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MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2017

Discovering Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland of our childhood was a no-go country and has never showed on our radar of possible holiday destinations. However, my 86-year-old mum’s visit there last year inspired us to think again.

Despite dire warnings about the rough Irish Sea we booked the Birkenhead to Belfast ferry and enjoyed the flat calm of untroubled waters throughout the 8-hour crossing.

Calms seas leaving Birkenhead

We travelled in our small campervan using the luxury of proper campsites on 6 out of 7 nights. Perhaps we’re going soft but the electric hook-up, level hard standing, full facilities and quietness easily justified the expense.

The Antrim Hills were a gentle introduction to the charms of this new landscape with views in all directions including across the sea to Scotland. The following day the much-anticipated Causeway Coast Path was every bit as spectacular as expected. The 15-miles from Ballintoy to Bushmills via White Park Bay and the Giant’s Causeway was possibly the best coastal walk that we have ever done.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge

While on the northern coastline we couldn’t miss the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge so we wisely arrived at the opening time to avoid the coach parties that would soon be arriving. Later that day we explored the unheard of before, Binevenagh Cliffs in County Derry overlooking the Magilligan coastal plain – a weird and wonderful place in swirling mists and haunted by squawking peregrines.

Then we moved south to Newcastle and the Mourne Mountains, where a bad forecast gave us the opportunity to visit Belfast. The highlights for us were the several second-hand bookshops we explored and the famous Titanic Quarter.

Our week’s finale was to be a mountain day in the Mournes to include a 3-star rock climb and an ascent of Northern Ireland’s highest summit, Slieve Donard (850m). I had really wanted Jane to be enthusiastic about the prospect of climbing Devil’s Rib on Satan’s Buttress, but all I got was a non-committal grunt. I interpreted this as ‘I’d rather not do it, but if you want to that’s just about OK with me.’

Slieve Donard from the top of the Devil’s Coach Road

After 1½ hours we reached the Mourne Wall and headed off towards the Devil’s Rib via an old smuggler’s path called the Brandy Pad. The strengthening wind then calmed down enough to encourage us to get geared up beneath an impressive soaring line. However, the advertised easier start was wet and after an initial slithering foray and I descended and started up the drier but harder variant. As I climbed up I just knew that Jane wasn’t going to like the awkward high stepping moves with loose handholds. Then I noticed that the views had disappeared, the clouds had rolled in and an up-draught of wind and drizzle were beginning to make things unpleasant. I managed to set up a belay in a slightly sheltered corner and hailed Jane. She immediately started to shake her head and mutter; this was not a good sign. It took a while but with a little helpful tugging, quite a lot of swearing, the occasional use of knees and much determination she made it.

Jane on pitch 2 of Devil’s Rib

Jane’s hands were visibly shaking so we quickly sorted ourselves out and I was off again up the exposed arête. Although marginally easier the damp rock, buffeting wind and unfeeling hands made it an un-nerving battle upwards. I tried to escape left but this was a mistake and wasted time. My fumbling hands dropped a karabiner while trying to protect the final moves but I didn’t care. I screamed into the howling wind for Jane to start climbing. There was more shaking of the head and cursing but she doggedly made progress. I thought that Jane would be really angry with me but amazingly she pulled over the top with a high-five and a broad smile in spite of the full-body shake through cold.

Jane smiling (?) at the top

We were strangely happy (or perhaps just relieved that we’d avoided an epic) with our adventure and quickly packed away the gear and re-energised with some chocolate bars. For the record the V. Diff grading with a Severe start seemed somewhat irrelevant in such conditions.

Back at the Mourne Wall on the col we deposited our sacks and completed the final 280m to the top of Slieve Donard. No views and too windy to stop but who cares – a grand day out celebrated with a pint of Guinness when we eventually got back to the car park in Newcastle.

The journey back across the Irish Sea was equally calm and we look forward to a return visit.

MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2017
By Chris Harle
The 'Book Man'

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Chris Harle
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