Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea

Well, that s how Percy French put it in his song The Mountains of Mourne, and sitting outside the pub that bears his name, sipping a well-earned pint of Guinness, looking back up to Slieve Donard, it s an apt image - the Mourne Mountains tower above the seaside town of Newcastle, Co. Down, a hectic tourist town in summer, but agreeably quiet and deserted in January. What I like about Ireland is the unassailable logic of the way things are done here. When the Express bus from Belfast made an unscheduled stop at the grocers to enable the driver to deliver the bread, I was mildly surprised. The next stop, to deliver magazines at the newsagents seemed perfectly reasonable. By the time the bus driver had dropped off a complete exhaust system at the garage, it seemed madness to do it any other way - why wait a week for the next delivery when the bus is going past the front door in an hour? By 10.30, I m at Bloody Bridge, named for a famous massacre, at the start of the walk into the Mournes. There are ten summits over 2000 feet and the range covers around 80 square miles of unspoilt mountain and moorland scenery. They are volcanic in origin, then carved into horseshoe valleys by glaciation, but with rocky outcrops, called nunataks, that poked through the ice-sheet and escaped the scouring effect of the retreating glaciers. They aren t huge, none of the peaks reaches the 3000 foot mark, but they are dramatic and shapely, and the Mourne Wall, which runs like a scaled-down version of the Great Wall of China over the summits, is a highly-distinctive feature, and a useful navigational aid to boot! In fact, in the 100mph gusts that threatened to hurl me into the Irish Sea yesterday, the wall acted as a windbreak when it was almost impossible to remain standing. At 12.45 I reached the summit of Slieve Donard, the highest peak of the Mournes at 2796 feet, shared a very welcome nip of whiskey with the only other walkers I met all day, then headed up Slieve Commedagh, with glorious views of Slieve Binnian and Slieve Bearnagh with their rocky turrets and pinnacles, the wall making an unlikely ascent of each peak it encounters. Although the wind blew remorselessly from the south-west all day, apart from the odd hail squall, the skies were clear and the views were fantastic, taking in all the peaks of the Mournes, and the surrounding countryside, as well as the gentler rolling hills of the south. I ambled down the ridge, or rather I was propelled down the ridge by a fierce gale, avoiding the rock crags which plummet down into the valley, sinking knee-deep into a foot of soggy Irish peat bog on several occasions. The final part of the route takes you through the mixed plantation of the Donard Forest, then it s a short stroll to the seafront, and that pint of Guinness at Percy French s bar, and time to reflect on a perfect mountain day, magnificent scenery, great people, and the opportunity to visit a place I had never previously considered as a walking destination, but one to which I plan to return. Simon Kirwan is a photographer with a passion for the outdoors. He spends as much time as possible visiting the mountains and wild places of Britain and the world. After visiting Nepal and photographing the Himalayas in 1999, Simon was named Observer Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2000 . He has since travelled overland across East Africa visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe; in addition, he has photographed the mountain ranges of Europe including the Spanish Pyrenees, the French and Italian Alps, and the Polish Tatras. Despite his love of travel and the excitement of visiting new destinations, Simon is equally happy to wander the hills and mountains of Britain s countryside, especially Snowdonia, the Peak District and the Lake District where he can indulge his love of mountain walking and scrambling as well as photographing the ever-changing landscape. Aerial Photography by Simon Kirwan Travel Photography by Simon Kirwan

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