Walk for the Weekend: ‘Four Birds’, Mourne Mountains, Co Down

Glorious summits are well worth the serious five-hour trek

This is a lovely walk. It’s clean of access, has great views and is lent a funny, flighty feel by the avian titles of the mountains you will visit! It will take you over “Hen Mountain”, “Cock Mountain”, “Pigeon Rock Mountain” and onto “Eagle Mountain”, each successively venturing higher into the air as would their real-life counterparts. That said, this is a serious mountain trek over these western ramparts of the High Mournes, and will need a “good” five hours to complete.

Start your walk at the Sandbanks CP beside Rocky River Bridge, near Hilltown, Co Down. Here, the rich stories of the area are displayed on beautifully illustrated panels, well worth a pause and a good read. They will tell you about the violent geology, varied wildlife and the long social history of the area – and even of its otherworldly existence as the "Land between Winterfell and the Wall". Directly across the road is a clean introduction to your first mountain, Hen Mountain. Though fittingly this is the lowest of the "Birds", its summit is the most dramatic of your route; four massive tors of typically seamless Mournes granite will invite a welcome hangout after your 230m pull.

Kept its cool

I had done this walk, and seen nothing, on a misty April day. But on this day in October, a vast pool of clear, stable air, which had kept its cool despite leaving Greenland days before, began edging in over Ireland; and as I went, it quieted a cold north wind that had been ruffling the heathery feathers of the Hen, Cock and Pigeon.

On my left, as I progressed up Pigeon Rock Mountain, the stark sky-blue waters of the Spelga Reservoir seemed out of place in its more subtle surround of fading autumn-yellow grasses and light pastel greens. Meanwhile, the glorious High Mournes’ summits, some gently rounded and others spectacularly rock-bound, rose up to grace my skyline. On the summit, I had the welcome shelter of Batts Wall, which would take me, like that Stone-Age rollercoaster, up and down all the way to my highest destination, Eagle Mountain. Here, a large white billy-goat required the gentle persuasion of my walking pole to surrender my lunchbox and last sandwich.

Then followed the worst and best of this hike for me: as I descended Eagle Mountain over the most tedious of hidden hummocks and hollows, towards Rocky Water, the air stilled and chilled, and the sky softened into the loveliest of evening light. Ragged cloud shadow on sunny hillsides dissolved, and gave way to the slow uphill creep of deep valley shade. And all the way down the Rocky Water, and then Rocky River, the sun was setting somewhere to my left and wisps of mist condensed out of the chill air, and Hen Mountain changed her plumage before me, slowly and almost imperceptibly, from familiar farmyard hen-brown to the softest hints of pink.

Four Birds Walk, Mourne Mountains, Co Down

Map: OSNI Sheet 29

Start/Finish: Sandbanks CP, 4kms from Hilltown Co Down

Effort: about 1,000m of climbing, 12/15kms, five-six hours

Suitability: moderate fitness, knowledge of mountain navigation (alternative finish: follow Batts Wall from Eagle Mountain to Shanlieve and Shanlough and exit by track to Leitrim Lodge CP)

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