Saturday July 3, 2004
Up a Slieve ... the mountains are an ideal introduction for young
walkers. Photo: Roger Kinkead/Irish Images
About half an hour south of Belfast, there is a bend in the road
near Dundrum where you get the first proper view of the mountains.
As a child, it was the sight that told me I had come home and would
soon be within reach of the forested slopes of the Mountains of
Mourne. My parents bought their first house here, in the seaside
town of Newcastle and my earliest memories are of walking in the
woods that form part of the demesne.
Dwarfed by the mountains, Newcastle is a small resort with an overdeveloped
esplanade and a collection of gift shops and ice-cream parlours
where trippers from Belfast can satisfy their craving for sweets,
traditional Ulster fries and plenty of tea. The Strand Ice-Cream
Parlour - "the family restaurant to suit all ages" - still
advertises knickerbocker glories and banana boat specials as if
they were post-war treats of unimaginable decadence. The strand,
or beach, is a vast stretch of decent sand with views all the way
to St John's Point seven miles to the east.
At one end of the strand, there is the ornate red-brick edifice
of the Slieve Donard Hotel, a former railway hotel smartened up
by the addition of a health club and swimming pool. They still serve
up a decent Ulster fry in the main dining room of the Donard, but
you eat it accompanied by the elegant chink of silver-plated spoons
against breakfast china and the sound of gently rustled newspapers.
The truly grand thing about Newcastle is the mountains. Slieve
Donard (the tallest at almost 3,000ft) hangs above the town, its
heather-softened flanks shifting their colours with the day, sometimes
black, often bewitching Irish green, sometimes ruddy brown and occasionally
glittering silver when the sun catches a patch of granite scree
at just the right angle. The slopes of Donard are an easy walk from
Newcastle and some people think it dull compared with the more craggy
expanse of Slieve Commedagh alongside. But when the conditions are
right you can see for more than a hundred miles from the top of
Donard: a view that takes in Scotland, England, Wales and the Isle
"Daddy, I want to climb a mountain. That one! Right to the
top!" said Morgan, my three-year-old son, as we drove up to
Wyllie Cottage in the tiny village of Bryansford three miles inland
from the sea. Away from the delights of the esplanade the view was
of dry-stone walls around rolling fields. Looking up at the stark
peaks stretching into an endless sky, I didn't give much for our
chances with him in tow, but the next morning he again declaimed
his desire to be, as he put it, "high as high as high".
My eight-year-old daughter, Ilona, was less sure of the idea, but
with no clouds in sight we decided to give it a go. The weather
shifts quickly here, and the mountain rescue teams are always on
standby to haul hapless and ill-prepared hikers down from the hills.
The Kingdom of Mourne, as the tourist office likes to call it,
contains more than 20 mountains, 12 of them with peaks of over 2,000ft,
all conveniently grouped together in a range that is just seven
miles broad and about 14 miles long. But on foot, in a landscape
with no interior roads, you feel as if you have reached a magical
oasis of high ground, a pure space that is part Finian's Rainbow
and part Middle Earth. This is ancient land, and there are prehistoric
cairns and stone graves in the hills which are said to mark the
resting place of Irish chiefs. Slieve Donard sits next to Slieve
Commedagh and Slieve Corragh with Binnian, Bearnagh and Slievelamagan
snuggling up behind. There is a satisfyingly Irish lilt to mountain
names like Slievenabrock and Slieve Nagloch which outclass the rather
prosaic town label "Newcastle". And the mountains remained
Irish in character when the Anglo-Norman settlers put down roots
in the flatter townlands to the north, building their castles at
strategic points along the coast.
We started at the Bloody Bridge just beside the coast road to Annalong.
This being Northern Ireland the bridge takes its name from a sectarian
massacre said to have taken place during the O'Neill rebellion of
1641. The marked route took us up an earth track flanked by gorse
bushes warmed by the sun but we emerged after a few hundred yards
on to a steeper and extremely rocky track with the river on our
left. After a mile or more, the path became indistinct and the river
forked at the Fofanny Glen. Ragged black-faced sheep grazed on the
slopes of the glen, and Morgan and Ilona started collecting wisps
of wool that had stuck to the bushes, marvelling at its oily texture
when they rubbed it between their fingers. We took the left fork
and half-carried the children over natural stepping stones in the
Following the obvious rise, the valley took us past the old quarry
workings below Chimney Rock and we stopped to rest when the children
decided it would be fun to throw boulders into a glistening rock
pool. The water was clear and bright and if it had been warmer I
might have jumped in. Up and up we went for another hour until on
the high ground we could see the shoulder of Donard tantalisingly
close but probably at least another hour ahead. Morgan's legs could
just about cope with the path, though I had to lift him every few
yards to avoid the danger of slipping on loose stones.
Even though the sun was warm and the skies were clear, we felt
a marked drop in temperature as we approached the unromantically
named Bog of Donard; 1,500ft below us, the sea was a speckled expanse
of blue and the air smelled as if it had been wiped clean. Mindful
of the mountain rescue teams, we were prepared for the coolness
that came with the height and put on our kagouls to sit at the base
of a large hump of granite and eat lunch. The view cleared my mind
and made me wonder why I had ever moved to England. A pair of large
black ravens circled over the slope to our right, scouring the terrain
for dead sheep. It was Ilona who broke the silence. "Daddy,
if Morgan gets tired you'll have to carry him a long way back down."
Reluctantly, my wife and I agreed to descend. "Soon,"
she said, "when he's just a little bigger, we'll be able to
do more of this."
Morgan didn't want to be helped on the way down, but he needed
a shoulder-ride for the last 10 minutes on the flat ground leading
back to the Bloody Bridge. "I'm a mountain climber now, Daddy,
aren't I?" he announced in the car on the way home.
"Shall we do some more climbing, tomorrow?" I asked enthusiastically.
"No," he said deliberately. "I think we should go
to the beach."
· Tim Ecott is the author of Vanilla: Travels In Search
Of The Luscious Substance (Michael Joseph £16.99).
Way to go
British Midland (0870 6070555, flybmi.com) has up to eight flights
a day from Heathrow to Belfast City Airport with online fares from
£27 each way. Belfast is widely served from other regional
airports in the UK and easyJet (0871 7500100, easyjet.com) flies
to Belfast International from Stansted, Luton and Gatwick with online
fares from £26.99 one way. Newcastle is 40 minutes' drive
from Belfast City Airport and just over 30 minutes from Belfast
via the A24 to Clough. In July and August, the Mourne Rambler bus
service travels a circular bus route around the mountain perimeter
hourly from 10am-5pm, allowing walkers to take longer one-way walks
without needing to arrange a pick-up at the other end. Walkers can
call 028-4372 2296 (Newcastle bus station) to find out where the
bus is at any time.
Walking: Maps and walking guides to the mountains can be obtained
from: Newcastle Tourist Information Centre (028-4372 2222),10-14
Central Promenade, Newcastle. Best map: 1:25,000 scale Mourne Country
Outdoor Pursuits Map (£4.95), laminated version available.
The Mourne Heritage Trust (028-4372 4059, mournelive.com) produces
an excellent set of 10 route cards detailing accessible walks and
showing duration and level of difficulty: Mourne Mountain Walks
(£5.95 + p&p).
Where to stay: The four-star Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle (028-4372
1066, hastingshotels.com) from £95pp per night. Enniskeen
House Hotel (028-4372 2392), two-star, a mile from the town centre
from £40pp per night. Wyllie Cottage, 17 Bryansford Village
(028-9756 2800, (email@example.com) has three double
bedrooms and costs from £300 per week in low season.
Where to eat: Good locally caught seafood can be found at the Stone
Boat Restaurant (028-437 24118) at the Old Harbour, Newcastle, where
Jack Murdock cooks crabs toes and lobster with dinner for two costing
around £35 (open Mon-Sat in summer for dinner from 5pm and
from 12.30pm on Sundays). At Dundrum, the Buck's Head Inn (77 Main
Street, 028-4375 1868, open daily Easter-October for lunch at around
£25 for two) has earned a reputation as a local gastro pub
specialising in seafood chowder, and mussels and oysters caught
in Dundrum Bay.