“It is not the mountain we conquer – but ourselves.”
– Edmund Hillary
“The depth of darkness to which you can descend and still live is an exact measure of the height to which you can aspire to reach.”
-Pliny the Elder
I’ve never been much of a mountain climber. More of a hillwalker, if I’m honest. I spent over a decade in the scouts when I was younger and traversed many a Wicklow hill. And that’s pretty much what one does when hillwalking. Traversing. Oh there’s a little bit of rambling and a touch of circuitous roaming. Perhaps also a smidge of promenading – though only ever on show to one’s-self.
It’s true that hillwalking and mountaineering are two inhabitants of the same bailiwick. But mountaineering is more pointed. There would appear to be more of an ‘achievement’ in mountaineering. The equipment is usually more expensive than the stick a hillwalker might find by the side of the road. And mountaineering doesn’t allow for much in the way of ‘divergence’: either the summit is reached or it is not. When I think of it,mountaineering is, essentially, hillwalking multiplied by boasting.
Now – I like a good outcome myself. For years, I’ve been looking for a way to ‘achieve’ more from my hillwalks without having to mountaineer. I usually try to pick a particular site or ruin to visit, for example, or judge it by the distance I walk. But now, I think I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. Rather than find a mountain to climb, I’ll find the opposite to ramble to.
And what is the opposite, you might ask? Ireland’s highest peak is Carrauntoohil, Kerry, at 1038m above sea level. The opposite is Ireland’s lowest point: North Slob, Wexford, at ten feet below.
In December 2013, I find myself driving back to Dublin following a rather tense meeting in Wexford. As I drive, I see a sign advertising the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. A few months back, I had read about this place – a reserve on the North Slob – Ireland’s lowest point. Looks like I might have time to stop off for a little descend-walking before I get home …
The Wexford Sloblands are an area of farmland reclaimed from the sea in the 1840s. In fact, the word ‘slob’ is itself an old Irish word referring to muddy, useless land. It was adopted into the English language in the 18th century. In fact, it was not until the 1880s that the phrase ‘a slob of a man’ was first used.
My car pulls off the main Wexford road and follows a tiny, windy affair that is more a track than anything. To my left, lush farmland. To my right, a ten foot polder keeping the sea at bay. I drive for a few miles before reaching an old abandoned factory and a car-park. This is the entrance to the Wildfowl reserve. I step out and approach the gate. I see geese behind the fence. Literate geese,apparently. A sign proclaims ‘Geese Only beyond this Point’. Indeed, the geese appear to be congregating exclusively in the hinterland of the sign. Literate AND observant.
I walk around a fenced-off lake – the only person in the complex – and, it feels, quite possibly the only person in the Sloblands. I stop and take a few pictures. I take a minute to ponder my achievement today – my grand descent – my gently walk – to here, Ireland’s other extremity.
Although a bird sanctuary nowadays, it was not always the case. In fact, until recent decades, this was the opposite of a sanctuary and birds were hunted in their thousands. In 1951, one hunting party on this spot began to argue with each other about whether the Golden Plover or the Grouse is the faster bird. This argument resulted in the idea for the Guinness Book of Records.
After a short while (watched constantly by geese that appear to taunt me to disobey the sign), I leave and make my way to the polder. I am wearing a snappy FCUK suit and grip-less shoes. Not ideal hill-walking attire, I’ll admit – but I’ll make do with what I have. I take a long run at the steep polder and – barely – make it to the top. And the view is quite beautiful. Across the bay, I can see Wexford Town in the twilight. When I look back along the polder, the height of the sea above the road becomes apparent. I stroll awhile along the polder top before being joined by a friendly dog. He walks with me awhile – a Tenzing to my Hillary.
There is a peacefulness to this place that I find quite pleasing. I had come here to try and get a silly story – but I actually find myself enjoying it – the beautiful rural scenery, the bay the backdrop, the silence.
I sit a while as I look out over the bay and reflect on my day. Haven’t I finally done it? A walk with a purpose? Have I finally blended the ‘achievement’ of mountaineering with the rambling serenity of hillwalking? I look back to my car. There are two geese walking around – inspecting it. Maybe this isn’t as thrilling as mountaineering after all …