Change of Plans

Aerial view of St Stephen’s Green
By Dronepicr (edited by King of Hearts) Edit corrects CA and sharpens image – File:Dublin Stephen’s Green-44.jpg, CC BY 3.0, Link

This week was supposed to have seen me complete my TONotL hike, and as I wrote last week, those plans had to change when we made an unscheduled trip to Ireland for a funeral. It’s meant that this past week has been a mixed bag of walks.

Sunday – walking the strand at Portnoo in Donegal.

One of the secrets of Ireland is that while it’s a northerly climate, and it’s associated with soft rains and green pastures, there are in fact quite a few fabulous beaches. Portnoo is one of them – several km of sand and shallow waters that are perfect for sunning yourself or swimming, if you don’t mind the chill.

Monday – city walking in Dublin, wandering favourite neighbourhoods near St. Stephens Green and Marion Square, window shopping and sightseeing.

The trip had been a whirlwind, and we’d given ourselves Monday afternoon and evening in Dublin to decompress after the emotional visit to Donegal. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, perfect to find a little out of the way pub with some outdoor tables and a pint of Guinness. Dinner was equally lovely, enjoying seafood and crisp French wine at Sole. The stroll through St. Stephens Green after dinner capped off our trip, enjoying the flowers in bloom and watching the other strolling couples.

Tuesday – airports and taxis and a quick stroll around the shops back home to pick up dinner. Welcome back to Toronto summer heat.

Wednesday – since I was off work for the week anyway and had planned to spend it walking, it was off for a tour of Lawrence Park and Bridle Path neighbourhoods and on through Burkes Brook and Sunnybrook Parks.

15km of wandering up and down hills, through cool shaded forest and sun-drenched playing grounds.

Thursday – more hiking, this time the full length of the Beltline.

First west along Roselawn and Castlefield all the way to Caledonia to pick up the start of the Beltline Trail by the Canada Goose factory, and then back east on the Trail all the way through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, down the Moore Ravine into the Brickworks, and then back north up through David Balfour Park and into the Cemetery again to complete the loop. 20 km on an even hotter day.

Friday – yet more hiking, this time down to the lake through inner city neighbourhoods – Whychwood, Christie Pits, Palmerston, Little Italy, Parkdale – and along the Trillium Trail through Ontario Place, then back home through stifling city streets heavy with humid heat.

I passed through several of parks that make Toronto a fantastic place to live – Christie Pits, Trinity-Bellwoods, Coronation Park, and more. Without those green oases, the city would bake in the summer. While they were lovely to walk through, 25km on a hot muggy day wiped me out.

Saturday – after that long day Friday, it was time to take it easy, strolling in the neighbourhood and shopping for new running shoes after wearing out my old pair. It was a day to unwind and let my legs and feet rest a bit.

Overall, I did more walking this past week than I’ve done in any previous week in at least a year, and yet I only did about half of the 160 km I had planned on my TONotL walk. If I’m honest, it would have been a tough challenge to finish that walk as planned, given 30C heat and my evident fitness level despite my training walks. Clearly I need to put in more work so that when I try this in the autumn when the weather will also be cooler, I will be ready for it.

Still, a change of plans isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When life throws up the unexpected, the best path forward is to learn from the experience.

Big Little Walks

Sometimes there are curves in the path that you can’t see round.

This past Friday I was in Ireland, in Donegal Town. I took the biggest little walk I’ve taken in a while, when as a pallbearer I helped to carry my wife’s dear Aunt Nora out of the house to the waiting hearse, then into the church for the service, and finally up the hill in the cemetery to the grave.

My plan had been that on Sunday June 30, I would start my Big Walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake but that’s now been postponed. We won’t get home till mid-week and that doesn’t leave me enough time to do the walk I’d planned before I need to be back at work. I guess that will now wait till the autumn.

But more important than those plans was the walk I took on Friday. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, and the town turned out as we passed walking slowly behind the hearse. I’m glad we came, and that I was able to help on that short little walk.

Over the years, and especially the past few visits, when we were leaving Donegal Nora would always part with the words “I’ll not say goodbye, only farewell”. There’s an Irish saying that’s apt – may the road rise up to meet you. Farewell Nora.

Little Walks – The Abbey, Donegal

My wife’s family are from the town of Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. Back in 1991 we took our first trip together to visit family there, and I was introduced to the town and what has become one of my favourite little walks – the Abbey.

Her aunt and uncle lived then, and still do, on Castle Street. It’s a lovely little street, with the River Eske running in front of the house with a low wall to sit on and watch the trout play in the current. On that first visit, the waft of peat smoke and coal fires on a misty evening formed a permanent memory that’s recalled each time I’m there.

The centre of the town is just behind Castle Street, and the heart of the town is The Diamond, a market space surrounded by shops.

It’s a bustling little town on a summer Saturday, with tour buses, farmers on tractors, and families out shopping. Leading out of The Diamond, there is a street running down towards the harbour, and past that on a little tip of land is the Abbey.

Today it’s a ruin, with tumbled stones and partial walls from the medieval Franciscan priory and church to explore, and mixed through the old church grounds are more recent graves because today it’s a cemetery that’s still in use. Many of the town’s old family names can be found here, with the history of lives long-lived along with the little tragedies of young lives lost. Even though it’s close to town, it’s usually quiet and if there’s a bit of sun or a bit of misty rain, it’s quite charming and deeply moving.

On our first visit, I was indulging an enthusiastic photography bug – I would leap from the car at every thatched cottage or picturesque sheep peering through a hedge. When we got to Donegal town and we’d wandered around a bit, I heard the stories about the Abbey and I knew that I had to visit to explore and photograph the ruins and headstones. I must have spent a couple of hours there on that first trip, self-absorbed and utterly content, shooting rolls and rolls of film.

Since that first visit, we’ve returned to Ireland many times and each time we go I try to carve out an hour or so for my favourite little walk – up Castle Street, past the restored Castle and through The Diamond to the harbour and on to the Abbey for a wander through the headstones to see who’s passed on since my last visit. It’s become a ritual for me, recalling the memories of that first trip when I fell in love with the country and the town.

Each time I take that that walk I end by returning to Castle Street and a cup of tea in the kitchen. The warmth of Aunt Nora and Uncle Liam, their charm and sly humour, the chat round the kitchen table with the cousins and neighbours, and the gossip and questions about what I’d seen this time – it’s a gentle domesticity and a throwback to quieter times that we don’t get here in the Big Smoke of Hogtown.

That little walk takes me back in time, and then returns me gently to the present. I can’t imagine visiting Donegal without repeating my stroll, and wouldn’t want to try. Familiar places renew memories and reward the soul, like well-loved friends. Each visit plants new memories, and recalls past charms too. Little walks do that – they reward the comfortable and the familiar, like holding hands with your partner when the fit of each finger is as practiced as breathing, and just like holding hands they bring a warm rush of blood when those fingers squeeze even after decades together.