Ireland: Green is the true colour of romance

A journey through the countryside of West Cork sees Anthea Milnes falling in love with the Emerald Isle

West Cork is like Cornwall without the crowds; wild coastal landscapes you could fall in love with in a heartbeat, bracing sea air, a gentle pace of life and, above all, lots of space. It's a land of ancient monuments and mines, hills and bogs, where empty back roads lead from nowhere to nowhere. Of course, would-be walkers have the weather to contend with. Ireland may boast of 40 shades of green, but only because it has 40 varieties of rain to match, from light "mizzle" through to "bucketing it down". Today, though, the verdant, dewy lanes are glittering in the sun and the red fuchsia hedges are glowing, filling me with optimism for my journey through West Cork's past.

Michael O'Donovan, a local historian and my guide, meets me by the harbour in the little fishing port of Schull. In recent years, under the influence of the powerful "Celtic tiger" economy, Schull has smartened up, and with its designer jewellery shops, independent food stores and gourmet restaurants is now known (by the retailers at least) as "the Sloane Street of Ireland".

Schull and the surrounding market towns, once made up of farmers and fishermen, have become a melting pot of locals, travellers, artists and hippies, spiced up with a peppering of celebrities. Actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack own the peach-coloured McCarthy Castle overlooking the sea near neighbouring Ballydehob, film producer David Puttnam and a former member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience have holiday homes not far away, and even Tony Blair has been known to get away from it all here on the "Irish Riviera".

So far though, the closest I've come to hobnobbing with the really rich is upstairs in Adèle's Café where European au pairs compare notes about the bad behaviour of their small charges.

The sparsely populated countryside surrounding Schull seems immune to these new arrivals. From the harbour, Michael and I head inland until we arrive at a high stone wall, broken by an elaborate iron gate overgrown with ivy. In a parody of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, the gate opens, not on to a neglected paradise, but on to a sobering reminder of the past. Completed just after the Great Famine in the mid-19th Century, the old ruined workhouse inside was once home to those who had abandoned hope; labourers and their families who had been forced to leave their quarter-acre of farmland by unsympathetic Protestant landlords. Today, the workhouse and associated school and hospital are crumbling, but schoolchildren have half-cleared the site of the neighbouring cemetery and erected a monument bearing a Gaelic inscription in memory of the dead.

We hike further inland, towards the dominant peak of Mount Gabriel. Away from the main road, there is scarcely a soul in sight. The scenery ahead is dramatic; a looming mountainous ridge divided by a deep cleft. Legend has it that the rock missing from the middle became the famous Fastnet Rock.

Michael leads me off the road and we start to clamber up a steep gradient. He is at least twice my age and obviously enjoys his Guinness, yet he is leaping up the hillside like a goat while I huff and puff a hundred metres behind him. I stop to catch my breath and see behind me the light sparkling on the water of Roaringwater Bay and the sun shining on the islands beyond. It looks like the promised land.

I finally catch Michael up at the site of the oldest copper mines in Western Europe. The scars in the hillside are not deeply etched, but it's easy to see where Bronze Age miners created shafts at a slight angle to the ground. There are a total of 31 sites, according to Michael, but it's hard for me to visualise a huge copper venture, the products of which have turned up all over Europe, before the pyramids were built in Egypt.

Back at the base of the mountain, our walk continues along a bog road – not a wet and muddy road, but one that undulates gently along a long, straight stretch of peatland, the kind that occurs only where rain falls on at least 235 days a year. There may not be 40 words for rain in Ireland, but apparently there are 130 words relating to bogland and bogland species. It sounds depressing, but bogs are surprisingly beautiful, I discover. Shallow pools of water sparkle in the sunlight, while white water lilies float on their surfaces. There are no humans in sight. Our feet fall into a rhythm on the road.

Some time later, we take a sharp left, following a signpost back to Scoil Mhuire, originally the School of Mary, now the town of Schull, named after a monastic school established near St Mary's Church.

Returning to the relative comfort of the road, we cross a small stone bridge and finally see signs of modern civilisation. One gateway bears the inscription Anam Cara (Gaelic for "soul friend"); another is painted with a bee motif. Bright orange montbretia and pink rambling roses join the red fuchsia lining our route and a trickling stream accompanies us back to the Workhouse Corner. My body is aching now but I feel elated. "Time," I suggest to Michael, "for a drop of the black stuff."

Anthea flew courtesy of Aer Lingus (0845 973 7747, www.aerlingus.com). She stayed at Stanley House Bed & Breakfast, owned by the Brosnans on Colla Road, Schull (00 353 28 28425), from £20 per person. Two days car hire with Europcar (0845 722 2525; www.europcar.com) costs from £77.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker