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…
Today started a bit weird by being interviewed live on our local radio station (Highland Radio). It’s National Road Safety Week and as our club had a member knocked off his bike last week and are now campaigning for a hard shoulder on that section of the road, it was decided to go on the radio to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and try to get across why we ride the roads the way we do. As PRO this job fell to me! I was expecting a 10min conversation with the show host but it turned into about 25min and I was arguing with a local road haulier. It was way more than what I expected but it’s had a good reception with the club members and I’ve decided not to waste time on the expected comments after the interview. Link below if you are interested in listening. I start at 12min.
Highland Radio: 9 Til Noon – Wednesday 6th October
hike: knockavoe (296m)
The main plan for today was to go walking and to take in 3 of the summits on my 50for50 list. To the east of Strabane there are 3 summits on the edge of the Sperrin Mountains range. Neither of them is particularly challenging or that long of a walk but combined they make a decent day out. The first of these is Knockavoe, sitting above Strabane itself. Its not that big a hill but it pretty much dominates the town and is visible on all approaches.
I’ve been up here a few times before and it’s a simple but steep walk along a farm access lane to within 100m of the summit, before crossing a gate and into the field where the trigpoint sits. This time I went slightly shorter. There’s a second lane further up the hill that connects with the road and is much closer to the top. I hadn’t really planned to go this way but I couldn’t get parked on the way up the road and ended up coming back down and decided to stop and start here instead.
The lane way starts right beside a house and despite being completely fenced off from the fields it kind of felt like I was in private property. Halfway along the two lanes meet and head for the top. It would be possible to construct a mini loop starting at the lower end and returning via the lane I used today and finishing along the tarmac road. Today though was just up and down.
This way isn’t a long walk (only 1.5km total) but surprisingly steep with no warm up and straight up from the car. There are fantastic 360° views from the top including the next target of the day. There is a particularly good view out over Strabane town and the way down is probably better than the climb as you get to see what was at your back earlier.
click here to view on strava
Knockavoe on Mountainviews.ie
hike: owenreagh hill (400m)
The second summit is a little bit higher but feels less as the starting point is almost as high as the summit of Knockavoe! There are two options but I decided for the slightly more mountainous SW of the summit. The initial approach is along a concrete access road to what looked like a Water Service pumping station having left my car optimistically parked on the junction verge of two minor roads. The concrete soon runs out and it’s a bit of a slog up a wet, boggy, overgrown track between two ancient fences and bordering a small forestry plantation. This track is a mixture of heather, grass and rushes, mostly knee height and hiding wet holes likely to swamp the top of your boots if you step wrong. The first 100m is particularly bad as it also seems to be a sheep highway on and off the hill. In fact I met one individual who had a tougher experience on the track than I hoped to have.
I wasn’t long on this path before I was wishing for my gaiters and walking poles and revising my earlier “easy walk” assessment.
The forecasted rain had started as a light drizzle shortly after leaving the car but steadily increased until it was raining quite heavily at the top and I was well in to the clouds. Visibility was very poor and views non existent. The nearby windfarm was clear to be heard and the appearance and disappearance of the turbines as the cloud thickened and thinned was quite eerie.
turbines in the mist
The actual summit was also quite difficult to find. The top of the hill is quite flat and there is no summit cairn or trigpoint. The poor visibility and lack of a proper GPS made this worse. I was reduced to using Google Maps and the phone GPS was struggling with the conditions. I eventually spotted an attempt to mark the summit but not where I figured the high point actually was. However, I was pretty wet and cold by now and decided to take it for what it was.
i honestly was trying to smile!
Looking on my mapping software at home I seemed to have wandered over the summit without realising it and the cairn is approximately 45m from the mapped coordinates but that’s good enough for me.
Return to the car was by the same boggy track and once again I cursed my lack of poles. I was muddy to the knees and soaked by the time I reached the end and with the cloud base sitting below 250m I decided to give the 3rd hill the skip for today. Instead I cranked up the heater and headed for home.
click here to view on strava
Owenreagh Hill on Mountainviews.ie
Title inspired by unironedman’s latest post:
Meen; a mountain meadow
Meen is a common townland name and it is usually an indication of hilly terrain. It’s no surprise that many Irish windfarms also have Meen in their name.
In this part of the country it’s hard to avoid hills but most of my recent rides seem to have involved quite a bit of climbing and according to Strava (including today) I’m way ahead on my climbing challenge (98%) vs my distance challenge (58%).
My ride today was very hilly but that was by plan rather than accidentally like the rest of the month. It’s a route that has been on my list for a few weeks as the hillier bits are part of the recent Sperrin Sportive run by nearby Strabane/Lifford Cycling Club. It’s a challenging route but I’m planning an Audax ride on Wednesday and wanted a hilly ride to give me a confidence boost.
The first 25km followed the same route as my Friday evening spin taking me into Clady, over the Glebe climb to Victoria Bridge before a couple of more climbs into and out of Douglas Bridge to Newtownstewart.
At the top of the Glebe climb out of Clady I could see across to the hills in the distance and the TV mast I’d be climbing to later. It looked very lumpy from this vantage point.
The river at Victoria Bridge is one of my favourite local views and with the river low today it was particularly scenic.
There were a few anglers and I watched one guy casting for a few minutes before heading on.
At Newtownstewart I made a slight route error. I turned left on the usual road to Gortin and ignored my beeping Garmin as there’s only one way to go. After a couple of 100m I remembered I’d decided to use a more rural road on the other side of the river when designing the route. I couldn’t be arsed turning back and decided to go on as the two roads eventually meet about 5km up the way.
The road rolls nicely all the way to Gortin. It’s mostly agricultural land but very scenic and especially so today with the sun shining. Just before Gortin there’s a very deceptively steep climb. It looks easy but felt tougher than it should have. Looking down it was a 10% gradient and I was pushing 280W. No wonder my legs were moaning!
The last bit into Gortin is really lovely. It’s a winding descent on a good surface with streams to one side and a mature forested area to the other. I was barely into the edge of the village before I was out again on the Plumbridge road. Gortin sits nestled in a small valley at the foot of the mountains and close to the popular Gortin Forest Park. The road from Newtownstewart was busier than expected with traffic so it looked like lots of people were there enjoying the sunny Sunday afternoon.
gortin glen forest park © tripadvisor
Approximately 1km outside Gortin the route turns right on to a new road for me. This is the scenic driving route to Barnes Gap (not to be confused with Barnesmore Gap between Ballybofey and Donegal Town). It was lovely. It’s mostly a single lane road that rises along the side of the Owenkillew valley with fabulous views across the valley to the wooded far side. The surface is very good for such a minor road and with lots of trees and high hedges it was sheltered and cool for most of the time.
After about 5km the road becomes a lot more minor and starts climbing more significantly. The terrain takes on a more mountainous look and it was clear I was approaching Barnes Gap. It was a nice steady climb and really enjoyable. At the top the Gap is really narrow with hills on both sides before it drops down the other side and into the Glenelly Valley. This was a fantastic descent with twisting roads through wooded areas and an almost new tarmac surface. I wanted to let the bike go free but I was wary of the road being my first time on it and not knowing what was ahead. I still noted 45km/hr on the Garmin screen. At the bottom of the hill there was a great parking area with toilets, a shelter and picnic benches. I stopped for a stretch and a bar before refilling my bottles at a tap kindly pointed out to me by a guy who had been MTBing in the local area.
The next section was beautiful and easily the best part of the day. The road gradually descends along the side of Glenelly Valley with views across and down to Plumbridge. The surface was smooth and fast and virtually traffic free. I loved it!
Arriving into Plumbridge the real climbing is straight in front. As you leave the village on a short descent the road ahead rises like a wall with the first of 4 climbs to the TV mast. Within the space of 100m you lose all your speed and hit the lowest of your gears with a 13-14% gradient that seems to go on forever. The road eventually levels out a bit and on the top I passed an unusual memorial looking across the landscape towards Bessy Bell that I climbed a number of weeks ago.
Shortly after this the road drops again. This is the theme of this challenging climb. The first three climbs are all followed by a significant descent cancelling out much of the hard earned height of the previous climb. This can be mentally very challenging also as it’s frustrating to lose so much of your hard work and have to repeat it all again.
The worst of this is between the third and final climb. The descent is long and fast and incredibly enjoyable (I hit 65km/hr here today) before you have to face the hardest climb of the day once again seeing 13% on the screen. The first time I climbed this road I thought the 3rd climb was the last. The forest at the top hides the descent and the mast looks very close. Dropping back into the steep valley and having to climb out the other side was soul destroying that day. At least today I knew what to expect.
The TV mast itself is 305m tall and the tallest man made structure on the island of Ireland. It’s lit at night with a series of red lights up its length and is a very visible landmark and a very welcome sight when travelling home from Dublin, indicating the journey is almost over.
After a brief stop at the top there is a great descent into Strabane that I wasn’t able to enjoy to the full. Coming over the hill I was now on the exposed side and very susceptible to the strong, blustery breeze. The road constantly changes direction as it winds down the hill meaning I had to control my speed so as not to get blown off course by the changing breeze.
Back in Strabane I was getting hungry and decided to stop for food. I’d been carrying a sandwich in my bag all day, seemingly for nothing, but finally it had a purpose. In the first shop the young assistant provided no assistance and watched me waste 3min getting a tea started and struggling to get hot water. When I eventually asked what was up she informed me that the machine was switched off for the day. Why didn’t she say something sooner! I left with a real hump 😆
Getting a good but expensive (£2.40!) cuppa at the next shop I enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine while eating the staple of any irishman’s diet – a good old hang samwich before enjoying the last 20km home with a tailwind for most of the way. Of course after a day of challenging hills I finished with one last 1.6km climb to home.
click here to view on strava
On a more functional note I seem to have cracked my hydration on the last few rides. I’ve always been bad at drinking enough on rides but I have been stopping to pee mid ride this last few weeks suggesting I’ve finally nailed it. Either that or my prostate is playing up!
Header image source: pinterest.com