On a recent (welcome) mid week day off work, I joined John on a hike up the mighty Slieve Binnian, (mountain of the little horns) the largest mountain in the world famous Mourne Mountains in County Down.
Although it isn’t the highest in the range, at 747 metres (that’s 2450 feet in old money), its rocky summit still poses a challenging walk, and makes up one of the mourne “seven sevens” that challenge walkers and runners every summer! John and I have ascended it by its “traditional routes”, following the mourne wall from the carrick little track straight up the shorter steep climb to its summit tor, or the longer circular route via the binnian/lamagan col, an ascent to its spectacular north tor, and along its rocky spine via the “back castles” many times, but this time we were treading unknown ground to both of us.
I picked John up at just after 6am, as usual he was waiting for me, cup of coffee in hand! It was still dark and extremely foggy! As we crawled down the fog choked country roads towards Newcastle, I hoped that the weather in the mountains was going to play ball so we could enjoy the stunning views from the mighty mountain! As it happened, I needn’t have worried, from Newcastle onwards the fog was nowhere to be seen! The first stirrings of dawn were beginning to lighten the sky over the irish sea, as we reached the carpark. we had head torches, but dispensed with them as we reached the mourne wall, the light from the rising sun was spilling into the valleys of the mournes, and the sky was looking good! When we passed Percy Bysshe, (the rocky outcrop named after the poet husband of Mary Shelley, author of the classic horror story “Frankenstein”) we paused at a large boulder for a quick coffee break and a map check. Sufficiently refuelled, we continued up towards the binnian/lamagan col, before bearing left towards buzzards roost, one of the 3 imposing crags at the northeast of binnians bulk. Crunching our way over reasonable ground, still partly frozen from the previous nights hard frost, we passed under buzzards roost, the different perspective lending itself to splendid views of Slieve bearnagh, clouds clinging stubbornly to its summit, resisting the mornings suns advances, like a sleepy teenager pulling at the blankets when his mother opens his curtains.
It was on our way towards binnian lough that we first heard the “whup whup whup” of an approaching helicopter. We hadnt known the helicopter would be up there, and as we reached binnian lough, we saw it. A fast black helicopter, effortlessly gliding up the slopes, with a ton bag of stone dangling below it, being ferried to the new pathwork below binnians north tor. We stood and watched for a while (for the first of many times) and marvelled at the skill of the pilot, as he ferried his heavy cargo to its resting place, using the weight of the load to swing the helicopter round and always dropping it so precisely, before making his return down the mountain, the noise of his machine echoing off the valleys in an auditory assault of the senses. We didnt want the pilot to have to avoid us, so changed tack slightly, heading straight for the “back castles” where another tea break was planned. As it turned out we needn’t have bothered, the pilot could obviously clearly see us, and amended his route accordingly, but passed close enough for us to get a good view and some photos/footage. The climb to the back castles was the steepest part of our walk so far, and it was good to see the back castles for a breather, but it was still the easiest ascent i have made to that spot, the new route was a definite winner!
After the aforementioned teabreak, and some more helicopter watching, we packed up and headed for the summit, an easy stroll from the back castles. The bright sunshine still on our faces, we explored for a while, the small pools of rainwater on the summit frozen solid, the thinner ice beginning to melt with the suns rays. As we had climbed, low cloud had filled the valleys, from our rocky perch the view across the clouds really gave a great sense of height, the breathtaking beauty of the mountains providing food for the soul. We made our way down a fraction, and contoured round below the summit tors, before picking up a path which led to the mourne wall, as it snaked its way down the steep slope towards wee binnian. Half walking, half scrambling down towards wee binnian, on some of the steepest ground I have ever walked on, we reached wee binnian, which neither John or I had ever been on, another first for the day! Some fantastic views to be had from this funny wee mountain, well worth a visit! We made out the path we intended to take from its summit, towards the quarries and old stoneworkers buildings on the small mountain under binnians summit, which isnt named on the map.
As we made our way along the path, we spotted a kestrel hovering, wings beating furiously, not erring from the pursuit of the prey it had fixed itself on. The natural version of the still busy helicopter in the background, the great comparison between not lost on either of us. It moved off with something in its mouth, and we likewise, continued on our journey. The abandoned quarry was empty apart from a few sheep, which noisily scattered up the hill as we approached. I wondered at how many man hours it would have taken to produce the amount of cut stone lying around, the small river flowing down the slope through large cut granite slabs, with stone bridges over it was a unusual feature, and one that not too many visitors to the mournes would ever get to see, unless they knew where to look! We were approaching the end of our walk, and in contrast, could now see where the helicopter had been starting his many journeys, at the pick up point in a farmers field. As we made our way towards the fields, it swooped overhead, the ton of stone swishing above our heads really was a sight to behold, the two of us standing pointing like a couple of kids! After picking our way through the fields, we met up with a track that took us back to the main road, and a short walk back to the car, where we had started off over eight hours earlier. Altogether, one of the best days I have had in the mournes, as you can probably tell from my rather rambling tale!
Thanks for reading.