Between the paws of the Lion

Part 3 of my short series on the day I climbed Slieve Bearnagh

Narnia, Co Down style

As fans of the Lord of the Rings movies would no doubt attest, the scenery of New Zealand has a stunning other-worldly quality to it. A rugged and wild beauty that, as the camera pans across the vast expanses, transports you right into the heart of Middle Earth.

So, when the big chiefs at Disney were looking for a location in which to set their own fantasy franchise, Narnia, where else would they look but the extreme South-East Antipodean corner of our planet.

And, while I'm not sure that Narnia author CS Lewis would have disapproved of their choice, it's clear from his writings that he had a very definite location in mind when he visualised Narnia. And, while it too occupied a South Easterly location, it was firmly ensconced in the Northern Hemisphere. For the Ulsterman Lewis, Narnia was best visualised in his home country, and in particular the South-East County of Down. 

The Country of Down, draped with a light mist, as seen from the top of Cavehill

Lewis' vision of Narnia is clear in The Horse and His Boy: 'Narnia of the heathery mountains and thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forest,' a description that has clear echoes in one of his poems where he talks of 'The green hills ... The soft low hills of Down.' Even when living in England, it's clear the hold the county had on his imagination. 'I yearn to see County Down in the snow,' he wrote, 'one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true.'

Lewis clearly readily travelled there in his imagination when he thought of Co Down. And for me, as I continued my snow-bound journey up the County's Mourne Mountains in January, I too felt like I was transported into another land, a land of imagination, and land of dreams. The land of Narnia, hidden in plain sight in the SE corner of the land of Ulster. 

So far in my journey up Slieve Bearnagh, I've taken you through the early morning mists along the Trassey Track, up towards the saddle between Bearnagh and Slievenoglogh called Hare's Gap. It's a particular feature of the Mournes that, as you walk up from the outside, the true heart of the mountains is hidden from sight, partly by the ridges of the slopes themselves, and partly by the Mourne Wall that traces out the watershed of the inner Mournes. So, although Ryan and I didn't exactly stumble through the back of a darkened wardrobe before bursting into Narnia, between the Wall and the low cloud of early morning, we had no idea of the view that was about to be revealed. After one last view back down the Trassey Track at the route we had come it, it was time to go over the wall.

And, just on cue, the cloud that had draped the peaks in mystery and shrouded the sun in a natural filter started to break up. The sun poked through, the rich blues of the sky above were beginning to be revealed, and we stepped forward into a land the like of which I have never seen in Northern Ireland before. If anywhere on our planet is truly Narnia, this surely is it. 

Ryan enjoys the view that begins to open up in front of us

There is a short and very gentle further rise as you come over the wall at Hare's Gap. This acts as a slow reveal to the full splendour of the landscape ahead. The first things we saw were the snowy peaks on the other side of the Kilkeel River valley, with the mid morning winter sun just poking above them, as the dramatic clouds began to break up. 

And as you move towards the crest of this rise, more and more of the view opens up in front of you, and more and more of my breath was taken away. It stretched as far as the eye could see: from the ridge of Slievenaglogh; to the north to the tors of Binnian to the south. From the rounded summits of the mountains ahead to the glacier-sculpted floors of the valleys below. This was a snowy other-world, bathed in glorious sunlight which sparkled off the crisp snow underfoot, a world unlike any other in Ulster. They call in the Kingdom of Mourne. But, in my head and heart, I had immediately travelled with Lewis in my imagination into a parallel universe where animals could talk and where a fierce but good Lion roamed wild and free. If anywhere on our planet is truly Narnia, this was surely it. 

The full expanse of the landscape that greeted us over the wall

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis has a wonderful way of describing snow covered Narnia which has been the spell of the White Witch for 100 years: Mr Tumnus tells Lucy that it's 'always winter, but never Christmas.' The winter months can be long and hard - the weather can be harsh and unforgiving. But in the heart of the long nights and cold days, there's always Christmas to anticipate, with all the colours of the decorations and joy of celebrations enough to cut through the darkest of winter gloom. But a winter without Christmas? It so powerfully symbolises a world that is broken, that is less than it's meant to be. A world of promise that never quite delivers. 

And yet, as Lewis tells his story, the snows begin to melt, the spell begins to be broken, and the Yuletide promise arrives in the form of Father Christmas. And the cause of all this? Aslan is coming. The Lion is arriving, and his arrival breaks the spell. That day up in the Mournes, gazing out across the snow in the weeks just after Christmas, it was as if the arrival of the sun had redeemed the potentially harsh landscape. The snow wasn't melting; instead, the sunshine welcomed us in to a magical place, where the hope of restoration seemed reborn. Where hope breathed again. Like all great stories, redemption was coming. Aslan was here.

Click on this pano to explore the view in all it's glory. Click on the larger arrow, and select 2048 for highest def viewing.

And yet, even in the midst of these first magical moments, the mountains have a way of making sure you don't lose touch with the reality all around. Stunning as the Mournes are, you need to respect the mountains. And it was at this point that I was faced with a choice. I had hoped that my brother would have been able to join us for the trek this day. He is experienced in the Mournes, and I wanted my first climb of Bearnagh, especially given the snow, to be in the company of someone who knew what he was doing. But unfortunately, he was forced to pull out, and so it was decision time. While Ryan and I stopped for a quick break and some refreshments while enjoying the view in front of us, we chatted about where to go next. I could tell Ryan, with the fitness and bravery of youth on his side, was keen to press on up to the top. I didn't want to stand in his way, so I told him to head on and we made tentative arrangements to meet up later on the Brandy Pad (an old smugglers' track that runs across the Mournes). 

Some of the views that helped inspire my decision

So off he went, while I decided where exactly I would go. I watched some of the other walkers heading up the deep snow drifts along the side of the Mourne wall as it clung onto the steep slopes of Bearnagh. It looked like a tough ascent. I was itching to try it, but wary of my inexperience at the same time. 

Some folks brave the last ascent up Bearnagh - click on the arrows to the side to view the second photo

It was then that I met Paul. I wandered towards the foot of the final long slope of Bearnagh, towards the Mourne Wall at that point. A guy was sitting the shelter of the wall, enjoying the sun and a cup of tea. As you do in the Mournes, I got into conversation with him, telling him something of our experiences so far, and my dilemma about whether or not to head on up. 'Come on ahead,' he encouraged me. 'I've been up plenty of times before and I'll go up with you, at your pace. And don't worry,' he said, sizing me up, 'I'm no fitter than you are.' If I'd known then he was underselling himself to make me feel better and that has had actually bagged a couple of dozen Munroes in Scotland, I might have thought twice. But the lure of that most majestic of Mournes' peaks on a day when the sun was shining, the skies were blue, and the snow was thick underfoot was too much. 'Let's do this!' I replied. And off we set.  

The Walk NI website describes the final ascent up Bearnagh as follows: 'the slopes soon steepen again and do not relent until you arrive at the rock outcrops of the North Tor.' Relentless is indeed the word. It was slow going as we made our own footstep staircases in the deep snow that had drifted up the side of the Mourne Wall. One thing that comforted me was the fact that there were plenty of other foot prints already in the snow. 'Many others have clearly headed up today, so it must be fine,' I thought to myself. And then I would come across a really deep foot print where someone had clearly put their leg down a hole, hidden under the snow. 'Respect the mountain,' I thought as I picked my next few steps carefully. But Paul was a great encourager and leader, and slowly but steadily we made our way closer and closer to the top.

At one point, we met a couple of walkers who were coming down from the summit. We stopped with them for a chat, asking about their climb, and I took the chance to catch my breath again. These were two fine chaps, and were more than happy to pose for a photo or two for me.

And at last, just before we reached the North Tors, Paul directed me sideways as we followed one of the contours around the base of the North Tors and towards the small plateau on the top of Bearnagh. It was a relief to be moving in more of a diagonal way, and I was able to take my camera out once again to capture something of the scene that was opening up before us. Paul posed for a photo before he headed up the last little slope to the South Tors, leaving me to take a few photos.

And what views there were to enjoy. From this height, it really felt that the only mountain looking down on us (and even then, not by much) was Donard, with its peak shrouded in cloud. Dead ahead, off in the distance, were the tors of Binnian. I had first seen Bearnagh and its tors from all the way over there during last summer, when Bearnagh first started calling to me. So it felt quite full circle to be here looking back there. I had made it. I was nearing the summit of Bearnagh.

With Bearnagh's South Tor to the right, the tors of Binnian are just visible in the centre of the image, below the sun

The view of Bearnagh in the distance from the summit of Binnian, as seen in the wee small hours of the morning last July

As I stood, mesmerised by the view, the silence was broken by the sounds of some other folks enjoying the delights of Bearnagh. At first, it was the sounds of a small group of walkers, far below me down the flanks of the mountain. But in the still air, their cheerful voices easily drifted up to where I was standing. Then a couple of fell runners headed past me, skipping over the stones and boulders in the narrow path. Anyone who hikes up into the Mournes has my respect. Anyone who runs through the mountains with the agility of a goat is a whole different breed of human being, in my humble opinion! 

The fell runners - men, or goats!?!

But soon it was time to press on again to hook up with Paul. He had gone on to the South Tors for lunch. I was clear from my vantage point that getting there would involve another slight ascent. But it looked nowhere near as steep as the one I had just done, plus I was helped considerably by a significant tail wind. I didn't quite manage the match the pace of the fell runners I had just seen, but, for me, I fairly skipped up the last wee section, anticipating the views I would get from up there. 

It was at this point that I discovered that Bearnagh was going to be the mountain that just kept on giving that day. In keeping with earlier on, the views southward from the top are hidden as you rise up the last little slope. So it's only when you've finally made it to the top that you that you realise what these wonderful mountains and this glorious summit has waiting as a reward for all your endeavours.

I'm sure it was a combination of factors: the stunning weather, the great sense of adventure and achievement of having made it to the top, coupled with the fact that this was my first time seeing this view. But the only word I can think of is breathtaking. This mountain will steal away your very breath itself. Literally, as it forces you to dig deep as you ascend. But metaphorically too. The views that I was treated to are like nothing I have seen in all my years in Northern Ireland. 

The breathtaking view from Bearnagh's summit

First, there is the sheer scale of the panorama that opens up. There's Binnian to the left, with the long thin line of the Silent Valley stretched out along its western flank. And then there's Doan, a favourite climb of mine, looking like nothing more that a wee hill in comparison. Then there's Meelbeg and Meelmore to your right, their sweeping curves framing the view so well. And down below is the snow covered valley, draped out between the peaks.

Then, there was the weather. The low midday winter's sun lay directly ahead, its piercing brightness reflecting off the snow all around to bathe the whole scene in an ethereal and energising light. The place shimmered with life all around. And then there's the South Tors of Bearagh itself, resilient crags, standing proud on top of this majestic mountain. I had seen them from afar many times, but up close, on this snow covered day, they were all I imagined and more. The ice encrusted their surfaces, adding a delicate and ephemeral beauty to the enduring granite outcrops

The next half hour was spent in something of a giddy blur. Paul was there waiting, as was Ryan, and we spent the next 30 minutes absorbed the moment, taking photos of the views and of each other. Quite simply, they are some of my favourite photos I have yet taken.

This is a pano looking northwards from the South Tor. Click on the larger arrow, and select 2048 for highest def viewing.

Eventually, it was time to head down. Paul was keen to get back to his car before it got dark, and as it was about two hours back to the car park, we needed to get going. It's often said going down a mountain is more difficult than going up. In this case, I can't quite decide whether this applies or not! We went down the western flank of Bearnagh which seemed just as steep as the eastern side.

The view on the way down gave a great vantage point to look down on the summits of Meelmore and Meelbeg

We had to pick our way carefully down, using the boulders to stop us from simply tumbling to the bottom. This was the hard part. But at times the easiest way to get down that next little stretch was simply to slide in the snow. That was the easy - and fun - part! But it didn't take us too long before we were at the bottom of the steep slope and in the saddle between Bearnagh and Meelmore.

Our three intrepid explorers

From here, it seemed like a simply wee dander back down to Trassey Track and the car park. And chat was good, and the time passed quickly before there we were, back where we had started that morning before sunrise. 

Paul headed on back to his car, but I am indebted to him not only for his wonderful and entertaining stories, but for talking me into climbing to the top in the first place. But Ryan and I wanted to recreate the morning's shot in the Trassey River, this time looking back up as into clear skies. And there was Bearnagh straight ahead, this time revealed in all its glory. Less than an hour before this, I was standing on that peak. I had done it. I had fulfilled my ambition of climbing the mountain that had become my obsession since I first saw in the half light of dawn at 0400 last July. And I honestly don't think I could have picked a better occasion to do it.

Back where we started - what a difference a few hours make

As I finish and reflect on my journey into Narnia, I'm reminded of another famous quotation from the books.  

‘Is he - quite safe?’ said Susan. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver. ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’
— The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The very Lion whose presence breaks the evil spell, whose coming ushers in Christmas, whose arrival brings redemption, is himself far from safe. He is a lion, after all. But he is good. And so are the mountains. You need to respect them - they are not about playing it safe. But the goodness that lies in their heart is worth the risk. And, as I stood on the summit of Bearnagh, between those massive twin tors, it was as if I was standing between the paws of Aslan himself, come to redeem the depths of winter in this glorious, unsurpassed place. 

I'm sorry to all the good people of New Zealand. Your landscape appears truly stunning, but the real Narnia is ours. You're welcome to come pay us a visit anytime!


Part 1 

Part 2

Thanks to Rodney Harrison for inspiration for the title of this blog.

And watch out for a final blog about a wonderful post script to this day in the mountains.

Alistair HamillComment