West Cork: is it the new Dordogne?

Keith Nuthall reports on the tranquil and undeveloped area of southern Irish coast that is gradually being colonised by our celebrities

Keith Nuthall
Sunday 18 August 1996 00:02

The Dordogne? A cliche. Tuscany? Passe, without a doubt. The fashionable holiday haven for the English intelligentsia has moved west and is now much nearer home.

West Cork is a secret: a soft wilderness of misty valleys, rocky inlets and hummocky islands in Ireland's far south-west, untouched by British mass tourism. It is a secret kept by a burgeoning number of the English chattering classes, for whom its beauty, isolation, and, let us be frank, increasing chic, make it the preferred destination when August comes to Islington and Notting Hill.

Jeremy Paxman, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Margaret Jay, Anthony Lester QC, Judge Pickles, Victoria Glendinning, Edward de Bono, Keith Floyd, Michael Gough, Jeremy Irons and Sir David Puttnam are just a handful of the notables for whom the attractions of Sarlat and San Gimignano have paled besides those of Ballydehob and Skibbereen.

Over the past 15 years a loose-knit community of members of the British liberal establishment has grown in West Cork, and in terms of fashion their joint presence is now achieving critical mass. Not that those already there welcome the idea.

"The last thing I would like to think is that Ireland was becoming a fashionable place," said Lord Lester, better known as Anthony Lester QC, Liberal Democrat legal affairs spokesman in the Lords, and part-time resident of the small fishing port of Schull. "Why don't you say that the weather is foul and the people are awful? One doesn't like the place one lives in to be populated with too many people. This is about escaping the English and being with the people of the south and west of Ireland. The English should go to the Spanish coast."

Too many of a certain sort of English, however, are now heading for West Cork to be invisible. Most live in a tightly defined area, 35 miles long, between Rosscarbery and Goleen near the Atlantic peninsula of Mizen Head, in a scattering of villages and small towns. Many are good friends, who visit each other for dinner, drinks, or both.

They come for peace and solitude, in a small cottage at the end of a dirt track, off a windy lane to nowhere in particular, in a mild climate warmed by the Gulf Stream - the average temperature is 9C in December, January and February and it rarely snows. High summer averages are a comfortable 20C.

Victoria Glendinning, biographer of Trollope, Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West, who spends summers in the townland (Irish for parish) of Church Cross, also proclaimed her discomfort at revealing anything about her green paradise: "It's a secret how good it is. Everyone lives off the end of bad lanes. You can still hide."

But she could not hold back her praise. "There are beauty spots to take the sight out of your eyes and there's nobody there. You don't see a car for half-an-hour. It's as beautiful as Greece. It's extremely pleasant. You never see anyone on the road without saying hello. Human beings get acknowledged here."

Julia Neuberger, another summer inhabitant of Schull, was equally fulsome: "I am extraordinarily fair-skinned and I don't like these hot places like Tuscany. Here it's incredibly beautiful. I like the people. It's hugely appealing. I like the warmth and the general kindness. Everyone has a flair for language too. It's a very literary place. I like the life, the pace, or rather the lack of it."

Rabbi Neuberger is typical of the people West Cork has attracted, which sometimes sounds like the cast list of Newsnight. Jeremy Paxman last year rented a house called Drishane in Castletownsend which was once the home of Somerville and Ross, whose novels such as Memoirs of an Irish RM lightly satirised Cork's Protestant Ascendancy middle-classes.

A typical Newsnight guest, Margaret Jay, former wife of the BBC economics editor and sometime ambassador to Washington, Peter Jay, has a summer home in the village of Glandore. Now Baroness Jay of Paddington, Labour health spokeswoman in the Lords, she has brought over guests who have included her father, the former Prime Minister Lord Callaghan.

Angela Flowers, who shows new British artists at Flowers East gallery, owns a cottage in Rosscarbery, which doubles up as a gallery for local artists.

The artist William Crozier has a home in Kilcoe, with his wife, Katherine Crouan, head of Winchester School of Art. Interior decorator Robert Kime, who recently decorated Andrew Lloyd Webber's castle in Co Tipperary, has a home in Union Hall, as does David Carter, the industrial designer who was responsible for taking the red out of BT phone boxes and putting the hour-glass figure into the handles of Stanley 5000 screwdrivers.

A near-neighbour in the same townland is Catherine Freeman, former Thames Television features and documentaries controller and now director of Dove Productions, which makes Channel 4's Citizen 2000 series of documentaries.

Then there are the Characters - Yorkshire's most famous retired judge, the outspoken James Pickles, owns a cottage in Leap; the TV chef and noted imbiber Keith Floyd spends summers in Kinsale - and the Superstars: the film producer Sir David Puttnam, and the actor Jeremy Irons and his wife, Sinead Cusack, have homes facing each other on opposite banks of the river Ilen, south of Skibbereen.

The presence of all these outsiders is naturally bringing changes. To note but one: a traditional small-town two-counter grocery store with a bakery out the back has become a luxury supermarket.

In the Sixties, J J Field & Co, in Skibbereen, sold Irish staples such as potatoes, lamb and onions, with no frills; today, Fields has more than 10 times as much floorspace and is the Fortnum & Mason of the west, stocking champagne, wild salmon, venison and free-range duck. John Field, the owner, is negotiating with suppliers of Russian caviare and the supermarket is introducing its own-label brand for 150 lines, including marmalades, biscuits, salad oil and olive oil, of which Fields stocks 12 varieties.

Another concern, said Cork County Council senior executive planner Bob Gunkel, is the danger that the locals might get priced out of the housing market. To help counter this, the council has approved a policy for two of the towns that have faced the most intense pressure for holiday-home development which says that such schemes should contain 15-20 per cent homes for people living there all year round.

Generally though, the English community is small enough and well-mannered enough to mix in with the locals and be popular.

"They get on fine," said Thomas Newman, postmaster at Schull. "They've been here a long time. They've settled in. They are treated really like Irish people."

This might change if West Cork becomes a Green Dordogne in every way, and overrun; but for the locals there is at least one piece of good news. Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant, it was reported recently, have abandoned attempts to find an Irish holiday home.

After months of inspecting properties, they have decided Ireland is not for them. The people of Cork might be grateful: the golden couple will be buying in France instead.

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