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.

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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. 

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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!

Wild Atlantic Light – the West Cork Winter Edition

We are a maritime county and that affects our weather. It means that clouds are plentiful at all times of the year and that the weather can be highly variable and unpredictable. But the ocean, and the Gulf Stream it carries all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, also means that we have a slightly milder climate than the rest of Ireland. Beside the sea, the air is full of negative ions. That’s a good thing. Negative ions stimulate our senses and lead to a heightened sense of wellbeing.

Sure, we can have rainy days and bitter winds in the winter, but there are lots of sunny days too. When the sun shines in the winter, it is filtered through those drifting clouds to produce those marvellous effects of light and shade that lend such drama to the landscape.

In winter too, the colours are highly contrasting – the green of the fields change abruptly to the blondes and golds of the higher mountains. The bracken turns the colour of amber and the fionán grasses provide an expansive sea of rippling heath on higher ground. Snow caps the highest ridges, although it rarely descends to us mortals in the valleys.

Under a blue sky the sea in West Cork turns the colour of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. They tell me that has to do with having a sandy bottom and I am sure there are other scientific explanations, but really, you have to see it yourself to believe it.

Our underlying geology provides the ruggedness, the exposed sandstone ridges, and the deep coastal indentations that characterise the landscape.

The end result of it all – the sunshine, the clouds, the mountains, the sea, the contours and colours of the land – is the kind of light that artists dream of. The sheer clarity of it is startling – you can see from one end of the peninsula to the other in a way that city dwellers have forgotten it’s possible to do. That clarity brings out every hue and allows all the colours to sparkle against each other.

The photographs in this post were all taken in the first three months of 2017 – from the depths of winter to the first glimmerings of spring. We think you’ll agree that our Wild Atlantic Light is pretty special.

Even in the evening…

And especially when there’s a chunk of archaeology from our deep past in the landscape.