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.

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