Slieve Donard, the county top of County Down, Prince of the Mourne Mountains, stands looming above Newcastle; the silly seaside boutiques and rides, gaudy ice-cream stalls and beachwear shops looking tiny beneath its silent, majestic presence.
Previously I described the initial climb from the beach, though the woods by the Glen River up to the Ice House. It is here, having emerged from the woods, that the walk opens up, and the way to the top of the mountain appears.
The ice house is at the side of a deep, broad, steep valley climbing the mountainside. It begins to divide the two neighbouring mountains, Slieve Donard to the south-east (on the left as you climb) from Slieve Commedagh to the north-west (right). The route upwards is initially beside the wood, on a well-worn path, with the river, now a narrow stream threading between rocks, below to the left.
After the wood is left behind, the valley opens more and looking back there is a fine view down to the sea and the far Lecale peninsula, flat and fertile missy in the heat-haze. The path is paved in parts from the rocks from beside it, and the river, now a bare mountain burn, is crossed again just on the stones within its course, and all in the great U of the valley which even over aeons this tiny water could not have carved.
The top of the path stops at a wall. It climbs to the crest of the saddle between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh halfway between the two summits and far below them both, and stops. Here is the Mourne Wall. The wall stands neck-high, between 1904 and 1922 by the Belfast Water Commissioners in order to enclose the water catchment in the Mournes, and to keep sheep out of it apparently. It is a most remarkable construction, stretching for summit to summit miles across the mountains; Ulster’s version of the Great Wall of China. It also shows the way to the summit (although the fact that the ground goes up in one direction is generally enough of a clue).
The saddle (I keep wanting to call it a ‘bealach’) is a high ridge between the two mountains, and beyond it the Mournes stretch away inland, gorgeous to behold, and the wall looping over the tops to the horizon. While I stood contemplating the scene a new group of walkers appeared over the lip, who had climbed the mountain from Bloody Bridge – a spot where the cliffs come down to the sea south of Newcastle with barely room for the road to squeeze by though there is a spot here to pull boots on and go. The must be a more rugged path – and a goal for next time I come this way.
There are many routes up and around Slieve Donard: I have listed some of the books below. There is so much to explore in the Mourne Mountains, even just in this little corner of it, that one path, and the popular one at that, barely does it justice. There is here at least a glimpse over those wilder slopes stretching of beyond.
I turned east. It is a steeper, rockier climb beside the wall to the Slieve Donard summit. You cannot stop as it is too tempting not to start again, and up, and further up it goes.
The summit levels, and here is the biggest cairn I have ever seen. I clambered to the top of course. There: County Down duly topped. From the summit the view looks out over the sea and shore, to Newcastle, Lecale and the Ards peninsula beyond, into the Irish Sea, with the Isle of man appearing in the haze. It is said that Snowdon is visible on a good day, but I could not see it, and the weather was descending.
Back down to the Saddle, and I noticed that while there were many people up on Slieve Donard, no one was on its neighbour, Slieve Commedagh, so up I went. It is an easier climb than the big one, and its summit cairn a far more modest affair. Its resident inhabitants were better climbers than I – its sheep, and no more.
I looked across at Slieve Donard. Its summit was now within a cloud. It was time to descend.
Back down to the broad valley, and the vista once more opened up before me, back to the wee mountain burn hiding itself among the rocks and which grew as I followed it down, back to the ice house, which I took time to explore this time.
Then into the woods, the river a real river by now, with pools and cascades, and down, back to the car park and the sleepy seaside town.
Next time there are wilder routes. My eyes at that point though were t a mountain further west, but that is for another time.
Maps and books
- Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland:
- The Mourne Walks, by Paddy Dillon
- The Mourne Mountains: Celebration of a Place Apart by David Kirk
- More books on the Mourne Mountains…