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.

Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows' by John Constable
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
musicYou'll have to ask Taylor Swift first
News
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
people
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

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness