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Mountains of Mourne (County Down)

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Location: 54° 10′ 0″ N, 6° 5′ 0″ W

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      03.05.2013 13:57
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      A little bit of heaven come down to County Down

      'When we've got all we want, we're as quiet as can be
      Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.'

      Huddled into a squashed salient of land just inside Northern Ireland, the Mountains of Mourne do indeed sweep down to the sea. But that's not all they do and have done. More than most mountain groups they have shaped and influenced the lives of men: their slopes have been farmed for generations; their hollows have been dammed to water the city of Belfast, and their granite rocks quarried for roads and houses. And, as in Percy French's classic immigrant song quoted above, they have been culturally and socially inspiring: a regional symbol more resounding than the cranes of Harland and Wolff, Gerry Adams' beard or the Rev Ian Paisley's jabbing index finger. The summits bear witness to Northern Ireland's divided years, with lyrical Irish names paying tribute to Catholic saints (Slieve Donard) and more prosaic English monikers (such as Rocky Mountain, Cove Mountain, Hen Mountain, Pigeon Rock Mountain and Cock Mountain) describing the landforms, assorted birds and Bono.

      The Mournes pack a lot of mountain into their compact 100 square miles. They rise straight from the water (as anything sweeping down to the sea is wont to do) in steep steep slopes to the lofty crests of the High Mournes, before plunging down to deep valleys sheltered by soaring ridges and guarded by granite castles. This splendid land is buttressed from the Irish interior by the 'Back of the Mournes': less dramatic than the coastal area but still a tough highland of considerable character.

      Hard Nose the Highway

      The Mournes are about 30 miles south of Belfast, and it's logical that travellers from outside of Ireland will reach them via the city. Ferries arrive from an assortment of ports on the west of northern England and Scotland, and the two airports (International and City) are well-served from a good selection of overseas locations.

      Personally I've only ever used Belfast City Airport, and this is highly recommended for anyone who wants an idea of what a plane crash would be like without the trying-to-locate-the-Black-Box-in-the-sm​ouldering-wreckage bit. Apparently the adjacency of the runway to the sea is the cause of the excitement, with the discrepancy between land and maritime temperatures making a 737 become fleetingly as stable as a falling housebrick. A humungous thump and skid invariably precedes a lot of hysterically laughing adults and a similar number of uncontrollably shrieking children: an experience entirely in keeping with the man after whom the airport is now named, George Best. Well, in his later years anyway.

      The onward journey can be conducted by bus or car: standard rental outfits operate out of the airports and the Ulsterbus network is reasonably reliable. (Generally roads and public transport services are much better in the North than in the Republic, where many communities saw James Joyce more recently than their last sighting of a bus or train). Amongst the Mournes themselves are bus routes accessing most of the main access points to the mountains. Further information can be found at:-


      Opened Ground

      The Mournes have been an outdoor playground for the folk of the Province for generations: a municipal park on steroids. There is canoeing, mountain-biking, world-class rock climbing, and of course, walking.
      Access to the mountains is more akin to mainland Britain's uplands than those south of the border, in that it's very good. A veritable furrow of farmers work the lower slopes, but much of the higher ground is owned by Northern Ireland (formerly Belfast) Water: an estate draining both naturally and by human intervention into the huge reservoirs of Silent Valley and Ben Crom, and defined by the colossal engineering feat of the Mourne Wall.

      The whole range is compartmentalised by many such barriers of sliced and shaped granite, but the Mourne Wall is something else, snaking as it does for 22 miles over 15 peaks. It took 18 years to build and is the most impressive such construction I've ever seen that wasn't trying to keep out the Picts or Genghis Khan. Nowadays it doesn't keep anything out beyond livestock, but it remains one of the greatest mountain navigational aids in these islands.

      Thus the Mournes are fantastic country for those on foot. The more sedate can explore the foothills: Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks, both easily reached from Newcastle (of which more later) are but two examples of estates with well-marked trails.

      But we want to go a bit harder and a lot higher. Don't we?

      (The following are just a few of many potential walking days, and while most walking guides to Ireland feature several Mournes excursions a more definitive (32 routes) volume is Paddy Dillon's excellent 'The Mournes Walks', which is in turn best used in conjunction with the OSI's 1:25000 'Activity Map' of the area. At the very least they'd help illustrate the following descriptions).

      Slieve Bearnagh

      Slieve Bearnagh's fairytale summit is the most dramatic in the Mournes, and its ascent probably the finest middling hillwalk in the group.

      The best starting point is the Cecil Newman car park, sited on a side road just off the B180 west of Newcastle. A little further up said side road is the start of the Trassey Track, which provides an easy passport to the mountains' northern fastnesses. It climbs gently and broadly through gorse and woodland before opening out alongside the Trassey River. The path continues its easy rise as it gradually sidles over to the river, eventually crossing it, and from here one takes the right hand track. This pulls more steeply past a quarry into the rock-strewn defile of Pollaphuca before depositing you at the gap at the valley head, Mourne Wall athwart your path and Bearnagh impending overhead in an impressively slabby manner.

      The energetic may turn right and follow the wall over Slieve Meelmore ('Big Peak') to Slieve Meelbeg ('Little Peak', despite being higher) before dropping down from the col between the two and using a handy path to regain the gap below Bearnagh. Most will preserve their glycogen stores for the task at hand, making the very sharp climb up Bearnagh by following one of the paths that makes a rightward loop to dodge the too-steep-for-comfort initial section. Soon you'll be back at the wall, which will bear mute witness to the few minutes of eye-popping effort that sees the pedestrian to the pleasant rockery of the summit plateau, crowned by the huge gothic summit tor and a glorious panorama of mountain lakes, pendant ridges, deep valleys and infinite sea.

      (Of course, if you don't climb to the top of the tor you haven't really climbed Bearnagh, but the congenitally clumsy might wish to pass on this bit. Scramble up to the low point on the tor's skyline, from where either a) stand on a pinnacle to the left, make a short but bold step across a gap (very nasty drop on left) before swimming up on lovely rough granite to glory, or b) drop down a couple of feet on the far side before following a path along a wide ledge for a few yards, making a strenuous move up into a body-width chimney and cheese-pressing your way to the top. One last hint: even if you climb up by a), climb down by b). Unless you're on your day off from Cirque du Soleil or share R Kelly's beliefs).

      Summit survivors and cowards should now follow the wall across the roof of the mountain to the North Tor, easily climbable by sneaking around the back. A long descent down a rocky slope leads to the col of Hare's Gap. Over the wall we go (there is a stile, worry not) and another descent down a wet bouldery incline should find an improving path that will return you to the ford from the uphill journey, and a triumphant trot back to the car park.

      A fine day out, and no mistake. (5 miles, 2100ft ascent)

      The Annalong Valley circuit

      A bit more challenging (it's a full day trip) is the Mourne Inner Horseshoe, a supremely satisfying circuit of the Annalong Valley. If walked clockwise this route rather handily splits into a hard then easy half: if done the other way...well, the climactic 1200ft up Slieve Binnian is probably quite difficult done on one's knees. Your choice.

      The start is the Carrick Little carpark on the Head Road that skims the Mournes' southern slopes. A wide track leads north for about half a mile to a fork: the right path leads along the valley floor (very pleasantly, but if you fancy a REALLY easy day you're better off in the Silent Valley over the ridge to the west, with its Visitor Centre and shuttle bus and what have you), but the left branch allies itself to the embryonic Mourne Wall for the tough grind up to the twin tors on Slieve Binnian's summit. The higher is the left but the one with the trig point is on the right, and both can be attained by clambering rather than climbing. Binnian is the last southern outpost of the High Mournes and provides sensational views over highlands and low.

      The high ridge running north from the top is superb walking, past the granite towers of the Back Castles to the ominous citadel of Binnian's North Tor. A scout around will reveal an easy route up this for the agile: considerably easier than the over-enthusiastic chimneying, lackbacking and camera wrecking that my ascent comprised. A long descent over cushioned grass and bruising boulders ensues, during which it's best not to contemplate the upcoming brutal slog up Slievelamagan. (All seasoned hillwalkers will tell you: it's rarely the big climb at the start that does you in, it's the big climb after a big descent in the middle).

      Luckily things are then easy; or easier. Sure, you still have to climb over Cove Mountain and Slieve Beg (cleaved by the astonishing chasm of the Devil's Coachroad)...but with each ascent being shorter than the last, you can get up a proper head of steam. By the time you're over Beg and have picked up the ancient smugglers' route of the Brandy Pad across the valley head you're only halfway there in terms of distance, but almost all the necessary effort is already spent. The Pad leads you across the face of Slieve Donard and back to the Mourne Wall. The Bog of Donard (a Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain of a place, without the drying) is a brief obstacle before the short climb up Rocky Mountain. All that remains from here is a long languid descent down to the woodland above the river and an avenue through the trees back to the road.

      (There's a 200ft climb up said road back to the car park to keep you honest though. Sorry about that). (12 miles, 4000ft ascent)

      Slieve Donard

      Slieve Donard is comfortably the highest of the Mournes. Its dominance is undeniable, be you stood on one of the other summits, or driving down the A24 from Belfast, or even returning your trolley in the car park of Newcastle's Tescos. It's high and smoothly steep-sided, and while it may not be as interesting as some of the other peaks it's still a good climb to a fine belvedere.

      There are two popular ascents. Just south of Newcastle on the A2 coast road is the Bloody Bridge car park: across the tarmac and through the left-hand (smaller) gate (to save some tedious fence-hopping higher up), then the route puffs steadily up the course of the Bloody Bridge River. The valley is well-defined enough to make going astray difficult, but there are various paths on either side of the burn. You'll pass through assorted reminders of the Mournes' industrial past and ongoing functionality: abandoned granite quarries and assorted water workings. The lovely retrospect over the sea nags at your back while the onward view is constricted, but a little bit of application and a little more oxygen will see you to the ridge south of Donard and the emphatic landmark of the Mourne Wall. Peer over and you'll see into the heart of the High Mournes, with the wide expanse of the Annalong valley leading the eye to a long line of peaks framed by the cracking crenellations of Slieves Bernagh and Binnian. If you add that to 'something to lean against' and 'something to block out the wind'...it's a fine place for a breather.

      That's something to be glad of as you turn right for the final 1000ft of flog alongside the wall to the top. Gradually everything else sinks below eye level and you'll reach the summit with its assorted furniture (memorial, big cairn, wall, lookout tower on wall, trig point on lookout tower on wall).

      And the view: The Mournes themselves, variously sleek, stubbly and spiky; the rolling Irish interior of towns, villages and farmland; and the sea, seemingly infinite apart from those days where you can see the Isle of Man set adrift in its midst.

      This is the way I climbed Donard, on a warm and breezy late summer evening. I took the wrong gate at the start, rapidly became glad that I had my 34" inside leg to deal with the fences, nipped up Chimney Rock Mountain (left at the wall rather than right) to take in the view south, and then sat in the lee of the wall at the top, gazing over the sea and the mountains as the wind howled and the lighting muted. Then I trotted down over the outlying Millstone Mountain, arriving back at the car park at 9:15pm as dusk gave way to darkness: the last walker of the day. (7 miles, 2700ft ascent)

      As I pried myself out of my boots I noticed numerous other vehicles (and their occupants) parking up. I'm a sap, so I'd like to think of them as 'courting couples'. Y'know, rather than 'doggers'.

      The other popular ascent goes from the Donard Park at the south end of Newcastle, up the valley of the Glen River. I refer the interested to the following entertaining tyro's account of this route. Personally, I'd have made more use of the path. Just saying.


      Names and Addresses

      The Mournes aren't remote, and a whelter of settlements and amenities surround them. Pre-eminent is Newcastle, a busy seaside town at the foot of Slieve Donard. As well as being darned handy for the mountains, it also becomes the Belfast Riviera on any semi-temperate weekend; worth bearing in mind if you're not mad keen on the concept of Southend circa 1989, streets thronged with tipsy underdressed Bright Young Things and roads humming with pimped-up Vauxhall Astras.

      I make it sound bad when it isn't. There's a huge variety of lodgings, from hostels (which must be ok because I know people who've spent the night in one and happily gone back again) to the sumptuous plushness and eye-watering expense of the Slieve Donard Hotel (oddly for a top hotel you turn off the main road at Lidl, then it's the big building that looks like Willy Wonka's factory). Even if you can't justify the second mortgage needed for a room the Percy French Restaurant in the grounds serves a damned fine lamb shank. This represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of eateries and pubs to suit all tastes and most budgets: they even have a Tescos. And you don't have to stay in Newcastle as there are plenty of other places within easy reach of the Mournes: I used the excellent B&B of the Tolly Rose Country House in the nearby village of Bryansford, and very nice it was too.

      The Day We Got Drunk On Cake

      One of the great things about Ireland for the apparently-adventurous-but-actually-rath​er-conservative Englishmen is how it's just like England, but totally different: you can partake of a lot of things not available at home while having that driving-on-the-left-and-paying-in-sterli​ng comfort blanket to protect you. But (hopefully) nobody goes on holiday to behave exactly as they would domestically. Or to drink the same drinks...or to eat the same food...

      Of course, to gain a proper idea of the gastronomic delights of the area you needn't bother visiting a posh eaterie at all. The Percy French is all well and good for seafood, sirloin and superb lamb shanks, but it's got nothing on Tescos when it comes to procuring the truly emblematic local delicacy: Tayto Cheese and Onion crisps. You can get these in the South; they're even starting to crop up in England. But the packets you get in their mother country are still unique, unique in the way that Guinness consumed in the brewery in Dublin is meant to be (but isn't).

      These are an astonishing creation. They aren't the benignly crunchy and bland embodiment of bulb vegetables and dairy produce: they're more akin to being waterboarded by a combination of extra mature cheddar and your own tears. Its flavour is of such prodigious power that I can still taste the packet I consumed in on the 15th August at around 1pm. They're great.

      Local hyper/supermarkets (probably not Tescos, who are far too generic and unadventurous) will also stock Smak lemonade. If you're really lucky, you'll happen upon Smak Brown lemonade. Y'know...because one vague accidental reference to hard drugs is never enough. But if you aren't into buying drinks simply for their comedy value, get yourself a bottle of Finches Sparkling Orange, which tastes like an angel (who'd been bathing in orange juice) crying on your tongue.

      Seeing Things

      Whilst packed with interest the province isn't that large an area and a couple of hours of driving will get you to pretty much all of it (although the Giant's Causeway might be a stretch). So, if you're rained off the hills or just fancy a day off, you might visit...

      Belfast itself - A city of much history (not all of it blood-spattered and semtex-smeared, although the resulting murals are absolutely fascinating), and much greener and hillier than you expect. Many of the expected metropolitan trappings are present (museums, galleries, a zoo), but are invariably infected with Irishness.

      Seaforde Tropical Butterfly House - Well, I drove past it on the way back to the airport (it's on the Newcastle to Belfast road) and it looks very nice on the flyer I snaffled. As well as the butterflies there's a maze, gardens, tearooms and a kids' playground: enough to keep all bar teenagers and mottephobes amused (decent disabled access too). There's also a nursery, although if you're planning on flying home I'd be interested to see how that 'potted plants and airport security' scenario plays out.

      ...amongst others.

      That Which Was

      The Mournes are great: a superb range of very individual mountains uniquely acting as the back garden to a world of amusement arcades and kiss-me-quick hats. They're compact enough to be explorable in a few days, but complex enough to require a lifetime for genuine intimacy. They're ideal for walkers travelling with non-walkers (just make sure you're booked into the Slieve Donard and give them the keys to the hire car while you're off gallivanting). And they represent an introduction to proper hillwalking that manages to feel incredibly convenient without seeming at all watered-down.

      Mountains are often impressive and imposing, places of drama and danger. Few are genuinely beautiful.

      'So I'll wait for the wild rose that's waiting for me
      In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea'

      (Previously on Ciao)


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