The ancient trading route which traverses the Mountains of Mourne is known as the Brandy Pad.
In the 1800s it was the secret supply route from the south east coast of County Down to the interior.
From a cave on the slopes of Leganabruchan overlooking the Irish sea, a lantern signalled when it was safe to come ashore and directed the ships to the landing point. A variety of goods which would have attracted the interest of the tax man were unloaded. Luxury products such as tobacco, tea, coffee, silk, leather and brandy were spirited through the mountains by pack pony under cover of darkness.
The route followed the pad through the mountains to the Hare’s Gap where below lies the Trassey Track which links with the network of roads leading to the local towns and villages. The journey would have taken four to five hours over difficult terrain with additional challenges conjured up by the ever changing weather.
The 21st century however has seen a reversal of roles for the Trassey Track. Where once the wide valley which carries the Trassey River was the exit point of the Mourne route, today it is the welcoming trail which leads the hiker into the magnificent Mournes along a gently ascending path.
The luxury goods which were once transported along this route are now easily available in the high street or on the internet so those who make the journey today are there for very different reasons.
The travellers of today view the challenge of the mountains in a totally different light. They are there to enjoy the outdoor experience, to take on a physical challenge and to savour the ever changing views presented before them as weather and seasons weave a distinctive tapestry.
Meelmore Lodge which is situated on the Trassey Road opened it’s doors to the public back in 2001. Increasingly the population of Northern Ireland was finding a need to escape to the wild places. Meelmore Lodge could provide camping facilities on the edge of the mountains for those who wanted to spend some time in the company of Slieve Meelmore, Slieve Bearnnagh and Slievenaglogh. There was secure car parking facilities for those who wanted to spend the day exploring deeper into the heart of the mountains.
Fifteen years ago, the project was the brain child of Dessie Patterson who developed the concept as a farm diversification business. The location was ideal with superb views of the mountain range and direct access to Slieve Meelmore via a laneway through the property. Over the years, the popularity of the venue grew and in 2007 a hostel was opened with capacity of thirty two beds.
Recent news items have galvanised people into action and to be more active. “The fittest do live longer” read one newspaper headline. The findings in the latest Ofcom Communications Market Report 2016 highlighted the need for a “digital detox” where internet users have become addicted to being online and need a break from the constant chatter.
The Mountains of Mourne are providing a welcome escape for some and records show that over 40,000 people passed through the Hare’s Gap last year. With this volume of people on his doorstep, Dessie and daughter Ruth have further developed Meelmore Lodge, expanding facilities to include B&B and have a holiday cottage to let. There is a new cafe with additional seating and wonderful views which is open seven days a week and caters not only for hikers and campers but also motorists touring the mountains on the Scenic Loop.
Ruth is looking after the day to day running of Meelmore Lodge which helps to free up time for Dessie to get on with the farming enterprises and other responsibilities. Sheep are an important element of the ecology of the mountains. In his role as Chairman of the Mourne Heritage Trust, a post which he has held for the past ten years, Dessie is involved in protecting and enhancing this special place.
The breeds of sheep on the farm have evolved over the years and currently alongside the Newtownstewart Blackface ewes, there are Lleyn crosses. These now comprise the majority of the three hundred and fifty strong flock.
They are hardy enough for the mountain environment and spend the summer there before coming off in September to in bye land. Lambs are marketed through Strangford Down, the farmers co-operative which has several loading points in County Down.
Lambs are delivered to Linden Foods in Dungannon. The lambs are graded and the results are emailed out that same day.
Dessie finds the Strangford Down lamb marketing system suits him very well.
Getting the feedback is important. His current strategy is to have a closed flock on the female side which are put to Texel rams. Each year around a hundred ewe lambs are kept as replacements for the breeding flock.
With several other farming enterprises on the go, Dessie finds the Strangford Down system is a huge time saver and lets him get on with growing 180 acres of potatoes and 100 acres of cereals.
There have been significant changes in the past centuries with how we use the mountains and the role reversal of the mountain paths. There has also been a reversal of life styles with people travelling to the mountains to expend energy, get fit, enjoy fresh air and absorb the views. Dessie has two flocks to look after. There is the sheep flock which would be traditional for the area but with new breeds introduced and then there are the visitors which flock to Meelmore Lodge to enjoy what it has to offer. For Dessie, changes have meant opportunity.
Strangford Down has four loading points for lambs in County Down and supplies Linden Foods in Dungannon on a weekly basis. Lambs are booked in with the Strangford Down co-ordinator on 07525 237 233 , the lambs are collected from the four points, delivered to the factory and the grades are sent out by email that afternoon. Business Executive Crosby Cleland can be contacted on 07525237233 and will be happy to provide further information on the services available through Strangford Down.