Valentia: Welcome to the high-tech capital of the world - well, it was in 1860

Kate Simon visits an Irish global nerve centre that time forgot
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The last time I visited an Irish island I went by boat. For 50 long minutes I held down my breakfast as the waves crashed on to the deck of our rusting tub, only to lose it over the sea wall the moment I stepped on to dry land. I had no such problem crossing to Valentia, a little island off the Kerry coast, because you can get there by bridge. So why is this place, once the Silicon Valley of Ireland, overlooked by many of the thousands of tourists who travel the famous Ring of Kerry every year, just a mile or two to the north?

The last time I visited an Irish island I went by boat. For 50 long minutes I held down my breakfast as the waves crashed on to the deck of our rusting tub, only to lose it over the sea wall the moment I stepped on to dry land. I had no such problem crossing to Valentia, a little island off the Kerry coast, because you can get there by bridge. So why is this place, once the Silicon Valley of Ireland, overlooked by many of the thousands of tourists who travel the famous Ring of Kerry every year, just a mile or two to the north?

The throngs often bypass the Skellig ring, too, a backroad which branches off the Ring of Kerry just past Waterville and offers the best route to Valentia, winding around the coast, with great views of the Skelligs rocks, Ireland's most enigmatic outcrops after which this loop is named.

We joined the Skellig ring at Ballinskelligs Bay. It was to here that an order of monks retreated in the 12th century from their precarious perch on the remote Skelligs, where they had lived for 600 years. We crossed the scrubby patch of grass above the beach to look out at the haunting remnants of what was once their abbey. It's a bleak and blustery place, hardly a haven, but just right for a bracing walk. But we hugged ourselves against the cold and returned to the car.

The best way to tour the Skellig ring must be by bicycle, but changeable weather and our sleepy baby son restricted us to four wheels. And so we pressed on in search of the ultimate view of the Skelligs, two unforgiving, jagged rocks that soar out of the depths of the Atlantic 10 miles to the west. The beehive-shaped stone cells where the monks lived can be seen close up if you take the 45-minute trip out there. But the bad weather was keeping the boats on their moorings.

Further along at St Finan's Bay, children played in the rain on a short stretch of sand speckled with driftwood and seaweed. Around a bend we came across the Skelligs Chocolate Factory. Intrigued at what little capitalist empire was being built in this unlikely place, we pulled up by the gate. But it was shut. (We later found out that this is run by a husband-and-wife team who make gourmet goodies, and had it been open, we'd have been offered a free sample.)

And so onwards, over the delightfully tongue-twisting Coomanaspig's Pass, one of the highest points you can reach in a car in Ireland. We stopped at the top to take in the view – albeit briefly as the rain was lashing down by now. Before us the dormant hump of Puffin Island sulked in the water. But further out, through the swirling mist, the Skelligs came into view. Even at this distance we could see their sharp, angry peaks piercing the heavy, wet air.

The sky was black by the time we reached Portmagee and the bridge. We could barely make out Valentia, just a few seconds' drive away. Such a short hop by bridge gives little sense that you are cast adrift from the mainland. You could take a ferry from Renard Point, a few miles along the coast. (It takes only 10 minutes or so and isn't a stomach-churner.) The boat docks in Knightstown, the grander of the island's two villages. Designed in the early 1800s by the Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo, it has a cluster of attractive buildings and an ornate town clock on the quay, and is a popular retreat for Dublin folk. But we approached through less remarkable Chapeltown and followed signs to a slate quarry.

For an island only a few miles square, Valentia has more than its share of attractions: the paw prints of a beast that predated the dinosaurs; standing stones; the ruins of ancient Celtic churches; a centre dedicated to the history of the Skelligs. And this quarry, which yielded the slate that covers the roof of the Houses of Parliament. Of course, insomniacs will recognise Valentia's name from the shipping forecast, though the meteorological station moved to the mainland more than 100 years ago.

But Valentia's heyday was in the 19th century, when it became the high-tech capital of the world. In 1860, the island was at the European end of the first transatlantic communication cables, laid earlier that century, and transmitted signals to and from the US: they say the cables carried news of the Easter Rising in 1916. The station closed down in the 1960s, but you can see its buildings on the low road from Knightsbridge to Chapeltown.

More impressive than these wind-blown reminders of the past are the gardens at Glanleam House, a mile or so outside Knightstown. Built by a Knight of Kerry in the early 19th century, it lies below the town, looking out at the Dingle Peninsula. The sun broke through as we dipped off the main road into woodland, down a lane lined with fuchsias to a circular drive above a jungle of banana, bamboos, palms and tree ferns. For a small fee you can walk around the grounds. But the owners were away on business.

We had travelled to Kerry at the end of the season to avoid the crowds. It was a risky thing to do because the area and the island in particular appear to snap shut on 31 September. So we gave up on the man-made attractions and took off on foot to Bray Head, on the south side of the island, built by the British as a smugglers' watch. No pirates today, just sea and sky and, at last, the ultimate view of the Skelligs.

Comments