International Bog Day 2020

Yesterday, 26th July was International Bog Day so to celebrate properly I went for a rather late evening hike up a very boggy Slieve Muck. Slieve Muck is in the Mourne Mountains between two reservoirs, Spelga Dam and the Silent Valley. I have previously attempted to summit this peak but was unsuccessful because I was getting some hassle from Ravens and I chickened out. By heck I am glad I went back because it was amazing.

I think it is safe to say that this peak offers some of the best views of the Mournes with the least amount of effort. It only took me 35 minutes to reach the top, not a difficult climb, just often wet and slippery but worth it. I parked along the road close to Spelga Dam, climbed the stile and started following the famous Mourne Wall. At times I had to drift away from the Mourne Wall as the ground was very wet, moving into the Heather and Sphagnum Moss was usually muddy and there was also some outcrop that couldn’t be passed. As you climb higher, you get a spectacular view of Spelga Dam and the surrounding area. As I finally reached the top I was excited to spot an OSNI Triangulation Pillar, I was unaware that there was one on this peak so it was a nice surprise. The Mourne Wall meets in 3 directions at the top of Slieve Muck and standing atop the stile over the wall I was treated with an amazing view. Standing in one spot, I could see all of the Mourne Mountains, The Irish Sea and the entrance to Carlingford Lough and it was pretty spectacular. I walked a little further, and thankfully I did because now I could see both Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs and the fantastic Lough Shannagh. It’s in the moments like these that you completely forget the tough hike and wet socks and you would be ready to do it all over again just to see this view. I met one other hiker and we chatted a little about the weather and the view and I brought up how wet and muddy the climb was, to which he replied “Sure it’s not called Slieve Muck for nothing”, he couldn’t be more right.

I always wanted to summit Slieve Muck, not just for the view but for the history. The mountain goes by another name locally, Poverty Mountain. Some believed that they can literally see Poverty wrote out on the mountain, and I must admit, I have definitely noticed a P-O-V standing out to me but no more than that. It was also named this because the locals lived in tough conditions and hard times, most of which were sheep farmers and one of those sheep farmers was my Grandfather. My mother tells me stories of her father going to the mountain with his sheep and it was always Slieve Muck. The sheep would be left there to graze for some time and then he would have to round them up again and bring them back to his farm. Walking up these slopes was exciting as I thought about how many times he would have taken these same steps. It may seem silly, but it made me feel a little closer to the man that I never got a chance to meet. He was supposedly a true mountain man who would sing and play his accordion for whatever audience he could find.

Of course, I was checking out the local flora and found some interesting things. The slopes were covered in Bell Heather, Sphagnum Moss and Bog Cotton, it is mostly the Blanket Bog form that occurs across the uplands of the Mourne Mountains. The Sphagnum Moss holds a lot of water and with a constant flow of water down this mountain the Sphagnum is working hard. It is quite amazing that you can hear the flow of water on the mountain, either the dripping along the outcrop or the gushing of the stream beneath the Mourne Wall. The landscape was also covered in the Yellow-flowered Tormentil and some small red and blue flowers that I have yet to identify in some of the wetter parts. I was incredibly surprised to find pond weed growing in a pool of water on the lower slopes. The water was only a few inches deep and was flowing quite quickly, but it was definitely a species of Potomageton which I believed only grew in lakes. As I was returning down the mountain, close to the bottom I saw something very special to me, a Peltigera Lichen. I squealed a little I was that excited. I have only ever seen Peltigera Lichen in Alberta in Canada, and they were mostly on the bases of large trees but here I found it on a small granite rock. It was only a small Peltigera but it meant a big deal to me. I also spotted some Cladonia Lichen and lots of Moss species on the granite rocks that make up the Mourne Wall. The landscape is not very diverse, it is exclusively used for grazing by sheep and I didn’t see much fauna, only a few small birds, one Raven and very few insects.

I spent Bog Day just as it should be spent; with squidgy footsteps, soggy socks and a happy heart.

What do you do when it rains; stay inside or grab a raincoat?

Most people hide from the rain, taking shelter indoors but I find that it makes me want to go exploring.

My ultimate favourite place to be when it is raining is along the beach. Any beach. There is something very special about it. There is usually very few people about, if any. I suppose it sounds very selfish, but I love having the beach to myself so this is perfect for me. I studied at the Ulster University Coleraine Campus, so I was very lucky to be surrounded by Northern Ireland’s beautiful North Coast and I used to visit the local beaches quite often. My favourite was Portstewart Strand, a 5-minute walk from my house, which I used for escaping the stresses of university of life. Quite often I woke early to head out there, especially when the weather was unfavourable. My housemates always thought that it was strange of me to enjoy the beach whilst the wind and rain hammered down on me, but after months I finally convinced one of them to join me, and he instantly understood why it appealed to me so much. He realised how refreshing and calming it was to stand on the open beach and to be truly surrounded by nature as it reached out to all of your senses. 

Rain in Northern Ireland usually comes with some pretty strong winds so the waves are usually crashing along the shoreline. It is these kinds of conditions that remind us of how fierce and powerful the ocean can be. I could sit on the shore for hours listening to the waves and watching the birdlife. 

So last week I had a free day, it was raining and I wanted to get out of the house, so I ventured to Murlough Nature Reserve outside Newcastle in County Down. It’s a place that I visited when I was younger but it has been some time since I have been there, so I am glad I thought of it. There were a few cars in the carpark so I wasn’t the only one brave enough to face the stormy weather.    

As I walked through the 6000-year old dune system I couldn’t help but watch the birdlife flying above me. The birdlife in this area is very interesting with many species to be found; Buzzards, Red Kites, Greybacks, Magpies, Oystercatchers and of course a few species of Gulls. It was amazing to watch these birds soar along with the strong winds, swooping in and out of the dunes with such ease. The closer I got to the shore, the louder the waves got and when I finally left the dunes behind and stood on the open sand the noises of nature were deafening, the waves, the winds and the calls of the birds. I took a few moments to take it all in. Then I began to try to capture the beauty before me, which often proves to be very difficult. As I looked along the shoreline towards Newcastle, I noticed how the mist had moved in around Slieve Donard. The Mountain was engulfed in white. Looking out towards the Irish Sea, it could have been a colour chart filled with greys displaying every grey you could imagine from the sky to the sea.

It is very difficult to portray the beauty of a dull, grey stormy scene through a camera lens, so I urge you to grab your raincoat and go out and experience it for yourself. 

Ruling the Roost

I began my ascent of Slieve Muck on a beautiful sunny September morning. The mountain has always caught my eye and I have always wanted to walk along this section of the Mourne Wall. I climbed the stile and started to follow the wall and immediately understood why this name was given to the mountain. It is definitely “Mucky” as the hillside is full of water, mud, Moss and Heather. Slieve Muck helps to feed the waters of Spelga Dam which lies directly below it.

As I walked further, I was intrigued by the sound of running water as t seems to run beneath the stones of the Mourne Wall. There is a lot of outcrop formations showing the underlying geology of the mountain and this explains the surface run-off waters. If souls are narrow between the surface and the underlying rock, the souls will saturate quickly and cause excess waters to flow down the mountain. This water created waterfalls on the most minute scale. With the sun shining down on the mountain, these patches of wet rock glistened and sparkles, and was quite beautiful.

The higher I got, the more I could appreciate the view of Spelga Dam with the old road and bridge still visible. For a while I just stayed there, watching how the shadows of the clouds changed the landscape. I let the winds rush past me. The sound of traffic was starting to fade and all I could hear was the wind and the birds. Suddenly I realised just how many birds there was.

From the bottom of the mountain I had spotted a few large Ravens flying along the summit of the mountain. But I had been distracted by my surroundings and missed the gathering of Ravens that were now circling me. They were making a lot of noise now, as if calling in for more recruits.

Now, I do love birds, but have you ever seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie called The Birds? Well, it was the only thing going through my head at that minute. The gist of the film is a pack of birds that terrorise a town, attacking the people and ultimately pecking them to death. I was aware that I was being a bit dramatic, so I kept on walking as just paid more attention to the birds. I think I counted the birds every few minutes and their numbers kept growing. Some were soaring high above the mountain, some were perched on the wall and others flew behind me. I was determined not to let them deter me from my summit. Then they started to fly closer to me, so close that I could hear the flapping of their wings and that was a bit too close for comfort. Their swooping and circling felt like threats and the higher I climbed the more aggressive they got. So, I called it a day. I turned around and started my descent. Immediately the Ravens began to fly further away from me and their numbers started to dwindle. Their forces were retreating as I was. The calls continued but they were no longer threatening, they now sounded like cackling. I guess they were happy that I had been defeated.

There should be an important rule to follow whilst exploring nature, to back off when you are infringing on wildlife. I was moving closer to their roost, their habitat and their home, so the Ravens were simply defending their territory and it is my responsibility to respect that. I will venture back to this area and try to reach the summit but on this day, the Ravens were ruling the roost.

Greencastle, Co.Down.

On a beautiful Summers day, I decided to venture out and explore another local historical site. My curiosity brought me to Greencastle, a place that I have been to many times, but I have never been lucky enough to see from inside the walls. This was very exciting for me to learn more about a place I thought I already knew. I was very happy to see information boards around the property for the public to use.

Greencastle is a Mid-13th Century Keep with a courtyard, an enclosed wall containing four D-shaped towers in the corners and a ditch surrounding this wall. The castle was key for overlooking the entrance to Carlingford Lough and was essential to Hugh de Lacy. Hugh de Lacy was the first Earl of Ulster and built castles/keeps in Warrenpoint and Carlingford, hence, Greencastle acted as the first defence for his other lordships. Over the centuries, the castles at Greencastle and Carlingford become strategic royal possessions as they guarded the entrance to Ulster via Carlingford Lough. As an Ulster stronghold, Greencastle was targeted and came under attack many times over the years. There is a lot of evidence of additional building to the castle throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries and this may be due to attacks on the building and the need for repairs.

As I entered the ground floor, I got an eerie feeling throughout my body, I wasn’t scared or worried, I just felt very aware of everything. Maybe this feeling was my subconscious telling me to look out for the “Murder Hole” – a hole in a wall or floor that could be used to throw boiling oil at or use weapons against attackers. Maybe this eerie feeling was because I was standing on a spot where many met their demise.

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Walls of ground floor with Swallow nests

The ground floor was originally one large room, with small arrow slots and thick stone walls. Divisions had been added to the ground floor over the years, and it now stands as three chambers, all very dark and cold. As I stood appreciating the large stone walls around me, there was a sudden flutter, and a Swallow flew past me. I quickly located the nest in the wall that it had just came from, the walls had lots of little nooks and crannies and I soon spotted more nests throughout the castle grounds. The information board on the ground floor informed me that this area was the safest part of the keep, with the thickest stone walls and smallest windows, it was even deemed fire-proof. So, this could area could have been used for storage of food, weapons or ammunition and of course, men. 

I followed the staircase up to the 1st floor which houses the impressive great hall. A large room with a fireplace, some large windows and a private latrine (Toilet) which would have been used for communal dining and the demonstration of power and status. It is hard to stand here without imagining this room during a large communal dinner; what would everyone be wearing? What would they be eating? Would there be music and performances carried out here? Another thing to ponder would be whether this room was used for administering justice; was a man ever put to his death in this very room? Did the people in this room have a vote on what happened with justice or did the Earl have the last say?

 

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Overlooking the Great Hall

As my mind wandered into so many questions that cannot be answered I finally followed the spiral staircase up to the 2nd floor. Up here is the wall walk and the entrance to the corner towers of the keep. I was very impressed that along the wall walk there were holes in the stones along the ground which acted as drainage for run-off water from the roof. The wall walk offers beautiful views of the surrounding farmland, the Mourne Mountains, the Cooley Peninsula, Greencastle Beach, Greenore, Carlingford and of course, Carlingford Lough. Each corner tower had private quarters and a latrine, and I must say these must be some of the most scenic views from a toilet I will ever experience in my life.

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Wall Walk overlooking the Mourne Mountains

I stayed at the highest point for a while, taking photos at first and then just appreciating it all. I watched the new Greencastle Ferry full of passengers as it crossed the lough. I listened to the children running about the castle walls, laughing as they found new places to hide. Altogether, it gave me great peace, even as the wind blowing up from the shore whipped around my face.

 

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View of Carlingford Lough, Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula 

Finally, I left the Keep and had a better look all around the grounds. Part of the castle grounds is privately owned so the public are unable to see all  of the outer wall and tower ruins. One of the towers can be explored but it is well weathered and damaged. It is easy to see the D-shape of the tower and some of the building is still standing where you can see small living quarters with a latrine. It was interesting to see where the real brave men slept as they would have been the first of the soldiers to put their life on the line for protecting the castle.

 

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View of Castle from D-shaped tower in outer wall

When I was ready to leave Greencastle, I was again startled by the fluttering of Swallows in and out of the walls. The number of nests that I seen was quite remarkable, never mind all of those that I couldn’t see. There were plenty of spiders crawling between the cracks and I caught a glimpse of a few Large White Butterflies and one Red Admiral Butterfly. I thought that it was incredible that nature had reclaimed this old ruin and that this once thriving fort was still full of life.

 

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Corridor in N wall 

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One of four latrines found on the top of the Keep

Narrow Water Keep, Warrenpoint, Co.Down.

I took a walk back through time this afternoon whilst visiting the Keep at Narrow Water Castle, situated outside the town of Warrenpoint, County Down. This 16th Century Keep lies along the shores of Carlingford Lough where it meets the Newry River.

There has been a Keep here since 1212, built by Hugh de Lacy who was he first Earl of Ulster. Later during the 1560’s the tower-house and walled bawn was built and in 1641 the original Keep was destroyed during a rebellion. The style of the Keep was very typical for the period and would be found throughout Ireland.

The Keep is a building that I have grew up with, seeing it throughout every season, year after year. I have photographed it from many positions outside the grounds and from mountain tops overlooking it, but being inside was something special. Today was the first time that I have been able to explore within the walls and it was worth the wait.

It may be selfish, but I was so happy that the place was completely empty so I could explore everything alone. I ventured through the impressive doorway and found a large room with a wooden beam ceiling and some very small windows. For such a beautiful sunny day outside, it was pretty dark with such little light peaking through the windows so I imagine when the keep was in use that a vast amount of candles and fires would have been required for lighting. I began to make my way upstairs and this included a steep narrow staircase. This brought me to such an impressive room. The ceiling of the entire 1st floor of the keep is a semi-circular arch built in stone. This room also had larger windows and a latrine. The largest window boasted a beautiful view of the water and was facing North towards Newry. It is what I assumed to be an early bay-style window, but I was wrong, very wrong. I discovered that this is what was called the “Murder Hole”. And there it was, a hole through the ground at the window which was right above the entrance to the building, which would have been used by defenders to fire or throw objects or weapons towards any attackers. I’m sure they could have even used boiling oil if needed here. I’m aware that during any Medieval themed film that I have seen that there has definitely been a scene using a Murder Hole but it still surprised me to see this beautiful and quaint section of the keep to be titled with such a grim name.  So, I finally continued on to the 2nd floor which had more little rooms running off it with tiny windows peering out into the Lough. These rooms could have been sleeping quarters, or kitchens or for storage, I would love to know. Sadly, the roof of the keep is closed off to the public, but I would love for them to change this as the view from the top would be amazing.

Whilst looking around I can’t help but picture the soldiers that would have been manning the keep. I stood where they would have stood, manning the fort through those little windows. I felt very thankful to them, because they protected what is now my home; the busy community driven town of Warrenpoint.

 

 

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Want some Jelly with your Ice-cream?

There is nothing more typical of my Northern Irish culture than to head to the beach on my day off work to enjoy an ice-cream, most likely a 99.

So yesterday I ventured out to two local beaches for a short stroll. Firstly, I visited Greencastle Beach and then I went on to Cranfield Beach, both of which lie on the shores of Carlingford Lough. Both beaches are popular for leisure and Greencastle has a working ferry and lots of smaller boats anchored along the shore.

I am pretty sure that the first time I had every seen a Jellyfish was on Greencastle Beach and yesterdays experience did not disappoint. To my surprise the beach was flocked with small Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita also called Common Jellyfish. True to its name, this species is a very common sight around British and Irish shores and it is this species that I have seen before. They can be identified by their four purple rings that can be seen very clearly within their whitish translucent bodies. Their sting is very weak and should not be too much of a problem for people in the water or on the shore.

Moon Jellyfish/ Common Jellyfish (Aurelia Aurita)

As I walked further along the waterline I found larger jellyfish that I had never seen before and they are the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata). These are very impressive with their bright orange/red colour and are the largest jelly species in the world. Although the Lion’s Mane prefer cooler waters it is becoming more common to find them stranded along British and Irish coastlines. This species comes with a powerful sting in and out of the water so great care must be taken when visiting the beach during the Summer months.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata)

As I arrived at Cranfield Beach there was a noticeable difference between the beaches in relation to stranded Jellyfish. Cranfield and Greencastle are only minutes from each other but there are vast differences, Cranfield is a Blue-Flag Beach and Greencastle has a more rocky shore and pebbled beach. Although I did spot some Jellyfish on Cranfield, they were much smaller and it was mainly the Moon Jellyfish present here. I spotted one Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii) on the beach and I didn’t see any of the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. The Blue Jellyfish is small and translucent like the Moon Jelly but has a more vivid Blue colour on it. This species has a mild sting which has been compared to that of a Nettle sting.

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Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii)

I found it astonishing to see so many Jellyfish but very sad that they had to be stranded for me to see them. Unfortunately, most of the individuals that I seen yesterday will have dehydrated and died before the tide came back for them. Only the larger individuals will have had a fighting chance. As they float along in currents, they are quite defenceless to stranding between tides.

So appreciate the beauty of these Jellyfish but from a distance as even when stranded they can still sting.

What to do if you have been stung by a Jellyfish;

  • If in water, get out immediately
  • If there are any stingers left in your skin, remove them if possible as they will continue to sting you
  • Apply heat to relieve pain
  • Take paracetamol to relieve pain
  • If pain persists, seek medical attention
  • DO NOT URINATE ON THE STING (This is a MYTH and will not help in any way)

For more information follow the link below providing information from the NHS;

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jellyfish-and-other-sea-creature-stings/