Treks

Visiting the Silent Valley

Northern Ireland has an abundance of wonders and sights to see – both natural and man-made. The Silent Valley is no exception to that.

I had visited this stunning location many years ago as a young child and so I had no real memories of the place. I recently had a quiet week off work, and this was the perfect opportunity to visit a few well-known locations not far from where I live.

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Before I dive in, let me introduce myself – my name is Niamh. I am from Newry and have lived there my whole life. I am a photography hobbyist, having purchased a Nikon D3400 in September last year my interest in photography has grown and I love the chance to get out with my camera and get a few snaps. There are so many different techniques, types of photography and gadgets to get your head around – but the results can be so satisfying.

I absolutely love the road from Newry up to this part of the country. Shortly after you pass Hilltown you’re in the mountains and it feels like stepping into rural Ireland– if anyone has been to Donegal, it reminds me of the mountainous roads there. You’re surrounded by the tall mountains of the Mournes, which rise to greet you on either side of the winding road.

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On my way to the Valley I always stop at Spelga Dam Reservoir – another man-made wonder, it’s worth a stop for sure. Spelga Dam was built as part of the overall project to supply water to Co. Down and parts of Belfast and was constructed in the mid-20th Century. You probably won’t spend too much time here, especially if it’s a cold or windy day, as there isn’t a huge amount to see here. There is a small car park so you can stop and get out for a walk around the short path and over to two wooden platforms for viewing.

If you veer to the left, you’ll come to a bridge with a small waterfall – this leads to the second viewing platform and a wooded area. If you’re lucky, you can see some of the wild trout that reside in the reservoir swimming up the waterfall (most likely to lay eggs) and it’s quite something to see! I saw this myself just recently as Brown Trout will spawn right up until late November.

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From Spelga Dam, it’s another 15 minutes or so to the Silent Valley and for this one you do have to pay a small entry fee of £4.50 per car. There’s a sizeable car park and toilets nearby before you start, which I would recommend using beforehand! You’ll also need to check opening times for whatever time of year it is, as it can close between 4pm and 9pm, depending on when you make the trip.

In your welcome map you will see several routes marked out that you can take – I have completed the Nature Trail (1.1 miles), the Reservoir Trail and the Mountain Trail. From the car park you can also see the pair of Red Squirrels recently introduced to the area or stop and feed the ducks in the small lake.

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The walk up to the reservoir itself will take about 10 minutes although you may want to stop along the way as there are markers and signs that will tell you a little about the history of Silent Valley and its creation – I found this completely fascinating. The project began in 1903 with the first challenge being to divert water from the Kilkeel and Annalong rivers to a reservoir near Carryduff. In 1923 work then began to build the dam in what was then known as ‘Happy Valley.’ This part of the project took 10 years plus the hard work and dedication of 2000 men.

The area was developed into a small village known appropriately as ‘Watertown.’ On the way up, make sure to stop and have a look around the house which was an original, provided to dam builders at the time. At its peak, Watertown had its own shop, cinema, hospital and dance hall! By 1957 both the Slieve Binnian tunnel and Ben Crom reservoir were completed also.

If you’re anything like me, it could take up to an hour to make it from one end of the reservoir to the other – carrying a camera means spending lots of time trying to capture the beauty of the valley and the surrounding mountains – although this should only take 5-10 minutes if you dander straight along it. Facing the reservoir, you will see the trail for the Ben Crom dam walk to your right. This walk is around 6 miles long so you’ll need to be there early, with water/snacks plus appropriate footwear – the walk itself is marked as ‘easy’ but bad footwear could mean sore feet!

To the left of the reservoir you can move on to do either the Challenge Trail or the Mountain trail. These are similar in route although the Mountain Trail is just slightly longer. On my first visit to Silent Valley I completed the Challenge Trail and was lucky to be there on a dry and sunny day – the views from up here are spectacular and you can see the reservoir from up high. The initial part of this trail is a steep uphill climb so depending on ability this should take 10-20 minutes – from then on it’s all pretty much flat and the narrow path takes you back in the direction of the car park. The map mentions a number of birds visible up here if you’re lucky to see them, including peregrine falcons, so if you’re a keen bird watcher keep your eyes peeled!

As you start to move slightly downhill you will come across a section of the Mourne Wall to your right – a stunning piece of engineering, this took 18 years to build and spans 18 miles. I also found this to be a great spot to photograph as you can play with composition, using the sweeping line of the wall spanning back up the mountain. When you resume your walk along the path you will be on a more downhill slope so take care as it’s uneven – I found the map really useful here as it directs to you go right at the junction you come to (otherwise it’s not really clear). You will then come down through the Nature Trail starting path and back to the car park.

Another Silent Valley walk I have completed is the Nature Trail and it’s definitely my favourite so far. This one took me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting such a variation in the route, which made it even more enjoyable as you constantly had something new to look at and the opportunities for photographs were endless. This trail begins from the car park and you quickly come to a boardwalk over the dense growth – be careful if it’s wet as this can be quite slippery – and I just loved this section. It was so immediately different from the tarmac of the car park after only 5 minutes of walking and felt almost completely wild. There is roughly a quarter mile of this before you’re back on a normal path and the scenery changes again to a more open area with trees – look out for dragonflies along the way. The path snakes alongside the Kilkeel river which you will hear gushing beside you for the duration of the walk and it eventually comes in to view.

Further along the path, the trail again suddenly changes and in front of you there is a dense patch of trees – it felt so surreal and almost ethereal in here, with the bright green moss surrounding the forest floor and tall straight trees looming above you. You’re then greeted by a bridge to your right which takes you across the river and to the other side, where there are some picnic benches if you fancy stopping for a rest or a snack. On this section of the trail you’re surrounded by trees and at this time of year the bright yellow leaves line your path along the way – there are markers you can check out that will tell you what flowers/plants are nearby and what wildlife you might see. From here, you’re taken back towards the car park again with the trail completing at around 1.1 miles.

Silent Valley is not just a water reservoir – it is a spectacular example of the stunning scenery and wildlife that the Mourne Mountains have to offer. Not only was this an epic feat of engineering but it’s also been developed in to a great spot for tourists, nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts and photography hobbyists like myself, making it a place for everyone. I already can’t wait to get back for the Mountain Trail and the Ben Crom dam walk!

You can follow Niamh on Instagram.

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