Hikelines – a Blog for the Soul

Our talented friend, Peter Clarke, has a marvellous new blog and you HAVE to see this one. It’s called Hikelines and the subheading tells the story – I hike and I sketch.

Peter has done two long walks in England, sketching as he went along – the Cleveland Way and the Tabular Hills Way. People who know those routes will appreciate how he has captured landscape, villages and landmarks in his signature style. But I want to concentrate on his two West Cork routes – The Beara Way and The Sheep’s Head Way.

Several things mark these routes as different from the English ones: they seem wilder, more remote; archaeology is all over the place; the place names are unpronounceable; they’re not as organised (especially the Beara Way) for the walker so there are directional and accommodation challenges. However, they are as rugged and spectacular as any hiker could wish for.

The Beara is the largest of the West Cork Peninsulas and the farthest from population centres. Peter accomplished it in nine stages, spaced out between the end of May and the beginning of August, starting and ending in Glengarriff and travelling clockwise.

Some parts were very rough going and signage was not always reliable, but Peter takes it all in his, er, stride. He writes beautifully in a clear accessible style – here’s a sample from his first day:

I reach the ladder-stile that marks the start of a hard, steep climb up to 550 metres. The red line of the route looks impossibly steep on the map but on the ground I find a stony track that dog-legs its way up the contours to make the going a little gentler: nevertheless, my lungs and legs are soon in the red zone. I take shorter strides on the rough stony surface, the plodding drumbeat of my boots accompanied by the tip-tap rhythm of my walking poles. At each turn where I stop to look back, the small houses in the valley are even smaller, the distant hills begin to show on the horizon, catching patches of sunlight, and soon I can see above the nearby hills across to Bantry Bay, glassy calm with Whiddy Island casting long reflections in the waters.

He stops to sketch what catches his eye – occasionally doing a whole sketch, sometimes colouring it later, sometimes taking a photograph to sketch from when the hike is over. He includes technical details for those who like to know.

He detours to visit prehistoric and historic sites and often includes these in his sketches. Amanda makes an appearance now and then – she’s on pick-up or drop-off duty and is usually combining this with adventures chronicled in her own blog Holy Wells of Cork. (When I told you about the start of Holy Wells of Cork it was only a year and a half ago – she has now recorded over 200 wells!) She is along as they ride the cable car to Dursey Island but Peter strikes out on his own along the trail.

As I set out alone along the only road, I think about how the past seems somehow embedded in the landscape of places like this. Some might say there are ghosts here and I can understand why. A short detour brings me down to the ruined monastery and burial ground sitting just above the shore. It feels lost and forgotten, even in the sunshine.

I climb back up over soft springy grass onto the road which rises and falls around the smoothly rounded hills that make up the island. Purple foxgloves hang on the cliff edges; the peaks of roofless gable-ends rise from the patchwork of fields running down the lower slopes; sheep and cattle graze below and a kestrel hovers overhead. This road must have seen plenty of traffic at one time and there is even an old bus stop: whether real or not I don’t know.

The weather deteriorates as he traverses Beara – you can feel the discomfort of the sodden gear and the squelching mud and it’s a gut feeling of relief when he reaches colourful Eyeries and can dry out. But it finally improves and the next two days brings the compensations of stunning views and stone circles. The final leg back to Glengariff from Kenmare is largely along a busy road – less enjoyable and more arduous.

The Sheep’s Head Way is familar ground – for Peter and for me as a reader. Peter and Amanda (regular readers will remember) are the couple behind the guidebook Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – we highly recommend it for anyone contemplating walking on the Sheep’s Head. For Peter, then, this is a continuing of his long love affair with this wild and magnificent landscape. He knows it intimately, he’s walked every inch of it before, and he brings all that love of place to his sketches.

 

He’s adding more information now too – distances and links to further information as well as links to detailed route directions. Now is the time to sign up for the blog – it’s easy, just insert your email address in the box in the right margin – and follow along. He’s only done four stages, and there are many more to come.

His last post, at time of writing, was one of my favourite walks, encompassing the route I described in Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners. Here’s the start of his walk:

I take the ‘Horseshoe Road’ which is more of a track than a road, and descend into the mist which is thick but too bright to be ‘fog’ perhaps. The filtered light brightens nearby colours and softens shadows and I think how it creates a type of liminality with a veil through which things can only be partially glimpsed.

This is one of those treats you can feel really good about. When the email comes in, telling you there’s a new post, just settle down with a cup of tea and immerse yourself in Hikelines. I have deliberately not captioned the images because I want you to see them for yourself! Now so, enough talk – head on over to Hikelines.

 

“The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks

Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and naturalist, might be called the patron saint of swamps. He was in love with them. I know how he feels. Hope and the future for me he said, are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swampsthe wildest and richest gardens that we have.

Top photo and above: Derreennatra Natural Heritage Area

Thoreau was talking about American swamps, but he could just as easily have been talking about an Irish bog, marsh, or wetland. I have two within easy walking distance of my home in West Cork and I am drawn to them like a magnet. One is tiny – a pond in the middle of a boggy area at the highest point in Foilnamuck townland. The other is more extensive – Derreennatra Bog, between Ballydehob and Schull.

Foilnamuck Bog Soak

A bog is a highly acid environment, and some plants, such as heathers, are specially adapted to deal with this habitat. The mineral-rich pools that form in the bog – technically known as bog soaks – are fed by groundwater and rain. Nutrients are more available in these patches of open water, they provide a less acidic environment and support a variety of plant life different from that of the surrounding bog.

Rare Slender Cottongrass on Derreennatra Bog – one of the reasons for its designation and protected status

Derreennatra Bog has been recognised as a very special habitat of the lowland bog type. It has been designated as a Natural Heritage Area and is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there are several reasons for its special status, the main one is that it is home to Slender Cottongrass, an extremely rare form of Bog Cotton that only grows in a few places in Ireland and Britain.

Marsh St John’s-wort, above and below, in its watery habitat

Derreennatra Bog has other uncommon species, but they are hard to photograph without a really good long lens. The one I did manage to get close to was Marsh St John’s-wort. I had to go back several times and wait until the flower opened before I could figure out what it was. It was worth the wait – a very beautiful native wildflower.

Another reason to hang out at Derreennatra Bog is that the lovely, native, White Water-lily flourishes here. It’s an exotic beauty that been here, apparently, since soon after the last ice-age.

The soak in the bog at Foilnamuck is far less extensive – just a tiny wet patch – but it’s reliably present all the time, probably because it’s bounded by a natural amphitheatre of slightly elevated rocky ground. Here is where I was able to photograph Bog Bean for the first time, although not without getting my feet wet. It’s a fascinating plant – it sits in the water and holds the flower head well above the surface. The flower heads are pink before they open but inside the petals are pure white and fringed with long hairs.

The “regular” Bog Cotton, more correctly called Common Cottongrass surrounds the little soak and mingles with the Bog Bean.

The other plant that loves the environment of this little soak is the Round-leaved Sundew. Sundews are carnivorous – the sticky liquid on its hairy round leaves trap unwary insects, which are then digested by the plant. It’s a marvellous adaptation to the lack of soil nutrients in its habitat.

The spikes carry the flowers, not yet open in this shot, but it’s the leaves that do all the work in this plant

The other flowers of the bog – the heathers and asphodels, the mosses and mints – are equally beautiful and interesting, but I will leave them for another day.

Trish Punch – remember the workshop day I spent with her? She’s gone from teacher to friend and she’s into the wildflowers, just like I am! 

Now so, why don’t you wander on over to your local bog/swamp/fen/marsh soak and see what you can see! Just don’t fall in!

 

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Down By The Old Caol Stream

Skibbereen has a flooding problem and the flood-relief project is in full swing now. A lot of it concerns the stream that runs through the town, under several bridges, past Field’s supermarket and the West Cork Arts Centre, to empty into the Ilen River by Thornhill’s Furniture Shop. The stream is tidal, creating flooding hazards from above and below.

The lush growth along the stream: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Valerian, Twiggy Mullein and Bindweed; Red Valerian and Twiggy Mullein; Twiggy Mullein close-up.
Clockwise  from Left: Field Bindweed and Meadowsweet; Hemlock Water-dropwort (yes, as it sounds, poisonous!); Red Valerian and Monkeyflower

While the stream has enormous potential to be an attractive part of Skibbereen’s urban environment, nobody could call it beautiful – it’s neglected, choked with ‘weeds,’ and full of rubbish. But wait – it also happens to be home to an astonishing variety of wildflowers!

A sea of yellow. Clockwise from Top Left: Marsh Marigold; Marsh Ragwort (not the unwanted Common Ragwort); Monkeyflower; Yellow Water-lily

Or rather, it WAS home to the wildflowers. As the project advances, the flowers have become collateral damage in the march forward of the steel barrier that will (we hope) keep flood waters contained. Most of us who shop in Skibbereen cross the bridges over the Caol Stream (pronounced Kale, Irish word for ‘narrow’) several times a week, normally without a glance over the side.

This is Water Figwort, closely related to Common Figwort but adapted to an aquatic environment
Clockwise from Left: Yarrow – although Yarrow is mostly white, this one is a lovely deep pink; Short-Fruited Willowherb; Snow-in-Summer or Dusty Miller

I decided to record the biodiversity of the stream flora before it disappeared and took photographs over the course of the spring and summer. It’s amazing really, what flourishes in such an unpromising environment. This photo-essay is an homage to what I observed.

Clockwise from Left: Ivy-leaved Toadflax (look for it on the wall); Common (or possibly Long-headed) Poppy; Marsh-bedstraw

Purple Loosestrife

Stream beds are a particular type of habitat. Tony O’Mahony in his magisterial Wildflowers of Cork City and County, points out that riverine habitats provide a welcome environment not only for native, but also for naturalised alien plants. Combined with the fact that the Caol Stream runs through a town with cultivated gardens backing on to it, this means that many of the wildflowers I saw are non-native, naturalised species. But all, native and non-native, are uniquely adapted to this watery channel, even tolerating periods under water.

The area behind the steel barrier is being filled in with gravel. I don’t know if it will be topped with soil. Hoping so.
Left: Below the uppermost bridge. Right: the stream where it empties into the Ilen – the vegetation has already been stripped

Wildflowers are incredibly resilient. One of their favourite habitats is waste ground – no sooner is a plot of land disturbed than the flowers move in. My prediction is that, despite the seemingly barren and hostile environment created by the sterile gravel fill behind the steel barriers, we will start to see, as early as next spring, the shoots of little plants moving in to colonize the available space. The Willowherbs first, perhaps, followed by Loosestrife and maybe Figwort.  And of course good old Herb Robert (below), which seems to survive and thrive just about anywhere


This is a highly poisonous plant called Lords and Ladies – perhaps we could do without this one, although no doubt there are critters that depend on this too

Direct access to the water will no longer be as easy, though, because of the steel barriers, so the flowers may take on a different character. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next few years. Keep watching!

The Community Orchard seems to be far enough upstream that it may escape major flood works. This is a beautiful and contemplative place. I was shown around by an eager young boy who knew the names of all the plants

This is what it looks like now – the view from the upper of the two bridges leading to Fields

What can you identify in this picture?

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear