Sunday 21 January 2018

Northern Narnia

On his first trip North, Thomas Breathnach found good shopping, food and friendly locals all topped off by the magical Mountains of Mourne

Mourne identity: Down’s very own Great Wall in
the secluded Silent Valley
Mourne identity: Down’s very own Great Wall in the secluded Silent Valley
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

With my native Cork being closer to Cornwall than it is to Carlingford, I'd always put my lack of excursion to Northern Ireland simply down to geography. And I wasn't alone. After a couple of friends and I realised that our collective Northern exposure only extended to the latitudes of Drogheda, it was high time for us to break our Ulster duck egg.

The Newry and Mourne region, with mountains and malls in equal preeminence, was the obvious destination for budding hikers with an eye for the mercantile. And setting off on the M8 north bound, there was a buzz of excitement that we were finally about to procure a slice of its action.

Three hours after leaving the land of the rebels, we arrive in the Orchard County. There's little to demarcate our crossing into south Armagh but the appearance of imperial road signs, and, oh dear, is that Jo Whiley on the BBC? The cacophony of mobile phone alerts, heralding our arrival in the UK, confirms that indeed it is.

We stayed in the seaside resort of Warrenpoint, 20 minutes inside the border, and an ideal base to explore the area.

One of the first things we noticed was the prevalence of street signs as gaeilge, evidence of the local council's controversial bilingual policy. We pull on up at Radharc na Mara (Sea View) and drop anchor at the Whistledown Hotel, on the banks of Carlingford Lough.

On a seafront terrace of twee Victorian residences, the burlesque interior of the Whistledown is somewhat of a décor curveball. With dimly lit glass chandeliers, chaise longue sofas and Venetian masked women adorning the walls, had Dita Von Tease been at reception and checked us in, we'd have barely bat a lid. But that duty falls to the convivial Niamh who welcomes us in her thick brogue, putting my dialectic dexterity to the test.

The single room I booked was upgraded to a spacious double with a toasty autumnal colour scheme of chocolate, rust and crimson. It's ultra modern for a three star, from the large LCD TV to the ensuite's ergonomic bathtub -- complete with faux-leather headrest.

After a quick power nap, and with a few local tips dispensed by the hotel barman, we spin into Newry for the evening. Named after the yew tree St Patrick set in the town in the fifth century, it's Ireland's newest city, having been granted the status in 2002. And while with just 22,000 inhabitants, this may be a slight misnomer, the town is nonetheless thriving.

Newry's two main malls, the Buttercrane (M&S, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins) and The Quays (Argos, Debenhams, Next) are located in the town centre, on opposite ends of the approach road from Dublin. We nab an elusive parking spot in the larger Quays which offer two hours free for Sainsbury's shoppers. Inside, a looped TV advert features Newry's answer to Carrie Bradshaw, gliding her trolley down the fruit and veg aisle, and showing us just how much fun shopping here can be.

I make an immediate beeline to Argos, where sadly, cross border diplomatic relations have not yet extended to recognition of ROI gift cards. However I still decide to splash out for a digital camera -- chalking up a €15 saving.

As the stores shut up shop for the night, early evening Newry had a sense of lockdown. But we found some post-shopping sustenance at RED (Relax, Eat, Drink) Brasserie, which recently picked up a gong as 'Northern Ireland's friendliest independent retailer.' A charming waitress and fine menu awaited us.

I opted for a flavoursome sirloin served with chunky french fries and tobacco onion rings (€21). My friends went for the Atlantic fisherman's pie in a deliciously creamy veloute sauce (€12). The familiar atmosphere was inviting and with a 15pc saving on a bill for a similar joint in the Republic, those motorway tolls from Cork are already paying for themselves. When we left the restaurant around midnight, the energy in town seemed to have picked up. We followed the hordes into the trendy Cobbles Bar. Shoulder to shoulder with merriment, the bar has an off-kilter demographic of Girls Aloud lookalikes, the men, more redolent of Louis Walsh.

"We love your northern accent", we proclaimed to one of them at the bar. "I'm from Dundalk" she replied.

Retiring back to the Whistledown, the rather happening hotel bar put the kybosh on an early night, and it wasn't long before we we're coerced into karaoke.

As 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was belted out about three octaves south of the melody, we used it as our strategic cue to snatch the follow-up slot. And there, tackling Cheryl Cole's 'Fight For This Love', we drew the unpredictable curtain call to our first night up North.

The next morning, I woke to the beckoning vista of the Mournes and the sight of Carlingford Lough rippling out on to the horizon. We planned our mountain route over a lazy breakfast, which consisted of a tasty full Ulster with the regional variation of fried potato bread.

Setting off along Carlingford Lough's coastal route, this is, in American tourist parlance, Ireland's mythological mecca. To the north shore, the Mournes, former stomping ground of Cúchulainn. And to the south, the mist-shrouded ridges of the Cooley Peninsula.

We veered inland along mountain foothills where sheep grazed on tranquil farmland, criss-crossed with miles of granite dry stone walls. Losing traction as we tentatively grinded up isolated tracks, my appreciation of the area's beauty was juxtaposed with the prospect of the towing fees home should my Escort fall foul of the conditions. But finally, and not without the help of a young farm lad ("yous need to turn laaayft up that wee hill!"), we make it to Silent Valley Mountain Park.

The park's reservoir, a placid highland lake which provides water for most of Co Down, was the starting point of our trail. We were in search of Silent Valley's main feature, The Mourne Wall, which is touted as Down's very own Great Wall of China.

It was built by the Belfast Water Commission between 1904 and 1922 to protect the reservoir's water course from the effects of cattle, and within a short ascent up the heathland of Slieve Muck, we reached it. Up close, the symbol of bovine apartheid evokes a greater reminiscence to the handiwork of the Emperor Hadrian than the Ming Dynasty, but nonetheless, its 35 kilometres of granite boulders, undulating through a landscape of conical peaks and lonesome valleys, is a mighty sight.

Such a sight in fact, that this ethereal landscape is said to be the spot which inspired CS Lewis's magical land of Narnia.

With an incoming mist from the sea, it was our cue to descend, and start our journey home. Not so much later we're back and suddenly Ireland feels a lot smaller than it did when our journey started out. Our one night dalliance with Down was over, but we vow to come back soon.

Bargain shopping, captivating scenery and the friendliest of folk, the town of the yew tree was everything we'd hoped for -- and Mourne.

Irish Independent

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