A Wandererer Above The Mists
On a Monday in early June 2011, artist Robert Howie Smith arrived at Knock airport, County Mayo, Ireland, with an intention to explore the north west peninsula of the country over a three and half week period. Carrying survival gear to see him through the immense journey, and a determination to regain fitness following a major operation, Robert intended to make route to Westport from the airport. Being a bank holiday Robert realised his first hurdle when he discovered a limited bus service and no immediate link. Undeterred by the sprinkling of summer rain, expected for the season, the seasoned traveller began his hike following the country lanes to the main route west where he hitched a lift to Castlebar. Then the following day (after a crafty night bivouacking on the edge of a farmers field) and another two successful hitches, he arrived in Westport, already a day having passed instead of the expected hour, where he stocked up with provisions and camping gas for the stove.
Westport, famous for its location at the base of Croagh Patrick, favoured mountain of Saint Patrick – history denotes it was at the summit of Croagh Patrick that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days, whilst managing to banish the snakes from Ireland during the process – is a busy tourist town, flourishing with visitors and pilgrims eager to experience the mountainous region with the national park to the south, noted peaks and structured route-ways for the tourist to meander at their leisure.
Robert's journey was to take him
north along forgotten routes, initially taking the combined paths of the Western
Way and the Bangor Trail. He hitched from Westport to Newport, being dropped
of where the trail leaves the road and immerses itself into a wilderness of
mountain moorland where a choice of routes, each over 25kilometres, creep into
the depths of Bangor Erris and the Nephin Beg range of mountains.
By now the peaked summit of Croagh Patrick stood far on the horizon, a reminder of the trails and effort needed for the journey ahead. Robert intended to select the Bangor Trail of the two options available, a journey that could be done on a very good day, by a walker with peak fitness on a dry day, with dry land to trek through. Robert was not at peak potential (yet), and so far it had rained both days, and the land showed it, with the going slow as our hiker battled into the strong breeze and the onslaught of rain in the blowing in that breeze. Furthermore Robert had no intention to make the journey in such rapid time. It was this artist's intention to take his time, camp out on route, experience the region, the wilderness, the weather, the bogs, its peaks and valleys, water courses, woodland and wildlife. He had food for a week, dried rice and pasta, vacuum packed meats, biscuits and crackers and his appetite was minimal.
Robert Howie Smith is an experienced
mountain explorer and journeyman having traversed many parts of secluded wilderness
in Northern America, Canada, North Spain and Scotland. As a photographer he
was renowned for photographing the landscapes and wildlife he explored using
traditional black and white film as his medium. On this journey he was branching
into the realms of digital photography and all it could produce, and was seeking
inspiration with this new tool.
What followed was ten days in that wilderness before emerging at the top of the trail in Bangor with an experience he would never forget. Ten days that saw his fitness restored, as it had to, spending the latter two days bivouacking on the trail at a point of hunger, and eight previous days of careful rationing allowing him to climb the multiple of peaks in the Nephin Beg range, making a central base in a small stone bothy at the head of the joint trail, where the Western Way and Bangor Trail split, and explore and understand not just his new camera but the landscape that forms this wilderness often referred to as the Plains of County Mayo.
Ten days is a testing time with limited food – never mind the forty that Saint Patrick miraculously endured, and it is possible to last merely because of the enjoyment of the experience. Climbing each of the peaks and experiencing the wondrous views from each was an experience glad to be shared thanks to the digital camera and the images it captured. Views that took in the rugged coastline and mountains of Achill Island to the south, views westward across Blacksod Bay and the Atlantic ocean. A view north and the Plains of Mayo yet to be traversed, the trail to Bangor and beyond. Views inland and the path of the Western Way. Each peak neighboured by equally magnificent peak, a fitting landscape to be explored by this wanderer above the mists.
At one time this famous path was the route out of County Mayo for those wishing to seek their fortunes in the south or abroad. Stories were told of family members who would hike out along the trail from Bangor Erris, this north west peninsula of Ireland. During the occasion of his journey, Robert passed no-one on the trail. He had two encounters at the bothy he sheltered in during his stay, one a local jogger who leant him her gaiters and shared her salad dinner, the other the Rural Recreation Officer for the South West Mayo Development Company. It was her job to keep an eye on the trail and its facilities. The company of both, for the short time they occurred, were welcome amongst the forced solitude the experience demanded. Other demands were the daily outburst of rain and the continual wind. And the midges. This was early June. The weather could have gone any way, though it would be easy to imagine that the wind was continual, hence the barrenness of the open moorland. There are very few natural trees in the landscape, though some managed plantations. There is one significant ancient woodland at Treanlaur, alongside Lough Feeagh as you enter the trail from Newport, but little else to hinder the onslaught of wind as it whips in from the Atlantic and through the valley of the trail. As for the midges. Do we not expect them in the summer months in Britain? Very few mountain ranges in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales escape them in the peak of the season when out camping, especially at dusk and dawn. They were to be expected, though thankfully this was not the height of the season.
The terrain of the trail was boggy, but there was always a way through, with determination and experience, and a hiking stick. There were occasions Robert was knee high in the bogland, though thankfully not to many to deter, and it was of welcome self-worth that saw his arrival in Bangor after ten days and the last two days eating only rice, and it is at such moments we ask ourselves what we would most like to eat first. The local butcher stocked fresh cut pork steak and chicken breast, the local pub Talk Of The Town served quality Guinness, and a neighbourly shop owner offered access to a soft bed in an apartment. It was a good town to arrive in and rest after his endurance of the trail. It was a good town to make acquaintances and blend with the local culture. Landlord and Landlady of The Talk Of The Town Pub, on the High Street of Bangor treated Robert to a duet with the accordion and fiddle during his first pint of the black stuff as he sat by a warming fire, lit on his arrival. It was a good town to stop and decide what to do next.
With still another ten days or so to go on his journey, Robert opted to catch the local bus out to the furthest point of the peninsula at Blacksod, famed for its bay and its lighthouse. From here, with a new stock of supplies, he would spend the time wandering back, following the western coastline, bivouacking on the beaches and in the sand dunes experiencing the intimate sea air, the ocean sea life, bird life and western views across the water. He witnessed Atlantic grey seals bobbing in the current, oyster catchers, sandpipers, rock pipits, fulmars and cormorants diving amongst the waves and scurrying along the sand. He visited ancient standing stones and historic wells of healing waters along the coast line, and each night when the weather allowed he witnessed glorious sunsets on the horizon.
It was now heading toward the third week of June and the longest day at Midsummer. It was on this night Robert departed the peninsula walking through the night, experiencing the joys of the short twilight, with a magnificent sunset to his west as he traversed the promontory with views of Innishkea Islands, famous for its barnacle geese and white sandy beaches, and Elly Bay to the East and sunrise after the shortest night, before reaching Belmullet and a short hitch back to Bangor in time for early morning pastry and coffee as the stores first open for the day.
A few more days back in the comfort of the town saw the chance to be invited to a local dance and live music night at The Talk of The Town pub, before having to make the return journey south in time to connect with the bus to the airport at Knock. This time Robert chose to catch the bus east out of Bangor to the next hamlet of Bellacorick where the road meets the Western Way going south and the trail, and this time it was a reasonable track, back in to the Nephin Beg range and a chance to stay one more night at the bothy before retreating back along the path toward Newport and a last hitch to Westport and a night in the hostel before flying back to England, after a final evening enjoying more live music and a final Guinness or two in the local hostelries, content with the journey, excited from the adventure, physically fit once again, and over two thousand photographs taken, to remind him of the journey.
It is with immense pleasure that Robert Howie Smith opens his first exhibition relating to this journey; a series of eighteen panoramic images capturing the immensity of the region and its landscape that he hopes will, visually, tell his tale. The exhibition, interspersed with digital stills, and roving video to further enhance the experience, will first be shown at The City Gallery, 14a Long Row, Nottingham, opening on Saint Patrick's Day, as part of the market square festivities, and accompanied by local Nottingham Irish artists, several from County Mayo, whose ancestors were perhaps those that originally left along the Bangor Trail.
ROBERT HOWIE SMITH A Wandererer Above The Mists
© RHS12 howie-smith.org.uk