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Where the wind howls

Walking the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland

Robert Macfarlane | May/June 2012

“Don’t travel in your walking gear,” David instructed me the day before I flew to Belfast. “Even now, it’s still not quite wise to turn up at the airport with a pair of boots and an English accent.” His worries continued once I’d landed. We drove south towards the Mournes, the small granite mountain group that lies in the south-east of County Down, close to the border with the Republic. David had filled up with petrol before leaving, and picked his roads with care. “You don’t want to run over someone’s cat in K–––,” he said, “or run out of fuel in A–––, if you’re conspicuously English, which you are.” I was more worried about the physical challenge that was coming up.

David and I have known each other since we were eight. His passion for mountains approaches fanaticism. When we go walking together he rises early, moves fast, pauses rarely and stops late. There is no apparent limit to his endurance, or to his hunger for the hills. His enthusiasm is for rapid movement over rough ground; mine, these days, for dawdling and stravaiging—a fine Scots term that means “aimless wandering”.

The mountains of Mourne are probably most famous for sweeping down to the sea in a stickily sentimental song of the same name, written in 1896 by Percy French. Their highest top—Slieve Donard—is a humble 852 metres; their area, generously measured, less than two-thirds of New York City. The map suggested a compact and pastoral range, over which I would gently ramble and David would insanely march.

We parked up close to the sea. Broad shoulders of high ground dipped to the coast; moorland ceded to a patchwork of fields. Late gorse lent a hint of coconut to the breeze. Wind-stunted hawthorns hunched in the open; palm trees grew in shelter. Old farmhouses slowly became more dilapidated; bright new mansions, with pastel paint schemes and fake corner cladding, faced eastwards over the Irish Sea.

Inland and westwards, though, the summits of the Mournes were cloaked in cloud. A glacier-scooped valley was our gateway to the group. We set off up a narrow lane, stone-walled on one side and hedged on the other by thorn and pink fuchsia. David impatiently kept pace with me.

After 45 minutes’ toil we left the valley for the first main ridge of the Mournes. The ground steepened and the wind grew stronger. As we approached the cloud line we met two walkers retreating, mad-eyed and wet. “It’s wild up there!” one of them yelled. A raven swept out of the cloud and was whipped off by the gale. The benign air of the coast seemed a season away.

We passed into the cloud and it felt like crossing a border. David moved ahead, staying just in sight. I reached the ridge to find him crouching in the shelter of rocks. Up here the wind was rampant, bashing us off balance. Visibility was down to ten or 20 metres. We pushed on north along the ridge and there, suddenly looming out of the white, was a castle. No, not a castle—a vast granite tor, created 60m years ago during the formation of the Mournes, and eroded since into elaborate drapery, folds and crenellations. It is an extraordinary structure, bigger and more dramatic than the tors I have seen on granite ranges on Dartmoor, in the Cairngorms or the Spanish Guadarrama.

Up and on and over and down we went for hard miles and hours, along more ridges, past more tors, down slopes silvered with flakes of mica and whitened with chips of quartz; David always pulling ahead, me always huffing behind, and the wind tearing and howling at us. Around us was asphodel, green bog myrtle, and the ginny whiff of dwarf juniper, keeping low among the boulders. New vistas of wild country opened up here and there, glimpses down through rents in the cloud into the Silent Valley and the Annalong Valley. David knew the paths so well that we hardly needed our map. Wheatears with white rumps hopped and flickered over the heather, and I couldn’t see why they weren’t swept away by the gale.

Late in the afternoon we reached the top of Slieve Donard. “Let’s walk the wall home,” said David. The Mourne Wall was built between 1904 and 1922 to enclose the water reservoirs then being created in the area. It still runs for 22 continuous miles over the range, joining peak to peak. It is audacious architecture: 15 feet high in places, and constructed of two dry stone walls leaning against one another, their faces bound by vast through-stones, their joint summit capped by silver granite cam-stones. Though its purpose was functional not reverential, the wall has the feel of a monumental structure whose origins might be Neolithic rather than early 20th century.

We walked—ran—home eastwards that day along the wall. Its top was wide enough to permit speed, but narrow enough to prevent complacency. Striding that silver granite pathway for miles, raised ten feet above the surrounding moor, I felt I was flying over the boggy ground to either side, as the wall floated us towards the sea, the car and a cup of tea.

When I got home, I e-mailed a friend who had been involved in the peace negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and who is an accomplished mountaineer. I commended the range to him. “Oh yes, I remember the Mournes, and Slieve Donard in particular,” he wrote back. “I climbed it when I was at Stormont, for relief. A security man followed me discreetly all the way up, ten paces behind, never saying a word, gun always in hand.” 

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