Tralee to Camp, 30th March 2008

A walk of only twelve miles, so there’s no need to hurry. Like most of the Irish, I’m not hung up about the time: I no longer own a watch. The clocks went forward one hour in the night, a twice-yearly procedure that always catches someone out, but not Eleanor, who presides over a sumptuous breakfast room with her wide smile and sparkling eyes.

It’s a day for keeping the waterproofs handy at the top of the rucksack: grey skies and low cloud on the mountains, with a forecast of afternoon rain. A steady amble through the park and the streets of Tralee leads to the broad canal and west towards the Atlantic, a journey made in fear and desperation by many in less happy times. New apartments have risen where wharves and warehouses once stood, but the Celtic Tiger’s building boom seems to be at an end. Beyond the neat and the new lie green fields, their ditches choked with silt, weeds, plastic bags and shopping trolleys: no change here. Cows stare at the strange biped with trekking poles and rucksack, perhaps thinking that spring may have come but one hiker does not a summer make.

At Blennerville, the departure port for many nineteenth-century emigrants but better known today for its windmill, the canal ends. The Kerry Way continues northwest along the coast, and I bear south through the village, past the Gaelic Athletic Association football pitch where youths are gathering for their Sunday match, and climb gradually along a narrow tarmac lane. Farm dogs challenge me nervously from a distance but skulk away as I draw near. The gradient steepens. The roar of traffic on the main road slowly diminishes. Birds sing in the hedgerows. The only buildings are a few remote houses and a riding school. At the gate where the Way enters the moor, the rain starts to fall.

Start of the Dingle Way

‘Keep an eye on him, lads.’

Blennerville & Slieve Mish Mountains

The next few miles are generally level. To my right, rough moorland slopes gently down to walled pastures and the dispersed houses and farms so characteristic of the west. Beyond, the grey waters of Tralee Bay widen to separate the Dingle Peninsula from North Kerry. On the left, brown moorland with sparse grass, boulders and pebbles merges into the steeper slopes of the Slieve Mish mountains, whose summits are hidden in low cloud.

Underfoot conditions are remarkably dry, considering recent and present weather: the coarse reddish sandstones and conglomerates are porous, but maybe more significant is the near absence of peat. No doubt the peat was taken long ago for fuel: this looks like a ravaged land, stripped of its natural cover. The path has been repaired using local stone, and the colours of the pebbles cover the full range of a nail varnish shade card. If you have to ask me how I know, or why this analogy comes to mind, it’s time you sponsored my village’s annual Cross-Dressed Cricket Match.

Regardless of cosmetic effect, such a surface makes for more pleasant walking than the paving slabs used for path repairs in the north of England, after their life in the Victorian towns and cities came to an end. Ireland, of course, lacking coal and iron, didn’t have the same industrial revolution, suffering exploitation by unscrupulous English landowners as a granary and a profit centre instead, so no paving slabs here.
I cross the sterile ground, passing close to sheep that lie unfazed by my passage. There’s little other evidence of life: vegetation is too sparse to offer much in the way of shelter for birds, and the loudest sound is that of spattering raindrops on my hood. The main source of interest is the crossing on bridges of four rushing streams, each more swollen by rain than the last. A brief interlude of watery sun throws up a rainbow, and then the rain pours again, easing only when I descend from the moor onto a walled lane that today is more like a stream bed.

Rainbow above the blasted heath

The Way follows the lane, ankle-deep in various combinations of mud, water and cow-muck, all the way to the road near the village of Camp, where I’ve arranged lodgings. The telephone call to my landlady at Sea View had been somewhat surreal.

She said, "Ah, well, if you're coming down the tarmac...but there's two ways you could be, ah, well, er, you'll get to the Ashe's pub and we're opposite down there."

So I get to the Ashe's pub, which is closed. Opposite is Daly's bar, not Sea View. Just beyond is a large house. I’m passing the bar to check whether the house is called Sea View when I hear someone tapping on window glass. I turn round. An old man starts shambling out of Daly's.

"Is it B&B you're looking for, cos she's not started doing it yet next door and she asked me to look out for you. Don't worry. I can send you to a very nice place."

He walks me a few yards to the top of a road that leads down the hill opposite the Ashe's pub.

"It's down the hill," he says. "I'll give him a ring now and tell him you're on your way, and he'll look out for you."
"Is it the house with the scaffolding?"
"No. It's not that far away. That's across the main road. You see the house with the yellow chimney pot? Well, it's beyond that, about as far beyond as we are from the church."
I gauge the distance.
"It'll be good there," he assures me.
Still not fully convinced, I ask, "Does he have a B&B sign?"
"Oh yes, he does. He has a B&B sign all right."

I reach the bottom of the hill, having passed the house with the yellow chimney. I'm at the main road. There is no signboard offering B&B, and no one's looking out for me, or, if they are, they've formed a view and decided to lie low.

Then I spot an empty iron frame atop a post, just the sort of hanger you might make for a B&B sign. The house is a modern ranch-type monstrosity on the junction of the main and minor roads. I ring the bell. A teenage mum dressed in pyjama bottoms and holding a babe in arms opens the door, and I state my business.

"Oh yes, you rang didn't you.”
I mutter something about the man at the top of the hill.
“Come in," she says, and she shows me to the room.

A few minutes later her mum taps on my door, apologising for not being in when I arrived. It turns out she is Joanna, the woman I spoke with on the phone the evening before. I am, after all, at Sea View.
The stay turns out to be excellent in all respects. The role of the old man, the person he was ringing, and the place he was sending me with his vague directions, remain an unplumbed mystery.

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