I despair of cool boxes sometimes. They are always blue and boring, usually don’t do the job properly and, ultimately, they just never look cool. So, with a heatwave finally hitting Northern Europe, I decided it was time to celebrate and went in search of something substantial to keep my goodies cool.
I had two missions. First, I have a garden cabin where friends stay from time to time and I wanted something that could sit in the corner and not scream ‘I am blue, plastic and pretty damn ugly’. I had tried the mini fridge thing in the past, but they are just a waste of space. My other mission was, of course, picnics and camping expeditions, so this thing had to be cool and multitask. An online search was feeling like a waste of time, a sea of blue blocks coming up all over Ebay, until finally I spotted it, under a sneaky search for fishing gear. Fishermen don’t mess with keeping their catch cool, I reckoned, and I was right.
I found myself on www.coolboxesuk.com and face to face with the monster of coolness. The Yeti. White and tough, this cool box claims to be the one that keeps ice frozen longer than any other. It has a wonderfully contemporary, rounded design, with big rubber fasteners and a heavy duty lid, which make me feel slightly bad that I am not throwing a huge freshly caught salmon into its chilly depths. It’s big, burly and boysy but also curvaceous and girly in a weird sort of way. No sexism intended, I promise. It just suits everyone. I also liked the website’s Icey-Tek range as they come in a greater range of colours, but don’t have handles, so I stuck with the Yeti range.
Fully moulded, it means it is super durable and as these guys don’t come cheap (my Yeti 14L Roadie comes in at £109.95) you would want it to last for life. Made in the USA, their larger Tundra Model is designed to be bear proof, not something that was necessary on an afternoon’s picnic in Greenwich Park. However, given that I often leave it outside our garden cabin at night, stocked up with fresh ice packs for guests who are coming back late, there is no way that our fox pests are going to get through this baby.
The Yeti caused quite a stir at our friends’ picnic party in Greenwich, however, with people keen to know where we got it and how we found it in terms of keeping things cold. In terms of coldness it is unarguably good. My wine and beer was still cold at sunset, after a day in full on heatwave glare, although if you want to store lots of wine, you will need the bigger model, as this one only holds one, at an angle. The Yeti is not really designed for picnic prettiness after all, in spite of it causing a ripple of excitement among the great burghers of Greenwich. It is too heavy, and although it has a handle, it isn’t something you want to traipse great distances with. Great for campervans and campsites, but hiking heaven it aint. But if it’s cold, contemporary and classy you are after, the Yeti should be yours.
If there is one place I could go back to this mid summer, it would have to be Sark. One of the Channel Islands, it takes a good while to get there but it is so worth it. Sark lies 11 km east of Guernsey and about 40 km west of the Cherbourg Peninsula of France. I discovered it on a trip to (also gorgeous, but not quite so special) Jersey a few years ago, which I was heading to by ferry from the south of England. I got chatting to a crowd of cool young ones, who told me they were en route to Sark. They come every year around midsummer to gaze at the stars, because Sark is not only car free, but it is totally free of street lights and so an astronomical Arcadia.
Trying desperately to emulate these youthful adventures, I returned to Sark with my family at Easter for four days, and saw straight away what brings people back year after year. Young and old. Everyone is on a bike here, and not just in that day tripping tourist way. It is the way of life, with everyone from farmers, priest, shopkeepers and kids all just bombing around on the island’s sandy or gravel tracks. The only vehicles are tractors and we only saw two of those during our stay and we covered most of the island during that time, which isn’t hard. Sark is only 5.5 kms square, and yet has over 60 kms of coastline. There is something about that statistic that evokes a world of hidden treasures and surprises. Secrets and whisperings. And we were not disappointed.
It took me all of about five minutes to release my uptight urban leash on the kids here, who wanted to take off immediately on their hired bikes. This transition from mainland to island traveller was facilitated with reassuring ease and charm by the manager of our stunning Stocks hotel, Paul Armorgie, whose family has owned the hotel since 1979, and who encouraged our now feral fellas to take off and explore. Because Paul celebrates independence – something that has sadly become an issue on Sark over the last couple of years. Stocks is now just one of two independent hotels left on the island, the rest all part of the Barclay brothers’, British property and media magnates, growing involvement on the island. Already owners of neighbouring Brecqhou island, they have, in the last five years, according to an article in The (UK’s) Guardian newspaper, “snapped up almost a quarter of land on the three-mile-long island, along with many of Sark’s key businesses”, and the upset caused by this among locals has hit headline news on several occasions.
Don’t let these politics put you off visiting this island, however. And don’t for a second think that this is a billionaire’s playground, with yacht filled marinas and casinos on the main drag. You are met off the ferry by one of the island’s tractors which takes your luggage (and you in the passenger trailer behind if you so wish) to your chosen accommodation. And as for casinos, well, the only gamble you will take here is whether the boat will sail or not. Because if the winds pick up, you can risk being stuck here for an extra night or two. Which is what did happen to us, and boy did we thank our lucky stars. All ten million of them glittering down at us in the skies which are indeed so clear, which is why Sark was declared the world’s first Dark Sky Island in 2011 by the International Dark Sky Association.
The team at Stocks know that sustainability is the only way to go on Sark. They watch patiently as the blow ins plant vineyards instead of allowing the land to be used for traditional farming. And instead of fighting them, they quietly plough their own furrow and create a model permaculture garden. They invite the chefs of River Cottage to come and do a foraging and feasting cookery course with their guests, and their extraordinary chefs, Byron and Kendra Hayter creating gourmet gems out of Sark’s natural hamper of home grown produce. In particular, of course, the locally landed fish. During our stay we managed to sample Kieran Perrée’s scallops, which he is licensed to hand dive for in Sark waters, Dave Scott’s Sark lamb and wild sea bass landed by Jonathan Shuker from Sark waters.
Stocks Hotel has been designed not only with class and chic in mind, but also with home from home comfort. And as well as the solar heated swimming pool, horses and carriages on site for guest rides, homemade wines and wild flower liqueurs, every corner at Stocks Hotel is infused with fun. After a day of walking or cycling, we were welcomed back into the fold like a member of the family, as we shared stories from our various discoveries that day. For example, Little Sark, a tiny peninsula joined to the ‘mainland’ by a narrow isthmus called La Coupée, where there is now a reinforced road with sturdy railings, so you feel totally safe when crossing it. We took the coastal route there, following a steep bluebell and fern-filled Dixcart valley just two minutes from the hotel, to the sea at Dixcart Bay. The stream that we followed down there culminated in a waterfall on the beach, where there is a sea arch which leads you through to another hidden bay just beyond that and calm, clean, safe bathing waters. From here we headed back up to the cliff path which segues from sunlit yellow gorse to hedgerows full of nesting birds, the sea coming in and out of view all the time between them.
The walk to La Coupee is only about half an hour, and after crossing the dramatic bridge, and taking in the clifftop views , we headed La Sablonnerie on Little Sark for afternoon tea. Cream tea at La Sablonnerie is a must, given that they use their own cream, and their scones are now well ensconced in my fine food memory bank. And like Stocks, it is also well and truly Sarkee, having been in the same family since 1642.
At the end of our second day, we cycled up to the North coast and dropped the bikes at the top of the path marked La Eperquerie, an old landing point for boats. From here we walked out to more dramatic cliff hanging walkways, picnicked at a rocky headland, got lost in a wild maze of heather and gorse, and then headed back inland to more manicured one inside the magnificent gardens at the Seigneurie, the home of the island’s ‘seigneur’, or traditional feudal leader of Sark.
Sark is a landscape for lazing musings or romantic hideaways. Independent thinkers and those who find solace in nature. Don’t put it on your bucket list, just go and savour its beauty now. Not only because those who strive to protect and conserve this special place deserve all the support we can offer, but because no matter how hard they try, the blow ins will never be able to blow out the stars. And the main star here is Sark itself.
Catherine and her family stayed at Stocks Hotel (stockshotel.com). A family room has a separate interconnecting room with bunk beds and costs from £225 sterling per night bed and breakfast, or from £265 sterling bed, breakfast and dinner. If you stay for four nights or longer, Stocks Hotel will refund the ferry crossing with Sark Shipping Company.
Getting to Sark: If you want to travel the slow and green way, take a train to Poole or Portsmouth with South West Trains and then the ferry to Guernsey with Condor Ferries (condorferries.co.uk). There are also excellent Sail Rail deals available, which are not very well publicised. Look up the excellent seat61.com/ChannelIslands for details. Be careful with your timings as there are only a couple of sailings a day from Guernsey to Sark, which you can book through Sark Shipping Company. Return tickets £27.80 adults, £12.90 children. For more information on Sark, see sark.co.uk and for more information on getting to Guernsey see Visit Guernsey.
An edited version of this article, by Catherine Mack, was first published in The Southern Star newspaper, Ireland
‘He’s a really good head’ is something you will often hear in Ireland. It’s a colloquialism for a person who is truly decent. So when I decided to take on the Seven Heads Walk around the coastline between West Cork’s Timoleague and Clonakilty, I set myself the task to also try and meet seven ‘good heads’ along the way. I put out a request on Twitter and it was quite easy to see that the same good heads kept being recommended and that I wasn’t going to be short of companions. Before I knew it I had gathered fellow walkers, dates in pubs, tea in a gardening writer’s kitchen, picnic pals and a swimming soul mate for a dip in the Atlantic. Tune into my quick chats with them by clicking on the links attached to each of my ‘heads’ below.
With only two days free to delve into this unexplored part of West Cork, and short autumn days, I realised I wasn’t going to have time to take on the whole 42 kms loop. My compromise was to take in as much of the coastline as possible and then head inland back to Timoleague a bit earlier than planned, an inner loop which comes in at about 35 kms.
I checked in with my first ‘head’ in Clonakilty, John O’Brien, Chairman of the Seven Heads Walk, and creator of the Seven Heads website and guidebook which is full of information on the flora and fauna, architectural heritage and history. He chats to me here about the creation of this walking trail, and his favourite spots, before sending me on my way and reminding me, like everyone I met on this trip, that I have been ‘blessed with the weather’.
My next head (or heads really) was keen to walk the Timoleague loop of the Seven Heads Walk with me, as this is where he and his partner started a journey of their own twenty five ago. John and Sally McKennaare Irish food and accommodation guidebook gurus with their Bridgestone Guides (now simply known as the John and Sally McKennas’ Guides )a highly respected institution in Ireland. They have put good food on the tourism map in Ireland, by digging out brilliant breadmakers in tiny b&b’s, eminent pastry makers in pubs, cheesemakers and artisan butchers hiding their secrets under bushels (bestofbridgestone.com). Their top tip was to meet at one of the region’s leading delicatessens, The Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty to grab a coffee, peruse John’s maps, and put together a picnic fit for a president, before heading up to our starting point in Timoleague. By the time I got there, they had already filled a bag full of Lettercollum’s chorizo, red onion and puy lentil tart, quinoa Salad and a ton of other goodies which we now had to earn through hiking the hills.
Just before we left, I also managed to grab Karen Austin, the co-founder of this food emporium and ‘good head-chef’, to chat to me about her Clonakilty creation, where locals queue out the door just to grab one of their famous sausage rolls and where gourmets gather to feast on their home grown produce transformed into epicurean works of art.
We drove to Timoleague and dropped the car there where, although the loop walk around the village is only about three hours long, it was the perfect introduction to the Seven Heads, especially as I had spent the morning getting to West Cork and only had half a day left to get out into the air. But also, as we started to climb the hill to Ardmore, we passed the elegant environs of Lettercollum House where the aforementioned Karen and her husband Con live, grow their produce and also have a cookery school (lettercollum.ie), so that was a lovely coincidence. We then continued up along quiet fuchsia and elder-filled country roads to a viewpoint overlooking Timoleague, its estuarine mudflats gleaming green as they awaited the tide to fill them, and the rest of the Seven Heads disappearing into a sea mist in the distance.
As we walked, we chatted about the growth of fine food production in Ireland, whereby it can be proud of the provenance of its produce. Indeed, food can now safely claim its rightful place at the top table of tourism. We completed our loop by following the Argideen River back down towards the estuary where, in a woody glen right beside the river, we toasted our afternoon of walking the hills with Sally’s homemade rosehip cordial. Our Lettercollum feast was complete, and the walkers well and truly replete.
My next ‘head’ was to join me for a pint in Charlie Madden’s pub that night in Timoleague, so when a smiling man walked over to shake my hand, I had presumed this was my man. But it was Charlie Madden himself, just giving a stranger a welcome, genuinely keen to know what had brought me to Timoleague. I told him I was meeting Tim Crowley, founder of Clonakilty’s Michael Collins Centre, and within minutes I had heard Charlie’s version of what happened the night Ireland’s most famous leader had been shot at Béal na Bláth in 1922, culminating in a soulful rendition of rebel song ‘The Boys of Barry’s column’ and the promise to post me the words so that I could learn it and join in the next time I passed. Sure enough, a handwritten note, with the words, arrived a week later, so I will have to go back now.
So, my actual planned meeting with Tim had a hard act to follow, but on hearing about his lifelong commitment to the Michael Collins story, and how he has created a small independent museum in a converted cottage as a tribute to his hero including a recreation of the fatal ambush site complete with a replica of Michael Collins’ famous Rolls Royce Armoured Car, “Sliabh Na mBan”, I couldn’t help but be swayed into adding another stop on my Clonakilty circuit. You can tune into my chat with Tim here.
Day two started early, walking from my charming Timoleague guesthouse into Courmacsherrry, just four kilometres away along a converted railway line which clings to the estuary, a melange of migrators such as loons and geese, as well as oyster catchers and herons, appearing to feel as ‘blessed’ as I was. Indeed, looking back at Timoleague’s magnificent 13th Century friary sitting up on the hill, its headstones and crosses silhouetted against the sky, the shallow waters lapping gently all around me and it, this view is almost painful in its beauty. Courtmacsherry (or Courtmac as it is known locally) is a small fishing village, sleepy enough, although a hub for fishing boats tucked safely away from the Atlantic which awaits around the first of the Seven Heads. I dropped my overnight bag at my next sleep spot, Woodpoint B&B timing my arrival well as Patricia Gannon, the owner, was about to go out on her daily walk, having just made breakfast for a load of guests, packed lunches and sent them off on a fishing expedition in the safe hands of her skipper husband, Mark.
The Courtmacsherry Woods, is the starting point for many who take on this walk, where a line of oak, beech and pine trees follow the shore, a series of stone steps leading down to miniscule coves at regular intervals, the water just teasing in the distance through the diminishing leaf cover provided by the ancient oak trees. Patricia turned out to be the perfect ‘head’ to talk to, as she reveals that this gorgeous glade is part of her family’s land, but they have given access so that it can be shared with everyone. Listen to my chat with Patricia Gannon here.
After a couple of kilometres we emerged at Wood Point, the first of our Heads, and the turning point into the Atlantic. The wind was thankfully low, the clear skies allowing us to see all the way to the Old Head of Kinsale. We traversed fields full of horses and cattle, which is where Patricia left me to get on with her busy day, and where I was joined by another good head, New Zealander Bridget Healy, co-founder of Corks’s famous café Paradiso, kayaker, fellow lover of wild swimming and, of course, walking. She had never walked this whole loop, so we sauntered on together, imbibing the sun and sharing each other’s stories. Although the way marking was thin on the ground, keeping the sea on our left was a pretty safe bet and the booklet also has detailed instructions so be sure to take this with you, although I fully recommend an OS as well.
After about an hour we descend from the clifftop farmland into the deserted Broadstrand Bay, save a couple of dog walkers. A sandy stretch is always welcome underfoot on a hike and although this is a safe and clean bathing beach we agree that it was a bit too early in the day to brave a dip. It absolutely wasn’t too early to tuck into the Clonakilty Chocolate Bridget produced, however, a hint of chilli giving us a new spring in our step. If the tide is high it won’t be possible to cross this strand, but there is a road on the clifftop so you can follow that if needs be. We climbed the steps at the far end of the beach leading us inland again, where we followed narrow walking paths tucked between hedgerows, brushing past the escalonia and whitethorn up to a highpoint with a great view out to the Old Head of Kinsale to the North and Galley Head to the South. We had lost count of the seven headlands already, reaching the conclusion that this seven headed monster of a walk seems to have lots of hidden heads as well. Headlands which have seen treacherous times, however, such as near Barry’s Point where, in 1915, the lifeboat headed out 18 kms to sea to try and rescue victims from the torpedoed ship, Lusitania. There was no wind, so the oarsmen rowed for three hours to find survivors all, tragically, in vain, with a loss of 1200 lives.
The walking trail continued with so many breathtaking views it could actually make you stop breathing altogether, with Seven Heads Bay and finally Dunworly Bay (our lunchstop) stretching out in front of us. Much of the shoreline is inaccessible on this particular walk due to dangerous cliffs and land access issues, with a few exceptions such as one of the cute coves West Cork is famous for, at Trabeg. We ducked out of dipping again, despite the calm inlet on offer, as we had a date with my ultimate ‘head’ and we had some inland walking to cover. At this point we entered a landscape filled with stone walls more reminiscent of Connemara than Cork, where the laneways seem to be almost untrodden. In the distance we could see the old signal tower at Travarra, built circa 1800 to watch out for Napoleonic forces, linking up with others like it along the coast so that fire signals could be passed quickly from one to the other.
From the fern filled and lichen lined lanes around Carrigeen Cross, we finally descended towards Dunworley, homeland to revered gardening writer Joy Larkcom who welcomed us with a fresh pot of tea and a smile that would warm anyone’s heart. Not only is she a divine person, and inspiration to many, she is like a guardian angel to us as the heavens had just opened in true Atlantic coast style, and we were truly drenched. We stripped off around her aga, were offered whisky to add to our tea and Joy regaled me with stories of how she landed in this part of West Cork from her home in Suffolk, England ten years ago. You can listen to Joy chatting with me here, a woman who is not only aptly named, but is also a humungous talent. She has a gift of the gab and the gift of growth, and has completely transformed her barren, wind beaten coastal garden to a veritable haven, fecund with fruit trees, shrubs and vegetables. She is also committed collector of rare seeds, many of which are strewn in envelopes around her study, and tireless campaigner for home produce and I highly recommend the story of her life journey in her latest book ‘Just Vegetating’ (Frances Lincoln, 2012)
Meeting Joy had revived us totally. As we part company, Bridget and I continuing along the last lap of our walk back through Butlerstown, its colourful esplanade of houses and shops totally vibrant in the light of a perfectly timed post storm rainbow, we ponder the passion in such people’s lives and hope that we can emulate it to some degree in our own. We took the road route back to Courtmacsherry but, when the days are longer, there is also an option to take a path back to Broadstrand just after Butlerstown and retrace your steps back to where you started, clinging to the coast again through Ballincurrig and Melmane. As it was, we were happy on the quiet roads, picking blackberries, wild sorrel and sea spinach, chatting and taking in the pretty villages such as at Lisleetemple, which developed around its 16th century church and Georgian glebe house.
On our return in along the seafront at Courtmacsherry, my delightful walking head shared a few last thoughts about her love affair with Clonakilty and these Seven Heads (listen here). I could see now why Bridgetwas seduced into staying in this Atlantic nook from her native New Zealand. It is not just the dramatic land and seascapes, the abundance of final local produce or the ability to escape the norm. It’s the people. We had lost count of the heads along our walk and similarly, if you come here for longer, you would lose count of the good heads you’ll meet along the way. Clonakilty, good weather or not, you are truly blessed.
It’s not every day you get a hug in the post. I opened it up and wrapped it around me immediately, and it was so all embracing that I was unable to separate myself from it for about a week. Luckily, I am also able to bring it on all my travels now, as a Hug is the name for the most stunning wrap or shawl, made from recycled woollen jumpers and crafted into a cocoon of cosiness that will keep me warm in winter and chill free in summer.
Made in Shropshire, UK, by Turtle Doves, I couldn’t recommend this company more highly. Before ordering my Hug (incredibly good value at £45), I chatted about the colours I like and, as I really wanted to be able to take it on my travels with me, and have a pretty boring ready to go travel wardrobe, I knew exactly what I was after. Pale blues and greens mostly and, as Kate Holbrook, the founder of this ethical enterprise told me, she thought the Mermaid one might be perfect. So, as wild swimming spots are usually top of my travel itinerary, I knew this was the one with my name on it. I was a little concerned about the applique heart on it, as I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, but I just wear it with that bit on the inside.
The Hug really is perfect for travellers. I had a hug after surfing and coasteering during my recent trip to Preseli Venture in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can wrap it round yourself like a giant scarf, or cover your head with it if you are camping, and you can’t seem to get your hair dry on those damper evenings, or you can just cover yourself with it as you collapse into a holiday chill out. And if flying is your chosen mode of transport, you can wrap up when the air con hits that chilly max, or use it as a pillow when you need a doze. It also means you have to pack less layers, and you can wear it travelling, thus minimising your load in terms of luggage limits. To see Kate’s suggestions of ways in which to wear your hug, check out her video here.
The most lovely thing about a Hug is that it makes me smile every time I wrap myself up in it. It is charming to think that there are stories behind every patch of wool that warms my body. Kate sources 95% of her jumpers from registered charity shops, although she does welcome donations too of course. If you want to sample her craftsmanship on a smaller budget, check out the cashmere fingerless gloves. You can have a pair for free if you send in your old cashmere jumper. This way, she gets to use the cashmere for other products, and you get a pair of Turtle Doves in the post. You can also buy online from a wide selection of gloves, as well as hats, scarves and snoods or, if you are in the Shropshire region, you can find them at various markets.
My kids are now after my Hug all the time, and so there is a bit of a plan brewing to gather up lots of our old wool in the house, including some of their baby bits and pieces and have them made into blankets by Turtle Doves for Christmas. That way they can use them for camping or just collapsing on the couch at home. Backed with fleece, and given a patchwork feel using buttons, these are hugs from heaven really.
The celebrated poet Maya Angelou once said that “Every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back”. I couldn’t agree more, but my new dilemma is that now I have the best hug in the world, I don’t really want to share it.
It stands in the middle of a waste ground like a glittering Christmas bauble that is found months after the celebrations are over, lying in a dusty corner of the shed somewhere. It cost millions and it is now the biggest visitor attraction in Northern Ireland, surpassing the Giant’s Causeway. It’s Titanic Belfast, sitting pretty in the derelict urban space where industry once thrived. It shines, it sparkles, it grabs the eye. And yet, it looks weirdly out of place.
Visitors are coming in their thousands to Titanic Belfast (mustn’t forget the all important registered trademark ®). Everyone loves the Titanic story after all, the band playing on, the survivors, the human stories, the movie. So, why couldn’t I get out of it quickly enough? Because I just don’t get it. You can put in all the interactive, state of the art technology you want, but this place is still all about a ghastly, tragic event. There are digitalised film versions of exactly how they reckon the ship sank. There is even a roller coaster ride around the mocked up ship yards of Belfast, reminding me of childhood ghost trains with voices of rope makers, rivet makers and welders echoing along the blackened corridors as we swept past in our 21st century Titanicmobile. Voices from an industrial landscape that was not only very important to Northern Ireland, but was also rife with segregation and sectarianism. Voices of people who were working towards the creation of many great ships but, lest we forget, the most important one for the success of this exhibition, one particular ship which was famous for one thing. Its fateful demise.
But hey, let’s brand it and polish it, merchandise the hell out of it, and sell cakes and scones around it. Because it will pack in the tourist dollars and make Belfast great again. That’s what the marketing moguls say. What with the added attractions of a Game of Thrones exhibition, Father Christmas’ grotto and tapas nights, Titanic Foundation, the limited company which wholly owns the exhibition, knows how to keep this baby afloat.
My ultimate disappointment probably comes from the fact that Belfast is where I grew up. It still suffers from sectarianism. It still suffers from violence. And it still remembers the ghosts from many years of violence. So why, oh why, does a city that is trying, on many levels, to heal and move on choose an attraction that sells death as its centrepiece? Surely we need to breathe life into this country again, not capitalise on personal tragedy and loss? And there are so many places to feel alive in Northern Ireland. Go hiking in the Mourne Mountains, cycle in The Sperrins, canoe around Strangford Lough and surf at Benone Strand in Derry.
These are areas that all need funding, but are not the territory of limited companies. Thank goodness. But they are the future of Northern Ireland. They are the real breathing spaces, and they are what tourists should be coming to see. Because they are beautiful and they are part of our living heritage. And, in my opinion, they are so much more fun. And free. Registered trademarks don’t come cheap after all. £14.75 for a ghost train is a lot of money.
Long before the words ethical or eco started creeping into the tourism industry’s boardrooms, there was one man who was quietly laying the foundations of fairness in travel. Thomas Arthur Leonard (or TA as he was known)) founded HF Holidays in the UK a hundred years ago and, although his achievements have been relatively uncelebrated to date, the centenary of an organisation which still remains the only UK holiday provider that is a truly co-operative society, gives us a good opportunity to take stock of this pioneering philanthropist’s achievements (www.hfholidays.co.uk).
I found there was no better way to get to grips with his greatness than by hiking up to the top of Pen-y-Ghent, one of the three peaks of the UK’s Yorkshire Dales, on an unseasonably freezing day. So cold, in fact, that I was sure the HF Holiday guides would cancel the walk, with snow flurries concealing the summit. But no, they are made of stern stuff at HF Holidays. This organisation was created in 1913, after all, seeking to, against all odds, get people into the outdoors so that they could still enjoy the landscapes all around them, in spite of a growing sense of worldwide angst. And also, to do so on the cheap. Leonard had already created the Cooperative Holiday Association in 1894, but feeling that this had been swamped by the middle class, he created the Holiday Fellowship (HF), a Society which sought to provide basic, accessible walking holidays at in the UK and abroad. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association, keeping rambling real for generations to come.
Although HF has moved on from single sex bunk rooms to superbly equipped country manors, such as Newfield House in Malhamdale, Yorkshire, the base for my Yorkshire Dales walking break, there is still one core ethos of this walking society which has stuck with HF Holidays. All their guides, or ‘leaders’ as they call them are volunteers. Or good fellows, Leonard might have called them in his day. Many of them have grown up with families who went on HF walking holidays, and now they want to share the love. They are all passionate about walking, cycling as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities. They are also all warm, generous people who celebrate the notion of ‘fellowship’ without being in your face, let’s all hold hands and thank God for life sort of people. In fact, if I could sum these guys up, they are what you imagine the perfect grandparents to be and, if I could, I would like to adopt each and every one of the guys who led us around the Yorkshire Dales for that role in my children’s lives.
So, as much as this centenary is about celebrating the achievements of TA Leonard, it is his legacy that lives on through people which what makes HF a very special company to holiday with, if outdoor activities are your thing. And of course, their walking leaders are hard core, which you need in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia or Glencoe, just to give you that added incentive to climb the next stretch which, in our case, we couldn’t actually see because of snow. But on we trekked, feeling with every step that we were in very safe hands, the route being judged with expertise along the way. We took a steep, slow climb up to the peak, but due to the extreme and icy conditions our leader guided us down a gentler route down Pen-y-Ghent.
The rather stark, boy scout feel that HF Holidays had in the past has gone a little softer round the edges in modern times, however, as we all jumped into the swimming pool at Newfield House on our return, pampered ourselves with a little pilates, and massaged those well stretched muscles with a petit Pino Grigio by the fire. Not sure if that would have passed TA Leonard’s middle class radar, really. Not to mention the fine selection of packed lunches, with poached salmon sandwiches and fine local cheese.
International walking holidays was also part of TA Leonard’s vision and this has now become the biggest growth area for the organisation. An organisation which is still, by the way, a truly cooperative and non-profit organisation. You can sign up to be a member and shareholder, attend the AGMs and have your say in how they move things forward in a world that is being swamped by 1 billion travellers, the majority of whom are still being seduced by pure profit driven travel. HF Holidays also realises that it needs to sustain its set up for the next generation, and so it has created a young person’s membership which adults can sign up to on behalf of anyone under 16. Too cool for school, really.
Another development is the (great value) Freedom Break, whereby you just use one of HF’s accommodations as a base for independent walking, but get full board accommodation, an OS Map and plenty of detailed information on best trails etc. These are just applicable to a certain number of UK locations at the moment, however, such as the Isle of Wight (superb coastal walking just a couple of hours from London), the Cornish Coast Path or the Lake District. However, I was glad to be in the safe hands of a group and our superbly informative and affable guide, Mervyn Flecknoe, as we climbed up Pen-y-Ghent. As we took our final steps down from the peak, we strode across some massive flagstones made from local limestone. For an organisation that proudly promotes ‘Leave No Trace’ as part of its outdoor ethic, this is one impressive exception. Because, although they don’t shout about their conservation and care practices at HF Holidays, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. These flagstones, which prevent erosion caused in hiking hot spots, were funded by HF’s Pathways Fund, a charity which guests can donate to, and which not only works with leading conservations charities to protect landscape but also provides assisted holidays to those who could not otherwise afford one. Like I said – Foundations of fairness. For a hundred years. Fair play, HF, and happy birthday.
For more details of HF Holidays, including walking, cycling and outdoor activity holidays in varied locations from Barbados to the Brecon Beacons, or Kenmare to Kenya, see www.hfholidays.co.uk. Or follow them on Twitter @hfholidays or on Facebook (HF Holidays).
We Irish have to live with the rain. We cycle through it, walk through it, canoe through it and party through it. That is not to say that we don’t get miserable about it too, sometimes. We do. So the more people out there who help us catch a glimpse of that rainbow just bursting to come out from behind those clouds, the better. And Georgia Scott is one of those. She has designed a quirky range of rain gear, mostly for cycling, but they are so cool, you could wear them most places really.
I opted for the D1 high visibility vest, as I my current one that looks like I just stepped off a building site just doesn’t really do anything for my middle aged crisis. Nor, it would seem for my ten year old’s who hates wearing his high vis vest, as he says it looks like ‘ a kid on a school trip’. So, he’s now pinching my new vest which is according to him, ‘totally sick and cool’ (‘sick’ is a compliment from anyone under about 21 these days by the way) and, according to me, based on a Mondrian design with olive green and bright green squares, intercut with silver ‘light up in the dark’ stripes.
The high vis vest is called the D1 after the Dublin postcode, which lies just north of the river. This is just many areas which boast Georgian architecture that Dublin is famous for and so, rather cleverly, Georgia has named her company Georgia in Dublin. Simply stylish and cool, just like her range. Most of their products are designed to have at least two functions. The Dorothy Cover protects the contents of your bike basket from rain, wind, and stuff hopping out as you go over bumps while also doubling as a drawstring bag to put your other rain wear, lights, hats, gloves etc. in. Similarly the Rainwrap can be worn over skirts and trousers keeping your legs dry while cycling and walking and it also doubles as a picnic blanket .
Georgia, who launched this company with her mother in 2009, told me that “We envisaged a range of clothing that women could wear both cycling and walking to work or to the theatre, wherever, whatever the weather. We wanted to help elevate and celebrate the bike as a means of transport for women as well as men”.
All of Georgia’s products are designed and the prototypes made by them in Dublin. Sustainability is important to them and they use good quality cloth and collect used inner tubes from bike shops to make fasteners for the Dublette, the stunning, expandable waterproof jacket and soles for the Leggits, which are like something out of a theatrical costumier’s studio. But if you can’t be theatrical in Dublin, where can you be? Except Paris, New York, London, Milan, Berlin….the list goes on, and this Georgian show will travel, I have no doubt. The Leggits have already won an iF International Design Award for design innovation and production quality at Eurobike 2011 and they won a Brand New Award at the Munich Bike Expo in 2011 for the Georgia in Dublin range. So, instead of letting it rain on your parade, check out Georgia, who will have you singing your way through it, and singing in style.
Sometimes the best things are on our doorstep and we just don’t even notice them. That’s what struck me when staying at the Galley Head Lighthouse in Cork recently. So many people I met who lived there said something along the lines of “Oh, I have always meant to stay there, but you know what it’s like when something is on your doorstep. You never get around to it”. It’s hard to miss Galley Head lighthouse, however, its beautiful beam a familiar sight for many as it illuminates Clonakilty’s coast. I was joined there for a girly getaway by a Cork crony who knows every hidden cove and cranny here but she has never stepped inside the Galley’s gates. But when she, we, did we were blown away not just by the Atlantic surge which hit us with double strength out on this headland, but also by the simply gorgeous restoration of this important piece of Irish cultural heritage.
Galley Head is a landmark and, therefore, it is pretty apt that it is one of the Irish Landmark Trust’s properties, a charity which has been restoring buildings of architectural importance with a view to renting them out as holiday accommodation for twenty one years now. During this time the Trust has restored 24 buildings across Ireland including a 15th century castle in Co Kilkenny that sleeps ten, a castellated gatehouse just for two in Castletownroche and an 18th century wool merchant’s house right in the heart of Temple Bar, Dublin. So if ever there was a good year to be given the key to the door of one of these fine places, this is it. And their collection of amazing buildings is really worth visiting, all renovated with a classic design in keeping with the original architecture, and in to die for locations too. Galley Head being no exception.
There were no shops nearby, which gave us the perfect excuse to stock up on chorizo, red onion and puy lentil tarts, quinoa and couscous salads and a plethora of pastries, all washed down with organic wines from the superb Lettercollum Kitchen Project on Connelly Street, Clonakility before we arrived. We were actually staying in one of the two lighthouse keeper’s houses, although if you are planning a bit of a party, they have adjoining doors so you can take over the whole place. And the minute we came inside, we knew this was a pretty special place.
Galley Head lighthouse is made even more special by the fact that the caretaker, Gerald Butler, who handed over the keys to us, had lived here for years before. He kindly lit the fire for us and told us that he had been a lightkeeper and that “my family served in the Irish Lights for over a hundred years. My father, Lawrence, joined in 1902 and when he was stationed on Eagle Island in 1945 he met the principal keeper’s daughter, Pauline, my mother. After they married, they came here to Galley Head in 1950, but then were stationed elsewhere for a few years, only to return in 1965 with fifteen kids in tow. Of which I was one. My brothers all went to sea with two of us joining The Irish Lights and I am now the attendant lightkeeper here as well as working with the Irish Landmark Trust”.
The Galley Head lighthouse was built between 1874-78 following the sinking of The Crescent City in 1871 when she struck Dhulic rock just off Galley Head. Although the lighthouse has gone from gas to paraffin and now to electricity, Galley Head, like all lighthouses, was assigned a ‘character’ long ago, Gerald told us. This one has five bulls eyes and a rotation which takes twenty seconds, which contrasts with Old Head Lighthouse at Kinsale which has two flashes every ten seconds, or The Fastnet which has one flash every five seconds. No two lights have the same character, he told us, and few characters could hold our attention on the subject of engineering quite as well as this one, I was thinking. My friend said later “His eyes are so blue, he looks like he just stepped out of some magical underwater wonderworld”. I was engrossed by his stories, however, and so was delighted to see that he has put them all in a book called simply The Lightkeeper, published earlier this year by The Liffey Press, (€16.95, www.theliffeypress.com).
As darkness fell and the fire roared in response to the intense Atlantic draft pulling the smoke out into the wilds, I started to probe Gerald on the more personal stuff which fascinated me. Like how on earth his mother had brought up fifteen of them in this house, and not live in constant fear of one of them falling off the cliffs. “Being born and reared at a lighthouse was great fun, with life being one big adventure really”, he told us. “However, it was not all fun and games, as we had to whitewash the entire station every spring. But in the summer holidays we would climb down the cliffs and go fishing and swimming off the rocks”. I shuddered as I looked out at the rain which lashed down all around us, highlighted all the more by the dramatic twenty second character which beamed through it.
Galley Head lighthouse was fully automated in 1979, but Gerald’s parents stayed on as attendant keepers until his father died there in 1992, his mother continuing as attendant for another five years when she retired. Gerald stepped into her shoes until the cottages finally closed in 2001 and now lives nearby. He said that he loves what The Landmark Trust has done with Galley Head and that there is life breathing through it all again. I love what they have done with it too – the comfy sofas and armchairs around the fire, an ottoman overlooking the lawns and light, shuttered windows, dark wooden floorboards and a functional kitchen. There is a plethora of sea themed paintings and a library with everything from shipping manuals to Irish poetry. Considering this place is so close to the elements, the Irish Landmark Trust has pulled off a cocoon like cosiness with a sense of ease.
The Irish Landmark Trust’s strapline is ‘Save, share and sustain. But they have forgotten one more’S’. Stories. Because the Trust is about so much more than buildings. Their charity preserves walls which tell so many stories like Gerald’s. Which is why they were wise not to bother putting tellies or other distractions at Galley Head. All you need to do is tuck up in one of the enormous mahogany beds, looking straight out at the light and enjoy the stories. I fell asleep reading the comforting words of Pauline Butler who had penned some notes in the visitors’ book. It was almost as if I was one of her fifteen and she was telling me bedtime stories. “I never felt lonely here”, she said. “The lighthouse is alive, resembling a gracious old lady winking and blinking over us. Five blinks, every twenty seconds”.
For more details on Galley Head Lighthouse and the other Irish Landmark Trust properties, see irishlandmark.com . I also just found this gorgeous video which captures Galley Head perfectly.
To read more about Gerald Butler’s life as a lightkeeper, see his new book The Lightkeeper (The LIffey Press, €16.95 theliffeypress.com) and his blog www.thelightkeeper.ie
An edited version of this article was first published in Ireland’s Southern Star newspaper.
“Are you really earthy and wholesome then?” a colleague asked me recently. I told her I was about 65% earthy, but reassured her that “I’m not one for eating placentas, though. I have my limits”. I guess the fact that I took two days and three nights to take on the 65kms Loop Head Cycleway in County Clare (shannonregiontrails.ie), is synonymous with my wishy washy green side. Eco warriors would have packed tents into panniers and cycled it in a day. Whereas I booked into three different accommodations, ate a lot more than lentils boiled up on a calor gas, and finished it all off with a seaweed bath and a major pamper.
The Cycleway starts and ends in Kilkee, also home to The Kilkee Thalassotherapy Centre (kilkeethalasso.com), a seaweed bathhouse and treatment centre. The Centre also has accommodation, so I booked in here for my last night, knowing that if it poured the whole way round the Head, I would have that image to keep me going. The superbly helpful owner of the Centre, Eileen Mulcahy, not only allowed me to leave my car there, but also kindly arranged for a hired bike to be delivered. So, before I even straddled a saddle, I was already loving the Loop.
I set out along the North coast of the peninsula, my target for day one being the lighthouse at the tip, following a clifftop road, as magnificent as Moher at many points, but totally devoid of traffic. After about 9kms of coastal cycling, I headed inland along gently undulating lanes as far as Cross, where I dropped my backpack at The Old School, an elegant conversion of a traditional schoolhouse which has been recently restored with love and pride by its owners (Tel: + 353 (0) 65 6703666).
With a lighter load, I caught the sunset at the lighthouse, another 12kms from Cross following another quiet coastal path with some of the most incredible bays tucked away , such as at Bridges of Ross, a series of natural stone bridges sticking out into the sea. My Loop love had been intensified by the fact that Ian Glendinning, owner of The Old School, had offered to pick me and my bike up at Keatings Pub in Kilbaha, just a couple of kilometres from the lighthouse, after dinner. Which was all too cool for school really. Similarly, he dropped me back at the tip in the morning, so that I could continue where I left off, my School House packed lunch tucked into my pannier.
It was a quick cycle along the calmer shores of the Shannon Estuary as far as Carrigaholt for more of a love in. I had booked in for an 11am dolphin watching outing and, within minutes on board Dolphinwatch’s boat Draíocht (dolphinwatch.ie), our brilliant skipper and guide, Geoff and Susanne Magee, had spotted some bottlenose beauties. For an hour and a half, they jumped and soared into the air, as all our hearts leapt in unison.
My second night tapped into my 65% green side, without a doubt. A bell tent, with wood burning stove, awaited me at Pure Camping in Querrin, a further 8K up the coast. As did their home made sauna , a brilliant construction in one corner of the camping field which I crawled into through a small tunnel and, when I was cooked through, I ran straight to bed and fell asleep to the soporific sounds of canvas blowing in the sea breeze.
My final cycle back to Kilkee was along tiny backroads which followed the wetlands of Poulnasherry Bay. This is a haven for birdlife, but Kilkee also has its own haven for human water lovers like me. The Pollack Holes are natural rock pools which you can swim in at low tide. I had put my togs in my bag just in case, as the Pollack Holes are not to be missed. “Just phone me when you are nearby, and I’ll run the seaweed bath for you”, Eileen had told me when I set off a couple of days earlier. Which I did, from the Diamond Rocks Café just beside the pools (diamondrockscafe.com) where other swimmers welcomed me to ‘the club’ and where I consumed a copious amount of choice carbs. From cake heaven to Bladderwrack bliss, my Loop was well and truly complete. For more info see www.loophead.ie. An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times.
It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the hedgerows which envelop me along this shady lane are called Pembrokeshire Banks. Because while the rest of the world’s banks fall into crisis and collapse, these ones are proffering a wealth of natural wonders. These traditional stone field boundaries, known locally as Cloddiau or Clawdd, unlike drystone walls, are bedecked with grass and wildflowers, thanks to the turf and soil stuffed in between the stones, providing not only a windbreaker and boundary, but also a haven of natural and indeed, rich, habitats.
At the moment the bees are in full swing, drunk on the banks’ abundant foxgloves, poppies and ox-eye daisies which lead me down to my nearest beach of Aber Mawr. I am on a three day break from London living, with the aim of avoiding congestion, carbon and cooking, the first two through a growing commitment to being a greener traveller, the third through sheer laziness and a desire to fill every spare minute walking, leaving my work-obsessed mind free to wander too. By using Pembrokeshire’s Coastal Bus service to get me to and from different spots along the Path, I am able to leave the car at home, as I am certainly not going to be able to take on all 299 kms of it. Even better, this bus scheme runs all year round, seven days a week, allowing you to wallow in Welsh wanderlust whenever you fancy (walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk).
I am basing myself at Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, a vibrant, family-run activity centre where I first stayed a couple of years ago. I was on a family kayaking and coasteering holiday that time, and as they welcome everyone here like long lost friends I thought this would be the perfect base for a bit of solitary walking this time. They also serve vats of wonderful home cooked food all day, so I hit the roads with a belly full of breakfast, a packed lunch, in the knowledge that a big curry or casserole was waiting for me each night.
So, having just arrived in on the lunchtime train to Fishguard and Goodwick, where Preseli met me at the station, I am able to fit in a three hour walk from Aber Mawr beach, just ten minutes’ walk from the lodge, heading south on the Coast Path to Trefin. I’m a little confused over the signage for a while – the Coast Path is a National Trail, the sign for which is an acorn. However, it is co-managed along long stretches by National Trust, the sign for which is, bizarrely, an acorn. And when I digress from the sea and walk inland, I am spoilt for choice on this Wales wide web of inland pathways with signs using a walking person, yellow and white arrows, depending on their walking category (pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk). However, all all in all, there is little chance of getting lost.
I stick to the Coast Path, however, which lures me from one bay to another, urging me on to ‘just one more headland’ to see what riches lie beyond it. The terrain varies from craggy, sandy or grassy, and most of the Path is separated from the sea by well managed bracken, gorse or hedging, with stomach churning ‘don’t look down’ moments few and far between.
At Trefin, a small village with the perfect hikers’ hangouts, a pub called The Ship Inn and a charming café called The Mill (with a well earned cream tea), I catch the 18.27 Strumble Shuttle bus back to Mathry, about twenty minutes’ walk from the Lodge, although when I get my bearings I learn to ask the bus driver to drop me further down the road at the crossroads at the bottom of Mathry Hill, a welcome saving of five minutes to my already tired legs.
I leave my big walk for Day Two, a 19 kms circular around the coves and cliffs which wrap themselves around St. David’s. Too full from my excellent curry the night before, I decline breakfast, but welcome my packed lunch. I fill a flask of tea and a large water bottle and hit the roads, with nothing but the cacophony of Spring birdsong to accompany me as I hike up the hill to catch the 8am Strumble Shuttle again. Stand at the crossroads on the main road into St. David’s and stick out your hand when you see it coming. They do stop, really, although there is no official bus stop at this point, and they are more than helpful to vague looking, still half asleep, OS Map waving hikers like me.
I don’t dally in St. David’s where, as the cathedral clock strikes nine, the temperatures are rising into their mid-twenties already. So, I head straight out along a narrow back road, tucked behind the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which turns out to be a heavenly route indeed to the impressive expanses of Whitesands Bay. Heading south again, the Coast Path overlooks Ramsay Island , a bird reserve and favourite hangout for seals, dolphins and porpoises (ramseyisland.co.uk) although, as I dip in and out of tiny uninhabited bays, I only spot a few cliff climbers, kayakers and a couple of fishing boats.
In fact, the Path is never busy, except around St Justinian’s Bay, with its ancient chapel and a stunning red and cream lifeboat station with funicular system designed to transport people and good up and down the cliff, or the turquoise inlet of Porth Clais with its ancient lime kilns built into the harbour walls (and a much needed coffee and ice cream kiosk). The only other company en route are a few smiling hikers and the choughs, cormorants and stonechats all in nesting frenzies at this time of year. I keep an eye out for dolphins and seals, but they aren’t playing today, despite this being one of their favourite hang outs. However, the solitude and solace to be found on this Path soothes my soul, dolphins or no dolphins.
I time my exit from the Path at Caerfai Bay perfectly, fitting in a quick snack at the delightful Caerfai Organic Farm shop just before it closes. Owned by Christine and Wyn Evans, Wyn talks to me about his renewable energy schemes created long before green became the new black. He is totally fired up about how we all have a responsibility to do our bit if we are going to reverse the impacts of climate change. I listen and learn from this knowledgeable man, and when I look back along the Coast Path which swivels in and out of his land, I realise that these farmers who work so generously with National Trust and National Parks to preserve this natural wealth so that we and future generations can all enjoy it, are all doing more ‘bits’ than most of us put together, and I vow to return with my family and take a longer stay at his campsite or cottages.
I make my 17.45 bus from St David’s back to Mathry , with half an hour to spare looking round the Cathedral where, to my delight, the choir is rehearsing for Sunday service, the sopranos’ Amen bringing this already uplifting day to the perfect close.
My last day of walking takes me around Strumble Head, the most barren spot of the Coast Path so far, where wild ponies are let out to pasture in order to keep these remote rocky slopes and paths clear of bracken. An imposing white lighthouse issues warnings through the mist which, in turn, emits nourishing droplets on the yellow blankets of Kidney Vetch and Wild Primrose, peppered with purple wild Thyme, all around me. Suddenly, I spot a seal staring up at me, basking on the steps of this now unmanned lighthouse. It feels as if we are both staring at this marine magnificence all around us in unison and, as the hairs rise on the back of my neck in this quiet moment with nature, I realise that not only are Pembrokeshire’s banks rolling in it, but this highly protected Coastline is just one big bubbling vat of natural assets which is there for everyone to profit from.
Catherine travelled to Pembrokeshire from London by train, travelling from London Paddington to Cardiff Central with First Great Western trains, and from Cardiff Central to Fishguard and Goodwick with Arriva Trains Wales. Return ticket from £74.50 if booked a month in advance. For more information on the Coastal Bus Service, with prices and timetables, see Pembrokeshire County Council
For accommodation at Preseli Venture Ecolodge and Adventure Centre, see preseliventure.co.uk, Tel: +44 1348 837709. From £39 per night for lodge accommodation and breakfast including use of all lodge facilities, plus a range of breakfast choices including a cooked Welsh breakfast or £59 for lodge accommodation and all meals. They also do a 5 days/6 nights walking package for £395 which includes all meals, info pack, free train station transfers if you are travelling by train, emergency back up support whilst out walking and a waterproof OS map
An edited version of this article by Catherine Mack was first published in Visit Pembrokeshire magazine.