First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
'Ever smelt pine needles properly?' enquired my companion, walker and naturalist Ron Murray, as we strolled the Forest Drive along the southern flank of Slieve Gullion. 'Crush 'em like this between your finger and thumb.' I suited action to words, and sniffed deeply. A spicy blast of orange as pungent as a marmalade factory.
We left the trees and climbed, short and sharp, to the southern peak of Slieve Gullion. This big dark hump of a mountain forms the centrepiece of a remarkable volcanic landscape set in the green farmlands of South Armagh. Powerful subterranean convulsions 60 million years ago caused the ancient Slieve Gullion volcano to collapse, sending a ripple of molten rock outwards like a stone thrown in a pond. The circular ridge solidified, then weathered over ages into the guardian hills of the Ring, a ten-mile-wide circle of craggy mini-mountains encircling Slieve Gullion like courtiers round a king.
Surprisingly few walkers venture into the countryside south-west of Newry to climb the mountain and savour for themselves one of the most spectacular high-level views in Ireland, a hundred-mile circle from the Mountains of Mourne to the tumbled hills of Antrim and the billowy Sperrins, the green-and-brown mat of the Midland plain and the Wicklow Hills beyond Dublin, as tiny and pale as tin cut-outs.
I turned away from the breathtaking prospect at last, to find Ron beckoning from a little low doorway of stone set deep into the side of the cairn. On hands and knees I followed him inside, to find a chamber walled with stones neatly shaped and fitted. A neolithic passage grave under a Bronze Age cairn, say the archaeologists. Not at all, retort the romantics. Here is the house of the Cailleach Beara, the unspeakably wicked witch who turned the mighty hero Fionn MacCumhaill into a feeble old man when he dived into the Lake of Sorrows to retrieve her golden ring.
Ron and I strode the windy summit ridge past the Lake of Sorrows. A massive, half-finished millstone lay half in and half out of the water. ‘A miller pinched it from the Cailleach Beara’s house,’ said Ron, ‘but it brought him such bad luck that he decided to put it back. When his donkey had got it this far, the poor thing fell down dead. That’s where it stayed from then on. No-one quite fancies moving it …’
Start & finish: Slieve Gullion Forest Park car park, Drumintee Road, Killeavy, Newry, Co. Armagh BT35 8SW (OS of NI ref (OS ref J 040196)
Getting there: Bus: Service 43 (Newry-Forkhill) to Forest Park entrance
Road: N1/A1 Dublin-Newry; B113 (‘Forkhill’); in 3½ miles, right (‘Slieve Gullion Forest Park’) to car park.
Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS of NI Discoverer 29; Ring of Gullion Way/RGW blue arrows): Top left corner of car park, left up path through trees. In ¼ mile join Forest Drive (038191), up slope, then level, for ¼ mile to RGW post on left (035190). Right up drive, past metal barrier; left uphill for 1½ miles to car park (018200). Beyond picnic table, right at white post, steeply uphill. South Cairn (025203) – Lake of Sorrows – North Cairn (021211). Aim north for Sturgan Mountain (left of Cam Lough), then white house between you and lake. Fork right at grassy ‘lawn’ with boulder beyond, aiming for house. At road (025230), right for 3 miles, passing Killevy Old Church (040221), to Forest Park entrance (046199). Right to car park.
Lunch: Slieve Gullion Courtyard coffee shop, or picnic by Lake of Sorrows
More info: Slieve Gullion Courtyard (028-3084-8084); www.discovernorthernireland.com