Walking on water
I wonder what happens on January 31st on the Sheep’s Head? This is the one day of the year that the Sheep’s Head Way, one of Ireland’s most precious walking trails, is closed. Do the sheep breathe a sigh of relief, or do the farmers come out on to the land they have willingly shared for about 20 years and have a big party to celebrate their hiker-free haven.
Don’t be tempted to go down and look, because this is the one day walkers have no access. And don’t even think about driving around it, because this is a landscape to be enjoyed using turf to toe contact only. Take your car as far as one of the loop points if you must, but do get out and walk because otherwise you are really missing the best bits all of which are off road.
The Sheep’s Head Peninsula in Co Cork is a long ridge of old red sandstone and white limestone which, apparently, has had some influence on the choice of red and white as the colours of the Cork county flag.
The Head has one of the most impressive collection of walking trails in Ireland, all tucked into one narrow peninsula and covering 150km of hillwalks which will lead you to dreamy coves, ancient archaeological sites or to its elusive lighthouse right at the tip – all strengthened by this sandstone ridge which stretches down the core of the peninsula like a central spine.
With only a couple of days to spare, I decided to top and toe the Sheep’s Head, starting with the Lighthouse loop at the tip. After stopping at the Alice West Centre at Blackgate to pick up a map of the trails from the Sheep’s Head Way office, I went as far as I could by car and parked beside Bernie Tobin’s cafe, Cupán Tae in Toreen, on the south side of the tip. I hadn’t had time to pack a lunch before I hit the road, so I tucked into one of Bernie’s homemade vegetable soups and famous fresh salmon sandwiches, stashing my apple pie in my rucksack before hitting the road.
The only danger of starting your walking trip at Bernie’s is that she is such wonderful company and a legendary culinary host in this remote spot, you might never want to leave.
The south side of the Sheep’s Head looks over Dunmanus Bay over to Mizen Head in the distance and even though I was distracted by the views, it was hard to get lost, with efficient way marking along these narrow paths, tucked in between moss-covered stones and grasses. The paths are lovingly managed with stepping stones over streams and small wooden bridges over bogland, allowing access even during the wettest periods.
The hand-painted wooden posts, with their yellow “walker” clearly visible, are works of art, turning me into a bit of a signpost junkie wanting to photograph these little yellow guides at each picturesque point. And there are many fixes to be had, especially as we started to climb the central ridge a little, the northern shores teasing us as they came in and out of view through the mist, and the reeded wrapping around Lough Akeen offering a golden glimmer below.
These beautiful walking signs symbolise a lot of what Sheep’s Head is about. In the early 1990s a small group of four local farmers and landowners started to walk the land every Sunday, to work out the best possible paths across this spindly peninsula, which measures 19km long and 5km wide.
With land access still a controversial and sensitive issue here, this group got together and decided to let other people enjoy their headland and, slowly but surely, they talked the other farmers around too. The two pioneers were Tom Whitty, who tragically died in an accident just after it finally opened in 1996, and James O’Mahony who is still an inspiring presence on the Sheep’s Head. Between them they chatted and cajoled, negotiated and nagged until the area was walkable.
Jimmy Tobin, for example, who still owns sections of the land around the lighthouse loop, keeps the place pristine and safe for walkers, with a bit of financial incentive thrown in too, of course. As I stood and photographed these signposts, I could feel that there was so much more to it than money. These guys had genuine pride in their homelands and have now created a model of sustainable land access for tourism which can be replicated throughout the country.
Although we kept heading towards the lighthouse tip on our walk, it never seemed to come into sight. Even as we came right down to the point of the peninsula, and I could see the waters of Bantry Bay stretching out to the north and the Atlantic beyond, still no lighthouse. Its bright red railings finally came into sight, the white of the building just peeping out at us down on a rocky promontory below, resting against the cliff like a massive sea bird which has claimed this perfect perch for years.
Climbing back up to the walking trail, we followed the north side of the loop this time, with a very different landscape opening up. Flanking Bantry Bay there is a wilder feel along this stretch, the paths enjoying the space of a wider valley, although still sheltered from the cold kick coming in off the Atlantic which had eroded the coastline into a handsome collection of gullied fingers of rock, stretching out from the tougher cliffs which were holding us up.
Within the bay itself, Whiddy Island lay just off Sheep’s Head shore and Bere Island merged with the Bere Peninsula behind it in the distance. The valley started to go through a series of boggy dips and climbs again, all crammed with heathers, gorse and ferns in autumn and winter, and a haven for orchids in summer.
At Dangan we hit a junction where we could lengthen our loop into the Poet’s Way, but as daylight was already closing in we decided to head back for a last cupán tae, climbing up a narrow path which had us tip-toeing through temporary streams which had formed after a couple of rainy days – all the better as they acted as natural infusers for the spearmint and camomile underfoot.
I walked straight out of my lodgings at Drumcloc the next morning to take in the top of the headland, where a circular loop took me offroad again through fuschia-lined fields to an ancient well and shrine in a hollowed glen, where the statue of Our Lady jumped out so suddenly from behind a hedge I thought I had had a vision.
The next vision to behold was the more manicured grounds of the 18th-century Bantry House, also open to Sheep’s Head walkers giving much more pleasant access down to Bantry harbour than on the main road. Here, Sheep’s Head Way has you “walking on water”, leading me out to Whiddy Island, just 10 minutes away.
This must be one of the least visited islands in Ireland, most people associating it with an oil terminal which is tucked away on its southern most point. But don’t judge a book, or confuse a storage terminal with a refinery, as Whiddy is still a walking haven, with ancient hedgerow-lined trails leading me to what felt like miles away from anything, never mind heavy-duty industry, which managed to keep out of sight for most of the time.
One of the trails led me up to an exquisite ancient graveyard dating from the 6th century, overlooking the bay in one direction and the island’s Kilmore lakes in another. Another led me to a derelict battery, sunk into high ground by the British during Napoleonic times to keep an eye out for the French armada.
These are fine architectural creations which Tim O’Leary, the skipper on the Whiddy Island Ferry and also the co-manager of the island’s only pub – the Bank House – (crab claws and chips a must), is on a personal pilgrimage to restore, some day. I have no doubt that he will do too, because the local people on Sheep’s Head Way like to show off and share their surroundings. Except on January 31st, that is, when they keep it all to themselves.
By not opening up their land every day of the year, the farmers retain their rightful claim to land ownership – which seems like a great deal to me. But then again, I get 364 days of walking access. They get just one day’s rest from the likes of me, and I hope they make the most of it and have one big hooley on the head.
And if they do, we walkers owe them more than a pint or two to say thanks for letting us party in paradise for the rest of the year.
For more information on Sheep’s Head Way, see thesheepsheadway.ie;