You wouldn't know what it was goin' to do
We have a great wee saying here in Northern Ireland. It's almost always employed on those days of very changeable weather that are all too common in the Emerald Isle; you know, those 'fours seasons in one day' kind of days.
You'll meet someone who's just had a real drenching in a heavy rain shower. They'll be wet, dripping all over the place, while the sun that has just come out tries in vain to dry them off in the short time it has to visit with us, before the next shower comes along. They'll turn to you: "What a day!" they'll say (to which, "Aye" is the common response). And then, here it comes: "You wouldn't know what it was goin' to do next."
I love that wee saying. Partly because it summarises perfectly the changeable nature of our weather here. But also partly because it what it actually expresses is the total opposite of what it means. It points to the supposed unpredictability of the weather. When, in actual fact, you do know exactly what it's going to do next: if it's raining now, it'll be sunny next; if it's sunny now, it'll be raining next. It's your classic 'sunshine and showers weather' that is oh so typical of Northern Ireland.
I experienced just this predictably unpredictable weather up the Mournes just the other night. The forecast had suggested that the SE corner of Northern Ireland would be clear and sunny into the evening time, as an occluded front tracked northwards. So myself and fellow photographer, Peter Lennon, decided to head up a new mountain for both of us in the hope of catching some glorious low light shining across the gorgeous greens and purples of the Mournes at this time of year.
As we headed south, the cloud was low and thick, and didn't look too promising. And the forecast keep changing, putting off when the little sun symbols appeared over Newcastle. But there comes a point in your journey south when you've come far enough to say to yourself, sure, let's head up and see what happens.
And so it was that we found ourselves at the car park in the Western Mournes, under skies that were resolutely grey, gazing up at the mountain range more in hope than expectation. And off we set!
For both of us, it was our first time up in the lower Western Mournes. We both have been on a journey of discovery of the High Mournes to the East. But tonight, it was something new, and a chance to scope out this location, even if the light didn't improve. Our goal was Pierces Castles, a tor-covered summit overlooking the Western Mournes
On the way up, we stopped at a river for a quick shot - only to be set upon by the biggest plague of midges I have even experienced! I normally am not bothered by these troublesome little critters. But they got a taste for me that evening and were determined to gorge on some delicate hiker!
So we quickly packed up, and got on the move again. The ascent up to Pierces Castle is a very accessible one indeed. There is a clear path to follow, winding up along a river valley towards the rolling summits ahead. And, unlike some of the longer hikes in the High Mournes, as soon as you're out of the car, you're heading up - and heading up at a relatively gentle incline.
And so, it was barely an hour before we saw the tors of Pierces Castle just before us. The cloud still hung overhead, but there were hints of blue skies and sun shining on the landscape in places all around the Mournes, so we lived in hope that the forecast would be right and the skies would clear.
So we headed to the summit to discover a range of granite slabs and rock outcrops, and of course the flowering heather creating the 'purple-headed mountains' - everything was in place for exactly the kind of thing you look out for for foreground interest. All around, the Mournes landscape opened up around us. It was similar to what we have come to know and love in the High Mournes. But not identical. The valleys are more rolling, the summits less imposing. It's an altogether more gentle landscape, but still so beautiful - especially when viewed from above. We instantly fell in love with in - especially as the wind was fast enough there to blow the midges far away!
And so, we were in place. All we needed was the cloud to clear and the light to switch on to bring the landscape to life. Cue an hour of very changeable weather, however. The light danced to our West, casting some of the more far off hills and valleys into golden relief. The green slopes of Slieve Croob glistened under the light of the sun.
But the cloud over us refused to break. In fact, at times it closed down over us. At one point, it got so low that we couldn't see any of the other peaks around us and even Peter became a little misty on the other side of the summit as visibility dropped to below 20 m. Then it lifted again, revealing the slopes - before a shower rain would track across the valley towards us and cause us to put our cameras back in our bags.
Don't get the wrong: moody light like this can be great for the mountains, and I certainly shot away during the evening as the cloud and light changed. But the light never quite cascaded down across the valleys in the way I was hoping.
With all the changeable light, I said to Peter as we lived in hope for a break in the clouds, "One thing's for certain: whatever it's like now, it's not going to be like this in 15 minutes."
The light appears
And then, it happened. One of the shafts of golden light that was tracking behind Altataggart Mountain to our West broke free. The sun just about became visible, playing peek-a-boo below the cloud. And the sun painted the flanks of Tornamrock and Rocky Mountain in the most exquisite of golden hues.
My problem was that I wasn't in position for this - it had caught me completely off guard! So I rushed off the top of the summit tor and headed forward a bit to get some granite slabs and heather into position for the composition I wanted. It was a rush - I knew this light would last only a few moments. I had one chance - would I nail it?
I scanned around for the elements and lines I was looking for, tried to get the tripod locked into position on the very uneven ground, and snapped off half a dozen shots. And then - it was gone. The sun went hiding again; the light disappeared. That was our chance.
We waited another half and hour or so for sunset in the hope it would clear again. In the meantime, more rain and mist came and went; but the light never returned.
And, as if to rub in the changeable nature of the weather than evening, about 10 minutes after sunset, the cloud above us vanished suddenly, in the matter of a couple of minutes. Views that had been down to less than 20 m not long before opened up for the first time to allow us to see Lough Neagh to the West, Slieve Gullion to the South West and the Belfast Hills to the North. By then, of course, it was too late, and the light had gone. That said, as the dramatic clouds rolled away to the East, they allowed for some great views of the High Mournes (including the unmistakable tors of Bearnagh in the distance).
So we began our ascent, with the clear skies promised by the forecast at last above our heads. The weather was decidedly changeable during our trip. We had one moment of glorious light - but it turns out, that's really all you need. We may not have know what it was going to do next - but that just added to the drama and the adventure of our first trip up into the Western Mournes. We will be back soon - and hopefully next time the weather will be a bit better behaved!