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Belfast Telegraph archives: The Mourne Walk

By Paul Carson

In 1922, work was finally completed on an eight feet high granite wall that encircled the heart of the Mourne Mountains in Co Down.

The impressive structure stretched 22 miles around the mountain range and crossed the summits of 12 of its peaks. The intention of the Belfast Water Commissioners who ordered its construction was to define the catchment area for the newly created Silent Valley Reservoir, but they could hardly have realised that it would be put to an altogether different purpose some 35 years after its completion.

In 1956 the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland began the tradition of the annual Mourne Wall Walk, in which participants would walk the entire length of the wall, ascending a total height of 10,000 feet, within the space of a single day.

A hardy handful of walkers took part in the first event, but word about the challenging trek soon spread and by 1960 there were almost 150 participants - including "at least a dozen girls" - attempting the feat. Within two years the entry had increased to 250 and in 1967 a field of more than 500 assembled for the 10th anniversary walk.

Numbers increased practically every year, and by the time of the 21st Mourne Wall Walk on June 6, 1977, there were almost 2,000 ramblers taking part.

Of course, not everyone who started out on the walk actually finished it, and in that respect the 1977 walk was no different to any other year. The event was held in typical June weather - strong winds and driving rain - and the adverse conditions meant that around a fifth of the entrants failed to finish the course. One woman participant suffered a fractured arm and had to be airlifted off the mountains by helicopter, along with six others who were suffering from severe exhaustion.

At the end of the trek, a total of 1,512 people were awarded certificates for completing the course, and there was even an extra certificate for a dog who went the full distance. The first man home was 30-year-old Comber joiner Jim Hayes, who knocked five minutes off the record by completing the 22-mile course in four hours, 11 minutes, and 30 seconds. Most of the walkers took things at a less frantic pace, however, and completed the distance in 10-12 hours.

As numbers taking part in the event continued to increase with each passing year - 3,000 took part in the 1979 walk - serious concerns began to be voiced about the damage being done to the fragile Mourne environment by the concentrated pounding of thousands of hikers' boots on a single day.

Eventually, in the face of growing opposition from environmental and special interest groups, the Youth Hostel Association cancelled the walk scheduled to take place in 1984, and the event has not been held since.

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