The weather is rubbish, the rain is hitting the window so hard I can’t see how bad it is outside, I can hear it though. Seems like a good time to catch up with a trip whose anniversary is coming round pretty soon.
Joyce and I saw the first snows of the winter last year in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland. It was a fantastic trip where we packed in as much as we could in a few days and the whole place made such an impression on me that it’s still fresh in my mind now.
We flew to Belfast from Glasgow which took minutes, it took longer to sign out the hire car than it took to get here.
The road south was a joy once clear of Belfast and the school run madness but we made the big mistake of putting on Radio Ulster which is a window onto some aspects of daily life here that we only hear about on the news occasionally.
That stuff is there, I’m from west central Scotland so I know the story only too well, but when that radio was clicked onto another channel that was the end of it and we were left with wonderful people and a beautiful country who welcomed us like family. That’s what I brought home and that’s why I’d go back in a heartbeat.
We had an itinerary of sorts arranged by Outdoor Recreation NI with places to visit but the hills and walks were left to us which I would write up for Trail Mag back at home.
The days were short so getting to Castlewellan and checking into the wonderful Hillyard House where the boss Domnic was both an endless source of information and cheerful banter left us only a few hours of daylight to make the best of.
With that in mind we went for a walk based on The Murlough Nature Trail which took us around the ancient dunes and along the beach to Newcastle where a cafe was a welcome shelter from the cool wind, don’t let the photie of Joycee hoping along a line of poles in the sunshine fool you.
Sarah from the tourist office joined us on the walk and chatting to her helped make up our minds about the next couple of days, we’d avoid the obvious and head for the interesting.
In County Down there’s no escape fro the Mournes, they’re like an island rising from the rolling countryside. It’s fantastic.
We took a trip around the coast down a dead end road to visit a lighthouse. Deserted, atmospheric and bloody freezing, we shot back to Castewellan to have dinner at Maginns on the main street.
This was an odd experience, it was midweek, well out of season in late November and the place was huge with just a couple of other tables dining with us sitting happily have an early Christmas dinner. A great start to the trip.
The morning was a surprise, there was blue sky and snow. As the breakfast was cooking I ran out into the street to look, if was freezing and the Slieve Donard , the highest here, and the other hills were wreathed in a blanket of cloud. That would burn off I was sure. It was glorious.
I little car park above the sea was where we started on the farm track. The sun shone but ahead was grey, the clouds seethed and the gaps between them showed a decent dump of snow had fallen overnight.
We were well wrapped up and with fresh legs after just a short drive we strode towards it.
Sea and mountain is always a perfect mix and with the reds and browns of autumn pushing back the green, it was feast for the eyes.
I felt instantly at home here, it’s not like the hills home but it has flavours of the familiar shapes and forms cooked into something altogether different. I was in love already.
The Mourne Wall is everywhere, literaly. It rings the hills to keep cattle out of the reservoirs inbetween the hills that give Belfast its water supply. It’s a proper civil engineering endevour built between 1904 and 1922 and you can walk the whole 22 miles length taking in 15 tops while you’re at it. That would be fun with a high camp in the middle.
We walked into the cloud which shrouded the summit tors of Slieve Binnian. Everything was iced hard, hoods were pulled up and cuffs cinched. The crest of the ridge was like an alien landscape, white with the black tors and total silence. It felt like we’d just left the car and already we were in a perfect mountain landscape.
We came across a pair of grinning locals who were equally well wrapped and but still found time to stop and banter. Every body on this trip had time to banter. As I said in a tweet I sent at the time “Highlands Hospitality is alive and well, it’s living in Northern Ireland.”
The cloud broke up and lifted or drifted away. The sun had no heat in it but we were still pleased to see it and hid behind a tor for lunch.
We could see around us now, the mountains, the sea and Ireland, flat and misty, disappearing to the south.
The last set of tors were the most impressive yet and a scramble to the top to watch the sun set was gravy on a decidedly pie shaped day.
The rock is grippy, there was no exposure and the top was flat, just grooved lightly by the last glacier to pass this way.
It was cold though, we both had down jackets on with no question of taking them off. Winter really had arrived.
I wanted to be here longer, I wanted to visit the other hills, I wanted to be unpacking the tent. I was gripped by this landscape and I still am.
The light left and the descent was rocky and frozen. The track out in the dark was easy to follow with half hidden distant crags and tracks branching off that tugged at me.
But the cold and hunger tugged a little more and the two miles back to the car were efficiently despatched.
Still one of my finest hill days of recent times. The hill, the weather, the company, everything combined to make it perfect.
The fun wasn’t over though. Dinner was at the Maghera Inn which was to be found in utter blackness, seriously I didn’t think it was possible to have a village with so little light emanating from it, it was Hammer Horror perfection.
But inside a warm fire, smiles and amazing food was a perfect end to the day.
The weather wasn’t good. We tried to get into Bearnagh and Meelmore but the wind and rain through the pass was going to make the climb joyless and photies impossible, so we tried our plan B option which to be honest we had really wanted to do all along, Hen, Rock and Pigeon Rock.
The road there is awesome, it’s not about the hills here, it’s just the same as at home, the bits inbetween can be just as good.
It’s at the fringes of the Mournes where the grassy slopes flatten into the patchwork quilt of farmland the rolls to the west. But there’s a fantastic crown of tors on Hen Mountain which is just minutes from the road and delivers the biggest mountain hot for the least effort I’ve ever seen.
We played for a while, probably too long, and while we did do the weather which had lightened cam back in full force. We headed for the rest of the tops in high winds and heavy rain, heads-down and camera’s packed. It was misery.
Staring at wet grass and the drips coming off your hood brim is only amusing for so long. We swooped around the ridges, into the glen and took the train back to the road.
Wet through, hungry and daylight to burn.
A look at the map showed possibilities. The rain had stopped (timing is everything) and we wanted to do a circle right around the hills which would take us past where we’d been the day before, but with time to explore.
We decided to visit the Silent Valley Reservoir.
We sat in the car and ate our packed lunch as the rain ran down the windscreen. Then, the rain stopped, we ventured out and had alook around.
It’s lovely, there’s a wee visitor centre, lots of interpretation and plenty of trails to follow. The views are also incredible, Slieve Binnian dominates with peaks to the horizon circleing the dark waters of the loch.
The walk across the dam would be worth the price of admission had the gatekeeper actually charged us, he was happy with a bit of banter on a slow day.
If you come here for the mountains make sure you have day off and come here.
A visit to a Annalong harbour was our last diversion before getting back to Hillyard House for showeers and clean clothes for our last dinner date at the Vanilla Restaurant.
This was the fanciest place in town and we were too tired for it. We walked the seafront in the dark and just wanted a bag of chips and an early night. But, they were very nice, the food was gorgeous and it wasn’t as pretentious we’d feared.
Mind you I still have a wee chortle when Joyce when asked how the sweet was replied in her surprisingly loud voice “The sorbet was like jam”.
Great hills, wonderful people, amazing food every time we ate and a bag of memories to bring home. There’s a nice wee outdoor shop in Newcastle and we found that even so far out of season everything was open and the town and villages were busy.
I can’t recommend coming here enough, the hospitality shown to us shames many places I know at home and the hills are something else. There’s no great heights to climb, but there’s the essence of the epic and of wilderness that the hills cling onto as their own no matter how close the roads are or how many peaks that big wall crosses.