To the lighthouse: a hike to Sheep’s Head

Our Going Coastal series continues. Many are drawn to the glittering waters of Dunmanus Bay, one of our last unspoiled stretches of coast


Tucked into the eastern extremity of the long, narrow inlet that is Dunmanus Bay, the west Cork village of Durrus doesn’t have the dazzling waterfront bling of a Schull or a Bantry. Nor does it rattle and hum with the commercial buzz of a Skibbereen or a Castletownbere. As befits a town whose Irish name is Dubh Ros – “dark headland” – Durrus doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

Scratch beneath that modest surface, however, and you’ll find plenty to write home about. Dunmanus Bay is one of the last unspoiled stretches on Ireland’s coast, its glittering waters saved – so far, at least – from the predations of industrial aquaculture by the vigilance of a local lobby group, the Dunmanus Bay Marine Association. Its northern shoreline is a hiker’s paradise, with the Sheep’s Head walking trail meandering through the pretty waterside towns of Ahakista and Kilcrohane, all the way to the Sheep’s Head lighthouse and beyond.

No matter where you are in this part of the world, you’re never far from the sea. On the southern side of the bay a few minutes’ drive west of Durrus, perched on a hill beside the main road to Crookhaven, is Dunbeacon Pottery, home to Helen Ennis and Eithne Ní Mhurchú.

On an afternoon at the height of the July heatwave, with the bay glimmering just the other side of the hedge, it’s easy to see why they’ve stayed for 13 years – and where Ennis gets the inspiration for the soft shapes and misty colours of her pottery.

“I’ve never consciously drawn inspiration from nature,” she says, “but I think osmosis kicked in. My blue and green ranges fit really well here. They seem to suit what’s outside the door.”

In summer Ennis is in her pottery shop six days a week. When she gets a minute, she goes swimming and snorkelling. She also has a favourite spot for fishing, over near Kilcrohane. “I caught five fish last week.” Did she eat them? “Oh, yes. I think if you’re not prepared to kill it, clean it, cook it and eat it – then don’t do it.”

One aspect of life in west Cork which attracted Ennis and Ní Mhurchú is the area’s famously diverse community. “Being a lesbian couple, we didn’t have to think twice about moving here,” Ennis says. “And we’ve never had any negative response that I’ve been aware of. At this stage that’s probably the biggest thing that has me staying here – the friends we have, and the network. You can take your family for granted, in a way, when you live near them. Here, your friends become your family.”

Once more with felting
This extended family includes the feltmaker Christina Jasmin Roser, who was born in Copenhagen and raised in Zurich, and her partner Mark Davenport, from the northern English town of Oldham. They live on the other side of the hill, in a house they’ve been renovating and adding to since they moved here seven years ago.

Roser doesn’t have much time to admire the scenery. Between working shifts in a local cafe, filling orders from shops which stock her work, getting pieces ready to go off to be exhibited at the Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford, and organising day courses in feltmaking for beginners, her days are pretty full.

The couple have a flock of Soay sheep, a chocolate-coloured, Bronze Age breed which doesn’t need shearing. Scattered in the grass are occasional tufts of brownish wool which Roser transforms into an array of felt items from hats and slippers through scarves and throws to dresses and jackets. She also uses merino wool, silk, and treasures gleaned from charity shops.

Moving to this area has been a tricky transition for Roser. “It’s a very different life to working in the office and commuting,” she says, with a rueful smile. “You leave your family and friends behind, and you think, ‘I can cope. I’ll get new friends’. But it takes that much longer – especially when you don’t have children going to school. You have to put in an effort to go out and meet people.”

As a member of the community council in Durrus, Davenport has become involved with local issues. A community garden is currently under consideration, as is the redevelopment of an old agricultural building in the centre of the village as a trailhead facility for the Sheep’s Head Way. “It’s the future for this area, I think,” says Roser. “Nature is the biggest asset here in west Cork.”

Walking along the northern shore of Dunmanus Bay, one would have to agree. The distinctive X-shaped stiles of the waymarked trail take the hiker past old copper mines, blowholes and stone circles. Outside Ahakista is the well-tended garden which commemorates the 300 people killed when terrorists blew up an Air India plane off the southwest coast in 1985. In Kilcrohane on a Sunday, there’s a lively producers’ market selling everything from jewellery to jam.

Endof the road
At the Sheep’s Head itself, you find a landscape straight out of a sci-fi movie. Chunks of rock lie scattered everywhere as if chucked by a two-year-old monster in a tantrum. The views – Beara Peninsula to the north, Mizen to the south – are spectacular. And if you want to get to the lighthouse, you’ve got to go on foot because this is, literally, the end of the road.

After a quick pitstop at Bernie’s Cafe, adventurous walkers will head north along the Poet’s Way, across a wild valley and rugged cliffs, to the spot known as the Cove, where the novelist JG Farrell drowned in 1979. But that, strictly speaking, is on Bantry Bay and outside our present remit.

And so we return via Lough Laharadda, garlanded by waterlilies and attended by drifts of electric-blue damselflies, to pay tribute to the author of the Troubles trilogy at his grave in the leafy churchyard of St James’s Church of Ireland in Durrus.

Ah, but what’s it like around Dunmanus Bay in the winter, when the days are dark and the rain is endless? Helen Ennis smiles. That’s what everybody asks, when it’s time to leave.

“It’s just . . . different,” she says. “I see very little of my friends in summer because we’re all too busy with work. Winter is when we really come together for dinners and parties and stuff. We help each other do jobs and decorate and everything else. We just hunker down.”

We turn to take a final look at the view of the bay behind us. Do you get used to that, I ask. “No,” she says. “You don’t. Every day I get people calling in to the shop and they go, ‘You’re so lucky to live here’. And I go, ‘Yes. I am’. It’s not just saying it. I really am.”

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