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Walks in the The Mourne Mountains

By Dave Roberts   

on May 17, 2020    No ratings yet.

Walks in the The Mourne Mountains

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About Walks in the The Mourne Mountains

The Mourne Mountains lie 30 miles from Belfast and 60 miles from Dublin and are the best known and most visited of Northern Ireland’s upland areas. At 849m, Slieve Donard is the highest peak in the province and is one of 30 peaks in the Mournes range that rise above 500m. A further 50 lower hills, surrounded by wooded valleys, lush, green farmland and attractive coastal scenery, contribute to a generous variety of walking opportunities.

The Mournes were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1986. The AONB is managed by the Mourne Heritage Trust, a body comprising farming, tourism and environmental representatives. A later proposal to grant National Park status to the area failed to obtain the necessary consensus among key stakeholders. Although walkers have traditionally enjoyed free access to the mountains, most of the land is privately owned. The National Trust cares for 1,300 acres of the area, including parts of Slieves Donard and Commedagh.

Despite their modest height when compared with their Scottish, Welsh and Cumbrian neighbours, the Mournes have many attractive features, not least their compact nature. From Newcastle to Rostrevor where they sweep down to Dundrum Bay and Carlingford Lough respectively, the distance as the crow flies is a mere 23km while the broadest width across the range is only 13km.

The mountain slopes drop down to cultivated farmland and occasional forestry, with the sea adding further interest to the eastern and southern inclines. Several small natural loughs and rivers join the man-made dams of Silent Valley, Ben Crom and Spelga to add diversity to the landscape. The 31.4km Mourne Wall is an outstanding feat of construction and frames some of the finest mountain views in Ireland. It is Northern Ireland’s longest listed building, crossing 15 summits and serving as a perfect navigational aid. It was built by the Belfast Water Commissioners between 1904 and 1922 to enclose the 9,000-acre catchment area of the Silent Valley Reservoir.

Convenient access to the mountains is afforded by a network of paths, farm lanes and quarry tracks, some of which have nearby car parks. For the visiting hillwalker Newcastle is the most convenient starting point. The town has many accommodation options and hospitality venues; it also has a large car park at the foot of the Glen River path, the most popular access route for Donard and Commedagh. Donard will naturally be the primary attraction for first time visitors, but several of the other mountains offer as much, and often more, scenic diversity and walking pleasure. Those peaks that are topped by granite tors are well worth a visit, in particular Slieve Binnian whose long summit plateau is interrupted by a series of dazzling rock forms and Slieve Bearnagh, where the summit tors are a challenge for experienced climbers and a delight for enthusiastic photographers. The handiest parking for Binnian is at Carrick Little car park, BT34 4RW, and for Bearnagh, Trassey car park, BT33 0QA.

The western Mournes are much quieter than their eastern counterparts and walkers who prefer a quieter, more reflective hike will be at home here. Hen Mountain is an ideal venue for family groups; it is less than 400m high, sits close to a car park and has a summit with four rugged tors that are a magnet for young walkers. Eagle Mountain (638m) is the highest of the western contingent and is often cited as their favourite peak by Mourne veterans. The view from its summit is one of the best in the country, offering a panoramic display of most of the higher peaks. The western Mournes can be conveniently accessed from Leitrim Lodge car park, BT34 5XX, Sandbank Road car park, BT34 5XU, or from any of the car parks near Spelga Dam, including Ott car park, BT34 5XL.

The Mournes can be walked at any time of year assuming appropriate clothing, footwear and equipment are deployed. In terms of the natural environment, spring and early summer walkers will be greeted by typical mountain flora such as milkwort, tormentil and lousewort, while summer walkers will enjoy a vivid purple carpet of heather covering the slopes and often concealing common lizards, Ireland’s sole reptile. The western Mournes, in particular Cock Mountain and Pigeon Rock Mountain, host two carnivorous plants, sundew and butterwort, which will be in evidence in boggy areas and small ponds in summer. Perhaps the best time to visit is between mid-September and late October in settled weather conditions, when visibility and light quality can be at their most intense. Winter walks can be a delight especially in calm, clear weather; heavy snowfalls are becoming something of a rarity, but a light dusting of snow can add a special quality to the mountain landscape.

For those who enjoy a challenge, the Seven Sevens is an 18 mile, 2,470 metre climb of all seven peaks over 700m above sea level (Meelmore is an “honorary” member, checking in at 687m). Participants follow their own route between fixed checkpoints. Peaks included are Slieves Donard, Commedagh, Lamagan, Binnian, Meelbeg, Meelmore and Bearnagh.

 A walking festival is held annually in September by the Wee Binnian Walkers with a variety of walks to suit all levels of experience.

These words from Dawson Stelfox, the first Irishman to summit Everest, encapsulate the appeal of the Mournes:

“The Mourne Mountains have a varied and complex character which means you can walk there for a lifetime and still discover new places, yet compact enough to allow you to climb many mountains in a single day.”

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