From Arklow Through the Wicklow Gap to the Pollaphuca Reservoir
How about a drive through the Wicklow Mountains? There are many ways to take, here is one suggestion that takes in the Vale of Avoca, some stately homes, the Wicklow Gap, the massive reservoir near Blessington and, of course, Glendalough.
Assuming you are staying in Dublin, my first step would be to hit the N11 out of town, passing the Southern suburbs as well as Wicklow Town and then head straight for Arklow. The small harbor town makes an ideal starting point for this tour, habe a glimpse at the harbor while you're there.
Then fill up on petrol and follow the R747, signposted towards Woodenbridge and Avoca. Soon you’ll be in one of Ireland's most beautiful places - you are entering the Vale of Avoca.
From Arklow to Avoca
Soon after leaving Arklow on the R747 you’ll be driving up a wooded valley, created by the Avoca stream. This is an enchanted landscape - you pass gatehouses straight from a fairy tale, Gothic churches and ruins of mysterious castles can be glimpsed on the hillsides.
At Woodenbridge switch to the R752, signposted Avoca.
When you finally reach the village of Avoca, cross the river and explore. This picturesque hamlet rose to fame as a typical Irish village called "Ballykissangel" in the BBC series of the same name. And years after the programme was axed the fame still lingers.
But today Avoca's major claim to fame is Avoca Handweavers, where you can see traditional weaving, buy traditional products and have a traditional cup of tea. Drop in for a look-see, preferably when not too many tour buses are parked outside.
After this, rejoin the main road and carry on uphill on the R752 towards the Meeting of the Waters.
To the Meeting of the Waters
When a white pub appears on your right, find a place in the car park on the left - you are at the Meeting of the Waters. Here the rivers Avonbeg and Avonmore join to create the Avoca. There is a viewing area at the confluence of the two rivers and the sight is stunning - provided you ignore the ghastly white behemoth of a pub acronn the Avonbeg. Planning permission should have been denied here.
Also in the small park you will find a bust of and monument to Thomas Moore - not the Renaissance churchman but "Ireland's National Poet" (as the monument claims). Moore wrote a poem on the location in the location.
Reclaim you car after a last look around and then head up the R752 towards Rathdrum and Avondale.
Oh, Have You Been to Avondale?
From the R752 a local road soon takes you right towards Avondale, just follow the signposts. Avondale House is famous for its connection to Parnell, leader of the "Irish Party" in the 19th century Westminster parliament and "uncrowned king of Ireland", its praises were sung in sentimental songs. The adjoining Avondale Forest Park provides beautiful walks into the glen of the Avonmore river.
Unfortunately Avondale House is only worth writing home about if you are a bit of a Parnellite, there are more impressive country homes in Ireland. And the steep parking fees alone will have many visitors thinking twice about (indirectly) paying for a walk in an area where free walking opportunities abound.
So don’t fret if you have to answer the question "Have you been to Avondale?" with a non-committal answer. There are enough attractions nearby to explore with less financial outlay.
Now head back to the R752 and turn right towards Rathdrum, once there take a left onto the R755 towards Laragh or Glendalough.
Glendalough should need no introduction - the monastic settlement in the "Valley of the Two Lakes" is known worldwide for its historic connections to Saint Kevin. And for its round towers. And, just to top it off, for its natural beauty.
See my review of Glendalough for more details.
After you have experienced Glendalough, it is time to head for the hills, namely the Wicklow Gap.
Through the Wicklow Gap
From Glendalough track back to Laragh until you come to the first junction, turn sharp left and start the slow climb on the R756 towards the Wicklow Gap. If you are traveling in winter check road conditions first, you really don’t want to get stuck up there!
You will be driving through a lush, idyllic landscape - which all of a sudden ends. At the old lead works you might want to park and enjoy the view back into the wooded Vale of Glendasan. And you might well be under the impression that desolation starts here - the ruins of the lead works, some heaps of stone strewn about and rocky hillsides combine to foster depression.
But once you carry on up the road you will soon come to the Wicklow Gap. Thankfully there are two parking lots available and trackways outline possible walks up to Lough Nahanaghan and a reservoir to the south.
More enterprising walkers can head north up Tonalagee (817 metres) for a stunning view, not least of hidden Lough Ouler. This "Lake of the Eagle" is curiously heart-shaped and can only be seen after a climb. If you really want to stretch your legs and take in a sight not many fellow travelers see, head for the hills now.
Afterwards (or instead) carry on following the R756 towards ... Hollywood.
Russborough House and Blessington
Follow the R756 towards Hollywood and prepare to be not really starstruck. The village is fairly unremarkable, but don't hit the droves of tourists posing wih the village sign. Go on, take your own snap here (if you can park safely). Then at the crossroads take the N81 towards Blessington.
You’ll pass Pollaphuca Dam and soon see the sprawling Pollaphuca Reservoir on your right. Leave it be for the oment. Soon you'll glimpse Russborough House on the left, the entrance is signposted.
Now drive on to Blessington - the small town provides a good opportunity for refreshments.
Taking the Lake Drive
Blessington will not ally blow you away, so you may fairly soon backtrack on the N81 for a few hundred yards, then take a left onto the R758 towards Valleymount - you are now on the scenic Lake Drive around Pollaphuca Reservoir.
If you have stocked up on tea and sandwiches in Blessington, here are several perfect opportunities to enjoy them on the beach. Several amenity areas are available.
One word of warning though: if you are tempted to take a quick swim, desist. On the one hand it is forbidden anyway, on the other hand you’ll more than likely freeze parts of your anatomy off. Not to mention that it is plain dangerous.
On your drive you’ll come through Ballyknockan, the "Granite Village" - in sunshine you can see the buildings really sparkle.
The whole area is rich in megalithic tombs, cairns, standing stones on other ancient structures - not all of which are easily accessible or signposted. Enthusiasts should get OSi "Discovery" map number 56 to explore the area. Especially as we are coming to end of our trip through the Wicklow Mountains now ....
Back on the N81 to Dublin?
The Lake Drive will sooner or later lead you back to the N81, either via Blessington or Kilbride. Time to head back to Dublin. The road will take you straight to Christ Church Cathedral.
An alternative would be to head on the R759 towards the Sally Gap from Kilbride. This can be done but will take more time, check your gas levels before you commit yourself here (you might want to fill up in Blessington).
Some Driving Hints
Driving through the Wicklow Mountains is not a special challenge - in fact the roads are normally in fine fettle and not dangerous. But every year there are accidents and emergencies that require intervention. Most of these can be easily avoided with a minimum of planning and effort:
- Make sure you fill up your tank before going into the mountains - filling stations are few and far between.
- Have a spare tyre in the boot and check that it is servicable (plus not missing the tools needed).
- Drive on the LEFT! Sorry for shouting, but having met several confused drivers heading into my direction in my lane, often on narrow bends, I have become quite sensitive to rhis issue.
- If you want to emjoy the scenery, park your car in a sensible place. Trundling along at 15 mph will not endear you to the rest of the road users.
- If you park your car and go for a walk, lock up safely and leave no valuables in sight.
- If you go out of sight of your parking space, make sure you'll find your way back.
- Respect local wildife - occasional collisions with deer, sheep and pheasants occur (the last being most dangerous when startled drivers veer into oncoming traffing or a wall).
- Avoid driving in the dark, the roads become more challenging then.
- Never, ever, head for the hills in snow - the spectacle of two coachloads of Italian tourists stuck on the freezing Sally Gap a few years ago should be a warning.