Go Walk: Slieve Muck, Co Down

 

Slieve Muck, Co Down

Start and finish: Banns Road car park.
How to get there: On the Kilkeel-Rostrevor road, take the road to Attical. Go through Attical until you come to a T-junction. Turn right, and the car park is immediately on the left.
Distance: About 14km.
Time: Four hours.
Map: Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland’s Mourne Country Outdoor Pursuits map.
Best thing about walk: It’s tough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mammoth task of making Christians out of the people of Co Down fell to St Donard. He died in about 506, after having spent much contemplative time wandering and sheltering in the Mournes. And for contemplation you could scarcely choose a better venue, surrounded as you are by the crags and crevices of lonely mountains.

Our walk starts in the car park on the Banns Road, overlooking Crocknafeola Woods. There seems to have been a cuckoo in this coppice every summer I’ve visited here. As I first did the walk a few decades ago I doubt it’s the same bird, but its two-toned call across the bog adds to the ethereal atmosphere of the place.

A broad gravel track leads along the Banns Road towards Slievenaglogh. That excellent navigation tool the Mourne Wall – as dependable as satnav – crosses the track, and we follow it to the left. We haven’t climbed very high yet, but lest you get complacent there are a few steep places to come.

And here’s the first gradient – on all fours now, through the heather, tussocky grass and, in places, crumbly granite. The stuff that’s lovely to crunch through.

Behind us are Spelga Dam, Ben Crom Reservoir and Silent Valley Reservoir – the reason for the Mourne Wall in the first place. The drystone granite, which has been stacked well over a metre high, extends some 35km across 15 summits. It’s not quite the Great Wall of China, but it’s impressive nonetheless, reaching to the top of the highest mountain in the North, Slieve Donard. It then scales the Castles of Commedagh – a mighty battlement of towers and turrets of solid granite – before disappearing into the mist. It was painstakingly built more than 100 years ago, without a pick of cement, to stop sheep and other animals from polluting the Belfast water supply in the days before purification.

About an hour and a half from the car park will see us to the 673m top of Slieve Muck – source of the River Bann, which is the North’s very own Mississippi, cutting the region in two geographically, demographically and philosophically.

Good views of Slievemoughanmore, Slieve Gullion in south Co Armagh and, nearby, our next destination, Pigeon Rock Mountain, make the strenuous climb more than worth it.

In the nomenclature stakes, Pigeon Rock and Slieve Muck haven’t done too well, surrounded as they are by the poetry of Slieve Commedagh, Slieve Meelbeg and Slieve Loughshannagh – plus, for that matter, the nearby townland of Carrowmurwaghnemucklagh. But what Muck and Pigeon lack in poetry they more than make up for in their spectacular settings.

From the top of Slieve Muck our route takes us westwards and downhill along Batt’s Wall. At the bottom we cross the B27. It’s then straight up Pigeon Rock. The summit is to the northern side of the wall. We keep to the south, climbing not quite as high, then head almost due west, from a point between the two ponds at the top, and down on the other side. It’s noticeably less steep, and our route briefly joins Batt’s Wall again before we reach the Rowan Tree river. A left wheel eventually leads us to the Windy Gap river for a beautiful gentle walk downwards towards the broad floor of the valley.

Where the Windy Gap river meets the Red Moss river – they are every bit as enchanting as their names – bear right: a track leads down out of the mountains and on to a main road – at least “main” by the standards of this fairly isolated area.

We turn left back into Attical, with views across the Irish Sea to our right. And, yes, the Mournes really do sweep down to the sea. Sometimes you really can believe the hype. As St Donard once said, in a somewhat different context.