The Silent Valley lives up to its name. On a spring morning, nothing but a few trickles of water can be heard amid the Mournes’ peaty heights. Strange, considering these 9,000 acres of mountain wilderness house two massive reservoirs. Yet when you first arrive, water is nowhere to be seen.
The tarmac path from the car park is the start of the official route to the reservoirs, but opt for the steep grassy hill if you can. This carefully mown turf actually covers the Silent Valley dam and is your first contact with water here.
Whichever way you climb, the man-made basin of water, fed by the Kilkeel River and constructed by 2,000 workers between 1923 and 1933, appears like magic. It shimmers like a sapphire nestled between the contrasting heather, gorse and peat of the High Mournes.
You can stop here and descend on to the valley’s Nature, Heritage or Challenge trails. But one of the joys of continuing along the tarmac path along the reservoir is that you can see so many of its workings up close. There are no warning signs or fencing.
You can see the brick-lined overflow system, or bellmouth spillway, a veritable work of industrial art (see above), to which the ever-changing lightshow on the enveloping peaks offers the perfect backdrop. Continue to the tunnel cut through Slieve Binnian, an addition made in 1952 to divert additional water from the Annalong Valley into the Silent Valley.
The Silent Valley is such an engineering coup, it is hard to believe that there could be more. But there is. Follow a small brown sign to Ben Crom, and a vast dam suddenly appears round the corner, water often cascading down its 60m- (200ft) high concrete wall. This addition was built between 1953 and 1957 and, if you can manage the steep steps, don’t miss the views back down the valley from the top.
Return along the tarmac path (there’s a shuttle bus in summer) back to Silent Valley reservoir’s headwall, where a detour from the return path offers one last treat. Cross the top of the dam and follow a short incline to the right to the granite quarry and along a flat ridge, where the coast comes into view. Continue along the path to the Mourne Wall signpost.
Built between 1904 and 1922 to enclose the water catchment, this granite dry stone wall measures up to 2m (8ft) high, is 22 miles long and stretches over 15 mountains. Standing on top, it’s a well deserved trophy at the end of a trail of treasures.
How to get there
The walk starts at the Silent Valley car park (£4.50 per car, £1.60 for walkers), through the main gates on Head Road, BT34 4HU. Catch Mourne Rambler bus Tues-Sun, July and August. The Silent Valley shuttle bus from the car park to Ben Crom operates daily in July and August, and at weekends in May, June and September. Reservoir grounds open daily 10am-6.30pm, May-September, 10am-4pm, October-April.
Find out more
There is a visitor centre on site, with an exhibition on the valley’s history. For more information contact Mourne Heritage Trust.
CJ’s Deli at Silent Valley Reservoir
Clare and Jane’s café on the grounds has good homemade soups, sandwiches and snacks. Open seven days, 10am-6pm, Easter-Sept, and Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm, in the winter.
The Cnocnafeola Centre
Atticall, Kilkeel, County Down BT34 4HT
Walkers love this clean, friendly, community-run hostel with dorms, private en suite bathrooms and family rooms. Grants Stores, just next door, is an excellent village shop, too.
Soak Seaweed Baths
5 South Promenade, Newcastle BT33 0EX
A bath full of seaweed may sound slimy and weird, but after a hike, this is pure bliss.