The River Shimna rises on the rutted slopes of the Mourne Mountains, gurgling over granite and heather before dropping into the shadowy depths of Tollymore Forest.
In autumn, burnt-orange beech leaves cling to ashen spurs, their increasing minimalism countered by majestic evergreens and low-lying reefs of mosses, liverworts and feathery ferns. The forest’s saturation and decay are palpable.
The slopes around the Shimna River are home to a remarkable number of tree species, including oak, beech, ash, birch, larch, Sitka spruce, yew and willow. Field maple, Himalayan cedar, eucalyptus, Douglas fir, Monterey pines, monkey puzzle and giant redwoods can also be found.
Oak from Tollymore Forest was used to build the interior of the ill-fated RMS Titanic in Belfast © Getty
Such diversity instils a sense of the mystical and, as in Tolkien’s Old Forest, you half-expect to see a band of hobbits emerge through the trees. However, fictional hairy-footed beings are hard to find. Instead, listen out for roe deer rustling through the forest’s autumn detritus, and the short, sharp whistle of kingfishers down by the riverbank.
Stay quiet and you may spot otters, along with red squirrels, dippers and 20–30 pairs of Mandarin duck.
Grottos and follies
Tollymore Forest Park was established on 2 June 1955, making it the first state forest park in Northern Ireland.
But it’s the woodland’s more tangible aspects that capture the eye: the hefty stepping stones that comb the river into braids; the 16 wood-and-stone bridges, and the endearing Hermitage, a small stone structure designed in the 1770s by James Hamilton, the second Earl of Clanbrassil, and once used by ladies as a shelter while the gentlemen fished for salmon in the Shimna below.
“Such diversity instils a sense of the mystical. You half-expect a band of hobbits to emerge through the trees” ©Getty
There are four waymarked trails in the forest, including the 750-metre Arboretum Path, which wends through one of Northern Ireland’s oldest arboreta, and the Mountain Trail, an 8.8km ramble along the Shimna, rising through conifer plantations with views across the tor-topped Mourne Mountains.
Racing waters and exotic trees make this one of the UK’s most enchanting forests ©Getty
Just over 3km south-east of Tollymore is another leafy dale, carved by the Glen River.Walk from Donard car park along the Slieve Donard Trail into Donard Forest. The path climbs past small waterfalls and deep pools on to the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. Continue up the trail to the saddle for a bird’s-eye-view of the valleys below.
Donard Trail, Northern Ireland ©Geograph
For more information about Tollymore Forest Park, including detailed route descriptions, facilities and accessibility, head to walkni.com.