First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Sperrin Mountains straddle the long border between Counties Tyrone and Derry. As shapely as a school of porpoises, they entice walkers with their softly rounded summits and gentle-seeming slopes. Meandering lanes and low-level paths curl round their feet. We were delighted to have an old friend, Martin Bradley, walking with us today. Exploring the Sperrins with a local man and expert guide like Martin is the best way to see the hidden corners of these wild uplands.
Under a milky grey sky we climbed the stony road through Altbritain Forest, its spruce and firs footed in the dense blanket bog that has grown to enwrap these hills over the past two thousand years. Waves of lime green sphagnum flowed over the dark peat under the trees, to be replaced by tuffets of green and orange deer grass as we left the cold shadow of the conifers and climbed the long flank of Mullaghaneany.
Up on the summit we paused by the fence that would guide us all way round the mountains today. To every point of the compass a superb prospect of hilly country unrolled, the names chiming in a cumbersome poetry – the Sperrin high points of Sawel and Meenard to the west, Mullaghearn hanging long and mighty over Omagh, the hummocks of Carnanelly and Slieveavaddy rolling in the south, and to the north-west the tilted peak of Benbradagh with a misted Lough Foyle at its foot and the hills of Donegal more imagined than seen in the cloudy haze beyond.
Shiny black fruit of crowberry glinted among bright green leaves against the chocolate-black peat. Twenty years ago, said Martin, over-grazing had reduced this place to a dismal slough. Now the bog is healing over with a haze of beautiful moor grasses, russet, emerald and cream.
We tramped the high tops from Mullaghaneany to Oughtmore and on to Spelhoagh, the hills all round us melting away into infinite shades of grey. A dreamy walk over the squelching turf, descending at last into a steep cleft where dragonflies circled a treacle-black bog pool. A last sharp scramble up the neck of Craigagh Hill, and we were crunching with Martin down a rocky bog road on the homeward path.
Start: Foot of forest road, Altbritain Forest, on B40 Draperstown-Feeny road (OS of Northern Ireland ref C 705003)
Getting there: From Draperstown, B40 (‘Moneyneaney’). 1 mile beyond Moneyneany, fork left (Moneyneany Road). In 3 miles cross bridge; in 100m, at ruined cottage on left, park carefully on right in gateway.
Walk (7 miles, strenuous, 1:25,000 Activity map ‘The Sperrins’. NB: online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Over stile/gate by ruined cottage; up forest road. In ½ mile, at left bend, (H 700997), keep ahead up green track. In ½ mile at T-junction (693993), left. In 200m, right up break in trees; across fence; up open hillside; left along fence at top. Keep to fence, crossing any side fences, for 3 miles over Mullagheany, Oughtmore and Spelhoagh summits. On Craigagh Hill fence descends steeply to turn left by pool (715988); leave fence, steeply up opposite slope to rough track on top; left along track for 1¼ miles down to B40 (719998). Left along road for 1 mile to car.
Conditions: Rough, boggy upland walking, some steep bits; best done in fine dry weather.
Lunch: Picnic; or Market Inn, Draperstown (028-7962-8250).
Accommodation: Laurel Villa, Magherafelt, Co. Derry postcode (028-7930-1459, laurel-villa.com) – immaculate, welcoming, helpful B&B. Dinner at excellent Church Street Restaurant, Magherafelt (028-7932-8083; churchstreetrestaurant.co.uk)