The Mourne challenge


The Mourne Wall will help guide you across these testing mountains, writes DEIRDRE DAVYS

‘WE’RE JUST GOING for a wee dander up Slieve Donard. We’ll be back before nightfall,” two young women told us as they headed into the mountains at six o’clock on a glorious summer’s evening in early June.

The wee dander turned out to be about 14km long with a climb of at least 700m, but that’s young people in Northern Ireland for you. There seem to be far more young climbers around the Mourne Mountains than there are in Wicklow, perhaps because the Mournes are more physically challenging than their more southerly counterparts.

The Mourne Wall, almost two metres high and made of great granite slabs, encircles almost all of the mountains, setting them apart from the surrounding countryside. As far as the eye can see, like the Great Wall of China it climbs up one ridiculously steep slope after another. The wall is amazing no matter how often you see it.

Clad as we all are these days, sealed from the weather in our Gore-Tex gear, you cannot but think of the men who built the wall nearly a century ago. What did they wear to keep out the cold, the rain and the freezing winds that blow continuously around the summits of the mountains? How many hours a day did they work out there? How much were they paid for their labours?

Like many other mountains in the Mournes, Slieve Bearnagh is approached quite gently on good rocky tracks. This gets the muscles warmed up before the real climbing begins.

A good approach starts at the car park on Trassey Road (Discovery Series Sheet 29). From here the Trassey Track, strewn with interesting stones mostly of granite and green slate and shale, climbs easily up to the Hare’s Gap, where you first encounter the wall.

This is a good spot for a rest as you gird your loins for the steep bits to come. In foul weather the wall provides shelter from driving wind and rain, giving you a chance to check your map and compass.

Once on the far side you have a choice: follow the wall right up to the North Tor, an enormous obstacle of giant rocks around which you must find a way, or skirt the steepest bit and keep to a faint track continuing around to the col.

From here, using the wall as a guide, climb the next 89m to the summit of Bearnagh.

More gigantic tors surround you, giving ample shelter behind which to have some well-earned food and admire the view. Layer upon layer of mountains stretch away into the distance as you look to the southwest, and over to the east the rocky tors on the summit of Slieve Binnian give the impression of a giant fortress built in ancient times.

Keeping the wall always to your right, you now descend a very steep rocky slope to a col, at which point those who have had enough walking for one day can escape, taking the track between the two mountains – Bearnagh and Meelmore – and eventually joining the Trassey Track from whence they came.

Those with energy to spare now climb steeply upwards to the summit of Slieve Meelmore, keeping the wall on their right. (Be careful in mist not to get confused, as there are two walls now, so make sure to stick with the one by which you descended.)

The wall now turns sharply left. If visibility is poor, use the wall as a handrail, but keep it on your left this time. Follow it down to a track that winds around the mountain, heading northwest. Keep contouring around the mountain, but don’t go down to the level of the road, as you want eventually to meet up with the original track that you left at the Hare’s Gap.

In good weather, particularly if time is pressing, you could just walk off the summit of Meelmore in a westerly or northerly direction. The grassy slopes are not too steep and easy to walk on. Beware of the eastern side, however, as it is extremely steep and should be avoided.

Once back at the car park, a delightful finish to your day would be a pot of coffee in the garden of Turnip Cottage with Charley, the friendly giant, lying across your feet. It’s okay – he’s the dog, not the owner.

Slieve Bearnagh and Slieve Meelmore, Co Down

Start and finishTrassey Road car park (grid ref 312314), a sharp right turn off the B180 coming from Hilltown.

How to get thereBy car or perhaps by bicycle from Newcastle.

MapOrdnance Survey of Northern Ireland sheet 29 – or, preferably, the much bigger-scale Mourne Country Outdoor Pursuits Map.

TimeAbout five and a half hours at a leisurely pace.

SuitabilityReasonably fit walkers of all ages.

Where to stayNewcastle Hostel (048-43722133), Seaview Apartments in Newcastle (048-97511122) or Tyrella House (048-44851422), which is farther away but worth the drive.