But for all that I found there I might as well be
Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
-William Percy French
The Mourne mountains, the jewels of County Down that ‘sweep down to the sea’ hugs the Irish coastline in a compact region designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
These are the mountains that inspired Belfast born novelist C.S. Lewis to create his magical land of Narnia and also served as the backdrop of the epic TV series, Game of Thrones.
Less than an hour’s drive from Belfast and around two hours by car from Dublin, the Mourne mountains are a circular cluster of majestic granite tops, some sharp and rugged, and others more rounded domes, dominating the landscape in almost every direction. Some of its rocky summits are even crowned by an exquisite collection of granite tors of various shapes and sizes.
Ranging from 10km to 31km (6 to 19 miles), here are some of the most scenic and classic walks in this fascinating mountain area of Northern Ireland.
Climb Northern Ireland’s Highest
There is nowhere higher in Northern Ireland than the summit of Slieve Donard, thus making it a unique vantage point for appreciating views far and wide, including the iconic Mourne Wall and the area’s mighty peaks.
In ancient times, the mountain was known as Sliabh Slainge, named after Slanga, a prince of Grecian roots who came to these shores after the battle of Troy. This name stood for around 2,000 years until the arrival of St. Domangard in the fifth century, who built an oratory on the summit. The mountain as we know today is a corrupt form of the Saint’s name.
One of the many routes to the summit is from the east along the Bloody Bridge track. The bridge derives its name from a bloody massacre in the troubled year of 1641 at the instigation of Sir Conn Magennis.
Starting from Bloody Bridge car-park, follow a track that runs westward along its river. The track initially meanders along the river decorated by rock pools, then later passes beneath an unused railway line at Carr’s Face to finally reach an old quarry at Crannoge, a mini-amphitheatre of sliced vertiginous rocks.
Once here, the track turns stony and rocky, ascending due west to finally reach the iconic Mourne Wall (more of this in the next walk). Following the Wall, turn right for a steep pull up to Donard’s summit, where an expansive view of mountains and the sea unfolds. On a very clear day, even the distant profile of the Galloway hills of Scotland and the Isle of Man can be seen.
The Ultimate Mourne Mountain Challenge
This epic walk follows the course of a 35km (22 miles) stone wall known as the Mourne Wall. The top of the Wall is high enough to require one to stand tiptoe for a view across its other side, and just about wide enough to walk on.
Built when Water Commissioners identified the Mourne as an ideal natural source for supplying clean water to an ever-expanding Belfast, it took ‘hard men with herculean strength and hands like shovels’ almost 18 years to complete in 1922. Working through brutal winter conditions, thousands of tons of granite boulders – prised and shaped from the Mourne bedrock – was painstakingly put in place.
For 27 years from 1957, the Mourne Wall Challenge was an annual affair organised by the Youth Hostels Association of Northern Ireland, growing to be the largest mass participation event held in the Irish mountains, with some 4,000 challengers on a single day. However, this contributed to a severe amount of erosion to the hillside, and amid growing concerns the event was discontinued.
The Mourne Wall challenge – if you dare attempt it – links 15 summits, of which 9 are over 600m (2,000 feet) and involves around 2,590m (8,500 feet) of total ascent. Start and finish from Carrick Little, the Silent Valley Mountain Park or Meelmore Lodge – the choice is yours.
A Classic Mourne Peak
The Mourne Mountains was once known as Beanna Boirche or the ‘peaks of Boirche’, named after a Celtic chieftain who lived there in 250AD. Boirche was recognised as the ‘cowherd to the High King of Ulster’, a name that was given to him based on the amount of cattle he owned. Tradition suggests that Boirche once lived on the lofty heights of Slieve Binnian.
Slieve Binnian is my favourite peak in the Mournes. It is a fascinating mountain, with its rugged crest boasting a collection of granite tors of various shapes and sizes, some higher than double-storey houses and others resembling Easter Island ‘Moai’ statues. The bristly outline of these tors is can be identified even from afar, giving the mountain its distinctive character. Novice hikers will be content to bypass these tors, but the more experienced may choose to throw in a scramble or two.
A popular route to the top of Binnian is via the car park at Carrick Little then following the course of the Mourne Wall to its summit. The fun doesn’t end here though, as you can continue traversing northward along its crest to pass all its tors, then later enjoy the stupendous view toward Ben Crom and its reservoir before descending southeast via Blue Lough back to Carrick Little.
Mountain of The Gap
Slieve Bearnagh is another Mourne classic and rightly so. It is a mountain that you will want to climb and climb again. Like Slieve Binnian, its distinctive, rocky summit is crowned by several granite tors. Sculpted during the Ice Age, these fascinating tors dominate the skyline when viewed from nearly every peak in the Mourne.
Another characteristic of Slieve Bearnagh is that its steep slopes are cut by deep gaps; to the northwest, it plunges steeply down to Pollaphuca, and to the northeast, a long crest descends to Hare’s Gap. And so, it seems fitting then that the mountain derives its name from the Irish Sliabh Bearnach meaning ‘mountain of the gap’. Even the brave builders of the mighty Mourne Wall were defeated by its unrelenting steepness. This is evident by some gaps left in the wall in areas where sheer, vertiginous rock slabs block the way.
Follow the Trassey Track into a rock-strewn valley with the Shimna River to your right. Later, after the track crosses a stream, leave it and head southwest to a col at Pollaphuca. From here, ascend steeply up a boulder-strewn slope to reach a rocky outcrop on the summit plateau. Slieve Bearnagh’s summit tor is located to the right of this and topping it involves a wee scramble.
To descend, keep the Mourne Wall to your left to pass Bearnagh’s North Tor before dropping northeast to Hare’s Gap. Turn left here and head down a rocky slope to regain the safety of the Trassey Track below.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a member of the Outdoor Writers & Photographer’s Guild and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com