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
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
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 disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
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

    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
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?