Shhh . . . silence is golden

 

It may not provide the type of challenge serious hikers are looking for, but Silent Valley is ideal for a leisurely walk, writes CATHERINE MACK

SERIOUS HIKERS would call this trail in the Mourne Mountains a mere walk in the park, but for those with mobility issues, children, or walkers who don’t want to tackle five peaks in a day, this is a place where silence is golden.

Start in the car park of the Silent Valley Mountain Park, owned by Northern Ireland Water, which bought 9,000 acres of the High Mournes’ wilderness at the beginning of the 1900s to build a reservoir for Belfast’s water needs.

Early this month, I had the whole place to myself and, asking the gatekeeper who was taking my entry fee of £1.60 (€1.90) if it was always this quiet out of season. “Oh yes,” he said. “People don’t like to pay for just water, you see. We need a few more activities here to keep people happy, I reckon.” I paid up, smiled and just kept walking, to see if I could find happiness for my money.

The official route to the reservoir, now reservoirs, is along a tarmac path from the car park, but it’s worth heading up the steep grassy hill, a landscaped lawn which is actually covering the Silent Valley dam.

Your reward at the top of the hill is the glistening water of the Silent Valley Reservoir, built by 2,000 workers between 1923 and 1933. And yet it sits in what feels like its natural space, a sapphire set safely between the contrasting heathers, gorse and peats of Slievenaglogh, Slieve Binnian, Doan and others.

Continue along the tarmac path which follows the length of the reservoir, with no water authority’s barbed wire or fencing to ruin the view. And what views, of nature and industry alike, with items of Victorian industrial magnificence such as the fine brick-lined overflow system, contrasting with the valley’s natural contours as they open up ahead. After about 1.5kms you can see an addition made in 1952, a tunnel cut through Slieve Binnian to divert additional water from the Annalong Valley into the Silent Valley, providing even more water to supplement the main source provided by the Kilkeel River.

The Silent Valley is such an engineering coup, it is hard to believe that there could be more, and it’s not the star of the show. Continue along the path beyond the end of the Silent Valley reservoir, following the Kilkeel River round a corner and, as if by magic, a vast dam suddenly appears, water pouring down its 60m high concrete wall from Ben Crom reservoir behind it. This addition was built between 1953 and 1957 and, if you can manage the steep steps, don’t miss the views back down the valley from the top.

You can return along the tarmac path at this point, or continue over the stile (access permissible) to follow the peaty, rocky path up to the col between Slievelamagan and Slieve Binnian. This extra scramble up to about 700m is worth it, especially in peak season I imagine, when the park can become crowded.

Head back to the tarmac path and back along the same route to your starting point at the Silent Valley Dam (9.6kms there and back) for an extra 4.7kms and an unmissable treat. Cross the dam’s headwall to the other side of the valley, and follow a short incline to the right which leads up to the granite quarry.

Continue along a flat ridge, the coast coming into view, as far as the Mourne Wall signpost. Built between 1904 and 1922 to enclose the water catchment area, this granite dry stone wall measures up to 2.5m high, is 35kms long and stretches over 15 mountains. Stand on top and take in as much of it as you can see, spreading out on both sides of the reservoirs like giant arms protecting the treasures within.

Follow signs back down onto the park’s nature trail, along an old railway track which linked Annalong with the Silent Valley, past a small copse and back to that “dam” perfect lawn.

And if you don’t think you’ve got your money’s worth by the time you are back, you can always join the young ones I saw on my return, rolling down the grassy hill at speed, their more than happy screams shattering the silence for a few joyous moments. What more could you want for £1.60?

Route Silent Valley, Co Down

Start/finishSilent Valley Mountain Park car park. Grid reference J306209.

Get thereThe Silent Valley is sign posted for drivers travelling south from Newcastle and north from Kilkeel. Entry £4.50 (€5.30) per car, £1.60 (€1.90) for walkers. Catch the Mourne Rambler bus Tues-Sun, July and August (translink.co.uk). Reservoir grounds open 10am-6.30pm May-September, 10am-4pm October-April. See walkni.com.

MapOrdnance Survey Discoverer Series, sheet 29.

TimeFive hours.

Distance16km.

Total ascent700m.

SuitabilityEasy tarmac walking, onto gravel ridge, and option for peaty, muddy slopes.

Food/accommodationStay at Cnocnafeloa Centre (mournehostel.com), with great local shop for picnic supplies beside it. Coffee shop at Silent Valley Mountain Park has homemade soups, sandwiches and snacks. Open seven days 10am-6pm from Easter to end September, and Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm winter months.