Don Baldwin sings the praises of the magic Mourne Mountains, immortalised in the Percy Ffrench song and an inspiration to artists down through the years. “The very air one breathes among these hills, a panacea seems for human ills”.
Shadowing Louth’s northeast border, and dominating the landscape of south County Down, the Mournes’ timeless vista has endured unscathed for eons. Designated as an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’, the Mournes have for each generation, guarded their precious wilderness for those who would escape to the solace of the Hills, to a land – “half in this world and half in the next”, H.V. Morton.
The Mournes have without doubt, an indefinable enchantment which has enticed mountaineers and inspired artists for many years, its rare magic an indiscernible tonic: “The very air one breathes among these hills, a panacea seems for human ills”, effused J.W. Montgomery.
One of the many alluring aspects of the Mournes is their accessibility. In an instant you can be transported from bustling civilisation with all its cares, to the tranquil wilderness which inspired The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. “Crucially, they offer a perfect balance of accessibility and wildness”, stated Dawson Stelfox succinctly. (The first Irishman to summit Mount Everest on the 27th May 1993).
“The Mourne Mountains are a compact group of granite hills offering many shortish walks with magnificent views. They are steep little hills, better provided with tracks than most Irish mountains, and – wonder of wonders – are mainly dry underfoot. They are ‘civilised’ and they are popular”, wrote our dear mentor Joss Lynam:
Slieve Donard is perhaps the most popular and accessible of the range. The highest mountain in Ulster at 853m, Donard is unmistakable among its peers, its conical symmetry setting it clearly apart from its nearby brethren.
If you are travelling from the South to the Mourne district and time is not an issue, the R173 route which guides you around the southern shore of Carlingford Lough, is certainly one of the most scenic drives in all of Ireland. It will take you through the thriving villages of Carlingford and Omeath, with their stunning backdrop of the Cooley Hills, complementing the unimpeded views of the Mournes on the other side of the Lough.
Continuing along the R173 into the heart of Newry, a short manoeuvre north east then takes you onto the A2 which hugs the northern shore of Carlingford Lough. This main motorway slices east then north through the sleepy backwaters of Warrenpoint, Rosstrevor, Kilkeel and Annalong, before finally arriving at the Blood Bridge car park (Grid Ref: J 388 270); positioned snugly between the foot of the Mournes and Dundrum Bay, just south of the coastal town of Newcastle.
A stone’s throw south of the car park, adjacent to the busy road on the right, is a small well-used gate beyond which is a National Trust Trail. Fifty metres west along this worn path, you come to the lonely aspect of the Bloody Bridge itself. Aptly named after the massacre in 1641 of Protestant prisoners and their Minister, at the instigation of Sir Conn Magennis, whose family castle gave Newcastle its’ name.
The path parallels the noisy river here as it gently ascends, neat granite markers guiding you along as you admire the enticing plunge pools in the ravine below. After 750m the narrowing track funnels you onto a sturdy footbridge which spans the confluence of the Bloody and Glen Fofanny rivers.
A further 450m along the trail, you arrive at an obvious slab of rock and a handful of well-placed boulders which allow you to adroitly cross the river at this narrow juncture. Beyond the river your route swings west again, onto the rugged quarry track which takes you steadily up towards the entrance of a disused quarry.
The old quarry now looks like the abandoned set of an Indiana Jones movie, complete with a narrow gauge railway line etched into the flank of Carr’s Face on the adjacent slopes of Chimney Rock.
Rusting sheds and hunks of hewn, ‘half-dressed’ granite lay strewn about, like a scene from the Marie Celeste; the strumming sound of a small waterfall endlessly torturing a trapped block of stone at the back of the quarry simply adding to the surreal effect. Off to the right, a path picks its way around the quarry’s edge towards the rear of the carved out crater, making for an obvious wooden stile straddling the Mourne Wall.
Strong legs, a healthy heart, and a good pair of lungs are all certainly an advantage when climbing Slieve Donard, but three ounces of determination will also suffice. Use either side of the Wall for shelter and navigation, or walk on its top as some people do.