West Cork - A Place Apart

Date: July 2019   Destination: West Cork   Author: Felicity Hayes-McCoy  
West Cork - A Place Apart

Thanks to best selling author, Felicity Hayes-McCoy for the following travel article on her recent experiences in the lovely West Cork:


I can hardly believe I've waited so long to visit West Cork, especially since much of my life is spent in neighbouring Kerry. Perhaps the perception of remoteness has something to do with it, or the fact that it’s often referred to as ‘a place apart’. The term West Cork covers the area stretching westwards from Cork City to Ireland's most southerly signal point at Mizen Head, and takes in the beautiful Beara, Mizen and Sheeps Head Peninsulas, craggy fingers of land jutting into the Atlantic. These are certainly remote, in the sense of being isolated, but they’re easy to reach, and to drive, walk and cycle (if your muscles are up to it!) and they make the perfect place to spend a holiday.

We set off early from our home near Dingle and stopped for morning coffee in Kenmare. Here we were still in Co Kerry but an onward drive on the N71 took us across the Caha Mountains into Co Cork. The winding route seemed to emphasise the concept of West Cork as a place apart. With a maximum altitude of 332m (just over 1,000 ft), the road over the Caha Pass narrows as it goes through tunnels carved into the line of the rock, and widens as it emerges to reveal stunning scenery far below.

The Beara Peninsula is bounded by the Kenmare "river" (actually a bay) to the north side and Bantry Bay to the south. One thing we’d worked out before setting off is that route planning is important if you’ve only a few days to spend exploring a series of peninsulas, otherwise you can find yourself repeatedly travelling back and forth along the same roads.

Our first night was to be spent at the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff, overlooking Bantry Bay. On the way we stopped to visit the Ewe Experience where the owners, Kurt Lyndorff, a Danish former war correspondent, and his Anglo-Irish wife, designer Sheena Wood, cheerfully informed me that The Ewe was going to be difficult to describe. They were right. The leaflets call it ‘Ireland’s only interactive sculpture garden’ and ‘an open air natural history museum’, but no description can do justice to this inspired labour of love, painstakingly created around a waterfall. What you see are four interlinked gardens, each with a theme: Water, Time, The Environment and Ancient Earth. They cover about six acres, part of a constantly developing 280 acre private nature reserve project which combines farming, forestry and the setting up of wildlife habitats; and the Ewe Experience is a mountain walk through the gardens. But what you get is far more than just remarkable art in a spectacular setting. It’s an education, meditation, and a revelation on multiple levels, and you truly do have to be there to see what I mean.

While there we were invited next door to visit Two Green Shoots, where Kurt and Sheena’s daughter Kloë, a designer, and her partner Adam, formerly a gardener with the UK’s Royal Horticulture Society and National Trust, grow food for outdoor feasts and pop-up foodie events, and have four botanical themed rooms for bed and breakfast guests. Kloë had just made some delicious nettle and honey cake and she offered us some with tea made with lemon mint picked in the garden.

We continued down the peninsula to the Allihies Copper Mine Museum, where we spent the afternoon. Housed in an old Methodist chapel, it tells the story of 19th century copper-mining in the area and the enormous effects of the industry on the people and the landscape. Informative, touching and welcoming, it’s an experience not to be missed, and we heartily recommend its little café’s apple tart and cream, which we ate outdoors on a sunny patio furnished with long tables and wooden benches.

Windblown and sunburnt, we were received with warm efficiency at The Eccles Hotel, where the flower-filled entry hall has a fireplace, easy chairs and a brass-fitted post box for guests’ letters. There's been a hostelry and accommodation on this site since 1745, and the land and buildings on it were rented by a Thomas Eccles in 1835. The hotel has welcomed many authors and writers in its day - Thackeray stayed here in 1850 and called it ‘a pretty inn’, George Bernard Shaw wrote here in 1910/11, and W B Yeats was a regular visitor in the 1920s. Our comfortable room overlooking the bay had a sumptuous modern bathroom, and a bed so comfortable that I nearly fell asleep and missed dinner. (Which would have been a mistake, as my lobster broth starter with prawns and heritage potatoes was to die for.) Eddie Attwell, the Eccle’s Head Chef, is an Armagh man who inherited his love of cooking from his mother and honed his skills working in restaurants which included Cumbria’s Michelin starred L’Enclume. He’s all about local, seasonal food and sustainability and, as well as featuring produce from the hotel’s own garden, his bistro menu reflects a close relationship with farmers and artisan producers in the area. It was a perfect meal to end a perfect day, eaten at a table from which we watched night fall over the water.

The following day we drove to Bantry, which was gearing up for the West Cork Literary Festival, and travelled on to Mizen Head Signal Station, where currents from the west and south coasts meet and waves from the mid-Atlantic crash against spectacular cliffs. One of the best places in the world to see Minke, Fin and Humpback Whales and Dolphins, a highlight of the visitor experience is the arched pedestrian footbridge to the lighthouse at the tip of Mizen Head. The reinforced concrete structure, anchored 45m (147 ft) above a gorge, has a span of 52m (170 ft). Though Wilf loves heights, I’m an abject coward, so I’d thought I’d find it scary. In fact it was awe-inspiring and felt absolutely safe.

Having had proper homemade chicken sandwiches in the Signal Station’s café, where the tables are topped with reproductions of nautical charts, we drove to Rosscarbery via the pretty town of Skibbereen, where I signed copies of my latest novel in The Skibbereen bookshop. We also stopped off in Ballydehob, Schull, and the numinous Stone Age wedge tomb that stands facing the ocean on the road between Schull and Toormore, so it was evening when we arrived at Rosscarberry’s Celtic Ross Hotel, Spa and Leisure Centre, where Golden Ireland had booked us in for two nights. As well as putting up photographs on my Facebook Author Page, I’d been tweeting and Instagramming with the hashtag #writersroadtrip, and Neil Grant, the hotel’s dynamic general manager, had already sent us a Twitter wave and a welcome. The modern hotel, which incorporates a tower built from reclaimed local stone, has views over the ocean and a lagoon, home to myriads of birds; and outside our bedroom window swifts were nesting in the eaves. We had a relaxed bar meal sitting outdoors, served by a waitress who recommended the sweet potato fries I ordered with my salad. Her eagerness to help was typical of all the hotel’s friendly staff, from the cheerful waitresses who greeted us at breakfast to the receptionist who couldn’t have been nicer when I phoned down for help with my wi-fi.

Rosscarbery, which is tiny, has an unexpected little cathedral. We visited it before driving to Clonakilty, where a profusion of flowers decorates the streets. Here, in a Georgian square which encloses a small park, a beautifully-curated exhibition dedicated to the Irish patriot and revolutionary hero is housed in The Michael Collins House Museum, where we were given a guided tour by the general manager, Jamie Murphy. Interactive displays, audio-visuals and artefacts chronicle Collins’ life, expertly and sensitively cutting through the myth, legend and contention surrounding his roles in Ireland’s War of Independence, and subsequent Civil War, presenting the historical facts and considering them in the context of the wider history of the area. The museum, entered from the side through a modern foyer, has a small gift shop and public toilets, and there are many places to have coffee or lunch within easy walking distance. Later, on Neil Grant’s advice, we drove ten miles or so into the countryside, to visit the site of the farm on which Collins grew up. Donated to the nation by Collins family members, landscaped by them and local volunteers, and now in the care of the Office of Public Works, it's a tranquil, respectful memorial in the valley where he was born.

That evening we ate in the hotel’s restaurant, where the menu’s list of local produce and producers included Blue Bell Goat Farm, Culture Food Skibbereen, Bushby Rosscarbery Strawberries, Baltimore Shitake mushrooms, and John Mc Carthy Lamb. I had Featherblade of West Cork Beef, and Wilf’s John Dory was accompanied by local rock samphire. In fact, the local seafood is so irresistible that he started with Grilled West Cork Langoustine and would happily have come back for more.

Besides being delicious, the menu was an image of the area’s central attraction. West Cork really is a place apart, home to communities which, because of the remoteness of their locations, have always been interdependent and self-sufficient. Farming, fishing music and storytelling were central to life here for generations and the pace of life is still driven by steady, quiet rhythms. We were struck by the widespread commitment to sustainability and to preserving the environment, not just as fashionable slogans but as a practical way of life. Both hotels we stayed in have long-term plans based on eco-awareness, from simple things like providing glass, rather than plastic, bottles in guest bedrooms to long-term investment in more efficient, environmentally-friendly systems, such as heating.

There was so much to see and do that we didn’t make it to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, a haven for walkers and cyclists and one of the most idyllic parts of West Cork. The entire peninsula circuit is an 88km walking trail that takes around four days to complete. There are shorter loops, which can be driven to, that focus on a particular section of the route. People say that the very tip of the headland is the place to aim for. No roads reach that far, though, so exploration is on foot. We missed seal colonies, sea fishing, historic tombs and monuments, courses in stone carving, visits to offshore islands, welcoming pubs and restaurants and what are reputed to be the most glorious sunsets on the Wild Atlantic Way. We also missed Durrus in the valley of Coomkeen, home to one of my favourite cheeses on earth. But you can’t see and do everything, so there’s no point in trying. And I’m absolutely certain that we’ll be back.

As we drove home, I remembered something said by Sheena Wood at The Ewe Experience. Her four gardens are full of whimsical corners that entertain children - fairy doors, and sculptures of a knitting sheep and a crow dressed as a workman, sitting on a rock with a flask of tea, a half-eaten biscuit and long claws protruding through his battered boots. These quirky pieces, she explained, were just as important as her powerful works depicting forces of nature, or her three-dimensional explanations of abstract concepts and physics. Personally, she’s more interested in physics than in fairies, but the core of what she strives to demonstrate is that everything in the universe is essentially connected. Given the pace of life today, that’s a fact that can be hard to take in. But West Cork, with its towering mountains, crashing waves, shimmering light and ancient tranquil rhythms is a good place to go if you want to think about it.

About The Author:

Felicity Hayes-McCoy is the Irish author of the successful 'Finfarran' novels, published by Hachette Books Irl. and, in the US and Canada, by HarperCollins. She is married to the English writer and opera director, Wilf Judd. They work and live in West Kerry and inner-city London and together they wrote Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage, a guide to the western end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula.

The Transatlantic Book Club, the fifth Finfarran novel, was published in Ireland in May 2019. HarperCollins' edition of The Mistletoe Matchmaker, the third in the series, will be available in bookstores and online from October 8th 2019.


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