Cork: On the rocky road to the majestic beacon

WE set off from the pier, our trailhead, reached via the main street.

Baltimore’s colourful harbour is typical of West Cork coastal hamlets. Ferries to the islands leave from the pier. Algerian pirates raided Baltimore in 1631, and carried off 100 villagers to slavery; only a few ever saw Ireland again.

The name, Baile an Tí Mór, “town of the big house”, refers to the recently renovated Dunashad Castle, the gable of which rises over the street to our right. Built by Sir Fineen O’Driscoll on the site of an earlier castle, it was destroyed in 1537 by English settlers from Waterford in retaliation for the seizure of a cargo of wine by Fineen. For good measure, they also burnt the friary and villages on Sherkin, and the O’Driscoll fleet.

About half a mile west, we reach a small promenade and a cove popular for bathing in summer. Mackerel shoals sometimes sweep in, leaving the tideline silver with beached sprat. We continue west at the fingerpost indicating “The Beacon”. When the road divides in a ‘Y’; we go left, walking slightly uphill. We are soon in wild, house-less country, the land bony with rock outcrops, carpeted with gorse and heather. Few cars pass on winter weekdays, but at weekends, whatever the weather, the Irish take their children to see The Beacon, a small wonder of the western world.

It looks like a rocket, gleaming white and pointing skyward. Built in 1849 on an earlier, stubbier antecedent, it and the Sherkin Island lighthouse across the channel marks the entrance to the harbour, otherwise difficult to detect from the sea. When a gale is blowing, it is a dramatic perch from which to enjoy watching the big swells rolling in from the Atlantic. On a calm summer evening, it is a wonderfully peaceful place to sit, the sea brilliant blue below one, the island across the channel bright with gorse flowers, and the big, white gannets diving on the mackerel near inshore.

We descend toward the cove and walk along its northern rim. A short route home may now be taken up the valley ahead.

Meanwhile, for the undaunted, a pathway beyond the stream ascends the steep slope ahead. At the top, a platform invites us to pause to enjoys the view before continuing to the highest point, Hill 100, as I’ll call it (see map). It is worth every step of the climb. There, we are on top of the near world, between the sea and the sky. However, to go too near the cliff is to invite disaster; a slip may mean tobogganing to oblivion.

Replete with panoramas and salt air, we now turn northeast and downhill, on what paths we can find, through prickly gorse and heather. There is a track-cum-road only 400 yards away. Heading for this, we reach a wall and walk to the right along it. We cross it just before the “valley” between the knolls.

The track, barely discernible, runs twenty feet outside the wall heading almost directly for the signal tower a mile away.

As it becomes more distinct, we arrive at a farmyard. Here, we turn left for Baltimore, down a country lane.

When the lane reaches the main road we go right and, 200 yards along, at the green water pump, we turn left. On the pier ahead, our trailhead, large vessels stand dry-docked, wreathed in colourful nets and buoys.


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