Slieve Donard 2: Mourne with joy

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.

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 Glen Valley

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.

Crowds on Slieve Commedagh

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

Slieve Donard 1: up to highest of Down

Slieve Donard, the highest mountain of the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, and the highest point of County Down and of all Ulster, was a challenge not to be missed, and gave me another county top to tick off the list.
The distinctive shape of this mountain, its bulk and whale-like profile, was visible from many of the places we visited around the edge of the Mournes, and called out to be trodden. It is not without neighbours equally haunting in their shape and immensity, but Slieve Donard is the greatest of them. For those who have not been among the Mourne Mountains, they create in a relatively small compass in the southernmost of one county a sudden landscape of rare intensity.

Slieve Donard, the highest mountain of the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, and the highest point of County Down and of all Ulster, was a challenge not to be missed, and gave me another county top to tick off the list.

The distinctive shape of this mountain, its bulk and whale-like profile, was visible from many of the places we visited around the edge of the Mournes, and called out to be trodden.  It is not without neighbours equally haunting in their shape and immensity, but Slieve Donard is the greatest of them.  For those who have not been among the Mourne Mountains, they create in a relatively small compass in the southernmost of one county a sudden landscape of rare intensity.

The mountain has the wee seaside resort of Newcastle at its foot, and here we started.  At one point on the promenade is a piece of modern art in the form of a cone with slot cut through it, arranged so that a look through the slot is of the summit of Slieve Donard: an interesting conceit, or a tribute to the mountain’s dominating presence.

We went down onto the beach and I trod with the sea washing on my walking boots, so that way there was no cheating and I could say I was climbing from sea level. My family then went off to explore the Tollymore Forest Park on the north side of the Mournes, which, they told me when they returned, was lovely – maybe next time then.  Today though I headed inland.

The Glen River
The Glen River

From the beach through the car park and out almost at once into a wood.  The route I was taking was up the tautologously named Glen Valley; the valley of the Glen River, and a lovely stream it is, tumbling over rocks worn smooth by its waters – in places not so much a river as a mile-long shallow waterfall, and with plenty of genuine cascades.

The path follows the river, on one side then the other, up though the woods it waters, at first a gentle climb.

It is a popular climb too – my hopes of boasting of achieving a rare feat were disappointed, except that I at least had walked from sea level not from the coach drop-off a little uphill, for all the difference it makes (and as it happens I coincided with a charity walk).  One thing I will say for the walkers of Ulster – they know to wear proper boots:  I have seen people trying to clamber lake District fells in plimsoles and flip-flops and wondered what planet they were on, but here in the Mourne Mountains there were stout boots on show.

The valley and the ice house

Eventually the tree cover thins and the path emerges, but I was not out of the woods yet (except literally).  There on the other side of the stream stands a large, domed ice house.  It looks in form like a giant igloo, except that an igloo is made of snow and an ice-house contains ice, or did in its heyday.  The ice-house was built for the estate, and I could imagine weary servants tramping up the much as I had to this far ice-house to collect ice and trudge back with barrows on an inadequate path, muttering curses under their breath, heavy-laden to the great house, wherever that is.  In a valley shaped by nature, the building stands out, but is a charm in its own way.

On then upwards. From here the valley is open and you can see how wide is this slice through the hill. In fact it is separating two mountains; Slieve Donard to the south-east and Slieve Commedagh to the north-west. There stands the challenge, which I will finish next time.

Maps and books

Climbing Snowdon: The Watkin Path

The Watkin Path is the toughest of the standard routes up Snowdon. There may be other routes known to climbers considered more challenging, such as the haul up Crib Goch, but of those normal routes straight to the top, the Watkin is the one. It also has the greatest ascent from start to finish: 3,330 feet.
The walk start at the ‘back of the mountain’ on the south side in the valley of the Nant Gwynant, at Bethania, between the two long lakes of the valley. A short walk in leads first through lovely woodland, then it begins to mean business as you walk up a dry valley carved into the mountainside, where Snowdon was heavily quarried for slate.

The Watkin Path is the toughest of the standard routes up Snowdon.  There may be other routes known to climbers considered more challenging, such as the haul up Crib Goch, but of those normal routes straight to the top, the Watkin is the one.  It also has the greatest ascent from start to finish:  3,330 feet, or 1,015 m in French.

It has been several years since I climbed the Watkin, so I have no photographs of my own for this own.  I had it easy:  my wife climbed with me in spite of a bout of flu, but we wanted to climb it before moving on and so we did.

The walk start at the ‘back of the mountain’ on the south side in the valley of the Nant Gwynant, at Bethania, between the two long lakes of the valley.  There is a convenient car park (with few cars when we were there, but if it were full I cannot think where else you might stop).  A short walk in leads first through lovely woodland, then it begins to mean business as you walk up a dry valley carved into the mountainside; here a theme of the walk appears as this is a side of Snowdon heavily quarried for slate.  There is a large monument here marking a speech by Gladstone:  what days they were when people would travel to a remote valley to hear a political speech, unless he just spoke to quarrymen off their shift.

The incline of a slate tramway crosses the path, while the path itself winds first beside the Cwm Llan river, then splits from a path across the flank of the mountain (which goes to Rhyd Ddu as it happens), crosses the stream and begins to climb in earnest, and when the path begins to climb, it does not stop.

The path has a haul up to the craggy ridge of Y Lliwedd (though not to its summit) before following the ridge north-west directly toward Snowdon’s summit.

One high section of this climb I distinctly; remember clambering with my hands and finding the foothold for us both on a narrow, very steep section, with the slate breaking away as we trod on it or held.  The weather was closing in too at that point.  Somehow in spite of weather and influenza we reached the ridge and the climb was still not over as we worked our way up to the summit.

I am told that this upper section has since had work done to it to make it less of s death-trap.

It was late in the season and late in the day for a climb and for once, I think the only time, the summit was empty.

Waterfall on the Cwm Llan River

We were unable to go back the same way after that break-away section and my wife’s state of health but we found instead an easier downward route, along Bwlch Main – a ridge on the other side of the quarried valley, down to the flank track from Rhyd Ddu, whence back to the Cwm Llan, and a feeling of a job well done.

I may have to revisit, this time with a camera, to see what has been done to the route.  It was fascinating as a side of the mountain not so frequently seen, and to encounter just one other walker, and that on the Bwlch Main path, is unique in my experience of Snowdon.

Maps

The best maps for Snowdon are of course the Ordnance Survey maps; the ‘Explorer’ at 1:25 000 and the ‘Landranger’ at 1:50 000:

Route map

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Trostan – now how did I miss that one?

It was many years ago.  I was tired and still soaking wet from the best storm that Antrim could render.  I sat on a hillside and admitted to my walking companion that this was a tough walk largely because I had glossed over inconvenient bits in the planning.  Still, I can look back at days of 12 hours’ or 13 hours’ walking a day in the hills as an achievement.  What I did not notice is that the hill in question was Trostan, the highest hill in County Antrim, and passing over its shoulder I missed by a hundred yards or so the opportunity to top it.

The walk had began being dropped off at the spectacle that is the Sallagh Braes, then over the thistle-clad hill tops northward, ultimately to reach the Giant's Causeway four days later.

It was raining in Carnlough and dull –  though I have since been there in glorious sunshine and realise what I missed.  Maybe Carnlough and the walk over the top to Glenariff are for another post.  The next morning from the top of that wonderful glen we followed up a track on the Moyle Way, high above the glen, by this time soaked to the skin and begging internally for a better day than the last.  There was a hill, a fine hill, a hill that seemed to know its place in the landscape – Trostan.  The path led up and over the shoulder of the hill, close to the summit but not to it. By this time, realising my timings were completely out, it was just a question of putting one foot in front of another and bashing through the day, with no thought to exploration or taking pictures or tapping the top of a trig pillar, and so we went on.

It was later when compiling a list of county tops, I realised that Trostan is the highest hill of  the Antrim Hills and the county top of County Antrim – and I had missed it.  In my defence, I was not at that time interested in county tops, and had no thought to dashing round topping as many as possible as I have done since, but it itches at the back of my head that I missed a county top I could have bagged, had I but known.

When I was back in Antrim a few years ago we drove along the coast road and as we came near, my eyes involuntarily started plotting routes, but we had a B&B booked and the walking boots were deep in the packing, and it passed us by.  I only did two county tops that holiday (Down and Armagh). I can at least note Trostan as “nearly done”, and look for an opportunity when next passing to hare up to the summit and bash that trig point.

Map

High Willhays: closest place to heaven in Devon

Devon is a place I could wander forever.  The vast extent of the high moorland of Dartmoor is both beautiful and fearsome, inviting and forbidding:  when the sun is out, there is little better than the freedom to wander at will on what looks like an unbounded landscape; but when the icy wind cuts to the bone or the cloud descends on the hill, there is no shelter.

It was a few years ago that I climbed the highest hills on the moor, Yes Tor and High Willhays, two neighbouring peaks, the latter being also Devon’s county top.

It is a modest walk – just 7 miles – mainly involving climbing (even the precipitous descent seemed to be climbing) but well worth it for the views, the location, and for bagging another county top.  It did not finish where I started, and would not change the distance much to do so.

The walk is within the army’s Dartmoor live firing ranges, so you will need to check the range timetable before setting out:  there is a link below.

The Meldon Reservoir

The walk

I started at the Meldon Reservoir – a beautifully calming stretch of water, and while as a reservoir it may be manmade, it lies in a natural valley, and the water falls from the heavens as to any normal lake, so it can count as one, apart from the dam, which is the first and almost last artificial thing to cross.

A path leads up from the dam, winding up the slope of Yes Tor.  The hill rising above looks forbidding, but on a sunny day (I was blessed with a sunny day) it is an invitation.

An inhabitant of Dartmoor

In the days before exact, scientific surveys, Yes Tor was believed to be the highest point on the moor, and in the county.  It is certainly the more prominent one to the eye from the nearest villages.  (There has been this confusion on Dartmoor, perhaps understandably for want of anywhere to stand to measure the hills other than by the impression of the eyes:  until the early nineteenth century Cosdon Hill (1,804 feet) was thought to be the highest on Dartmoor, because it looks prominent from a reachable village; then the crown moved to Yes Tor, until someone thought to count the hill hidden behind it; High Willhays.)

It is a straight haul up Yes Tor to its rocky outcrop.  The views from here are broad in all directions.  It looks to the north beyond the bounds of Dartmoor to the rolling hills in the middle of Devon, and westwards to Cornwall across the Tamar Valley.  Closer to, to the north-west, is the reservoir and to the north of it a peculiar viaduct apparently to nowhere.  The map shows it to carry the old line of the Dartmoor Railway over the West Okement River but no further.  (It now serves a quarry, but apparently the line does not cross the viaduct these days.)

The top of Yes Tor is at 2,029 feet above sea level. From here I turned south, down the little saddle separating Yes Tor from its neighbour, High Willhays, which is just ten feet higher.  On the saddle my sense of remoteness was knocked a bit by seeing a track running up to the saddle from the east, and a Land Rover parked a little way down it:  this place though is within the army’s firing range and access has been driven to it.

The summit of High Willhays stands at 2,039 feet above sea level.  It is marked with several rocky outcrops, and it is hard to see by eye which is the highest, so I clambered up each of the tallest. I was not alone; one chap had hauled not only himself but also a ham radio set and a small dog up to the summit (to make a broadcast, he explained, from the top of each ‘Marilyn’ hill).

From here, the views to the south and east broaden across the sweep of Dartmoor, to Great Kneeset prominent at the centre of the moor, and many more around.  Below the hill westwards is the deep valley of the West Okement, into which I had to descend later, with stands of woodland amid the bare moorland. To the south is top after top of the peculiar hills of the moor.

The descent from High Willhays looks simple on an Ordnance Survey map (as below).  In practice, the valley of the Brim Brook does its best to imitate the West Okement, and the West Okement itself extends with few distinguishing points and is misleading.  It takes careful compass work not to end up walking miles in the wrong direction (which did happen to a friend of mine who did the same walk a few months after me but without the aid of a compass).

It is steep and trackless off the tor, plunging down over broken ground into the valley.  Sturdy boots are needed or a twisted ankle is promised.  Eventually in the bottom of the valley I could track northwards to a little below the head of the reservoir, where there is a ford and a track to the west up and over the shoulder of the Sourton Tors (though I took a lower path, a little less direct).

The Two Castles Trail and the West Devon Way share a route along the lower hills here, though I went to the track of the old Dartmoor railway, which has been converted into a footpath and a trail known as the Granite Way.  A little way down here, and I came to my finishing point at Sourton (home to Devon’s weirdest pub, incidentally).

One more county top done, and it was all good warming up for the next challenge….

Outside link

Maps

  • Ordnance Survey Explorer Series,

 

The route: map

Hope grows in the British Antarctic

The British Antarctic Survey has just announced today that they have remeasured the mountains of Palmer Land and they are higher than we thought.  More than that:  the highest mountain in the British Antarctic Territory is actually Mount Hope, not Mount Jackson as we always thought.

We have been getting it wrong all this time the about the territory top.  I feel sorry for the BAT team who reached the summit on 23 November 1964, thinking they had reached the highest point in the British domains.  Will their children now be kitting up to scale the new top?

I know this is a bit further than most mountain walkers will go, but it is a British mountain, an impressive part of the Further WildMount Hope rises to 10,626 feet, two and a half times the height of Ben Nevis, wind-scoured and ice-bound:  beyond the reach of the everyday hiker.  Still, as Sir Ranulph said, there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

I have listed the county tops of the United Kingdom, but what of the territory tops?  It may have to be the next endeavour to wander the heights East Caicos and Cayman Brac, but the BAT?  Not this year.

Ben Macdhui by way of Cairngorm. Stage 3: The way home

From the summit of Ben Macdhui I was not content to trudge back just the way I had come.  However the first step is back down the last path to the summit.  Somehow it seemed more rugged and ankle-churning on the way down (again, thank goodness for good boots with inflexible soles).  I followed the mini-cairns back down to just above Lochan Buidhe, where paths diverge, and this time to the higher, left-hand path, heading north.

This looks to be a less frequented path.  It runs just the west side of the ridge of the bealach on which I had seen the reindeer, and to the west of it there are fearsome scree slopes dropping away down into a deep, capacious, precipitous valley, called Lairig Ghru, which is a main north-south mountain pass through the Cairngorms:  a path runs all through the pass that can be followed all the way from Aviemore to Braemar.  The River Dee rises in the Pools of Dee in Lairig Ghru just below where I turned off from the lochan, though unseen.

The valley is a wonder, but completely unphotographable (though I tried).  There are postcards in the shops of Aviemore showing Lairig Ghru under snow, which must be a spectacle.

The path leads above the valley for a couple of miles, and passes west of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, and then begins to descend as the Ski Centre comes distantly into sight.  It is a well defined path, along the face of the slope and with some quick declivities.  The National Park authorities have been helpful in paving the path, that would otherwise be washed away by the burns running down the slopes, and bridging the main streams.

From here it is just a question of bashing on until I emerged in the car park (just as my family pulled into it).  A good day all in all.

It is the final summit plateau alone in the air, and distant view of the mighty fells beyond which will stay with me.

County Topping

In a post last month, I looked at the county top of Hampshire (and Berkshire). What is a county top though?

Basically, a county top is the highest point of a county. It should only be a traditional county:  there are no prizes for the highest bureaucratic interference.

Therefore as there are 92 counties in the United Kingdom, and 26 in the Republic of Ireland, there should be 118 county tops in the British Isles, except that some of them are shared between two counties; the summit of the hill marking the county border. Of these, Ben Macdhui is the top of Aberdeenshire and of Banffshire; Cuilcagh of Fermanagh and of County Cavan; Sawel of County Londonderry and of Tyrone; Arderin of Laois and of Offaly; Mount Leinster of both Carlow and Wexford.  Some hills have two county tops on them in different places, like Meikle Says Law in East Lothian and Berwickshire, and Walbury Hill in Hampshire and Berkshire, where the very summit belongs to one county alone.  Therefore there are by this reckoning 89 county tops in the United Kingdom, or 114 county tops in the whole of the British Isles.  You could add the Isle of Man too, though it is not a county, making 115.

Serious toppers have made another sensible rule too: it should be the natural ground level, so no artificial structure counts:  neither banks nor buildings.  Otherwise you might take the lift to the top of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf and claim to have topped Middlesex.

With all this in mind, serious research was carried out for the Historic Counties Trust, resulting in a list published on Wikishire:

County topping is a long process if you want to bag them all but rewarding.

Books and top toppers

  • Johnny Muir has written a book “The UK’s County Tops – Reaching the Top of 91 Historic Counties” (though his effort predated the work of the Historic Counties Trust and he missed Sgùrr Mòr in Cromartyshire; a forgivable omission).
  • Andy Strangeway has set out to sleep overnight on every county top:  by September 2012 he had become the first person to sleep on the summit of all 52 counties of England and Wales.  (I joined him for the penultimate top on that list, which was Bush Ground in Huntingdonshire.)

Pilot Hill shot down over Hampshire

Pilot Hill is not what it seems.  In published lists of county tops, the hill frequently listed as the county top of Hampshire is Pilot Hill, at 938 feet on the ridge of the North Hampshire Downs.  However, the cartography has been checked by the Association of British Counties and it is not:  the compilers of these lists have been misled by modern administrative boundaries.  Since county tops are reckoned by traditional counties, not by shifting administrative conveniences, that will not do.

To the south of the ridge lies Combe, in Hampshire, whose administrative bounds have been redrawn by bureaucrats to encompass parts of Berkshire (no doubt they had their reasons for doing it) and while that does not affect the historic counties, it does cause confusion on maps.

The county boundary runs along the path that follows the chalk ridge of the downs here (a beautiful place for walking), and through the middle of a vast Iron Age hill fort, and this is where counties toppers should be visiting:  the county top of Hampshire is the summit of Walbury Hill, at 974 feet, the hill encompassed by the Iron Age fortifications.  The summit point is marked by a trig point in the middle of a farmer’s field.

The erroneous lists frequently give Walbury Hill as the county top of Berkshire, and they are right there, though the summit is exclusive to Hampshire:  the highest point of Berkshire is on the county border, on the ridge path by the gate leading up to the summit (at 965 feet).

The route along the ridge here is known as the ‘Wayfarer’s Walk’, and a pleasant walk it is on a sunny day; past the impressive earthworks on Walbury Hill walking eastward the path dips and climbs through open land with broad vistas over the Berkshire countryside, and then climbs suddenly through a wood to the top of Pilot Hill, which is worth a visit, even if it has been knocked off its perch.

Pilot Hill holds its own however as the highest hill wholly in Hampshire.