Going off-grid amid the drama of Northern Ireland's Sperrin Mountains
The Sperrin Mountains are an ancient, storied landscape of stone circles, dark skies and literary trails rising from the emerald pastures between Derry and Belfast. A meandering road trip through mid-Ulster offers the ultimate rural escape.
Driving from Dublin to Davagh has been a journey from city to villages, motorways to country roads, from four bars of phone reception to — depending on the hollow I’m entering — zero bars. A hen harrier floats over an old shed with a rusting, corrugated roof, and when I park my car in a forest in the thick of County Tyrone, the door shuts with a beautifully muffled thump. It feels like audio made in a recording studio. The pines and spruce and mosses and blanket bog here, together with the bowl-shaped depression in which Davagh Forest Park sits, all seem to contribute to this unearthly soundscape. When I point it out to Seán Clarke, a farmer and part-time guide I’ve arranged to meet for a walk through the trees and the forest’s archaeological treasures, he smiles.
“You can hear someone hammering a fence post for a mile here, or the cry of a calf or a lamb,” he says. And, after a pause: “For an unusually long distance, you know.” This bowl scooped out of the landscape (Davagh means ‘cauldron’) blocks out something else, too. ‘Sky glow’ is a term I learn at OM Dark Sky Observatory, newly opened in a forest clearing here. It refers to light pollution, and displays inside explain why this remote area, secreted away in Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains, recently became the world’s 78th International Dark Sky Park. “The 77th was in the Grand Canyon,” guide Erin Lennox tells me proudly. There’s an image of the planet Saturn on her name pin.
Most people on Earth live under ‘sky glow’, I learn, with artificial light fogging our views of the heavens. Not here. On a winter’s night in Davagh, you can make out the haze of the Milky Way with the naked eye. In the right conditions (admittedly, not always a guarantee on the island of Ireland), you may even see the faint glow of the Northern Lights. “You can use the stars like stepping stones across a river,” Erin says, leading me through displays ranging from the Plough to Polaris, Cassiopeia and beyond. At the top level of the observatory, a 14-inch telescope sits beneath a retractable roof, picking up 650 times more light than the human eye. After spending much of the past year in lockdown, confined to as little as one mile from home, this sudden burst of perspective is head-melting. And yet still, space is remarkably close. The shooting stars you sometimes see overhead are just 60 miles or so away. “You’ve travelled further than that today,” Erin smiles.
The newly opened OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory in Davagh Forest, set in one of only two internationally designated Dark Sky Parks in Ireland.
Tyrone is Northern Ireland’s biggest county and the Sperrins are one of the island’s biggest mountain ranges. Before this trip, however, I’d have struggled to place either a map. I don’t think I’m alone. Visitors tend to make a beeline for Belfast, drive the Causeway Coast or hit up flagship attractions like the Giant’s Causeway or Carrick-a-Rede’s vertigo-inducing rope bridge. Far fewer meander off-grid in mid-Ulster — though it can be as little as an hour’s drive from Belfast or Derry. The Sperrins sprawl along the Derry and Tyrone border, with 10 peaks in excess of 1,600ft and the highest at 2,224ft (the name comes from speirín, which means ‘little spur’ in Irish). There are four signposted scenic driving routes, and for many magical minutes at a time, I have the roads to myself. On the B47 between Sperrin and Plumbridge, I pull over and stand in the middle of the road to admire the Glenelly Valley, with just a few munching sheep for company.
Starlight & stone circles
As well as astronomy, the area is alive with sites of archaeological interest. I’m startled by the variety of sites scattered around these heathery hills and blanket bogs — dozens upon dozens of wedge, court and portal tombs, standing stones and other monuments from the Neolithic, Megalithic and Early Christian eras. A new walk connects the OM Dark Sky Observatory to Beaghmore Stone Circles just a few miles away, where a farmer’s peat shovel first struck a buried stone in the 1930s. When the area was investigated, seven stone circles, a dozen cairns and several linking rows were discovered.
“This area is riddled with sites,” says Hugh McCloy of Embrace Tours, a local historian and guide who meets me for a tour and a picnic at Beaghmore. At first, I’m struck by how stumpy and souvenir-sized the stones appear, but Hugh draws me in with stories of Callann Mór, a giant said to be buried on the peak of Slieve Gallion, and speculation as to who may have built these sites in the Stone and Bronze Ages. Silence is a feature here, too — when we set out from the car park, Hugh asks me not to speak, just to follow in his footsteps for a while as he plots a course through the circles (“it breaks that connection with what you’ve being doing previously in the day,” he later explains). We end our tour with a barefoot ‘energy walk’, feeling for areas on the earth that ‘speak’ to us. “You’re standing on a part of Ireland where people have lived, farmed, loved and lost for around 6,000 years ,” he says. “So much of the world doesn’t know mid-Ulster, but the reason it doesn’t know is because we haven’t told the stories."
That’s starting to change. Over the fields in Davagh, the ‘OM’ in the new observatory’s title refers to Hinduism’s sacred syllable, or ‘the sound of the universe’, as I learn. It also evokes ogham, an ancient Irish alphabet. Visitors are encouraged to share their theories of Beaghmore’s origins on sticky notes — they range from a solar calendar to a prehistoric football pitch and even an ancient bank. Some see it as a ‘thin place’, where the veil between worlds is that bit flimsier, but I’m happy to be wowed by the science. Looking up into these dark skies, we’re literally looking into the past. The observatory telescope can easily see starlight that first shone 6,000 years ago, when these stone circles were heaved into place. There’s more perspective to ponder as I bed down in Sperrin View, a new glamping site nearby, gazing out of a pod window angled towards the constellations.
The next morning, there’s a duvet of mist on the mountains, but it clears soon after I hit the road. The Sperrins are roughly contained within a circle you could draw through the towns of Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown, Maghera and Limavady, and the hills grow gently hypnotic as I explore. It’s summer, and swallows swoop back and forth across the roads, buttercups sway in the breeze, trickles of water flow down the hills and I pass two young farmers shearing sheep under a hot sun. Every so often, there’s a sudden reminder of Northern Ireland’s political landscape, too. A rural road turns into a street awash with fluttering Union Jacks; a casual chat gives away someone’s heritage when they refer to Ireland as “the Free State”.
At the village of Gortin, I stop into the Auld Bank Coffee Shop for lunch and a rummage around local products like Abernethy butter and Dart Mountain Cheese (the first time I’ve seen a blue cheese described as ‘fudgy’). “Are ye just driving around in the area?” says the friendly young woman tending the till. We chat, and she tells me how the nearby Gortin Glen Forest Park, with its walking loops and biking trails, was a lifeline for locals in lockdowns. It’s where I’m headed next.
There’s more to the Sperrins than scenic drives. At Davagh Forest Park, I take time to join pro mountain biker Colin Ross for a spin around its biking trails, huffing and puffing up the hills, before bombing down berms and S-bends. In Gortin Glen, I hike the Ladies’ View Trail to a bracing panorama of the area. It’s named for two of the hills visible from the summit: Bessy Bell and Mary Gray. They refer to two sisters in a 19th-century Scottish ballad — a pair of ‘bonnie lassies’ from Perthshire who also lived through a pandemic. As the ballad goes, Bessy and Mary hid away in a bower to isolate during the Great Plague in 1666. A local boy brought them food, and possibly love, but also the disease. All three died from it.
The story, with its Ulster-Scots links, hints at toughness and toil in the Sperrins, too. I find the heritage of Ulster-Scots Presbyterians brought to life at the Ulster American Folk Park outside Omagh, where a series of reconstructed and replica buildings populated by costumed guides tell the story of communities who emigrated to faraway frontiers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
‘From the fields of Ireland to the pages of North American history’, as one display puts it, telling of Conestoga wagon trails, colonial cabins and steely, independent characters who went on to become bankers and bishops, and whose descendants include US presidents — including James Buchanan and Ulysses S Grant.
“It’s a sad story to start your day, but I promise they get better,” says a woman in a shawl outside an old stone cottage with wisps of turf smoke slinking from its chimney. It’s the beginning of the Folk Park’s living history trail, and dank interiors speak of the hardship faced in these parts, particularly during the Great Famine (1845-52). I hear the clink of a blacksmith’s hammer, pass chickens, geese and a carthorse outside an original thatched homestead, carry on down a Victorian main street and through a famine ship, before emerging into the New World, where the stories of flinty characters forging new lives for themselves continue.
Digging under dark skies
The landscape opens up in other ways at the eastern edge of the Sperrins, where I drive to Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a beautifully produced arts and literary centre in the village of Bellaghy, Co Derry. Heaney, who died in 2013, has had his lines widely quoted by leaders lately — ranging from Ireland’s Leo Varadkar to President Joe Biden. ‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere’, a quote from a 1972 interview, struck a particular chord during the pandemic.
The poet grew up around here, just north of Lough Neagh, and the landscape infuses his work. Slieve Gallion was visible on the horizon from his house, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones, a book of interviews, calling it ‘our hill of longing’. I can see the mountain when I meet Brian McCormick, a nephew of the poet and manager of HomePlace. A new initiative called ‘Open Ground’ has seen display panels and audio recordings of Heaney reading his work installed at locations that inspired him, and we arrange to meet by The Strand at Lough Beg, both a viewing point and the title of an iconic poem. ‘Like a dull blade with its edge / Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze’, is one of the lines we listen to while standing on a boardwalk looking out over the marshes, woodlands and shimmering waters. It’s both an evocation of place, and an elegy to Heaney’s 22-year-old cousin, who was shot and killed during the Troubles in 1975. “He’s not writing about anywhere else in the world,” Brian says, as we take it in. “It’s right here.”
The trail continues through Long Point Wood, which bubbles up with bluebells in spring. It ends at a bench and further viewing point where I can see a church spire Heaney describes pointing above a ‘soft treeline of yew’. There’s more audio here, and listening to it, I remember back to a time in the 1990s when I met the poet myself, at an exhibition in County Wicklow. I was studying English in college, and asked him to sign a copy of his New Selected Poems. Inside the jacket, I’d written a quote from one of his best-known poems, Digging, in which he describes his father and grandfather digging turf, and his growing realisation that he could never be like them. It reads: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it.’
Heaney paused, before signing his name and handing back the book. I often wondered what he thought in that moment, and now I’m wondering again. Was he annoyed that so many people choose the obvious lines — as they continue to do during Covid-19? Did it catch him off-guard; was he taking a moment to reflect freshly on it? Or was he just trying to find a bit of space to sign his name?
In Bellaghy, Brian takes me to another ‘Open Ground’ site, where a reading of Digging can be played next to a sculpture of a man working a peat cutter. Locals dip in and out of a shop and post office nearby, and he tells me a story I hadn’t heard before. The actual inspiration for the poem came not while Heaney was looking out the window at his father digging, as the lines describe, but one day when he came driving onto Castle Street. Coming around this very corner, he shifted gears to slow his speed and “had this sensation of going down through the generations”, as Brian describes it. With an understated flourish, he starts the audio.
Back at Davagh Forest Park, Seán Clarke is another who knows a thing or two about digging. Walking through the trees, with his jacket on his arm and car keys in his hand, he leads me to an ancient standing stone, topped by moss and blurred by butterflies, and another pile of rocks he believes could once have formed a dolmen. Spears of foxglove bring slashes of purplish-pink to the swathe of arboreal greens and browns, and he recalls a thought that struck him some time ago, when he was working near yet another stone circle on his farmland nearby. “Here I am now, farming this same piece of land as it was done some five, six, seven thousand years ago, trying to make a living out from it,” he tells me.
As we turn back towards the car park, I ask what he likes most about living in this off-the-radar place, in these remote hills, where the phone signal drops in and out and the skies go from clouded to pinpricked with stars, where a political mural or line of poetry can catch you off-guard, or a whip of wind might be followed by a silence so pristine you can hear the banging of a fence post a mile away.
“I suppose ’tis home,” Seán muses. “Little has changed here.” He adds that the skies around the Sperrins were just as free of sky glow when he grew up. “We just didn’t really think of them as dark back then. We thought of them as clear.”
Getting there & around
Stena Line operates ferry services from Cairnryan, Liverpool and Holyhead to Belfast, while P&O sails from Larne to Cairnryan.
Loganair flies from Liverpool and Stansted to Derry. EasyJet, Aer Lingus and British Airways fly to Belfast from a range of UK airports.
Average flight time: 1h25.
Ulsterbus and Goldline offer bus services throughout Northern Ireland, but a car is best for this trip. Rental companies operate in Derry and Belfast.
When to go
May, June and September offer warm weather with lighter crowds. For dark skies, consider November to February.
Where to stay
Sperrin View Glamping, Davagh. Cabins from £110.
Ardtara House & Restaurant, Maghera. Doubles from £189, B&B.
An Creagán, Creggan. Self-catering cottages from £50.
How to do it
Embrace Tours offers a one-night package including accommodation, breakfast and a picnic at Beaghmore Stone Circles from £250 per couple.
J&K Coaches offers build-your-own tour packages in mid-Ulster.
Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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