A day in the Mournes

The Mourne Mountains in County Down offers a wide range of attractions to visitors but local people think that much more needs to be done to bring them there.  Peter Cheney talks to local people working in the tourism sector about their pride in the area.

More marketing needed
As the owner of Annalong’s Harbour Inn, Sam Hamilton was kept “very, very busy” up until the smoking ban and the credit crunch.  Business now “seems to be on the up again” with more people spending money and tourist numbers “coming back to a certain extent.”

Most tourists are looking for nice accommodation and good food but he’s disappointed by a lack of support from Tourism NI.  Tours, he finds, focus on the North Coast and Newcastle and buses tend to go back and forward to Newry around the northern rim of the mountains.  There is “plenty of accommodation in the local area” but some B&Bs have closed due to lack of business.

“I have four luxury apartments there next door and I haven’t had an enquiry about one of them for the week of the golf,” Sam adds.  “I’m born and bred in the area, and I think that it’s a fantastic area for hill-walking.  We have all the amenities.  We have the Silent Valley.  We have golf courses all around us.”  He’s impressed by the regeneration of Newcastle’s promenade but wants to see people coming right through the Mournes on coach tours.

Mourne’s sheer beauty
As President of the Royal County Down Golf Club, David Wilson ranks the “stunning scenery” and the views from the links as “the best from any golf course in the world.” He comments: “I am sure tourists come to the Mournes for the sheer beauty of the area and opportunities for outdoor activities such as walking and just getting away from the town or city.”

The welcome for visitors in Newcastle and surrounding area is second to none “and there is a genuine warmth to this and a desire that visitors really enjoy the experience when they are here.” David struggles to think of scope for improvement. “The only downside is the beach along the Newcastle shore but I suspect that is the result of nature and there is a limit to what can be done,” he notes. “A beach of pure sand would be great.”

The sights of Newcastle
Patricia Maginn owns the Donard Bar in Newcastle and also operates a B&B in the town. Many visitors come to the Mournes for walking – which is “becoming much more popular” – and Tollymore Forest Park and the Royal County Down Golf Club are “huge” assets for the area. “Certainly the golf course is just amazing,” Patricia explains. “People are just bowled over and it really is considered the best in the world outside America.”

Others come for weddings and some tourists also use Newcastle as their base from which to explore Newcastle and even the North Coast. Patricia, who originally hails from County Westmeath, takes great pride in the outstanding natural beauty of the Mournes. Local people are also friendly and helpful and “give good service.”

Potential improvements include more car parking, more space between social housing units to help prevent anti-social behaviour, and better marketing, including national park status to put the Mournes more on the map for visitors.

Time for a cable car?
“I believe tourists are looking for the full package when visiting the Mournes,” says Claire Braniff. The proprietor of Wraps Fashions is also Vice-Chair of Newcastle’s Chamber of Commerce. “They want an adventure. Something that suits the whole family – walking, hiking and cycling as well as shopping and relaxation. While visiting, whether it be a weekend break or a week’s holiday, they want a memorable fun-filled holiday.”

Claire never tires of looking at the Mournes and sees a great need to tap into the area’s potential, which stretches well beyond the four days of the Irish Open. Newcastle beach needs to be kept clean all year round.

“When people mention Northern Ireland, their immediate connection is the Giant’s Causeway or Titanic,” she remarks. “We at the chamber feel this could be the adventure capital of Ireland. We need to concentrate on water sports as we are already renowned for the mountain sports – biking and hiking as well as mountain running – and, of course, the golf.”

One major innovation would be a gondola or cable car to the top of Slieve Donard. This “game changer” would bring more visitors and, in her view, action is now needed after several years of discussion. The whole family, including older and disabled people, would be able to take in the panoramic view: “The fact that so many mountainous regions in Europe have cable cars without ruining the environment should be enough to sway those who oppose it.”

The Tollymore experience
Park rangers Jason Weir and Barry Wells count it a real privilege to work in its varied landscape which takes up the foothills of the Mournes. “We have a wide range of people coming in and all are looking for something different,” Barry remarks. Many would come in “just to walk the dog in the morning” and the Easter holidays attract a lot of repeat visitors from families and church groups.

“And then there’s the hikers that would come in looking for just a base to park their car, walk through the park and out through the Mournes where there’s a few access points,” he continues. “In the inclement weather, there would be the hill walkers that would come in here to do their same walk but have a bit of shelter in amongst the trees.”

Jason adds: “I think we’re very lucky to have such a beautiful place.” A lot of people want to be involved with the park and the outlying forests by picking up litter or helping to conserve the environment for red squirrels.

One recent development has been the arrival of Game of Thrones enthusiasts from the USA, France and Spain who come to visit filming locations in the park. Barry comments that a balance needs to be struck between keeping the area’s “rugged-looking” character and also helping less abled people and family groups with smaller kids on buggies to make their way around the park. People like to feel that they are “in a bit of wilderness” as they explore the follies, bridges and stepping stones.

Retelling Mourne’s stories
Camilla Fitzpatrick manages the Mourne Mountains Landscape Partnership scheme from her office in Annalong. The programme aims to bring people into the mountains and involves a range of projects from constructing paths to storytelling.

“I was born and bred in the Mournes and the beauty of the area still takes my breath away,” she relates. “I never tire of the landscape as it constantly changes throughout the seasons.” Her role involves a lot of research and interaction with the local community: “We have really only scratched the surface in terms of uncovering the stories of the area. There is still so much more to be done.”

The area could benefit from a “big hook” to draw in the number of visitors traditionally enjoyed by the Giant’s Causeway or Titanic Belfast. This could mean focusing on existing facilities – such as the forest parks or the Silent Valley – and “developing these in an appropriate manner yet bringing greater revenue opportunities to the local industry.”

Nestling beside the harbour, Annalong Cornmill is the highlight for many visitors to the village. Generations of farmers brought sacks of oats to be milled here between the 1800s and 1960s. It was then reopened as a tourist attraction in 1985 by Newry and Mourne District Council.

The building was one of Ulster’s last working watermills and has a grain-drying kiln, three pairs of millstones, a 15ft water wheel, and a 20hp Marshall hot-bulb engine power unit. A £240,000 refurbishment, completed last year, includes new interpretation panels to bring its
story to life.

A personal touch matters
“They like it when you take an interest in them as people,” Ralda Purdy says of her guests at the Marine Villa B&B in Annalong. “They don’t like the autonomy of a big hotel.” She finds that tourists are often looking for small villages with a pub and small scale accommodation.

Originally from Newcastle, she is pleased that the effort that local people have put into the Mournes is beginning to pay off “and tourism for this area has been very, very good especially over the last two years.”

The room for improvement could include better liaison between tourist providers and Tourism NI. “The Silent Valley is probably the second most important part of Northern Ireland where our guests want to be,” Ralda remarks. “They want to see the Giant’s Causeway and the Silent Valley. The Tourist Board needs a bigger input into the Silent Valley. Facilities there have improved over the years but they could do a lot better.”

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