Imagine a coastline similar to the Cornish coast but something is missing. This place has rugged cliffs, copper mines, quaint villages and sandy coves but the missing ingredient is that it is devoid of a coastal path however there is one spot where there is a fine cliff walk which I shall come to shortly.
The coast of County Waterford in southern Ireland is a hidden gem and on a recent visit I looked at the possibility of exploring the coast in a little more depth. My journey starts in Tramore in the east of the county and this place seems a bit out of character with the rest of the coastline. Tramore has a fine beach but in my opinion it is marred by amusement arcades and fun fairs and so the town wouldn’t look out of place somewhere along the south coast of England.
Further west the landscape changes and you could easily imagine that you are travelling along the north Cornish coast but without the crowds, traffic congestion and furthermore the car parks are free! This is known as the ‘Copper Coast Geopark’ and more in depth information can be found on the following website;- (www.coppercoastgeopark.com). My first stop is at Annestown which has a sandy beach hemmed in between rocky headlands but any attempt to get onto the cliff top is barred by either no trespassing signs or vegetation so thick that walking would be near on impossible. Just over a mile west is the almost hidden fishing cove at Boatstrand which is sheltered by Dunabrattin Head on which stands one of the finest promontory forts in Ireland.
Continuing west again on the coastal road and you soon come across the ruins of Tankardstown (North) Engine House used to bring up copper ore to the surface and many display boards around the well kept site depict the mining industry of the area. My next stop is at Stradbally, a most attractive village about a mile inland from the coast and here, time has stood still and the place seems deserted on this fine summer’s day.
The main town along this section of coast is Dungarven which lies at the head of Dungarven Harbour and the mud flats which are almost split in two by a sand bank are an ornithologist’s delight. The town dates from the 7th century and was once the county town of Waterford. Not far from the town square is Dungarven Castle which overlooks the harbour and dates from the 13th century. A more recent attraction in the town is that it is now at the western end of the popular Waterford Greenway, a surfaced cycle trail along the old railway line that runs all the way to Waterford. For more information see website (www.visitwaterfordgreenway.com).
Now for the walk. I am starting out from the historic village of Ardmore and again I find free parking on the seafront. A fine sandy beach stretches northwards from the village but I am heading off in the opposite direction. This short walk is full of history and the village has the honour of being the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland. St Declan lived in the area sometime between 350-450AD which predates Saint Patrick. The main village street still has some thatched cottages intermingled between more modern buildings and seaside shops.
Following the coast from the village the first point of interest is St Declan’s Stone, a large rock on the beach perched on two smaller stones which differs from the surrounding rocks which probably means it is an erratic and was probably brought here by an ice sheet. There are many myths connected with this rock but the best known one is that a monk Runanus travelling with Declan back from a trip to Wales, forgot to bring Declan’s sacred golden bell. The legend goes that a rock bore this sacred object back to Ardmore, miraculously floating upon the waves. During the annual feast day of the saint on July 24th, pilgrims crawl or squeeze through the small gap under the rock as a cure for arthritis. (Lets hope the tide is out when they do it).
Leaving the village I soon come to the St Declan’s Well, set in a secluded wooded spot by a ruinous chapel. The stone cross at the western end of the site has been worn away over the centuries by pilgrims. The path now becomes more open and shortly rounds Ardmore Head and soon another more recent point of interest grabs your attention. Unlike the historic sites visited so far, this event took place on the 12th December 1987. The rusting iron hulk of the crane barge ‘Samson’ lies stranded below the cliffs. The story began on the 9th of December 1987 when the crane barge was being towed from Liverpool to Malta but the tow line broke off the Welsh coast and the barge drifted to this quiet cove in Ireland where it has stayed ever since and no attempt has been made to salvage it. On the cliff top nearby is the remains of a World War II lookout station and set back a little distance is another lookout tower dating from the 1800’s. All too soon the coastal path turns inland and crosses higher ground before descending towards Ardmore and soon the round tower which stands above the village comes into view. The 30 metre high tower stands in the churchyard and alongside are the remains of Ardmore Cathedral. The west wall of the former cathedral has recesses in stone featuring Romanesque sculptures depicting scenes from the old and new testaments. Alongside is St Declan’s Oratory where it is said that St Declan was buried but no trace remains due to souvenir hunters over past centuries. In another quiet corner of the churchyard I was drawn to a large grave and an information board. In the cold winter of 1947 when there major fuel shortages, the steamship Ary was en route from Port Talbot in South Wales to Waterford with a cargo of 600 tons of coal. In gale force winds the cargo shifted and the boat listed to one side. In an effort to correct the list water was pumped into the other side and in the rough weather the ship sank with the men hurriedly taking to the two lifeboats. There was only one survivor who came ashore close to Ardmore and he was able to tell the story. Other bodies were washed ashore over the coming days and are buried in the churchyard. Post mortems showed that the men died of hypothermia rather than drowning. The location of the SS Ary has never been found on the seabed to this very day.
My walk was coming to an end as I entered the top end of Ardmore. It had only been a few miles but a walk packed with so much history. My bed and breakfast establishment was located on a lane leading up and out of the village but I shall remember this place by a rather magical sight I saw early the following morning. Peering out of the window at 3.40am with a view east over a smooth Ardmore Bay, with a few street lights in the village, a navigational aid flashing by the harbour, there was a golden glow as the day was breaking to the northeast with three planets piercing the night sky and the outline of the floodlit pencil shape round tower it all seemed rather unreal. I wonder what St Declan would have thought!