What a trip this was! It had been a year hence since my hiking cohorts in the SMG (Stedfast Mountain Group) had first teased the idea of a trip to Northern Ireland. Specifically, the Mourne Mountains, a granite-topped mountain range in County Down in the south east of the island nation.
The trip was first touted in December 2021 and, from that small seed, the garden began to grow. My auntie had taken part in the prestigious mountain marathon race out there the previous year. None of us apart from her had been there before and thus she agreed to organise a return visit and throw it open to us in the SMG.
My ears pricked up and my interest was instantly tickled. Having been to Wales, Scotland, the Peak District and the Lakes, the wild and rugged beauty of Northern Ireland lay as yet undiscovered – until now.
Let me explain how my club works: We have a yearly programme of events and hikes – whether that be day meets, weekend meets or two-week trips. Once the calendar is agreed (which usually happens at our AGM), we then decide which meets we want to go on. Numbers vary and each meet has one of our members in charge, responsible for organising the trip and communicating plans with everyone else.
With Northern Ireland settled on, there would be seven of us in attendance: myself, my auntie Maggie, John, David, Phil and his wife Hillary and Stephen ‘Satch’ Millen to act as transport manager and chaffeur.
So the scene was set: I would catch the train up to Skipton in North Yorkshire to meet my auntie. We would then drive down to Birkenhead the following day (31st August) for the overnight, eight-hour crossing to Belfast. John and the Phillarys were quite literally in the same boat as us, with the others to arrive on a separate ferry from Cairnryan on the Scottish coast. We would then all meet up at base camp, Tollymore Forest Park, during the afternoon.
After arrival into Belfast at stupid o’clock, we stopped for breakfast before the hour’s drive down to the quaint coastal town of Newcastle, nestled beneath the dark, dripping precipice of the Mournes Massif, checking in and setting up camp
With Phil and Hillary staying in a nearby B&B, the gang was back together and we planned our day one adventure: the assault on Slieve Donard (Donairt’s mountain): Northern Ireland’s highest and the undoubted zenith of our trip.
Starting out at the mysteriously named Bloody Bridge – which, legend has it, was the sight of a massacre during the 1641 rebellion here – we followed the river via the Bog of Donard to the Mourne Wall. This was a truly remarkable and unforgettable sight, towering 5ft high and stretching across 22 miles, constructed of granite to enclose a catchment area of the Silent Valley, preventing contamination for Belfast’s water supply.
Now heading directly for Donard, we walked up alongside the wall on a very steep section of the path to arrive at the summit. Dry and warm but unfortunately a think bank of clag meant we had no views but I’m reliably informed it is stunning. This became a recurring theme throughout our ten days in the mountains so a return visit is definitely in order to take in the scenery!
Descent route back down past the Wall before we dropped through the valley to Glen River through forest and woodland to Newcastle town centre where Satch picked us up.
Total time: Six and a half hours (distance: 10km/6 miles)
After a day’s breather exploring Belfast on a very wet and windy Saturday, conditions improved significantly for an attempt on Donard’s ‘little brother’ Slieve Commedagh (765m/2516ft). Followed the previous Friday’s descent route up from Newcastle to Glen River through woodland to the Mourne Wall. Turned right to climb steeply, skirting the Wall, before the path levelled off and then climbed again to a flot topped ridge for another 200m to the summit.
Much like the Donard day, conditions were dry but the clag persisted so zero visibility and views – swirling winds and very overcast… we saw absolutely nothing which was such a shame!
Phil and Hillary took a different descent route as they dropped off back down a direct path into town where they had left their car. Mags, Johnny Has, David and myself continued along the ridge as we endeavoured to return to base. Dropped sharply off the east side of the peak through a steep section of boggy and grassy marshland to a dry stone wall. Picked up a path which we then followed via a pretty forest route back to Tollymore and our tents – 8 miles and five hours. To cap off a brilliant day, United beat Arsenal 3-1 to inflict the Gunners first (and so far, only) league loss of the season. Boom!
With the UK gripped by the events in Westminster with Boris out and Liz Truss in, we set out on another challenge of our own: the rocky and unique topography of Slieve Binnian – aptly translated as Peak of the Little Horns.
The ascent was steep, muddy and famous for its fascinating rock formations as you can see, in evidence far more here than anywhere else we went to.
We started our route from the car park at the wonderfully named Carrick Little to pick up a farm track which followed a slight incline to a gate. The path fords a broad stream up to the now familiar sight of the Mourne Wall, a constant and reassuring presence wherever we turn.
This we followed up to the steep final section, leaving the Wall behind to be faced with a wall of granite and the rocky outcrops of the North Tor. From here, it was a small but tricky scrambling section up to one of the two highest points on the summit of Slieve Binnian (747m) and a short walk to the other. Absolutely blowing a hooly!
Descent via Blue Lough where we finally got some views over to Slieve Commedagh and the Silent Valley! Incredible rock outcrops and shapes! Distance 11km and six hours total time.
Returned to Carrick Little to the news the nation had a new leader (yet another one) as Liz Truss begins her ultimately ill-fated 44-day tenure as Prime Minister.
Last day for Satch and David P. Mags, John and I did the “Brandy Pad” walk the next day as the weather prevented a ‘hill day’ so we walked through the mountains rather than over them. This was a route used by smugglers to bring in expensive goods such as tobacco and alcohol to avoid paying tax on them before they were sent out elsewhere. This was a linear route linking Trassey Track and Bloody Bridge via the Brandy Pad taking in the majesty of the Mournes (although, once again, frustratingly we didn’t see anything).
And so, that brought to an end a simply epic ten days of fantastic walking, brilliant company and many a laugh despite the far from ideal conditions. We solemnly decamped and spent the next day in Belfast before our return overnight crossing back to Birkenhead. Devouring a pre-departure curry and pint, the only Wetherspoons in Northern Ireland was stunned into a shocked silence when we heard the news of the death of HM The Queen at the ripe old age of 96.
Having arrived back in England to a ten day period of national mourning for our monarch, I spent the weekend with my auntie where we went to the Dales and did Great Knoutberry Hill before I returned home to Sussex on Monday 12 September. Farewell, NI, it’s been a blast!