Ahoy, and good morning! At last I was here, where I’d promised myself I’d one day be – out at the tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula under a pink and grey sky, with a strong sea breeze blowing in over West Cork, a dark sea full of whitecaps, and the Atlantic seething up against the cliffs as if it would hiss and thump them to bits.
Sheep’s Head is wild. It’s rough, and it’s windy. The view south from the Sheep’s Head café was spectacular as I started my walk, out to the Mizen hills across Dunmanus Bay. But when I’d slipped and slid across the rocks and heather to a viewpoint over the polished, jet-black ellipse of Lough Akeen, I found that the lift of the land had been hiding an even more jaw-dropping prospect northwards – the sleeping whale shape of Bear Island with the great hummocks of Slieve Miskish and the Caha Mountains beyond, forming the dinosaur spine of the Beara Peninsula, all a dark purple bruise against the scudding grey sky.
The sea and land panorama from above Lough Akeen must really be one of the finest in all Ireland. Even Jimmy Tobin, who has been farming these hill slopes for more years than he cares to count, leaned on his stick and gazed around in appreciation at a view he must have seen ten thousand times. Jimmy is one of the many dozens of farmers all over Ireland who are taking part in the Walk Scheme, a programme which sees its participants looking after the footpaths and welcoming the walkers that cross their land. ‘We like to see people out and about on Sheep’s Head,’ Jimmy remarked as we followed his sheepdog Jojo down through the rocks, ‘it keeps the old paths walked and brings a bit of life to the place.’
The outer tip of Sheep’s Head is a boggy bit of ground. Frogs were burping and grunting in the marshy hollows, too intent on mating to look out for their natural enemies. Jimmy pointed out a sinuating track through the water plants left by an otter who had sneaked up unnoticed on the plump pairs of ranine * lovers. We squelched on down to climb the steps to the stumpy lighthouse, built in 1968 to warn oil tankers bound for Whiddy Island off the rocks and reefs of Rinn Mhuintir Bháire. ‘There was a power of work in these steps,’ murmured Jimmy. He should know – he built them.
Along the north coast of Sheep’s Head the path grew progressively wilder, emerging from a deep defile to run along the very rim of sheer cliffs that plunged past kittiwake ledges to a yeasty, milky green sea. ‘See that big flagstone down there?’ Jimmy pointed to a black, sea-smoothed rock platform far below, rhythmically washed by the waves. ‘My father would fish off there with a mussel on the hook. No rod, just a big old stick! Everyone did the same. No-one had much, but they were happy – happier than folk are now, maybe.’
We slithered across red rocks banded white with quartz, and teetered over pools by way of rough stepping stones. Turning our backs on Beara, we made inland towards the café through a jigsaw of small stone-walled fields. Jimmy showed me an ancient milling stone, cross-hatched and holed through the middle, hidden in the stones of a wall. Here had been houses, potato ridges, barns, crops. ‘A family lived in it until the 1950s. Lonely? Wasn’t it, though? And no road at all, just a foot track over the mountain.’
He gestured to the overgrown square of a tiny hayfield. ‘I last took a cut of hay out of that with a scythe when I was fifteen, and carried it back to the house barefoot. That was the way of it,’ said Jimmy, half to himself, ‘and we weren’t any the worse.’
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 88; downloadable map/instructions at www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
Bus (www.buseireann.ie): Service 255 (Saturday only) from Macroom and Bantry to Kilcrohane
Road: N71 Bantry towards Ballydehob; R591 to Durrus; minor road signed to Ahakista, Kilcrohane and Tooreen (Sheep’s Head Café).
WALK DIRECTIONS (follow blue arrows): From Sheep’s Head Café, ahead down road, then path. Cross lower end of Lough Akeen; follow ‘lighthouse’ sign past helicopter pad to lighthouse. Return and pass along left side of green stores container; continue along valley, then north coast cliffs for 1 mile to marker post with blue arrow pointing right. Aim for post above; follow rough waymark boards and orange/yellow waymarkers back to café.
LENGTH: 2½ miles: allow 2-3 hours
CONDITIONS: Some boggy bits; slippery paths near unguarded cliff edge – keep kids and dogs under control!
DON’T MISS … !
• panoramic view over Lough Akeen
• Sheep’s Head lighthouse
• Sheep’s Head Café’s apple pie, fresh-baked by Bernie Tobin
REFRESHMENTS: Sheep’s Head Café (tel 027-67878), open April-September, 11-6 daily
ACCOMMODATION: Agnes and Joe Hegarty, Hillcrest Farm, Ahakista, Durrus, Sheep’s Head, Co. Cork (tel 027-67045; www.ahakista.com)
GUIDE BOOKS: A Guide To The Sheep’s Head Way by Tom Whitty (available locally)
WEST CORK WALKING FESTIVAL: 15-17 May 2009; www.westcork.ie
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking
Bantry Tourist Office: The Square, Bantry (tel 027-50229; www.westcork.ie)
Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
11 April 2009