Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
8 August 2009
No. 22. Slemish Mountain, Co Antrim
When the Irish raiders returned home from Wales in 406AD with their newly captured slave boy Succoth, a strong teenage lad just right for heavy farm work, they must have thought they’d struck lucky. So they had, but not in the way they imagined. Young Succoth was put to minding Chief Milchu’s pigs in the pastures under Slemish Mountain, and it was the six long, lonely years he passed there that turned the stolen Briton’s thoughts towards God. Eventually Succoth escaped and made his way to the Continent for education. When he returned to the emerald island in his late thirties under his adopted name of Patrick, it was as a spiritual sledgehammer to crack the nut of Irish paganism.
You can’t picture Slemish without thinking of St Patrick. And you can’t catch sight of the old volcanic plug rearing skyward from the green fields of Antrim without wanting to climb it. That was what Jane decided, anyway, at first glimpse of the mountain. It took a year or two to make her dream come true, but on a windy summer afternoon the two of us found ourselves on the upward path that countless pilgrims have beaten out across the lower slopes of Slemish. Rain blocks were sliding across the outer Sperrins far to the west, and there was a bruised, ominous look to the sky – no day for faint-hearted walkers to be out and about, or swineherds for the matter of that.
This low-lying farming region of Antrim was a bubbling, smoking sea of boiling magma some 60 million years ago. When everything had cooled off, and the rains and frosts of many millions of years had eaten away the softer volcanic material, Slemish remained: a giant plug of basalt, craggy and proud, standing 500 feet above the surrounding lands, dominating all. The rugged shape of Slemish draws the eyes, and it draws the feet as if by magnetism. Up where the smooth pasture falls back and the path steepens among naked rocks of purple and black, you get a proper sense of climbing a mountain, a slip-and-slide upward progress which only the very fit accomplish without a breather or seven.
Underfoot the piled rocks gave out a hollow ring. Jane and I went steadily up, the gap between us widening as she stopped to sit on a ledge and catch the view. I wanted to have my back to all that until I could gaze on it from the summit, so I kept my eyes fixed on what was near at hand: heather, coarse mountain grass, clumps of tiny eyebright flowers sheltering under rocks, a spatter of sulphurous yellow tormentil. The lowing of cattle and barking of farm dogs came up from far below, but here on the mountain the sounds were of trickling streamlets, the tik! tik! of pipits, stones grating under my boots and the rasp of my own leaky bellows.
‘At last!’ sighed Jane as she came up over the brow of Slemish and turned round and round in high delight. Up on top we gulped air, gasping over the immense prospect: the giant volcanic steps of the Antrim coast, a blur of mountains overlooking Belfast, Lough Neagh a sword-shaped gleam, the rain-occluded Sperrins. Derek and Wilson from Coleraine had struggled up Slemish by another route, and they shared the whole glorious prospect with us, their arms flung wide, grinning fit to split their cheeks.
Did Patrick ever supervise swine on Slemish? We don’t actually know for sure. And does it really matter? Descending the steep and narrow pathway and walking back along the foot of the mountain, it was good to picture that homesick youth, herding stick in hand, striding the slopes of Slemish with mighty thoughts swirling around his tangled young head as Chief Milchru’s pigs went rooting in the bracken.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 Discoverer 9; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at www.walkni.com
Road: From Ballymena, A42 to Broughshane; Slemish is signposted (brown signs) from the town
WALK DIRECTIONS: From Slemish Visitor Centre car park (NB closes at dusk), follow the path towards the mountain (‘Antrim Hills Way’ waymarks). A very steep, well-worn path leads straight up the flank of Slemish to the summit.
At the top, turn right to the southern end of the summit ridge, and bear to your right down a grassy path, very steep and slippery, to the bottom of the mountain. Turn right along the path, passing ‘Antrim Hills Way’ waymarks, to return to the Slemish Visitor Centre car park
LENGTH: 1¼ miles: allow 1½ hours
CONDITIONS: This is a climb that most can manage. Take your time. Both upward and downward tracks are very steep for short sections. Slippery after rain – a stick helps balance. Sensible footwear with good sole treads is essential.
DON’T MISS … !
• Displays in Slemish Visitor Centre
• Mountain wildlife – pipits, skylarks, buzzards, ravens; eyebright, tormentil, elaborate star mosses
• The stunning view from the top, as far as Scotland on a clear day
REFRESHMENTS: Lally’s Larder, Main Street, Broughshane (028-2586-2366)
ACCOMMODATION: Loughconnolly Farmhouse, Broughshane (028-2586-4380; www.loughconnollybandb.co.uk) – £46 dble B&B
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks and Northern Ireland’s Quality Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.walkni.com; www.discoverireland.ie/walking
NATIONAL TRAILS DAY 2009: Sunday 4 October (www.nationaltrailsday.ie)
Tourist Office: The Braid, Ballymena (028-2563-5900; www.ballymena.gov.uk);