Walk the Mournes

It’s been too many years since I’ve ventured to the Mourne Mountains in County Down, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Unsure of where to begin my explorations I opted for a guided tour from WalkTheMournes.com and set off with a few friends on a stunning winter’s morning to explore the Blue Lough and surrounding areas.

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We began our tour at Carrick Little, making introductions with our experienced guide Peter, colleagues Paddy, Phelim and the rest of our group before setting off on our 5 mile hike.  Peter’s tours are not only an opportunity to take in the majestic views of mountains, woodlands and the sea but you will also hear the fascinating stories of the people who worked on this mountain and learn a little about the history of the landscape.

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Having passed a number of stone walls creating boundaries between the land we stopped and heard about the craftmanship involved.  The dry stone walls are a treasured part of Mourne heritage, built with the granite of the mountains this traditional skill lives on today.  Boulders and smaller stones are used to build these walls however in the Mournes you’ll find the finest example of a cut stone wall – The Mourne Wall.   The Mourne Wall stretches for 22 miles over the highest summits and was all painstakingly cut by hand.  If you look closely at the stones in the picture below you’ll see little ridges at even intervals, this is evidence of where the cutting tools, plugs and feathers, were hammered into the granite about an inch deep at points across the rock and then it would split.  Beautifully demonstrated by Peter…

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The granite stone had many uses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for buildings, millstones and dress stones.  It was also used in cobbled streets, workers would cut cubed stones a hand span in width, designed in such a way that when horses hooves wore down the surface the cobble could be taken out, turned and replaced. What simple ingenuity.   We saw examples of such stones in what could easily be mistaken for a pile of old rocks…

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Crossing the Mourne Wall and a babbling brook at the base of Slieve Binnian we paused to appreciate the frosty peak of the highest mountain of 850m, Slieve Donard.  Here Peter pointed out we were standing above the Binnian Tunnel which had been blasted out of the mountain between 1947 and 1951.  The tunnel, constructed to divert water from Annalong Valley to the Silent Valley Reservoir, employed a workforce of 150 men who tunnelled from opposite ends and met in the middle just two inches out!  Quite a feat of engineering!  We had some fantastic photos of the tunnel including this one showing the workers at the official opening – they all went home first to get cleaned up!

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Stepping over stones to cross the Annalong River we were on on our way to Smugglers Cave and the craggy outcrop of Percy Bysshe but not before scouring the path before us for shrapnel remnants of bombing practice from off-shore ships during World War II.  Over 70 years on and huge artillery shells continue to be found here.

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The clouds began to cover and so it was a steep scramble up to the smugglers cave for a little investigation and some tall tales, all great fun and the perfect sheltered spot for a flask of tea and a bite to eat.  In the 18th and 19th centuries ships would dock in Newcastle at the foot of the Mournes with their illegal produce of tobacco, spirits and wine and trek through the mountains on horses to Hilltown, the route now known as the Brandy Pad.  Contraband goods would have been stored in this cave and as we entered the very small cave opening (crouching down backwards) we stood up in the torch-lit darkness to face a ledge which you could crawl across to reach a small chamber.  Not that any of us did!

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Lunch with a view

After a good few laughs and refuelling we hiked amongst the rocks and tufty heather further along the base of Slieve Lamagan to the clear still waters of the Blue Lough.  I’ll assume it was given its name on a sunnier day.

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A quick photo opportunity – well it is called the Blue Lough Tour – and on we went.  Up the stone steps placed on the side of Slieve Binnian we marvelled at the elevated view over Ben Crom Reservoir.  Along with the Silent Valley Reservoir it supplies water to County Down and most of Belfast.

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We had an absolutely fantastic day discovering the Kingdom of Mourne and it’s fascinating history all in the presence of great company.   When hiking in an area of uneven terrain we so often have to keep our eyes on the path ahead of us, stopping to hear the tales of various sites served as a reminder to stop and absorb the beauty that encompassed us.

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There are so many stories of this land to be told and with a tour time of 4.5 hours this is just a little of what we unearthed with Peter. My main aim with Peter’s tour was to gain a bit of familiarity and confidence with the Mourne Mountains but I came away with so much more – knowledge of the people that worked on this land and an enthusiasm to explore not just more of the area but the geology and history too.

Peter, Paddy and Phelim have a wealth of knowledge and experience between them and amongst all the stories and laughs they were only too happy to share guidance and advice on walks to take and points of interest to explore.  It was a joy to spend a few hours in their company and while I look forward to discovering more with family and friends I will be sure to partake in more of the Walk The Mournes tours.

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The Blue Lough Tour ends back at Carrick Little where the new Carrick Cottage Cafe is a welcome sight for a warming cuppa or bowl of soup by the fire.
Tours are run on a demand basis and are bookable by contacting Peter through his website, keep an eye on his Facebook Page for scheduled tours.

Before you go: 
Should you be partaking in a tour or venturing out in your own group, it may seem obvious, but be prepared!  Wear suitable walking shoes or boots for rocky, muddy and uneven terrain.  Bring plenty of snacks, food, flask of hot drink and water.  Take a map and compass and if going on your own make sure to inform someone of your route.

Like anywhere on this island the weather in the Mournes can be very changeable.  Our morning started with glorious blue skies but by midday the clouds rolled in looming overhead.  Later that evening I read of the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team call out to a group of lost adult walkers on Doan just a few hours earlier.  Response to standing down took a total of 2.5 hours, a long time to be out in freezing and wet conditions if you don’t have the right provisions.  The team is made up entirely of volunteers helping anyone who finds themselves in trouble on the hills.  Please check them out.

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