Singletrack Magazine Issue 114: Northern Island

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Ulster Says Yes!

Ian from Rock and Ride Outdoors shows us round his home trails in Northern Ireland. 

Words Ian Bailey Photography Caolan Hawkins

Loosely tracking a section of the Ulster Way, this classic ride skirts the foothills of the Mourne Mountains while linking sections of sumptuous forest singletrack. All done in the shadow of Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest peak.

Summer can be a bit of an abstract concept up here in Northern Ireland, a land not exactly renowned for its temperate climate. All we know is that at some unspecified point between March and October the slop will temporarily subside and for a fleeting moment we’ll smell dust in our nostrils and hear the buzz of tyres on dry roots. Those joyous occasions remind us that we have way more than our share of top-class trails, handily compressed into a tiny geographical area, particularly in the locality of the Mourne Mountains, County Down. Inevitably, mountain biking has flourished here, despite the weather, with several local trail centres developed and a plethora of hidden woodland trails tended by a dedicated selection of local builders.

Now obviously I’m exaggerating the meteorological woes, but we definitely have a sharp appreciation of the good times, spurring us into action to grasp the clear days with both hands, occasionally defying all sensibility and, on this particular occasion, considered medical advice…

An unseasonal spell has recently scorched the Mournes, the evocative smell of burning heather hanging in the air, pasty white limbs unveiled and social media feeds crammed with exaggerated descriptions of riding exploits. Nursing recently acquired injuries and awaiting surgery on a mangled thumb and torn shoulder respectively, my friend Eddie and I have jealously observed the fun unfolding, tortured by the knowledge that we may be witnessing our only shot at summer pass by without us. With the forecast due to turn imminently and the trails at their most prime, an idea was born that could only be considered by grown men who really should know better. It was time to ‘test’ the injuries – after all, surely we couldn’t make them much worse and what doesn’t kill you…

Choose your crew. 

Choice of riding crew is key for such foolhardy exploits and we knew fellow professional mountain bike guide Andrew could be counted on to carry all the requisite tools, anti-inflammatories and chocolate needed to keep us rolling. Another friend, Chris, would be joining us halfway, but afflicted with a proper job he was unable to bunk off as early as plans dictated. To document the efforts, we conscripted Caolan, Eddie’s son and media student, himself celebrating his last day in full-time education [Doesn’t sound very full-time – Ed].

Spirits were high as we convened in the small car park at the wonderfully named Happy Valley, with a ‘schoolboys on the skive’ vibe and a hazy heat in the air. Caolan fretted over the diminishing blue skies and the ensuing impact on photo quality, but cheered himself by messing around with camera gear while we tentatively picked our way over the stile and on to the crumbling turf. 

Landscape shots in the bag, we commenced the ride proper, contouring round the base of Meelmore mountain on a techy, off-camber trail that split into multiple lines round boulders and dried bogs. As part of the fully signposted ‘Mourne Way’ section of the epic 625-mile Ulster Way route, a more defined path could be expected, but smaller populations mean that even our honeypots are often quiet, and we encountered nobody as we tracked the wall around the hillside into the next valley.

Mourne granite is internationally renowned for its quality and our classic ride would take advantage of several historical quarry tracks, the first of which led us down the Trassey Valley with spectacular views of the High Mournes at our backs. Terrain here is a treacherous mix of loose marbles and babies’ heads and the jolting direction changes caused shots of pain in a shoulder joint I was protecting with a stiff over-emphasis on my remaining good arm. Nevertheless, us crocks were delighted to be riding again and pleasantly surprised at our progress, half expecting to have packed in before even reaching this point.

A speedy downhill scoot saw us depart the open mountain and enter Tollymore Forest, passing the King’s Grave, an ancient burial site that was one of several local spots to feature in Game of Thrones, responsible for initiating a spate of hit TV series and Hollywood blockbusters being filmed here in the forest. A right turn at Maria’s Bridge and a punchy fire road climb awoke the lungs before the tantalisingly technical rise on to the New Park hilltop. This ascent is a favoured test-piece, usually tortuous and greasy, on this day the elaborate criss-cross of roots had grip to burn and all four of us emerged dab-free for a quick stop to admire the split granite summit tors of the aptly named Slieve Bearnagh, Irish for ‘mountain of the gap’.

This section of the forest is alive with luscious deep greens as the springy moss creeps up the surrounding trunks with numerous strips of brown stretching enticingly between. Selecting one, we dived down in, flowing over the rolling ground, shafts of daylight breaking through the branches, creating shadows on the rocky features. 

This is quintessential woodland singletrack, the kind that adorns magazine covers and leaves you itching to ride whenever glanced at. Feeling truly fortunate to live in proximity to this dream terrain, our ailments were temporarily forgotten, no jarring hits on this smooth ribbon to break the trance, and smiles were beaming as we spat back out on to the fire road.

Hill of Death, er, of bitey death. 

Happy conversation masked the pain and monotony of the locally monikered ‘hill of death’ and we paused at the summit for pictures and a breather. 

A short descent east and a left fork led to Curraghard viewpoint, where jagged stone chairs provided us with a seated view over Newcastle town to the coast beyond. At this point you can observe the rest of the route stretching round the coastline with a first decent view of the rounded summit of Slieve Donard, at 853m, Northern Ireland’s most elevated point, high up on the right.

The drop from here has bite, a steep entry line funnelling into numerous rock drops and tight twists, spiky bushes and trees on hand to punish wayward lines. The other lads afforded it little respect, but I was extremely careful – pain of pride far overridden by real twinges as I watched them tear out of sight. Briefly revisiting the main track, we then ducked into a hole on the right where a change in foliage type and a needle-floored delight took us to the crossing point of the figure of eight route. Following the Mourne Way signposts down a grassy section, we ultimately joined the road at Tullybrannigan – clearly the very affluent end of town. Spinning down through Tipperary Wood towards Donard car park, food was at the forefront of our minds and coffee and scones were hoovered as we awaited Chris’ arrival from the comfort of Niki’s cafe.

In his defence, I had warned him to be brightly attired for the cameras but we were shocked and amused by the giant jelly baby that emerged from the van. None too subtle ribbing completed, we ascended again into Donard Forest, opting for a tricky short cut alongside the Glen River, rather than the winding forestry access track. This next section was cause for genuine trepidation as the grassed trail up to Drinneevar quarry has gained infamy as the site of several recent buzzard attacks resulting in hospitalisations, temporary closures and even the rerouting of a well-established fell race. A warning sign and a pile of pigeon feathers served as a stark reminder that the danger is very real and a comedy of style commenced. Steep trails of this ilk are hard enough on which to maintain traction and forward motion, but doing so while craning your head backwards and scanning the sky is a near impossibility. We all eventually succumbed to the inevitable and pushed the last 50m, gathered together for safety in numbers and hoping our loud conversation wouldn’t pique the interest of the lurking raptor.

Raptor-free.

Departing the quarry trail and heading over the shoulder, we were treated to another expansive view of mountain and coast. I can think of few places where such pronounced hills are in this proximity to the sea; it really is a sight to behold, even through the increasing late-afternoon haze. Remarking that the gorse has really grown up since last at this spot, we were treated to a demonstration of instant karma befalling Eddie. This open mountain trail is almost trials-like in nature, allowing slow speed proximity riding and the luxury of conversation. Eddie was regaling us with the tale of his girlfriend falling into a gorse bush while he just stood and laughed when the rightful inevitability occurred. 

We didn’t bother concealing our mirth and it was a while before we fished him out to lick his wounds and remove the prickles from his damaged hand.

Carrying gingerly on we reached the top of the Granite Trail, another quarry access where bogey rails once carried the quartz-rich stone directly down to the harbour below. Up the hill, another quarry, more spectacular views, and an impromptu photo shoot on the dusty drop from the viewpoint plinth filled the next half hour before the promise of the next trail grew irresistible and we spurted back into the trees. Yet another picture-perfect line of crafted drops, gravelly corners and pine needle goodness preceded the draggy ascent to Drinnahilly, the obvious peak topped by the telecommunications mast. From here, numerous lines convene near the Shepherd’s Cottage where a stream-hugging delight of a singletrack led us ultimately back to the outskirts of town.

We spun gently up the alarmingly steep road climb back over the cross of the eight, conserving energy for the return through Tollymore Forest. Slightly weary, but homeward bound, we’d saved enough in the tank to attack the sharp drop to the river and the twisting bank-edge cross-country loop to Ivy Bridge. From here, route choice is largely irrelevant and it was the possibility of some arty bluebell pics that saw us ascending again, more than strictly necessary, before dropping back to the water at Parnell’s Bridge. All continuing routes here ultimately lead back up-valley and with light fading and the pinch of skipped meals becoming increasingly insistent we cut up to the main road past the striking architecture of Tollymore National Outdoor Centre before a quick blast back to the start.

It’s often hard to truly appreciate what you’ve got on your doorstep. An enforced layoff and the fondness of absence are a powerful combination and, despite the obvious stupidity of this folly, neither Eddie nor I had any regrets. This ride was an ill-advised cracker that we not only survived, we massively enjoyed – thanks to world-class trails and amazing company. As an added bonus, the next morning I had about 10° more movement in my shoulder – a few more of these and that op will be cancelled! 

Why Bother?

The Mourne Mountains and surrounding forests are a mountain biking paradise. Within less than half an hour of Newcastle are several well-developed areas, full of semi-natural flowing singletrack, as well as two really enjoyable trail centres at Castlewellan and Rostrevor. This ride is a great combination of open hillside and glorious woodland, but even within this there are tons of variations and with a modicum of map ability and a small sense of adventure you’ll discover a never-ending array of intertwined tracks. 

Unlike some regions, you’re never far from assistance, and although the serenity will make you feel miles from anywhere, there is none of the associated danger of proper wilderness. Trails are generally quiet and the local riders are extremely friendly. While there isn’t a pile of big mountain riding, there is a constant and spectacular backdrop to the miles of forest trails and more than enough to create a great trip in a new location. 

Newcastle is a tourist town with all accommodation options from hostel to posh hotel and a broad range of eating and drinking choices. There’s plenty to do if you want to bring the family and the Mournes are a great spot for a range of other outdoor activities. Of course, the Guinness tastes better and the craic is endless to be sure…

The Knowledge

Total Distance: 21.97 miles (35.35km)

Elevation Gain: 4,030ft (1,228m)

Maps

Mournes 1:25,000 in various guises.

Getting There

If you’re based in Scotland, Wales or the North of England, the ferry is a viable option with various routes into Belfast (30 miles), Dublin (85 miles) or even Rosslare (197 miles) if you want to explore Ireland from the south up. If not, fly and hire is easy, to either of the Belfast airports or Dublin just down the motorway. The roads are quiet as soon as you leave the main population centres and driving is stress free.

Eating and Drinking

This route deliberately drops as low as Donard Park for Niki’s Kitchen Café or McCann’s bar, which has a beer garden, both of which are basically within the car park and allow you to keep bikes in sight and close at hand. This area gets extremely busy on any sunny day during the summer holidays or at weekends. There are plenty of other cafés, restaurants and bars in the town if you’re staying over.

www.hughmccanns.com

www.nikiskitchencafe.co.uk

Bike Shops

Mourne Cycles on the Castlewellan Road about half a mile outside Newcastle town have anything you’ll need including a well-stocked workshop. Closed Thursdays and Sundays.

T: 028 4372 7272 

A: Unit 7 63A, Castlewellan Road, Newcastle, BT33 0JX

Accommodation

Newcastle has plenty, as do other towns on the far side of the Mournes. Thanks to the popular trail centre, nearby Rostrevor has several bike friendly/specific options. All budgets can easily be suited.

Finding Trails and Bike Hire

These are working forests and the trail layout changes along with storm damage and felling work. Local guiding services can help you maximise your visit by leading you to the best trails for your ability level while coaching you to improve. Bike hire is available on request.

www.rockandrideoutdoors.com

Other Info

Make a proper holiday of it. Visit Belfast and Dublin, head to the stunning North Coast, see the Ring of Kerry, Connemara, Galway, Wicklow Mountains, Donegal… the list goes on and on. Ireland is a superb place with so much to see and do. I loved it so much I moved here! The incredible riding has just been the icing on the cake.

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