With a week to myself, but little available means due to economic factors (some my fault but many not), I chose to make my way over to Newcastle. This was only a stop on the way to my real destination: the summit of Slieve Donard, the highest place in Northern Ireland.
Encounters on the way
Whilst I normally hike out of a desire for solitude, I passed many others along the way. Nearly everyone greeted me and many paused for conversation; they shared stories and hiking tips. Perhaps this is how most people act most of the time, or perhaps being far from civilisation and its discontents brings out a genial side that's normally buried under daily stresses.
But this did not trouble me. Most of my time was spent alone and walking; I still achieved my wishes and the pauses for conversation were pleasant and complimentary.
One gentleman told me that this was his first time climbing Slieve Donard since 1980. I must say that I would not put him down for over 40, so it is that one trip up this mountain appends at least two years to your lifespan. He mentioned that I would pass an 'Ice house' on the way to the summit, which I envisaged as an ice cream shop offering refreshments in the heat. Such was the temperature that day.
But rather I found it was a remote building used by the local gentry in days past, wherein ice was kept for preserving food (and presumably used as an ingredient in beverages, surely the same then as now).
The mighty staff
For those who would reach the summit, there were many paths available through the woods. Getting lost is difficult, since there is only one direction to go, and that's a steep slant upwards. While on the way upwards I found a long staff in the woods. I lifted it and found it was absolutely solid wood; this fact proven by striking it hard against a tree. The length of the staff was seven feet, therefore above my head. I made the choice that this staff would accompany me there and back.
This was ideal; I left my walking stick in the car because it had somehow contracted oil and was too slimy to use for a hike. I was hoping to find a replacement staff made from real wood, and behold, there it was.
While emerging from a thicket, I met a couple originally from Monaghan. We exchanged bearings and introductions, then the true-blooded Irish gentleman told me in the proper brogue that this staff was like that carried by Saint Patrick. A true sign and a compliment.
The many steps
Once out of the thicket, I struck a gravel path and enquired for directions. It was confirmed that I was well on the way to my destination. I made my way keeping besides a burn with solid slabs of rock for banks. The burnwater was cool and refreshing as I splashed it on my face; then I dipped the staff and felt the tug of its strong downward current.
The next step was many. The top could only be reached after climbing a crude-but-even stairway. I made my way through a long gorge, sided by small woods and steep rocky banks. The steps resembled broken slabs that would be found in an excavated ancient city. Two hours into my expedition it began to feel Tolkienian. The leering cliff sides, the mystifying woods and the traces of past workmanship set this mood.
On either side of me were hardy mountain rams and ewes, watching their foraging lambs. There was also a grazing string of ponies; I had never seen these living in the wild before. Two of them gazed watchfully as I passed.
The steps brought me to a long ledge, and up the side of it to a ridge. Here I passed yet more seasoned hikers, some who had traversed the Mournes over a week. The ridge revealed the famous wall of Slieve Donard, and yet more steps that must be climbed to reach the peak. I would estimate it was well over two thousand steps that were ascended.
I'll make a note to count them properly when I next visit.
The final heave
The final heave was along the side of the wall, striking at yet more crude steps with my staff. I paused frequently to refresh with water and to energise with cereal bars. Eventually, after another 40 minutes, I had made it from the ridge to the summit. I paused to take in the views and found it vast and humbling, as retired volcanoes always are.
The town of Newcastle lay below, but a blip. In the very far north, I could spot the Knockagh monument, a famous sight near Belfast. To my Northeast, I saw the Isle of Man faintly in the horizon. South and West were the rest of the Mournes. On the top of one mountain was a jagged and enclosed summit; this I christened Weathertop.
After a lengthly time absoring these mighty and ancient surroundings, I sat to open a tin of Smithwick's Red Ale (it was all that Lydl had that I could recognise), and gazed out seaward with my eyes on the horizon.
I interrupted my horizon-gazing only to help a large family with some photography.
The father and mother had brought all their children all this way, the youngest looking not more than 4. All of them were open and conversational, I got a good chuckle from them by conjuring up the school photographer favourite, 'My Granny is a tortoise!', to get some smiles while taking their group photograph. It's always an honour and a pleasure to help friendly strangers fill the family photo album!