A Hike up Slieve Donard (February 2023)

Though I’ve visited the Mourne mountains in Co. Down quite a few times over the years, I’d never been to the top of Slieve Donard - at 2790ft it’s Northern Ireland’s highest mountain. So I decided to rent a cottage for a few days in the area and finally tackle it.

I was staying in Newcastle (not the English one!), which has a beautiful location by the sea, with Slieve Donard towering ominously behind it. When I arrived and looked up at the mountain I began to wonder how people actually hike up - it looks quite inaccessible - but the hike route goes around the side to approach from behind.

I rented out this beautiful 19th Century cottage (Slieve Donard Cottage - you can find it on Booking.com) with views of the sea right outside. The line of cottages is called Widow’s Row, and, as the name would suggest, there’s a tragic history behind their construction. 

On Friday 13th January 1843 a sudden storm sank fourteen fishing boats in the area, with the loss of 73 lives. Money was raised locally to build the cottages to house the bereaved families.

The views of the sea from the cottage were stunning. Though I can officially confirm that the bath is very uncomfortable - style over function!

I did wonder what the widows who lived in these cottages thought about the ever-present sea outside - a constant reminder of the thing that had so cruelly claimed their husbands’ lives.

The usual hike up Slieve Donard begins in the centre of town but I was staying in a different part, so started by going up the Granite Trail - this is a path that follows the route of a 19th Century funicular railway that was used to transport granite from quarries further up the mountain, down to the harbour. It may not look particularly steep but it’s a one-in-three gradient so quite hard going!

One of the old “bogies” - a cart used to bring the granite down the mountain. The weight of a loaded bogie coming down was used to pull empty ones back up again.

It was a relief getting to the top of the trail and a flatter path along the mountain.

Walking past one of the old quarries that had been worked to supply granite.

This part of the trail passes through a forest and then joins up with the main route from Newcastle along the Glen river. It passes the old stone ice house, built by the third Earl of Annseley in the 1830s for his mansion, Donard Lodge. The lodge burned down during the Second World War and nothing else of it remains.

The path continues past the ice house and along beside a forest, heading towards the col between Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh, before going up quite sharply on a diagonal line. The last picture is the view looking back.

Finally I reached the epic Mourne Wall - this drystone wall stretches across the Mourne mountains for over 20 miles. It took almost twenty years to build, being completed in 1922. It was originally built to prevent livestock contaminating the water supply for the new reservoir nearby at Silent Valley.

The sweep of the wall really is impressive - I kept thinking of the Great Wall of China.

The easiest route to the top of the mountain at this point is along the Mourne wall - but you can see in the picture above how steep the gradient is! I did it in small sections, stopping frequently to enjoy the views.

The views of the other mountains from near the top were phenomenal.

The silvery light on the sea had a strange ethereal look, with sky and water almost merging.

These bags were filled with granite being used to repair the wall - I read somewhere that they’d been dropped off by helicopter.

At last - the top of the mountain! The tower and trigonometry point mark the highest point of Slieve Donard. The tower was built in 1910 to provide shelter for workers.

Strangely, the other side of the wall and tower were still covered with frost, and it was noticeably colder.

The patterns of the frost on the stones were fascinating.

The view from the very top of Slieve Donard made all the effort to get there worthwhile.

The ground on this side of the mountain was still frozen.

The video above shows the epic 360 degree view from the top of the mountain.

Coming back down along the Mourne wall - you can just make out a group of workmen repairing the wall. I’m not sure how they got there - it’s a pretty arduous commute by foot to start a day’s work!

Safely back down at ground level, and with very sore legs, I had this little treat in the wonderful Olive Bizarre cafe. I think my face probably looked a bit like the Bakewell tart when I saw some of the gradients ahead of me going up! But it was most definitely worth it, and it’s inspired me to improve my fitness levels and hopefully do more walking in this amazing landscape in the future.

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