Cycling the Sheep’s Head

Group at Ahakista

The joy of cycling! The fresh air! The wind in your face! The sun on your back! The sights, the sounds, the smells! Wait – those killer hills! The wobbly legs, the burning lungs! No problem – we have Kalkhoffs!

Is  that enough exclamation marks for any decent blog post? And what on earth is a Kalkhoff?

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Sheeps Head light
Above, a Kalkhoff electric bicycle and below, the Sheep’s Head – the perfect combination

Earlier this year we cycled the length of the Sheep’s Head and back, all of us on electric bicycles, mostly Kalkhoffs. The day was organised by Patrick Murray and Helen Guinan of City View Wheels in Cork, and a masterpiece of organisation it was, featuring stops for coffee, lunch and a pint at the end of the day, followed by a lovely dinner in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry.

stopping for the view

Riding an electric bike has revolutionised cycling for me and for many others. Let’s face it, West Cork is nothing but hills, and huffing and puffing up one of them, pushing a bike, can take the joy out of a day’s adventure. But with some battery-powered help, you can stay on the bike and arrive at your destination still able to breathe.

The Old Creamery at Kilcrohane is a great place for lunch

It’s like having the wind at your back, giving you a gentle push when you need it. It’s still a work-out (you don’t stop peddling) but it just makes the whole venture doable. No, more than doable – pleasurable!

Lighthouse Loop

Sheeps Head LighthouseAbove: This is as far as you can drive or ride on the Sheep’s Head – after this, it’s a goodly walk to the lighthouse (below)

The Sheep’s Head is the perfect destination for a day’s cycling – incredibly scenic, lots of places to stop for refreshment, lots of things to see and do along the way, and relatively flat. Note that word relatively – if you start at Durrus and cycle along the south side to the end of the road and back, you don’t climb over any mountains but you do gain considerable altitude – enough to ensure that you deserve lunch by the time you reach Bernie’s Cupán Tae.

up the last hill

The good news is that it’s mostly downhill all the way back to Durrus.

Leaving Cupán

It  was a congenial bunch and the day was full of chats and laughter. As the ‘locals’ in the group, it was lovely to be able to show off West Cork. We made a detour down to Lake Faranamanagh and told everyone about the Bardic School and the King of Spain’s sons.

sheeps head view

 

Lake Faranamanagh
The Sheep’s Head , Lake Faranamanagh

When you’re cycling with a group you can’t really stop to take photos whenever you want, so the photographs in this post are a mixture. Photos of the day itself were taken either by Patrick (thank you, Patrick!) or by me, while general photographs of the Sheep’s Head come from my own collection and were taken at various times of the year. They will give you a feel for what’s to do and see along the way.

Air India Memorial Site

 

Top: The beautiful and moving Air India Memorial site at Ahakista; bottom: Critters encountered along the way

We were blessed with a lovely day for our bike trip. But then, as you know, the sun always shines in West Cork. And sure, if it doesn’t, you can hole up in a pub and sing, or stay home and cook up some fresh eggs from the happy hens at Faranamanagh.

eggs

If  you love to get out on a bicycle but aren’t the iron-man type, fear not – there is life after lycra!

road into Durrus

And if you just want to explore the Sheep’s Head, bike or no bike, take a look at our post on Walking the Sheep’s Head Way or head on over to Living the Sheep’s Head Way, the website of the Sheep’s Head and Bantry Tourism Co-operative, for lots of information the peninsula and places to stay. Or take a browse through The Sheep’s Head Way for all the walking routes – it’s the website of the voluntary committee that takes responsibility for the way-marked trails.

convoy

rainbow over mizen from Sheep's Head

Anomalies

The cairn

What’s an archaeological anomaly? When the National Monuments Survey was being undertaken, some stone structures didn’t quite fit the description of a particular class of monument. They may have been ancient – but how ancient, and what exactly were they? The term chosen for such mysterious piles  was ‘anomalous stone group’. Here’s the definition: A group of stones, usually standing, which cannot be classified as any other known archaeological monument type on present evidence. They may be all that remains or is visible of a partially destroyed or obscured archaeological monument which may date to any period from prehistory onwards.

cupmarked rocks?

Just a leaning rock?

But it’s not the only term used for uncertain monuments: enclosure is a vague term that can mean a multitude of things, and an ‘unclassified cairn‘ can be defined simply as a heap or pile of stones. In the last few months our explorations of the Sheep’s Head have turned up several anomalies. The only thing they all have in common is their spectacular siting, leading to an ultra-rewarding field trip.

Heading towards the cairn

Hiking to the cairn

Perhaps the most magnificently situated of all is the unclassified cairn on the mountain ridge above Kilcrohane. It’s right on the way-marked Sheep’s Head Way, so it’s easy to find. While it’s described as a cairn in the National Monuments inventory, it could be as humble an object as a turf storage platform or as wonderful as a passage grave. We’ve been to it several times and always puzzled over it, but on our last visit we were alerted to a new element by Amanda and Peter.

Amanda investigates

The ‘new element’ – you have to really look!

A couple of stones had shifted, possibly in storms, and we could now delve deeper into the pile of rocks and see that one of them had a large circular opening in it. Very strange – I had never seen anything like it – and very intriguing.

Curious ‘holed stone’ at the bottom of the cairn

We noted that the highest point on Cape Clear was visible across the water, the hill on which a ‘real’ passage grave sits. Only excavation is likely to reveal the exact nature of this anomaly.

What's the orientation?

This one is called an ‘anomalous stone group’

Not too far away, in the same townland but on lower ground, is an anomalous stone group. This is a strange one indeed because half of it looks for all the world like a stone circle – identical to the numerous recumbent or axial circles that dot West Cork. The other half? It’s the rock face that the stones obviously came from.

Is it a stone circe?

Could swear that’s a classic recumbent, but where’s the other half of the circle?

It’s like a work in progress. If it is a stone circle, the builders decided that half a one would do the job just fine. Indeed the owner of the land has noted several significant  sunset alignments.

possible alignments

There seem to be several alignments – this one to the Beara Peninsula

But when I asked for comments on an archaeological social network site the general consensus seemed to be that it was unlikely to be a stone circle, since the stone face obscured half the horizon. But that same stone face would have provided shelter, so the speculation in the discussion centred on this being a hut site, with only some of the stones of the outside wall remaining.

radial cairn?

This area of rough ground to the right of Robert, Peter and Amanda is labelled an ‘Enclosure’

The third site we’ve explored is described as an enclosure. The description of the site states: A circular area (diam. 10.5m) is defined by the remains of a stone wall (T 1.3m; H 0.5m) displaying traces of an inner and outer row of large stones with a fill of smaller stones. A stone slab (H 1.15m; L 0.5m; T 0.4m) narrowing as it rises stands on the external perimeter at E. There is also a standing stone a few meters to the south.

inner row?

Difficult to make out what’s here, but it seems like there’s a lot going on

This could be a radial cairn – take a look at the one at Kealkill to see what we mean. But equally, the description hints, it may have to do with field clearance. It’s almost impossible to tell a lot from the general jumble of stones and the furze and brambles that grow all over the site. Once again, however, we were rewarded with panoramic views to the Beara Peninsula. Another one where only an excavation will reveal the truth.

View east from the enclosure

And these views of the farms to the east, lit by a shaft of slanting sun

Finally, we trekked out on the Lighthouse Loop Walk at the very end of the peninsula in search of possible cupmarks, discovered by Peter and Amanda’s son.

Lighthouse trail, looking back

On the lighthouse loop trail, looking back

The cupmarks turned out, we’re pretty sure, to be natural solution pits. There were lots of them, of varying sizes, and some could only be viewed by lying on your back.

The pitted boulders

The ‘cupmarks’ are on the underside of the leaning rock

Instructive, though, as we have certainly seen cupmarked stones that don’t look a whole lot different than these ones – there’s a type of shaley sandstone in West Cork that laminates in a very similar manner when carved.

Solution pits

pits all aroundSolution pits – and modern graffiti 

In West Cork, monuments that don’t fit into satisfying categories abound – and it’s just as much fun exploring them as it is the ‘normal’ type!

tough to take

This kind of field trip is tough to take!

Beyond the Mizen: Top 14 West Cork Pics of 2015

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

Many of our top Facebook photographs this year were from the Mizen, but not all. You also liked and shared photographs that captured the essence of other parts of West Cork.

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

I think the Baltimore Bay one was so popular because the colours are SO west Cork. When you get blue sky and clouds, the sea turns this amazing Caribbean blue and the contrast with the green fields and wilder high ground is gorgeous.

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep's Head

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep’s Head

This photograph of our friend Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems is one of my favourites this year because of the impression it creates of sheer wildness.

Occasionally we get lucky with the local wildlife. Ferdia, the fox, used to be a regular around our place but has forsaken us recently for neighbours with higher quality leftovers.

Bantry House in winter

Bantry House

It’s possible to get good shots of Bantry House in winter, when the trees don’t obscure it from view.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle is such an icon on the landscape. This photograph shows the neighbourly way it interacts with the other houses around it.

Bardic School Loop, Sheep's Head

Bardic School Loop Walk, Sheep’s Head

This tiny abandoned cottage may have been part of the 17th Century Bardic School near Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head. We’re looking across at the Mizen in this shot.

The Beara, from the Sheep's Head

The Beara, from the Sheep’s Head

And here’s the view from the other side of the Sheep’s Head, across to the Beara Peninsula, with the instantly-recognisable bulk of Hungry Hill to the far right.

Priest's Leap Valley

Priest’s Leap Valley

The long climb up to Priest’s Leap starts near Ballylickey and ends at a high mountain pass that separates Cork and Kerry. The views are spectacular from the top, but this shot of a colourful house and farms in the valley on the way up seemed to express something typical of West Cork.

Farm, Sheep's Head

Farm, Sheep’s Head

This farm appears to be carved out of the mountain land behind it.

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

This was taken in November. I love the contrast of the turquoise water with the autumn colours of the bracken-covered hillside.

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A final sunset to end this post. This was taken last February from the lay-by overlooking Roaringwater Bay on the N71. The light was extraordinary – a once in a blue moon kind of shot. The mussel beds make the water look like floating ice packs.

A big thanks to Celia Bartlett for helping us improve our photographic skills this year. We loved our workshop with her.

Happy New Year to all our faithful readers!

Coomkeen, Summer and Winter

Coomkeen Road, winterThe Coomkeen Loop Walk on the Sheep’s Head is one of the most richly satisfying walks in West Cork. And that’s saying something, in this land of jaw-dropping vistas and absorbing heritage.

Start, summer

The start of the trail in June

We walked it in June with our friends Amanda and Peter and again in November with our friend John. We had extraordinary days on both occasions. While the November day was cloudless, the one in June provided enough scattered cloud to supply that variation in light and shade that lends such atmosphere to the West Cork landscape.

And in November

And in November

To reach the start of the Coomkeen trail, drive from Durrus towards Ahakista and turn right at the Church of Ireland (before you get to the pier). Ascend to the top of that road and you will find a parking spot and the clearly marked trailhead. There are various ways you can do this walk. The complete loop is a 7km walk that brings you along the spine of the peninsula before you drop down onto tracks and then the road back up to the parking place. Our own favourite option is to walk until you reach the little lake and then retrace your steps along the ridge. Lough na Fuilla, Lake of Blood, is so called, the story goes, because thirst-crazed cattle found it dry and attacked each other in their frenzy.

Lough na Fuilla

Either way is fairly easy, although the complete loop presents a long steep climb back to the starting point. As with all Sheep’s Head walks, be prepared for any weather, wear good boots, bring a camera and leave the dog at home. If you want more information, consult the section on the Durrus Trailhead in Walking the Sheep’s Head Way.

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Perhaps you think that it sounds fine to go for a mountain hike in June – but November? Yes, it was a little cooler and a lot windier, but the November hike was just as spectacular as the June one had been. Most striking of course, is the change in colour.

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

Because this is a ridge walk, the views are immense. To the north is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island with its huge oil tanks. Beyond that are the mountains of the Beara, looking as wild and remote as, in fact, they are. To the south is Dunmanus Bay and the Mizen Peninsula. 

The Summit

The Summit

Amanda and Peter were able to show us an enormous standing stone on our June trip, although we missed it in November.

Rooska East standing stone

But we did visit the same ruin of a small farmhouse on the north side of the ridge. Incredible to think that someone eked out a living so high up. Although only a few broken down walls remain, the poignancy of the site comes from what was once a garden by the house, with thorn trees still bravely clinging on.

Further on are the remains of booleys – small huts used by the young people sent to mind the cattle on the high ground during the summer. Perhaps the little farmhouse was part of that endeavour.

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Running along the ridge and crisscrossing the mountain are the remains of old stone walls. Impossible to tell how long ago they may have been first built, or how recently they functioned to separate pastures.

Walls, Summer

Walls, winterIn November the dominant colours are the blond of the grasses (called fionán, pronounced fyuh-nawn) and the amber, brown and honey tones of the bracken and heather, interspersed with the greenery of gorse and pasture. Although visually stunning, the predominance of the fionán (properly called Purple Moor Grass) and bracken have a less positive underlying meaning. They take hold where the hillside has been set on fire time and again. The fires that we often see here are supposedly to control the gorse and increase grazing for sheep, but in fact according to Birdwatch Ireland, repeat burning “has led to a loss of cover (protection) for Red Grouse…depletes moorland fauna, and can lead to soil acidification, leaching and thus soil degradation.”

In summer, it’s all green but the wild flowers provide bursts of colour.

In November, the only wild colour to be found came from a yellow brain fungus on a dead gorse trunk. Yes, it’s really called that, and is normally yellow but darkens after dry weather. It’s not feeding on the gorse, apparently, but on other fungus that is feeding on the wood. Charming.

Yellow brain fungus on gorse?

Do the walk, any time of year. Then show the photos to your friends and watch them make plans for a trip to West Cork. Or should we just keep this our secret?

Contemplating the route

Mount Corrin Walk

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

Walks that get you up to high places with panoramic views are terrific – especially when you don’t have to start at sea level! One such West Cork walk is Mount Corrin. Despite being on The Mizen, it’s part of the Sheep’s Head Walks system, which means it’s accessible and perfectly waymarked.

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The whole Mount Corrin loop walk is a 17km marathon and definitely not for the faint-hearted. But faint-hearted is exactly what we are, so we have chosen an option that can be easily accomplished on a pleasant afternoon – about a 5 km round trip. Some of these photographs are from a spring walk, and some from a fine autumn day.

From the trail - the Sheep's Head

From the trail – looking across at the Sheep’s Head

Wear good boots and bring a camera but leave the dog at home as no dogs are allowed on the Sheep’s Head Way. And if you do want to do the Big Walk, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walking the Sheep’s Head Way by Amanda Clarke. She and Peter have brought out a Second Edition that includes all the loop walks and they do a fabulous job of describing the whole route and provide wonderful photographs of what you can expect.

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

Our starting point is at a high point about half way between Durrus and Ballydehob. Drive out of Ballydehob via the road between Antonio’s Restaurant and Vincent Coghlan’s pub – that’s the Rathruane Road. About 3 km along this road you will come to a crossroads – turn right. Take the first turn left on that road and it will bring you up to the top of a hill. Once you cross over the top and start the descent on the other side you will see the waters of Dunmanus Bay ahead and to the left and a pull-out for parking on the right.

One of West Cork's most scenic parking spots

One of West Cork’s most scenic parking spots

This is your starting point – look back and you will see the way marked trail about 50ms back up the hill, running alongside a forestry plantation. It’s also your ending point: our walk will take you up to the summit and back.

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If you’re approaching from Durrus, take the R591 out of the village. Take the first turn left then the first right and follow the road to the summit. These are small country roads – be prepared to pull over or even reverse when you encounter other traffic.

Example of 'other traffic'

Example of ‘other traffic’

Once you set out, the first point of interest is what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘megalithic structure’ and which looks likely to be a wedge tomb, although it is hard to be definitive about it. Whatever it is, it’s man made and intriguing.

A wedge tomb?

A wedge tomb?

You can see the cairn ahead – your destination.

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Before you get to it there is a row of standing stones. These ones are not marked on the NM inventory but it’s difficult to see what they could be other than a stone alignment. A final push now gets you to the cairn and to those panoramic views we mentioned.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the cairns (there are two of them) is the size of the large one and the scatter of stones all around them. The consensus seems to be that there has been a cairn on Mount Corrin since ancient times and that the current cairn, a more modern construction, sits on top of an older one.

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

We have certainly noted that the top of Mount Corrin, like the top of Mount Gabriel, is visible from several prehistoric sites and a cairn would have enhanced that visibility. The most persistent story about the cairn, though, links it to Lord Bandon.

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The Bernards, Earls of Bandon, are associated with Durrus, having laid out the town in the eighteenth century and having used Durrus Court as a summer residence. They had many interests in the area, including mining, and the always-interesting Durrus History blog gives us this information about Mount Corrin:

Mary Catherine Henrietta Bernard of Castle Bernard daughter of Lord Bandon married Colonel Aldworth on the 30th July 1863 and an address and copy of ‘God’s Holy Word’ was sent by Rev Freke and the tenantry of Durrus to which she returned thanks.  At Dreenlomane Mine (operating until c1920) owned by Lord Bandon, Captain Thomas set tar barrels alight on Mount Corrin which illuminated the sky all night and the 150 miners and their wives were treated to refreshments and similar celebrations were held in Carrigbui.

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The views from the cairn are stupendous, taking in the West Cork Peninsulas and the hinterland across to the Kerry mountains. Take a while to wander around the top – see if you can spot the collapsed walls of ancient hut sites.

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Making your way back, look down towards the farms on the northern slope of the mountain. You can still make out the unmistakeable signs of lazy beds, used to grow potatoes, and the ruins of houses abandoned long ago. It’s a poignant reminder that this land was once densely populated by people whose sole nutrition came from potatoes and who fled this area in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

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There now – that wasn’t gruelling at all, was it? And so rewarding. But still, a bit of effort required so you definitely deserve a coffee and cake at Budd’s, or a pint in Rosie’s. Tell them Roaringwater Journal sent you.

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Showing Off West Cork

This is how you sightsee in West Cork!

This is how you sightsee in West Cork!

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Susan Byron! Susan is the face behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, a custom travel service for visitors to Ireland, and she and I met last year when Robert and I spent a week in Clare. Susan loves nothing better than to hop in her car and take off for a few days to some part of Ireland she wants to explore or re-explore. There are very few places she hasn’t seen, but I soon discovered that the Sheep’s Head was one of them. She has been to the Mizen before but hadn’t seen some our OUR hidden gems. In short order we decided that a visit must be organised, and a couple of weeks ago she arrived, bearing Burren lamb, bottles of wine, and an infectious enthusiasm to see everything.

The 17th century Bardic School

The 17th century Bardic School on The Farranamagh Loop walk

Now if someone who runs a bespoke travel agency wants to see your piece of paradise, well, you’re going to put your best foot forward. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem in West Cork – it’s pretty well a fail-safe place to show off. Susan spent her first day whale watching (something we promise ourselves to do soon) and exploring the area east of Skibbereen. On day two and three she was all ours and we spent the first day on the Sheep’s Head and the second on the Mizen.

Mizen farm

Mizen farm

First of all, travelling with Susan is a hoot. She’s got a hot car, a ready laugh, an inexhaustible supply of stories, insatiable curiosity, and a real passion for Ireland. She is amazingly well-read – she knew the dates of the castles before I could tell her and was already familiar with what most tourists want to to see and do in West Cork. So this was a cheerful, companionable time of exploration, chatting, coffee and scones, hiking and sightseeing.

Our Sheep’s Head day took in two loop walks – the Farranamanagh loop and the lighthouse loop. We started off in drifting mist but the sun came out in the afternoon and soon we were shedding coats and applying the sunscreen. After a stroll around the lovely Farranamanagh walk (famous for its 17th century Bardic School) we had lunch in The Creamery in Kilcrohane and browsed in the Sheep’s Head Producers Market. We bought eggs from a farmyard, said hello to contented alpacas, and took innumerable photos of the killer views.

The Lighthouse Loop offers unparalleled vistas at the end of Sheep’s Head – south to Mizen Head and the sweep of the West Cork coastline, and then, as you round the end, north to the Beara and to the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry) beyond it. The trail has some steep sections and clings to a cliff edge for part of the northern stretch. It, and the Farranamanagh Loop are but two of the many waymarked trails that crisscross the Sheep’s Head. Each is as rewarding as the next and you could easily spend several days exploring this one Peninsula.

Lake Farranamanagh

Lake Farranamanagh

The Mizen, of course is OUR peninsula and we are always delighted to introduce it to friends. The weather was brilliant so we were able to drive in Susan’s cool car with the top down. (In my next life I want to come back as a blonde with a convertible.) Three Castle Head was at its most spectacular, with the water that deep azure blue that people who don’t live here have a hard time believing is real.

The Three Castles: it's love at first sight for Susan

The Three Castles: it’s love at first sight for Susan

The curtain wall and the lake

The curtain wall and the lake

Spring was bustin’ out all over so the air was heady with wildflowers and the fields full of newborn lambs. The drive on the north side of the Mizen is as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as any stretch of road in Ireland – the only difference is that it’s empty. We met not a single car, which enabled us to stop where we pleased to survey the scenery or take photos.

Barley Cove Beach

Barley Cove Beach

Susan wound up her time by conducting some retail therapy in Schull. No better place!

Schull, colourful village with great shopping

Schull, colourful village with great shopping

She has posted numerous photographs on her Facebook page and even used the phrase “possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been….” about Three Castle Head. That’s how I feel about that magical place – but when someone who has seen everything Ireland has to offer says it, maybe, just maybe, I’m not delusional after all.

Susan at the cairn. Three Castle Head on the Mizen

Susan at the cairn. Three Castle Head on the Mizen