It’s a time of momentous change in Northern Ireland. The locals are amazed and elated; they never thought they’d see this day. Regulations banning smoking in bars are now operational! And the Troubles appear to be over.
The tourist board is delighted because visitors, including us, are filtering into the country. Less pleased are first home-buyers, since property prices have doubled. The place is becoming trendy.
The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea in County Down, about an hour’s drive south-east of Belfast. It’s officially an “AONB”, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
We stayed in the little village of Dundrum, on Dundrum Bay. At first glance there’s not a lot of outstanding beauty; a bus stop, a minimarket selling ten varieties of packaged bacon and three varieties of vegetables, a gaudy orange fish and chip shop. But a cluster of smart modern waterfront apartments and a chic beauty salon suggest that Dundrum is moving up in the world.
It’s easy to see why; the Outstanding Natural Beauty starts just outside town, and it’s a knockout. The Mournes loom from the far side of the shallow bay, where the tide moves at a gentle walking pace, draining to reveal sandbanks stretching across to Murlough Nature Reserve. Terns, gulls and herons dive and dart.
Nobody could tell us when the next bus would pass through Dundrum. Ten o’clock? Two o’clock? Thursday? So we set off to walk five miles through heather and along the beach to Newcastle, a larger town nestling at the foot of the mountains.
It was lovely country for walking. Gentle hills, stone walls, white cottages, black-faced sheep, and gorse. We tourists love gorse. Nothing looks better than patches of yellow breaking up the emerald fields, contrasting with the purple heather on the hillsides beyond.
We reached the famous Royal County Down golf course and the historic Slieve Donard Hotel. Guests were being shuttled in by a clattering helicopter, which whipped up sand to shower on us unfortunate beach walkers.
Newcastle was getting a facelift. The bayside promenade was being paved and decorated with sculpture and flash chrome lampposts. New green turf was being rolled out. A block further inland, Main Street was rainy, shabby and uninviting. There were few visitors at Newcastle’s two family entertainment centres. In Fun World a handful of games addicts fed coins into slots, pressed buttons and won Bart Simpson dolls. Outside Joyworld a flock of abandoned swan pedal craft bobbed on the artificial lake. But when we ducked into a café to escape the rain, locals smiled and we assumed their incomprehensible gutturals were friendly greetings.
More showers were forecast for the week, but the mountains beckoned over Newcastle’s shoulder. The biggest hump is Slieve Donard, 850 metres high, a three hour climb along the tumbling creek through the lovely Donard Forest, and up across rocky moorland with a spectacular view over the bay.
On the windswept peak, I came upon the mysterious Mourne Wall. It’s two and a half metres high, a metre thick, 22 miles long, made of very heavy stones. It would protect Ulster from a determined Mongol horde.
Two other hardy walkers, Dermott and ‘moy sarn Brendan’, climbed up out of the mist. We huddled against the Mourne Wall and ate our packed lunches. Mine was limited to Dundrum minimarket supplies, but in a howling gale even bacon on stale white bread tastes okay.
‘Foine wall dis,’ said Dermott, patting it. ‘Built by de Belfast Water Commissioners, to mark de catchment area. Course, laybroors did the real work.’
‘Why the rocks?’ I asked, ‘Couldn’t they have used a line of coloured pegs?’
‘Onemplayment schayme in the 1920’s,’ said Dermott. ‘Med the job last longer.’
Thunder rumbled and the heavens opened, and when I risked a glance out from under my Goretex hood, I noticed that water was bucketing down on both sides of the wall.
‘Man was strook daid by loightning here last year,’ volunteered young Brendan.
‘Best be going,’ suggested Dermott, and we squelched down through the heather to the shelter of the forest.
**********For the next few rainy days we walked or bussed from village to village. Mourne towns were nothing to write home about. Newry and Kilkeel offered limited attractions. The nicest village was Castlewellan, whose 19th squares were planned by a French designer.
Flash gold-on-black lettering outside a Northern Ireland hotel means, ‘We’ve just modernised our pub to make it look two hundred years old. Our food is more expensive than next door’s, but it’s better.’ Mourne cuisine has clearly undergone recent renovation. Mourne Seafood Bar served great fresh local produce – you can call Pacific oysters ‘local’ if they’re bred nearby apparently. We also ate very well at Magills in Castlewellan and The Buck’s Head in Dundrum. And it was all smoke free!
**********At last the weather cleared enough to venture a cycle trip. Newcastle Tourist Office supplied a guidebook of cycle routes around the mountains, and referred me to Wiki Wiki Wheels Bike Shop. The tyres on my rented bike were fat and soft, but it was lovely day, so I soldiered on.
A rider on an ageing but effective road bike caught up with me. As happens in this part of the world, Kieran and I struck up a conversation and spent the rest of the morning riding together. Kieran had ageing but effective legs too, and I was soon struggling to keep up and cursing my wickety wickety wheels.
Those lovely rolling hills were suddenly steeper on a bike. Especially when my rear brakes failed on a long downhill run. The front brakes squealed alarmingly, and so did I as I flew down past a startled Kieran. Fortunately no lorries were passing and the road flattened out as we rolled into Kilcoo.
The Troubles are not forgotten there. At the crossroad, the tricolour flutters over ten white crosses bearing the names of Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers of the 1980s. ‘Fear Not to Speak of Easter Week’ says the graffiti on the wall opposite, a reference to the Easter Rising of 1916.
‘We larned to live with it,’ said Kieran, ‘but it’s greet it’s over.’
At the end of the week we mournfully left Mourne, rounding off the visit with a night in Belfast. It’s not a candidate for World’s Most Beautiful City, but a great traditional Irish music session in the John Hewitt pub made it well worthwhile. All in all a very foine toime was had, though it was nice to move on to Amsterdam where we could understand what people were saying.
Best time to go: July and August. For fewer crowds try spring and autumn. Winter is grey and rugged.
For more information: http://www.mournemountains.com, http://www.discoverireland.com and http://www.countydown.com.