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Silence and stillness; two elusive things in our noisy, fast-paced world. Yet, something I am sure most of us yearn for from time to time. We first began family hiking in the Mourne Mountains when our 3 sons were very small. Our youngest boy was just 2-years old when we took to the Trassey Track during a snowy Easter break.
Although we were already a family that enjoyed spending time outdoors, when I look back on it now, I would say that day was the beginning of our family adventures in the Mournes. It was a defining point because it was there, in that white-coloured expanse of wilderness that a passion for hiking and exploring was instilled in us as a family. Six years on, we spend most weekends and school holidays in the mountains; walking and camping, and enjoying the freedom that comes with getting away from our busy lives in the city.
One of the reasons we started exploring the lower level trails in the Mournes all those years ago was that we had 3 small children to care for, and I had quit my job as a newspaper journalist to stay at home full-time to raise my family. Surplus cash to splash on fun family days out wasn’t really an option so we decided to pack up a picnic one day and get outdoors for some fresh air and quality family time together. I remembered the Trassey Track from my Duke of Ed and many hours spent hiking in the Mournes as a teenager and was keen to introduce the boys to the mountains. Needless to say, being a little bit broke, for us, had a wonderful silver-lining because from that time onwards, every weekend we packed up our rucksacks with snacks, spare socks and waterproofs and headed for the hills.
When the boys were very little, we went at their pace, allowing them to leisurely investigate their surroundings. As parents, we watched on as our kids fell in love with the mountain terrain and all that it has to offer – the plants, the wildlife, the boulders to climb, the slopes to roll down and the sticks to collect and make up all sorts of imaginative games with. As they played together their legs grew stronger, stamina increased and their hunger to go further and higher deepened. On his 5th birthday our youngest son blew out his birthday candles on the summit of Slieve Bearnagh – a challenging hike for anyone! Nowadays, when we pause for lunch somewhere in the mountains it has become something of a ritual to name the mountains we can see all around us. The boys know them all by sight, and they beam with pride when they can rhyme off the names without any help from Mum and Dad.
In modern life, there’s no denying that our days are noisy. For all our modern technology and things that are supposed to simplify and make life easier, we seem busier than ever. There’s little time or space to breathe deep or even hear ourselves think. We are bombarded by clamour and information all the time it seems, and the mountains, for us provide an opportunity for respite. We go to the hills to switch-off our screens, unplug our plugged-in lives, hear our real thoughts, connect with one another, move our bodies and spend time immersed in nature. The benefits of time spent outdoors are well documented, with GPs now even prescribing a walk in nature for many ailments.
As parents, we believe it is our responsibility to get outside with our kids, to show them the wonders of our beautiful world, that they might fall in love with her, want to protect and care for her and help repair the damage we humans have caused to the planet. One of our hopes is that by spending so much time walking in the Mournes is that our 3 children will instinctively be the conservationists of the future, not necessarily as specialists, but as everyday people being more mindful in their daily lives about the impact they are making on the world.
The physical act of walking in the Mournes is also really important to us. It is easy to be sedentary, to spend hours on end at a computer screen or lounging on the sofa being entertained. While of course there’s a time for rest, we believe that the amount of sitting we do nowadays goes against our human instinct. We were built to move – to roam, to explore and play! I personally, live with a chronic illness and am recovering also from a slipped disc and nerve damage in my upper back and shoulders, and movement is vital for my physical and emotional and wellbeing.
I always feel a million times better after time spent walking outdoors, my body and mind both freer and more supple. And, there’s no denying that the boys benefit massively from having so much space to run and jump and freely move. We joke among ourselves that our youngest boy is a little ‘mountain goat’! He’s always the first to the summit, usually dancing around and waving at us slow-coaches and sticking out his tongue as we puff and pant our way to the top! I regularly watch in awe as he nimbly clambers over rocks, intuitively knowing where to place his hands and feet. Apparently, it’s all part of his training to be a ‘mountain rescue man’!
Our middle son, now 10-years old, wants to be a palaeontologist when he’s grown up, so time in the mountains for him takes on a different aspect. He is usually to be found with binoculars at his eyes, surveying the sky for birds or wandering off to explore plants. He was particularly intrigued by the insectivorous plants we discovered growing on Hen Mountain this summer – for him too the mountains are a training ground, a place where he is learning all the time about the natural world he is passionate about.
For our eldest boy, now in his teenage years, the mountains are an integral part of his identity. Academic, ambitious and highly-motivated, the mountains are for him a space to process his thoughts. Naturally, getting up early from his cosy warm bed is of course a challenge, but once there in the mountains, he is the one that likes to walk on ahead alone. He can often be seen perched on a rock, waiting on us to catch up, but deep in thought. Once he’s had his breathing space, he will then fall into stride beside either me or his Dad and begin to share what’s on his mind. During the weekdays when there’s homework to be completed, rugby training, cello lessons and everything else that makes family life hectic, this time away from it all is precious.
It is on that mountain terrain, that I get to properly listen, no distraction noise from the washing machine or worrying about dinner bubbling over on the hob. It is there that we connect more easily and more deeply, where the roots of our relationships go deeper and become more entwined. It is there, in that safe place of togetherness, that our hopes and plans are shared and our sense of place and purpose in this world affirmed. The mountains really are more than just a place to walk!
There’s so much going on when we get outdoors to hike as a family and I believe deeply in the generosity of nature. When we tie-up our laces and go trekking, when we exert ourselves and step out of our comfort zones, we receive bountiful way more than we could ever hope for! To witness the beauty of the changing landscape through the seasons is awe-inspiring and humbling. Learning to navigate a new trail together is team-building and brings us all together in a shared purpose. Watching my kids fall in love with the Mournes has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to date and getting to experience it with them is without shadow of a doubt the highlight of each week!
For me, a busy, part-time working, part-time studying, part-time blogging Mum of 3, the silence and the stillness are what I go the mountains for. When the din of the day and daily becomes overwhelming I know that the Mournes will offer me a place to unwind, find restoration, calm, energy and perspective. There’s something undeniably therapeutic about sitting alongside the Mourne Wall for lunch, surveying the valleys and lakes below. It feels like home to me.
We are now entering the Winter season and already the 3 boys are excited for some snowy hikes. On New Year’s Day this year, we trekked Slieve Donard in the snow and battled fierce winds in a bid for the summit. It was the most challenging climb we have ever undertaken together for sure, but also one of the most memorable, despite having to turnaround not too far from the top because we could barely stand! We have some other mountain challenges lined-up for 2019 and look forward to many more family days spent hiking in our magical Mournes.