Of Michaels, Milly and the Land of a 1.000 welcomes

I am dedicating this entry to Michael and Pam Thornton, their children, as well as Jack and Pinny, their dogs and Milly the sheep, who, because she grew up with the dogs, also thinks she is a dog, a fact which was amusing to us, but utterly bewildering for Stella.


Michael and Pam run the Coolefield House B&B, which serves as their family home. Coolefield, as I have previously written, is located  about 5 km north east of Millstreet, at the western perimeter of the farm that they also own and operate. The 80 acre farm on which Michael tends to his 70 head herd of dairy cattle has been in his family for generations and the house, although on first impression a squire’s home with at least a 100 year old pedigree, turns out to have been built only 5 years ago, during the final years of the time when the Celtic Tiger prowled the land and just before he gave his final roar.

Coolefield House is exquisite and Michael and Pam such unbelievably friendly and attentive hosts, that they have managed to spoil the rest of this trip for me IMG_2992completely. Not only is the probability of my being able to enjoy friendliness and hospitality on this grand scale in the low percentiles, but added to the uncomplicated way in which they received Stella into the family (along with Jack, Pinny and Milly) and catered for her as well, the world-beating cinammon porridge with fresh strawberries and bilberries before a full Irish breakfast fit for a High King, plus their generousity in chauffering us from the Trail back home every evening and the enormous room with a boutique style bathroom replete with a gigantic shower, I do not have a cat in hells chance of replicating this visit and I still have three weeks to go.

If that weren’t enough, Michael and Pam are just wonderful people to be with and the reason that I have changed my schedule and decided to walk my route with a IMG_2991smaller series of base camps to which I will return in the evening to rejoin the route in the morning, is because I just could not bear the thought of leaving Coolefield a minute earlier than it was absolutely necessary. That change has the advantage of making my daily excursions between base camps considerably easier, as I can leave a large amount of my equipment “at home” and only need to have the full load back on between base camps, with the disadvantage of increasing the logistics complexity and costs to and IMG_2999from the Trail. The changed routine seems to be working well for Stella and for me at the moment, so we will continue with it for the moment.

On my return from the Trail, I have the run of the house and Michael jr. has introduced me to the game of hurling, giving me my first lesson in the handling of the hurley and the striking of the sliotar. We have discussed local legends such as the Well Day on the 6th May, when pilgrims from all around gather at a well on a farm near Millstreet and hang a bag with their troubles and worries onto a tree and leave without them. We have analysed the business model of dairy farming, we have discussed the property market before, during and after the reign of Celtic Tiger, we IMG_2998have meandered around the Irish Counties and their poets and have discussed various walks in the country, in particular the O’Sullivan-Bere Walk which O’Sullivan, the High King was forced to take with 1.000 members of his clan, after a resounding defeat at the hands of the royalist troops in 1602, leaving from Dursey Island on New Years Eve and arriving in the North some months later with his followers reduced to 35 survivors in total. Michael is starting on his version of the Walk on 31.12.15 and I will be rooting for him! We have ruminated in depth on the pros and cons of tying ones own flies for salmon fishing and Michael waxed lyrical on the exquisite flyfishing properties of his stretch of the Blackwater River that runs through the farm. I would like to think that we have become friends in these last days and I will be sad to leave them tomorrow.

As for our second day on the Duhallow Trail, we put on a cracking pace from the moment we set off from Millstreet to the moment we finished the section for the day, on the main Cork road south of Nad, at the eastern most point of the delightfully named Boggeragh Mountains. This route covered the best part of 30kms which took us over fields, country lanes, grassy paths, woodlands, fell tracks on the upper sides of mountains, cliff-like trails, peat marshes – which felt like walking in new snow, as we fell into hole after hole covered by the long brown grass – boggy passageways through the woods, and finally hard, gravel strewn service roads leading us through the ghastly industrial wasteland moonscape of a vast windfarm, on the hill beyond the Butter Road.


Kerstin was done for by a cold and fever that had crept up on her during the day and was laid flat as soon we arrived home, but recovered enough to make her journey back to Dublin and Germany in one piece, having been artificially restored by a double dose of extra strength porridge at breakfast grace à Pam.


Into the Duhallow Way

Tuesday, April 21st, and another beautiful cloudless morning, cold and crisp at 0800 but with the promise of a sweltering day hanging unmistakeably in the fresh morning air. My last day in Kerry and I was loth to leave IMG_2977Killarney and the magic of the Kingdom that had enraptured me so quickly during these first few intense days of walking along the Kerry Way. Stella and I were struggling to find our own rhythm, whilst I was still in the early stages of finding my own – finding the right way to assemble my belongings into the backpack without a) being left without space and a last, unpackable bag in hand and/or b) optimizing the procedure to allow me to access the kit I needed most along the route. I now had an extra ration of dog food and a few Stella-specific utilities (a collapsable dog bowl for instance) that needed accommodating plus Stella’s own priorities to synchronize. We did very well on our first morning together – her very first visit to a hotel – and we managed to arrive packed and spruced on the forecourt of our generally dog-friendly hotel by the time Tommy arrived to run us up to Shrone.


Another “us” that needs qualifying: I was joined late last night by another dear friend from Germany – Kerstin Friedrich – who had signalled to me months ago that she would be thrilled to accompany me for a short stretch, having never visited Ireland and being a keen walker herself. The excuse, if we needed one for her to spend time with me, was our requirement to put some flesh on our plan for a book that we have been talking about co-authoring for at least two years and that we both felt was at a “now or never stage”. We were at least successful in committing to that project – of which I am going to spare you the details in this space – but you can say you read it here first, when we begin to develop our themes and the structure of our book in public. Suffice it say, we are motivated by a deeply felt conviction that a growing number of small and medium sized business owners are unhappy with the accepted economic rational (the MBA model of business), which places growth and financial metrics at the centre of the definition of success. These business owners sense that there is much more that they could and should be doing to free up the potential in their businesses by becoming better and more empathetic leaders. Our book aims to distill our observations on the changing parameters of business in the 21st Century towards a more humane economic model, to argue and define a context for entrepreneurial organisations and to elaborate a few key methods that we have observed, adopted, adapted and put into successful practice in our own activities. That is the gist of our book project and you first read about it here. My first scoop as a blogger.


So, Tommy drove us to Shrone on a beautiful spring morning at 0815 and related to us in his soporific tones the stories and histories of the City, the ancient cultures from which it had derived, the proliferation of similar ancient fortifcations and the clues to the relative size and importance of the forts and communities that could be gleaned from the etymylogical interpretation of the modern names of the towns and villages as well as an instructive explanation of the absorbtion of those pagan rituals into the Christian ethos, an integration which has succeeded nowhere as well as in IMG_3013Ireland, as I daily learn. The City turns out to be an initially disappointing collection of rocks and tumbledown ruins of cottages overrun with grass and brambles, with a gaudy Madonna shrine painted in neon blue off to the right on the perimeter of what, as slowly becomes apparant, is a circular community enclosed within the remnants of a sturdy stone wall. It is so inconspicuous that we drove past it twice, probably distracted by Tommy’s accounts of this place as centre of pagan fertility worship, engendered by the “Breasts of Dane” or Danu, the two mountains behind Shrone, which without even a hint of imagination, whether fertile or otherwise, were quite self-evidently very breast-like. The enormous cairns which had over the decades been constructed on to the peaks completed the picture.

The start of the Duhallow Walk, the first half of the Blackwater Way which stretches 168km from West to East along the Blackwater Valley and which, in Bweeng, morphs into the Avondhu Way (lit. translated as Black River), was not easy to find IMG_2968and we made a significant error as we picked up the first sign on the road. I had located the Duhallow Way on my OS map and had become very comfortable trusting to my Garmin Montana over the last week, having proved to my satisfaction that the accuracy of the GPS reading was to about 5m. Garmin in hand I then proceeded to manoeuvre my way through the small maze of country lanes until we ended up at a locked gate over which we clambered, Stella and all, following the route demarcation on the map to the pixel. Three gates later and not a sign in site, we found ourselves confronted with thick bramble and gorse rampart in front of an obviously impenetrable fir plantation. Having been there and done that on my first day, I was had to beat a retreat, even though my GPS was showing me perfect location on the plotted trail. We then spent the best part of two hours on the metalled road, hugging the side of a mountain on which I could see the route that I suspected we should have taken, irritated both by the fact that we were not up higher and enjoying even more beautiful views and for having missed the entrance point to the trail proper, even though we were now seeing Duhallow Trail signage on our road. I can only surmise, that the Trail has been modified since the OS maps last went to press and that the signage is not yet perfect. We were to comeIMG_2982 across this a few times over the days ahead.  By and large the Duhallow Way is very well signposted and can be successfully navigated without recourse to OS maps (although it was always comforting to have them to hand).

The Duhallow Trail could not be more different in character from the scenary that I just left behind in Kerry. Where Kerry was high drama, this was gentle bucolic, where Kerry was tough, this was more forgiving terrain. More road, certainly, less height, but wonderful walking with some premium segments over the hills and onto moor-like open spaces with sweeping views of the valley and plain below. Surrounded as we were at every step of the way with Irish countryside bursting into leaf and flower, with vibrant yellow of the gorse that has increased in intensity over the last week, delicate sprays of white hawthorn flowers appearing at ever more regular intervals, the remnants of daffodils, clumps of IMG_2969purple, pink and yellow primroses, hundreds of bilberry plants beginning to show their shy red buds and even the bad-tempered, thumb-thick strands of barbed blackberry thorn beginning to cover their weaponry with tufts of dark green leaf. I enjoyed the occassional sight of brilliant light green fresh needle foliage on the larches, standing out in stark contrast to the depressingly monotone fir tree battalions which seem to have taken over large swathes of the Kerry / West Cork countryside. Given that I have spent such a long time in and around the coniferous forests of southern bavaria and the alps over the last decades, it took me a few days to realise how incongruous these industrially farmed fir plantations are and – given their dense and monocultural planting – how forboding and depressing they look. For all the gentle beauty of rural West Cork, the luscious greenery, the hedgerows and banks, the intrusion of acres and acres of fir forests and the presence of monstrous windmill turbines, also forest-thick on their massive sites, competes aggressively for the lasting impression taken away from the walk.

But on the sides of the mountains, with our views over the valley, we were mostly safe from all that and we meandered in gentle undulations from one mountainside to the next roughly hugging the 450m contour line, until the Trail deposited us at the IMG_2981outskirts of Millstreet, a little market town of no more than 5.000 souls and we finished our walk for the day, steaming and well thirsty at the Nibbles Café in town. A quick ride to our B&B in the north east of the town and we were in Coole and Coolefield House, home to Michael and Pam Thornton and their two children, Michael and Ava and our home for the next three days.
We finished the day in the Wallis Arms over Fish and Chips and a pint or two of Murphy’s for Kerstin, watching Bayern Munich thrash the pants off Porto to secure their Champions League semi-final place and put the lid on another wonderful day’s walking on my way home, too tired to write, well satisfied with our progress.