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Newcastle - Gateway to the Mournes

Posted on January 12, 2011 @ 3:04 PM in Walking

Newcastle: Gateway to the Mournes


Lying where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea, the small coastal resort of Newcastle has long been a popular base for walkers visiting this picturesque area of southern County Down. With the seafront promenade recently receiving an award wining, multi-million pound makeover, Newcastle now boasts a modern, exciting atmosphere rich in natural and built heritage. This rejuvenation has firmly placed Newcastle back on the map as the ‘Gateway to the Mournes’.  

Newcastle is located at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, 31 miles (50km) south of Belfast and 87 miles (140km) north of Dublin.  The town itself nestles quite dramatically beneath the domineering backdrop of Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest peak (853m). Its name originally derives from a castle which was built at the mouth of the Shimna River by Felix Magennis in the late 16th century. Sadly, this castle has long since been demolished. In the 17th Century, the area grew as a port and was famously used as a landing point for smugglers who docked their ships full of illicit cargoes of alcohol and tobacco. These illegal goods were then transported through the Mournes to be sold in the bustling market village of Hilltown. This route was used so much that the hooves of the smuggler’s horses defined a distinct track which still exists today and is a popular walking route through the high Mournes known as ‘The Brandy Pad’.

The Mourne Wall

With the proliferation of granite mining during the early 19th Century, Newcastle Harbour was constructed to load cargo ships full of giant granite blocks which were used to build the famous docks in Belfast and Liverpool, as well as the Albert memorial in London. The harbour still stands today at the southern end of the town and is still used for small fishing boats and leisure cruisers

Nowadays, packed full of quaint cafes, fine restaurants and lively pubs, Newcastle is probably best renowned as an ideal base for activity enthusiasts on a short break and day trippers visiting the Mournes Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). There are a whole host of high quality accommodation providers for visitors on all budgets. For those after a bit of luxury, the Slieve Donard Hotel provides a 4 star service with a high quality spa where you can relax and unwind after an invigorating day in the mountains. Whereas for those on a tighter budget, Newcastle HI Youth Hostel is a traditional hostel which sleeps 13 and SOAK offer unique seaweed bath treatments for affordable prices. There are also a large number of B&Bs and guesthouses dotted throughout this coastal town offering warm hospitality with a personal touch. The Tourist Information Centre, located along Newcastle’s central promenade, has information on and contact details for all accommodations, restaurants, attractions and seasonal events taking place in the town throughout the year. 

Glen River Track

Newcastle earns its name as the ‘Gateway to the Mournes’ by being the start point for a large variety of walks in the high Mournes, surrounding forests and nature reserves. From Donard car park, walkers can follow the Glen River on a reasonably steep ascent through Donard Forest to meet the Mourne Wall (GR: J 350,279), where the mountains really open up and offer spectacular walking in every direction. Turning east, walkers can follow the Mourne Wall up to the summit of Slieve Donard with this ascent offering uninterrupted views out over the Irish Sea and down towards Murlough Bay and Newcastle itself.

Heading west, walkers can also follow the Mourne Wall in the opposite direction, summiting Slieve Commedagh and Slievenaglogh before descending to Hare’s Gap (GR: J 323,287). From here there is either the option to take the The Brandy Pad traversing back towards The Castles with views down towards Ben Crom Reservoir or opt for the longer route home along Trassey Track, joining the Mourne Way which leads back to Newcastle via Tollymore Forest Park.

Tollymore Forest Park

Alternatively, for those looking to enjoy more low level walking, there are options to either follow the Ulster Way from the town centre across parkland and minor roads to Tollymore Forest Park or follow the Lecale Way along the strand towards Murlough National Nature Reserve where there is a 2.5 mile (4 km) circular walk across an ancient sand dune system with panoramic views of the breath taking Mournes mountainscape. 


With access to such a rich variety of walks at both high and low level, it’s no wonder Newcastle plays host to the Mourne International Walking Festival every other year. This festival generally takes place towards the end of June and alternates each year between Newcastle and Warrenpoint on Carlingford Lough. The festival attracts walkers from all over Ireland and beyond offering 3 days of fantastic walking balanced with a vibrant social scene. However walkers can be sure to expect excellent facilities, a lively atmosphere and warm hospitality in this small seaside resort all year round.

Such is the compact nature of the Mournes that there are a number of other smaller ‘gateway’ villages within easy driving distance of Newcastle. Bryansford is a quaint, sleepy village located next to Tollymore Forest Park with great access to the mountains and is a popular spot for walkers looking for a bit more peace and tranquillity. Along the coast are the smaller towns and villages of Annalong, Kilkeel, Warrenpoint and Rostrevor with Hilltown being the main access point to a number of walks in the western ‘low’ Mournes. To find out more information about the vast array of walker-friendly accommodation available, walking routes and other useful information designed to help you plan a walking trip to the Mournes visit



Chris Armstrong
Chris Armstrong  Mountain Bike Officer

Chris looks after all things mountain biking in Northern Ireland's a tough job but someone's gotta do it!

4 comments have been posted in reply to this article

Posted by George Niven on January 19, 2011 @ 2:02 AM

The beautiful Mournes.... the more they change the more they are the same Mournes I knew as a very young walking/hiking enthusiast 50+ years ago. We would start at Bloody Bridge Hostel and walk up over the other side to Slievenaman Hostel and Silent Valley and explore all those wonderfull places you mention. Memories are made of this!

Posted by Hostels on January 19, 2011 @ 10:00 AM

Wow that place is beautiful! You really captured the mini falls very nice.

Posted by James McLarnon on August 9, 2011 @ 11:59 AM

I did not know that Newcastle was a town in the gateway of the mournes, but Killkeel was the biggest town

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