Walking on water
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.