IT IS a bright, sunny morning in early May, and I am walking the hill road, alone. The place is Knockroe West, on the wild Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. I am staying with two dear friends, who live in a converted farmhouse,perched high up on a slope, and surrounded by fields, overlooking an almighty blue ocean.It is about as different from my own home, in a suburb of Leeds, in the North of England, as you could get: although the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire – with its craggy, reckless coastline – bears more than a passing resemblance. Which might explain why I have lived in Leeds so long. Echoes, repeating echoes, in a constantly shifting inner landscape.
Neither friend is with me now. In fact, there is no one around at all. The air is still, as if the sky itself is holding its breath. The livestock in the nearby fields are quiet. I pass not a single soul – in car, or on foot – until I reach the main road into Allihies Village down below, forty minutes later.The only sound is that of a far-away bird, up overhead, and the steady, striking rhythm of my boots, on the grass-infested tarmac beneath. It is a solid and comforting thing – both the silence and the beat of those boots. Proof that I am back on my feet, after two years of problems with my health (where fatigue, for a long time, would have prohibited a walk like this.) And proof that I am back, too, in a terrain that has, through the years, been an inspiring, consoling, and essential component in my life.
The hill road curves, high and narrow, above the house where I am staying: rough hedgerows to either side marking edges and boundaries, filled with grasses, gorse and careless weeds. Here is no soft-centred beauty. This is a landscape carved, down the centuries, by wind and rain, and born of bare, simple necessity. Beara can be brutal, when the weather closes in: the people who work its waters and its land have a difficult time of it, with frequent sudden deaths on road and sea, and lives foreshortened by hard, hard graft.But the grandeur of it all: the heart-stopping magnificence of cliff edge and boulder-strewn waterline – the heights and vertiginous swoops of its topography – holds anyone who has ever been here in its permanent thrall. Like Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: it is a place of pure,rough magic, to infect the soul.
As the road winds down towards Cahermore Strand, cars begin to hurtle past me on the main coast road, and the silence is broken. There is a cheerful mother, marching her two children towards the village, pressing them protectively against the hedges as the cars go past, backpacks firmly fastened in place. We are all smiles – at the unpredictable sunshine – and are making use of it now, since who knows when the curtain of mist will fall again, dropping the fields and mountains back into mystery? I cross the road and scramble over the grassy rubble, onto the little pebble beach itself, passing tufts of sea pinks coming into full bloom, and peering into rock pools; gazing at the slate-sharp masses that rise like black stone monsters from the ebbing tide. The suck of the waves sweetens my ears, enters my bloodstream, settles my brain. Beara is drawing me back once more.
There are some people who like to stay at home. Others crave adventure, pastures new: a place they have never been before. Others still – and I am one – are always looking to return. The places that resonate with me are few and precious in my life, so that – wherever I may be in reality – I am always looking for them in my mind. The Beara Peninsula is one such place. I first came upon it in my twenties: staggering off the back of a motorbike after an epic journey from Brixton, South London, to find a landscape unlike anything I had ever before encountered, in my town-and-city, urban-hectic, self-obsessive, books-and-writing, room-based life. Beara blew my head off. Left me speechless, shaken,at the majesty of it. It changed my life in an elemental way. On the day before we left, I walked to the edge of a cliff, and lay down on my belly in the moss, feeling the ground strong beneath my body – with my head left dangling over the edge, gazing at the waves, smashing against the rocks, far below. For years afterwards, back in the chaos of London life, whenever I felt lost and alone, I would summon that cliff in my mind’s eye. And it spurred me onwards. Gave me strength. In 2002, when my husband Tim was very ill with cancer, he wanted to take a road trip – somewhere that he had never been before.I took him to Beara. And he loved it, too. In 2004, after he died, my daughter and I scattered some of his ashes into the water, over a rock. Some places – even though you may leave and neglect them, they never leave you. The ghostly imprint always sticks.
Last week, I was walking through the centre of Leeds, back from my Irish journey – and hollow with fatigue, as I went from one appointment to the next, willing my legs to get me there on time,oppressed by the noise of the traffic and the press of people, hurrying along. Then I looked down at my boots, tuned into their rhythm, was slowed by their sound. And for a moment, I was walking the hill road again, in solitude and quiet, sustained by blue sky above, and solid ground beneath; held by a deep well of memory; nourished by experience – and strengthened by the knowledge of return. So, till the next time, lovely Beara, adieu…
*’A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray), on the power of the land – and the making of a garden – is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handful-Earth-Year-Healing-Growing/dp/0719596106
* Thankyou to Liz Mellon and Fiana Reid for being such magnificent hosts, as always….x