Entering Newry from the North

The drumlins just referred to are another unique feature of our local physical scene, sometimes rather graphically referred to as a ‘basket of eggs’ topology.  Away from the mountains, and stretching in a broad band across north central Ireland from Down to Galway, these ridges of boulder clay give a clear indication of direction of retreat of the last Ice Age some 30,000-12,000 years ago.



Nowhere is there a more dramatic manifestation of this phenomenon than in Newry and South Down; where the Newry bypass cuts through Damolly is fairly typical.  Indeed a few miles north towards Poyntzpass there is a large sand quarry, another such feature of the passage of those enormous ice sheets.  The Poyntzpass sub-glacial drainage channel reaches out to mountains and hills on each side, is several miles wide and more than twenty in length, from Tandragee to Narrow Water.  In recent centuries man utilised its natural features to his own transport’s requirements, first in the eighteenth century to sink a natural canal to link with Lough Neagh, then in the nineteenth century for a rail link, and ever since for road transport.  These three centuries’ transport are well illustrated as you travel from town by road through Carnbane, with the Goraghwood Quarry and forest to your left, and above it, the inter-city rail link, while further on and to your right, the more sedentary canal to Portadown reaches its highest level at Acton Lake.


I was returning home on this route some years ago, reflecting on how its dramatic topology lent itself to wide-screen cinematographic representation, when my attention was drawn to an aerial buzz behind me.  An army Apache helicopter appeared from behind Goraghwood Quarry, described a wide arc high above and across my path, and reduced height until it hovered a few feet above ground at the edge of a sports field some five hundred metres ahead of me.  Four soldiers jumped out, vaulted a gate and appeared, with hands raised on the road before me. 


 ‘Name, please’, one ordered. 


I couldn’t resist it.  In the circumstances what else could I say.  ‘The name’s Bond.  James Bond!’  Thankfully he had a sense of humour and he let me proceed in peace.



Let us approach Newry, as promised, from a different direction, this time from the north, as if from Belfast.  The ever-present drumlins restrict our view of the horizon, but where the land flattens out we get an occasional glimpse of the solid distant Mournes.  It is only from about four kilometres short of town that, rounding a corner, we get our first view of Camlough Mountain.   And it is impressive.  In the deep recesses of my mind I carry a vivid, three-dimensional image of it, to remind me when I am away that I live in the most beautiful spot on God’s good earth.  From my front room window at home, happily, I can snatch a restricted glimpse of it.


Sadly, now, the feature most people remark upon is the artificial construction on top, where the British Army have built a large sanger, the better to follow the everyday movements of the citizens below.  The whole Ring of Gullion is likewise despoiled, but temporarily, we all hope.  It is still impossible to travel around South Armagh without the distinct impression that one’s every movement is observed and recorded.  Practically every summit on the circle of hills has a similar construction.  Should you forget, it isn’t long before the sky reverberates with the propellers of a huge Chinook, usually with a heavily-laden net slung underneath.  Some decade ago it was difficult and dangerous for soldiers to use the roads to move supplies but most people celebrate that the culvert bomb is a thing of the past.


You may not immediately be aware of it, but you are descending to sea level.  Indeed it is impossible, except by the shore road, to approach Newry except from above.  It is unsurprising therefore that flooding was a serious problem in the past.  Much work was undertaken to save the west end and town centre from floods, and indeed, the Rivers Authority are now concluding further work on the Newry River to this end. 


The narrowing of the channel in the town centre has the further bonus of raising the water level, through all seasons, above the foul-smelling sediments that so often in days gone by spoiled a pleasant summer stroll along its banks.


This Newry River (the Clanrye can, if you choose, change name as it reaches town) cuts beneath your path at Sheepbridge, some three miles out, as you approach from this direction [several slides here, including ‘extended bus’ crossing Sheepbridge].  It meanders erratically across an inaccessible flood plain on the rest of its journey, forbidding the laying down of sea-level road access on this route.  You climb over Tinker Hill before descending, past Damolly village on your right, to rejoin the river on its last kilometre into town. 


All through the town centre, the famous Newry Canal, built to carry coals from Coalisland in Tyrone to Dublin, runs parallel with the river and separated by just a few metres from it [further slides of both].   The town was a sea port for centuries, more recently linked by a ship canal (an extension of the inland canal) to the river estuary at Fathom, where tidal waters are deep enough to allow access to sea-going vessels of several hundred tons.  Less than a century later, this limit was eclipsed by a new generation of huge ships, and today the ship canal and Newry Port is a wild life refuge and occasional recreational facility.



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