‘You’ll never find the place yourself’, the agent had insisted on the phone. ‘I’ll take you.’
Now a battered Range Rover pulled up in the layby behind us, late, and an unshaven man in a leatherette car coat leaned out and nodded. Then he just drove off. We followed, uncertain but trusting, as he led us down miles of road, potholed lanes and tracks with grass growing down the centre.
Eventually the Range Rover bumped to a stop and the car coat slouched out, pointing to a rusty gate in a vast, overgrown hedge. He motioned us through, still hardly speaking and stinking of last night’s beer. Behind the hedge lay a tumbledown cottage with window frames rotting out, cracked render and a palisade of stunted trees and derelict outbuildings.
You could breathe the damp. There was black mould on the walls and a luminescent sheen on the dark brown furniture. Cups were piled in the kitchen sink. Ineffably sad, a glass cabinet beneath a blue-tinged print of John Paul II was filled with silver cups and trophies. Things that had mattered to someone once, and didn’t matter to anyone at all now.
If this were a different kind of story, we would have had the vision to make this place beautiful. But it isn’t and we didn’t. We smiled politely and walked away.
The car coat shrugged, as though he knew all along he was wasting his Saturday morning.
‘It’s a bargain. Can’t drop the price much.’
Neither was true.
‘I’m not buying anything from that man’, said Helen, as we watched the Range Rover bounce off down the track. ‘He’s sleazy.’
‘Agreed. But now what?’
‘We could drive north.’
We were by Lough Beltra, in the middle of Mayo, and up to now our house-hunting had focused on the area we knew within easy reach of Westport. We’d noticed a few cottages in the north-west of the county, up by Belmullet, but we’d discounted them as being too far from anywhere. ‘The remotest place in all this province’, the Tudors called that corner of Mayo. ‘The arse-end of nowhere’, said Irish friends, with less elegance but more feeling. The only time we’d ever ventured up there was a decade before when we rented an icy cottage on the bleak Blacksod Bay. In late November. It had been so cold that I’d blocked it from memory, although every now and then I had flashbacks of mountains shrouded in mist and the two of us huddled by a pitifully small turf fire.
Still, we had an afternoon with nothing better to do. Why not?
Mayo is not densely populated. At the last census there were 130,000 people spread across an area of more than 2,100 square miles. That’s about 62 head of population for every square miles. Somerset, which is hardly an urban sprawl, has nearly ten times that number. As we pulled out onto the N59, the road which snakes down from Sligo and turns to the west, we could see mountains in the distance, and the green fields began to give place to the brown-toned blanket bog which defines the landscape of this part of Mayo.
There were few cars, and they became fewer. Drivers saluted with the casual twitch of a forefinger on the wheel. Men leaning on gates or talking with neighbours greeted us with a wave and a smile and a nod. Always with an acknowledgement of our fleeting presence.
Encircled by mountain, we came after half an hour or so to the River Owenmore, and a sign announcing that we were approaching Bellacorick Musical Bridge. ‘Musical’ because the bridge is an engineering curiosity. If you run along it, tapping a stone on the parapet as you go, you can sound a full octave. ‘Some prefer to roll the stone along the top of the parapet’, said a 1942 surveyor for the Irish Tourist Board, ‘when the musical effect will be obtained according to the skill of the player or stone-thrower’.
Bellacorick Bridge marked a greater change of tone. This was where we crossed into Erris.