Category Archives: outings

Nature: good for the soul

Even though I moved to Exeter two years ago now, I’m still asked, ‘How do you like Exeter?’ and ‘Don’t you miss Cornwall?’ I think because the latter is such an iconic British holiday destination, people assume that it must be wonderful to live there, and that I must have been crazy to leave. It’s true that Cornwall is ruggedly stunning, and that during my time there I frequently thought, ‘I am so lucky to live in a place like this.’ Unsurprisingly, such sentiments were particularly common when I was walking along the duchy’s (that’s right–it’s not a county!) dramatic coastline.

The Cornish coastline at Tintagel
The coastline at Tintagel — where I first fell in love with Cornwall

Cornwall has always reminded me of West Virginia–my father’s home state and one that I have spent a lot of time visiting, working in, and travelling through. Yes, it’s land-locked, but its slogan ‘Wild, Wonderful West Virginia’ deliberately emphasises and tries to capitalise on the same sort of dramatic landscape that makes Cornwall both appealing and endearing…to visit. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it comes with an edgy undertone. It can be harsh, unforgiving, and supremely inconvenient. If different destinations were like the different stages of a facial, West Virginia and Cornwall would be the invigorating but slightly abrasive scrub phase.

The nourishing moisturising phase–the one that leaves you feeling replenished and pampered–is Devon, which, to continue drawing parallels to the motherland, I think of as Britain’s Ohio. The thing I love about Devon is the trees. Yes, Cornwall has trees, but it isn’t easy to find woodlands and forests –big, unbroken patches of arboreal majesty reaching into vales and hollows, creating little sheltered nooks where there is a noticeable hush that falls as you enter into the shadow of the canopy.

A stand of trees seen from across a green meadow
I took this photo while standing under trees, looking out at more trees. Heaven.

There are so many patches of woodland here in Devon, and such variety of sizes, shapes, ages, and species of tree represented; I also can’t help but notice that the majority of those trees aren’t gnarled and bowed over sideways from the constant whoosh of wind blowing in off the sea. There’s something gentler and warmer (literally, as well as figuratively) about Devon, and it is very soothing. I love Cornwall, and I enjoy visiting there, but Devon does feel more like home–not just my home, where I currently live, but the Ohio home where I grew up and still visit. It is the type of outdoors that I crave more than any other.

My Exeter house may be located in a pretty run-of-the-mill suburb, but that suburb backs onto a woodland that, in turn, backs on to countryside, and I cannot overstate just how relaxing it is to look out and see green every day, and to hear very little besides birdsong. I struggled to find a decent place to rent when I first explored moving to Exeter, and the viewing for my current place was the last one I’d set up. I was feeling pretty despondent about my lack of options when I arrived and saw the scenery. I knew immediately that this was not just the place I wanted, but also the place I needed; required the proximity to the pastoral.

Pink clematis in the garden
I even have my own garden! With plants and birds!

At the time I moved to Exeter, I was dealing with a number of challenges in my life: divorce, cancer, a soul-destroying job. I’m a pretty pragmatic and robust person, but everyone’s fortitude has limits. I was craving the comfort of the countryside–not just to visit for a long weekend or even a two-week holiday, but to have as a consistent presence in my daily life. I could feel an impatient tug, a certain constriction in the vicinity of my heart, pulling me towards greenery. This was assuaged at first by moving in to my new home, spending time in my garden, strolling along the stream at the boundary of my neighbourhood, and visiting the local nature reserve, but I’d become so hollowed out that I could only be filled by exposure to more proper countryside.

That is how I came to discover the Blackdown Hills Area of Natural Beauty (AONB); I asked Google to tell me where I could go hiking, and Google delivered. The Blackdown AONB website has a handy selection of PDFs guiding you along circular walks of various length through different types of habitat. I downloaded them all and set out to explore my new territory–and I was not disappointed.

A dignified oak tree stands on a hill
One of the many dignified trees I’ve seen while walking in Blackdown Hills

My reaction to Blackdown is a difficult one to describe because it stems from such a complex tangle of emotions, experiences, and beliefs. The outdoors has always been a profound component of, influence on, and inspiration in my life, and being able to visit the very type of outdoors that I’d been longing for, after having been away from it for too long, was almost a relief; I felt like I’d been holding my breath, and was finally able to release it and draw in fresh air (an especially appropriate analogy since I was also, in fact, literally getting fresh air).

A brief tangent may help explain this sentiment. For almost as long as I can remember, when I feel particularly sad or stressed or generally unhappy, I have felt overwhelmed by the desire to go outside and lie in a ditch. I know how that sounds, but I don’t mean it in a depressing sort of way. If you think of how someone’s arms curl around you when they give you a comforting hug, you can, perhaps, see how lying in a depression in the earth might feel like receiving an embrace from the outdoors. I wish I were an artist so that I could properly translate this mental image I have of a benevolent, flower-covered Gaia-like entity cradling me in the palm of her hand.

Plant-covered earth sculpture shaped like a head rising out of the ground
Flower-covered magical earth creatures: they do exist

This is, of course, a metaphor, but it helps convey the sense of restoration I get from heading outside during life’s rougher moments. I haven’t ever actually laid down in a ditch—they’re generally pretty wet and filled with things I don’t want to touch—but I have, nevertheless, sought consolation and revitalization from the pastoral, and often this has actually included some tactile experience such as stretching out in the grass, running my fingers across leaves or flowers, or, I’ll admit it, even hugging a tree. Of course, touch isn’t the only sense that helps create a firm link to nature—I am particularly affected by the smells of damp earth and growing greenery, and of course the sound of birdsong—but it helps complete and confirm the connection; it helps reassure me that I am home.

As an ecologist, I am well aware that nature is neither benevolent nor a single unified entity, so I realize the potential hazards of oversimplifying and anthropomorphising. However, given that my particular specialism is human-nature interactions, I’m also familiar with the ever-growing body of evidence that spending time in nature is, to put it colloquially, good for the soul. I’m glad that there are sturdy scientific data verifying the psychological benefits of being in nature (and I’ve written about quite a few of these studies on my blog Anthrophysis), but these external sources say nothing that my own heart and mind hadn’t already told me: Being outside is therapeutic.

A statue of Buddha sits on a stone garden wall
One of the Buddha statues in the monastery garden

Interestingly, my very first walk in Blackdown took me through the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, which inspired some reflection on the relative benefits of different types of calming, meditative activities. I have meditated for years–I am particularly fond of active, or dynamic meditation, which dovetails very nicely with the types of rhythmic, repetitive exercise I tend to favour–and, more recently, have taken up both yoga and tai chi. I find all of them extremely pleasant and highly beneficial; when I am feeling low or listless or lacking in energy, they all restore a feeling of groundedness and focus. That said, nothing gives me a boost like spending time in nature.

I have most recently felt the positive effects of the outdoors during the last couple weekends, when I visited the Quantock Hills AONB and Killerton. I’d been feeling claustrophobic after being shut up during so much of this long winter, along with feeling physically unwell from migraines, and stressed from juggling an intense workload at the office. I’ve whisked myself off for hiking, birdwatching, plant identification, and general basking in the fresh air, and what a difference it has made. I feel calmer, happier, clearer, stronger. Better.

Sheep in a pasture in the Quantock Hills
Nothing is more restful than sheep, otherwise we wouldn’t count them while lying in bed at night. Right?

I know that we are all different, and that what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else: Not everyone loves marching up slopes and slogging across muddy fields; not everyone appreciates locations so remote you can’t even get a mobile signal (yes, these places still exist!); not everyone would prefer Devon to Cornwall (or the South West to the South East, and so on). But the evidence shows that nature is good for humans, period, so it’s probably worth it for each person to figure out what their favourite version of nature is. A city park, such as Hyde or Regent’s? More cultivated gardens like Kew or even the Tuileries? A sun-drenched beach or a snow-covered mountainside in a distant country? The rolling hills of Blackdown or the Quantocks? Whatever it is, embrace it. It may not literally embrace you back (I really do know that my Gaia imagery was just an analogy, I promise!), but your health and wellbeing will undoubtedly still benefit, leaving you feeling as though you’ve just received a comforting hug from an old friend.

And what better time of year to reacquaint yourself with nature? Leaves are returning to trees, flowers are emerging, migratory birds are returning. Earth Day is right around the corner and, here in Devon, we’re about to celebrate Naturally Healthy Month. Whether you’re a seasoned nature-lover reaffirming your appreciation of the outdoors or someone who would normally prefer to spend down time in front of the PS4 (no judgment here–I love it, too!), spring is the perfect season to dust off the cobwebs and head out for some fresh air. Your mind and body will both thank you for it.

New leaves bud from a tree branch

 

The grand finale: Ireland 2017 (Part IX)

I was truly sad to leave my little cabin on the hill, with its lovely views and its army of chaffinches and its convenient location. To distract myself from the ache in my heart, I drew up a list of wonderful places I might visit after I left Kealkill behind me and made my way back to the ferry in Rosslare. This wasn’t hard to do because I had read about so many interesting sites in Sacred Stones of Irelandactually, the harder task was figuring out which potential destinations were most worthwhile and how I could string these together into a (marginally) logical itinerary. The ferry wasn’t departing until 8:45pm and I didn’t need to arrive in Rosslare until 8pm at the absolute latest, so I had quite a lot of time to work with. In the interest of maximising my ability to see great things, stretch my legs frequently, and avoid a long and boring wait at the ferry terminal, I put together the following proposed outline of the day:

Kealkill –> Ardmore (1 hr 45 min)

Ardmore –> Ring (20 min)

Ring –> Ballinageeragh (35 min)

Ballinageeragh –> Gaulstown Dolmen (15 min)

Gaulstown Dolmen –> Knockboy (30 min)

Knockboy –> Waterford (15 min)

Waterford –> Rosslare (1 hr 45 min)

If you don’t feel slightly horrified looking at that list, then something is wrong with you. Even *I* felt slightly horrified looking at that list, and I’m the one who wrote it and was going to try to make it a reality. Not only did I have six destinations to hit prior to Rosslare, but also these destinations were mostly to be found along small and windy country roads that would be as challenging as they were picturesque. On top of this, as on previous excursions, I only had precise navigational instructions for some of the sites. Actually, if I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t even entirely sure what some of the sites were. I was working from notes I’d jotted down while reading. Sometimes all I knew was that there was a sacred stone of some sort in the area, but I’d not indicated whether it was, say, a circle or a dolmen; for other proposed destinations, the name used by the author was slightly different from the names I was seeing on Google Maps or in online fora, so I couldn’t be certain it was even the same place. No matter! You can’t have much of an adventure if you’re already certain of the outcome, right? RIGHT??

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this final day of sightseeing, and it wasn’t even the crazy agenda that was putting me off. I kind of felt that, with my trip to Gougane Barra the previous afternoon, I had already experienced my denouement; there was a sense of closure and finality, and doing more touristy stuff after that seemed excessive. However, I was genuinely interested in the sites I’d read about, and it seemed so wasteful to not take advantage of my proximity (I apply this word generously here) as I passed by on my way to Rosslare.

As you’ll have seen in my schedule above, my first destination was Ardmore, in County Waterford. Unbeknownst to me, I was visiting the town on the penultimate day of the annual Ardmore Pattern Festival, which culminates on St Declan’s Feast Day on July 30th. “Pattern” is another word for “pilgrimage”, so I had come to see stuff related to St Declan at precisely the best or worst time of year, depending on how you feel about sharing spaces with other people. My initial reaction was very negative, but then I thought maybe I should just roll with the serendipity and enjoy the unexpected opportunity to participate in a cultural phenomenon. When I quickly found a (free and convenient) parking space, my mood improved still further.

Ardmore Round Tower, which was founded anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries

At the time of my arrival in Ardmore, all I knew was that it was home to St Declan’s stone–a large and geologically distinct boulder sitting down in the bay. According to legend, St Declan left his bell behind in Wales when he returned to Ireland after a trip, and so God caused the boulder to float across the sea, carrying the bell back to St Declan. This is only one of many Irish stories in which a sacred stone functions as boat, and this is only one of many sacred stones under which the faithful crawl in order to receive blessings; however, it was the only such stone to which I had ready access during my trip to Rosslare.

The other interesting part of Declan’s story is that he reportedly was so grateful to God, he swore that he would set up shop, spiritually speaking, wherever the rock landed. Thus, in Ardmore you also find a ruined church and holy well dating to the 5th century, an oratory (which possibly once contained the grave of St Declan himself) dating to the 9th or 10th Century, and a cathedral dating to the 12th Century. The latter two of these are located in a cemetery which also features a round tower and is a good starting point for a hike around the headland. The cemetery was conveniently close to where I parked, and so I began my sightseeing there.

St Declan’s Oratory, looking out towards the Celtic Sea

Oddly enough, festival-goers seemed more interested in the shops and restaurants and games down in the centre of town, so I pretty much had the cemetery to myself. The weather had been overcast in Kealkill when I departed (Cork was sad to see me go), but Waterford was sunny and clear. Ardmore was beginning to win me over.

St Declan’s Cathedral, which has some unusual Romanesque panels on the exterior wall at the western (left-hand) end

Unlike the roofless church I’d encountered in Baltimore, this one was not filled with brambles and could easily be entered. I popped in for a look because I was curious what it would feel like to stand inside a building that was completely intact except for what is arguably its most important feature. There is actually something quite pleasing about the idea of attending Mass when you are both simultaneously inside and outside, since you could enjoy all the glory of religious architecture as well as all the intrinsic beauty of nature (but, then again, also wind and precipitation…); taking this vision one step further, I imagine it would have been quite a stirring, if frequently damp, experience for Catholics who secretly held mass outdoors at old sacred stones during times when they were not able to openly attend church.

It’s a good thing I strolled through the cathedral shell, since it enabled me to see this:

According to the Internet, which is never wrong, this ogham stone dates to the 5th or 6th Century

This is one of two ogham stones located in the cathedral. Ogham is an early, 20-character alphabet originating in the 1st Century. It was used in both Ireland and western Britain (mostly Pembrokeshire), and the bulk of the Irish specimens are found in the general region of Ireland in which I had been spending my time. Apparently, the two stones in St Declan’s Cathedral likely say: ‘of Luguid son of .. the tribe of Nad-Segamon’ and ‘Amadu’ (or ‘beloved’ in Latin). I was really pleased to see these examples because, even though I had an ogham site on my to-do list for later in the day, you  just never know how things will work out [foreshadowing!].

I followed the helpful signage out of the cemetery and around the headland, enjoying the opportunity to do some exercise and get some sun on a day that I’d anticipated would mostly be spent cooped up in my car. Although I could see some dark clouds approaching in the distance [more foreshadowing!], it was clear and bright where I was, and there were many birds and wildflowers to enjoy.

This was definitely taken in Ireland, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for my homeland

As I looped back in towards the centre of town, I began to hear strains of music floating up the hill on the breeze. At first I thought that someone was having a garden party, but when I headed down towards the beach I discovered a group of women line dancing to some hard-core American honky tonk. I had expected to find many weird and wonderful things in Ireland, but that was most definitely not one of them. The ladies were doing some sort of demo as part of the festival (because nothing says “celebration of a 5th-century saint” like coordinated foot-stomping) by the beach where St Declan’s Stone rests. I can’t quite tell you what emotion I felt stirring in my bosom as I listened to the twangy tunes while breathing in the scent of greasy street food and gazing out to sea, but it probably wasn’t reverence.

Not the most seaworthy-looking of vessels, but even the sleekest of yachts looks awkward when dry docked

It wasn’t until I’d gotten all the way back to my car and was looking at my GPS to programme in my next destination that I realized I’d missed out on seeing St Declan’s Well and the (other) old church ruins. I had a long moment of indecision because I was beginning to feel twitchy about making more progress on my journey, but then I did the math and decided that I had sufficient time and would regret it if I didn’t go have a look.

Although Ardmore has done an excellent job posting visitor information throughout town, I was led astray during my trek to the well. I reached a fork in the road where the left option led down to a hotel and the right option led back up to the walk I had previously taken around the headland; signs for these pointed towards 11 and 1 o’clock respectively, with the label for the well dead centre. To me, this meant that I needed to carry on up the hill, but then keep going straight before the clifftop walk bent away towards the right. There was, in fact, a road, which then turned into a footpath, that allowed me to do this; however,  as I proceeded along this path, I not only could not see a well, but also was pretty sure that I was wandering through someone’s garden. After I felt sufficient misgivings, I turned to retreat and, lo and behold, could see where I wanted to go–but it was below me. I retraced my footsteps, took a speculative trip down to the hotel, walked through the hotel’s parking lot, and then finally found a very understated path leading to the ruins. You really do have to be committed to find some of these places.

St Declan’s Well, from which St Declan drew water to baptise new converts to the faith. I have read conflicting information about the figures on top, but apparently there were originally three–one representing Jesus (left), one representing the repentant thief (right), and one representing the unrepentant thief (destroyed)

The church here is even lacking even more critical features than the one up near the oratory and tower, but it is attractive and interesting in its own right. At the far end of the building (another generous use of a word), visitors have created a shrine near an age-worn crucifix; as at St Finbarr’s Oratory, you can see where pilgrims have chiseled and scratched crosses into the stone. I read an interesting account of a modern-day pattern here–not just the general festival I had witnessed but the actual walk associated with the pilgrimage–and it seems that there are still people who celebrate St Declan’s Day in the traditional way, making circuits around the ruins, praying, interacting with the shrine, and collecting water from the well. The only people I encountered at the site were a flirtatious old guy and his long-suffering wife, so I can’t say I was really in the religious zone during my visit.

This church was probably built in the 12th Century but likely replaced an even older structure (or structures) dating to the time of St Declan

Phase 1 of my trip had taken up considerably more of the day than I’d expected because Ardmore had so much more to offer than I’d realised when planning. That was no problem, since I had some flex time built into my schedule, but I was definitely feeling ready to move out once I’d seen the holy well. Onwards and upwards (or eastwards)!

The next item on my itinerary was a court tomb–the only one in Waterford and the most southerly one in Ireland–located on the edge of a seaside cliff somewhere in the vicinity of Ring in a region known as Ballinamona Lower. I think. I don’t actually know because I never got there. I was trying to follow instructions I’d found online and, for some reason I cannot fathom, no road names or numbers are provided for anything after you turn off the main thoroughfare; everything is described using distances (in kilometres) and numbers of turnoffs. To make matters worse, I was approaching from the south but the instructions were from the north, and although I thought I had identified the roads that would get me to some recognisable point in the directions, I was clearly wrong. The situation had some added hilarity in the form of Gaelic-only roadsigns and a traffic jam caused by a seemingly endless herd of cows crossing the road. It didn’t take me long to throw in the towel on this quest, though it greatly pained me to do so because the local name for this tomb is “Cailleach Bheara’s House”. Yes, that’s right: I had another shot at visiting somewhere connected (even remotely) with the Cailleach, but I was thwarted a second time. Clearly I have angered her.

I had better luck with phases 3 and 4 of my journey, though they also took me to properly remote (but English-speaking) parts of the county. The first of these was Ballynageeragh, a portal tomb near Dunhill. It has a double capstone design and is an impressive structure even if it has had a little modern work done to improve its structural integrity:

Ballynageeragh was excavated in the 1940s and found to contain flint pebbles, burnt bones, and charcoal

Next up was the Gaulstown Dolmen, which is evidently considered one of the most impressive not just in Waterford but in the whole of Ireland. It is located on the property of someone who has a gate at the end of their (very long) drive. Rather than just put the gate, say, 100 m closer to the house–which would be imperceptible from the house itself, and remove an intimidating barrier to visitors–they installed it at the very end of the driveway but left a little gap where pedestrians can squeeze through and hike in to find the dolmen. Although there is a sign on the road, it’s not at all clear where the actual tomb is and how you are supposed to get there. As I have said before, you do have to earn your right to enjoy these sites.

I photographed the Gaulstown Dolmen from all angles and firmly believe that this is its most impressive

The last visit I wanted to make before heading into Waterford (town) for a meander was to the Knockboy stone row and ogham stones. Remember what I said before about being glad I saw the ogham stones at Ardmore since that was my only shot at them during this trip? Yeah. I didn’t make it to either Knockboy site, and I am still not entirely sure how that happened. All I know is that there is a Knockboy neighbourhood just outside the town of Waterford, and the stones are not there. They are, in fact, somewhere near(ish) Dungarvan, which was also the nearest town of note when I got lost trying to find the Cailleach Bheara’s house earlier in the day. The area must be cursed. In my defence–lest you think that it’s I who am cursed, and that the curse involves being an idiot who is hopeless at navigation–I just want to state for the record that I deliberately avoided the confusing obscure online instructions for this destination, and instead relied on Google Maps. Google seemed to be sending me to the correct place, and because it had done so well throughout the rest of the trip, I didn’t think to question it. It’s not as if Google hasn’t led me astray in the past, so I’m not sure why I was so trusting in this instance.

Frankly, though, I had by this point seen so many rocks (let’s face it; sacred or not, that’s what they are) and so much scenery that it was okay. I didn’t mind. The day was growing long, my back was growing sore, my energy was flagging, and I was ready to grab a cup of tea in Waterford and power through the last 50 miles to Rosslare. But then two fun (and here I use the term not generously, but ironically) things happened. First, Google twisted the knife that it had already plunged in my back by directing me to Rosslare via the ferry from Passage East. I didn’t realise it was a ferry route when I set out and I had no cash to pay for my ticket, so I drove all the way to the departure point–an arduous journey made even more tedious by a roadblock and a pair of slow cyclists–only to have to turn around and retrace my footsteps (or…tire treads).

Second, my brakes stopped working, which nearly caused my heart to stop working as well. I was approaching a roundabout, tried to slow down, and…just kept right on speeding along. Luckily there were no other cars in my immediate vicinity, but this was a serious dilemma. I would be okay as long as I stayed in the slow lane and encountered no traffic, but this was not something I could guarantee. I kept trying to find a place to pull over so that I could think through my options, but I was on a stretch of road that had no shoulder. After what seemed like an eternity, I did finally come to a parking lot where I could let the car rest and ponder what to do. No garages were open at that time of day, and none would be again until Monday morning. Additionally, I was suddenly aware that my emergency road service coverage might not apply in a foreign country. I couldn’t leave Ireland without my car, so I would need to wait there until it was fixed–if that was even possible; if it wasn’t possible, that made things even more complicated. If I missed my ferry, I would need to buy a whole new ticket and also arrange additional hotel stays. I would not be able to get a refund on the hotel I’d already booked in Pembroke. I might miss some work. I would definitely miss the play for which I had tickets the following day. This was potentially not just complex, but also really expensive. However, I recognised that nothing mattered as much as my safety, so I would just have to suck it up and figure something out.

Of all the lucky things that happened to me during my trip, I’d have to say that the top of the list was not crashing into someone when my brakes failed; the next one down was that my brakes worked again when I restarted my car after finishing my mild panic attack. I tested them out a few times at different speeds and they seemed okay, so I decided to make a go for Rosslare–driving below the speed limit, far behind anyone else. If I could just get on the ferry and get myself back to the UK, I knew that the logistics of this emergency would be so much easier to deal with.

I now know that the brakes failed because one of my brake callipers had been jammed into place such that it was permanently pushing the brake pad against the rotor and creating a whole lot of friction; in turn, this friction created a whole lot of heat that caused my brake fluid to boil and evaporate. Once the fluid was gaseous, there was no way to generate the hydraulic pressure required for the brake system to respond when I pressed down the pedal. By letting the car rest for a while, I gave the fluid a chance to…well, become a fluid again. I don’t know why it reached the boiling point when it did, or why it never did again, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (also, I’m so impressed I understand all that other car stuff, I am willing to give myself a pass on this one minor point).

I arrived in Rosslare with plenty of time to buy myself some dinner before checking in at the dock and, eventually, boarding the ferry. I stayed awake during the voyage, which was quite a bit choppier than the first one because of “adverse tides”. I curled up on a bench and weathered the waves just fine but was, all the same, extremely grateful to reach the other side. We disembarked around 1am and I made my way to The Dolphin Hotel, a no-frills establishment that had the benefit of both being the closest accommodation to the dock and having a 24-hour check-in. From my point of view, at that time of night, it was on par with The Ritz.

I was so glad I’d had the foresight of reserving a room rather than trying to force myself to drive home in the middle of the night. After all my exploring and driving and hiking and driving some more and getting lost and then having my brakes stop working and then doing even more driving, I was tired. In fact, I was more than tired; I was weary. It had been a memorable week packed full of beautiful, fascinating, delightful, and inspirational things, but it had also been pretty intense. I had accomplished a whole lot. Now it was time to rest.

Pilgrimage to Gougane Barra: Ireland 2017 (Part VIII)

If I had had the time, the equipment, and the desire to punish my body, I might have been tempted to have hiked the entirety of St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way, which covers a mountainous 23-mile stretch between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra, during my time in Ireland. Although I’m sure that the young and fit could manage this in a (long and painful) day, typically it is recommended as two seven-hour hikes spread across two days. It is not an easy walk, since it involves three valleys and four mountain chains and is marked by uneven ground and unpredictable weather. I, therefore, just cut to the chase and headed straight to Gougane Barra by car.

This was my final outing in County Cork, since my long drive back to the ferry was scheduled for the following day. I did not want to spend much time in the car, having just (barely) survived the trek around Beara; I needed to unwind and decompress before hitting the road again. I did some Pilates and read a book and hung around the cabin in a low-key kind of way. Around mid-afternoon, the clouds that had wreathed the mountains that morning began to recede, and I thought it might be nice to have a small jaunt–just one last little venture out–so that I could stretch my legs. I opted to explore Gougane Barra because it is only about 20 minutes away from Kealkill and driving there would allow me to satisfy my curiosity about what lay in, around, and beyond the mountains I was seeing each time I looked out my living room window.

If any one day of my trip could be described as an unabashed success, it was this one. The commute to Gougane Barra was quick, easy, and very pretty, and when I got there I found this:

St Finbarr’s Oratory in Gougane Barra

I mean, come on. Places like this exist in real life? In case you didn’t quite catch how unbelievably lovely the chapel is, let me also share this view:

Close-up of the Oratory and its idyllic surroundings

The feast day of St Finbarr (or, if you prefer, Finnbar, Findbarr, Fionnbharra, or Barra–because why stop at just one name when you could confuse people with a multitude?) is 25th September; the faithful who visit Gougane Barra as the culmination of the pilgrimage over the mountains would typically time their journey to arrive on this day. The appellation “Gougane Barra”, evidently meaning “the rock of Finnbarr”, originally was attached only to the island on which Finbarr lived in the middle of the lake (itself previously named Loch Irce). Now, however, the phrase is used to refer also to the lake, the settlement on the shore, and the area in general.

The island is currently attached to the mainland by way of a (presumably manmade) path, so it is quite easy to access the grounds to complete the contemplative activities associated with the pilgrimage–or, if you are like me, to merely do some sightseeing.

Prayer could not possibly be any more healing than the simple privilege of enjoying this view

Legend has it that Finbarr, back in the 6th Century, told the people of Drimoleague that they needed to get right with God; he then turned on his heel and hiked down to Gougane Barra to establish his monastery–hence the “Pilgrim Way”. The area fell into ruin after his death, but a new monastery was built around 1700 by priest Denis O’Mahoney. The oratory shown above was built in the 19th Century. Unsurprisingly given how utterly charming it is, it’s a popular destination for weddings; in fact, one had taken place on the day of my visit. Back in the days of the Penal Laws, though, Gougane Barra had a somewhat more serious role to play: Because it is tucked away in such a quiet and disconnected spot, it was a good place for Catholics to secretly continue performing Mass even after it had been forbidden.

The eastern half of the lake, which is fed by the River Lee

Those who are interested in doing the pilgrimage properly and making the rounds at Gougane Barra had better set aside a good chunk of time; after you’ve made your two-day hike across the mountains, you also need to complete a 13-step prayer series. You start in the middle of the island in a walled-off area marked by a large timber cross:

You say the Creed, after which you make a confession, say an Our Father, follow it up with a Hail Mary, and then finish with a Glory Be to the Father. So far, so good. You’ll notice that the stone walls here are decorated (if that is the correct word) with the Stations of the Cross. Don’t let these fool you! You don’t actually have to interact with them directly (not as part of the pilgrimage, anyway; presumably they would come in handy around Easter time). What you do need to do is visit each of the eight cells between them; then you go outside and head to the old altar; finally you swing by the holy well and the slanan (or “health stream”). At each of these spots, you do another five each of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

The old altar at St Finbarr’s Oratory; the crosses have been scratched in by pilgrims. Back in the day, and possibly also now, people would save the flecks of stone they’d etched off and then drink them (preferably in water from a holy well). Refreshing!
St Finbarr’s holy well, in which was swimming many very blessed invertebrates and microorganisms

You end your circuit at Father O’Mahony’s tomb, where you finish off with one last Creed, one last confession (shame on you for already slipping up just since you left the cross at the beginning of the round, tut), one Our Father, and one Hail Mary. The placard on which all these instructions are listed finishes here with “etc.”, which I find to be awfully blasé; after all, you don’t want to mess up right at the end and have all your efforts invalidated. The sign also suggests you might want to insert an optional prayer visit to the Oratory. Once you’ve said your piece to God, you collect half a bottle each from both the holy well and the slanan (honestly, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to collect these while you were there the first time?) and then sprinkle the person or people whom you were hoping to help with your prayers.

The tomb of Father O’Mahoney lies near the well-trafficked entrance to Holy Island; not much resting in peace to be had here

The information point also said that lights have been installed on and around the island so pilgrims can safely visit and pray at all hours. Part of me finds this kind of impressive and endearing, but the other part of me thinks that maybe it’s enabling people to be a little  more devoted, or perhaps you might say fanatical, than is strictly necessary? But I guess there are some pretty short days in the fall and winter, so I can see where it is better to be safely well-lit than sorry.

On another day, I might have been tempted to sit and enjoy the incredible scenery, or to stroll along the paths in the nearby woods. On this particular day, however, there was a prematurely autumnal wind blowing down off the mountain, and it made for a very blustery experience. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but when clouds rolled back through, it was uncomfortably chilly. I could see why all the Pilgrim Way websites took care to caution hikers to be responsible; it would be all too easy to set off during a sunny period and then get caught out as a result of quick-moving weather systems blowing in off the sea. Poor St Finbarr and Father O’Mahony, who had no access to microfleece or waterproof jackets.

One last glimpse of the picturesque Oratory, plus bonus bird (yes I know that’s a swan, but there’s no alliteration to enjoy if I use an s-word, is there?)

As I reached the end of the Gougane Barra access road where I would turn right to head back to Kealkill, I came across this display at the junction:

Sometimes I feel that Christians in general, and Catholics especially, are a little too subtle with their imagery. I just don’t get what they’re trying to convey here.

I don’t know how I’d managed to miss this on the way in, given that it is at least life size, if not a bit bigger. I can see where this would be quite an affecting display for believers just reaching the end of the Pilgrim Way, but, IMHO, it is a bit of a shame to be bombarding people with the concepts of SACRIFICE and SUFFERING and DEATH when they have just been surrounded by beautiful, calming, uplifting natural scenery that has probably (if they are like me) gifted them with a sense of peace and serenity. Why harsh everyone’s mellow? Can’t we just celebrate the nice bits of Creation? No? Well, I think we can all see why I’ve not been nominated for any Catholic faith awards recently.

Celebrating the nice bits of Creation: This is how it’s done.

It took me a whole week, but with Gougane Barra I finally demonstrated that I’d learned how to do a day trip right: Choose somewhere close and easy to find, swoop in, enjoy the sights, and then go straight home before anything could become overly complicated, onerous, or generally unpleasant.

I was saving all of those traits for the mega-crazy road trip I had planned for the following day.