There is a gorgeous wood that runs up the slope between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh, watered by a wee river, the Glen River, that drops down to Newcastle and the sea. It gives a series of scenes often in my mind, not least as I use those pictures as lock-screen.
Or at least there used to be such glorious woods. The sight on the news of the fires burning across the slopes of the Mourne Mountains are a hard blow. The pictures were beyond a normal brush fire: from Newcastle a whole mountain is alight with deathly white lines of flame spread miles in length, the whole hill in an orange glow, and Slieve Donard itself behind.
Heather and gorse burn easily and fiercely when dry, and the Mournes are covered in heather and gorse. This is a gorse fire. It can be cruel.
Last Saturday they said that around the Glen River the fires were out, but they were bursting out elsewhere. The toughness of the fire crews hauling equipment onto the hills calls for the greatest admiration. There is a picture of one man, utterly exhausted, surrounded by black ash, and others of firemen with just mats and spades treating amongst burning ground, where there is nowhere where you could even start except by starting somewhere.
I gather there are woods still standing. What else remains I do not know – the icehouse I hope is there unbroken. It burns itself out eventually, as the crews douse what they can.
I remember though a great fire that swept through the woods near where I was brought up, and the community volunteers who headed out, my family among them, to held keep it down when the fireman had battled all night. Now, you would not know it had happened. The fire was a living part of a living environment as I suppose it always will be. The gorse grew back and the trees around them. By the time I next step on those slopes, nature may have reclaimed them and restored the soft cover of those beautiful hills. It will do before too long.
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…