Archive for September, 2015

Sheep’s Head Walk – The (Mostly) Dry Half

September 28, 2015
Our 6-day route around Sheep's Head

Our 6-day route around Sheep’s Head

Day 1

After a fitful night of sleep but an excellent breakfast we started out on our walk. The beginning of the trail was a little meandering but went past Bantry House, the local great house. We walkers were allowed to pass by the house, but we didn’t feel like paying the fee to wander through the gardens.

Bantry Bay, seen from the drive of Bantry House

Bantry Bay, seen from the drive of Bantry House

Pretty soon we were on country roads and skirting farm fields. Then the path took a long uphill climb to the peaks of the ridge. Once we made it to the ridgeline, we stopped and sat down on a hump of rock to eat some lunch out of our bags. We had beautiful views down both sides of the peninsula.

The north side of the peninsula

The north side of the peninsula

The north side of the peninsula from a little higher up

The north side of the peninsula from a little higher up

We were lucky to have good clear weather, but it was raining most of the day just to the north of us. There was a rainbow over Bantry Bay that moved around but lasted pretty much all day and was at times quite vivid.

Perma-rainbow over Bantry Bay

Perma-rainbow over Bantry Bay

We had a good map of the peninsula and detailed walking notes for the trail, but we started to find the walking notes strangely inconsistent. For much of the trail, they were very precise and informative, some of the best walking notes I’ve ever read, but then they would completely miss some rather important things, like the spot where you have to go sideways up a steep series of ridges interspersed with bogs. We were also finding the walking a good deal rougher than the description and photos on the website we booked the tour through had led us to expect. We were prepared for rough country walking. That was what we wanted. We were not prepared for scrambling sideways on our hands and knees up hills made of mud and animal poop with bogs at the top, which was what we got. The end of the day’s walking really soured the experience for us. It was a long trek down a slope with poor trail marking and no visible path that was slick with fresh sheep droppings and full of boggy pockets. We dubbed it “Sheepshit Hill” and coming down that took more time and energy than getting up onto the ridge in the morning had. We were both very glad to have our Finnish walking poles with us for stability and testing the ground ahead. Without mine, I would certainly have tumbled into fresh sheep leavings three or four times.

By the time we got to our B&B in Glanlough that evening we were tired, dirty, and getting very worried about the rest of the trail ahead. Fortunately, our B&B that evening was great, run by a charming older couple who gave us tea and scones as soon as we arrived (and were the only ones to take E’s dietary restrictions into consideration on the whole trip). After a shower and a bit of a rest, they drove us out to a local restaurant to get dinner. There was another walker along with us, a German lady, and we chatted over dinner, which was very pleasant.

Day 2

We had left the trail the previous evening and walked along the road a ways to get to our B&B and the trail notes had us backtracking to get back on the trail, but after the first day’s walking, we didn’t feel much like doing that, so instead we set out along the road looking for another path, known as the Old Mass Path, that goes across the peninsula. The Old Mass Path was described in our guide as a trail that the few people on the northern side of the peninsula used to take to go to the nearest church, on the southern side, and it crossed the Sheep’s Head Way we were walking, so we figured we could use it to get ourselves back on track without having to walk back so far. We reasoned that a path that old ladies used to take to get to church couldn’t be too hard a climb. Well, apparently the old ladies of Sheep’s Head were made of tough stuff, because the Old Mass Path was a brutal slog up near-vertical rocky slopes and over bogs. We were exhausted by the time we got to the trail crossing.

The south side of the peninsula

The south side of the peninsula

We’d had sunshine in the morning, but the weather was starting to get windy and rainy. After walking the ridge path for a while, we came to a place where another path crossed and we had a choice of either continuing along the ridge path to Seefin, the highest point on the peninsula, or turning off and taking a lower, more sheltered path. There was a signboard at the crossing that said “Half an hour to Seefin,” so we figured we could manage that and pressed on.

Looking ahead to Seefin peak

Looking ahead to Seefin peak

After half an hour, we came to another signboard that said “Half an hour to Seefin.” Cue much grumbling and the coining of a new term: “Irish half hour.” (A distant cousin, perhaps, to “Mañana Standard Time.”) Fortunately, the weather was clearing up. We found a sheltered spot in the sun to sit and have some lunch, then we pressed on to Seefin.

The views from Seefin were glorious. We could see the whole peninsula and a long way into the distance besides. I’m glad we decided to push ahead and make it to the top.

The view from Seefin (to the south, over Dunmanus Bay)

The view from Seefin (to the south, over Dunmanus Bay)

Self portrait at Seefin

Self portrait at Seefin

Then it was a matter of getting down. There was a path down, but it was extremely rough and treacherous. Today the danger was not sheep crap but uneven rocks. We both came close to twisting our ankles a couple of times and only made it down the last rocky scramble by inching along on the seats of our pants.

What we came to know as "Breakankle Hill"

What we came to know as “Breakankle Hill”

We called back to the B&B we had stayed in the previous night and got a pick up to go back there for another night. We had dinner at the same restaurant, though the German lady had moved on already to the next stage of her walk.

Day 3

We got driven out to the foot of Seefin again in the morning and there we had a choice. We could take one path that went back up into the peaks, or we could take a lower path down by the coast. We decided we’d had enough of the peaks and took the lower path.

Here, finally, we got the walk we’d been looking for: quiet old farm roads and country paths, rugged but well marked and with good footing. It was such a nice change from the trackless peaks. We enjoyed the first part of our day’s walk very much.

Finally, the quiet country walk we were looking for

Finally, the quiet country walk we were looking for

This led us to an old abandoned village (known locally as “Crimea,” for reasons we were never able to get clear) where the ruins of old stone cottages stood near the shore.

Ruins at Crimea

Ruins at Crimea

From there on, the path became rougher and required some coastal rock scrambling, but it also took us past some interesting abandoned copper mines and worker housing.

The "Miners' Path" to the abandoned copper mines

The “Miners’ Path” to the abandoned copper mines

The ruins of miner housing, we're guessing

The ruins of miner housing, we’re guessing

As we continued down the peninsula, the path got rougher and more difficult. Our walking notes warned us about a boggy stretch that had us worried. We decided to press on and stop for lunch only after we had gotten past the bog. The bog turned out to be no problem, though – easily crossed by a couple of stepping stones. With relief, we sat down on the hill on the other side to have some lunch.

Hooray for Finnish walking poles!

Hooray for Finnish walking poles!

Our notes were vague about what came after the bog and by this point we were starting to worry about what that meant. We carried on over more rough ground until we came to the worst part of the trail, the only section of our walk that actually made me fear for my safety, as we had to pick our way along a narrow cliff ledge high above the sea. The day had started out calm and partly sunny, but by now it was getting windy and wet, which made our footing on the cliff ledge that much worse. We made it safely through that section of trail, but this made us finally give up on the route notes. For the following days, we walked by the map instead.

There is a little lighthouse at the tip of Sheep’s Head. When we spotted that, we knew that we had made it to the halfway point. The next three days would be spent walking back to Bantry along the southern side of the peninsula.

Sheep's Head light

Sheep’s Head light

We called up our next B&B and, after a bit of trouble with the phones we got a pick up and a ride to the B&B in Kilcrochane. This B&B also has a restaurant in-house where we had dinner. It was convenient to have dinner so handy, but sadly the rest of the B&B was old, cold, and poorly taken care of and we were not very comfortable in our stay there.



Sheep’s Head Walk – Getting There is Half the Fun

September 26, 2015

We are just back from a walking holiday on Sheep’s Head, Ireland. It was not an entirely happy experience, I’m sorry to say, but it had its good parts.

Sheep’s Head is a peninsula on the western coast of Ireland south of Bantry. It is in between Bantry Bay and Dunmanus Bay, a quiet, isolated place with no towns of any size, only a few villages and isolated homes and farms. When looking for a quiet, relaxing walk to do at the end of the season, it seemed like just the place. As it turned out, maybe we should have gone somewhere a little less remote, but I’ll get to that.

Geographically, Sheep’s Head is a long, skinny peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic. There is a ridge of low peaks running along the length of it centered towards the northern side. The northern slope of this ridge is steep and rocky and falls swiftly down to the shore. The southern side is gentler, falling away in long shallow slopes. Most of the human habitation on the peninsula is on the southern side, clustered around the villages of Kilcrochane, Ahakista, and Durrus. The highest point is Seefin, a rocky hill near the center of the peninsula.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep's Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

Looking to seaward down the spine of Sheep’s Head. Bantry Bay is to the right, Dunmanus Bay to the left, and the peak of Seefin in the distance.

But our adventure began long before we got to Sheep’s Head. Pull up a chair and listen to the story of how our relaxing vacation became the most stressful near-disaster trip I’ve ever been on.

We were booked to fly from Boston to Philadelphia and from there on to Shannon, Ireland. The plan was to then get a bus from the Shannon airport to Cork and another bus from Cork on to Bantry. We had looked up the bus timetables and worked out the schedule. Then the company we booked the walking tour through suggested buying bus tickets in advance, which you can now do online, since that’s cheaper than buying them in person. This sounded like good advice, so we popped back onto the Bus Eireann (the Irish national bus company) website with planned schedules in hand ready to buy our tickets.

Only, the Bus Eireann ticket sales system was showing completely different timetables for the buses we needed to take than what we had found before. We spent hours going back and forth, trying different ways of selecting the tickets, checking to make sure we had the correct timetables, not something that was out of date or about to go out of date or just the Sunday-Saturday-St.-Patrick’s-and-Jewish-holidays version of the timetable. In the end, we just had to give up and resolve to buy our bus tickets in person. (We managed to get our first ride, from Shannon to Cork, settled, but everything after that both going and returning was up in the air.) So, a few hours down the drain and we were none too happy about it, but problem solved.

The day of departure arrived. We were both pretty relaxed, having spent a couple of days packing and cleaning up the house. Then, literally as we were heading out the door to drive to Logan Airport, the phone rang. We were so close to departure that I was considering just letting the answering machine take the call, but fortunately I didn’t because it was an automated call from US Airways telling us that our flight had been canceled because of a mechanical fault.

I placed a call back to the customer service number and I was soon talking to a very helpful agent who did her best to get us rebooked. There was an earlier flight out of Logan that we might have just made it onto, if I threw the phone down, we jumped in the car, hit every green light and didn’t get stuck in traffic on Route 1 inbound to Boston on a Tuesday afternoon. Not impossible, but not something we wanted to chance. The only other option was a flight from Manchester that was reasonably possible for us to make. We took that, even though it meant flying out from a different airport than we would return to, which meant we couldn’t drive to the airport and park our car for a week as was the plan.

As soon as I got off the phone with the airline, I looked up a local car service that does both Logan and Manchester airports and asked if they could fit us in that afternoon. They said they could just make it if they sent someone out immediately, so we booked our drive with them and sat down to wait.

The car pulled into our parking lot ten minutes late because it had gotten stuck behind a construction crane getting to us. We just barely had time to make it to the airport to get checked in and get our bag checked (we were traveling with just one checked bag). Fortunately, the driver was a friendly guy who assured us that we would make it and put us at ease.

We did make it to Manchester in time and headed straight for a check-in kiosk to get our boarding passes. I entered our confirmation code to call up our booking. It found nothing. I entered my name. It found nothing. I tried both again. It found nothing and directed us to see a ticketing agent. Starting to panic a little, we went to the check-in desk to talk to a live person. After some poking at her computer she discovered the problem: when the oh-so-helpful US Airways customer service rep rebooked our flight, she booked it for tomorrow! Not only that, but she had also rebooked our flight from Philadelphia to Shannon for tomorrow! Now, I don’t think she did this intentionally, since she was very clear with me on the phone about finding flights today, but somehow it happened.

I pulled out my print-out of the e-mail confirmation of our original flights and showed her that, yes, we were supposed to travel today and someone screwed it up. She went back to poking at her computer. The she called over someone to help her poke at the computer, who called over two more people to poke at the computer. All this while, the time was ticking away to the departure of the flight that we were supposed to be on. At least one of the check-in agents knew the right magic spells to cast over the arcane machinery because we got our flights re-rebooked with barely fifteen minutes to spare. Then there was the question of luggage. The hold of the plane we were supposed to be on had already been closed, but after placing some calls they promised us they would open it again and get our bag on, checked through to Shannon. We didn’t have time to worry about that though, as we had only single-digit minutes left before they boarded the plane and we still had to get through security.

We ran through the terminal to the security checkpoint. (At this point, I was very glad to be at little Manchester instead of big Logan because 1 – it was a much shorter sprint, 2 – it was a much shorter line, and 3 – there were fewer people around to be alarmed by the sight of a dark-skinned, dark-haired man looking slightly deranged as he charged towards airport security with a backpack.)

We just made it onto the plane. We didn’t know whether our bag made it or not, but we hoped that it had. The flight to Philadelphia was blissfully uneventful, even though we were seated separately in whatever seats were available.

We reconnected in Philadelphia. It had always been a fairly tight layover and now we had even less time to make it from one terminal to another. We raced through the airport and got to the waiting area for our gate with enough time to spare to grab some crappy airport fast food. Our seats were separated again on the Philadelphia-Shannon flight and we were both stuck in middle seats between two other people. (We asked, but no one was willing to trade seats so we could be together.) It was a long, dull flight with bad food and no elbow room, but we made it to Shannon and to our relief there was our bag, waiting for us and wagging its tail. (Okay, maybe not the tail-wagging part, but after the day we had had, learning that our luggage had made the trip with us was almost as big a relief as finding a lost pet.)

We got a good breakfast in an airport cafeteria, which helped, and then we set to work figuring out the buses. It turned out that the timetables we had originally made all our plans with were perfectly accurate. I have no idea what is wrong with Bus Eireann’s booking system, but at least we could fall back on our original planned route. We took the bus to Cork, dozing fitfully on the way, then got tickets for Bantry and took our next bus, dozing fitfully on the way. Finally we stepped off in Bantry and headed for our B&B, which was a little bit of a hike from the town center.

Once we had gotten our stuff stashed at the B&B, we dragged ourselves back out on the town for dinner. We ended up at a tiny local restaurant (there was room for barely over a dozen people in the dining room) serving fresh locally-caught fish where we treated ourselves to a marvelous dinner.

Bantry, a charming seaside town

Bantry, a charming seaside town

We finally got back to the B&B at around eight in the evening local time, which to us felt like three in the afternoon after going all night with only a few restless naps. We were weary from travel, exhausted from stress, and needed a good night’s sleep before starting our walk the next day. So, naturally, we were both stricken with insomnia.

We did at least get some hours of sleep before we had to be up and off in the morning. After an excellent Irish breakfast, we set out on the first day of our walk of Sheep’s Head.

Tune in next time and I’ll continue the story of the vacation that went sideways.

Writing process

September 13, 2015

Fall is here and I met my self-imposed deadline for finishing my barbarians outline. Yay! Now to actually write the thing.

I have myself set up in my office upstairs with a desk and a big table. I put my laptop on the desk and write on that. The table behind me holds all the books I’m using for my current chapter. In my swiveling desk chair I can easily swing back and forth between them. It’s a good set-up.

On a good day I’m up by eight and done with breakfast and the morning’s business (e-mail, Facebook, etc.) by nine. I take myself upstairs and get to work. At twelve I come down to have lunch and an hour’s break. At one I go back up and work until four if I need to cook or five if we have leftovers. It works well and I can get six or seven hours of work done.

Of course, some days I need to get other things done. I’m still figuring out how to fit things like grocery shopping, lawn-mowing, etc. into the schedule. Once I’m back to swimming in the pool I will have to work around that, too. It seems workable, though, and I’m sure I’ll get into the rhythm with a little practice.

A day’s crop

September 1, 2015

Tomatoes and cucumbers from our patch.

Cukes and tomatoes

Cukes and tomatoes