One of the strangest b&bs I have ever stayed at is in Bantry, West Cork, at the southern end of the Wild Atlantic Way. Tired of uninspiring bungalows that monopolised the b&b websites, I had plumped for booking this place for its poetic-sounding name: Falling Water and Famine Ruins – plus the chance of seeing salmon leaping up the waterfall. Really?!
Like most of western Ireland, West Cork is stunningly scenic – a succession of rolling hills, verdant pastures, streams and woods (similar to Kerry, minus the huge rocks – read my post about the Ring of Kerry). In fact you get lulled into such a kind of visual apathy for beauty that the car brakes no longer screech for photo-ops. As we neared the coastal Gulf Stream the scenery became gentler and the vegetation increasingly sub-tropical – with the odd palm tree thrown in. It’s not for nothing that fertile West Cork has become the leader in Ireland’s food revolution.
Legend has it that Bantry Bay is where the first inhabitants of Ireland landed many millennia ago – followed much much later (around 1600), by the English. The big attraction? a sheltered harbour and shoals and shoals of tasty pilchards. Fishing fortunes were rapidly made and the entire area became home to a cohort of Anglo-Irish landowners, many of whom still have properties here.
In search of our b&b, our rental car of course overshot the designated landmark but we eventually found the turn-off. Here a track wound down to a placid river – above, photographed in morning light. The deserted, sylvan setting was only marred by a trail of 20 odd abandoned cars (ranging from Mercedes coupés to rusting vans, plus the odd canoe and horse-box) lining the track – plus a yurt.
These surreal garden accessories, in complete contrast to the idyllic setting, definitely spelled alternative, with a hint of recycled living. In fact we later learned that the abandoned carcasses belonged to the b&b owner’s father who had bought them to re-sell at profit – clearly not much of a business mind there.
At the end of the track, at the foot of a cliff, we came to a circular stone building right beside a spectacular pool and waterfall – just as it said on the tin. In contrast to the car-strewn approach, the house turned out to be fairly normal, other than a wizard figure in the bathroom. However our hosts, a tall, genial Irishman and his attractive, sparky wife, admitted that they hadn’t seen any leaping salmon this year – huge disappointment.
So after admiring the perfectly framed pool and falls (above), we set off again to Bantry itself in search of Guinness, traditional music and seafood…the riches of the bay. Down near the harbour, the intimate Fish Kitchen turned out to have exactly what we were looking for – fresh crabmeat salad and Bantry Bay mussels – and a nearby pub provided the follow-up fiddles. My companion Mel was happy.
Next morning, I found myself up bright and early – so a pre-breakfast prowl around the property was in order. Crossing the stream over a makeshift bridge, I then discovered what the name Famine Ruins actually referred to: a soaring, derelict stone building wreathed in creeper. It was quite ethereal in the morning sunlight filtered through towering trees. Inside though it felt distinctly eery.
I penetrated further, ducking under an archway, to find myself in what must have been a vast hall. Today it’s lyrically overgrown – an Irish version of Ta Prohm, that iconic temple at Angkor strangled by liana and twisted trunks.
Behind I emerged beside the stream to creep along a rock and peer into a glassy pool fed by a waterfall. Flat, mossy stones led to yet another torrent of water injected by that magical morning light and surrounded by dense vegetation, before I came to the mother of them all, crashing down the hillside from the viaduct above.
No salmon, but plenty of falling water and a glimpse of an evocative ruin that I later discovered had seen several lives, from tannery to brewery, mill – and finally a workhouse during the horrendous Irish Famine of the 1840s. These ‘institutions’ were seen as yet another injustice imposed by the English overlords, and at the height of the famine hundreds died inside them.
So, instead of leaping salmon. here I was looking at a slice of hidden, horrifying history – luckily soothed by torrents of falling water. Far more memorable than a bungalow.