin's church, built of stone and still standing today at well over a thousand years old, its roof of overlapping stones intact. There is the Round Tower, one of many ancient round towers throughout Ireland, although the Round Tower of Glendalough is considered the most finely constructed of them all. It is still complete and stands just over 30 metres in height. There is some debate over what the towers were actually built for, although one theory is they were used as a place of sanctuary for the religious leaders in times of invasion, and a place to stash religious treasures and books (the doorway to the tower is high up and a ladder could have been used to enter, with the ladder then being pulled in). There is also a giant Celtic-style cross which, legend has it, will grant a wish for you if you are able to encircle it completely with your arms. And yes, we gave it a go.
Once on the ascent we passed the lovely Pollanass (Poulanass) Waterfall then up through trees to eventually join a boardwalk. Much of the hiking here is through beautiful forests, with a wide variety of trees. We saw Douglas-fir (pine), an import from the United States; old oak, like those originally in Ireland; firs from Norway which are used as Christmas trees in Ireland; and birch and holly. The boardwalk, as I recall, was made of railway sleepers, laid lengthways in pairs (side-by-side), and covered with netting that was stapled to the wood. Eventually we broke out into a clearing, having climbed to around a thousand feet above the lakes.
There are two lakes in the great valley here, the Upper and the Lower. The Upper Lake is the biggest and further to the west. From what I remember, there was only one huge lake way back when, till alluvial deposits from the river caused a division and created the two separate lakes that exist today.
It was really misty up where we were, and things in the distance seemed ghostly, like apparitions. The lake, which we could barely make out far below us, was no exception. On sunny clear days the view, we understood, was spectacular. Because of the conditions on this day, everything we saw had a different quality altogether. We were not going to get those views, but said conditions gave the ruggedness of the mountains another kind of appeal.
The walk flattened out for a while, and we were lucky to come across some feral goats. They had huge horns which grew out very long and curved. I don't remember them being scared of us at first, but once we got too close they disappeared into the misty forest. Along this trail we were very high up on the mountain, with dense forest to our left and quite a drop to the valley and its lakes below us to the right. There were a couple of points where I could carefully peer between the rocks and see quite a steep drop. If somebody slipped at these places, they would slide away and not stop till they hit the bottom.
We were headed west into the prevailing wind with mist rolling in. Here there were many things of interest, including: heather, a little drab at this time of year; bracken, tough ferns that had died back to a red colour for the winter; granite rocks and boulders, of which we were to see a lot more soon enough; and mica schist (mineral-laced rock) which is soft in comparison with the granite.
Due to the fog, there wasn't much to see of the valley when we reached the formal lookout, so we left the boardwalk and turned in to follow a creek bed in a steep climb that would take us much higher up the mountain. This creek bed, for want of a better term, cut through some rugged country which I think was made up of very tough grasses growing in peaty soil. The temperature dropped as we got higher until it was very cold and I started to see clumps of pure white snow on the ground.
At the side of the rocky creek bed we stopped to examine some peat, which is, as I have noted elsewhere in my journal, an important ingredient in the production of scotch. There was an awful lot of peat where we now were, the harsh countryside consisting of blanket bog, or peat that covers the land like a giant blanket. Well, actually, it IS the land, to a certain depth anyway. A few thousand years ago, Ireland's heavy rainfall caused the leaching of minerals from the soil which formed a layer that water could not penetrate. The soil above this layer became waterlogged, and peat as we now know it began to form. Apart from being mostly water, peat is the partially decomposed remains of plants which have been laid down and accumulated over the ages. A list of the plants would include grass, heather, and moss. The roots of trees and even partially-preserved animal remains can be found in the bogs due to the high acidity and lack of oxygen in the soil. Peat is always increasing in depth, albeit very slowly, because there are tough plants that can grow in the bogs, and when they die away, they, too, are laid down and become peat. I think the peat we looked at (where the creek bed had carved away part of the land giving a sort of cross-section or cutaway view) was a metre or so deep, but peat can be a lot deeper than that. In Ireland, as in Scotland, people would cut the peat (ie. dig it up), dry it, then use it as fuel. Once the peat is gone, it's gone, and in modern Ireland it is the focus of conservation efforts.
We kept climbing, the temperature continuing to drop, with more and more snow appearing on the ground. It became extremely cold and the ground levelled out, and I remember looking in awe at this mist-shrouded alien landscape. It was ethereal and timeless. In my terminology the ground beneath our boots was swamp, and we had to watch where we walked. A couple of intriguing things we saw up here, besides the peat, were sphagnum (beautiful light green bog mosses) and peat hags (sort of large, ugly pits in the bog). Eventually the ground underfoot became a little more solid, the grasses became longer, and we sat on some rocks to have hot soup and eat. It was too cold to sit around for long, though, and we were soon on our way again.
The land became a little more friendly, and we came to a very steep and grassy descent. The air was warming up as we got lower, and soon I was leading the way down through grasses littered with rocks and badger holes. We couldn't yet shake the mist. Part way down the giant slope, I thought I felt or heard the presence of something, then saw indistinct shapes in the distance. I had to look hard, but I realised I was looking at wild deer. As soon as they got wind of me they were off and literally disappeared. Apparently the deer are a hybrid of Irish Red Deer and Japanese Sika.
At some point while moving across the land we crossed an energetic river by footbridge, with water crashing over boulders and slabs of rock. I can't be sure, but I think this must have been the Glenealo River, and, certainly, after this point we were in the Glenealo Valley. We left the fog behind to breathtaking views of where we were now headed: down the Glenealo Valley towards Glendalough Valley and the Upper Lake. We walked along the valley whose steep sides were made of giant granite boulders, slopes that rose way up and disappeared into the fog layer at the top of the mountains. We were ants. A long way up, on the big rocks, and too far away for the camera, I picked out wild goats who must live amongst the rocks and no doubt eat the sparse vegetation.
Shortly before reaching the Upper Lake, we passed through a derelict miners' village. Lead was mined here till the late 1800s, and there are still the remains of some of the buildings. Working here was so hard, the view east down the valleys (where we walked) is nicknamed Van Diemen's Land after Tasmania, because the miners thought it was just as harsh as being exiled to Australia, as many Irish people were for punishment in those days.
On the flat again, and walking alongside the Upper Lake, we could see in the distance across the water a small cave set in a precarious position in the rock wall above the surface of the lake. The cave is called St. Kevin's Bed and legend has it St. Kevin slept here and used it for a retreat. By all accounts it isn't easy to get to, and many visitors to the area have run into difficulties on the rocky slope during the attempt and have had to be assisted by Mountain Rescue. This was the final part of our hike, along the northern edge of the lake through a beautiful plantation of Scots Pine.