Published: 12/06/2011 00:01 - Updated: 10/06/2011 10:00

Mysterious Mountains of Mourne

Written byHelen Werin

Walking on the Mourne Wall, Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, County Down.
Walking on the Mourne Wall, Slieve Donard, Mourne Mountains, County Down.

HALFWAY up Slieve Donard, my daughter Sophie suddenly stopped and asked: "Why are we going up when this is County Down?"

But for the look on her little face I might have answered: "Good question; now, after you’ve climbed this one, there are 11 more peaks".

To be fair, she did have a good crack at Donard, which is a rather cunning old man of a mountain. It enticed us ever higher from the landmark Bloody Bridge just outside Newcastle with a well-used, fairly easy path following the boulder-strewn stream. It distracted us with the amusing sight of wet-suited adults and children leaping, shrieking, into the chilling water from maybe 10 feet before climbing back up the steep rocky sides to have another go.

Then, almost before we knew it, Donard had lured us hundreds of feet, rewarded us with spectacular views across the Irish Sea and lulled us into a false sense of achievement as the path unexpectedly levelled out. The eye before the storm, obviously and the point at which Sophie made me turn back.

My husband, keen to get a summit view, carried stoically on. Hours later he reappeared, hungry but elated, with tales of his "stairway to heaven".

The Mournes have 12 peaks, many of them over 2000 feet high (609m), including Donard, the highest in Northern Ireland (2786ft/849m). They are very conveniently clustered together in an area of only seven miles. Stir in a bustling seaside resort at the edge of them in Newcastle, add a forest park with rivers, glades and follies and mix in tales of silenced valleys and smugglers and we found we had the perfect recipe for a memorable holiday. This may be pretty challenging mountain hiking country in parts, but it also does laid-back rather well.

Certainly when Percy French wrote the classic song about homesickness with the words " . . . where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea" he helped to capture the Mournes’ timeless appeal.

Many of the winding paths through the mountains are old quarry tracks with evidence of the trade still visible. We followed the 4.8 kilometre Granite Trail, which rises steeply from above Newcastle’s harbour but then evens out. The old bogie track used to bring the hewn rock to the coast and from there to Belfast and Liverpool beyond. It was this local granite that, so the saying goes, "paved Lancashire". By far the most well-known and indeed, notorious, track was once used for a totally different purpose altogether.

We’d come across the Brandy Pad (path) on a couple of our walks and had followed it up towards Donard, mindful that in the 18th century this was the route that smugglers took from the coast. Small ponies laden with brandy — and wine, tobacco, tea, silk, coffee, spices and leather, too — crossed the Mournes from Newcastle. This contraband mostly came via the Isle of Man and was destined for Hilltown, at the centre of the mountains, from where it was distributed.

These intrepid tax evaders left only footprints, unlike the quarry workers. As we paused at the dramatic pass of Hare’s Gap, right on the rim of the high Mournes, we could have chosen to scale one of the adjoining peaks. Instead we opted for the easier way, along the Brandy Pad down to the valley of the Trassey River.

It was all too easy, with my imagination, to get caught up in the history and sense of mystery that surrounds these mountains. Though nothing could be more evocative of the tenacity and strength of the men of Mourne than the Mourne Wall itself, the story of Watertown and the creation of the Silent Valley reservoir intrigued me even more.

What is now the supremely peaceful Silent Valley Mountain Park, with its woodlands of ash, Scots pine, rowan and holly was, 80 years ago, the site of a 2000-strong town for the reservoir’s construction workers.

Watertown was policed by the aptly-named Constable Lawless and also had a hospital offering specialist treatment to the men who worked in the compressed air shafts to avoid the bends. Curiously, nothing now remains of Watertown.

Stories and legends abound in the Mournes; my favourite tells how Silent Valley, previously called Happy Valley, got its name. There are actually several versions. It may have been because all the birds left when the valley was flooded to supply Belfast with some of the best quality drinking water in Europe. I much prefer to think that it was because many of the workers here were Welsh and were always singing so that when they left the area became silent again.

Whichever; the truth of it is that the Mournes will always keep a welcome in the hillside for me.

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