Walk: Cove Cave, County Down
Lace up your boots, tether your scarf and fill your flask with hot chocolate for a winter adventure into the heart of Northern Ireland’s Annalong valley in the Mourne Mountains
Caves conjure mystical, murky thoughts of bats and boggarts, dragons and trolls. But step inside and your blood remembers.
Your ancestors sheltered here, made fire here, chewed bones here. They would have gazed out from within, the dank, pitted walls of their refuge an unpolished frame for the rivers and woods and mountains beyond.
These doors into the earth – or out of it, depending on your aspect – can be found across the UK. Some are well-known, revered for their great atriums, jousting stalactites and archaeological remains; others are more elusive, secreted among quiet hills like dozing shadows wanting none of the fame.
One such hollow sits high within a rocky escarpment on the western slopes of the Annalong River valley in the Mourne Mountains.
This six-mile, there-and-back-again walk takes you right to it, an exhilarating Boxing Day quest for friends and families with adventure in their veins.
Cove Cave walk
5.6 miles/9km | moderate | 3 hours (return)
1. Wall and wood
The easiest route to Cove Cave starts at Carrick Little Car Park on Head Road, a few miles inland from the coastal town of Annalong. Follow the main track away from the road (north) for half a mile, then veer left (north-west), walking parallel with the Mourne Wall for a short while. At a fork, head right to meet the upper (western) edge of Annalong Wood. Up to the left is the 747m summit of Slieve Binnian, the third-highest mountain in Northern Ireland.
2. Into the valley
Follow the edge of the wood for half a mile until you reach another fork in the track beneath the modest buttress of Douglas Crag, on your left.
3. Brilliant bluff
Turn right (north-east) and continue into the valley with the Annalong River down to your right. The way becomes a little rugged under foot and skips across several streams but remains relatively clear.
As the trail begins to rise, you will spot the Lower Cove escarpment up ahead on the left (west) flank of the valley. Continue along the obvious path towards it, gravitating to the left side of the bluff, where the opening to Cove Cave should now be clear.
4. Hollow in the rock
Just seeing the cave from the grassy ledge below it is enough reward for your efforts, but for those keen to get inside, it is well worth the short scramble. Care should be taken at this point as you use your hands to negotiate the rocky slope.
The cave itself is quite shallow and there are only one or two spots suitable for sitting. But at this point little matters beyond the view. Flaxen and hazy beneath the low winter sun, the hills build quietly to mountains, and the mountains dissolve into the January sky.
As you sip on your hot chocolate or winter soup and enjoy the view, it’s a good time to consider your journey back to the start, for which there are two obvious options: either retrace your steps to the car park or continue your adventure with a high-level ramble over the rugged, frosty tops of Slievelamagan and Slieve Binnian.
Cove Cave map
Danny is the Section Editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine, responsible for commissioning, editing and writing articles that offer ideas and inspiration for exploring the UK countryside.