Ten minutes later, three normally cynical city-dwellers had paced the turf, dowsing rods in hand. Sure enough, asked to show the line, the rods had swung, cross-legged, at the intersections Laurence had intuited. It was six weeks too early to see the sun set at winter solstice above the circle's Druid altar, but the place was infused with the sense of people who had lived, some 1,000 years before Christianity made it to Ireland, with an altogether different understanding of the world about them. As we left in the half-dark, I touched the mother stone again.
I had come to Ireland for a walking weekend. My first visit. Boarding the plane in London, my mind had been on the grey sky, but by the time we arrived at Bantry, driving from Cork to the west coast, it was crowded with stories of conquest, rebellion, romance and death related by Fachtna O'Callaghan, scholar, retired pig- farmer and guide. West Cork's Second International Walking Festival began that night with a reception at which the weekend's expeditions were outlined. We were to explore two of the fingers that stretch into the Atlantic near Ireland's most southerly tip - the larger Beara peninsula on Saturday, the gentler Sheep's Head on Sunday.
The Sheep's Head was opened to walkers only two years ago, the work of a local, Tom Whitty, who created a 55-mile loop which uses fishermen's tracks and ancient funeral paths.
Kevin Corcoran, a naturalist, confessed his hesitation in singing its praises: it felt like sharing a magical secret. What became clear over the two days, however, is the growing enthusiasm among the Irish for exploring their land. Walking clubs and festivals are taking off and, although the weekend had attracted a good handful of English, Dutch and Germans, most were Irish.
The views from the breakfast table next morning confirmed Corcoran's eulogy - vivid green and amber broken by the steel blue of Bantry Bay, one of Europe's deepest natural harbours. There was a choice of three treks. For those wanting a "good tough walk", there was a 14-miler up and along the Beara's mountainous ridge. But with the crest folded in cloud, I went for the nine-mile "grade B" option.
The walk left base towards 11 o'clock. No one was entirely sure who was leading, but whoever it was set off up a forestry track at a sharpish pace. There were sighs of relief as the conifered climb gave way to rough heathland and people settled into longer strides and easy, breeze-blown conversation.
Talking to a young man who worked for the ministry of agriculture, I mentioned the startling towns and villages that dot West Cork. Twenty years ago, two artists, Tommy Tupeir and John O'Sullivan, had taken it into their heads to paint a couple of the houses. Now turquoise, red, cerise, sunflower yellow and royal blue jostle for attention up and down high streets.
Laughing, the young man explained that one village had been returned to its traditional grey earlier in the year while a film was being made. "It looked really miserable for two months, until they painted it all back again," he said.
By late lunchtime, several new friends and landscapes later, the rear of the party had, it seemed, become another walk altogether. Leaving scouts to shepherd the second flock, we continued over a small pass, exchanging a rocky bay on the north for an open, sheep-dotted trail back south. An hour later, most had followed their leader off the main path and were sipping a hot toddy in a well-placed pub, sodden cagoules steaming in the warmth.
We all made it back to Castletownbere by five o'clock, but not by the same route. A still feisty handful were determined to complete the last lap on foot despite a signpost marking it another seven miles.
I, too, stepped out on to the road with three other women. Some four miles on, we were reassessing our move. Another half mile and our thumbs came out at every passing car. A beat-up white van came to our rescue, a giant of a man greeting us: "Welcome, my children."
Bowling along the road, we passed fellow pilgrims and he stopped and more "children" were welcomed. At the fishing port, 20 climbed out of the van. A whip-round was pressed into the reluctant giant's hand, for "luck on the Lotto". It turned out he was 80.
Standing outside O'Mahon's general store, Kilcrohane, the following morning everything spoke Sunday. The more serious hikers had set out already, leaving the rest of us to make a leisurely midday start. Acquaintances cemented by shared aching limbs and blisters the previous evening were renewed over Irish coffees and pints of Murphy's in the Bay View pub.
Three and a half hours later, the inn was bursting again as fresh-faced walkers satisfied a keener thirst. With an ear on the singsong that was building up in one corner, I quietly turned over the highlights of the afternoon in my mind: another stone circle, half-buried in bracken and gorse; the remains of a medieval bardic school to which the King of Spain had sent his sons; a double rainbow sitting over our heads after a brief downpour; fuchsia-strewn hedgerows; and an almost perfectly C-shaped cove looking across glittering water to the dusty-blue silhouettes of Ireland's southern extremities. A magical secret indeed.
Tom Whitty, a leading light behind the West Cork International Walking Festival, was tragically killed in a car accident this summer. As a result, the next festival has been postponed until 23-25 April 1999. Suzanne Whitty, Tom's widow, will continue Sheep's Head Walking Holidays (tel: 00 353 276 1052).
The Third West Cork International Walking Festival will take place from 23-25 April 1999.
Sarah Bancroft flew with Ryanair (tel: 01792 456116), which offers daily flights to Cork from pounds 70 return plus pounds 10 tax. She stayed at the Westlodge Hotel, Bantry (tel: 00 353 27 50360).
Swansea Cork Ferries (tel: 01792 456116) operates services between Cork and Swansea every other day from pounds 99 return with a car (up to five passengers) and pounds 25 return for foot passengers.
Contact the Irish Tourist Board (tel: 0171-493 3201)and West Cork Tourism (tel: 00 353 28 22812).Reuse content