Part II of my daytrip to The Mournes. Part I can be found here.
Leaving my lunch spot was a bit of a wrench. Despite the slightly chilly low breeze I was comfortable in a light shell jacket and the views were fantastic. I could see right down into Hare’s Gap and see people climbing up along the Trassey Track with some just aiming for a picnic at the top of the Gap with others heading on along The Brandy Pad, or turning up to Slieve Bearnagh, or towards me and Slievenaglogh. Watching people climb up towards me I could see that I was in for a steep descent but I’d rather be going down than up!
When I did finally push myself to leave this lovely spot and pack my gear back in the bag I soon dropped down to Hare’s Gap. The path was steep and seems to have suffered badly with erosion over the years. However, grounds work has been done to remedy this with rocks placed on the worst sections. It’s unavoidable that some of these now resemble steps but I was impressed how well the work has been done to blend in with the natural environment.
The Brandy Pad
Hare’s Gap was a busy spot. It marks a crossroads of sorts in The Mournes and the meeting of The Trassey Track and The Brandy Pad at The Mourne Wall. These two paths have their origins as old smuggling routes over The Mournes from the coast. Smugglers used ponies to carry goods across the mountains to avoid revenue and coast guard officers. Today it was walkers with a couple of groups using the Gap as a convenient lunch spot while a couple of families with young kids were having a picnic. It was a nice spot but busy having spent the morning alone and I was happy to move on once I’d had a look around and enjoyed the views down the Trassey Track.
With such a long history it will be no surprise that the Brandy Pad was a very clear and well defined path. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was managed to only a very low level and left as natural as possible. There were a number of small streams flowing down from the hills I’d walked earlier and as I came close to the path up Slieve Beg, I was accompanied by the sound of the river in the low ground below as it rushed its way down to eventually reach Ben Crom Reservoir.
The track feels mostly level but looking forward from Hare’s Gap it was obvious that there is a bit of a climb towards the end as it rises towards the base of Slieve Beg before dropping again slightly. It is in this area that I had my best view of the rocky cliffs below Commedagh known as The Castles.
The track drops down to a small area that has the feel of a gorge about it as a small stream cuts across the path. I barely got my soles wet today but I have a feeling this would be a more impressive crossing after a period of heavy rain.
If you follow The Brandy Pad to its end you will come out on the coast at the gruesomely named Bloody Bridge. However, my path veered to the left heading around the side of Commedagh and making for the col between it and Slieve Donard. This section of path gave me a brief but scenic view down Annalong Valley with a very different feel to the one I’d just climbed out of. Annalong isn’t dammed like its neighbour and the river has been left to wind its way gently down the valley.
Rounding the shoulder of Commedagh the path rises gently again and back towards The Mourne Wall. The Wall passes over both Donard and Commedagh and drops down into the col between the two. A large stile marked the spot where my path crossed and as I got closer I could hear the steady murmur of voices. Climbing over there were a lot of people around, I only thought Hare’s Gap was busy. There were all sorts here from young kids to senior citizens, all shapes and sizes and everything from trainers and shorts to the likes of myself in full hiking gear. The col is at approximately 550m and the large flat area with the wall to break any breeze is the perfect spot to gather your breath after the climb up from Newcastle before the big push to the top of Donard. For others it was a chance to revel in a climb completed and to rest aching knees having scrambled back down. For me the number of people and the constant murmur of voices was jarring and unwelcome. I should have known better on such a good day and a public holiday.
Standing in the col the top of Donard is visible. The summit cairn is out of sight but close by there is one of the towers that are sprinkled along the length of The Mourne Wall. The top of this was clear to see from below as a slow chain of people dotted the way up the side of the mountain. It’s an intimidating sight with a climb of approximately 300m in just 1km. I somehow managed to coax my tired and achy legs into one last climb to the top of Ulster.
The climb to the top of Donard is a real slog! It’s relentless and with 11.5km in my legs before starting I really felt it. In an ideal world I would have left my bag at the col and retrieved it on the way back down but this wasn’t an option with so many people around. The path is simple to follow and despite the high traffic this mountain gets I was surprised again how low impact the path management is. There are some sections that have been eroded more than others but once again the measures in place blend well with the natural environment.
I had hoped for one long last push to the top of Donard but in the end it was a series of smaller efforts while I paused to allow other walkers to descend – nothing to do with needing a breather myself of course! The one advantage of such a steep climb is that every step gains you quite a bit of height and before too long the summit was coming into view. The weather was a little breezier up top at 849m. A bank of mist was sitting just off the coast and at times clumps were drifting across to Donard before dissipating leaving it cooler than expected. Like the col below, the summit was also busy with everyone, including myself, wanting the all important summit selfie. A Dad was trying to get two little boys to sit still on the cairn for a photo but they were more interested in building a little tower on the top by balancing stones. I couldn’t help but feel that the day would have been more memorable if he had helped them instead of worrying about the Instagram moment! I gave them a bit of space and then had my own 30secs of fame as the highest person on Ulster.
It was only when I looked back at these photos at home that I realised someone had plonked an empty water bottle in the middle of the cairn! I’d already lifted another out of a nook in the wall. It never fails to amaze and annoy me how someone can carry a full bottle all the way up here but suddenly find that it’s too heavy to carry back empty! I was encouraged to hear another man making sure his young kids were being responsible with wrappers and rubbish as they had lunch in the lee of the wall out of the wind.
I spent a few minutes enjoying the views from the wide top of Donard and had a good look at the tower before heading back down. It was pretty cool on top and too busy to make it an enjoyable spot for lunch. I decided to go back to the col and head away from the bulk of the people and find a quieter spot just off the trail with a nice view across the Pot of Pulgarve, down the Glen River and into Newcastle, the last bit of my journey and the reverse of the view I had just a few hours earlier.
While sitting enjoying my lunch a very friendly but completely random American lady came up and asked me if I wanted her to take my photo. I’ve no idea what prompted this offer but I politely declined and she carried on, still smiling. It was nice to see that there are still people around that make an effort to speak to strangers and engage. I was surprised on the climb up and down Donard how few people wanted to make eye contact or even just return a smile or nod but this woman restored my faith.
The Last Stretch
Leaving the col the path drops quite steeply to where it crosses the upper reaches of the Glen River. On the way down there are a number of smaller streams and mini waterfalls burbling beside and across the path. It was nice to cross the river on simple stepping stones as much of the upper reaches of this path are graded and gravelled due to the volume of traffic it gets. I was really surprised by the numbers of people I was still meeting on this path between 3 and 4pm, all heading in the direction of Donard and lots of them seriously under dressed for any change in conditions. For some of them they were looking at a minimum of 2-3 hours just to get back to where I met them which would have been close to sunset at this time of year. The one that most shocked me though was the guy with his arm in plaster to well above his elbow. His arm was in a fixed position with his thumb sticking out straight – bonkers!
Dropping steadily the path eventually meets the edge of the forest and the river really picks up speed and strength in the ravine below and multiple waterfalls catch the eye as you descend. Walking here was relatively easy, allowing me time to reflect on the day. As well as a sense of achievement having completed this mini adventure I was also a bit sad. While the day had been incredibly tough I’d really enjoyed it and I was sad that it was almost over.
For a brief period the path diverts slightly into the trees before bending back to the banks of the river. Coming down here there was a bit of evidence in the forest below the trees of illegal dumping and abandoned rubbish and a couple of old fire rings left by people either camping or drinking in the forest. Sickening to see in such a beautiful spot and disheartening that there hasn’t been more of an attempt to remove it. I’ve just finished listening to an audiobook that features park rangers from american state parks and part of their role is dismantling illegal fire pits and camps and disposing of rubbish. Ideally it wouldn’t be there at all but I wish someone would remove it.
For the final stretch there is a choice of path going either side of the river. I decided to go the opposite side than the one I came up by and took the right bank crossing the river by the bridge. Part way down I was treated to a beautiful waterfall as the river came over the edge of a massive round rockface.
This path definitely hasn’t been graded! It was very rough with large rocks and exposed roots ready to trip a weary and unwary hiker. Thankfully I and the other walkers nearby passed through with no mishaps and before I knew it I was back in Donard Park walking on the edge of the grass to get some respite from the sharp gravelled path for my poor battered feet.
My GPS told the same tale as Paddy Dillon with an 18km trip versus the estimated 16km and I definitely felt it. The original estimation was for 6-7hrs walking but according to Strava my moving time was 5hr33min which I was very pleased to see. I had allowed 8-10hrs and was complete in 8hrs03min which was way better than I expected. In fact I passed the original 16km marker at 7hr33min.
Overall a fantastic walk, one that really challenged me and most likely my hardest hike so far but incredibly rewarding. I can see why so many people return to the Mournes time and again and this definitely won’t be my only visit. Since the day of the hike I already have two other similar routes planned and mapped out!