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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
peopleChildren leave in tears as Santa is caught smoking and drinking
Arts and Entertainment
A host of big name acts recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' in London on Saturday
musicCharity single tops chart
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall has become the eighth celebrity to leave Strictly Come Dancing
tv
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
News
i100
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
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

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin