I kept reading about taking a micro adventure and had little chance to do it. The chance arrived. After a long day in the hills I looked at the tent in the boot of the car, then at the rain-less sky, then at the tent, then at the sky. I closed the boot. With rucksack hefted on my back and my walking stick in hand, I headed away from the campsite and away from the tent. As I left, an unknown camper spotted me heading off at a strange hour and waved, “Have a good adventure.”

Down the road, past the river. Through the hazel coppice, into the forest. I paused at the usual spot; the three thousand five hundred year old burial mound. Could I share the forest tonight? I sometimes imagine what this man’s life must have been like. In my mind he begins as a warrior hero figure reinforced by movie tropes. Then I settled upon the reality that he was probably just like everybody else. The same desires, fears and anxieties. The same need to find purpose and shepherd our children; prepare them in any way we can and hope that they are the best of us. I have visited this mound often and sometimes imagine the ghost of this man coming back for a chat. Think of the wonders I could tell him; what we have created and achieved. Although, if he asked how we have looked after the earth since he left it a few thousand years ago I might have to change the subject as quickly and subtly as possible.

Earlier I had chosen a spot to sleep. The land rose away from the path and into the dark forest before dropping a little, plateauing for a few meters, and then plunging down steeply into the river below. I found a flat area and made a mental note of a characteristic tree on the path, one that I could find again when I returned in the evening.

When I did return and find the characteristic tree I walked into the forest and found something I did not spot on my initial recce. A plastic spike with an insect trap and a pit-fall trap below it. Someone must be sampling insects and wanted it not to be found. Yet they wrestled with the dilemma of not being able to find it themselves. So, they placed it on the plateau just beyond the high point in line with the characteristic tree! We all think the same way; me, the mystery naturalist and all of us. We all follow the patterns of thought in our heads.

The gas stove was fired up while I cleared a patch of forest floor for my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. A bivvy bag is essentially a rain coat for a sleeping bag. Not a complete waterproof barrier, but enough to survive a little rain if it arrived. Once the cup of tea was ready I settled down with a good book.


Quite a while later the darkness was slowly pouring in and I decided to try and let the tide of sleep take me into the night. Midge flies bit as I texted the lovely Sharon my eight figure grid reference just in case I was devoured by earwigs and millipedes and she had to try and find my body. Days later I found only one small deer tick feeding from my arm; a small price to pay for a micro adventure.


I woke up a few times. I woke to note that the farmer across the small valley had finally stopped lifting the hay at 1 A.M. On one occasion I woke to fight the irrational urge to flick on my head torch and look behind me and check if nothing sinister was in the forest. The logic in my head was that there could be nothing worse than a fox or a badger who was more afraid of me than I was of them. The other logical path was that if it was a scary man-eating forest monster from the depths of hell, it was not going to be put off by my head torch, so I should just stay still and try to go to sleep anyway.

The rain began at 6 A.M. If I had been in a tent, the sound of rain would have forced me deeper into my sleeping bag and further from embracing the reality of the world outside. The opposite was true in a bivvy bag so close to the morning. Get up, get a pot of coffee on the gas cooker, get warmed up and get on with the day and next adventure.

During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.



It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.

Many moons ago, actually only two moons ago, I found myself wandering in the mountains with a friend. We headed up to the summit of a small mountain under a full moon. The light was so bright that we crossed streams and moorland without our head torches. It was clear to us, but not quite as clear as day, why the full moon was used by our ancestors for hunting trips. Our overconfidence with the area meant we just glanced at the map briefly before burying it in a rucksack. It is fair to say that we knew our way with a vivid mental map, but we didn’t know how far. I think all our mental maps are too short. Maybe they are warped by the speed of our cars, or maybe they will always be warped if walked under the steel grey of moonlight. The mountain was clearly just in front of us, yet we walked on and on.

We found the summit at the end of what felt like a mythical journey. The top of this mountain flattened out into three small pools of water, three strange moon pools. On the edge of the flattened area we quickly got the bivvy bags out, and every piece of clothing we brought to keep out the cold. We spoke the usual fine nonsense and stories that feel like they should be spoken around a peaty fire on a dark night, yet the full moon and stars seemed an equally fitting setting.

I didn’t make any sort of conscious decision to note where the moon was in the sky. I just remember walking up and turning my head to see the moon in a different place completely. Then I remember visualising the arc of the moon and it’s path nearly unconsciously, and thinking; a couple of hours until dawn. Then I smiled and went back to sleep.


summit sunrise – summit bivvy

For years now I have tried to know the moon and stars. These things can be read in books, but it’s not enough; they have to be lived. The seasons have to mean something and must be felt again and again before it sinks in and becomes part of us.  For years I was out of touch with the seasons and I simply drifted through them from a distance; sheltered behind the modern world and my ignorance.

This morning I caught the moon slipping behind the hills and red tinted sleet filled winter clouds. This full moon was waning; the Celtic dark moon. It’s appropriate. This time of year feels like the adjustment time, when the daylight feels chased and slips away into the colder nights.

The darkness brings with us and unexpected change that, if I had thought about it, I should have seen coming. When we first started keeping hens they were the hybrid variety specifically bred to keep laying constantly; an egg every twenty five hours without end. They did slow down a bit in the mid winter, but it never felt like we had anything but an abundance of eggs. Now our hens are all more traditional breeds who are more in tune with the light, and the lack of it. With no light there are no eggs. With eight hens we now only get one egg a day, maybe two, and I suspect they come from the same one or two hens. No surplus is sold for our occasional meal out with the precious ‘chicken money’. Instead, the eggs are carefully collected with thoughts of specific jobs already beckoning; pancakes, boiled eggs with toast, and french bread. Maybe a cheesecake if we save up for it. This is an unexpected joy. Like the following of  the moon, we are living in the seasons and we look forward to Easter. The Easter bunny doesn’t bring the eggs, the sunlight does.

I arrived just after midday. I wasn’t expected until later but events caused me to wander into the mountains early. After finding my mountain legs while I hiked up to the Hare’s Gap I then sat down to eat lunch. Later that day I was due to let another leader go home, but I thought I might try and spot the groups as they passed along the Brandy Pad. My eyes strained to try and pick them out, but all I could spot were walkers on the path, no groups.


After a quick lunch I decided to try and make contact with the other leaders, as I had no radio and my mobile signal was zero, I decided to head up the nearest mountain for a signal. As I plodded slowly up I pondered how it is not unusual for groups to be this slow. I learned a lesson when I contacted one of the other leaders; the groups were long gone and on the way to camp. I had sat and watched a path already trodden.

Later that day I was walking a path with two other leaders, one of which I had convinced to bivvy out. We had my tent on my back and I used it to convince him that it was a good idea. I told him that if it rains too much we could simply crawl into the tent and hide from the elements. This settled his mind as the forecast was questionable. As we headed along the path we kept an eye out for a decent campsite not too far from the groups. I had my eye on the peaks. As one leader departed towards the groups my fellow camper and I decided that a summit was best. On the summit both phone and radio signal would be good. These were just excuses, it was the eve of the longest day and the weather was fine, what better place to sleep than on top of a mountain.

As we head up the mountain me fellow traveller commented on my walking stick and admitted his jealously. I have had a walking stick for years. I often carried a cheap modern walking stick strapped to my pack. I used it for steep ascents and as a standby for injured ankles. I always loved to walk with these sticks but hated the feel of them. Then, a couple of months ago, I found myself sitting in a hazel coppice waiting for a group. I took a look around and found a piece of hazel lying on the ground. It had the look of being cut down that winter and forgotten about. As I waited I had just enough time to cut and trim it to staff size and it has been with me ever since. They say that a hazel stick is bewitched and inspires poetry in the walker. I can believe a slither of this idea. Walking with any stick inspires something. It adds a rhythm to the walk, a tempo. More importantly, if the size is right, it urges you to stop and lean on the stick holding it just under the chin. With the stick I find myself stopping and listening more, smelling, lingering, and soaking up the poetry. When we arrived at the summit the first thing I did was to plunge the hazel stick into the ground.


The second thing we did was to set up the refuge of the tent. In reverse order of importance, the third thing was the  cooker being set up next to brew up some coffee. We sat for a long time and watched the view around us change. The mist rolled into the valleys and the clouds slowly thickened above us. As the light faded we choose our bed spaces. On the summit of a mountain there are always some hollows and comfortable looking places. I avoided these places. If they look good to me they look good to sheep. If they look good to sheep then they look good to ticks; ticks which crawl all over sheep and man alike and feast on their blood. I settled on a flat area which looked not too comfortable, and not too rocky and unkind to my back.

You would think that coffee and dark chocolate would be a recipe for little sleep, but after walking all over the mountains all day the caffeine has little effect. I slipped into sleep with the mountains as a fantastic silhouette around me. As we began to slip into sleep we wondered if we were the highest beds in Northern Ireland. This was likely as the higher points were in front of us and could be counted on our hand. Were we the highest in all of Ireland; possibly? The wind and the light rain sent me to sleep. Previously I have only told a few people this; When I find it difficult to sleep and my mind is racing, I imagine that I am not in my comfortable warm bed. I imagine that I am curled up under a rock on the side of a mountain, or in a ditch, or on some mossy forest floor. It’s not right, but it sends me to sleep.


I woke around 4 am. I did not have a watch, but I knew it was the solstice so it must be around four when the light pulled me back into the world. I looked around and noticed an absence. I noticed the absence of my fellow sleeper who should have been in a bright orange plastic bag only feet away. Either he had retreated into the tent or rolled over and slipped off the mountain, sliding over the slick wet moor in his bivvy bag. I assured myself that I would have been woken by the screams and that to shout over to the tent to confirm his presence would have been rude. I pulled my hat over my eyes and let myself slip back into sleep as the rain fell again on my face and the wind whistled around. There was no sunset over still air, there was no soul filling moment of spiritual fulfilment. There was just me lying sleeping on a mountain with my hazel stick beside me and a packet of bacon waiting to be cooked for breakfast on the longest day of the year. Perfect.

Sometimes as I drive around the area near to where we live, I drive under the shadow of an ancient grave.  On the summit of a dominant hill is the faded outline of a burial mound.  Unexcavated and uninspected, it exists only as a mound with a collapsed centre, hinting at a folded in chamber from long ago.

I wonder who, or what, was placed in this place.  Bones?  Ashes?  It is thought that these places were used for special burials of people of social standing.  The mound on this hill is big enough to require a lot of work to build.  Maybe dedicated workers, or a clan for their leader, or slaves.

Every time I look at this particular mound looming large on the skyline, I can’t help but think of an old story I once read.  It was set in the strange world of Iceland and involved a horrific witch.  A witch that plagued the villagers so much that when she eventually gave up her body the locals took precautions.  They placed her corpse under a cairn on the highest mountain.  They put her there, not to be close to the heavens, but to be as far away from the people as was possible, fearing that some dreadful part of her wicked spirit might not have fully left her body.  And if any wayward traveller found themselves walking over this high point, they had to carry out a task. It became a tradition to place an extra rock on the cairn, a little extra weight to help hold down the witch.

Whatever is resting up there on the hill it has changed in the last few weeks.  I don’t know the exact moment it happened, but it was a shock when I noticed it.  The silhouette that I was used to had changed.  For the last few thousand years it has slowly been worn around the edges, yet still maintained it’s profile.  Now it has a small transmitter tower stabbed into its summit.  It is an ugliness that no longer draws my eye to it, no longer stirs my imagination.  It looks like it is a cluster of microwave transceivers, the sentinel for our mobile phones.  So what is it?  Is it a highly regarded chief watching over us?  Is it our master, and we the poor slaves?  Or is it evil like the witch?  Are we brave enough to all add a small rock to it and all work together to bury it?

At the weekend I ventured out into the mountains.  It was a very late expedition, chasing the daylight with only a few weeks until expeditions are closed down for the winter.  The weather was perfect for walking, cool clear air and magnificent blue sky landscapes.  The autumn darkness seemed to arrive very quickly and coldly.  The chill was softened by amazing star-scape, the familiar constellations in their bold crystalline  glory.

The cold nights have made me more inclined to curl up with a good book.  I have a pile of ‘to read’, but I find my self digging out the same books to read again and again.  These are the books I love.  This is my book list..

the wild places by robert macfarlane

findings by kathleen jamie

a year’s turning by michael viney

winterdance by gary paulsen

wild by jay griffiths

the old ways by robert macfarlane

pip pip by jay griffiths

sightlines by kathleen jamie

There is Bear Grylls, and then there is something a little more realistic…….

Les Stroud is back with a new series in August.

About a week ago I looked at the calendar and realised that I would be at the cottage in the Mournes close to the full moon. Such a syzygy between the moon, the cottage and me is usually deliberate, but this time it was purely coincidence. At lunch time on Friday I tried to herd the pupils into the minibus to head to the mountains. There are usually a few pupils who are the sort that are busy. The sort that are quite well organised but seem constantly preoccupied because they are doing so much, doing so many worthy things. There are usually one or to of these types, but somehow most of the pupils were like this. They all seemed to have meetings to attend and I found myself having to be patient and wait on them without being able to be justifiably angry with them.

Eventually we piled into the bus and headed for the mountains. A few hours later they unfolded from the cramped minibus and loaded themselves with their backpacks before heading up into the heart of the Mourne Mountains. Their task was to arrive at the cottage before dark and they achieved it with time to spare.

The evening was spent sitting around the old cottage fire and route planning by candle light before trying to get some sleep before the cold night set in. For a couple of brief moments between laughter around the fire I spotted the nearly full moon through the cottage window. We tried to read a few ghost stories but we totally failed to take ourselves seriously and stories were started but quickly ended in laughter.

Saturday found us all awake very early. At half eight we had our feet on the hills and heading up into the Annalong Valley. Our route stretched the legs and gave the students a chance to remind themselves what hiking and camping involved, a change to enjoy the wild country and the air.

It’s nearly a full moon and it’s very late when a friend from work and I arrive at the cottage.  The steep walk into the hills warms us as we chat.  I suggest that we can switch off our head-torches as the moon is bright enough. Then, as if scripted, my foot slips on a rock and I stumble to recover my footing.

The fire is lit as a matter of priority as the old stone walls are icy cold and ready to suck the heat into themselves.  After the fire has picked itself up, we have settled ourselves down for an evening of sipping wine and talking nonsense.  When he is back in the civilised world of electricity and DVDs, my friend is working his way through box sets of Supernatural.  It has not escaped us both that our situation, remote and on the edge of nowhere, is the perfect setting for such horror stories.  I tell him the story of the big cats that were spotted in the neighbouring valley.  How they might have been caught on camera and how they were constantly being rumoured about among the farmers until the day two separate sightings were reported by hikers.  These sightings prompted the police to have a look about the area, but the monster cats could not be found. The chance of a puma attack is unlikely and irrational, with this in mind the glow of the full moon on the moor outside still sends our minds thinking of things such monsters and of werewolves.  We laugh, but of course, such laughter and over confidence is exactly the setting for the attacks in horror stories.  Eventually the witching hour passes, then another hour or two, before we load the final shovel of coal on the fire and let it warm us as we drift off to sleep.

annalong valley in winter sunlight

Amongst days of rain, wind and storms, we wake to find a rare clear blue sky.  Our route for the day takes us in a large circle around a big valley in the Mourne Mountains.  The highlight, half way through the route, is a scramble up a gully called the Devil’s Coachroad.  It is a scramble over scree until it takes us to the dizzy summit.  The sky stayed clear and the air stayed still and cool for the whole walk.  It was a refreshing first walk in the hills for the New Year; which has forced me to include extra resolutions to my list:

  • To spend more time looking at the world around me; try to let my soul soak it up.
  • To make more opportunities to find myself scrambling to the tops of mountains: out of breath with hands full of crumbling granite and sweat.
  • To spend more time with friends by the fireside; talking about anything and everything deep into the night.

 the devil’s coachroad – the gully through the middle of Slieve Beg

in the devil’s coachroad

the annalong valley as the sun hangs low

Binnian, Lamagan, Cove and Beg

a slow stream as the sun sets

the cottage behind us during the descent

We did not bump into old Nic on his road.  We did not get attacked by big cats or the werewolves of the Mournes.  When we eventually found ourselves heading down the hill with the cottage to our backs, the full moon (January’s Wolf Moon in the Medieval Calender) made another visit to us as it began to rise with a warming deep orange colour.  It was difficult, but we resisted the temptation to begin to howl.

wolf moon rising

The stars are falling.  The sky is falling.  These October nights are dark and shiny.  This may also be the time of year to find the remains of fallen stars; to find pwdre ser (poo of the stars).  The clear (ish) jelly can be found seemingly randomly dropped from the sky.  Many years ago they believed it was the remains of stars that fell to earth.  The current thinking is that it is probably the packing material in a frog’s ovary that comes into contact with the stomach fluids within a raven or a heron.  This does not sound as romantic, or as poetic, but think how this is just a theory.  Think how this is an unproven hypothesis.  How can it be that in our era of science that we do not know for certain if it is true.

If you stumble upon some ‘star jelly’ on your autumn wanderings then pleaseadd a comment to this post and include your email address as there is a TV production company (Tigress Productions) in hot pursuit of some hard (of soft jelly) evidence.

It wasn’t really a week as Monday was a bank holiday spent investigating forests with the lovely Sharon and the little man who took the form of a very animated rucksack that kept going “baa badaa badaa badaa”, and “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.


Tuesday morning found me standing watching the island of Ailsa Craig forming in the mist with the smell of sea and diesel fumes around me and the percussion of an Irish ferry below my feet.  A minibus was packed to the gills and we all headed for the Cumbrian Mountains in anticipation and apprehension of the expedition to come.


The first day of the expedition found the groups weary and slow on their feet.  At this point I began to worry that their route selection did not meet their fitness.  The instructor and I wandered by the paths to meet the groups and, once I discovered that he was a wilderness survival expert, I bombarded him with questions; “what’s this?” “and this?”  “can I eat this?”  We nibbled sorrel that still had the remnant of its spring apple skin flavour and he taught me how to taste the leaf tentatively in case I might make the deadly mistake of picking the leaf of a lords and ladies.


In the evening the sky was clear and I found a lonely student bivvying beside, instead of inside, his tent.  Soon we were joined by the whole group and, when they should have been tired, they were learning to spot the big dipper, the pole star, Pleiades and the moons of Jupiter (with the help of my binoculars).  The questions slowly turned from science, to religion, to philosophy and then back to the stars again.  With all our heads swollen with difficult thoughts I drifted off down the path to my tent.  I crawled into my bag and zipped up the tent before I realised my stupidity.  Why spend the night under canvas when I could stare at the stars until sleep took hold.  I lay with my head outside and watched some shooting stars and a few satellites as the sky turned.  Eventually I fell asleep with a chilled face, then woke and retreated into my shell a few hours after that.


On the second day the groups seemed to find their mountain legs and speeded up a little. Near the end of the day, before leaving the group for a wild camp in a remote valley, the instructor encouraged me to join him in a run down the mountain.  In fairness, it took little encouragement.  With a steep gradient of a bracken coated valley below us I needed very little in the way of coercion.  We ran, and I was reminded of the joy and fear of running in the mountains.  A certain momentum is achieved and it felt like a kind of surfing of gravity and earth.  As it was over a year since I had done any kind of running in the mountains there was a price to pay.  The next day the pain began, and increased on the next, and the next, and the next.  For days I walked normally uphill and on the flat, but hobbled like a cripple on even the most gentle of downhill gradients.  Stairs required a steady grip on the hand rail and a measure of decorum to maintain a straight face.


The groups carried on their epic journey.  I am not being flippant when I say that the expedition will have been the hardest thing they have ever done and will probably remain so for some time.  On the third day they excelled themselves in terms of endurance and they encountered horrible grim weather in the morning and still summer sunshine in the evening.


On the final day we made them take the shorter foul weather route due to gusts coming from a risky direction.  The groups did not get upset but instead whooped with joy at a few tiny kilometres being sliced off the total.


Just after lunch they arrived at the end.  Exhausted, battle weary and in bits and pieces.  They threw off their packs as they were curses and collapsed in the sunshine.  In the morning they had dismal weather and they took on the appearance of drowned rats.


The next day I once again found myself on the Irish ferry passing Ailsa Craig.  This time we were all tired and looking forward to home and civilisation.  When we docked, we all shuffled down into the hull to fill the minibus for the final leg home.  The door slid open and everybody drew back.  It is hard to describe the smell of a minibus occupied by damp and dirty rucksacks and boots, and previously occupied with sixteen people for a very long journey.  All I can say is that we all made a shocked noise in unison that we all understood without the need for any kind of language.


I poured myself through the front door on Sunday evening and the lovely Sharon fed me stew that my father had made and I had just enough time to hold, feed, and put to bed, the little man.  The week had been a busy one and a difficult one.  Not the walking, the camping, or the sleeping on a one inch thick mattress that seemed to float on a bed of mud.  No, the hard part was being away from home and missing the little man and I told him this as he fell asleep and muttered “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.

They call it the great wind down, the last weeks of school term. This may have been true years ago but it exists only as a thing of the past now. The shift in my attention now moves away from my classes as they dwindle away and on to the massive puzzle that is the school timetable. In the middle of scheduling classes and playing with single and double periods, the electronic reporting also seems to eat away at huge chunks of my time.

Amid all these things little pockets of tranquillity appear as I head into the mountains with groups doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It is these random and amazing days that make it very difficult for me to convince the lovely Sharon how busy I really am.

the annalong valley today

It has been a while since I have found myself in the hills but I did make it into my favourite valley for a day, a night and a day.  I headed into the mountains via the ‘tourist route’ to the col of Slieve Donard.  I was mostly on my own for the start of the trek through the forest and by the river, until I caught up with the walkers just past the trees.

the forest path

I looked out of place with my full pack among the day trippers in jeans and trainers.  Breaking away from the crowds and over the Mourne wall found me on the brandy pad where I was thankfully on my own for a while.  The familiar Annalong valley looked a little different than normal.  The east side of it was lush green, as it should be this time of year but the west side was a dark burnt.  The meandering river marked the point where the recent gorse fires burnt to and did not cross.

the normal left and the burnt right

I made my way to a high point half way along the brandy pad where I stopped and put on all my layers in preparation for a long wait.  From this position I watched the rain fronts come in from the west.  They moved quickly and brought cold air and hail.  When the fronts moved in I stood up and sealed myself in waterproofs with only a thin window to view out.  Between fronts the sun shone and I lay back and dug out a book to relax with.  After over and hour I spied the two small groups appear at the gap at the other side of the next valley.  They were moving slowly after a long walk up valleys and over a couple of mountains.  I stood for a long time (another hour and a half) on top of a small cairn and was reminded of the inuksuk; piles of stones shaped as the outline of man that are placed on the edges of ridges and mountains by the inuit.  They are said to be used to aid hunting but I remember reading that Farley Mowat asked what their true purpose was; that they do the job of man.  Mowat thought this was vague and all encompassing, but when he was alone and hundreds of miles from another human he discovered what was meant by this definition.  The inuksuk are a comfort when they are spied on the horizon.  They are a symbol that man has been here and you are not truly alone.  Part of me hoped that I was a sort of inuksuk for the groups to spur them on towards me and closer to their camp, rest and food.  In reality they probably wondered why the idiot on the horizon was just standing there.

the view from the cairn

After what seemed like another period of forever, they eventually arrived as we spied a lonely figure also on the path.  Moving much faster that the groups was their instructor.  I wondered if he was also enthused by my presence.  Not by me as such, but by the meal of (very heavy) fresh chilli con carne I had brought with me and a tent.

When we eventually set up camp it was on burnt ground where the grass had begun to recover through.  I have heard that the fires have damaged wildlife here including the lizards that live in this valley.  I have only ever seen a lizard three times in Ireland and every time has been in this valley.  The hundreds of empty, exposed and burnt rabbit holes are a sad sign of the devastation here.

the camp on burnt peat

Over a pot of hot chilli we closed ourselves in the tent as rain, hail and thunder briefly rolled over.  The weather did settle down to gentle breeze and a cloudy sky.  No stars came out and Meg the dog curled up at the open entrance of the tent and made sure no hungry foxes visited to steal left over chilli.

a titanium cafetiere is the only proper start to a mountain day


This image taken only yesterday is a frightening one.  It also reminds me of this night.

We have returned and are reunited with our little man tonight.  This morning we left him with granny and grandpa and we headed for the mountains.  We sipped coffee in the early hours while we waited for the groups to form, then we headed for the mountain of the watch; Commedagh.  The lovely Sharon claimed that she was low on mountain fitness but she, and her group, were still able to overtake me and my group.  She took her group to the summit and was on the way down by the time I got to it.

the edge of Slieve Donard through a break in the mist – view from the edge of the pot of pulgarve

It was a clear and cold day until we got near the top and the visibility was reduced to ten meters as the air got colder still.  The wind was enough to take the feeling away from my hands.  It was my own fault for not wearing my gloves while boldly sipping coffee at our lunch near the summit.

The day seems like it was filled with two days.  We fitted so much in that the two days felt like a week; a measure of the best of weekends.

I am currently planning a trip into the mountains.  My own mother has volunteered herself as a potential babysitter and this means that the lovely Sharon would like to join the mini expedition.  She is a little unsure of how keen she is to wander in the hills.  The hills themselves are calling to her but a whole day away from the little man is a daunting thing for her.  Last night, as we relaxed and had our dinner, she voiced to me her other concern,  “am I fit enough?”  I nearly spat out my dinner at the absurdity of it.  This is from a girl who has only given birth a few months ago and now takes it upon herself to do a few 6 mile runs every week……while pushing a pram.  Before I answered properly I reminded myself that even the most confident of us need comfort and assurance from their closest friends.  We sometimes need to hear the obvious pointed out plainly to us, we are all only human.  Then another thought drifted into my mind.  I wondered if we might be able to put ourselves into the Mourne Mountain Marathon this year and therefore I thought it might be more strategic to encourage her only a little and get her to push herself harder.  I weighed it all up then chewed my mouthful before answering; “you’re getting there.”

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.

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 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… 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

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.

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