The Ring of Gullion Way – A 37 mile hike starting in Newry, circumnavigating the ring of Gullion, takes in everything from Neolithic portal tombs to forests, serene country lanes and of course Sliabh Gullion itself. It even passes through a couple of villages (Jonesborough and Forkhill) for good measure. When Spud first suggested this walk the entire HikersBlog team was keen and it’s not tough to see why.
Day One – Newry to Jonesborough
We arranged to meet early at Newry bus station where we set off just after 9am. The walk out of Newry gave us a chance to warm up our legs, get used to wearing our packs and also take the obligatory group selfie at the first way-marked post.
The beginnings of the route are pretty mundane, leaving Newry and winding along the old road to Dublin, which is now closed off. There was something that felt eery and wrong about walking three abreast along what once was a main road. Oisin remarked that it felt like we were in some sort of apocalypse scenario. Luckily things got much more scenic and interesting shortly afterward.
After winding through a few scenic back roads and country lanes we found ourselves contouring Fathom mountain, overlooking a beautiful vista of the Newry canal.
This was to set the tone for the remainder of the day. The air was crisp, the grass was soft underfoot and the sun bathed the path in front of us in a syrupy orange glow. Each of us noted several times that this was the perfect way to get underway and after the torrential rain of the previous night we were thankful for our good fortune in weather conditions.
The route took us past quite a lot of farmland, where it seemed almost every grazing animal took an interest in Eamonn, our very own Dr. Dolittle.
Our first point of scenic interest was the Clontygora Court Tomb. A huge Neolithic tomb known locally as the King’s Ring. A burial ground reserved for local chieftains, the beauty and power of the tomb is self evident even today. When you consider that many of these structures predate the pyramids of Egypt by several centuries, the grand scale of the stones never fails to amaze.
In the dry, crisp and calm weather, the route gave us all a chance to unwind, occasionally walking as a group and discussing the trip and at times separating out to be alone with our thoughts. Longer walks like these often feel like the best of both worlds, with the fun and camaraderie of a group but also enough walking time to spend some time in isolated reverie.
The first day had plenty of beautiful, winding forest trails which were a welcome break from the road sections, being a great deal softer underfoot. After so much gentle strolling however, we were glad to find a good steep road up into the hills providing us with a little bit of challenge. The road was long and steep and I found myself remarking a few times that such an incline would be a great deal more difficult over uneven ground.
Once we had gained our ground the terrain returned to quite flat, even paths which passed through some quite bare and remote feeling countryside. This part of the walk felt quite a bit like one of our previous walks, the Sliabh Beagh Way. While the area was road-accessible, the lack of housing nearby and the general open feel to the hillside imparted a wonderful sense of remoteness and isolation.
It was with a heavy heart that we saw some areas of extensive flytipping, which was also to be seen along the Sliabh Beagh. Our route took us alongside some turf bogs which reminded me of trips out to “the moss” with my dad when I was younger, where we’d dig up peat for burning that winter.
Before long we were strolling through Ravensdale forest, which was uniquely beautiful as the sun began to move lower towards the horizon. There was some felling in progress in an attempt to curb the unfortunate spread of tree disease, but thankfully our route was mostly unaffected.
The path followed the edge of a river, gently undulating with a soft padding of amber and red leaves underfoot. There was a wonderful smell of pine in the air and soothing sound of the breeze through the trees was like tonic for the mind.
After leaving Ravensdale forest we pushed on towards Jonesborough, where we arrived just before dark. We dropped into a local pub called “Gap o’ the North” which luck would have it was frequented by a local walking group called the “Gap of the North Walking Club”. The owners clearly understood the experience of a long hike with a pack and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and welcome. The fire was stoked with blocks and we sat drying our boots and socks while sipping a few well earned pints. The owners even brought us out some plates and cutlery to eat some Chinese food from the takeaway next door. It was the perfect end to a day’s walking – sitting by a roaring fire eating a good robust meal with a cold pint, while the rain lashed down outside. This hilarious photo of the goofy grin on my face sums up how we were all feeling:
We were joined from Sean Phillips from the walking club and a few other fellow walking club members. Sitting with our pints discussing the activities the club holds for the local community, we were very impressed with the passion they had for the outdoors and the work they had done for local charities. It felt great to be sitting in this rustic pub, discussing the outdoors with people who shared our passion. Compared to the usual confused glances we would get when stopping off in towns, this was a different world altogether.
The pub’s owner asked about where we were camping for the night and we told him of our plans to camp at Moiry Castle, a few miles out the road. Knowing too well what it’s like to throw on a pack and hike in the dark after having rested and stiffened up, he kindly offered us a chance to pitch in the field out the back of the pub. As the pints flowed this sounded better and better and we kindly took him up on the offer. Another local even drove Eamonn around to the shop and back to pick up some supplies in the morning. The hospitality and generosity we were shown by the Jonesborough locals was beyond compare. After a day of great hiking, we headed outside to avail of the owner’s kind off to pitch out the back. A brief encounter with an overly inquisitive horse made up our minds about what side of the wire we should camp on and we lay down for the night.
Day Two – Jonesborough to Slieve Gullion
We slept well, with the exception of an hour or so in the early morning when some barking dogs briefly disturbed us. As we climbed out of our shelters and packed up, there was a steady drizzle which was to mark the tone of the rest of the day – damp.
It’s at this stage in the day when I’m always glad to have brought a larger pack than I needed. I released the valve on my mat, let the air leave it under my own weight and climbed out to stuff my bivvy bag and its entire contents into my rucksack in one go. One of the drawbacks of a bivvy compared to a tent is the need to pack up your stuff without shelter in the morning. Rather than neatly roll everything up and get it soaked in the process, I prefer to just stuff it in my ruck and go.
After grabbing a quick, hot breakfast from the hot counter in the local shop, we left Jonesborough on a steady pace, the rain varying from light showers to brief lashings. We were glad of last night’s comfort and warmth as it no doubt spared us some stiffness on day two. We were also glad of our outer layers, with my Aclimatise Osprey jacket proving its worth again, keeping me warm and dry. Oisin was trying out his Buffalo Special 6 smock on its first longer multi day walk and was so far very pleased with its warmth and versatility.
Before long we found ourselves at Moyry Castle, a magnificent structure in impressive condition given its age. We stood inside for a brief period, observing where the three floors would have previously been, with the fireplaces and arrow holes still intact to this day. We couldn’t help but picture what life might have been like in the castle and how it might have looked back then. I found myself wondering – could the inhabitants ever have imagined it would still be standing to this day? What a strange and fast moving world they would find today’s to be.
Our route took us contouring near the bottom of Slievenabolea and in through a charming tract of woodland. As the clouds began to clear and the sun came out, we welcomed this opportunity to dry off during our gentle stroll through the woods. The air was rich with the smell of pine and the soft grass underfoot was a joy to walk on.
We left the woods and the route took us along some wonderful country roads and tracks with hills, raths, fields and farmhouses in the distance, the view adorned with the wonderful glow of the afternoon sun. This made such a pleasant change from the hazy grey of the morning and we found ourselves taking in the surroundings rather than simply charging on.
Before long we found ourselves in Forkhill where we stopped in a shop for a rest and a hard earned bite to eat. Luckily they had a table and chairs and had some hot chicken curry and potato wedges available. Needless to say this went down an absolute treat, as did the chance to set down our packs and sit down for a while.
Before long we were on our way again. We left Forkhill, winding through country roads on our way towards Slieve Gullion. The sun was on its way down now and began to cast that wonderful syrupy glow on the fields and hills. Well fed and surrounded by magnificent countryside, everyone was reminded why we take these trips and how rewarding it can be.
We soon found ourselves coming into Slieve Gullion Forest Park which looked amazing just before sunset.
With sunset on its way we decided to pick up the pace, pressing on up through the zig-zags of the forest park towards Gullion itself. Dave and I enjoyed pushing on and keeping ourselves on the edge of our comfort zone and the soft, even paths made things easier on the legs as we charged on.
We reached an abandoned farmhouse just as the sun was setting. John was feeling quite heavily fatigued and the idea of camping alongside this farmhouse was raised. While the original plan was to summit camp Gullion, getting pitched in the last remaining light and getting a good night’s rest seemed more prudent. We sorted out our shelter for the night and prepared our meals, recounting and laughing about the day’s events and past trips, as the last of the day’s light slipped away.
At some point during day two I had caught a cold and spent most of the night sneezing and moving around in my bivvy bag in an attempt to breathe better. I was glad of my down jacket as being ill would otherwise have given me the chills.
Day Three – Slieve Gullion to Newry
When we rose in the morning visibility looked as poor as it did the night before. John wasn’t keen on going over the summit and neither was I. We split into two groups – Oisin and Eamonn were to hike over the summit of Gullion while John, Yak and I decided to contour round it through the forest park.
The close fog which hung around us may have spoiled the view, but it really gave us an enjoyable feeling of isolation. I felt quite weakened from the cold I had caught and was immensely glad to be walking along a nice, even path at this stage in the journey. Before long we were leaving the Slieve Gullion forest park and joining the road towards Newry. We spotted this charming signpost on our way out of the forest.
Anything which encourages children to put down the games console / smartphone and get out into nature is very much a good thing in our book. Hopefully we’ll see more of these interesting and worthwhile initiatives around Northern Ireland’s scenic places.
Once we reached the road again it was time to stretch out into our own walking paces and plod on at whatever speed we were each comfortable with. Road sections are my least favourite parts of Ulster Way routes, you tend to feel like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be. When passing through built up areas this feeling, combined with the hassle of stepping in for passing cars, definitely dampens the mood. Luckily we were still in quite a remote country area, with passing cars being few and far between. On the rare instance that a car came past, the driver would lift their finger from the steering wheel and nod as they passed. From looking at a few drivers I suspect they were looking forward to the next hike of their own.
John hung back and got some interesting photos of Dave and I up ahead, cloaked in mist.
We kept our heads down and charged on until we reached the abandoned church at which we had arranged to meet Oisin and Eamonn. As usual John proposed we fire up the MSR and get some coffee going – seemed like a great idea to me.
While the water boiled we had a look around the church grounds and the mist hanging in the air only made it more atmospheric. It’s hard to believe that this building was a convent founded in the 5th Century.
It was great to be walking as a full group again and we felt elated as we reached our last forest section of the hike – Camlough wood. The felling which had taken place in this wood was extensive, this was a little depressing to see. Whether this was planned felling or due to tree disease is hard to say, but it’s a saddening sight nonetheless.
After descending Camlough we made good time on the roads back towards Newry. We soon found ourselves in Bessbrook at the finishing point – Derrymore house. It felt great to have finished the walk, but we were dreading the long, boring walk along the busy roadside to Newry bus station. As we had finished the route and the remaining walk into Newry was about as boring as it gets – John waved down a taxi and we stopped at a pub opposite the bus station.
As we sat with a pint and a hot meal each, we looked through the photos and chatted about our trip. From the beautiful scenery to the amazing hospitality we were shown at Jonesborough, everything came together to make this a trip to remember.