We've been out and about a lot lately, gathering new pictures of West Cork for a forthcoming project. Yesterday was one of those gifts from the autumnal gods after weeks of wretched weather - fine, clear, sunny, with just enough of an October crispness in the air to give it all a touch of zest. Work was unceremoniously dumped, deadlines ignored, as we grabbed cameras, binoculars, hiking boots, and headed out.
We wandered along gloriously empty beaches where the waves were edged with delicate foamy lace,
and Sophy Wackles was almost hysterical with delight after weeks spent indoors watching a rainy garden through the window. Look at her positively bouncing off the sand with ecstasy.
She even agreed to pose within the crumbling wall of an old castle (we're not short of ruined castles in West Cork, you'll find them everywhere, echoes of our turbulent past.)
We went along by Dirk Bay, silky smooth in the sunlight with hardly a ripple disturbing its calm;
by ruined cottages where you could just distinguish the outline of once well-tended little gardens, now overgrown with bracken and bramble -
- and by Galley Head, where a 12th century Norman keep and fortifications still sturdily protect the more modern lighthouse. When the Normans came to Ireland, a little later than they did to England, they fortified many of the promontories around the south west coastline, presumably keeping an eye out for smugglers and raiders as well as the odd French or Spanish galleon wondering about dropping in to lend the subjugated Irish a friendly hand. They built well, these Normans.
It may be October, but the leaves are still green on the trees down here in this mild climate, warmed as it is by the Gulf Stream.
The fuchsia was bright in the hedgerows - this shrub simply loves West Cork and thrives on not just one but two flowerings a year, one in late spring, the other in early autumn -
- and perhaps my favourite flower of all, the lovely honeysuckle (known more familiarly here as woodbine) released its elusive but exquisitely unforgettable scent in the warming sunshine.
There was a splendid evening sky, perhaps just hinting that the morrow might not be quite as good as that day had been.
Which it wasn't. We woke this morning to rain and gusts of wind, and the scarlet leaves were flying from the Virginia creeper which climbs up the side of the house and taps at my study window. But we were not daunted. We were on our way to Bantry, to meet some very special and eagerly-looked-for friends.
Know who we have here? Well come on, how many husbands in the entire world are going to be wearing a sweater like that?
Yes, designer supreme, creator of so many amazing patterns, author of Viking Knits - none other than Elsebeth Lavold was in West Cork along with husband Anders Rydell. We'd been emailing about this proposed visit for so long, and it was absolutely wonderful to meet in person at last. (You'll note of course that I had donned my Ravelympics Estrid to honour both the occasion and the visitors. Not visible, but also present, were my favourite Aran Sandal Socks, worked in Silky Wool, and therefore eager to meet their yarn creator.)
Nowhere else but the stately surroundings of Bantry House would do for refreshments of course -
- and while Richard and Anders talked about cameras and lenses, and GPS programmes and all those techie topics beloved of Men, Elsebeth and I discussed patterns and cables and lifted increases and how and why she got into designing, and how she made those cute little wristwarmers (you can't see them in very much detail, but her sweater and cabled cardigan are in brown tweedy yarn, while the wristies, with the same motif that you get on the Cul de Sac vest, are in a lovely burnt orange, giving the whole thing a touch of zing) and everything else under the sun. She had brought me two divine skeins of Silky Wool (why is it that whenever I see or touch - especially touch - Silky Wool, I am immediately possessed of the burning desire to get more, more, MORE, right now, right this instant, can't wait?) I in turn had some of that nice organic fingering weight in different natural shades for her to try out.
We could have talked all day; but Elsebeth and Anders had come over to see some of the treasures we cherish here in West Cork and we were determined to take them to a couple they might not otherwise have found.
We set off in drizzling rain, drove up a side road, parked, climbed over a five-barred gate (helpfully signed with 'Please Close The Gate' but also immovably padlocked), and trudged up a grassy field, until we came to -
- a huge and rather incongruous plywood shed/box thing, surrounded by a barbed wire fence. With a little ladder to help you get inside the enclosure.
Elsebeth of course had the honour of opening the door to this extended packing case, and revealing -
The Kilnaurane Pillar Stone. This ornately carved stone is very ancient indeed. It is thought that it may once have formed part of a high cross but now only the upright remains. You might just be able to make out the carving of a boat on the side facing the camera - try tilting your head to the left and looking at it sideways. This is the earliest known depiction of a boat in Ireland and of considerable interest for that reason alone.
Here we are trying to follow the lines of the interlaced pattern onthe other side of the stone.
No, I actually have no idea why or how the Kilnaurane Stone came to be living in a packing case on top of a windy hill. I suspect that the farmer, cherishing this priceless monument on his land, wanted to protect it a little from the wind and weather, so that its carvings didn't deteriorate any further. It was rather nice that he had thought to put a clear perspex roof over the top, so that the stone could still look up at the stars at night. Anyway, it may have looked very odd and out of place, but it was all very endearing nevertheless.
After that we set off again, down the hill, over the gate, back to the road, and off down another side boreen, winding away into the hills in the general direction of Durrus (probably from the Irish doras or door). Stopped by a farm gateway, picked our way up a muddy lane, and through a gap in a hedge.
I love these magnificent gallauns or menhirs. They were probably once part of a longer row of tall stones striding across the misty landscape, visible from miles around. With the rain clouds drifting overhead, and the wind whipping the grass, it was easy to imagine shadowy druids pacing between them.
The most marvellous thing about these stones though is their purpose - they are pointing the way to somewhere else, somewhere of great significance to whoever erected them long long ago in the mists of prehistory. When you stand at these sole survivors of an ancient way, and look directly ahead of them to the west, you see a small hill ahead of you, perhaps about a quarter of a mile distant. You won't find any signposts telling you so, but if you know the way, you cross the lane, climb a gate, wriggle under a wire fence, climb the hill, struggle over a barbed wire barricade, and at last, somewhat rumpled and considerably out of breath, you find -
- the splendidly remote Dunbeacon Stone Circle, alone on its grassy hilltop save for the occasional stray sheep or wandering fox. This is the proper - the only - way to discover one of these magnificent ancient monuments - by fighting your way through gorse bushes and bracken, stumbling over ruts and unexpected holes, getting your shoes soaked and your sweater caught on a dozen brambles, until at last, out of breath, you arrive on the flat grassy sward where quietly and in silent dignity they stand waiting.
And, when you've looked your fill, listened to the whispers within the circle, paced its circumference, you go a few steps further to the very top of the hill and look westward.
This view has probably not changed very much since our forefathers stood here and looked out over Bantry Bay and the western seas before turning back to the circle and the rituals to be performed there.
We have a great many stone circles in West Cork - there are more recorded here than anywhere else in Ireland - so it's probably safe to assume that there won't be a concrete pathway, signs, ticket booths, public conveniences at this particular site in the foreseeable future. That's as it should be. Dunbeacon should remain aloof and secluded, invisible to all but those who are willing to make the rough pilgrimage.
We parted at the foot of the hill - Anders and Elsebeth to go south to Mizen Head and the winding coastline, we for home and neglected work. But we'll meet up again before they leave Ireland.
It feels like a good pattern, this Viking-Celtic interlacement.