Self catering accommodation Newcastle County Down, Northern Ireland

Saturday July 3, 2004
The Guardian

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 of Man.

"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 stream.

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, 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, 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, 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, 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, ( 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.

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