IRISH Sea; variable four; slight or moderate; occasional drizzle, fog patches; moderate or good, occasionally very poor. Shannon and Rockall . . .
I don’t know whether that’s a good forecast or not. But I’m heading towards the Mourne mountains from Kilkeel and the banks of cloud I observed rolling over the summits as dawn broke have evaporated in the early-morning sunlight. Like the turf smoke that filled the cottage with its heady fragrance last night, and the hoppy tang of the locally-brewed Belfast Ale, they have melted into memory.
My friend Zena has bought me a book by Charlie Connelly called Attention All Shipping. It’s a delightful and highly entertaining tour of the shipping areas that surround Britain and Ireland.
In common with many thousands of British landlubbers whose maritime experience involves little more than a trip on the Windermere steamers, the Shipping Forecast is in my blood. Like Blake’s Jerusalem, Pancake Tuesday, the theme of Z Cars and the Saturday afternoon wrestling, it’s one of the foundation blocks that created a generation of greying recalcitrants who yearn for a time when everything was nationalised but console themselves with alcohol and the pain generated by climbing mountains. Ours is a sad and disappearing world.
Before writing this post I toyed with the idea of comparing my native Cumbrian shipping area – Irish Sea – with the shipping area off the County Down port of Kilkeel, where our holiday cottage is situated. That would make a good theme for a blog post about climbing in the Mourne mountains, I told myself. However, before I had expended too much thought on the project I realised the area was one and the same. It’s not called Irish Sea for nothing. Doh.
Damn shame. Viking, Forties, Cromarty. German Bight, Forth, Tyne, Dogger. Sole, Lundy, Fastnet. Veering. Gale force eight. There’s poetry, imagery and savagery in those words. I’m not the first person to point this out and I won’t be the last. Seamus Heaney’s one for starters, besides Connelly. The Shipping Forecast is part of our national identity – like satanic mills, and two pinfalls, two submissions or a knockout. (Click on pictures for high-res versions)
A few miles behind Kilkeel – a town where Union flags adorn almost every lamppost – there’s an equestrian centre on the B27 road to Hilltown. At the side of the paddock there’s a tiny car park for the use of walkers, and from here a rough track known as Banns Road winds off into the hills. The 874m (2,211ft) ridge of grass and rock that is Slieve Muck, pictured above, rises from meadows and bogs to the north. Actually, that’s north backing north-north-west, to be precise. Visibility good.
Up here the sheep are marked with daubs of red, white and blue. I don’t know whether there’s a political motive to this or it’s just a quirk of fate that occurred when local farmers were colour-coding their flocks. Returning momentarily to the bedecked lampposts, I’ve also noticed that in the thousands of Union flags I’ve witnessed fluttering the length and breadth of Northern Ireland these past few days, not a single one has been flying upside-down.
Give an Englishman a Union flag and there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll hoist it the wrong way up. What do you mean, you don’t like to admit it but you’re not a hundred per cent sure which way up the Union flag should fly? Join the Cubs. I wasn’t a sixer for nothing.
The Mourne Wall rises up steep ground from boglands to the east to cross Slieve Muck’s windy summit, then angles north along the ridge towards Carn Mountain (588m, 1,929ft). The wall, as mentioned in my previous post, was constructed during the early years of the last century to enclose the catchment area of the Mourne reservoir scheme and has a total length of 22 miles.
As stone walls go, it’s particularly interesting because it has been built in a variety of styles. Well, I think it’s interesting anyway. Much of the section from Carn Mountain to Slieve Loughshannagh (619m, 2,030ft), is topped with flat granite slabs. It is possible to stride out at an impressive pace upon the wall itself. But you’d look an idiot if you fell off and broke your leg.
From a dip between Slieve Loughshannagh and Slieve Meelbeg, I veer south-east across peat haggs towards the granite peak of Doan (526m, 1,725ft). A slabby path leads through heather directly to the summit. I call it a path, but I’m not sure it is because it has the appearance of a natural stone avenue leading straight up the mountain, or a road left from prehistoric times. Doan’s Irish name is Dun Maol Chobha, which means Moal Chobha’s fort. Path, ancient highway or natural phenomenon, it’s a splendid route to a splendid summit.
Moal Chobha’s fort offers magnificent views across mountain landscape to distant farmland and the silver rim of the Irish Sea. No better place exists for a cup of tea, a cheese and pickle sandwich and a snooze in warm grass. So long as Moal Chobha doesn’t mind. I don’t want to wake up with a bronze spear poking my ribs.
At the southern foot of Doan I rejoin Banns Road and make my way through old turf diggings to Lough Shannah and a dusty trudge back to the car with the sun in my face. That would be the end of the tale, but I round off the day in true Shipping Forecast style.
Last night we dined on excellent fish and chips from the Trawlerman chippie opposite the Orange Hall in Kilkeel. Tonight, with the dust knocked off my boots, I drive to the harbour and we spend a pleasant few minutes chatting to the proprietor of Heather’s fish van – whom we assume is called Heather. The cod, haddock, hake and herring are fresh in off the boats, Heather tells us, as we leaf through a James Martin recipe book she has provided for the convenience and enlightenment of her clientele.
We purchase fillets of haddock and hake – which Heather skilfully debones for us – and a pot of crab claws for good measure, then head back to the cottage to turn on the oven and crack open the Belfast Ale.
Is there anything finer than a walk over airy mountains, fresh fish on a plate, a glass of golden beer and the scent of turf burning in a black grate? If there is I have yet to find it.