Right now is a great time to check out the cliff areas of Wicklow. The cliffs of Bray Head in particular are wildlife paradises of the first order, and in summer are the best places to see lizards and the fascinating Leaf-cutter Bee. But this time of the year they are dominated by seabirds, which come inshore to breed.
Down near the sea there are Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Herring Gulls, and immense Great Black-backed Gulls.
Especially interesting are the Fulmars, which will ‘buzz’ you as you walk the cliffs, ensuring you don’t get too close to their nests. These seabirds are related to petrels and albatrosses, the so-called “tube-noses”, birds which have tube-like nostrils which look like spectacles perched on their beaks.
The Cliff Walk is also a terrific place to see plant-life too. A particularly interesting plant that grows on the bare faces of the cliffs is a lush succulent called Navelwort, on account of the leaves looking like bellies with navels. The leaves also have a fleshy feel to them. This plant is also known as Sea Pennywort.
Also, as you move southwards along the cliff you will have terrific views of the town of Greystones and the coastline beyond.
As you gradually descend towards the town the landscape widens, there are high sand cliffs which are home to Sand Martins, and many other birds. This part of the walk is also a good place to see other African migrants that live along the Wicklow coastline in summer, including the Wheatear. Large numbers of Wheatears have just arrived this month.
Finally, while Ireland is not the warmest of countries, it is very important to remember to bring a hat, and/or sunglasses, and some sunblock would not be a bad idea either. One person got very severe third-degree burns on these cliffs while out taking photos with me a few years ago, and it was days before he recovered. A leisurely stroll, stopping to take photos, usually takes two-and-a-half hours to complete.
Just outside the town of Bray, in north Wicklow, there is an extremely interesting area of seashore where ancient tree trunks from the time of the Ice Age can be still be seen today sticking out of the seabed at low tide. These trees see to be the edge of a vast prehistoric forest extending beneath the Irish Sea. Such pertrified forests are visible along the Welsh and English coasts too. In recent years the BBC made a documentary about the nature of the islands of the British Isles and the first episode featured Alan Titchmarsh visiting the north beach of Bray at low tide to view a forest of these bizarre undersea tree stumps. It is believed that when the ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted, around 5500 BC, that the rising seas drowned the forests.
Because Bray is located at the mouth of a river, namely the Dargle, it is a good site to look for ancient archaeological remains. So I went along with my brother Owen, the archaeologist, and local historian Tom Loftus to glean the beaches below the cliffs to the north of Bray, on the border with Dublin county. The beaches are a mixture of shingle and sand, with tall sandy cliffs above them. These cliffs are collapsing by degrees, and as such there is always the possibility of finding ancient artefacts.
We were accompanied by a flock of Turnstones, which busily foraged for food among the pebbles before the tide rose too high. Cormorants were perched on the various rocks of the bay, and Common Terns attended juveniles learning the trade of sea fishing.
On the return journey Owen found what he believed was very likely a Stone Age axe-head. Stone axe-heads have a very distinctive shape, and this particular stone, of red quartz, had many of the hallmarks of deliberate shaping by the hand of man. However, Owen is always cautious when it comes to lithics (stone objects), so he wanted to have a specialist archaeologist check out the find before pronouncing judgement.
Tom also made a very interesting find, which has still to be checked out: it seems to be a single fossilised vertebra. The bone, which still has to be identified as belonging to a particular species, was completely impregnated with limestone.
More on the possible hand-axe will follow shortly, including the specialist expert’s opinion.
Now that August has drawn to a close and we are in the very late part of summer, it is a very good time to turn attention towards archaeology. Anyone with an interest in history there will undoubtedly have an interest in archaeology too to some extent. Wicklow is one of the most poorly archaeologically explored regions in western Europe. In Wicklow the foliage is beginning to make way for the autumn, farmers are ploughing fields and there is a good chance of seeing and finding ancient artefacts that can remain hidden during summer. You can visit many of the already recognised sites, such as Glendalough, but there are many others where discovery and adventure are very real.
Last Friday I went to Bray Head with my brother Owen, a qualified archaeologist, and local Bray historian Tom ‘Lofty’ Loftus to see what we could discover in the way of ancient or more recent archaeological remains. A good walk to follow is from the Ramada Hotel in the outskirts of Bray. There is a nice fenced path directly on the opposite side of the road to the hotel, near the roundabout that leads up to the big cross on Bray Head.
From the site of the cross there is a great view of the surrounding countryside and in particular Killiney Bay to the north. The rock of Bray Head is a very ancient shale, with areas of red quartz to the north, beneath Bray. In the 1870s extremely ancient fossils of strange, worm-like little sea creatures were discovered in the shale here, dating to Pre-Cambrian times, over 560 millions years ago by current reckonings, and possibly much, much older.
The whole hillside is covered in fallen walls from sructures of varying ages. Many date from the 19th century.
An especially fascinating, and bizarre relic of the mid-20th century is a series of stone steps that led up to a now defunct holiday resort called Eagle’s Nest. The steps were an alternative way up the hillside to the cable car that had been installed, and which can be still seen rusting on the hillside. Both cable car and steps were an expensive financial failure. However, the steps are a wonderful legacy, and they appear to have been built to last.
However, the most striking and interesting remains on Bray Head are the ruins of a church called Raheenaclig. This name is usually translated as “Little Church of the Bell”, but this seves only to cover up a pre-Christian origin. The Literal translation is “little rath of the stones”. A rath was an ancient mound of earth, usually dating to the Bronze Age or even earlier. There are many places with “rath” in their title in Wicklow, and many of them had churches built on them, both hiding them and stealing from their significance simultaneously.
The church is believed to have been built in the 13th or 14th century, but the architecture could easily match up with earlier ones dating to the 8th century. There is a very deep hole in the wall by the doorway, clearly designed to receive a massive sliding bolt of heavy timber or even metal, and obviously to keep people out in times of danger, something more necessary in the early Middle Ages than the late, when sea raiding vikings were a constant threat indigenous Christians. The building is entirely made of hard red quartz, and underwent some degree of restoration work in the 19th century. However, it has been a ruin for many hundreds of years and historically is mostly associated with smugglers in more recent centuries. They were known to bring their contraband ashore at the nearby Naylor’s Cove and then hide it in the church grounds, or the church itself. The church is best reached from Bray promenade. Just follow the promenade as it rises to a car park just above Bray. The church is in a meadow above the carpark and can easily be spotted.
Thanks to Tom we got a guided tour of the various artefacts on the hillside, but a second archaeological field trip to Bray was to prove even more interesting and rewarding…