Venturing into West Cork
The first time I ventured into West Cork I heard about a peninsula containing a huge network of walking trails, in particular the Beara Way. West Cork comprises of a series of peninsulas: Mizen Head, Sheep’s Head and Beara. Unlike the lush green Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, both of which are swarming with bus loads of tourists, West Cork’s peninsulas are both rugged and much less visited. The roads are too small to allow large buses, and therefore large tour groups do not infest the area. It’s a much more agreeable part of the country to visit, and just as stunning, if not more so, than Dingle and Kerry.
The tiny village of Glengarriff signifies the start of the Beara Peninsula. Glengarriff is simply one road with more accommodation than shops it seems. I stayed in the Murphy’s Village Hostel, run by the very friendly and helpful Tony and Susan Murphy, with a little help from their children.
The Beara Peninsula is just one of hundreds of stunning places to visit on the Wild Atlantic Way, which comprises of 2500km of stunning, rugged coastline running from County Cork in the south to Donegal in the north.
It was here that I learned all about the Beara Way, a 197-kilometre network of walking trails that link Glengarriff with Dursey Island and Kenmare via the entire length of the peninsula, Kenmare being in actuality just 20 kilometres north. Dursey Island lies at the tip, 48 kilometres from Glengarriff, and is accessible via Ireland’s only cable car. Beara is dominated by the Caha Mountains, which run from end to end down the centre of the peninsula.
As well as being the start of the Beara Way, Glengarriff is also host to its own network of walking trails on the outskirts. Behind the hostel is the Blue Pool Amenity Area. Inland from the village lies the 300-hectare oak and pine Glengarriff Woods. It is exactly 16 kilometres from Glengarriff to the hostel at Adrigole along the Beara Way, the first leg of the trail.
Off we go
We set off around midday. I had never really done any long distance walking before, and foolishly set off with no water and just two small chocolate bars for sustenance. I figured the walk would take four to five hours. My companions were better prepared.
The trail led on past a farmhouse being guarded by a dog. We soon found ourselves heading in to the mountains. Stretching out before us was a rolling, rugged terrain covered with sheep and their discarded faeces. The sky was overcast, yet so far it hadn’t rained.
We hiked on along a grassy country road. One of the girls had drawn a rudimentary map, copied from the map on the hostel wall. This wasn’t really needed however, as the Beara Way is well signed. It’s part of the national network of Irish Waymarked Trails. A mile or so past the farmhouse we turned off the road and followed a rough, sodden trail that led on through a forest and then up towards Sugarloaf Mountain. At 581 metres it’s hardly a mountain, but low cloud level gave it an impression to the contrary.
The trail leads over a pass between Sugarloaf and Gowlbeg mountains, at the top of which is a magnificent view of Bantry Bay and Hungry Hill, the highest mountain on the peninsula at 686 metres.
We had seen hardly a soul since leaving the main road. Beara is a true wilderness, littered with historical monuments and archaeological sites. Over 600 have so far been identified.
Up until now things had gone fairly well. Walking in such beautiful countryside had helped keep my mind off all the aches and pains. The landscape had been challenging: we’d crossed streams, wound through a forest and scrambled up hillsides. We’d fought gravity and been rewarded with stunning views.
The Beara Way signposts had faithfully led us this far. When we came to a T-Junction, the sign indicated for us to turn left. Next to it was a sign indicating that Adrigole was only three kilometres away. Our delight was obvious.
At the bottom of the road was another T-junction, and no sign of a town. I asked for directions in the petrol station.
‘There’s no actual town,’ said the lady behind the counter. ‘It’s just an area.’
An area, as it turned out, that is ten kilometres long with a small scattering of houses. Obviously the inhabitants liked their space, or didn’t like each other.
I asked about the hostel.
‘Oh it’s about three miles back that way, so it is,’ she said. ‘It’s a nice hostel.
So we had no choice but to trudge on along the main road for a further three miles, each milestone coming in the form of local people.
‘Only two more miles. It’s a nice hostel.’
I was beginning to wonder if they were being paid to say that.
We were all dead tired by this time. Personally, I felt like I had gone twelve rounds with Lennox Lewis and was having to carry him on my shoulders on his victory parade.
By taking the left turn at the T-junction we had added more miles onto the journey, and consequently more hours. We should have gone straight on. It seemed that signpost had been moved. By taking this route we missed out on incredible views of the Healy Pass, a winding road that rises 334 metres and cuts through the rugged mountain range.
Finally we crossed the bridge just short of the hostel. Here we did a little dance of joy that resembled a trio of pensioners attempting to do an Irish jig.
Hungry Hill Lodge
The hostel was indeed nice. Over the years it has grown and developed, and has become a campsite and lodge, with lots of space for tents and campervans, and as well as a dormitory for backpackers, it also offers private and family rooms and can accommodate large groups. It’s an ideal base from which to hike Hungry Hill or the Healy Pass.
That night we all nursed our sore bodies with the healing effects of Irish stout in the pub just outside the hostel.
The Beara Way continues from here right on through Castletownberehaven, Ireland’s largest whitefish port, and on to the tip of the peninsula. Here you’ll find a scattering of lovely colourful little villages set aside magnificent views of the Atlantic. You can visit the ruins of Dunboy Castle and Puxley Mansion, legacy of the family who controlled the wealth from the nearby copper mines.
The Beara Way then continues on along the north of the peninsula, part of which lies in County Kerry.
Beara is without doubt a wild and harsh landscape, and that in itself makes it a mecca for the hiker and climber. Just be aware that some Beara Way signposts might have been moved by bored local children.
However, if you are not as crazy as me and prefer to visit the peninsula in your car, then it’s also very easy to get around. A drive up over Healy Pass is highly recommended.