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Spinkwee : Around the yellow crag…

19 June 2012

Spinkwee Watershed

The Mountains of Mourne

6-8 hours with breaks
Challenging/Strenuous
Navigation skills essential
Mountain walking experience advised
A truly comprehensive and inspiring ramble

Sometimes I like to cover distance…

…and enjoy the change of mountain scenery as I make like some express train over a beaten tread; it’s the “rhythm of the walk” I’m enjoying. But at other times I love nothing more than to amble and explore, preferably in the best of near-wilderness I can find; then it’s “being in the place” that I find so fulfilling.

One favourite such haunt of the past is that area of the Mourne Mountains not much frequented by the path-bound rambler.  Framed by the Trassey Track, to the east, the Glen River to the west, Mourne Wall to the south and with pedestrian access well filtered through the Tollymore Forest Park to the north.  You can meander and mosey, saunter and stroll without ever seeing a soul except perhaps a shepherd and dog working a flock, or the more adventurous urban walker strolling through the fringes of the Forest Park.  And in particular I have one favourite route I’ve always called the Spinkwee Watershed. So I set-off with Shash this Sunday morning with the intention of reviving a few old memories and exploring these much neglected slopes once again.  (Spinkwee: Spinc Bhui – Yellow Crag).  A distinctive and prominent crag that can be seen on the slopes of The Corragh above the source, and from which the river seems to have acquired its name).

The view SSW from the summit cairn across the Commedagh boola toward The Mourne Wall tower (left). In the centre, Slieve Binnian shows in the distance.

Quality & Character

I love this route.  It’s awesome in so many ways, yet so simple, so available.  There’s a good mix of woodland and open mountain; distant vistas, intimate nooks & crannies, flora and fauna.  Plenty to pique your interest or cause you to ponder. On this trip only our views to the west were un-hindered by cloud and we easily spotted every notable feature in the distant landscapes from Belfast and Strangford Loughs to the Isle of Man, Carlingford Lough, Clougher Head and the Cooley Mountains.  A large vixen trotted freely back and forth across the open mountain named after her kind (Slievenamaddy) as if to parade her right to be there. And though we didn’t spot any badgers, (Slievenabrock), there were plenty of pipits, wheatears, and larks; and separately a couple of buzzards made a brief soaring appearance. Late spring flowers were in abundance and included: Milkwort and Tormentil, as well as the usual bilberry, bog cotton and bell heather. And we easily found lots of great places to lay back and relax.

But, the real surprise is that this route conceals the finest “vista discovery” of any walk in the Mourne. I know that in recent years, evidenced by the ever-eroding thread that winds its way from Commedagh and over Tullybrannigan (Tulaigh Uí Bhranagáin/Brannigan’s Hill?, labelled rather vaguely on the map) that the practice is to descend from the tops by this way, but the gift of the ascent by this route is truly unparalleled anywhere in these hills, perhaps anywhere in Ireland. Not only are you both taunted and entertained as you ascend; views into Newcastle, Murlough and the coast; back toward Belfast or Strangford; maybe into the Glen River or the Pot of Legawherry, perhaps over Luke’s Mountain and Slievenaglough; but the vista that opens before you, and around you, as you progress the last few metres to the summit cairn of Commedagh is truly an inspiring experience.  And if the ascent has already taken your breath away, I promise you this outstanding reward.  So when you get there, just slump down by the cairn, rest yourself a while, and drink in the beauty that surrounds you; the physically hardest part of the day is over.

Grade : Challenging/Strenuous

I’ve graded this route as challenging/strenuous for three reasons:

  1. You need to be reasonably fit, because of the terrain and the distance; and if you choose not to take the tourist route (ie zigzag) up the various slopes, but aim directly for the summits, you will exercise your thigh and calf muscles. If you zigzag you’ll be working your ankles quite hard. In any event, a good stretching routine, before, after, and the day after will serve you well.
  2. You need to have some hill walking experience. There are some challenges underfoot, both on the beaten treads along the Mourne Wall, and ascending and descending open mountain. Knowing where to place your feet on the terrain ahead of you will make life much easier.
  3. You need to be confident navigating with map and compass.  Whilst this is an easy route for topographical navigation, if the rain and cloud descend (which can happen in about 10 minutes in the Mourne) you’ll need to be able to work your way around.  Even in fog, don’t use a GPS other than to confirm your location and perhaps suggest the broadest bearing. Safe navigation on this route requires some meandering even on the tops; thumbing your way along the map should be a habit.

Time

If you don’t give this route 6 hours, you’re rushing and not doing is justice.  You could easily take 8 hours if you have any kind of curiosity.

Map

OSNI Mourne Country Outdoor Pursuits Map. Scale: 1:25000
OSNI Mournes Activity Map. Scale: 1:25000
OSNI Discovery Series Map. Scale: 1:50,000
  Use in addition to the 1:25,000

The Route

Thumb this on the Mourne Country 1:25000 map before setting off for the walk and make sure you are clear about the route and alternative options for the descent or escape.  By all means make yourself a route card, mark up your map and advise others on where you are going.

Looking back toward the Tullybrannigan gate

Pegging through Tollymore Forest Park: You’ll need a lift, or a car.  Start from the neat car-park at the North end of the Trassey Track and the foot of Clonachullion Hill. (MR J 311 314)  ).  Set off Eastwards along the route of the Ulster Way and into Tollymore Forest Park.  Follow any route that suits you to find your way to The White Plains just SW of The Drinns at map ref:  MR J 338 312.   As you follow the forestry track uphill away from the river, look for the faded, red oxide painted, iron & steel gate in the wall on your right. Find the stone stile to the right of the gate and cross the wall.

.

Ascending Commedagh: Aim for the summit of Slieve Commedagh by heading roughly SW from the wall, passing over the summits of Tullybrannigan, Slievenabrock, Shan Slieve and Commedagh to reach the Commedagh tower of The Mourne Wall. (In all, the most strenuous part of the walk).

Alternatively choose your own route to the summit, there are plenty of options, for example:

  1. You could work your way South along the right bank (true) of the Spinkwee heading toward the Tullybrannigan boundary wall and then following the tributary or the boundary wall SE into the saddle between Slievenabrock and Shanslieve;
  2. Or for the more experienced seeking a stiffer route, cross the tributary and the boundary wall and head deeper into the corrie, past the obvious escarpment until you find a satisfactory route SE to make a steady but demanding ascent into the saddle below Commedagh.
  3. And for a more progressive gentle ascent, though a bit hard on the ankles, you can contour SEwards and upwards around Slievenabrock on to a NE running spur called Slievenamaddy at approximately MR J 354 297 and make your final attack on the summit of Commedagh from there.
Slopes of Slieve Commedagh, Mountains of Mourne

The profile of your ascent from Tullybrannigan to Commedagh. And The Mourne Wall running over The Corragh

 

Following The Wall: Cross The Mourne Wall by the wooden stile (MR J 344 285) and turn WNW undulating your way amid rocks and ponds and isolated hags, across The Corragh (An Corrach) to the westerly second peak of Slievenaglogh. Don’t be afraid to foresake The Wall and the shredded ribbon path that seems to worship it’s proximity, to drop off the ridge and meander along the slopes above the Brandy Pad and amid the turf-scoured landscape that is the source of the Kilkeel River. And once the summit cairn of Slievenaglogh is made you have a great choice of routes back to the start; though your final choice may be influenced by the amount of daylight left, the weather, and any tiredness experienced by you or your party.

From Slievenaglogh: On this occasion it was fast approaching 7pm when we arrived at the Slievenaglogh cairn; and during the earlier 30 minutes, the cloud base had dropped hiding most of the summits; and upon reaching the cairn the rain became torrential and visibility dropped to perhaps 20 metres. And so after exploring a little of the steepening north-western slopes of Slievenaglogh we chose to re-cross The Wall just above the Slievenaglogh Slabs (above the upper reaches of the Trassey River) and take the safest (Descent 1) of the three options below.

  1. Descent 1: Trassey Track : Continue along the south side of The Wall into Hare’s Gap (MR J 323 286). Slip through the gate in The Wall and boulder hop your way down the Trassey River to follow the Trassey Track (and its variants offering a softer tread) back to the start. And while this route increases the variety of terrain found in this walk, there are many who find parts of the Trassey Track uncomfortable underfoot after a long day of rambling over open mountain. Be prepared to take your time.
  2. Descent 2: The Spur of Slievenaglogh: Requires caution. Cross to the North side of The Wall and descend NW along the spur of Slievenaglogh to meet the Trassey Track around its junction with the Clonachullion plantation; and so back to the start.  WARNING.  The warning is in the name: A mountain of stones or rocks, ready to deceive the unwary. Descending Slievenaglough is not difficult. But there are the Slievenaglogh Slabs and other granite buttresses over which,  from which, you may fall; and until you are familiar with the mountain it is safer to veer to the right and not be tempted down the western slopes of the spur of the mountain… You can do this by following a bearing to the summit of Chlonachullion Hill; about 330º True. This will track you a little to the right of the crest of the north-west running spur.
  3. Descent 3: Luke’s Mountain: A favourite of mine, but one I’ve not done for a while, so explore with care. Once over The Wall, head directly North for the summit of Luke’s Mountain (MR J 328 304)… generally you’ll see the ponds ahead of you. 3.1: From there drop down NW toward a farm road running around the NE and N of Chlonachullion Hill that will take you back to the start.  3.2 Or drop down N then NE toward and obvious wall and track which you can follow back into Tollymore Forest Park for a chance to stretch out your legs and get an easy rhythm on you way back to the start. 3.3: Or choose your own route.  Again there are lots of options, with open mountain, tracks, sheep treads and streams.

That’s it.  Set out early, take plenty to eat and drink, watch where you step, amble and enjoy.

Other Routes:

Whilst crossing The Wall by the tower on Commedagh, you may peer generally toward the hills immediately to the south. And gaze with some curiosity at the ribbon of peaks that form the Annalong Horseshoe. Having written about that several times before I do have a draft ready to test and publish here perhaps before the summer of 2017.

Caution

The Mourne Mountains are steep. The backs of corries such as the Pot of Legawherry or  the Pot of Pulgarve are especially steep. Additionally the terrain is littered with buttresses, boulders, tors, towers, holes, crumbling hags, hidden ponds and small cliffs.  It’s very easy for the unwary to tumble, and for that tumble to turn into a fall.  I know, over the years I’ve had my share.

Drop me a line or offer a comment, if you know these routes, if this entry inspired you to go exploring there, or if you just have something to ask, or something you want to say…

David Marshall

Updated: 07 September 2016

Newcastle Bay

Commedagh, Newcastle Bay & Donard

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