This is no bog-standard mountain hike

Walk Of The Month: The Sperrins - It's a rugged place of ancient stone circles and battlefields. And there's gold in them there hills. Mark Rowe steps out

Low clouds rushed past overhead, dipping to squeeze through the narrow valleys of the Sperrins, Northern Ireland's biggest mountain range.

The autumnal gloom merely enhanced the atmospheric setting and lush hillsides, whose flanks are home to ancient cairns and fairy trees – perhaps a solitary hawthorn – that are never to be felled, nor their fallen branches gathered, for reasons of genuinely felt superstition.

The Sperrins, roughly 60 miles west of Belfast, and topped and tailed by counties Derry and Omagh, cover 100 square kilometres (39 square miles). And, despite being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, almost no one knows about them. They are a forgotten, lonely corner of the UK.

My walk started in the car park at Drumnaspar, two miles east of Plumbridge, one of only a handful of large villages and small towns on the map in this part of the world. It is also the name of the ridge that rises to the east. The name translates as "ridge of the battle axe" and these steep-sided, narrowing valleys were the site of one of the first major victories of the Irish over the Vikings in 856.

You won't see a Viking, or almost anyone else, on foot here these days. But I had a companion for my walk through Glenelly, or Fortress Glen – Brendan Gormley, a phenomenally knowledgeable local guide. Up on the hills to the north were the remains of ringed forts, or enclosed farmsteads, known as raths; across the Sperrins there are 90 stone circles; on our left the Glenelly River rushed along on its westwards journey to Lough Foyle.

"The Sperrins are very sparsely populated, so you have the real chance to be somewhere on your own," said Brendan, as, almost on cue, he reached down to point out a four-leaf clover. "You're likely to have the hills completely to yourself. There are huge tracks of hill. You can see heaths and bogs, and there's nothing else for a long, long way."

The Sperrins get their name from the Irish Na Speiríní, meaning "spurs of rock", though they are much more rounded and less angular than this implies. They date back 600 million years and comprise low-grade slate, and quartz, which is the source of the local tradition of panning for gold. (Don't rush – if you panned for a year or two you might just get enough for a filling.) The Sperrin range, a succession of whaleback peaks, dominates the skyline, reaching their highest on Sawel (2,224ft). The Ice Age sheered off the rough edges, giving them the appearance of inverted pudding bowls.

After a mile, we came to Toberanna, a sheltered shrine with a Virgin Mary, though such wells and shrines have their roots firmly in the pagan past. "People in Glenelly were supposed to be particularly barbarous and pagan," said Brendan, although local evidence suggests St Patrick had passed this spot. We reached the pass known as the Barnes Gap. (Thanks to linguistic confusions, Barnes means "gap" in Gaelic, so pedants will be pleased to note the name means "Gap Gap".) Heading uphill, you're sure to pass the yappy dogs of the local farm – their barking has become a rite of passage for hikers in the Sperrins.

This was the heart of the Sperrins: lumpy hills closed in to the west, with exposed rocky walls the lonely home of peregrine falcons. Off to the left, we took a short detour along a track to a Mass rock, where Irish worshippers, forbidden to practise in churches, held services in the open air. The views opened up to the south and west, and we followed a delightful path along the contours of the mountain, passing the mournful remains of abandoned houses. The verges were home to pixie caps, small mushrooms that yield a black ink when squeezed.

Our route climbed up to Craignamaddy Ridge. The panorama on a clear day is reward for the plodding, boggy climb – the Mourne to the east, the conical shape of Muckish to the west in the Donegal highlands, and the Sperrins bouncing along to the north. The top of the ridge is also a watershed, and sheep have disappeared for good in some of the deeper cracks in the bogs. No walkers have yet suffered the same fate and since the peat here dates back 3,600 years, it's high time more of us explored the superb scenery.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Translink Ulster Bus (028-90 666630; translink.co.uk) runs between Omagh and Plumbridge and stops at the car park. Mark Rowe stayed at Ardtara Guesthouse, Upperlands (028-796 44490; ardtara.com), which offers B&B from £99 per room per night.

Further information

Sperrinstourism.com, discovernorthernireland.com, discoverireland.com/gb/. About Ulster (028-81 647112; aboutulster.eu), run by Brendan Gormley and Martin Bradley, offers highly recommended bespoke guided walks around Northern Ireland.

Directions

Distance: Seven miles

Time: Four-five hours

OS Map: Sperrins 1/25,000, Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Route: From Drumnaspar car park, turn left along the road and first left, signposted Barnes Gap, over the bridge. Follow the road left, with the river on your left. Continue for 2.5 miles to Barnes Gap car park. Turn right, go uphill along the second of two lanes, marked for the Craignamaddy circuit. Turn right at the top. After a mile, bear half-right, follow marker for the Craignamaddy circuit. Ignore a waymarked stile over a fence and instead continue ahead until you reach a farm with red gates. Walk across the front of the farmhouse and follow the track uphill with the fence on your right. After 200 yards, turn left uphill, keeping ahead to the ridge and a fence. Turn right, crossing a low fence, and cross the stile. Follow the posts across the bogs to a stile and the rough track downhill. The path becomes a road. At the first crossroads by the "Give Way" sign, turn right downhill; at the next meeting of lanes, continue straight ahead; at the T-junction, turn left to return to the car park.

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
Louis van Gaal at the Hawthorns prior to Manchester United's game against West Brom
football

Follow the latest updates from the Monday night Premier League fixture

News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past