‘I take groups of people of all ages and stages out walking all over this area,’ said Martin McGuigan as he steered his minibus up to Crockataggart, ‘and I can honestly say I enjoy every single outing. There’s something about the Sperrin Hills – they’re not exactly mighty mountains, you know, but they do have a kind of magic, a wild magic, to them.’
The few houses of Crockataggart, tin-roofed and ruinous, were slowly collapsing into the arms of ferns and mosses. We climbed away up the mountain road, riding our luck between rain bursts, watching in awe and appreciation as dense rainstorms went charging across the plains of Antrim some forty miles off, diluting the silvery gleam of Lough Neagh to a misty gauze.
Up on the saddle of Crockmore we swung to the west, a gentle climb on a rain-sodden green road that bought us to the summit of Crockbrack where a big wind was blowing. The view simply stopped us in our tracks. There can’t have been less than a hundred miles in view, with the olive-and-grey shoulders of the Sperrins dominating the middle distance. Of all the mountain peaks and ridges in view, it was the solitary bulk of Slieve Gallion down in the southeast that caught our eye as a rogue bar of light slid across it.
‘Do you know that song called ‘Slieve Gallion Brae’?’ enquired Martin. I didn’t. Would he give me a lick of it? Oh, you wouldn’t like my singing at all. Like an old crow. Well, I could maybe give it a go … After a minute or so of contemplation and tune-gathering, Martin put back his head and diffidently sang:
‘As I woke up one morning, all in the month of May,
To view all your valleys and mountains so gay,
I was dreaming of the flowers that were going to decay,
That blow upon your bonny, bonny Slieve Gallion brae.’
The retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age and ten ensuing millennia of weathering had kindly provided us with seat-shaped rocks on which to munch our sandwiches in a green cleft at the head of the infant Drumderg River. Goat’s cheese and tomato – is there a finer filling anywhere on God’s earth?
Idling in this cleft of the eastern Sperrins with the hill burns trickling and a stonechat gushing out his metallic little call, I reflected on the marvellous but eerie emptiness of this mountain range. The Sperrins seem caught under a cloak of invisibility. Long may that continue, I thought with selfish pleasure as I brushed the last crumbs of goat’s cheese from my knees.
The lichen-draped fence led us up to the gentle summit of Craigbane, where a stony lane ran away eastward. Blood-red lanterns of fuchsia bobbed to each raindrop in the hedges as we came off the mountains and through a derelict farmyard. An old iron boiler lay under a bush. ‘I was one of 16 children,’ Martin remarked, prodding it reflectively with his boot, ‘and we’d boil up our potatoes in a thing like this, and a bit of swill for the pig.’
We strolled on through green pastures, chatting and yarn-spinning as we made for Crockataggart along a path known as Hudy’s Way. ‘Oh, it’s named after Hudy McGuigan,’ said Martin, ‘now he would have been a relation of mine, way back. A bit of a local character. He’d ride his horse around stark naked. And there was one time he tried to fly off a mountain with a pair of goose-feather wings. Did he succeed? Well – he came down to earth with a bang, let’s say …’
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery Series Sheet 13.
Bus: Sperrin Rambler Service 403 runs to Draperstown from Magherafelt and Omagh (02890-666630; www.translink.co.uk).
Road: A31 to Magherafelt; B40 to Draperstown and Moneyneany. Just before entering Moneyneany, left (OS ref 754967 – Ulster Way sign) up side lane. In ½ mile, right (Ulster Way/Hudy’s Way signs). In another ½ mile, park – neatly, please! – at ‘Crockataggart’ sign beside farm (741969).
From Crockataggart sign, left up lane (‘Ulster Way’) to summit of Crockmore (725955). Right on green road towards Crockbrack; follow fence over summit of Crockbrack (718957). Where side fence descends to right (712958), follow it into glen at head of Drumderg River (712964) and up to cross fence on Craigbane by stile (711970). Right along stony lane beside fence. In ½ mile ignore track joining on left (719974); continue down as stony surface gives way to tarmac. When nearly under power lines, right through gate by ruined house (738973; ‘Hudy’s Way’). Keep same line across field to fence. Left to descend, cross stile, then cross Drumderg River by steel bridge (740972). Up steps, cross field, up track to Crockataggart.
LENGTH: 6 miles
CONDITIONS: Undemanding mountain walk – but take raingear, walking boots.
DON’T MISS … !
• view from Crockbrack
• picnic in glen at head of Drumderg River
REFRESHMENTS: None en route – take picnic
ACCOMMODATION: Laurel Villa Townhouse, 60 Church Street, Magherafelt, Co. Derry BT45 6AW (02879-301459; www.laurel-villa.com) – friendly, well-run family house, with a strong liking for poets and poetry! From £70 dble B&B.
WALKING COMPANY/GUIDE: Martin McGuigan, Walk On The Wild Side (02880-758452 / 07714-835-977; www.walkwithmarty.com)
Details of dozens of local short, medium and long walks in Northern Ireland at www.walkni.com
Sperrins Tourism (www.sperrinstourism.com); Northern Ireland Tourist Board (www.discovernorthernireland.com).
Tourist Office: Burn Road, Cookstown (028-8676-9949)
Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
18 April 2009