Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Easter trip to Baltimore, Cape Clear & Sherkin islands

As part of my quest to conquer all of Ireland’s inhabited offshore islands, I made plans to stay in Baltimore, West Cork, during Easter 2014. From there I could visit both Sherkin & Cape Clear Islands during a 3 night stay at the Channel View Bed & Breakfast, just outside of the lovely Baltimore village which is famed for its excellent sailing waters.
I chose to get there and back by public transport, which involved a journey from Dublin to Cork city by rail, an onward bus connection to Skibbereen, and finally a short bus ride to Baltimore. Bus Eireann (Ireland’s public bus company) provides an online Journey Planner, so that I could confirm what times suitable buses would run.
As is my typical experience, rail travel to Cork was very pleasant and relaxing, and it was a short walk across the city to the bus station. The buses to Baltimore were very comfortable and smooth, and I was able to enjoy seeing the beautiful towns and villages through which we passed, especially Clonakilty and Rosscarbery. This would have been denied me had I been driving. The only negative is the price of the bus travel between Cork and Baltimore, which is more expensive than the longer rail journey from Dublin to Cork.
Channel View Bed & Breakfast was merely €40 per night single, which was very reasonable. The view from my room was very beautiful; as the name suggests a view of a channel of the blue estuarine channel of the River Ilen as its sweeps around Ringarogy Island. Host Margaret provided all day tea and coffee in the front room with an everlasting supply of biscuits. It was only a 6 minute walk to Casey’s Hotel, which is famous for its delicious food.
Having journeyed down on a bright and pleasant Good Friday, I awoke on Easter Saturday to sunshine and a full Irish breakfast, after which I walked the 20 minutes down to the ferry for Sherkin Island. A quick 10 minute crossing brought me to the pier on Sherkin Island, where a local lady was bravely swimming in the chilly waters. Just a minute uphill brought me to the almost complete ruins of the Friary. Many years ago I remember landing here in a small yacht whilst on a sailing course with the Glenans sailing school which used to be based in Baltimore. Over 20 years ago I saw Sherkin in the sun, and again today here was the most beautiful bright sunny day. I walked past the community centre and its adjacent portacabin library, the national school and waste recycling centre en route to the delightful beaches of Cow Strand and Silver Strand. Sherkin is a gently hilly island with some excellent grazing land for cattle, together with shady lanes, copses, rocky headlands, sandy coves and land-locked stilly bay, a little bit of everything that are the classic features of south West Cork. I visited the island church, and came across a third sandy cove. Ancient run-down, un-taxed and probably un-insured wrecks of cars passed me occasionally, belching black smoke and making raucous noises from broken exhaust pipes. No police to supervise the motoring activities of the islands!
The previous time I visited Sherkin Island I had lunch in the piratically themed Jolly Roger pub, but this time it was closed, in the process of changing ownership. Instead I enjoyed lunch in the Islanders’ Rest, a hotel with a terrace overlooking Baltimore Harbour which today was the scene of myriad white-sailed laser dinghies. Just below the hotel lies a yacht marina, and nearby is beautiful Horseshoe Bay which is shaped exactly as its name suggests.
Easter Sunday proved even sunnier than Saturday, a lovely day for the 45 minute ferry ride to Cape Clear Island, Ireland’s most southerly piece of land. Passing the Baltimore Beacon, a navigational monument set on top of the headland at the entrance to the harbour, the boat battled more open waters as it sailed by the south coast of Sherkin. I sat out on deck with my face to the sun, surprised to be feeling this warm on the open seas. Just ahead lay the hilly profile of Cape Clear Island, its south shore plunging almost sheer to the sea. The ferry swung around to hug its more gently sloping north shore, with signs of habitation here and there. Some impressive rock formations appeared just before the narrow entrance to the island’s natural harbour, and shortly I was on terra firma. A sign indicated “Gaeltacht” to signify that this is an Irish Gaelic speaking area, though I was to hear not a word of the language spoken during my 3 hours on shore. Children were wading waist deep in the waters by the harbour beach, and I can testify that the cold hurt my bones as I paddled merely ankle deep. The Bird Observatory seemed to be deserted, but the shop-come-pub-come-bistro by the beach was doing a roaring trade with folks enjoying beers and ice-cream at the outdoor tables.
An impossibly steep road climbed the vertical hill to the east, and I had no intention of expending my energies legging up that in spite of the possibilities of getting a good shot. Moreover I was worried about meeting one of the island car wrecks making its way downward with nowhere to step out of the way. Instead I followed the crowd up the more moderate slope to gain views of the South Harbour, an attractive bay which is overlooked by the campsite where Mongolian yurts provide overnight accommodation for some very happy campers. I met these folk in friendly Cotter’s Bar, and they spoke of the heated comfort of their luxurious tents. Cotters was supplying dinner for the island’s tourists that evening and the choice was between 3 types of Thai curry. To quote Basil Fawlty “duck done in 3 completely different ways” and “if you don’t like duck you’re rather stuck”.
Cape Clear had suffered greatly during the immense winter storms, and work was in progress to repair the harbour. The weather was so blissful this day I could not imagine such a thing as a tempest. Returning to Baltimore, the ferry took the route to the north of Sherkin, which made for a very smooth passage and provided further interesting views.

Monday morning was chilly and wet, my day to return home. The Bed & Breakfast owner kindly gave me a lift to the deserted bus stop at Baltimore. I wondered why I was the only one waiting, only to be told by someone “sure no bus comes here on a Sunday or bank Holiday Monday”. I chirped “Bus Eireann’s Journey Planner assured me there was a bus” and the guy just answered in a strong West Cork accent “you poor stupid thing...imagine you believed that” With this horrible new knowledge I hopped up to Bushe’s pub and asked them could they phone a taxi expeditiously as I had a bus to catch in Skibbereen. It took 3 phone calls before they could get me one, and I waited nervously fidgeting with a beer mat. I made it to my Skibbereen connection with minutes to spare and hence reached the homeward bound train on which I was booked.

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