Mourne wall from Slieve Muck
1. Read Robert MacFarlane’s, The Old Way’s, and grab a map (a paper one if you have it)
2. Now travel to somewhere new, somewhere spontaneous, somewhere where the scenery is different enough to attract your attention in a way the monotony of the contemporary city once did, or even more so.
3. Now walk, just pick a direction, and walk
4. Take off your shoes
5. Walk again, but walk in the mind of a child, as one experiencing every step with curious caution, and fresh innocence.
I wanted to begin this post with a challenge. One to anyone eager for a breath of fresh air, anyone who is reading this out of – the incredibly human invention – of boredom, especially if you just happened to stumble across it with ‘nothing better to do.’
By no means an uncommon book, I was recommended The Old Way’s by a friend and quickly discovered others who had been moved to contemplate the notion of paths, landscape, identity and heart though MacFarlane’s eloquently human and joyful writing. However it wasn’t till walking the Lagan Meadows with another companion who happened to take her shoes off – resulting in the burning of her soles given the unnatural heat of Belfast in these past few weeks of July – that I was struck with the essentially simple desire to experience landscape in one of the ways the author spends many of his walks, not without painful consequences of course, and that is barefoot.
Lough Shannagh from Slieve Muck
Spelga Dam, Silent Valley, and the lesser known lakes and pools of the Mourne Mountains sit as patches, sown in a loosely draped net by the incredible stone walls of the hills. Aware of the location from my childhood, my Lithuanian/Irish friend Kastytis Donauskis and I set off in search of a wall to follow and hill to climb. Kastytis has been a travel companion, unfortunate chauffeur, and endless pool of patience across the past year, although we share little ‘common’ interests, it is our differences and curiosity for new experiences that have found us drawn together to explore as much as we possible in recent days.
A lone and uneventful bus journey brought me to our meeting point in Dungannon, and from there Kastytis and I made a direct route to Hilltown in the Mourne mountain range. Briefly stopping off at the aforementioned Spelga Dam to stumble across a fossil like rock I have yet to examine, we finally eventually arrived at the midpoint of Slieve Muck. By no means a great nor challenging climb, this was an experiment for me, one of escape, change, and given that I had three vaccinations teasing me with their side effects from that very morning, it was also a relatively safe gamble in 28 Celsius heat – It may be worth noting how incredibly ‘Irish’ my skin is.
Shoes to one side, water, camera and a grapefruit in pack we set off, following a stone wall across the road and up towards an assumed summit in the distance. Even in the heat, the Mournes held true to their association with water, as marshy patches, small sink holes and run off repeatedly offered my city dwellers feet a ‘fresh’ taste of the real world.
From the lower point of the climb the range dominates the view, like a fort of land, creating a foreground against the sky, Spelga dam the only large variation of colour on the irregular green blanket. As we rose the grass gave way to a softer moss and cotton, swaying in the warm breeze which left the meadow brown’s fluttering endlessly. This blanket of plant life pockmarked in shards and slabs of granite must surely awaken anyone’s feet, to become conscious of every footfall, aware of where and what comes into contact with the sole of each step, the texture, temperature, moisture, all which changes constantly and surprises endlessly. My mind was moved to a state where an action as simple as walking, and a notion as unassuming as landscape, became an adventure in tactility.
I briefly put my shoes back on, to test the placebo of it all, maybe I was imaging this was something special, romanticising a well written book? That lasted all of a minute. My feet felt stifled, suffocated, and by extension my body, and my mind felt numbed and separated from the path I was taking. The further we climbed, the clearer it became that the summit we observed from the roadside was simply a change in gradient, and the hill extended higher and higher before us, however we trudged on, jokingly moaning about the heat and the weather – I doubt there are many in Northern Ireland that are as eternally dissatisfied with the weather in the ways we make ourselves out to be.
Mourne wall from Slieve Muck
Further on, and with the ground wetter still, I was surprised to find two small common frogs at this height, however it only reaffirmed the character of the territory we were in, all the while, the stone wall accompanying our accent, often at a gradient which seemed structurally impossible. The walls of the Mournes are a feat of will and determination which could inspire any man to push on with a climb, constantly aware that someone did it all before. While carrying boulders.
Mourne wall from Slieve Muck
But it was worth much more that the small struggle the hill asked of us, as the surrounding fortress of hills settled down into and below the horizon and the walls from all around came together to meet. Views extended to the coast and beyond, to further summits, to small towns and to the patchwork of green farmland. Views which allowed our eyes to touch water, grass, stone, mountain and air, while barefooted skin offered immersion like no other, sight and touch breathing it all in at the same time. As I returned to my shoes and the city – with a little added blood, granite can be troublesome for the clumsy – I realised I was returning with not just a new experience, but a new appreciation of the landscape, one that allowed me to see, breath, feel, contemplate and appreciate it humbly, like we all do the very first time.
Meeting point marker of the three walls on Slieve Muck
The Old Ways – Robert MacFarlane
The Eyes of the Skin – Juhani Pallasmaa