Crag Notes: Mourne

© Andy Moles

In this month's Crag Notes, Andy Moles goes back to the Mourne Mountains of his homeland.

The hills in my mind are silent. Silent as church, and a better nursery of the spirit. Like loosely stacked transparencies, memories blur; we must have seen other people, but not often. Of those who had been here before us, there were only traces: words, walls, wreckage, myth. Layered over time and most washed out, a few fragments stood isolated like peat hags on the gravel floor.

Slieve Bearnagh  © Andy Moles
Slieve Bearnagh
© Andy Moles

The distant people who left us the name: Mugdorna. Mourne. The name strikes a melancholy note in modern English - redolent of loss; of remembrance and its shadow, forgetting. Once part of a Kingdom, in physical standing it still is: a domed granite kingdom, raised on a seabed of shales and softer matter.

The quarrymen are gone, who chipped raw angles into the mountains' sides, though for years on the track to Pollaphuca their ruined machines sat rusting. I was fascinated by these, specimens of the ugliness and power of industry. To know there is a tunnel under Slieve Binnian, under the rivers and bogs and tumbled erratics, under our feet, and that people made that tunnel, and dammed Silent Valley, was as beguiling as goblin tunnels in the mountains of fantasy. The same appeal; the same threat. Others built the Mourne Wall, a reconstructed spine from base debris, to strut the hills' broad backs.

The Mourne Wall  © Andy Moles
The Mourne Wall
© Andy Moles

The climbers whose names fill the guidebook with their creations are absent too, though their footprints are clearer, ghosting the same hops over running water as they, like we, head up the stony track. My friends in Scouts laughed when I reported, inaccurately though not unreasonably, that here in the Mournes was the Hardest Rock Climb in the World. Divided Years: a nod to Ireland's recent past, to not so distant shadows passing on the landscape. Once, when we parked somewhere quiet on the south side, a borderland of staunch Republican enclaves, we walked past an outhouse door riddled with bullet holes.

Stories sleep on the hills, dreams over the radiating body of the granite. Some wake, some remain dormant – and some extinct. I imagine a buried giant, whose ribs and scalp protrude here and there from peat and heather, crude innards revealed where glaciers have snipped its side. Its features are folds of ancient skin, exfoliated and nibbled by lichens, worn beyond recognition. This is the bodily essence of the place, binding the blindness of igneous force to the shreds of meaning decaying on top of it.

Bouldering in the Mourne Mountains  © Andy Moles
Bouldering in the Mourne Mountains
© Andy Moles

Ben Crom Reservoir  © Rob Greenwood - UKC
Ben Crom Reservoir
© Rob Greenwood - UKC

It is not so quiet now around the parking areas and the main tracks, but many of the climbers' special attractions are laid to one side, a bric-a-brac scatter still rewarding exploration. Perhaps the secret of the Mournes' solitude is in its dispersal. No single crag defines them. You might meet other climbers at Lower Cove, or the crags closer to a road – Pigeon, Spellack, or Hen Mountain. A little longer walk to Slieve Beg or Ben Crom trades a bit more dirt in cracks for equally good, longer routes. Up on the summits of Binnian and Bearnagh, the tors are slumped turrets commanding the kingdom and defining a bold, subtle style.

The rock lures, sinuous lines bracketing clean blanks, monochrome and shadow. Cracks are rounded at the edge, often no more than runnels or seams, punctuated by ovular pocks. Thin dykes of finer grain give occasional purchase. Flakes emerge and disappear, painterly strokes. To follow and link these vanishing shapes, the coarsely surfaced soft curves, demands composure. The softness belies a threat, inviting you on. Unhelpful ballbearings scritch under worried toes, tasked to support unlikely lurches of balance, in a tense liaison of gravity and friction. A willing eye sees purchase for flared cam lobes, confidence tempered with accuracy. When things ease, you pad up and emerge on a top bald and water-cratered, enthroned by the drumlins of County Down and the Irish Sea.

This was where it started, for me; a territory contained enough to be homely, wild enough to inspire. It is a place self-possessed, an island hemmed by fields and sea - on which we only pass, dreams drifting off its slow surface, substantial as mist.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Andy Moles

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29 Dec, 2020

'This was where it started, for me...'

And me too. For over half a century, I have loved these rounded hills and sculpted valleys with a love that is dangerous in its intensity. As long as I breathe, I will love them with that same intensity.


30 Dec, 2020

"Contained enough to be homely, wild enough to inspire."

Eloquently put and beautiful article Andy.

No matter how Northern Ireland changes over time or relationships at home grow or diminish, a returning climber can always flee to the Mournes to be reassured that the mountains are a constant.

9 Jan

Great article and where it all started for me too! :-)

9 Jan

I've caved and climbed in Northern Ireland but never 'walked' as such. Is access to the hills similar to the rest of the UK? I know the Republic can be fraught with access in places.

11 Jan

Pretty much, as in there is generally public access to open land. I think the legal status is a little different and more dated - technically access is only 'tolerated' by the landowner, but in practice in the like of the Mournes I'm not aware of any significant issues in recent years, apart from some of the estates banning dogs or insisting they are kept on a lead.

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