NORTHERN LIGHTS
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|October 2021
The Sperrin Mountains are as off-grid as Northern Ireland gets — an ancient, storied landscape of stone circles, dark skies and literary trails rising from the emerald pastures between Derry and Belfast. A meandering road trip through this lesser-visited swathe of mid-Ulster offers the ultimate rural escape — and myriad ways to connect with the land
PÓLÓ CONGHAILE

THE FIRST THING THAT STRIKES ME IS THE SILENCE.

Driving from Dublin to Davagh has been a journey from city to villages, motorways to country roads, from four bars of phone reception to — depending on the hollow I’m entering — zero bars. A hen harrier floats over an old shed with a rusting, corrugated roof, and when I park my car in a forest in the thick of County Tyrone, the door shuts with a beautifully muffled thump. It feels like audio made in a recording studio.

The pines and spruce and mosses and blanket bog here, together with the bowl-shaped depression in which Davagh Forest Park sits, all seem to contribute to this unearthly soundscape. When I point it out to Seán Clarke, a farmer and part-time guide I’ve arranged to meet for a walk through the trees and the forest’s archaeological treasures, he smiles.

“You can hear someone hammering a fence post for a mile here, or the cry of a calf or a lamb,” he says. And, after a pause: “For an unusually long distance, you know.”

This bowl scooped out of the landscape (Davagh means ‘cauldron’) blocks out something else, too. ‘Sky glow’ is a term I learn at OM Dark Sky Observatory, newly opened in a forest clearing here. It refers to light pollution, and displays inside explain why this remote area, secreted away in Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains, recently became the world’s 78th International Dark Sky Park. “The 77th was in the Grand Canyon,” guide Erin Lennox tells me proudly. There’s an image of the planet Saturn on her name pin.

Most people on Earth live under ‘sky glow’, I learn, with artificial light fogging our views of the heavens. Not here. On a winter’s night in Davagh, you can make out the haze of the Milky Way with the naked eye. In the right conditions (admittedly, not always a guarantee on the island of Ireland), you may even see the faint glow of the Northern Lights. “You can use the stars like stepping stones across a river,” Erin says, leading me through displays ranging from the Plough to Polaris, Cassiopeia and beyond. At the top level of the observatory, a 14-inch telescope sits beneath a retractable roof, picking up 650 times more light than the human eye.

After spending much of the past year in lockdown, confined to as little as one mile from home, this sudden burst of perspective is head-melting. And yet still, space is remarkably close. The shooting stars you sometimes see overhead are just 60 miles or so away.

“You’ve travelled further than that today,” Erin smiles.

Tyrone is Northern Ireland’s biggest county and the Sperrins are one of the island’s biggest mountain ranges. Before this trip, however, I’d have struggled to place either a map. I don’t think I’m alone. Visitors tend to make a beeline for Belfast, drive the Causeway Coast or hit up flagship attractions like the Giant’s Causeway or Carrick-a-Rede’s vertigo-inducing rope bridge. Far fewer meander off-grid in mid-Ulster — though it can be as little as an hour’s drive from Belfast or Derry. The Sperrins sprawl along the Derry and Tyrone border, with 10 peaks in excess of 1,600ftand the highest at 2,224ft(the name comes from speirín, which means ‘little spur’ in Irish). There are four signposted scenic driving routes, and for many magical minutes at a time, I have the roads to myself. On the B47 between Sperrin and Plumbridge, I pull over and stand in the middle of the road to admire the Glenelly Valley, with just a few munching sheep for company.

Starlight & stone circles

As well as astronomy, the area is alive with sites of archaeological interest. I’m startled by the variety of sites scattered around these heathery hills and blanket bogs — dozens upon dozens of wedge, court and portal tombs, standing stones and other monuments from the Neolithic, Megalithic and Early Christian eras. A new walk connects the OM Dark Sky Observatory to Beaghmore Stone Circles just a few miles away, where a farmer’s peat shovel first struck a buried stone in the 1930s. When the area was investigated, seven stone circles, a dozen cairns and several linking rows were discovered.

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