YouTube video of my hike in the Mourne Mountains last week.
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!
This is a long walk and I’ve decided to break it up into two posts. The first is below and the second will follow in a day or two.
A few weeks ago I came up with an idea to head to the Mourne Mountains for a day hike. Up until now the closest I’d gotten to this was an aborted plan from at least 5 years ago, to do the same, that was cancelled due to poor weather and never revisited. In fact it may have been this event appearing in my Facebook memories that triggered a renewed interest.
I reached out to a couple of friends for advice and did a bit of research on Mountainviews.ie and came up with a route that was 16km in length and with an intimidating 1200m of elevation gain. By complete coincidence I found out afterwards that this is one of Paddy Dillion’s recommended Mournes routes! It was probably good that I found this out after, rather than before, as the actual distance was 18km which might have put me off!
The route can be viewed on Outdoor Active but essentially takes in 5 summits including Slieve Donard (849m), the highest summit in Ulster, and Slieve Commedagh (767m) the second highest summit in the Mourne Mountains range.
From home to the start of the walk is approximately 2.5hrs driving and the estimated time for the walk was 6-7hrs. Allowing for breaks I estimated 8-10hrs so decided it made more sense to drive up the night before and sleep in the back of the van overnight to get a decent sleep and still get an early start to get home at a decent time. This made even more sense as my original plan for the walk was on a Sunday so I’d be finishing work in Omagh on the Saturday night and already 40min closer to Newcastle. In the end up that date was cancelled due to a bad storm on the Sunday. With the sudden death of Queen Elizabeth I ended up having a two-day weekend due to the Bank Holiday on Monday for her funeral. This worked really well as I was able to organise and pack on Sunday, leave home about 4:30pm and get to the parking spot before dark.
My initial idea was to try and park up in Newcastle at Donard Park which is where the route starts. However, advice from some friends was not to park in the centre of town and instead to use one of the actual camping spots. The two recommended were Meelmore Lodge and Tollymore Forest. The former came recommended by a number of people but £10 for a simple park up seemed a little bit expensive and reviews on TripAdvisor about a pushy owner, dirty facilities and noisy groups put me off. The latter was £20 for a night and at 20mins away didn’t seem like good value this time. The last recommendation was the one I went with. It was a car park in Kilbroney Forest, on the outskirts of Rostrevor, and only 25 min from Newcastle according to Google. My friend stayed there a couple of times in a car and had no problems so I figured that was good enough for me.
I arrived just before dark and only one other car was there, at the far end of a very large car park totally surrounded by a mature forest plantation and with a nice view out over Rostrevor town. Loads of picnic benches made it an ideal spot for parking and cooking my dinner.
As darkness fell a number of cars came and went and one car stayed around while a few others came to speak with him for a period of time. I have a feeling it may have been the local dealer but they were well away from me and paid me no heed so I ignored them also.
Despite nerves in the days leading up to the weekend I slept well. A noisy car woke me briefly at 1:30am and my bladder again at 3am but I had a good night’s sleep despite parking on a bit of a slope! There is a good surface in the back of the van, plenty of space and my sleeping mat and sleeping bags were plenty warm enough. The alarm woke me at 6am and I decided to head for Newcastle, have breakfast in the car park there and use the toilet facilities before starting my walk.
For some reason Google decided to send me by the coastal road which took almost 45min but I was fed, changed and ready to go by 7:30am. Unfortunately I had to delay my start until 8am for the timer locks on the toilet block to open and allow me in.
On the way over I passed another car park at a place called Bloody Bridge. I was specifically warned against using this place to overnight but passing by there were at least 3 campers there and the toilets seemed to be open at 7am. If I go back again I may consider using this spot as it is much more convenient but not as quiet, being on a busy road. In Donard Park there were also a couple of tents pitched up but I don’t know if this is officially permitted and chargeable as there were no signs either way.
While waiting for the toilets to open a few other vehicles arrived and some people were heading up the trail to the hills already which didn’t help my natural impatience. When I eventually got started the trail headed along the edge of Donard Park (past the aforementioned tents) and straight into the forest. The trail follows the noisy Glen River all the way to the col between Commedagh and Donard and this is a very picturesque scene with multiple waterfalls, narrow ravines and bridges. The trail is heavily travelled with many tree roots visible above ground, polished and hardened by thousands of feet. Exposed rocks combine with the roots to make footing tricky as the trail starts to rise pretty much straight away.
At the first large bridge the main trail crosses and heads up the left side of the river towards Donard but I took the right side into the trees and towards Commedagh and the trail gradually becomes a track. At a tumble down wall in the woods the track bears right and steepens considerably, showing evidence of bicycle tracks from what must be maniac MTB riders descending through the trees. At the edge of the trees an old wall is climbed by a rickety looking stile. Thankfully the gate was gone and I didn’t have to risk my neck climbing over it.
Out of the trees and I was on the side of the hill proper climbing along fairly clear tracks that headed straight up draining energy from my legs, leaving me breathless and my heart rate rocketing. The climb to the fairly flat Shan Slieve at just over 670m was brutal. It was approximately 2km with 400m of climbing and took me the best part of an hour. Climbing up this slope was a real shock. I knew the day was going to be hard but I didn’t really expect it to be that tough and definitely not so soon. I was seriously worried about my fitness and ability to continue the rest of the day. I’d only come 4km and it had taken me almost an hour and a half! Resting at the top and trying to bring my heart rate to something more reasonable it suddenly dawned on me to check the elevation on my GPS. It sounds stupid now but I had forgotten that I was climbing from sea level to that height of 670m and that this first 4km was over 50% of my total elevation gain for the whole day. As my heart rate slowly dropped below the red line and I sat enjoying the view out over Newcastle I began to feel better about the rest of the day.
The approach from the flat top of Shan Slieve to Commedagh was amazing. It’s another 100m of elevation but on a much more gentle incline and along a narrow feeling ridge with views across to Donard on one side and deeper into the Mournes on the other. The ridge curves around gently before rising to the large dome of Commedagh and is known as the Pot of Pulgarve. The Glen River and the trail to Donard is clear to be seen and on such a still day I could hear walkers on this path as they talked to each other over the sound of the rushing river.
As you climb the side of the hill the large cairn (reportedly an ancient burial cairn) slowly appears on the top of Commedagh and I also got my first real view of The Mourne Wall and a clear view of the top of Donard across the col. Time for a proper rest and a chance to soak in the views.
Walking the Wall
I’ve heard a lot about the Mourne Wall and seen plenty of photos of it but I wasn’t prepared for just how amazing it was in real life – it’s huge! I was aware of the length (31km) but wasn’t prepared for just how substantial it is. It’s 1.5m tall and almost 1m wide. It’s constructed from large square cut granite stones, crosses 15 of the highest summits in the area and took approximately 18 years to build from 1923! It’s mind boggling to be truthful.
The wall was now to be my handrail for the rest of my journey as far as Hare’s Gap. As I approached from the cairn on Commedagh there was a large crossing stile but seeing a group of walkers this side of the wall I decided not to cross and followed it along and off the steep side of Commedagh. Along the way I passed some amazing rock features above the Pot of Legawherry and the sun started to appear.
After the steep descent there was a short climb back up along the wall leading towards Slieve Corragh. Trying to locate the summit on the ground from the location on my GPS I realised that I should have crossed the wall back on Commedagh! With my toe wedged in a nook in the wall I was able to peer over and see the summit cairn about 30m away. Thankfully nobody was around to see my undignified scramble up, and over the 1.5m wall. It wasn’t pretty and that granite is unforgiving on bare skin! After all that, the summit cairn was simple. No burial site this time as it was a much smaller collection of stones to mark this 640m summit that seemed small with its bigger neighbours looming all around. The top of Corragh gave me my first views of the mirror calm Ben Crom Reservoir that I’ve seen many a time in a Gerry McVeigh YouTube video as well as a good impression of the rest of the circuit around to my destination above Hare’s Gap. Off in the distance was the hugely impressive and craggy summit tors of Slieve Bearnagh
Leaving Corragh the clear path undulated along the wall before dropping down into a small col. The ground remained dry but significantly eroded in sections with the odd damp spot but nothing like what I’m used to at home. Climbing back out of the col I came to the first of two summits – Slievenaglogh East Top (575m). This is a reasonably undistinguished rock outcrop just beside the wall. Unfortunately it was once again on the other side of the wall! Not being a purist I decided that at less than 10m away and on the same elevation I was close enough as it was obvious that if I crossed the wall I would need to cross back again for the main summit. Mentally I ticked the box and mosied on.
One last small push was to bring me to the top of the main summit of Slievenaglogh at 586m and marked by another substantial cairn where two other walkers were having a lunch break. The summit of Slievenaglogh is covered with extensive rocky areas which give the mountain its Irish name of Sliabh na gCloch ‘mountain of the stones/rocks’. In one of these rocky areas I got enough shelter from the slight breeze that had appeared to set up my stove for tea and a much deserved lunch break at what I figured was almost the halfway point. Sitting looking across at craggy Slieve Bearnagh I couldn’t imagine a better spot.
Part II to follow….
On Sunday last week I was supposed to be walking with the Club but due to the yellow weather warning for thunderstorms the walk leader decided to cancel the evening before. I thought this was a bit over cautious but then I’ve never had to take responsibly for a group in the hills.
With a close eye on the forecast I was able to see on Sunday morning that the Bluestack Mountains weren’t going to be at any risk until late Sunday evening so I made the decision to head out, properly equipped in case the weather did turn nasty of course.
I followed a walk from Mountainviews.ie by Gerry McVeigh who has a great YouTube channel also. It was 11km (that somehow turned out to be 12.5km?) and took in 4 summits, all slightly over 400m, on the less trodden section of the range. It was an intensely warm and humid day with hard ground for walking that really took it out of me but it was also a lovely walk and very satisfying to complete. It’s also given me a real confidence boost for the higher Bluestacks.
Unsurprisingly there’s a video on my channel if you are interested in seeing how it went.
On Sunday last week I went for my second guest walk with the Bluestack Ramblers Walking Club. My first was out to Inishbofin Island a few weeks ago. Before joining the Club I wanted to try a mountain walk to see if the group dynamic would be any different.
Turning up at the meeting point it was nice to see some familiar faces from the first day, to be recognised by some and to see some new faces also. The group demographic was quite similar but tilted more towards the older 60+ range. This surprised me as I expected a younger group on the tougher walk. There was also a good few more men this time and the mix worked well for socialising.
from bluestack ramblers facebook page
The walk started high above Lough Eske just outside Donegal Town. It followed part of the Bluestack Way before heading off into the lower slopes of the Bluestack Mountains. The initial terrain was gravel track before changing to a grassland and bog mix. Ground underfoot was damp and boggy at times but easily manageable. I was surprised how much easier going it was in comparison to the terrain on Barnes Gap. I think this area has been used much more for sheep grazing which has kept the heather at bay and kept the grass at a shorter length.
On the way up we were following a faint track that was either a reasonably well established hiker track or a sheep highway. Either way it was a convenient guide to a small river crossing with a waterfall, that must be impressive in Winter, and a climb up a small gully that brought us to the first of many small lakes.
Retaining the height we had gained we continued along the lower slopes of the main Bluestack ridge and were soon at a great viewpoint high above Lough Belshade. We had a great view of the basin the lough sits in and a great feeling of the surrounding higher hills.
wide angle view
With a slight breeze and a great view this was to be our halfway point for lunch. However, the breeze quickly dropped away allowing the dreaded midge to rise, resulting in a very hurried lunch break and putting us quickly back on the track.
The way back was slightly different. We dropped down to a slightly lower level to wind our way among a few of the other small lakes and streams. This was a really nice walk back and I was surprised at the number and variety of little loughs as well as the small waterfalls and streams wending between each of them.
We soon arrived back at the gravel track and dropped down to the parking area where we started and I took the opportunity to enjoy the great views of Lough Eske that I missed getting ready to hike earlier in the day.
This hike was a very different experience for me. With it being a guided walk all the concerns about route and navigation were removed. While I was equipped and aware of my location, in case I got separated from the group, I didn’t have to worry at all about where we were going and I was able to relax, enjoy the scenery and chat to other members of the group.
While I won’t give up solo walking I’ve decided that I’m going to enjoy being a member of this club and have already signed up. There’s a hike every Sunday and I’m planning to go on a more challenging walk next week up Dooish in Glenveagh.
The lesser known island of Inishbofin lies off the Northwest coast of Donegal between Magheraroarty and Tory Island. Not to be confused with the better known island of the same name off the coast of Galway. Inishbofin is the anglicised version of Inis Bó Finne, meaning Island of the White Cow.
I’ve been thinking about joining the Bluestack Ramblers Walking Club for a few months now. I’ve enjoyed getting back into hillwalking and hiking but, while I enjoy my own company and do enjoy hiking solo, I’m very conscious of the fact that I spend way too much time alone and need to expand my social circle. This club seemed like a good contender. When I looked at the calendar and saw they had a walk planned on Inishbofin I couldn’t put it off any longer. This is somewhere I’d never go alone and I figured it would be a good walk to get a feel for the club dynamics. The highest point of the island is only 33m so I knew hill fitness wouldn’t be a problem.
The club allow 3 walks as a guest before you have to join so I registered to join this walk and rocked up to Magheraroarty Harbour feeling a little nervous but also excited. I soon met the group and was surprised to see so many ladies and also that I wasn’t the only fresh face. A fella John was on holiday to visit his parents and decided to come along.
Of the 14 walkers there were 9 women and 5 men. Most in their late 50s, early 60s, one guy about 40ish and one woman the same. She was South African originally, living here 23 years. Another woman was Dutch, here just under a year. One woman from Dublin has a holiday home in Donegal and a Yorkshire man who is retired and here about 25 years. A very diverse group!
Getting to the island involved approximately 20min in a small ferry and as the seas were pretty rough it was a challenging crossing with a lot of chop, big swells and spray. We were also caught in a heavy shower so I was glad to finally reach the island with a queasy stomach and slightly wobbly legs. Back on land the weather was improving and after a chat about the history of the island we were off.
We completed almost 8km on a walk around the coast of the island. We didn’t actually get to the highest point (but came close) but it wasn’t about that today. I found the group very friendly, welcoming and chatty. I spoke to most of them on the walk and we had a nice lunch stop on a sheltered stony beach where my gas stove was a big surprise and got a lot of interest.
The pace was relaxed which allowed everyone a chance to socialise and also take lots of photos. I also took quite a lot of footage on the GoPro so hope to have a video at some stage. My favourite photos are below.
muckish to errigal from magheraroarty
one of many abandoned homes
tory island in the distance
an bó finne – the white cow
looking out to errigal
The trip back was just as rough as going out but this time I stood close to the front. Being on my feet helped a lot with the very strong swell and I ended up really enjoying the experience. It was a nice way to end the day.
The club have a walk planned every Sunday for the next while and there are two hillwalks that definitely appeal to me. I think I’ll go on those to see how that affects the makeup of the group and then decide what to do about joining. I think I will join though.
The first part can be read here: Sperrins Hike Part I: Craignamaddy (385m)
Standing at the junction of the road and lane where I’d said goodbye to the Dutch couple earlier today I had a decision to make. I could walk on down the road to the car park and finish with a pretty good 11km hike for the day or I could turn right and add on another 4.5km for a great day. Looking down at my soaking wet legs and watching water bubble and run out of my boots I was tempted by box #1 and to come back another day for Mullaghbolig. My legs were tired, I was soaking wet and I had a painful blister on my right foot from walking in wet socks so I had all the excuses I needed. However, I managed to drag a “fuck it!” attitude from out of nowhere and started squelching up the lane.
The sun was back out and it was pleasantly warm walking along the gravel track with a good view South towards Gortin and Mullaghcarn prominent in the distance. The fields either side were filled with sheep busily wondering who I was and I could see the track curving around the side of the hill in the distance. After 10min my trousers were starting to dry out and I’d resigned myself to heavy wet feet until I was finished. I was enjoying myself so much that I ended up walking past the suggested access line for the top of the hill. Once I realised my mistake I backtracked the few hundred metres to the very obvious open gate at the end of a long line of conifers.
Heading into the field I spotted a faint track made by a farmer’s tractor and as it seemed to be heading in the right direction I used this as a marker. This was perfect as the tractor had worn down the majority of the heather leaving the grass a chance to grow and providing me with a spongy but easy surface to walk on.
A few hundred metres from the top I left the grass and headed in to the knee deep heather making for yet another fence line on the ridge of the hill. Turning east at the fence I made straight for the summit.
On any other day this would have been easy enough walking but my legs were dead by now and my feet felt like blocks of concrete. Multiple stops were required to get me the relatively short distance to the top. As I approached the summit Glenelly Valley opened out before me with brilliant views. In typical Sperrins fashion the summit was unmarked except for the meeting of a number of fences.
summit markers sperrins style
Reaching this summit felt like a huge achievement and I was so glad I’d decided to push on to here today. However, I was knackered and needing a rest. I pulled out the stove and made a cup of tea and enjoyed it while watching a heavy shower work its way up the valley below Mullaghcarn from Gortin. Thankfully I had time to relax and enjoy the view before the shower hit me on the way back down. Retracing my steps along the gravel track I was battered by rain and a stronger breeze than I’d felt all day. I was soaked again but caught myself with a huge grin on my face. I felt great, great to be alive, out in the elements and thankful to have the chance and ability to spend a day in the hills.
Back at the road I decided to head back on the lower Gorticashel Road which, although busier, also descends the bottom of the gulley that forms Barnes Gap. The added bonus was to miss the noisy dogs I’d met at the start!
Down through the Gap I was treated to many small waterfalls coming off the hill to my left while a bigger stream tumbled off the cliff to the right before forming a natural swampy bog at the bottom. The larch trees planted up the side of hill on the left were green with new growth and blowing in the soft breeze leaving the air fresh with their smell mixing with the wetland area across the road. It was a very peaceful and calming stroll back down to the car park.
Reaching the car park I was equally relieved to get sitting down at one of the picnic benches and to see that the Dutch couple’s car was gone. My nightmare scenario of them lost in the hills faded away.
Needing some time before changing and driving home I got the stove out for one last time. I made a well earned hot chocolate and sat enjoying it while watching the sun through the trees and listening to the breeze and birds singing. A very fine end to a hugely enjoyable walk.
On Wednesday the day started later than usual with a decision late the night before to head for the Sperrins but not enough time before bed to get organised. It fell to the next morning to plot the route and pack the bag. Thankfully all the info I needed was on Mountainviews.ie and I left the house just before 11am.
The starting point was the car park just below Barnes Gap (the Tyrone version) and the official starting point for the 20km Craignamaddy Loop and the 11km Vinegar Hill Loop. Although I overlapped with both these routes I was aiming for the open hill and the actual summits of Craignamaddy and Mullaghbolig. This car park is also on the International Appalachian Trail and had a nice and unusual marker post.
they didn’t stay clean and dry for long!
As I arrived a friendly Dutch couple were just setting off and cheerily called hello as they left the car park. Heading up the higher and steeper of the two road options (waymarked for Vinegar Hill) I passed through a farmyard and its collection of noisy but harmless dogs. Once I stopped and they realised I wasn’t going to rob the place they became quite friendly and were soon shoving each other to get petted. The farmer stuck his head out and we had a short chat about my plans for the day.
At the top of the road at the first junction I met the Dutch couple again looking lost. The many little roads had them confused but I soon had them sorted as they were following the same route as me for a short section. We had a very pleasant chat about their trip to Ireland and I answered some of the usual questions about living on the border. As I left them I was a bit concerned that they could get lost again but it was a good day and they seemed fit and well dressed so we wished each other well and went our separate ways.
After less than 1km I left the road for a gravelled lane with high hedges and a number of abandoned buildings. It was quite warm and with very little wind I had a very enjoyable walk as the lane wound its way around the side of Mullaghbane. I turned off this lane, over a farm gate and on to the now abandoned Central Sperrins Way. A dilapidated and overgrown stile with a very weathered marker told me I was on the right path.
This rougher track headed straight uphill and my puffing and panting was rewarded with lungfulls of air redolent with the heady aroma of sheep. The hills here are extensively grazed and it wasn’t long until I was being carefully watched by a herd. With so many sheep and the dogs at the start I was glad I’d left Rosie at home today.
The rough track eventually petered out just below the crest of the hill and I used a handy grassy ramp to skirt the high banking created by years of peat extraction to unnamed Pt 366. Looking at the bank it seemed to have been hand-cut which was impressive.
this poor sheep had a bad winter…
is it just in ireland that signs mysteriously end up pointing in the wrong direction?
At the top of the grassy ramp a fence follows the crest of the hill marking the boundary between two townlands. Ignoring the old marker and turning left, navigation became a piece of cake as the fence line runs all the way to the summit and beyond. On the way I had to skirt a couple of boggy spots and cross a few sheep fences. The first still had a stile in place before the old waymarked trail veered off to the right.
The remaining fences were a mix of easy to step over and gymnastics required to avoid unfortunate barbed wire injuries. The terrain was mostly soggy but easy following vague sheep trails through the short heather with only one short, steep scrambly section. Crossing the last fence I entered an area that hadn’t been grazed for quite a while and the heather and grass was soon up to my knees. Thankfully I only had to wade through this for less than 1km before reaching the summit. The top of this ridge is so flat I actually walked over the official high point. A quick 360 and I began to retrace my steps back along the fence towards Pt 366.
On the way over a couple of drizzly showers and one heavier passed over. The day was so warm with little to no breeze that I didn’t even bother stopping to put on a coat letting my light fleece absorb the rain and dry out quickly once it passed.
Halfway back I stopped for lunch in a small hollow. There was a rock formation that looked like it wasn’t completely natural. To my eye it could have been a collapsed tomb which would make sense as the townland boundaries would have been ancient territorial borders and stone structures would have been traditionally used for navigation and boundary markers. Today it was a pleasant spot to stop for lunch and let my imagination roam.
The return to Pt 366 was uneventful but the rain had now cleared up. Passing my earlier track up I kept following the fence line East through the same heather and grass, still following faint sheep trails and crossing so many old fences I lost count. This area seems to have been abandoned for grazing which on one hand meant the fences were all collapsed and easily stepped over but also meant the heather was deep and more difficult to walk through. It wasn’t long until my legs were soaked but once again I didn’t mind as it was so warm and pleasant.
where fences go to die
Eventually I reached the summit of Mullaghbane (not significant enough to register on Mountainviews.ie lists) and began descending back towards Barnes Gap. Eventually the hill became very steep but manageable with care. One small cliff had to be skirted completely. The heather here was very deep with lots of knee high juniper starting to take over. I was pleased to see quite a few Mountain Ash gaining a strong foothold also. They looked to have been grazed a bit, possibly by deer, and weathered by the recent winters but still surviving.
Reaching the bottom a large area of grass just needed crossing back on to the road. Feeling relaxed I wasn’t watching properly and ended up stepping into a hidden stream that was completely overgrown with a thick grass mat and bog. Before I knew what had happened I was in up to my unmentionables and still not feeling the bottom. Using my walking poles I was able to slowly turn and get enough purchase to drag myself back on to firmer ground. It gave me a bit of a fright but upon further investigation I was able to cross the boggy bit with a very large step and make my way up to the road.
10km completed and a decision to be made now whether to carry on to Mullaghbolig or pull the pin with boots that felt like concrete and soaking wet feet and legs…