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.