A FIERCE GALE howled out of the east from over a dark Irish Sea. As he approached the upper slopes of Slieve Commedagh, Johnny Cousins, one of the stonemen, crawled on his hands and knees to avoid being blown off his feet. Clutching a lantern in one hand, he was in danger of being late for the 8am start. He felt thankful to finally reach a small pyramidal shelter he and his workmates had built near the summit. There he could take temporary respite from the elements before starting work. It was no day to be up in the mountains. But then again, he didn’t have much choice: his livelihood depended on it.
It was no day to be up in the mountains. But then again, he didn’t have much choice: his livelihood depended on it.
Forming a compact cluster of peaks in the southeast corner of County Down in Northern Ireland, no-one knew the Mourne mountains better than Johnny and the other stonemen. For 18 years, from 1904 to 1922, they marched up daily between April and October from the surrounding lowland farms. Their mission: to build a great drystone wall made of granite, some eight feet high in places, to demarcate the boundary of the Belfast Water Commission, the central valley within its catchment to be flooded by two reservoirs to supply water to the expanding city.
One historian denounced the building of the wall as a nonsensical folly serving no real purpose. But folly it was not for the stonemen who painstakingly laid its 22-mile length. And nor is it a casual undertaking for today’s hillwalkers who trace its roughly circular route as it slavishly follows the watershed of the High Mournes over peak, trough, and blanket bog. Indeed, many rank it as one of Ireland’s finest mountain walks.
While the standard route is to start at the Silent Valley reservoir and proceed clockwise (some prefer to go anti-clockwise to avoid leaving till last a tiring ascent of Slieve Binnian), without a car I set off from the more easily accessible seaside town of Newcastle to the north. Fortified by a greasy fry for breakfast, my way up to the wall would add over an additional half-a-kilometre of ascent to the reckoning to make a total of around 3,200 metres, or more than 10,000 feet – a task I set myself over a weekend in mid-May with an overnight wild camp.
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