Glen of the Downs

There’s a very attractive woodland walk near Delgany, County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. It’s well worth an exploration, but be prepared for the intrusive sound of the main N11 road which runs alongside the path as you set out from the public car park: you will leave it behind – eventually – as you climb up into the trees.

It’s a now rare ancient Irish oak wood, once all part of Bellevue Estate, a 300 acre demesne established by the La Touche family in the mid eighteenth century. Through many generations the Huguenot family was known as an ‘ample benefactor of mankind’ who ‘left a record of noble deeds behind them’. During their heyday the La Touches acquired the lands of Upper and Lower Rathdown on which much of modern Greystones has been built, and their name is familiar in the fabric of that town today.

The beauty of this part of County Wicklow has been celebrated by many artists over the years: here are a couple of examples from the late 1700s showing the Glen of the Downs landscape. Always, one or both of the topographical high-points – the Great and Little Sugar Loaves – are prominently featured.

We have photographic records of the La Touche mansion, Georgian Bellevue House – with its famed hot-houses where many exotic plants were cultivated, before its decline in the 1900s and its eventual demise: the crumbling pile was demolished in 1950 to make way for wheat-fields and a golf course.

Hidden away in the oak wood is a remnant of the once vibrant La Touche estate: today it’s known as ‘The Octagon’ because of its shape. Its purpose originally was a banqueting hall, set high up on a platform looking out over the landscape. It must have been quite an undertaking, bringing food, furnishings and serving staff up from the ‘big house’: there are remains of tunnels said to have been used for this purpose. Most intriguingly . . .

. . . The estate at Ballydonagh comprised 300 acres, with fine views across the Glen of the Downs and towards the Irish Sea. David, the younger La Touche, built his favourite country retreat here between 1754 and 1756, at a cost of £30,000, and called it Bellevue. Beautiful gardens were laid out with winding paths and “extras” built by David and his son, Peter, when he inherited in 1785. Among these was the Octagon, built in 1766, with a panther on springs, which could be made to jump out at unwary visitors. The house was most famous for its huge glasshouse, built between 1783 and 1793, in which many exotic plants were grown . . .


Judith Flannery, The Story of Delgany, 1990

There is no doubt that the building was superbly sited to maximise the good views. Beyond that, it’s hard to fathom how the architecture functioned – and the panther on springs remains a puzzle! Over years of exposure to the elements, and inquisitive visitors, the Octagon has gained a patina of graffiti – which adds, perhaps, to its character and attributes.

The practice of ‘making one’s mark’ seems to have migrated to trees surrounding the site: perhaps some of these can be attributed to people who lived in them once! In 1997 eco-warriors staged a protest campaign when plans were put forward to upgrade and widen the N11 road, involving felling over 1,700 mature beech, oak and ash trees. The protesters ‘occupied’ the trees for over two years (below), ‘climbing down’ eventually when the Courts upheld the highway authority proposals.

The road has since been widened, and the intrusive traffic sound within the Glen of the Downs has accordingly increased manyfold. Interestingly, there are currently proposals under discussion to further improve the N11/M11 route in this same locality – including the possibility of a road tunnel which might even remove traffic altogether. Meanwhile, the trees continue to present us with messages for our own complex times . . .

For all its ups and downs, and possibly mixed messages, the Glen of the Downs woodland walk is beautiful, and well worth a visit. Who knows what – or who – you might encounter among the trees?

A Dander on The Sheep’s Head

it’s not just for long walks – the Sheep’s Head is also perfect for wandering with intent, having, as my father used to say, a dander. Our trip there this week, in the excellent company of Amanda and Peter, was that sort of day, where we drove around and dropped in and out of interesting places. Amanda and Peter Clarke, our regular readers will know, are the couple behind Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, so who better to have as companions and guides for a day of exploring. Amazingly, given all the time we’ve spent there, only one of our stops was familiar.

Our first stop was a curious stone overlooking Dunmanus Bay. Known as the Giant’s Footprint, the local legend tells a familiar story about two giants throwing rocks at each other. This must have been a mere pebble, because one of the missiles became the Fastnet Rock. Footprint stones are also associated with inauguration sites, where kings were acclaimed in early medieval society. (See the comments section below for a link to an amazing piece of art from our friend, the acclaimed photographer EJ Carr, who used this stone in his fantasy photography piece on the Arthurian legend – follow the link in the comment to view his images.)

Being with Amanda is always a great opportunity to visit a holy well and we had never been to Gouladoo. It also ticked a box for me as I’ve been wanting to visit promontory forts. The holy well first – it’s a Tobar Beannaithe, a Blessed Well, not associated with any particular saints. Amanda’s research revealed that it did have a particular purpose, though – girls would visit to pray for a husband. Read Amanda’s comprehensive account here

Because this is on the Sheep’s Head Way, the route is signposted and maintained. The well itself has a cup thoughtfully provided so you can have a drink if you dare. The path down to it has been carved out of the hillside and roughly paved, indicating that this was a site to which many people once came.

If you turn your back to the holy well, the promontory fort is straight ahead of you.

Where you have a promontory jutting out into the sea it’s easily fortified by building banks and ditches at the neck. Promontories with narrow necks were usually chosen, as being easiest to defend, and archaeological evidence suggests that some were in use as early as the Bronze Age but most evidence of occupation dates to the Early and Later Medieval Period (400 -1500AD). 

As promontory forts go, this is a classic – a narrow neck with evidence of walls across it, steep cliffs on all sides, and a flat and verdant area in the middle for houses and cattle. This one has an added feature – sea arches underneath! The sea arches mean that this may eventually become an island.

The antiquarian Thomas J Westropp set out to visit all the promontory forts along the Beara and Sheep’s Head in or around 1920 and has left us his account, written over three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Gouladoo, as his map shows, was one of his destinations.

Here is his description of the fort as he found it then.

Far to the west of Rinn, in Kilcrohane, is a remarkable fortified headland of dark grey slate, up tilted and separated from the mainland by a gully. This is spanned (like those at Doonagh and Dursey) by a natural arch. The adjoining townland is called Dunoure, but no fort is known to have existed near this, so perhaps that name refers to Gouladoo. The arch is lintelled, like a great Egyptian pylon, and is 15 ft. or 16 ft. wide at the gully. The neck is wider to the landward, and was strongly defended. First we find a trace of a hollow or fosse; then the foundation of a drystone wall 82 ft. long (E. and W.); behind, a natural abrupt ridge forms a banquette over 4 ft. high; the wall is about 12 ft. thick, the terrace 12 ft. to 15 ft. wide. Beyond this the neck was enclosed all round by a fence about 6 ft. thick. The whole work measures about 80 ft. each way. As at Doonagh, I think that the line of debris on the peninsula along the edge of the chasm is a trace of a wall, and that the bare slope behind it was stripped by a landslip. The whole is tufted with luxuriant masses of rich crimson heather.


The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry: Part III, Thomas J Westropp
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1921

It’s quite difficult to see those features now, although there is a piece of the wall remaining, and what must be his ‘terrace.’

There are other compensations to visiting a site like this – those sheer cliffs which provide such an impregnable defence for the fort, also host many gulls in nesting season. The Bluebells and Sea Campion were abundant there too.

Westropp wrote his article, The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry, over several issues of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and maybe it would be fun to retrace his steps a hundred years later to see what’s on the ground now – what do you think? 

From there it was off to the Mass Rock at Glanalin, an easy walk down from the Pietà in the pass above Kilcrohane. It’s a particularly lovely walk to this mass rock (above), and in May the spring flowers are everywhere, especially St Patrick’s Cabbage, one of the group of plants known as the Lusitanian Flora, that only grows here and in Iberia.

And finding a lone Heath Spotted Orchid (above) was a real bonus too!

By sheer coincidence we were there on the same day, May 17th, when Mass was celebrated here in 2000 in remembrance of the ancestors who worshipped here.

Our final stop of the day was another site new to us, the Marriage Stone! That’s Peter’s sketch of it above, from his Hikelines Blog. Tradition has it that people would get married here, as described by local farmer Jack Sheehan:

The hole in the stone is narrow on one side and wide at the other. The man had a bigger hand and he put his hand through the big side and the woman put her hand through the narrow side. They made their promises when they put their hands through the stone

Of course we all had to do it!

There was a ring fort nearby –  actually described as an enclosure in the National Monuments records – but over the years it has been disturbed to the point where it is hardly recognisable. Perhaps it is this site that gave its name to the townland, Caherurlagh. A caher is a stone fort and so the townland name means Fort of the Slaughter. Perhaps there are some aspects to the history of this area into which we should not delve too closely.

I highly recommend a day like this on the Sheep’s Head, with Walking the Sheep’s Head Way as your travelling companion, and channeling the spirit of old Thomas Westropp. I will leave you with what he had to say about the views north to the Beara as he journeyed along the north side towards Gouladoo

We pass beneath the beautiful woods of Bantry House and the picturesque old graveyard, where the Franciscan Friary once stood erected by O Sullivan in 1330. We reach the shore out of a maze of low green hills, several with ring forts on their summits, near Dromclough. Thence on past Rinn Point and up the lofty road, often unfenced and narrow, along the edge of cuttings and precipices to Gouladoo and Collack. The sweep of the high mountains in Beare and those inland heights towards Muskerry is magnificent as seen across the great bay. From Black Ball Head and Dunbeg past flat-topped Slieve Miskish and the great domes of Hungry Hill and the Sugarloaf, on to the shapely cone of Mullach Maisha, the stately range extends. 

Following the Cascades (Sweet Ilen – Part 7)

There’s a walk that goes down from Castledonovan to Drimoleague: it follows an ancient mass path and much of it is right alongside the Ilen River. At its northern end there is a section known as the Deelish Cascades: this is geologically fascinating, and gives us some insights into how our West Cork landscape was formed thousands of years ago.

. . . The oldest rocks exposed in West Cork are of Devonian age (410 – 355 million years ago) . . . These mostly red and green sandstones, siltstones and mudstones were deposited on a continental landmass in a low latitude desert or semi-arid environment. The sediments were deposited from rivers, whose flow was dominated by flash-floods fed by episodic rainfall, which originated predominantly from mountainous areas lying to the north which were were formed during the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain building event) in latest Silurian and early Devonian times. The environment was perhaps similar to the present day Arabian desert. This “Old Red Sandstone” continent extended over what is now northwest Europe. In Cork and Kerry these sediments accumulated in a large subsiding trough (the Munster Basin), resulting in one of the thickest sequences of Old Red Sandstone encountered anywhere in the world (at least 6km thick) . . .

Geology of West Cork, M Pracht and A G Sleeman, geological Survey of Ireland 2002

I have marked on this Geology Map the course of the Ilen River from its source on Mullagmesha Mountain to the tidal estuary which begins at Skibbereen. The map shows the ‘grain’ of the various faults which run SW to NE over the terrain: the river generally flows perpendicular to these faults, and the ‘grain’ is clearly seen in the exposed river bed running over the Deelish Cascades.

Praeger usefully simplifies the geological definition of the landscapes (for more on Praeger see Finola’s complementary post today):

. . . The story which geology tells as to how West Cork and Kerry got its present form is interesting, and I shall try to tell it in non-geological language. Towards the close of Carboniferous times – that is, after the familiar grey limestone which covers so much of Ireland and the beds of sandstone and shale which succeeded it were laid down on an ancient sea-bottom, but long before the beginning of the Mesozoic period, when the New Red Sandstone and white Chalk were formed – the crust of the Earth in Ireland and beyond it was subjected to intense lateral squeezing from a north-south direction. This forced it into a series of great east-west folds, thousands of feet high from base to summit – the Carboniferous beds on top, and below them and following their ridges and hollows the massive strata of Devonian time, and other deeper-buried systems. A series of pieces of corrugated iron laid one over the other will illustrate what happened. The folding was developed particularly conspicuously in the Cork-Kerry area. What we see is the result of this ancient crumpling, now greatly modified by the effect of millions of years’ exposure to sun and frost, rain and rivers . . . The more resistant slates, carved into a wilderness of mountains, still tower up, forming long rugged leathery ridges. A sinking of the land has enhanced the effect by allowing the sea to flow far up the troughs. That the ridges were longer is shown by the high craggy islands that lie off the extremities, and continue their direction out into the Atlantic . . .

The Way That I Went, Robert Lloyd Praeger, Methuen & Co London, 1937

While the upheavals of far-off eras reaching back millions of decades certainly laid the foundations of our landscape, the geological events which actually honed the shaping of the terrain as we see it today are far more recent – the ‘Ice Ages’ which developed only 30,000 years ago and had receded by about 10,000 BC. During that time sea levels fell and then rose again, and the topography and shoreline of the island with which we are familiar today was established. The ice sheets covered most of the land and were up to 1,000 metres thick. As they melted, glaciers fell away from the highest points and carved fissures into the slopes, creating valleys and rivers. One of the most extensive ‘local’ ice-caps was in south-west Munster where a ‘Cork-Kerry’ glaciation, centred on or close to the Kenmare river, developed independent of the general ice sheet. Our own ‘Sweet Ilen’ was a consequence of the ice movement, and the rock formations that we see in the Deelish Cascades are good evidence of these modern geological events.

All the way down the Cascades you will see evidence of the scouring of the rocky river bed, and huge ‘erratic’ boulders that have been carried from the mountain-top on the ice flow, to be deposited randomly – and picturesquely – in the torrent. Of course, you don’t have to know about geology to appreciate the walk: you are free to explore the well kept path and delight in this West Cork experience which has been laid out for us all through the mighty efforts of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways and the Sheep’s Head Way.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4 : Sweet Ilen – Part 5 : Sweet Ilen – Part 6

Black and White on the Sheeps Head

Some days, especially in the winter, just feel like black and white days. The sky is grey, the sea is silver, the rocks are black – colour drains from the landscape as atmosphere and mood creep in.

Now that we are allowed a bit more freedom of movement and association, we headed over to the Sheep’s Head yesterday for a walk with Amanda and Peter. We did one of our all time favourites, the Farranamanagh Loop Walk, which takes in Farranamanagh Lake and the O’Daly Bardic School.

We stopped on the way to look at Rossmore Castle, near Durrus. This is a fairly vestigial, probably fifteenth or sixteenth century tower house, probably built by the O’Mahonys but taken over by the McCarthy’s at some point. Not only is there not much left standing, but what is there is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out a lot of features. One thing that has survived up to a couple of stories, though, is the stairwell, with a few treads of the original spiral staircase still hanging on. 

Then it was on to our rendezvous with Amanda and Peter and the walk. I’ve provided a map, which comes from the Sheep’s Head Way website. As always, for your companion on any of these walks, we recommend Amanda’s book, Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, now in its second edition. You can buy it in all the local bookshops or get it online.

We started the walk at Dromnea car park (P on the map) and crossed the road to the short walk up to the Well of the Poets (430) (you can read more about the well here, and see what I am writing about in full colour) and on down the old green road. We walked along the road until the spot indicated by the arrow, then down to the shore.

The ‘castle’ marked on this map, by the way, is practically invisible – nothing remains except some rubble. This road leads you past a quirky little small holding that is locally famous for its eggs and jams – and for its alpacas!

Although we saw the alpacas yesterday it was the donkeys that caught my eye. Donkeys, although they are actually not native to Ireland, seem like such iconic Irish animals, beloved of postcard makers, with panniers of turf on either side.

Photographing in black and white like this makes everything seem at once nostalgic and old, as if I had been transported back a hundred years. If you don’t squint too hard at the houses you can imagine them as simple whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. You can, can’t you?

From 410 you walk along the lake shore to a clapper bridge across the stream that drains the lake into the sea, and then uphill and back towards the Bardic School.

One of the lovely things about this particular walk is that you are looking across at the Mizen Peninsula all the time and on a day like this the impression is of a series of hills receding into ever more misty contours. The effect is ethereal and mysterious – see my top two photos at the start of the post.

The lake itself is home to the sons of the King of Spain in the form of swans. You can read that story in Robert’s post from way back in 2012, Of Kings and Poets. That post will also serve as an introduction to the Bardic School and its most famous poet, Aenghus O’Daly, The Red Poet. He may have made his home in the ruined castle marked on the map – it was an O’Daly castle, their only one in this area, and an indication of the power and prestige that accrued to bards.

The ruins that are nowadays pointed out as the remains of the Bardic School may indeed have been part of it and it was certainly right in this area. The views from them are so magnificent that the poor apprentice poets had to be locked into darkened rooms so they could concentrate on composing their stanzas.

As we write, the vaccination program for Ireland is being put together by an expert panel. We feel hopeful that future Sheeps Head walks can resume their gentle, charming rhythm without the underlying low-level fear that accompanies us at the moment. We are moving from darkness to light.

Walking West Cork – Top of the Rock

When we could still walk within the boundary of our own county – and in company – we went with our friends Peter and Amanda in the footsteps of a saint! The walk from Drimoleague to the Top of The Rock – and beyond – is one which has been on our ‘to do’ list for a long time, not least because the first person to do it was our own Saint Finnbarr, founder (in 606AD) and patron saint of Cork city. The motto of University College, Cork is Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan which means ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finbarr is also famous for establishing a monastic site at Gougane Barra in the sixth century, and today you can follow St Finnbarr’s Way all the way from the Top of The Rock to that magical lake in the mountains where you can find an oratory and chapel dedicated to the saint: the full walk is 37km. Our own walk was a mere 3.5km but rewarding nevertheless.

Our walk started at the former Drimoleague railway station. The line opened in 1877, connecting Dunmanway with Skibbereen, and subsequently extension lines went in all directions: to Cork, Bantry, Bandon, Courtmacsherry and – via our own narrow gauge line – from Skibbereen through Ballydehob to Schull. Sadly, all lines coming south west out of Cork have closed, some of the routes surviving until the 1960s. The picture below, dating from 1898, shows the track at Schull Harbour, the most south westerly point on any railway line in Ireland.

Leaving the old station at Drimoleague the path follows the road going north past the architecturally intriguing All Saint’s church, built in 1956. Finola has written about the building and its unusual stained glass (above) – it’s well worth a look inside. Beyond the modern church is the ruins of an ancient one, surrounded by a burial ground which is full of history (below):

After a steep climb we reached our highest point: Barr na Carraige – which translates literally as Top of the Rock. Evidently the first settlement of Drimoleague was established up here and only moved downhill to be more convenient when the railway arrived. At the ‘Top’ we were fortunate to meet David Ross (below) who owns the farm and ‘Pod Park’ here, and has also masterminded the establishment of these walking routes. Great chat was had, and David suggested our best routes for the day as storms had affected some pathways: work is in hand to restore these. We couldn’t leave the ‘Top’ until we had fully appreciated the long views across to Castle Donovan: our own way then headed downwards and along the Ilen River.

Descending from Top of the Rock we were mainly ‘off-road’ on dedicated footpaths. We first met the Ilen River at Ahanfunsion Bridge, a place which has seen a lot of action historically. The name means ‘Bridge of the Ash Trees’. There was a battle here in ancient times and it is said that the victors planted trees at the ford to commemorate the event. The bridge was built originally in 1830 but was blown up in the War of Independence and subsequently reconstructed. It’s a great spot for a picnic and everyone has a good time crossing the stepping stones, hopefully while keeping their feet dry.

David and his team have worked hard to create and maintain these paths. They have also embellished them with discrete but apposite plaques which include local information and poetry. The work has also involved bridging the river in places to maintain a continuous footpath. We have to commend and appreciate the work they have done and the legacy they are leaving to future generations.

The river walk is truly beautiful, and the wooded valley is quite unusual terrain for West Cork, which is more often high, craggy and dramatic. Wildlife and wildflowers abound, in season. All too soon we came to the boreen which would take us back to our starting point. We are determined to return and follow the network of pathways further when our current restrictions are lifted. We promise we will report back!

Autumn at Lough Hyne

Wild West Cork: a rugged landscape of mountains, a myriad patchwork of pastures; inlets, coves, spruce plantations and an archipelago of mostly unwooded offshore islands. Where are the deciduous trees? This is what we ask ourselves when autumn comes and we want to see the changing colours; the wistful season of autumn at its best. The answer, for us, is Lough Hyne!

It’s just a skip and a jump to this tucked-away corner of our world. Once there, we are in a unique environment. It is Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve – international recognition for the ecology of this special place where not only the (salt) water is important both above and underneath the lake’s surface, but the immediate surroundings are hopefully sacrosanct for all time. These environs include woodlands which are just at this moment on the threshold of turning gold: we know gales are on the way which will tear and disperse them as winter sets in. Here’s a little tour of the paths on the edge of the water, featuring – above all – colour and texture: a feast for our eyes!

While the leaves are our main focus, everything else is worth a pause. The colour of the lake itself, certainly the wildlife it supports, but also the juxtaposition of boats, stone walls, shadows and sky are all brought to life by the early November sun.

I can’t resist quoting William Makepeace Thackeray’s description of his travels through ‘The City of Skibbereen’ to Lough Hyne, which we find in his Irish Sketch Book, published in 1843. Thackeray, the English writer best known for Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon, spent four months travelling around much of the country and – although he appeared to enjoy himself – he didn’t have many good words to say about Ireland or the Irish . . .

THAT light four-inside, four-horse coach, the “Skibbereen Perseverance,” brought me fifty-two miles to-day, for the sum of three-and-sixpence, through a district which is, as usual, somewhat difficult to describe. A bright road winding up a hill; on it a country cart, with its load, stretching a huge shadow; emerald pastures and silver rivers in the foreground ; a noble sweep of hills rising up from them, and contrasting their magnificent purple with the green; in the extreme distance the clear cold outline of some far-off mountains, and the white clouds tumbled about in the blue sky overhead.

* * *

Of all the wonderful things to be seen in Skibbereen, Dan’s pantry is the most sublime: every article within is a makeshift, and has been ingeniously perverted from its original destination. Here lie bread, blacking, fresh butter, tallow-candles, dirty knives — all in the same cigar-box with snuff, milk, cold bacon, brown-sugar, broken teacups and bits of soap. No pen can describe that establishment, as no imagination could have conceived it. But – lo! – the sky has cleared after a furious fall of rain — and a car is waiting to carry us to Loughine . . .

Thackeray – Irish Sketch Book 1842

ALTHOUGH the description of Loughine can make but a poor figure in a book, the ride thither is well worth the traveller’s short labour. You pass by one of the cabin-streets out of the town into a country which for a mile is rich with grain, though bare of trees; then through a boggy bleak district, from which you enter into a sort of sea of rocks, with patches of herbage here and there. Before the traveller, almost all the way, is a huge pile of purple mountain, on which, as one comes nearer, one perceives numberless waves and breaks, as you see small waves on a billow in the sea; then clambering up a hill, we look down upon a bright green flat of land, with the lake beyond it, girt round by grey melancholy hills. 

* * *

The water may be a mile in extent; a cabin tops the mountain here and there; gentlemen have erected one or two anchorite pleasure-houses on the banks, as cheerful as a summer-house would be on a bleak plain. I felt not sorry to have seen this lonely lake, and still happier to leave it. There it lies with crags all round it, in the midst of desolate flatlands: it escapes somewhere to the sea; its waters are salt: half-a-dozen boats lie here and there upon its banks, and we saw a small crew of boys splashing about and swimming in it, laughing and yelling. It seemed a shame to disturb the silence so . . .

THACKERAY – IRISH SKETCH BOOK 1842

Thackeray’s Irish Sketch book is something we will return to in this journal, as it provides an unusual and, sometimes, surprising perspective on pre-Famine Ireland. But I can’t agree with him on Lough Hyne: grey melancholy hills . . . in the midst of desolate flatlands . . . Clearly, he cannot have visited on an autumnal day, and neither was he favoured by the sun. Perhaps there is a poetic justice there, somehow: we embrace everything that Ireland – and West Cork – has to offer; possibly his acute and carping scrutiny of the detail removes from him the more rewarding overview? For us, Lough Hyne was idyllic!

Our wonderful Skibbereen Heritage Centre has comprehensive information on Lough Hyne – and much more!