Welcome to our walking blog. The aim of this blog is to give readers a further insight into walking in Northern Ireland. The blog will cover everything from seasonal walking suggestions and events to information on how to best practice ‘Leave No Trace’ techniques and walk responsibly in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We will also be inviting local accomplished mountaineers and industry experts to give their thoughts and opinions into Northern Ireland top walking spots and other trails more off the beaten track.
For your definitive guide to walking in Northern Ireland visit www.walkni.com
Posted on March 18, 2014 @ 3:13 PM in
This guys at Hikersblog.co.uk have been busy taking on another waymarked way challenge. Not content with just completing the Mourne Way in a Day this time they took on the Newcastle Way , walking all 28 miles in just one day. Read on to hear a first hand account of their journey along this stunning Way Marked Way in Co. Down on a not so manic Monday...
We had stepped onto the verge to allow a car to pass on the narrow lane, and as we hopped back onto the dark road to continue our journey, there was a loud rustling in the hedgerow, and dark shapes made their way up the road ahead of us. “DEER!!” John exclaimed, and sure enough the beams of our head torches picked up a small herd of deer, emerging one by one from the hedgerow, and scampering up the lane. We stood transfixed, as 10, maybe 12 deer scampered off, panicked by the new visitors to their suburban habitat. We were only 20 minutes or so into our journey, but what a way to start our walk!
We were on the Newcastle Way, a 28 mile roughly circular route, which starts and finishes in Newcastle, and includes circuits of Tollymore and Castlewellan forest parks. John and myself had been planning this walk for a while, and wanted to see if we could conquer it in a days walking. We managed to agree on a date, and everything was in place for a Monday assault. It turned out that Ed could also join us, and we quickly came up with a plan for our walk. I would pick up John at 0500, and meet Ed in Donard car park, as he was bivvying in Donard wood the night before. We aimed to start walking at 0530, which meant a start in the dark, but giving us roughly about 13 hours before darkness fell again, to complete our trek. The route on the Walk NI website starts in Newcastle, travelling up Newcastle beach before joining Murlough beach and onwards from there. However a check of the tide tables (recommended if attempting this walk) revealed that high tide coincided with the start of our walk, so we opted to do it in reverse, tackling Tollymore forest park first, and aiming for a finish along the beach back to Newcastle, hopefully just before the next high tide rolled in!
I awoke just before the alarm at 0420, and was raring to go, which isn’t always the case on a normal Monday morning! A quick breakfast and cuppa, and off I went. The weather was calm and clear but nippy, and a defrost of the car windscreen delayed my departure for a few minutes. John was ready and waiting as usual, and greeted me with “Morning! We must be mad!” before enjoying a laugh together about the truth of his statement. As we approached Newcastle, the outline of the Mournes was clear and distinct in the pre dawn. Normally we would be heading to hike them, but today we would only skirt them, though they would never be far from view the whole day. We met Ed as planned, (he had enjoyed a porridge pot breakfast at a picnic table in the dark) and off we set.
The Newcastle challenge trail is well marked on the OS 1:25000 map of the mournes, and this makes it quite easy to follow. It is also quite well waymarked at most locations, with the odd exception. After our aforementioned encounter with the deer in Tipperary Lane, we continued up a steep tarmac road into Tollymore, the sky lightening as we walked, the dawn chorus getting into full swing, we walked in silence, soaking up the sounds and smells of the predawn forest as it woke up for the day. For us it was a day off work, a distraction from the norm of the everyday, a tough physical challenge for our bodies, and a test of our wills. For the creatures of the forest it was just another day the same as any other, and as they got on with their routine, we passed on and left them to it.
The sky was really beginning to brighten now, its shades of blue contrasting with the emerging spring greenery, everywhere buds and shoots were emerging, ending the long sleep of winter, the yellow gorse flowers adding dashes of coconut scented colour to the hillside. It was really mild, and we had already dispensed with fleeces etc, and were in baselayers. We stopped for a spot of “second breakfast” at the farthest end of Tollymore, where we watched Red Squirrels scamper and jump in the high branches, natural trapeze artists and acrobats, effortlessly leaping, their bushy red tails flying through the air. Suitably refreshed, we pressed on. We made our way through Tollymore to the Bryansford gate, and then from there onwards to Castlewellan. Along the way John spotted a Buzzard perched on a fencepost, but it flew off before wwe could get a picture! A fair sized road section then led to a small rocky lane, then a concrete lane, and then back onto another small road. Then it was onto “cow lane”, which is actually a field rather than a lane! We crossed a small stream with a sturdy bridge, then negotiated a very boggy field, where we strayed a little off course (getting very muddy in the process!) before making our way back to the trail after a quick map check (and spotting a waymarker that we had somehow missed!). Then it was over another little bridge and over a stile into a green lane with high hedges either side.
We were now entering the outskirts of Castlewellan, and rapidly approaching our halfway point for our walk. It was still only mid morning, our pace was good, and we were feeling good, confident now that we could easily chalk off the full distance of the trek in the time we had allotted ourselves. A quick pit stop at a local garage for some refreshments, and we headed on into Castlewellan forest park, where we planned to enjoy a longer break alongside its lovely lake. I topped up my water pack at a lovely little campsite on the Crow Road, with what I think is one of the nicest views of anywhere I have ever camped. Great memories of time spent with old friends and family in my Scouting days came flooding back, and I stood and smiled, pausing for a brief moment enjoying my thoughts. Then it was onwards to our lakeside repast, giving the legs a well earned rest, while conscious not to sit still too long, for fear of cramping up. We ate and drank our fill, before making our way back along the opposite side of the stunning lake, the view of the trees and water in the late morning sunlight was a great backdrop as we trekked on. We passed around the back of Castlewellan Castle, then onwards into the town itself.
From there, it was down another quiet country road, before veering off onto some really tranquil green country lanes, unchanged for untold years, rural highways to allow people and livestock to move around freely. It was very peaceful off the road, the birdsong and the rustle of the old hedgerows in the occasional light breeze, the odd bumblebee bumping and buzzing its way along, searching for whatever early spring blossoms it could locate. Through the small hamlet of Maghera, where the smell of food wafting from the local Inn had us salivating at the thought of a cool pint and some pub grub. However, we fought the temptation, and pressed on, with the thought that a well earned pint at the end of our walk would taste all the sweeter for doing so.
Having passed Maghera, we knew that the bulk of our walking was behind us, and we were making good time. We passed a large standing stone jutting from the verge, a lovely reminder of our ancient past, sadly spoiled by a telegraph pole stuck right beside it! We stopped at the 12 arches bridge car park, and sat at a picnic bench for a break. We took the boots off and let the feet air for a while, enjoying the feeling of relaxing and taking the weight off for a moment. We then made our way towards Downshire bridge, before following the trail onto the foreshore. We followed the shore, it was teeming with birdlife of several different species, a stunning location as we approached the end point of our days trek. Before long we were looking at Ballykinlar Army camp across the narrow channel that feeds Dundrum Inner Bay, and could see the warning flag up, indicating that the firing range was in operation. We heard the crump of explosions, and the clatter of gunfire echoed around the huge dunes around us.
We cut inland across the dunes, making our way back onto the beach again when clear of the range, I’m unsure whether we had to do this or not, but none of us wanted to take any chances! Then it was onto the mighty sweep of Murlough beach, the sea on our left, the mighty dunes, 6000 years old on our right, the mighty mournes sweeping darkly down to the sea in front of us. Murlough was the first designated Nature Reserve in Northern Ireland, way back in 1967.
We could make out Newcastle at the end of the long expanse of flat sand ahead of us, the sun was on our faces, and the taste of salt was on our lips from the steady evening breeze blowing over the sea, as the tide rolled onwards and inwards on its daily cycle. The closer we got to Newcastle, still ahead of us in the evening haze, the further away it seemed, and even the relatively soft sand was not being overly kind on our tired feet! Eventually we passed below the Slieve Donard Hotel, and made our way up into Newcastle, and back down main street to the Donard car park, where we had left some 12 hours earlier. Our day finished in O’Hares for a couple of well earned pints beside the roaring fire, where we discussed what we had experienced that day, and laughed about our sore feet. All in all, as Mondays go, it was a pretty epic one!
If you want to have a go walking the Newcastle Way then visit WalkNI.com to download the free walkers guide to the Newcastle Way containing everything you need to walk the route.
Posted on February 7, 2014 @ 3:24 PM in
Enter WalkNI.com’s competition to be included in the draw to win a £200 voucher to spend online at Zalando.
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Posted on November 29, 2013 @ 1:00 PM in
We asked Hikers Blog to put together some of their best shots from their walking in the Mourne Mountains and here’s what they came up with. I think you’ll agree the results are pretty impressive showing that sometimes a walkers view really is the best!
Binnian Sunrise - Eamonn Patton
After a great camp I took this photo of my friend John standing silhouetted during a beautiful sunrise on Slieve Binnian . This photo was featured in a double page spread in Trail Magazine.
Annalong Valley - Ed Benton
I took this photo after a really enjoyable hike from Annalong Wood, up the valley into Newcastle. The weather was fantastic, with just the occasional light shower. The winding track, secluded rock pools and mountain views made it all truly memorable and the view near the end in the picture above made it worth every step.
Man Meets Mountain - Ed Benton
Slieve Lamagan is my favourite Mourne Mountain. Its rocky character and steep profile are unique in the Mournes and it is a formidable climb which demands respect. My friend Dave is pictured walking the path towards Lamagan, absolutely dwarfed by its immensity and power. For me Lamagan has a unique appeal no other mountain can match.
Alpine Conditions on Slieve Bearnagh - John Surginor
This photo was taken during the heavy snow in mid April this year. A friend, Eamonn stands on Slieve Bearnagh taking in the snow blanketed peaks of the Mournes, a rare and magical sight.
Dawn on Binnian - John Surginor
Slieve Binnian is definitely my favourite Mountain and nothing captures why like this photo. My two friends Spud and Catriona are pictured on the path up Binnian as the sun rises behind them, casting a beautiful golden light right across the Mournes. In this occasion rising early was definitely worth it.
Sundews - Eamonn Patton
Often in the mountains the dramatic views in the distance blind us to the beauty which lies beneath our feet. Take for example this beautiful Sundew, an insect eating plant with special appendages for catching its prey.
Red Sky - Oisin Patenall
We had been walking all day, and it was getting late and we still had a brave distance to cover to complete the Mourne Wall Challenge. We were rushing to pick up the pace and keeping our heads down, when gradually the bright glare of the summer sun started to fade and was replaced with a soft orange glow bouncing off the land all around us. It brought with it a peaceful atmosphere, which made me stop and just stand there, as if trying to absorb the moment.
Towards Hen - Oisin Patenall
It had been raining all day, and the skies had only ever changed colour from grey to dark grey. Then out of nowhere, the clouds cleared, the sky shone blue and Hen Mountain lit up in a golden light that only an autumnal evening sun can bring. It was a beautiful sight and changed the dreary atmosphere of the day
High Mournes From Eagle - Spud O'Hare
This shot was taken on a bright crisp Sunday morning from eagle mountain in the western mournes, I love the fact you can see all the high mournes, gives a real sense of the scale of the mountains.
Frozen Solitude - Spud O'Hare
This shot was taken on a very cold day from the stile at the bog of Donard, I like it because of the sense of frozen isolation, we were the only 2 people there at that time, and it really seemed like we had the frozen mountains to ourselves.
If these fantastic shots have inspired you to get out and experience the views first hand then make sure to visit WalkNI.com for route descriptions, maps, transport and facility information for over 230 quality walks in Northern Ireland.
Posted on October 10, 2013 @ 4:08 PM in
WalkNI.com caught up with long distance runner and all round adventurer Hannah Shields to find out where she gets her inspiration from. In 2007 Hannah became the first woman from Northern Ireland to conquer Mount Everest, just one of her many accolades. An enthusiastic mountaineer, Hannah has climbed extensively in Ireland, Scotland, the Alps, South America and Nepal and also competed in the inaugural Polar Challenge, a race to the Magnetic North Pole in which she came second. Lately she can be found on the podiums after completing some of the toughest Ultra Marathons in the UK and Europe. Currently living in Derry Hannah splits her time between training, expeditions, racing and working as a dentist.
Mountaineering and adventure racing is not a typical hobby, how did you get started?
From an early age I have always loved sports, taking part in everything going. While I was studying at University in Manchester there was a walking club but to be honest at first I was pretty sceptical. Why would I want to go walking? Surely all it involves is being outside and getting soaked. I went along anyway and the first time I went I enjoyed every second of it – I was as high as a kite! I didn’t realise you could get so much from walking. My mountaineering really started when I dated a student who was into climbing and I thought if you can’t beat him, join him! I was scared of heights so it was terrifying to begin with but I pushed through my fear and quickly became hooked. That’s when I realised I wanted to climb. I like to put myself outside of my comfort zone and I’m always looking for a challenge however saying that, if you had asked me 2 or 3 years ago if I would be competing in ultra marathons I would have laughed at you!
You have achieved so much, summiting Everest, racing to the magnetic North Pole, competing in 100 mile Ultra Race’s to name just a few of your accomplishments but what has been your most memorable achievement?
It’s hard to say because they are all so different in their own ways. Obviously summiting Everest was a dream come true but I love the atmosphere when competing in events at home such as the Mourne Way and Causeway Coast Marathons. The polar trips were memorable for their physical challenge, you’re pulling 150lb pulks in temperatures as low as minus 70C having to hold your own against men who have the weight advantage. Then again with my ultra running I still have to pinch myself that I’m completing these 100 mile races. I’m just happy I can do all these things!
Obviously you can’t be away doing specialist training all the time, how do you train at home?
I just get outside as often as I can. Like everyone I like a lie in on a Saturday but if I decide to take up a challenge I have no problem getting up and out! I’m from Derry so I regularly hit the slopes of my beloved Binevenagh. I like to spend as much time there as I can and I know it so well yet I never get bored of going there, it’s just so dynamic. I like to train on my own without too many people so Binevenagh is perfect as you can often go out and not meet a soul so I have it all to myself! I also love training on the Giant’s Causeway Coast, the scenery up there is simply spectacular. I’ll do a 26 mile run along the coast from Portballintrae to Carrick-a-Rede and back. I also try and do a 52-80 mile race every month to keep fit. Many people often think you have to go far afield to find these amazing places and don’t realise or appreciate the fantastic scenery that is right on their doorstep. I have been lucky enough to experience some amazing trips in the British Isles but I can honestly say climbs in Northern Ireland are most definitely on par.
What are the crucial skills needed to train for such extreme conditions?
For something as extreme as Everest the preparation is all about breaking it down to things you need to be good at. For example coping in cold conditions and knowing what the appropriate clothing is to help you with this, being able to hill walk with a weight on your back and functioning without much sleep. When I was on my expedition to the Magnetic North Pole I was only getting a maximum of 2 or 3 hours of sleep at a time for the whole 4 or 5 weeks of the trip, in preparation for this I would deprive myself of sleep and do everyday tasks so my body learnt to do things automatically. You also need to be good at assessing your conditions, it’s a steep learning curve but you just have to get out there and do it! Being part of a walking or running club is a great way to introduce you to a lot of these elements. A lot of the time, it's as much about mental resolve and teamwork as physical fitness.
What was it like coming so close the first time you attempted Everest in 2003?
Absolutely devastating, it felt like the end of the world to come so close (Hannah was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to turn back just 100m from the summit due to frostbite injuries). I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to do and it was heartbreaking but you know what…I think it was the best thing that ever happened. Sometimes you just have to keep trying, if it’s something you really want, you’ll do it.
In 2007 Hannah returned to successfully summit Everest from the North-Tibetan side with the all male 7 summits Russian Team. You were the only woman in a group of 7 males how was that?
It was a real eye opener! None of my team spoke any English so it was a very different experience from the first time. The leader was fantastic though and I felt very safe, it’s amazing how much you can communicate without words. You are completely reliant upon your other team members, so mutual trust has to develop because your life, quite literally, depends on it. With the language barrier there wasn’t the same type of craic however it was a great way to examine and learn about my inner self.
How did you celebrate when you reached the top on your second expedition?
With a thumbs up and a hug! When you reach the summit that’s only half the battle, you still have a dangerous descent ahead of you. My contact lens had frozen to my right eye and we were trying to conserve as much oxygen as possible so the proper celebrations didn’t start until we were down safely.
Do you have any recommendations for those wanting to start mountaineering?
I would definitely recommend getting onto a good course and learning the basic skills properly. It’s so important to get the technical side ride with tuition from the experts from the very start.
What is your next challenge and how are you preparing?
I’m really concentrating on my ultra running at the moment. I only started in my 30s, the long distances require a lot of discipline so you often find older people are good at it as they’re mentally toughened up. Obviously you have to be in good shape physically but that’s only half the battle. I’ve been lucky enough to stay away from injury so far so hopefully the next year will bring plenty of racing both in the UK and Europe.
Visit WalkNI.com for a full list of outdoor activity providers who deliver skills development courses to help improve your confidence in the hills as well as a full range of courses in walking and mountaineering.
Posted on August 27, 2013 @ 11:38 AM in
Mountaineering Ireland's Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer, Helen Lawless tells us all about heather and why we should be protecting it in the hills...
Walking in the Sperrins last week, on a day when mist cheated us out of the views, the varied shades of heather splashed across the hills gave the day a lift. Heather seems to have been prolific this summer with colourful displays on most hill and coastal walks, perhaps as a result of the prolonged cold period in the spring. While there is one dominant species, ling, there are three heather species that commonly occur in Northern Ireland. This blog describes the key characteristics of ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, and provides some background information on each.
Bell heather and cross-leaved heath flower from June to September, with the more plentiful ling flowering later, normally July to October. They are all woody, evergreen shrubs, growing from 20cm up to 1m tall. As all gardeners know, they are particularly suited to acidic, peaty soils and therefore are principally found on blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath; habitats which are common on the hills.
Ling (Calluna vulgaris)
Ling is by far the most widespread and abundant of our heathers, and perhaps because of this, some people and books refer to it simply as ‘heather’. It can be distinguished from the other common heathers by its leaves which are overlapping and appear to cling to the stem. Ling’s pale purple flowers grow in a loose spike on the upper part of the plant’s woody stems. Its flowers are not bell-shaped, they are smaller and prettier than those of bell heather and cross-leaved heath, so worth the effort of looking closely. Occasionally you will come across ling with white flowers; this is believed to bring good luck.
If left to mature, ling heather can live for around 30 years. The name ling is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lig, meaning ‘fire’, and recalls the importance of heather in early times as fuel. It’s not surprising then that mountain wildfires can burn so vigorously, as seen in the Mournes in May 2011.
Bell heather (Erica cinerea)
Bell heather is the classic heather species, which brings magnificent purple patches to drier hillsides. It is particularly characteristic of the Mournes, but will be easily found among the ling heather and whins (also known as gorse) on most hills. The vivid purple bell-shaped flowers grow in groups along the plant’s wiry stems.
On bell heather, the individual leaves are easy to see and grow in sets of three, with tufts of shorter leaves where the three longer leaves join the stem. The leaves are dark green, and narrow to cope with extended dry periods, from winter frosts and summer drought. This is a feature heathers share with other plants such as whins. As bell heather prefers drier soils it is often found on steeper slopes, dry banks, tussocks, rocks and other well-drained areas.
Cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix)
The plump bell-shaped pink flowers of cross-leaved heath hang in a bunch at the top of the stem. Its leaves are also easy to distinguish. In contrast to bell heather they grow in sets of four, hence the name. The leaves are narrow and grey-green in colour.
Cross-leaved heath plants tend to be smaller than bell heather and are often scattered rather than growing in profusion. Cross-leaved heath favours wetter ground, it is typically found at the edge of bogs, and in damp hollows between tussocks.
Bell heather and cross-leaved heath are closely related and easily confused; bell heather’s preference for drier ground is a useful distinguishing factor. On cross-leaved heath, the flowers are only at the top of the stem and they are usually larger and paler than those of bell heather. Closer examination will reveal tiny hairs on the stems and leaves of cross-leaved heath; bell heather is hairless.
Important for biodiversity
In the exposed environment of Northern Ireland’s mountains, heather plays a major role in maintaining biodiversity. Heather stabilises peat soils, as well as providing shelter and food for many species. For instance, red grouse are heavily reliant on heather, requiring a patchwork of old heather for nesting and nutritious young heather shoots for food. A 2004 survey of red grouse in Northern Ireland showed a marked decline in numbers and a contraction in the range of this species. While many factors underlie the fall in numbers, most are to do with land management changes that have resulted in loss of heather habitat. Red grouse numbers were found to be strongest in the Antrim Hills and the Sperrins, with hardly any birds remaining in the Mournes.
Heather is also an important source of food for bees, moths and other insects. Bees gather nectar from ling and bell heather, which in turn makes tasty and much sought-after honey, most notably the Mourne Heather Honey. You may notice tiny holes in bell heather flowers; these have been drilled by bees to extract the nectar.
As it is a woody plant, heather is easily broken and damaged by trampling. The absence of heather near the Mourne Wall is attributed in part to the intense pressure of huge numbers taking part in the annual Mourne Wall Walk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By keeping to existing paths and tracks when we walk heathery hills, we will be doing our bit to reduce pressure on these beautiful and valuable plants.