Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way

COVER-FRONT

The definitive guide, by Amanda Clarke

NOTE: Since we wrote this post Amanda and Peter have brought out a second edition, including all the loop walks.

This week we attended a very special event – the launch of a new book, Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, written by Amanda Clarke and designed by Peter Clarke. Readers of this blog will be familiar with Amanda and Peter by now, as we have shared many adventures, hikes and explorations with them. 

Amanda and Peter at the launch

Amanda and Peter at the launch

For twelve years now they have been keen photographers and chroniclers of the Sheep’s Head: the book is a natural outgrowth of the passion they have for the peninsula.

Along the north side

Along the north side

Starting and ending in Bantry, the book takes us on the original Sheep’s Head Way, beginning along the north side, out to the lighthouse, and back along the south side. It is divided into 11 sections, each one a separate walk, although they can be combined. Each walk is mapped, and because the Way is so clearly marked, you can’t go wrong. No, really!

Out to the lighthouse!

To the lighthouse!

Amanda has immersed herself in the history, geography, flora, birdlife, archaeology, folklore and landscape of the Sheep’s Head. (Indeed, it is difficult to live here and NOT be fascinated by it all and carried away by the sheer magnificence of the scenery.) Each walk is accompanied by her observations – what to look out for, the meaning of a particular feature, the history of the area, stories of the old days.

As she has done for Robert and me, she leads the reader through the walk as if she’s chatting along beside you like an old friend, filling you in on what’s around you or encouraging you to pause and just listen. 

Abandoned houses at Crimea

Abandoned houses at Crimea

Each walk has its own character – whether it’s a holy well, a famine graveyard, an abandoned settlement, a prehistoric stone circle, old mine workings or signal towers – Amanda provides the essential commentary to enhance your understanding. 

The walks encompass high ridges with sweeping views, cliffhangers with yawning drops to the sea below, soft boggy trails, seaside ambles, and stretches of boreen fringed with wild flowers. 

A ridge walk

A ridge walk

The Sheep’s Head Way has been recognised in Ireland as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and in Europe as a Destination of Excellence (one of the EDENs). And yet, you can walk for miles and never meet another soul, especially in the off season. 

Looking towards the Beara

Looking towards the Beara

If you’re contemplating a holiday in Ireland, or if you’re already here and thinking about dropping down to see us in the Wilds of West Cork, pick up a copy of this book (buy it on Amazon or at one of our great local book shops) pack a pair of stout boots, check out Living the Sheep’s Head Way, and be prepared to be blown away. 

Looking down to Dunmanus Bay

Looking down to Dunmanus Bay

Let us know when to put the kettle on.