My starring role in the Mourne supremacy

 

PETER GEOGHEGANhas never been one for the great outdoors, but an adventure weekend in the mountains of Co Down might change his mind

‘I’VE BEEN CLIMBING since I was six,” says Ian, our amiable instructor at Tollymore Mountain Centre, as my girlfriend takes her first, tentative steps on the climbing wall. “My dad rented a climbing frame for my birthday, I loved it and here I am 25 years later.”

Then he asks about my outdoor experience, and the conversation ends. A lone school trip to a local adventure centre – abiding memory: almost drowning in the Shannon when my canoe capsized – the odd game of five-a-side, the occasional jog . . . and that’s it. But, surely, if anything is going to make me rethink my sedentary ways, it’s an activity-filled weekend in the beautiful Mourne Mountains.

Less than two hours’ drive from Dublin, and only one from Belfast, the Mournes offer a spectacular combination of wild upland, rolling countryside and coast.

Dominated by the majestic Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, the area around the seaside town of Newcastle is renowned for its walks but also has excellent facilities for everything from horse-riding and canoeing to orienteering, bouldering and, as we are discovering, climbing.

First off, Ian teaches us the ropes. Literally. Initially, the complex climbing knots bamboozle me (and remind me why my first scout meeting was my last), but soon both Ealasaid and I are scaling the 10m indoor climbing wall with surprising ease.

The problems only start when he suggests we learn to control one another’s safety ropes. She successfully supports my abseil from the top, but when the roles are reversed I briefly lose control of the rope, causing her to slip a couple of metres down the wall, spouting expletives as she falls.

Luckily, there are no further mishaps, and an hour and a half later we leave smiling and asking Ian for details of indoor walls nearer home.

Outside the centre is Tollymore Forest Park. Nestled in the foothills of the Mournes, its 500 hectares is great for walkers and history lovers. Designed along Enlightenment principles in the 18th century by the English astronomer and garden designer Thomas Wright, the demesne was quickly developed into one of the most progressive and productive forestry parks in Ireland. Oak from Tollymore was often preferred for the interiors of White Star liners, including Harland and Wolff’s most famous commission, the Titanic.

Rambling through the park, upstream along the Shimna river, we come across an array of natural and manmade curios, including a spectacular 10m cascade fall and some of the earliest Gothic structures in Ireland. Exquisite bridges, gateways, pillars and other stone follies abound: a Gothic church, we discover, is in fact a barn that has been converted into a cafe and visitor information centre.

At first glance, Newcastle, with its myriad brightly lit arcades, burger joints and boy racers, seems a million miles from the tranquillity of Tollymore, but this gateway to the Mournes, originally a Victorian spa town, is not without its charms. The newly renovated promenade is pleasing to the eye, and there is a good selection of pubs and restaurants in the vicinity.

The people of Newcastle are well used to tourists – the volume of holiday-home parks attests to its popularity, particularly in high summer – and they certainly know how to make a stranger feel welcome. If there is a friendlier town in Ireland, I have not been. In every pub and restaurant staff and customers chat freely to us; cab drivers are equally pleasant and courteous. On the one occasion we catch the local bus that passes our hotel, the driver refuses to accept money – “Ah, go away. Sure it’s just out the road” – and makes an unscheduled stop solely for us.

I would have never have imagined myself standing in the middle of a muddy field, decked out in wet gear, aiming a bow and arrow at a glorified dartboard several metres away. But in the spacious grounds of the beautiful Castlewellan Forest Park, eight kilometres northwest of Newcastle, that is exactly what I’m doing, and I love it.

“Just aim through the sight, bring your arm back and let fly,” explains Jim, our insouciant archery instructor. “It really is that simple.” To my surprise he’s right: after landing our first dozen arrows everywhere but the target we soon get the hang of it and begin competing against each other, much to Jim’s amusement.

After our impromptu archery contest ends in a good-tempered draw, Jim decides we should do something together, sending us off on one of the park’s shorter orienteering trails. It’s my first time, but orienteering has the familiar feel of our continental holidays: me marching ahead, map in hand, with no idea of where I’m going, Ealasaid grudgingly trudging three metres behind, sighing as I sporadically exclaim “I think it’s this way” before leading us into another dead end.

Although we fail to locate most of our trail’s control points, the walk through the magnificent walled Annesley Garden and National Arboretum is unforgettable.

Generally considered the finest arboretum in Ireland, it contains beautiful floral displays, prize tree specimens and the world’s largest hedge maze. With more than three kilometres of thick yew hedges, the Peace Maze is fiendishly difficult –give yourself a good hour to get out. Built in 2000, the maze symbolises “the route and process to be taken by the people of Northern Ireland to achieve peace”.

Back in Newcastle, evening is drawing in and the incessant drizzle has given way to a deluge of biblical proportions, and a ferocious Irish Sea gale whistles down the deserted promenade.

Thankfully, we have an appointment at a nearby seaweed bath, just the thing to soothe away the aches and pains of a hard day of ersatz shooting and hunting.

Newcastle seaweed has regenerative properties; after an hour my muscles have forgotten all about the weekend’s exertions and are demanding a drink. A little farther down the promenade we stumble across a great old harbour bar full of nautical trinkets, weather-beaten faces and an open fire perfect for sipping Guinness in front of. The affable landlord smiles as he rests a second pint beside me. Perhaps I am the outdoor type after all.

** Peter Geoghegan was a guest of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (1850-230230, www. discovernorthernireland.com)

Where to stay, eat and go in the Mournes

Where to stay

Burrendale Hotel, Country Club Spa. 51 Castlewellan Road, Newcastle, Co Down, 048-43722599, www.burrendale.com. This large three-star hotel, about 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Newcastle, is very comfortable and relaxed: the staff are first-rate and the public bar is lively. We had an excellent dinner in the Vine restaurant; Cottage Kitchen provides more informal lunch and evening meals, as well as generous cooked and continental breakfasts. The swimming pool and spa facilities are great for tired muscles, and there is a small gym. The hotel has offers on its website.

Slieve Donard Resort Spa. Downs Road, Newcastle, 048-43721066, www.hastingshotels.com/slieve. Close to the town centre, the Slieve is famed for its sea view, spa facilities and Royal County Down golf course, which is next door.

Hillyard House Restaurant. 1-5 Castle Avenue, Castlewellan, 048-43772011, www.hillyardhouse.com. This 10-room bed and breakfast is in the heart of picturesque Castlewellan, close to the forest park. The village is notable for its wide main street, which runs through two squares lined with chestnut trees, and some excellent pubs.

Cornmill Quay. Marine Park, Annalong, 048-43770714, www.cornmillquay.com. Overlooking Annalong’s attractive stone harbour, this popular hostel can accommodate up to 32 people and is an excellent base for groups visiting the Mournes for outdoor activities. Residents have full kitchen access, and the lounge overlooking the harbour has a traditional log-burning stove.

Where to eat

Apart from the restaurants in the hotels, Mourne Café (107 Central Promenade, Newcastle, 048-43726401, www.mourneseafood.com) is well worth a visit. Sitting at the end of the promenade, with great views across the Irish Sea, it is one of the best cafes in the area and also a great value-for-money restaurant. Seafood pasta and mussels are excellent, and there is a fine selection of bottled beers from the Whitewater Brewery, all brewed using Mourne water.

Buck’s Head Inn. 77 Main Street, Dundrum, 048-43751868. Renowned for its fine seafood and extensive wine list, this is one of the most popular eateries in the Mournes. Booking ahead is essential. Also close to the well-preserved Anglo-Norman Dundrum Castle.

Where to go

This is one of the most beautiful parts of the country, with breathtaking mountains and coastal views punctuated by vibrant fishing ports, such as Kilkeel. Nearby, the Silent Valley and Ben Crom reservoirs are vast stretches of water in the heart of the Mournes that provide impressive views across this unique landscape.

At the edge of Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains, Murlough National Nature Reserve, with its wild dunes and flat sandy beach, is an excellent area for walking and birdwatching. The reserve provides a habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the rare marsh fritillary butterfly, and if your luck is in you might even catch a glimpse of the colony of seals that calls the bay home.

Almost five kilometres outside Newcastle, just inside the exceptional forest park, Tollymore Mountain Centre (Bryansford, 048-43722158, www.tollymore.com) offers courses in climbing, mountaineering, canoeing and other activities for all ages and levels. The indoor climbing wall, open to the public, costs just £5 (€5.50) per day.

Bluelough Adventure Centre. The Grange Courtyard, Castlewellan Forest Park, 048-43770714, www.mountainandwater.com. Located in superbly converted stables close to Annesley Gardens and National Arboretum and the Peace Maze (www.peacemaze.com), the centre caters for a range of outdoor sports, including canoeing, mountain biking, kayaking, rockclimbing, guiding and coasteering. Suitable for individuals as well as corporate groups, schools and even stag and hen parties; equipment is available for hire, as is a professional instructor, if required.

Soak Seaweed Baths. 5 South Promenade, Newcastle, 048-43726002, www.soakseaweedbaths.co.uk. In a converted house overlooking the harbour, this state-of-the-art bath house caters for individuals and couples. After a quick blast of the steam room, relax for 40 minutes in a Victorian roll-top bath filled with seaweed and hot water. The process is reputed to benefit general muscle aches, rheumatism and painful skin conditions, such as eczema, among other complaints. A single bath is £25 (€27), a double £40 (€43); two can share a tub for £30 (€32).

Where to start

The Mournes Activity Map, launched this week by Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland, is a guide to walking and climbing in the area. It is available in major bookshops or online at www.osni.gov.uk/mapstore.