By John Williams
Mileage according to Peter's GPS:
1:35pm. Our band of intrepid explorers were united for the first time in 2017 when we landed in Dublin Airport and headed straight for the bar. I was celebrating my 68th birthday and while the Hampshire lads studiously weakened my resolve with pints of Smithwick Red, those with Essex roots gave me an assignment as a present. It would be my solemn duty to record the 2017 AHWC Log for posterity. A task I was qualified for, as I was used to taking our Church Minutes, but not exactly excited for, as I'd been looking forward to a rare week off from taking Minutes! Still, I magnanimously accepted the job, and another pint, and readied myself for the weekend ahead.
10 boozy minutes later, we were outside the terminal and rejoicing that we'd managed to land ourselves a 15-seat minibus. John J was making his own way later, so we replaced him with 26 items of luggage and headed North with John S. in the driver's seat. David was the navigator and Mark a very, very vocal back seat driver. "Are we nearly there yet?" he asked. "Turn the rear wipers off," he suggested. "Hey guys, you just cut up that lorry," he observed. "Would you like to walk from here?" John and David responded.
At 3:30pm, we arrived at Rostrevor Presbyterian Church and were welcomed by the minister, Edward, who showed us around the well-equipped youth centre. Once we were settled in we enjoyed a lazy afternoon, which suited those of us who had been up since 5am, but a few of us ventured out to explore. I got back just as the rain started to pour. Alas Mark and Simon were not so lucky and were the first to take an early shower.
When evening came, our Chef, David, started to look worried. The TESCO delivery had not appeared. When he phoned, the van driver said he could not get a postcode location. David replied, "If you don't want to lose £1000 of food sales you had better find us on google." At 7pm and still with no delivery, David lamented, "I'm getting a bad feeling about this." But just as he was no doubt starting to worry about keeping a group of cantankerous Heavyweight Campers happy with little more than air pie and grass salad, Peter shouted, "They're here!" And with our collective spirits lifted, the TESCO van was soon unloaded and we headed off to the Kilbroney Bar and Restaurant.
Mark was trusted to collect the £140 kitty after Tim (allegedly) tried to pay in Euros, obviously forgetting he was north of the border. David had pre-ordered burgers for everyone and the tasty grub was quickly washed down with liberal quantities of Guinness and other delights. The AHWC 2017 became a full complement of fourteen when our last member, John J, arrived just before the kitchen closed.
David's impressive cooking and organisational skills swung into action, with a 'Full English' served up at 8am. In an hour we had already eaten, washed up, prepared our lunch bags and were heading out through the front gates. Peter was gate man and was quickly awarded the title 'St. Peter'. David was driving with Mark taking the backseat responsibilities again. 'It's blowing a gale in the back!" he remarked. Our chauffer replied, "We've only gone 200 yards, Mark, and you are already whinging!"
After a 45-minute ride, we arrived at the Clonachullion car park and as soon as Mike and John S. had worked out which way up to hold the map we started to follow the Trassey River south. As we climbed, it quickly became clear this was the first decent outing in quite some time for some of our lungs, so we rested by a ford before making the sharp accent to Hare's Gap and our first encounter with the famous Mourne Wall. After following the Brandy Pad path and passing the impressive Castles outcrop, we crossed the wall a second time and had lunch. Refreshed, eleven hardy souls were ready to tackle the steep accent to the 849m top of Donard Mountain, while Mike and Martin formed a 'B' party and headed down to a view point instead. For the rest of us, following part of the impressive 22 mile wall to the summit only took half an hour. Apparently the wall was built to keep the sheep out of the Silent Valley Reservoir Area, but to me it looked more like a job creation scheme from the early 1900's. The wall turned a sharp right at the summit, where we found a substantial tower topped by a trig point at 853m. All four sides of the tower had 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' notices, however Peter, no longer a saint, could not stop himself clambering up for a look. John J helped his little brother up and then threatened to leave him marooned. The rest of us peered across to the Isle of Mann and wondered why an annoying drone that had been buzzing us had not been blown away by the heavy gusts of wind, even those generated by Adrian.
Half an hour later, we were back at base camp. Fitness levels were obviously good this year with Mark boasting he had already climbed the equivalent of 161 flights of stairs. Colin's legs however, were wobbling like jelly for most of the steady, 3-mile downhill hike to Newcastle. After passing wind-flattened forests and frothy waterfalls we arrived on the seafront at O'Hares Bar. The 'B' party had arrived just 10mins before us. When Martin was asked about their route, he replied that the viewpoint turned out to be non-existent because of trees and as to the final path down, they had had to make their own. Of particular interest to the Farnborough lads was a large framed print hanging by the entrance of the bar. This showed the International (bare knuckle boxing) Contest between Heenan and Sayers in Farnborough in 1860. Although a bit before my time, I remember hearing that it was the last of its kind and was held behind the Ship Inn.
David rounded us up for the journey back at 6:45pm. As we got out of the minibus in Rostrevor we looked like a gaggle of geriatrics returning from an all-day hospital visit, but David's pie and mash soon revived us and those still standing finished off the evening with a game of crib.
The morning started with the usual banter. Tim was greeted with howls of laughter when he suggested that the Mourne Wall could be the longest in England. His error has been referred to many times since and now, thanks to me, will be published around the world. As none of us had actually 'hit the wall' however, and with reasonable weather forecast for the day, we made the decision to tackle Hen, Cock and Pigeon Mountains. At 9:30am we were dropped off at a car park south of New Bridge, a mile east of Hill Town. We all made it up Hen Mountain. John J, exhibiting a strong craving for clambering, then led Peter and Tim over the exposed granite of Summit and South Tors, while I led the rest of the party safely down. In the valley before Cock Mountain, we split up into a 'B' party, the 'Mountain Skirters', (John J, John A, Martin, Mike and Colin) and an 'A' party, the 'Summiteers', who chose to go 'over the top'. My compass came into its own at this point as paths were virtually non-existent. Slight rain greeted the group on the descent from Cock Mountain and as we traversed a bog by compass, the Summiteers caught up with the Skirters on the ascent of Pigeon Rock Mountain. The 'B' party said that they had had a tough time with no paths, plenty of bog and heather that tore at the skin. Both Martin and John J were displaying bloody war wounds after their wild adventures.
We assembled as one group by the Mourne Wall on the summit of Pigeon Mountain and after a brief stop to soak up a little sun, made our way down along the wall to the col between the Rock and Slievemoghamore for lunch. Several of us entered a new competition: 'Strictly Go Falling'. My effort, headlong into a bog, went completely unnoticed as I assume others were more interested as to where their own feet were going. John S slipped over twice for maximum effect and got a loud standing ovation. Mike however topped the lot the next day with his daring tumble by a quarry's edge.
After returning to the car park, we set off on a one and a half mile walk down the road to the nearest pub. In scout leader mode, I suggested that those with bright red jackets bring up the rear to warn motorists. Mark protested, "Do you really what to risk losing the kitty by putting me at the back?" Ignoring my sage advice, we marched off in random groups in the rain with the thirstiest ones leading the way. It was noted that Mike was well out in front despite his dodgy knee. After getting out of the way of two boy racers on their tractors, the tail enders finally reached Donard's Bar just before 3pm. Mike gave the thumbs up as the pub door opened for a milk delivery and the AHWC soon filed into a rather dingy room. We were very pleased to be out of the thunder and heavy rain, which began lashing at the small window. Still alive, Mark collected another £20 off each for his kitty. We were served by an elderly lady called Betty, who chatted away non-stop in a language we could only vaguely understand. When Peter went up for the next round, she asked him, "What's your pleasure?" Some had asked for coffee and she must've got it from home. When a young man appeared with the cups, Mike cheekily asked for biscuits and got them. Apart from a lot of laughter about something called, 'Grindr' which washed over some innocent minds, the humorous highlight was the appearance John J from the Ladies Toilet.
Back in the bunkhouse, David dished up a superb Chilli Con Carne. The J brothers (Jeffery), acting a bit like the Kray brothers, demanded a pool rematch after their 3 : 0 thrashing by the pensioners (John A & myself) the night before. Alas, another 2 : 1 thrashing followed and so it went on all weekend. I thought I heard Peter say they had too many risky shots, but apparently he said whiskey shots. Ping Pong was also well under way, showing that overall energy levels were rising. Colin and I finished the evening off with crib, by which time most campers had retired. Just John A remained until lights out, having found his chair a bit too comfortable.
(Aldersgate day according to our Methodist contingent). I left our bunk room in darkness as a few slept in. I thought they looked like a vault of Egyptian Mummies trussed up in their sleeping bags. The smell of breakfast brought them to life though. Some looking like Zombies, stretching their aching limbs as they shuffled in smelling strongly of Deep Heat.
At 9:50am we were dropped off in the Silent Valley Car Park. We said our farewells to David only to see him sheepishly return having tried to exit the car park in the wrong direction. Three miles of easy road walking took us along the eastern edge of the Silent Valley Reservoir to the impressive Ben Crom Reservoir Dam with a dual cascade of water from near the top. In normal weather we could have split into an A & B party at this point and the more adventurous gone on to see the crags on Cove Mountain via the Devil's Coachroad. I had John J's clambering in mind when I half suggested it, but a low cloud base and what looked like an unforgiving ascent meant we kept together. The path soon deteriorated into the type of path we had come to hate - non-existent. Two thirds of the way along the reservoir the rain came down and the waterproofs came out. It stopped as we reached the Kilkeel River. At this point, there was a choice of two paths. The lower riverside path on the other side was chosen to avoid getting lost in low cloud. Everyone made it across except Adrian, who had fallen to his knees amongst the wet rocks. Normally this would have deserved a place in the 'Strictly Go Falling' competition, but there was no laughter as poor Adrian had almost lost his thumb nail. First Aid and a bit of TLC was administered to get him back on his way. This incident also highlighted the remoteness of this area. We were a full five miles from the nearest public vehicle access.
Several of the group had already climbed past the spectacular outcrop known as the Shelter Stone to the top of the ridge when those coming up behind noticed the actual path as shown on the map. Martin was leading the upper party when I shouted up "Are you on a path?" "I don't know," came Mark's reply. The lower group marched forward picking up bits of path here and there. Eventually, after seeing that we were making better progress, had a map and more especially one of the few compasses, Martin's lot descended to join our group.
After half a mile, the path we were on got less and less visible and the low cloud did not help. Mark had already begun to moan. With reference to his past experience at back seat driving, we suggested we might put the 'vipers' on if he didn't shut up. We eventually hit the Brandy Pad path and headed east through the damp mist. We put Mark in front in an effort to stop the complaints, but he soon drifted back down the line. Mike was now leading the group, and we could barely see each other in the cloud. At the very point where the path split, a young girl was positioned in an orange cocoon. She was there to direct fell runners, but thankfully was also able to tell those of us in the middle of our group which way Mike had gone. We waited to pick up the tail enders to be sure that we were all going down the same path.
The wet and cold began to take its toll. Mark seemed to speak for all. "Are we nearly there yet? I'm bloody starving." We were looking for the Mourne Wall again, but like a mirage it seemed to keep appearing and disappearing in front of us. Eventually, at 2pm, we finally hit the wall near Bog Donard and hastily devoured our provisions.
Sitting down made us colder still and we were soon on our way down following a path alongside Blood River. On reaching the quarry edge, Mike, who was having real trouble with his knee made his final painful entry into the Strictly Go Falling competition. Luckily he did not go over the top with his display. We eventually made it down to the coast road at Bloody Bridge at 4:15pm. John J had been sending 'Ready for pick up' messages to the wrong number so David was later than expected. Climbing out of the minibus at Rostrevor, Colin was heard to exclaim, "Oh why do I do this?"
After licking our war wounds from previous days, we settled for a gentler walk in the Tollymore Forest Park. Well known apparently as a backdrop of 'Game of Thrones'. A series which has obviously passed me by, but the Park is nicely laid out and worth a visit for many other reasons. We had no Mike with us on this leisurely final jaunt. Those keen on waterfalls were blessed with waterfalls, those keen on views were blessed with views and those keen on lunch got it right on the dot at noon. The only deviation from the main path took us to the wooded summit of Carraghard. We thought we could hear gigantic drones strafing the summit, but the roars turned out to forest workers with chainsaws. A good mountain bike path led us down though swathes of bluebells, and we followed it down even though the compass said 'No' and upon hitting one of the roads. I buried my pride and welcomed Peter's kind offer of a GPS check. I estimated my planned route to Newcastle would get us all there quite early at 2pm. I offered to add a few miles extra to get to the pub at the more reasonable time of 3pm. Strangely, no one was enthusiastic about my suggestion. Arriving on the sea front a 2 O'clock we found O'Hares Bar closed, so we reassembled in an adjacent cafe for coffee and then sat in the sunshine on the promenade before our transport arrived.
After spaghetti Bolognese, the usual banter continued. The Trossachs were discussed as the 2018 AHWC destination, but Exmoor appeared to be favourite. "That's Exmoor, not an ex Moore!" when Adrian suggested Dudley Moore. John A's eyes lit up at the thought of using his bus pass to get to the Devon venue, but then was slightly dismayed at the thought that we could all turn on him and demand coffee and biscuits when his wife was home. Nine hardy souls later ventured up town to the Clooughmor Inn and enjoyed the music of Mega Lonar Rhodes and Stephen Carroll.
The AHWC's stirred well before 6am and David, John J & John A were first to depart at 7am. Mike took over breakfast duties whilst the rest cleared the house up ready to leave at 9am. We had intended to visit New Grange, almost as famous in Ireland as Stonehenge is in England. However, all were happy to change plans when Mike discovered that he needed to get back to Essex asap. Rather surprisingly then, apart from John J who had left for work, we found ourselves all congregated in Dublin Airport at 10am. To while away the hours, Peter produced his favourite board game "Isle of Skye" (in an "Attika" box), and after a few games we all said our farewells and returned to the Mother Land.