Dingle to Ballyferriter, 2nd April 2008

In 1135 King Henry I of England died of a surfeit of lampreys, an eel-like fish of which he was inordinately fond. This fact comes into my mind during the night of 1st/2nd April when I regret some of the food I’ve eaten over the past couple of days. Thus when Tom arrives to offer me breakfast, I quickly make my excuses and leave.

The walk to Ventry will kill or cure me, and I start at a comfortable pace, determined to make the best of the day. Shortly after 9am I reach the village stores and buy bread, ham and a mug of coffee. This simple picnic, taken on a bench opposite the shop in the company of an optimistically attentive dog, settles my stomach and fuels my engine. The day is looking up.

There’s a cap of cloud on the hills, but the weather is mild and hazy. I enjoy a brisk walk along the firm, sandy beach, shared only with four humans and one dog. Huge scallop shells bear witness to the richness of the waters. Ordered waves roll in and gently swash over the sand. What a lovely beach for families on holiday.

At the end of the beach, the handful of modern bungalows seems empty though certainly not abandoned. Beyond, a cow-trodden track leads between hedges and embankments to the Slea Head Drive, a tour popular with motorists. The map and guidebook show the Way using this road for fifty metres before climbing onto the flank of Mount Eagle. Sadly, diversion notices instruct walkers to follow the yellow arrows along the tarmac for one kilometre.

Musing on the why and wherefore of the route change, but grateful that traffic is light, I plod along, taking in the cliff scenery on my left and scanning the roadside for the arrow that will return me to the route. After what seems more like a mile than a kilometre, the yellow arrow appears, and I follow three women up a farm road, past two uncommunicative shepherds, and onto the unsurfaced track that winds steeply upwards between dry stone walls.

Looking back towards Ventry Bay

The day grows warmer; it’s time to shed a layer. The women do likewise, and we exchange pleasantries before I leave them behind. The Way now follows the moorland side of the wall that separates rough pasture up the hill from the enclosed land that runs quite steeply down to the cliff edge. In the fields are the remarkable stone remnants of hundreds of tiny buildings, many of which are believed to date from more than a thousand years ago. These are known as clochans, or beehive huts because of their shape. Whilst some remains date from pre-Norman times, it is likely the Irish were driven to these marginal sites when the Normans evicted them from the best land.

Remains of clochans (beehive huts) across the valley

I’ve seen similar stone structures in Provence, where they are used for storing grain and other produce. That suggests ancient links, racial or cultural, between the two sets of inhabitants. In Ireland too, some of the buildings, or at least the building techniques, remained in use after medieval times.

Beehive huts of more recent origin

The waymarks point to a broad track beside overhead power lines. The route climbs to the crest of a ridge thrown seaward by Mount Eagle, whose own summit is shrouded. At the top are four men from East Kent, enjoying the hazy view of Dunmore Head and the Blaskets. They set off down before me, but I catch them up on my urgent journey to Slea Head Café, an establishment which I soon hold in the highest esteem for the quality of its seafood chowder and its generous, helpful, smiling, friendly servers. Sitting outside with my lunch, bantering with an engineer from Eircom who is trying to locate buried cables, and conversing with a young German couple on their first visit to Ireland, I pass a most agreeable lunchtime. My socks air in the warm breeze as I feed crumbs of soda bread to the sparrows and soak up the peaceful atmosphere of this remote place.

Eventually I decide I must press ahead. Is this is my Anglo-Saxon work ethic rising to the surface? I walk along the road towards Dunmore Head, the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. On the way I meet Linda, a photographer from New York, who finds herself drawn back time and again to this scrap of coast between Slea Head and Dunmore Head. I can’t say why, but I think I get a special feeling for it too.

Dunmore Head (centre top) and Great Blasket (left)

Stonework near Slea Head

Looking back at Slea Head from the approach to Dunmore Head

The Way doesn’t visit Dunmore Head, but I do, since I’ve never knowingly visited the “compass-point” extremity of any country or community of nations, in this case the European Union.

Dunmore Head, with Great Blasket in the distance

I carry my euros to the headland, having already spent some at the westernmost café, and as I stand gazing out to sea I’m joined by Steve and Nathan (father and son) from Florida. We have a good natter before shaking hands and parting.

Looking north from Dunmore Head to Dunquin

The Way to Dunquin sticks mainly to the road, a new straight tarmac line replacing its predecessor which has fallen into the sea. At Dunquin a large modern building houses an exhibition about the life and literature of the Blasket Islanders, who finally deserted their offshore homes in the nineteen-fifties. I’m more inclined to pound on over the hill towards Smerwick Harbour, so I pass it by.

I’m off the road for a while, crossing moorland on a vehicle track until diverted by a green waymark – what might it mean? – but I soon have to correct my course by crossing a boggy splodge of rough pasture. The views far ahead are seductive: the land surges up as if rushing westwards, forming great cliffs that look like defiant, solid waves confronting the Atlantic. That such dramatic great headlands are off limits to walkers is a terrible shame.

Above Dunquin, looking north towards the Three Sisters

Back on the road that passes the Louis Mulcahy pottery, a woman’s voice shouts my name. It’s Karen, who I met on the way to Anascaul, and this time she introduces me to her husband and her friend. They are sociable types, so we enjoy a few minutes’ chat before they head for their car.

I push on through the mid-afternoon, pondering where to stay for the night. I’ve got only two phone numbers for places within a reasonable distance. One is a hotel, the other a B&B. I phone the B&B and gratefully book my bed, and as I’m receiving directions a couple on bikes stop beside me, smiling. When I’ve ended my call they ask if I’m in need of help. How thoughtful! This is just what Neil Burns had told me in Dingle a couple of days ago: whenever he’s looking at a map, someone always asks if they can direct him.

I walk briskly along beside them. They live locally and are keen walkers and cyclists. I explain where I’ll be staying and the roundabout route I’m taking, which should ensure I miss none of the beaches at Smerwick Harbour. They explain that the Way could and should be a much better walk, by which they mean it should follow the cliffs. The landowner between Clogher and our chance meeting point decided he didn’t want the path on his land, and so he fenced it off. There was a public meeting to explain the reasons and the procedures, and despite opposition the deed was done. My informants shake their heads at the state of the law in Ireland and say they are very envious of the access and rights of way provisions in England. As my feet have now suffered more than enough of the tarmac, I feel just the same.

They cycle away home while I pound the lanes and, in the cool of early evening, I walk alone along a sandy beach to approach Ballyferriter from the north. The place is as dead as a French village at lunchtime. Four hundred metres south is my B&B, right next door to the shop where I bought lunch during my cycle ride. Alice welcomes me with a pot of tea and two slices of fruit cake, and after a shower and shave I head back to the village for a Guinness pick-me-up.

The bar is warm. A coal fire burns cheerily, and most of the drinkers laugh and smile as they perch on bar stools. A Champions’ League soccer match is on the TV, but only the English drinkers – three young men and me – pay it any attention. The Irish are busy gossiping, and when the barman’s wife comes in with their two young children the locals focus on the family. I finish off with an Irish coffee, and the barman asks me if I enjoy listening to singing, which will start about 10pm in another room. Tempting though it sounds, I’ve had a long day, so I trundle back to my lodgings to watch the last few minutes of the football and sleep my aches away.

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