Ex-lawyer Andrew McCluggage on his dramatic career change that led to writing stunning hikers' guide to the Mournes
Keen walker Andrew McCluggage, from Northern Ireland, tells Linda Stewart about the dramatic change of career that has seen him go from lawyer to writer and publisher
Andrew McCluggage was an outdoorsy type when he was young, though he admits that he never had any particular passion for walking until one fateful sailing trip to New Zealand.
"I did go walking in my teenage years but it was just little bits and pieces, in the Mournes and so forth," says the 46-year-old author of the stunningly beautiful guide book The Mourne Mountains: 30 best hikes.
"I did things like the Duke of Edinburgh award, and really enjoyed it. But my parents weren't into walking, so my involvement would have been largely through school and the scouts.
"Of course, even then I loved the Mournes, but you know when you're a teenager, you've got so many other things going on!
"And when I was a kid, I was into sailing. It was only later, when I was on a trip in New Zealand that I did a two-day walk - I was probably 18 or 19 at the time - and that was kind of the touchpaper on the whole trekking thing. Since then, I've travelled the world in pursuit of hiking and trekking."
So what was it in particular about that two-day hike that fired his enthusiasm?
"It was a place called Abel Tasman National Park. It's a beautiful beach trek with a backdrop of hills and forest, with Mediterranean looking water and stunning scenery. There was a lot of wading through streams and crossing tidal estuaries and waiting for the tide to change. That is where it really took off for me.
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"After that I spent about 10 years in England and every time I would come home I would head straight for the Mournes and explore week after week.
"Then I moved back full-time at the start of 2004 and did a lot of walking. When I met my wife, she liked walking and she loved the Mournes as well. Every weekend we would be there together - it really took off after that."
Now living in Newtownards about a mile from where he grew up, Andrew is married to Olive and they have two children aged five and eight.
He says the two walking destinations that really resonate for him are the Mournes and also an area of the southern Alps called the Ecrins where he has been holidaying for years.
"I holidayed there every year and our kids love it there now because it's normal and part of their life to go down there during the summer," he says.
Today Andrew earns a living as an outdoor writer and photographer, but it's been quite a career change - for 21 years he practised corporate law, writing guidebooks for another publisher as a hobby.
Eighteen months ago, however, he decided to become a guide book publisher himself and quit law to set up his own company, called Knife Edge Outdoor Guidebooks.
Andrew studied law at Southampton university, then went to law school in London and began practising in the city.
"It was not my cup of tea," he admits. "I'm not really a big fan of cities at all. It was good for my career and the work was good. But every weekend I was on a train or in a car, heading out to the hills somewhere or other. Every spare moment I had I was out of the city."
In 2004, Andrew made the decision to return to Northern Ireland. "It was a time when we were still in the boom and there were plenty of jobs here, so the move was quite straightforward. I got the opportunity to move, and that was grand. I worked in Belfast for many years - I only gave it up completely about 12-18 months ago."
The guide book idea came about when Andrew was staying in a mountain hut in the Alps and found himself having breakfast with a French couple who asked him about the good places to walk.
"I started talking to them and about an hour later I was still talking to them. I realised I knew a lot about the area, as much as any English speaker, and I wondered if I could write a book about it," he says.
Andrew contacted a publisher and successfully pitched a book on the Ecrins, only to be somewhat disenchanted with the results.
"I've always loved taking pictures and when the book came out, they were all tiny wee pictures. I'd spent all this time taking beautiful photographs, for them to be reduced to almost nothing. I thought about it for 18 months and I thought I could do better myself," he says.
"So I picked a trek in that same area, decided to put together a book of day walks that I'd done a number of times before and set out to write, make and publish a book on it.
"Once I'd done that book, I knew we could do it and that's when I quit and went all in, which was not an easy decision when you've got a wife and two kids!"
Andrew admits it was a huge change, but a positive one.
"I'd been working in law for 21 years - you work extremely long hours and you're literally at people's beck and call 24/7. At the weekends, often you are working. I found it to be ultimately not that healthy a lifestyle when you've got a young family. My aim was to try and do something more positive," he says.
"One of the nicest aspects of doing what I am doing is that people like it, and the feedback you get is incredibly rewarding. I've changed from doing something that other people didn't like - nobody likes a lawyer, right? - to something that everybody does like. You feel like you are helping people to do something that they love and that is just gold."
Although it sounds like fun, he says, it is still no different to running any other business.
"You're making a product, albeit a lovely product, but most of the year is desk work," he says. "It does, however, allows you family time and it's something we can share with the children as well, who have come out on some of the walks with us even though they are so young. Books and mountains are now part of their lives."
The first three books were Alpine trekking guides and the new Mournes book is the first guide book the company has published which focuses on Ireland. More recently, Andrew has spent a few weeks walking in Brittany and hopes to have 10 books out by the end of next May.
"All the field work is done in the summer months between May and October and during that period we are focusing on getting the walks walked," he says.
Andrew says the traditional Mournes guide book has been around for decades, is still the one he used when he started walking and features black and white pages with no pictures.
"Publishers have been doing the same types of guide books for decades. But with modern technology and modern graphic design I feel we should do better so we set out to make something that had more of a glossy brochure feel, with edge-to-edge photography and modern graphic design.
"I've put in all the Ordnance Survey maps - they're licensed from OSNI and printed in the book so somebody can open the book and not only see the beautiful photographs of places they can go, but they can look on the map where to go. It's brought the Mourne Mountains walking map book into the 21st century."
While Andrew admits he is looking at eventually publishing ebooks, he says there is still a demand for hard copy guide books, not least because of the problems of digital technology.
"If you're out in the mountains and your battery dies, suddenly you haven't got any information or a map. So it will always be good practice to carry a hard copy book in the mountains," he says.
Evidently he is proud of his Mournes book and is delighted that it has won a lot of praise from local hikers.
His favourite Mourne walks include the High Mournes epic circuit which scales the two highest peaks.
"The most breathtaking part of the range is a beautiful ridge with the Mourne Wall snaking out in front of you - from afar it almost looks like a photograph you see of the Great Wall of China. It's lovely in autumn when the grass turns to golden brown and there's the contrast with the blue sky, and it's a lovely route in winter with a sprinkling of snow on the mountains.
"I would say if you were coming to visit the Mournes and only allowed to do one route and you were fit, I would say you have to do it.
"And my other favourite, is one that I call the Slieve Commedagh Diamond Route because that's the route that I proposed to my wife on - when you're a publisher you can do these things!" he laughs.
The Mourne Mountains is published by Knife Edge Outdoor Guidebooks, priced £13.99. Visit knifeedgeoutdoor.com for details
Andrew’s top 5 walks in the Mournes
1 The High Mournes Epic Circuit (Walk 11 in my book, The Mourne Mountains) - if you could only do one walk in the Mourne Mountains, then this would probably be it. The route passes through some of the most spectacular scenery on the island of Ireland. It starts with a traverse of the Brandy Pad, an old smugglers' path and one of the true highlights of these wonderful mountains. Then it proceeds to climb the range's two highest peaks, Slieve Donard (849m) and Slieve Commedagh (765m). And finally, the return journey takes you along one of the best preserved and scenic sections of the Mourne wall. The views throughout are utterly exquisite. This is not a walk to be missed.
2 Hen Mountain (Walk 15 in my book) - this is popular with families because it is short and straightforward yet still offers superb views. The exposure on the rocky tors is thrilling. It is a great mountain for parents seeking to introduce their children to the delights of hill walking.
3 Slieve Bearnagh (Walk 7 in my book) - this route is a Mourne classic. Slieve Bearnagh is the fourth highest mountain in the range and its rocky summit is one of the most recognisable from afar. Given its central position amongst many of the other high peaks, the views from the top on a clear day are special.
4 Slieve Binnian and Blue Lough (Walk 27 in my book) - this half-day route summits the third highest mountain in the range and travels a sublime ridge which is ideally positioned to offer unforgettable views of the Silent Valley. Everywhere you look, there is stunning scenery to absorb and peaks to identify. The ridge is also renowned for its interesting rock formations.
5 The Mourne Wall Circumnavigation (Walk 29 in my book - the walk everyone dreams about doing! It is the giant of them all and is arguably the longest and finest ridge walk in all of Ireland. It is also one of the hardest. The route involves almost a complete circumnavigation of the magnificent Mourne Wall, climbing 15 named peaks on the way, including six of the seven highest mountains in the range. From the summit of Slieve Muck, you remain on the main Mourne ridge for an unbelievable 17 kilometres and the views are exquisite. However, the route is relentless, alternately climbing and descending throughout.