Walking and talking the Seven Heads of Clonakilty, West Cork

Seven Heads, Clonakility, Ireland
Seven Heads, Clonakility, 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 McKenna are 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.

Lettercollum, Clonakilty
Lettercollum, Clonakilty

 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.

Friary at Timoleague, Courtmacsherry
Friary at Timoleague, Courtmacsherry

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.

Walking and strumming on the Seven Heads Peninsula
Walking and strumming on the Seven Heads Peninsula

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.

Joy Larkcom - a really good head
Joy Larkcom – a really good head

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 the Seven Heads Peninsula
On the Seven Heads Peninsula

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 Bridget was 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.

 

Catherine umping into West Cork Photo: Catherine Mack
Catherine jumping into West Cork Photo: Catherine Mack

 

 

 

Loop Head – going in search of Eden, and finding Heaven

Looking North from the northern side of the Loop Head Peninsula cycle trail Photo: Catherine Mack
Looking North from the northern side of the Loop Head Peninsula cycle trail Photo: Catherine Mack

I am often asked, which are the best bits of Ireland to visit? Which are the greenest? The most ‘Irish’ ? This is all very subjective, of course, but what most people don’t know is that the European Union has come up with a pretty efficient way of mapping some of the most sustainable regions of Europe. It has chosen Eden areas all over Europe, and Ireland boasts five of them. Because EDEN is an acronym meaning EU Destinations of Excellence, and are actually awards given to specific regions (often tiny enough to fall off the usual tourist maps) for their exemplary contributions to sustainable tourism. And I have the task of going in search of all of Ireland’s EDEN’s to see if they are as fruitful as they claim to be.

The more well known Eden, as in ‘Garden of’,  means fruitful and well watered, and as I went on my way around the EU’s five ‘chosen ones’ in Ireland, namely Clonakilty in County Cork, Sheep’s Head Peninsula also in County Cork,  Carlingford and Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, Mulranny and The Great Western Greenway in County Mayo, and my first stop, Loop Head Peninsula in County Clare, I found landscapes that bore fruit which would tempt any visitor into a state of desire. A desire to stay longer, meet more of the people, consume more of the food and drink, walk more of the land and celebrate even more of its endless waterscapes. And yet none of it is forbidden. Unknown by many tourists, perhaps, but the doors are wide open.

Cycling along the Loop Head Cycle Trail, with hardly a soul en route Photo: Catherine Mack
Cycling along the Loop Head Cycle Trail, with hardly a soul en route Photo: Catherine Mack

I am starting in County Clare’s Loop Head, which is certainly watered, if not by all the rain it has had over the last year, then by the waves which crash into its northern Atlantic shores. It doesn’t put me off taking on the Loop Head Cycleway, which goes around the whole peninsula, top to toe, and at 65kms takes about two days to complete, at tourist speed that is, not racing speed. I decide to take it easy and spend three days looping the loop and it turns out to be a good decision. Especially because at some points the signs go a little awry and I need to get back on track. However you can’t get too lost here, as you have sea either on your right or your left at some stage.

The problem with taking on a long loop type of break is finding places to stay, but with Loop Head Tourism Group forming a tightly knit community, I soon have a chain of beds to fall into every night. The Cycleway starts and ends in Kilkee where there are also, somewhat divinely (it is Eden after all) some seaweed baths and a seawater treatment centre at The Kilkee Thalassotherapy Centre. The Centre also has accommodation, so I book in here for my last night, knowing  that if it pours the whole way round the Head, I would have that image to keep me going.

I leave my car at the Centre, where the wonderfully helpful owner, Eileen Mulcahy, also arranges for a hire bike to be delivered. I set out along the North coast of the peninsula, my target for today the lighthouse at the tip, and within minutes of cycling along this quiet road, my eyes are drawn back towards the headlands which tumble out behind me  along the West coast.  The furthermost was the Cliffs of Moher, and the closest the cliffs at St. George’s Head in Kilkee itself, rising majestically above the perfect curves of its strand. And there are a load of them holding up my cycle route too, but I keep the head down and don’t veer anywhere near the edge, gaping and gasping at the dramatic rock stacks and blow holes which line my route, and yet miles away from the crowds of Moher.

Loop Head Lighthouse at sunset Photo: Catherine Mack
Loop Head Lighthouse at sunset Photo: Catherine Mack

The Cycleway clings to the coast for about 9kms with virtually no cars passing me along the route, and there are plenty of long straight stretches albeit with a few gentle ups and downs, so that you can see and be seen well ahead. It then turns inland to more shaded roads, lined with hedgerows bursting with blackberries which I could almost pick en passant they were so enormous. Nothing forbidden about these either.

I stop at Cross, a further 7kms inland, where I drop my bag at a recently converted schoolhouse, my first bed for the night. I had hoped to book into the Landmark Trust’s Lighthouse Keeper’s House at the tip, but they book out months in advance, and this elegant conversion of The Old School, proves to be the most cosy and ideally located spot for the night anyway. And with the most congenial hosts too, Teresa and Ian Glendinning, who have rescued this old stone building with love and more love, and must relish the smiles that their guests give back when they see the fruit of their labour. They certainly have their own special little corner of Eden here and not even having had a chance to create their own website yet, they will be sure to book out when they do, so get in quick (Tel:  065 6703666 ).

There was still enough time to get to the lighthouse for sunset and, with a lighter load, I grab a quick snack in Foley’s shop in the Cross Village to get me through the last 12K of the day. About 3kms outside Cross there is a fork in the road, which I nearly miss, but the cycle route veers down a quieter lane to the shore again,  to the magnificent Bridges of Ross – a series of natural stone bridges sticking out into the sea like giant fingers. You can easily miss them if you are speeding past, although the call of the many Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Shearwaters and Terns which make these wonders of natural architecture their home will lead you in the right direction.

loop head 6It’s bit of a gradual uphill cycle from here to the tip although the lighthouse, which remains hidden throughout the cycle, revealing itself only on the last 2kms stretch, as it glows in the most incredible sunset, which had also been concealed by the cliffs until the last minute. This lighthouse opened up to the public this year, for summer months only,  and has a small exhibition and touching DVD with lighthouse keepers sharing anecdotes, as well as a tour up to the top, where I was able to  look back along the route I had just cycled.

Seafood chowder at nearby Keatings Pub in Kilbaha, overlooking the southward facing side of the tip, with its view over the Shannon this time, was made even more palatable by the fact that Ian, at the School House, had offered to pick me and my bike up after dinner. So, you are safe to have one or two for the road. 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.

My aim for today is to get to Carrigaholt for 11am to join a Dolphinwatch trip on board Draíocht, to try and spot some of the 140 dolphins living on the rich stocks of herring and mackerel in the river mouth. I am not disappointed, as within minutes we spot dancing in the distance and Geoff, the skipper and highly knowledgeable guide, switches off an engine to let them approach slowly. The group on board all instinctively lower their voices to let these wild animals approach in peace, our hearts soaring as they circle around us playfully.   The views of Sheep’s Head are superb from the boat as well, as we see the stratified rock formations, arches and caves up close, and looking south where the peaks of Mount Brandon and even Carrauntoohil glisten in the distance.

BND Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Loop Head, Co Clare Ireland. Taken on Dolphin Watch, Carrigaholt trip.   Credit Tim Stenton
BND Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Loop Head, Co Clare Ireland. Taken on Dolphin Watch, Carrigaholt trip. Credit Tim Stenton

After a symphony of seafood at award-winning The Long Dock in Carrigaholt, I think my day can’t get any better, until I pull into my last stop of the day at Pure Camping in Querrin, a further 8kms up the coast. I catch the end of their season, but have been reassured they have bell tents with wood-burning stoves inside, so I know I will be cosy enough. What I didn’t know was that they have a home made sauna too, which you crawl into through a small tunnel, igloo style, except this one is boiling. After a long sauna, followed by a quick solar powered shower, I run across the field to my proper bed, the fire already set by my lovely hosts, Kevin and Trea Heap, the eco heroes who created this gorgeous campsite, and fall asleep to the sound of canvas gently ruffling in the wind.

Loop Head 5
Catherine swimming at the Pollock Holes, Kilkee – Loop Head Peninsula

Querrin to Kilkee is my last lap, about 10kms on tiny back roads which have seen nothing more than tractors and cows from what I can see. That and a lot of birdlife which wade in the wetlands of Poulnasherry Bay. I do a bit of wading myself in the famous Pollock Holes back in Kilkee, natural rock pools which you can swim in at low tide. So put your togs in your bag, as you don’t want to miss these treats, which must be one of the best wild swimming spots in Ireland.  And you have the Diamond Rocks café just beside you to warm you up, where other swimmers welcome you to ‘the club’. I jump from cold sea to hot sea within a five minute cycle, as I phone Eileen at the Thalassotherapy Centre, who has the steaming seawater laced with seaweed waiting for me. This isn’t Eden at all, I think to myself as I sink into my bladderwrack bliss, this is heaven itself.

For more information on Loop Head see www.loophead.ie
Twitter @LoopHeadTourism
Facebook  LoopHeadPeninsula
For more information on Ireland’s EDEN areas see irelandseden.ie

Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack
Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack

An edited version of this article was published in The Southern Star, Ireland