You hear the words ‘hidden gem’ so many times in Ireland but more often than not they are not hidden and nor are they a gem. I try to avoid the expression especially when it appears on tourists’ must-see lists (hardly hidden then). But actully they do exist and when you find one part of you wants to scream and shout about it and another part says ‘Shhh! Let’s keep it hidden’
The Arches at Reenroe are one such place. I had been to Allihies on the Beara Peninsula three times but not heard about it. That’s the downside of my penchant for arriving blind to a place to discover it on my own.
Spectacular as the arches are, I want first to tell a bit of a story, about how I discovered it and the adventure I had on the way. Stories such as this so typify, for me travel and living in Ireland and the way things just unfold here. Surprise upon serendipitous surprise. The people, culture and place are interwoven like nowhere else. These experiences are truly the hidden gems.
Let me start at the beginning. Or even a bit before the beginning.
It was a gorgeous sunny June morning (yes, this is Ireland) and I was visiting the location of the Dooneen Copper Mine. This is a marked tourist spot on the Wild Atlantic Way a few kilometres from Allihies, so it has the squiggly iron marker to let you know that it is worth stopping. And to a lapsed geologist such as myself that is indeed true. This is the site of the first of Puxley’s copper mines discovered in 1812. Because of its location on the coast, it struggled both technically and commercially, but the upside of this is that the site is largely intact and we can get a unique insight of how it must have looked before it was exploited.
The cliffs here are a series of headlands of Devonian sandstone. One of these promontories is in shades of orange and cream rather than the more normal greys. It is about 80 m long and up to 10 m wide. This unique coloration is due to oxidation of what was essentially a quartz sulphide rock. As you walk along the narrow path you see traces, under your feet and in the walls, of bright green staining. This is malachite, copper carbonate and a telltale sign that deeper down there are copper sulphides.
Walk onto the next headland to the north and look back. Now you see it in it’s full glory. Brilliant green patches tell of a very rich lode. But why is it still there considering it contains such valuable minerals?
At the eastern end at sea level is an adit and there appears to be another in the adjacent cliff at the western end. These would have been where the miners first chased the copper but constant inundation made it impossible. A shaft was sunk on the land side but again flooding meant more and more sophisticated machinery was needed to keep on top of the pumping. Eventually the elements won and in the 1870s the mine was abandoned never really making much money. But this has left us with this magnificent example of a virtually untouched outcropping ore body.
But I digress. In the car park I met Viv Kelly, visiting from Dublin, with members of her family. She said they were going to look for what they called the Arches and headed off on foot. I was intrigued and headed off in the same general direction. But for me the search proved fruitless and I actually had no idea what I was looking for.
So I continued my explorations, by car, of what is one of my favourite drives, between Allihies and Eyries. The road snakes through sculpted hills, twisted rocks and abandoned houses and at one point the highway (if you can call it that) drives through someone’s yard with the house on one side and the barn on the other. Harking back to the time when living right on the road would have been hugely desirable. There were panoramic vistas, bicycles and bog cotton.
Satisfied, I headed back to Allihies to join an afternoon session with two legends of Irish music – Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch. I soon forgot about arches and such.
It was now about 6.30 pm the music had ebbed away and I was sitting outside O’Neill’s Pub pondering my next move. I was approached by a lady who became my immediate best friend after she complimented me on my fiddling. She mentioned she had been that day to visit some sea arches! Those same arches that Viv had told me about. She reached for her phone to show me some pictures. I politely covered her screen (I hate spoilers) and asked instead for directions after telling her of my earlier vain search.
Basically it appears I was in the right place. ”Look for a white cottage on the left and opposite you will see a wooden gate with a blue rope and a sign saying ‘please shut the gate'”. That seemed simple enough so I had another go. At about the spot she indicated I saw a white building, more of a bungalow really and it wasn’t on the left it was on the right and I couldn’t see a gate, so I was confused and drove on. Fruitlessly. Now the Irish are not great on giving directions so I went back to that bungalow thinking maybe ‘left’ meant ‘right’, and sure enough there was a gate, my view blocked by a beautiful old vintage Mercedes. The gate had a blue rope and a hand written sign saying ‘please shut the gate’. Finally.
I headed along the well worn track, passing a group of picnickers. They had selected an idyllic spot. Smoke rising from a fire and the smell of cooking chicken. I was just a little jealous but I apologised for intruding and after getting a little sage advice on what I was looking for, I continued my search.
Not far ahead I came across the first arch. You don’t actually realise you are on it until you make your way down to the shore and look back. Way grander than I’d imagined. Tantalisingly the calm water in the chasm disappeared to the left. You knew there was more.
Back up to the top and I continued across the fields until I reached a rocky headland. Here there are more arches. Two precarious bridges span a steep sided chasm. One looks like it is about to collapse into the ocean as one day soon it inevitable will. Real selfie territory. They have formed by selective erosion of softer rock (probably along a fault) in places leaving the remnant bridges of rock. I had brought a sandwich and doughnut with me and enjoyed my own little picnic.
I felt there had to be more and sure enough I found a number of other narrow steep sided arches and then a perfectly protected and wave free channel passed under another series of bridges. This turned out to be the other end of the channel under the first arch. I followed it back and observed two land bridges over this channel.
In total I saw six arches. It might make more sense if you look at the google map image. The major channel has essentially created an island with two natural bridge accesses (nos 1 and 6). This has followed a major east west fault. The other arches (numbered 2 to 5) have formed on softer shaley bands within the sediment sequence so they parallel bedding.
I absolutely loved this place.
That should have been the end of my story but it wasn’t.
I must have been exploring for an hour and a half. Heading back past the picnickers I was surprised at being asked to join them. They plied me with wine, crab claws, chicken, potato and roasted seaweed. The burgeoning friendship nearly ended though when they offered me a hot rock to sit on! Brian, from Edinburgh, a scholar in all things gaelic, explained that the picnic was in memory of a time when they ‘cooked’ a salmon in this very fire 20 years ago. Sashimi salmon in the dark was the outcome. No fish this time though.
I met Cormac Boydell and his partner Rachel, who live next door to that white bungalow overlooking this dramatic bay. Cormac is a renowned ceramic artist. I wished I had time to have a closer look at his work. But what was really interesting was that in a previous life he was a geologist. Spooky enough but, hey, he worked in Australia during the nickel boom of the 70s and, get this, he worked for CRA, the first company I worked for. And he was based in Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where I lived for six years.
We talked for ages as darkness descended and until the lure of the music back in Allihies became palpable. I took my leave, happy that my search for the Arches, initiated by a chance meeting with Viv from Dublin had ended with such a rewarding encounter.
These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.