Life on the rock
Cromwell's surveyor sounded exasperated when he tried to find the merits of the Burren, in the far west of Ireland. "There isn't tree to hang a man, water to drown a man, nor earth to bury him," he said. It's true that this flat, fissured rock landscape is poor in soil and streams, yet the surveyor must be one of the few people not to have felt its attraction.
I drive up from the south, past the brooding Cliffs of Moher, and meet my guide, Mary Angela Keane, in the nearby spa town of Lisdoonvarna, now being renovated with several million euros and celebrated the world over for its annual matchmaking festival in September. We find the Burren bathed in the light of early spring and stare out towards the Isles of Arran, made of the same white limestone, and the Atlantic beyond. "From here you could see America," says Mary Angela, "if only you had the visibility."
There is a mist on the sea, but the light of the Burren itself has a clarity that has always drawn artists of all kinds. George Bernard Shaw spent summers here, Mary Angela tells me. "Ireland was a poor country when he used to stay here - the mother figure was crucial. It was the women who held families and everything else together. I think that's where he got the inspiration for the strong women in his writing." Iris Murdoch set The Unicorn in the very valley we're looking at, "although in the book she flooded it," Mary Angela says.
Originally from Cork and a student of literature, Mary Angela "married into" a hotel where naturalists stayed; studying what they knew led to a lifelong interest in the Burren and its plants. May to June is the peak flowering season, but even in early April there is much to see. The temperature of the area only varies by eight degrees C from winter to summer and the rock never sees a frost. The cracks, or grykes, in the limestone pavement act as a natural greenhouse, sheltering flowers from the westerly winds. "Look at that blackthorn," says Mary Angela. "It's bonsai'd." The tree has been sculpted by the wind into a shape a Japanese monk would give his temple bell for.
We peer down into the crevices and I soon find violets, primroses and cowslips, but Mary Angela is hunting for early gentians. "That's the Eiffel Tower of it all," she says. She succeeds in spotting a couple of tiny fragments of intense blue, hidden where the rain has broken down the rock into a scrape of soil. We add to our list: scurvy grass, hartstongue, Irish eidelweiss and yellow celandines. On the coast, dippers, divers, geese and other birds wheel away and flashes of black and white offshore are the sign of porpoises at play. Eyes down once more, we finally spot a small purple spike - the first Burren orchid of spring.
Despite the opinion of Cromwell's surveyor, people have made their homes on the Burren since 4,000BC and there are more pre-Christian burial chambers here than in the whole of the rest of Ireland. The earliest settlers brought their cattle, and today the farmers still practise transhumance, an old method of livestock farming. Unlike in other parts of the world, where the cattle come down from the hills for the winter, in the Burren they go up on to the rock to benefit from the warm ground that stores the heat of the summer sun that makes this 450 square miles of grey rock a mass of bloom. "It's a wonderland of walking," says Mary Angela, as we say goodbye.
Declining an invitation to play golf the next day on Ireland's most westerly course, I set off to find my hotel. After a wrong turn on the coast road, my Burren-inspired calm fizzes away like sea spray. I pass Fanore, a wide yellow-sand beach lined with traditionally styled holiday cottages with all mod cons, and popular with families. Signs point to the Aillwee Cave, a local must-see, but the second time I drive past I'm beginning to despair. Eventually, on Corkscrew Hill, I find my hotel, Gregans Castle.
The Philip Treacy-designed G Hotel in nearby Galway has been grabbing headlines, but I want to keep close to the Burren, and you couldn't get closer than Gregans Castle. Despite its location, overlooking nothing but nature, it is a haven of comfort and understudied elegance. I arrive hot and bothered and much too late for tea, but tea is smilingly brought, with homemade biscuits and cake. I sit and sip it in the bar overlooking the valley as the sun dips in the sky, thinking the tea leaves are already predicting a calmer future.
My room, newly decorated in soothing yellows and greys, with antique furniture but a spankingly modern bathroom, looks out over the garden which "borrows" the view beyond. I note the warning: "If you damage the croquet equipment it will be put on your bill." But the Burren magic is working again and I have no heart for such competitiveness. Tomorrow there are the resident donkeys Bubble and Thomas to meet; tonight I think I'll start dinner with the carpaccio of beef with pickled globe artichoke sauce and rocket, followed by local organic lamb. Couples and groups of friends chat quietly in the dining room. A fat black cat goes out to hunt in the twilight and the view dims until all we can see are the lights of Galway far in the distance, across Galway Bay.
More information: www.burrenbeo.com; www.tourismireland.com; Gregans Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, The Burren, Co. Clare (00 353 65 707 7005; www.gregans.ie) opens for the season on April 7: rooms from 180 euros per night for two sharing, or packages from 699 euros for three days' dinner, bed and breakfast for two people including all taxes