January 2011

cat pancake by gin_e

Fresh and disturbingly warm eggs were lifted with cold hands this morning.  The pan was hot and ready for the yellowing pancakes.  Basic caturday pancakes, and not the nonsense of drop scones, are a tradition in the cottage.  We have missed this due to a run of hectic weekends that always seem to come in clusters.  When I say basic pancakes, I really mean that they were from a basic recipe until the lovely Sharon insisted I healthify (my own word) them with brownness.  This took some weeks of tampering with white, coarse wholemeal and medium wholemeal flour.  I think I have the blend perfected.  Just enough brownness and texture to fool her into thinking they are healthier and just enough white flour so that I am fooled into thinking that I am not eating limp cardboard.  When we have finished there is usually enough left over to give the chickens, who go mental for pancake scraps.  Please don’t dwell or think about that last sentence too much, as your revelations may not sit well in the mind.

Last time I looked, it was the full moon; the wolf moon. This morning the moon was a quarter waning. In the blink of an eye it had rushed on through, oblivious to me, and I rushed oblivious to it. I need to force myself to stop and look.

A few nights ago the little man’s reading moved on from Hebridian archaeology and now we are onto the short, lyrical, stories from Michael Viney. Michael and his wife, Ethna, left the city life of Dublin and took up a self-sufficient-ish life in the west of Ireland. Two nights ago we read more about the misadventures and the strange other-world-ness between town and country. Last night we read his musings on the need for a slate and chalk. The need to write up the jobs on the slate, and how these jobs are not ambition but real needs and practical things. Things that are shoehorned into life and have the air of necessity, not leisure. We need such a slate. The night that I read this I was doing my pre-bedtime chores and took a few brief moments to look in the woodshed, to look at some of the previous occupants of the cottage had left in behind. Amongst the various bits and pieces of wood a lonely piece of slate lay waiting for us. Just one single monolith with two holes, perfect for stringing and hanging. There was no reason for it to be there as it is not a spare for the roof. It seems that we are to have a list after all, although we will have to work a little harder to find the chalk as it is an old relic of our jobs.

As I continued to potter I discovered the first things for the list. The garage has a cracked water pipe running along it, another water pipe has become dislodged at a joint, and the stop cock on the outside toilet seems to have given up its sole purpose in life.

The Ice moon will soon be upon us, then the moon of winds, then the growing moon. With the pulse of work this leaves little time to get ready for the spring. The outside water must be back in operation. The greenhouse must be cleared and cleaned. Old plants must have their carcases ripped up. The fruit trees must be pruned. The hedges must be cut back. And the soil must be turned and run through our hands to ready the ground, and ourselves, for the spring. I need chalk.

On January the 13th at a particular place in Greenland the sun rises above the horizon. It is the first time the sun rises at this place all winter, when the sun usually hides below the horizon and leaves this place in arctic darkness. On January the 13th the sun has done this for a long time, as regular as clockwork. This year the sun behaved unexpectedly. In defiance of our predictability of it, it rose 48 hours early on January 11th. But it was not the sun that was misbehaving, it was us. Our effect on the atmosphere is warming our small blue dot and it has lowered the level of the ice sheets in Greenland. The local horizon had changed and the sun was oblivious to us or our predicament.

Today I arrived home for a brief time. Enough to cuddle the teething little man, or as we now know him, Mr Dribbles. Then I was picked up by a friend and we headed for the hills to practice some more night navigation. When we stepped foot on the bog the darkness had already descended and the mist was joining it. Hill fog reduced the visibility to only a few meters. These were perfect conditions to follow bearings for nearly a kilometre and test our accuracy. The highlight of the trek was switching the head torches off and standing on the summit of the second highest point in the county of Antrim; Slievenenee, the ‘mountain of the warriors’. The wind whipped up around us and the land was a mere few meters in the foggy black, then beyond; only wild bog and the night. This was the highlight, but the low was that I have just discovered that there is a cairn on the summit and the wonders of technology, and the silent sentinel that is my GPS in my ruck, tells me that we stood only a few meters away from it. The mist robbed us of our pinnacle point. They say that when you summit mountains it is because they let you. The rain, bog, and thick fog were her friends tonight and she used them against us. At least she let us grace her slopes.

This morning the lovely Sharon stepped through the back door in her woolly hat and wellies and exclaimed; “the chickens have become unhinged”.  She often states that they are the least intelligent animals she has ever encountered and their behaviour is unfathomable to her.  Although her statement was weighted with extra meaning, the truth was that the chickens were literally unhinged.  The home-made run is attached to the coop with a set of sort of hinges and they are difficult to fasten when the run is welded to the ground with winter frost.

Today I wrote the last percentage on the last paper of this seasons marking.  I marked in the morning, I went to church and then I marked in the afternoon.  When I say that I went to church, the reality is that I attended for fifteen minutes before the little man protested and we both left.  We left the lovely Sharon to bang out hymns on the piano as we stood outside and admired the view of the fog hugging the fields and lying in the valley below us.  Then we retired inside to crèche for a little brunch, the anticipated source of his protestations.

Later, I marked the last half of the last set of papers with the little man on my knee.  To keep him happy I sang the mark scheme as I ticked.  I must admit that this is not the only time I have sung mark schemes.  When I am near the end of a marathon mark I begin to loose it a bit and become a little unhinged myself.  To be honest, I think the little man’s presence curtailed me and grounded me to reality.  At the end of it all the lovely Sharon came in from polishing the cars (we try not to conform to gender roles) and took over from me.  This freed me to pick up hammer and nails and finish the bee hives.  They now stand complete but empty of the buzz of life.  The beekeeping course begins in only a few weeks.

In a strange circle of circumstance the chapter that I read to the little man tonight was from an old Michael Viney book, and it was about bees.  He wrote of the swarming and the fear, and the irrational behaviour that is programmed into us all, and the need to respect the bees.  There will be strict rules about the areas around the cottage that will be off limits to the little man.  Just before I tucked him into bed I comforted him and whispered into his ear that he must be a brave wee boy and must not be afraid of the bees, but in truth I think I was talking to myself.

Tonight, with my legs cramping and my hands freezing, I leaned back on the rope. Just before my weight went onto it and it stretched a little under tension, I wondered if I was a candidate for the Darwin Awards.

It all began at break time, with a text message from the lovely Sharon. She informed me that the bracket had arrived. Let me begin to explain. For some time now we have been having problems with our Freesat dish. It has been moving about in any sort of strong breeze and this has meant several visits for me onto the roof, with a brush, to poke it and get it back on track. At the weekend I was on the roof again and the daylight meant I could see the problem; rust. The corrosion had finally got out of hand and the television was lost to us. We could not even revert to the old annalog aerial as we seem to be out of range. This is not much of a problem to me as I have the internerd and box sets of the mindless popcorn that is; human target and burn notice. However, I was informed that for someone on extended holiday maternity leave, the TV is a vital link to what is happening in the wider world. The new bracket had arrived and the sky was cloudless. This cleared the way for a little DIY if I got home in time before the light began to fade.

I put my climbing harness on and anchored a climbing rope to the garage. The rope went through the front door of the garage and then out the side door. The rope then went in a perfect line to meet the start of the roof and then up and over the other side. I may have put on a pound or two over the Christmas break but I believed it would hold. “Bomber!” as they would say in climbing jargon.

The hardest part was not the drilling of holes and fitting the new bracket. The hardest part was getting the old rust-welded bracket off. A little patience and knuckle blood helped ease it away from the chimney stack.

The light was fading, and I needed a little light to finish the job. It was not essential to see myself work, as I had a head torch. I needed the light for another purpose. I drilled the holes, screwed bolts in and mounted the satellite dish. This was the final critical act. Satellite dishes need to be perfectly aligned to point directly at the correct small window in the sky, and this is where a little homework helps. I had researched it, and found the name of the satellite I wanted to point to. Then I used a website to input my exact latitude and longitude (I knew that GPS would come in handy one day) and got the bearing for the satellite. This is were it gets very geeky:  I adjusted for magnetic varience and then plotted where the bearing would point to on the map; the feature on the landscape that hit the ruled line. It cut through a spur with the forest on it, and I took a mental picture of how far along the spur, and forest, it aimed through. I was glad of this nerdy exactness.

The light had nearly gone now. The full moon was out and the stars were splashed all around. As I worked I watched the enchanting morph of dusk’s colour, all cold and deep. I watched the moon move along its invisible rail as it edged through the branches. The light faded to nearly stone black, but there was just enough. Just the edge of dark blue and earth to make out the land. I saw the silhouette of the spur and the forest and I picked my line. I aimed and then called into the radio to the lovely Sharon. “Signal 100%” she radioed back. “Really?” Could geometry and the Ordinance Survey be that good? The lovely Sharon checked the picture on the channels and then re-checked the signal strength reading. It was all good, so I accepted the cold logic of bearings and tightened the bolts. I did not dismount the roof quickly though.  Instead, I switched off my head torch and  I sat in the cold and dark for a few minutes to absorb the moment and catch a falling star, the type that is rare and moves more slowly across the sky as it burns as a fire ball. Much better than TV.

Things had to be done tonight. I intended to do more marking than I actually got around to, as there were more chores than needed to be done than I expected. The chickens soaked up a lot of time this evening. I have come to realise that chickens are quite low maintenance. Maybe that is why they are so useful an animal? They merely require their food topped up and water in constant clean supply. Originally we kept them in their coop with an extra run attached to stretch their legs. Then we let them out occasionally to be truly free range. However, freedom has its problems; poo. They would poo everywhere and without a care in the world. At least the cats tidy the area of the crime up a little and do it in discreet locations, until you have to plant vegetables or do some weeding. After the chickens made their mark on the territory around our wee cottage, we decided that enough was enough and we put them back in their coop and run combo.

We are not all bad though. As part of their varied diet they like a little grass once in a while, or they like to scratch the turf for grubs. We let them work away at their ‘patch’ for three of four days at a time. Then we move the whole prison and fenced yard along about a foot. This means they get a fresh patch twice a week. I estimate that we can keep moving them along for about thirty five weeks. By that time their original patch should have recovered and have soaked up its topping of manure. Our grass looks like some strange swatch in shades of green with each rectangle a shade greener (or browner) than the last.

Tonight was the weekly complete clean of the coop, and a big move; the beginning of a whole new row of swatch. I took my time, as the sky was clear and the moon was hanging bright in the sky. While I cleaned and moved the chicken’s house they scuttled about the garden in their deranged freedom, drunk with moon light. They ran about, made strange noises at each other, and even had a few brief flights over the low hedges. They are not really pets for us, or livestock; they are items of constant amusement.

Then the cars needed looked at. I decided to check the oil and water levels and such things. I believe it is called marking avoidance, but I am glad I did it. It turns out that the lovely Sharon’s car had no oil in it! She is usually quite good at keeping a check on such things, and I think she is more annoyed with herself than anything else. She muttered something about pregnancy and having a baby, but there is no excuse for poor car maintenance.

Today, on the way home, the nearly full moon hung in a clear azure sky. For a moment it was framed in front of me at the end of a country road lined with bare winter trees. The sun shone dazzlingly bright at me in my wing mirror, and at that exact point the lyrics to a Palwort song rang out, “……a beautiful trace……….. of time and space……”

The Brandy Pad is a popular route through the Mourne Mountains and, as the name suggests, it was the route popular for smuggling in the eighteen hundreds. The story was that it was used to smuggle items from the coast; coffee, tea, silk and …..brandy. It is said that the smugglers would have made their way into the mountains via the Bloody Bridge area, and apparently there is a cave along the coast that was used to bring the contraband to shore. Then they would have used the Brandy Pad to cross the top of the two valleys until, upon reaching the Hare’s Gap, smaller groups would have dispersed in different directions to get out of the mountains and into the surrounding lands. That is just one story, but the path has many.

As you walk along the same path the smugglers used, you walk in beside the mountain of Slieve Donard and then the Mountain of Slieve Commedagh. Slieve Commedagh means the ‘Mountain of Watching’ (although an older local name is Slieve Kivitar). It is believed that in times of war when clans fought and attacked each other for land and cattle, that Slieve Commedagh was the point were people watched for attacks. In these times there is a story about a beautiful girl called Kathleen. Kathleen was in demand as a potential wife and her family had it arranged for her to marry their choice; a man she had never met. Kathleen refused and the family did not take this decision well and banished her to live in a cave on the slopes of Commedagh facing the Annalong Valley. One day she bumped into a fairy at the head of the valley. He was in distress as his coat was torn and, once she discussed it further, discovered he was quite down about it and believed that no fairy woman would ever have him as a husband in his condition. Kathleen promised to help the fairy by repairing his coat. However, she didn’t repair it. She felt so sorry for him that she made a magnificent new coat. The fairy was beyond happy when he discovered his new coat and promised the young Kathleen that he would return the favour one day.

from ‘Peter and His Tales of the Wee People’

A long time later, years maybe, Kathleen bumped into the fairy and his new wife one day by the Blue Lough. Kathleen was now the one in distress, believing she would never marry, and instead become a witch living in a cave. The fairy decided it was time to return the favour and left her to travel to the Glens of Antrim and then Donegal. He returned with a hoard of fairies all carrying hammers and chisels. They transformed her cave on the slopes of Commedagh into a castle of turrets and walls. Kathleen was overjoyed and soon forgot her spinster predicament until some time later when a handsome man returned to the Mournes after spending years away. The castles caught his eye and he discovered Kathleen. The short story is that they fell in love and it even ended up that he was the man her family had chosen for her in the beginning. It is said that they lived out the rest of their days in the Castles of Commedagh, built by the fairies of Ulster.

Standing with your back to the Fairy Castles of Commedagh you can see the glorious Annalong Valley. Looking down the valley the first mountain on your right is Slieve Beg, which means ‘the little mountain’. A gouge runs from the top of this mountain and is known as the Devil’s Coach Road, locals believed that it was from here that the devil would come up from the Underworld to cause havoc amongst us.

Following along the Brandy pad and past Slieve Beg you pass another valley, known as the Silent Valley. Although for this valley there are older names. Before it was turned into the reservoirs that feed Belfast with water, it was known as the Happy Valley and a more ancient name before this, was the Glen Setanta. The same Setanta who became the heroic Cúchulainn. Cúchulainn may have sought solitude in the peace and quiet of the valley for a period of a year after the only defeat of his lifetime by Conrigh. When Conrigh defeated Cúchulainn he tied his hands and feet, then cut off his hair, leaving him unfit to appear in public until his hair grew back.

This map is not for navigational purposes. Seriously! I forgot to name Bernagh and I misnamed two mountains before I reverted to the little arrows to fix them. Also, the solid line is supposed to be the Mourne Wall. Again, NOT FOR NAVIGATIONAL PURPOSES.

On past the valley you come to the end of the Brandy pad at the Hare’s Gap. In Bernard Davey’s Mourne, Davey suggests that it may have taken its name from a local farmer called O’Hare or a smuggler called O’Hare, or both. This leaves the very minor mystery of why it is the Hare’s Gap and not O’Hare’s gap. This missing letter is due to the fact that the gap has an older name; the Mare’s Gap. This name was earned by the gap, not in ancient history but, on the 6th of January 1839. On this day Ireland saw its worst storm in memory. This storm threw a rider and his spirited young mare through the gap to their death. This was only one death amongst many in ‘the night of the big wind’. The destruction of the storm was felt all over Ireland. It is said that on the night of the big wind all the fairies left Ireland and on that night many believed the world was coming to an end. Apparently, when pensions were introduced in Ireland, one of the things used to establish whether someone was eligible, was the details they remembered about the night of the big wind. This was a useful gauge of age, as birth certificates did not exist and many people had no idea of their date of birth.

Heading away from the Mare’s Gap down into the Trassey Valley there is a small path on the left that runs along the side of Slieve Bernagh. This path is somewhat wider than it was a decade or so ago, but if followed, it will take you around to the col between Slieve Bernagh and Slieve Meelmore, a place that some know as the Pollapuca Gap. The word Pollapuca (I have heard it pronounced both as polla-poo-ka and polla-vu-ka) means the place, or hole, of the Púca. The Púca is a type of fairy that is sometimes helpful and sometimes nasty, depending on different parts of Ireland or the Púca’s temperament on any given day. The Púca is a shape shifting fairy who changes into different animals, but always a black animal. A black horse, hare, fox, raven, etc. In November it is probably unwise to eat the fruit of the hedgerows, such as blackberries as they are more likely to be ridden with mould. In older times the wisdom was that on the night of Samhain (Halloween) the Púca would be out and about up to no good and spitting on all the blackberries. Maybe the safest time to bivvy or camp in this area is on Samhain when the Púca is otherwise distracted.

From the Pollapuca Gap you can walk down towards a place in the Mournes that is said to be haunted; Lough Shannagh. A long time ago there was a great hunter called Sheelagh, the daughter of one of the Clan Chiefs. On a hunt in the area around the Mournes she chased a fox. Such was her skill as a rider that she broke away from the rest of the hunt and was able to chase the fox into the high Mournes. The rest of the hunt tried to keep up but she was soon on her own and kept chasing the fox. The mist closed in and the visibility dropped to nothing. The fox ran straight into the lough and the woman followed only to see the fox disappear. The woman tried to find a way out of the lough, only to get deeper and deeper in until she died, with her horse, sinking to the bottom. The rest of the hunt were said to have searched in the mist for many days but never found her. The lough is now known as Lough Shannagh or the ‘Lough of the Fox’. Apparently, when the mist closes in, the woman can be seen haunting the lough; on her horse, chasing the fox into the lough.

This ghost story did not seem to deter one man from Lough Shannagh. Apparently there was once a man, called Dermody, who used the area around the Lough as a sight for making potcheen. He is said to have set up his still in this remote location to keep it hidden from the authorities. It is also said that one day the authorities were onto him and launched a search of the area for the still and its owner. The darkness played a part in this story, as the man pushed his still into the lough and then used it to float himself out onto the lough and where he could not be seen until he took the opportunity to escape.

I am not making this up Sources:

Legendary Stories of Carlingforn Lough District, by Micheal George Crawford

The Ring of Mourne, by W. Haughton Crowe

Peter and His Tales of the Wee People, by Sam Girvan

The Night of the Big Wind, by Peter Carr

re-posted on NI-Wild

It is I who puts the little man to bed most nights.  I bath him, although not every night, feed him and then wind/cuddle him for a while before putting him into bed.  He will then spend a little time chatting to his whirly mobile while it flickers through strange colours.

It is said that at this time of development we should be reading to him and talking to him as much as possible.  I think this is possibly true of all stages of development with the exception of maybe the teenage phase and up.

So, I have been reading to him.  However, as he does not really understand anything at the moment, I do not see the point of reading him stories about hungry caterpillars or the cats that get lost.  So, tonight I read to him as I intend to for a while.  Tonight we learnt about how to cook hazelnuts in stone age fires.  We learnt about the vast array of plants used and found around our ancestors fireside, and we learnt about how lesser celandrine was used as either a food or a cure for piles.  No Meg and Mog tonight, just “to the Islands” a twenty-five-year quest to uncover the world of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in the Hebridean islands.

It has been a while since I have stepped foot on the hills as the lovely Sharon and I have only just brought a new little soul into this world, although it feels like it is he who made us his servants and facilitators.  It means we have found his life taking up our time and concentration.  This is not a complaint, quite the opposite is true.

However, when a friend wanted another person to head into the hills I decided to dust off my boots and see if a few months of absence and baby brain syndrome had effected my hill skills.  So tonight I decided to break myself back into the hills gently; by heading into the Antrim hills bogs….at night…..in winter.

My friend is planning on doing his Mountain Leader Assessment this year and he wanted to brush up his micro navigation in preparation.  As I have very little experience in the Antrim Hills I jumped at the chance.  This is an area that I always seemed to turn my nose up at. The lovely Sharon has a lot of experience in this area and she always got quite annoyed when I directed our adventures in the Mournes direction.  My reasoning was that they were not as boggy as Antrim and the Mournes were ……. The Mournes (what other reasoning is needed).  Since then, I have become more and more interested in the Antrim Hills (I shall never admit this to her) and I want to get to know them better.  There seems to be a richer history and folklore to the hills (that is recorded at least) and they are closer to us than the Mournes.

The sun had gone down and we parked in snow.  We walked along a track that was covered in snow but still had the lines of quads and sheep.  Then we began our trek onto the hillside.  The point of this night was pacings, bearings and timings.  The point was to know our exact location on a moor that seemed featureless. The few features that did exist were fences.  On the matter of fences I had my preconceived ideas of the Antrim Hills confirmed; twice.  My experience, in the past, was that on the 1:50000 map of the hills; fences existed when they were not on the map and fences on the map were not on the ground.  Now that this was my first experience of the 1:25000 map of this area my expectations were high.  But, I have to say; fences existed when they were not on the map and fences on the map were not on the ground.

We concentrated hard as we counted pacing and repeatedly took bearings and tried to keep accurate lines.  The snow was thick under foot and the bog was frozen.  The visibility was awful and the rain kept falling in a constant drizzle.  I got to use a present that Santa got me; a new pair of gloves.  At first I felt too warm for gloves but then the exposure got to me a little and I was glad that they performed as expected.

Navigating at night is a skill that should be practiced and experienced by all hill walkers.  The main reason is to overcome the fear.  I remember my first experience of night navigation and it stays with me.  It was many years ago on an education and library board course.  We were wild camping and were taken onto the mountains to navigate around in the darkness.  I remember thinking how wrong it felt to be on the top of a mountain in the dark as the rain fell and the wind whipped around.  The moor looked menacing in all directions and the feeling of being lost was overwhelming.  I try to remember this first experience when I am out with people.  Although tonight I was with a friend as experienced as me in the darkness. Tonight we focussed on comparing our pacing and bearings.  In the moments in-between, in the cold darkness, we chatted about joys of fatherhood as our sons were born just a day apart.

Two observations about the night stand out in my mind.  One was the rapid thaw we observed.  When we headed out onto the hillside the ground was crisp and frozen, as we headed down the ground was slush and our footprints, from the ascent, walked through little streams and bog that we remembered as solid ground.  The other observation was a result of the snow.  I observed tracks everywhere and tracks that I have only seen a little of in the Mournes snow; Hares.  Seriously, how many Hares live in the Antrim Hills?

reposted on niwild

An interesting little publishing company is two ravens press.  They claim to be the most remote of the UKs book publishing companies.  They work out of a croft on the edge of what it is to live wild.  Their books are wonderful items of poetry and wonder.

A wilder vein is the book that first alerted me to their presecnce and it still stands as one of the most wonderful books that I have ever read.

Steven Mithen is an author they have just published (to the Islands: a twenty-five-year quest to uncover the world of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in the Hebridean islands).  He has written a couple of books that I have found fascinating but the latest one is a delight to read.  It is interesting, informative and personal enough to be captivating.  I am only a small fraction into it but I hope it keeps me interested throughout.


Light pollution annoys me on several levels.  The energy wasted is one, but the bigger one is the masking of the moon and stars.  We all miss the patterns in the sky and the comforting travelling they slowly make day and night.  About a quarter of a mile away there is a house that permanently seems to have a million billion watt flood light on.  I am unsure of its purpose.  Maybe they believe that it gives them some sort of security?  Or maybe they have some pets/livestock that are afraid of the dark?

The image above is a spectacular picture taken from the ISS.  Pollution or not, it is amazing.  You can pick out towns and villages and the arteries that connect them.  And I think I can see my neighbour’s yard?

Clear communication is essential in a marriage and tonight was a case in point.  This evening, before dinner, we were both at home together but we were worlds apart.  The lovely Sharon was sitting in front of the cosy wood stove and I was on the apex of the roof of the house in the cold and rain.  Two way radios saved the day.  The wind had blown our satellite dish a little off course again.  And so I found myself with head torch on and hands freezing as I muttered into the radio, “what about now?”.  In such dark and wet conditions I did not risk standing on the roof but instead sat on the roof ridge and poked the dish with a long brush shaft.  I hope the locals saw me and assume I am barmy, eccentric and to be feared.  Wait till I get the Bees!

I  am not a stranger to crawling out of velux windows onto the roof as I had the privilage of doing similar jobs for my parents when I was a teenager.  I was the lightest and so the most sensible choice but my parents hated it.  With a little life of my own to look out for now, I can see why they fretted.

Later on I enjoyed more aspects of domestic life as I nursed the little man to sleep after his dinner. I stood at the window of the bedroom and looked out at the Polaris and the Bear.  Shooting stars streaked across the sky as the little man began to snore and curl into a little ball in my arms.  I rocked him and hummed a little out of tune.  I could not imagine the moment becoming any more perfect until he brought me back to reality and shared how contented he was by making little noises that babies tend to make from their bottoms.

It’s an old story but it is fun to remember it:


A couple of months ago I sat down to watch an episode of James May’s Man Lab. I was initially impressed with the bit about the three pin plug. I used to teach how to wire a plug as part of the GCSE Physics course before it seemed to slip away. Soon it may become part of the mysteries of electrical items that can only be worked at by magicians (read electricians) and wizards (read engineers). Then I began to become sceptical of James’ program as it became sensational with the instructions on how to diffuse a World War II bomb. What are the chances? Then I reminded myself, the chances may not be as remote as you would think.

About a year and a half ago I was supervising a couple of groups of young people walking and camping in the Mourne Mountains. It was a reasonably nice day after a previously bitterly cold day and a very wet rainy night. The campers/hikers seemed to be in fairly high spirits and sat down to take a break and drink in the view of the mountains. I was shuffling between groups that were spaced a bit apart in an attempt to encourage a little independent navigation. The dangers were groups moving off in the wrong direction too quickly for me to catch up and herd them back. To prevent this, another instructor moved parallel to us to catch them if they slipped down the valley. As I made my way back towards the group that were relaxing, and I had my nerves tested as my heart skipped a beat at two grouse that exploded a couple of feet away from me. I stopped and watched them arch away as the adrenaline peaked and then subsided. I carried on. Only a couple of paces away from the relaxing group one of them turned to me and held forward a two foot long World War II artillery shell and casually enquired, “Sir, what’s this?” Several thoughts ran through my head. One was that I might not live long enough to think the next thought. And the next thought was to thank God that I had made it as far as the second thought. At this stage I calmly asked the pupil to gently put the item in question down. I remember being most concerned with ensuring I did not alarm him and cause him to drop it. Then I, in my most authoritative voice, commanded everybody to get up and move away as quickly and gently as possible. This prompted the most comic of scenarios that may be typical of the Northern Irish attitude to life. They were tired and exhausted from long walks, little sleep and overly heavy backpacks. They just sat around and moaned, “What? Do we have to?” I assured them that they had to.

After moving a safe distance away I radioed the other instructor in full knowledge of his reaction. He is a man who has roamed the Mournes for several decades. His knowledge of the mountains and his experience I can only hope to come close to. He was the one who told me all about the shrapnel that can be found in the Mournes and his stories and anecdotes have become my own to share with groups, the same stories told with enthusiasm year after year. One of his life’s ambitions was to find a complete artillery shell in the Mountains and not just the pieces of rusted twisted metal left behind. Artillery shell finds have been rare occurrences that have gone down in whispered legends in the hills. Someone knows someone, who knows someone, who found one many years ago. One legend says that a bar at the foot of the Mournes had one sitting behind the bar, on a shelf, for years before someone thought it might not meet health and safety regulations. I radioed over to him and his reaction was expected, I had never seen him cross a valley so fast.

The story is that, during the Second World War, the American Navy used to sit off the coast in the Irish Sea and use the Mourne Mountains as target practice to sharpen their aim with long range artillery. Specifically aiming their long guns at Slieve Lamagan. If you walk around the base of this mountain on the side that faces the seaward direction you can spot small bits of rusted iron that were once the casings of the artillery pieces. Occasionally I have found larger pieces that retain the shape of the shell, pieces as much as a kilogram in weight. In Bernard Davey’s book about the Mournes he tells of how Slieve Lamagan’s bare rocks are partially due to the shelling by the American ships.

Slieve Lamagan’s bare rocks (far left)

As we stood and looked at the bomb (we took it in turns for fear of leaving the two groups without any instructor), we knew that it would be impossible to find again without an accurate location. The other instructor had his GPS with him, a device that we both never enjoyed using as much as the art of map and compass. We dusted it off and powered it up to mark a waypoint, but my trust in the technology was lacking. I did not see why I should not take the opportunity to take three sightings off nearby mountain peaks widely spaced apart.

My wife had spent the same weekend a few miles away supervising other groups in the Mournes and later on, we got all the pupils on buses and on their way safely home. Then we made our way to the police station to show them the picture of the bomb. An hour and a half, and lots of phone calls later, my wife and I were ready to head back into the hills, this time with a police escort. We rode in their land rover as close as we could get and then began the hours of trekking to the old unexploded shell. When we got near, everyone but me sat down for a rest and a chat. I headed off with a GPS and a compass feeling very under pressure to find a rust coloured object on a vast rust coloured moor.

As I tried to relocate the explosive needle in a haystack I began to be glad that I took those bearings off the peaks when the GPS started to take me into an area away from what looked right. Again the pressure was mounting. I switched it off and put it in my pocket, it was time to go old school. Time to trust geometry and the ancient device that can be relied upon. I began to triangulate the bearings. After another 20 minutes it began to feel right, I recognised this. Then it began to feel wrong again and I thought of how embarrassing it would be to not be able to find it. All I had left was to find the point where the bearings crossed. I stopped at that point and put my bag down, it did not look right. I checked the bearings again, to me, it still did not look right. I turned slowly and scanned the ground; there was the bomb 15 meters away.

I waved my arms to draw them over. They were not even watching, just chatting and relaxing. Another minute of arm waving and someone saw me and they began to head towards me. I had time to see what the GPS said; it marked it to be 200 meters away. Apparently you need 5 or 6 satellite connections to get good accuracy and I don’t think we had left it switched on long enough when we marked the spot.

It was shortly after that I had one of those surreal moments that sticks in the mind. We still had to get down off the mountains, we still had to get home and do our weekly Tesco shopping. The sun was blazing low and a cold wind had blown the clouds from the sky to leave a clear deep blue. My wife and I stood in the middle of the mountain, with the police beside us, around a bomb and I casually said, “Who’s going to kick it first?” To my disappointment, no-one laughed.

I return to school tomorrow and my internal clock will have to return to very early starts (as opposed to early starts) and the timing of bells.  Today we intended to take a long walk with the little man but that all changed into a long day driving around Northern Ireland to get application forms signed and handed in.  The lovely Sharon and I are trying to become expedition assessors and get on a course.  Unfortunately we each operate under education boards that are miles and miles apart.  Once we drove around and got all our paperwork signed and sorted we had to get some passport photos before handing all the documentation in.  The really interesting thing is how friendly and relaxed all our visits to the respective HQ offices were.  Twice I thought the people were on the edge of asking us if we wanted to grab a cup of tea and a natter.  But, we had to keep moving as things needed to be done and we had places to get to.

This evening I sat down and did some online shopping.  I put together a list of all I needed to populate the bee hives and handle them safely.  All the things I need, apart from the bees.  The bees will have to wait until I meet the local bee keepers and get my hands (gloved hands) on some local bees.  I have enrolled on their annual beekeeping course and it will begin in a few weeks.  This is where I meet the local apiarists and hopefully convince them that I can be trusted in the second oldest profession in the world.  Or, alternatively, I find out that I am allergic to bees and I have some hives and equipment for sale.

Last night the Lovely Sharon lost her mouse.  She was showing me a selection of high chairs for the little man.  She had whittled down a short list from various websites and as the selection was being reviewed, she lost her cursor on screen.  Irritating minutes passed as she franticly wiggled her finger on the laptop touchpad and she kept saying, “where is it? Where has it gone?  Aaagggghhhhh!”  Then I glanced down to her hand, to see it doing a dance on the laptop’s plastic case a couple of inches away from the touch pad.  I could not contain my laughs, although I did use them to distract her gaze away from my hand, hiding the wine bottle.  To be fair, she had only consumed one glass of wine.  However, it appears that from over a year of abstinence, one glass is simply too much.