The County Tops – Number 3: Sawel, Counties Derry and Tyrone

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series The County Tops of Ireland

In the latest article from the County Top Series, Paul O’ Connor ignores the forecast and braves gale-force winds to take a jaunt up Sawel Mountain to tick off two more County Tops.

It would be something of an understatement to say that the weather forecast hadn’t been good. Strong to gale-force winds and heavy showers on Friday night leading into Saturday morning was what the friendly weather man had said after the 9 o’clock news. Unperturbed, I got to bed at a reasonable hour and set my alarm for 5:15. Not very long afterwards, I was cursing my stupidity as I done my best to ignore the wind that was very noticeably buffeting my car as I drove along the Carrickmacross bypass. Arriving in Omagh, the heavens opened and the rain came down so heavily that I missed the turn off for Plumbridge and had to backtrack.

Why oh why had I not listened to the nice friendly weather man?

The Sperrins were an area I had not previously visited so the chance to tick off two more County Tops presented the perfect excuse for doing so. They form one of the largest upland areas in the whole of Ireland. Sawel Mountain is the highest peak in the Sperrins and it represents the highest point in Counties Tyrone and Derry. Driving from Plumbridge, a marvelous vista of the Sperrins opened up ahead of me – in fact, everything looked superb apart from the heavy scattering of freshly dislodged leaves scurrying around in front of me on the road.

Getting There
From Omagh, head for Plumbridge and then onto the small village (more a townland) of Sperrin. From Sperrin, take the mountain road for Park. The road gives great views over to the upper reaches of Sawel. Cross 2 cattle grids and there is space to park at a layby to the right immediately after the second grid.

The Route
From the parking spot, the route up to the top of Sawel couldn’t be simpler as a fence provides a sure guide to within a short walk of the summit. The lower sections of the mountain are boggy with a number of large peat hags to be encountered. Luckily for me, the climb up the East spur meant that I was protected from the winds which were coming across from the North-West and as I walked, the sun rose up above the valley behind me throwing up a hazy mist as it heated the rain-sodden ground.

It was only when I got to within 100 metres of the summit that I heard the very unnerving noise of the wind howling and whistling over the crest of Derry’s highpoint. The wind was coming square on from the direction of Dart, a mountain which I was considering visiting but quickly decided to leave for another day. The summit of Sawel consists of a raised mound of rocks topped by a trig pillar.  A fence runs to the south of the summit marking the county border with Tyrone and a spur runs off the fence running in a Northerly direction. On the other side of this section of the fence were a disheveled looking group of sheep desperately huddled at one end of a large peat hag in a vain effort to avoid the worst of the winds. The sheep seemed to look at me jealously knowing that I could gain shelter by heading back down the east side of the mountain from which they were denied access by the fence – their options were limited to staying put and sitting out the gale or heading back towards Dart running the high risk of having the wool blown clean off their backs!

I made my way across to the trig point and clambered up the mound of rocks punching the air in delight at another County Top reached. I was quickly evicted from the top of Derry as a gust of wind nudged me in the back sending me into a semi-controlled fall off the mound.

Prior to visiting Sawel, I had read that the highest point in Tyrone was Mullaghclogha (I believe this to be the highest peak,  there is a subtle difference). I had also read that the County top is shared with county Derry, the hypothesis being that the county border is marked by the trig pillar sitting at the top of Sawel. After some investigation, I had found that Tyrone like Monaghan, Roscommon and Leitrim, has its highest point on the slopes of a mountain that summits in another County. For Tyrone, the highest point is on the South slope of Sawel and to quote the very helpful Strabane District Council Countryside Officer ‘Sawel`s highest point is actually just in Co. Derry but the highest point in Tyrone is only 30 or 40 metres away from the trig point. If you cross the fence to the south of the trig point, you will be standing on the highest point in Tyrone’.

Bearing this in mind, I took a southerly bearing from the trig pillar and walked down to the fence before locating the highest point and stepping across onto the top of County Tyrone. I found myself at a rather windswept and very uninspiring point, one which bore no cairn or trig point. In fact, it was a point which bore nothing to suggest the importance of this particular piece of land. Being far to lazy and wind-battered to construct a cairn for future explorers to sit and marvel at, I propped the camera up on a tuft of grass and took a couple of shots of myself at the top of Tyrone before retracing my steps back down to the parking spot.

A very pleasant walk despite the gale-force conditions. Sawel has an advantage over some of the more isolated county tops in that it can be combined with other mountains in the area to make up a decent day’s walking. The fence from the road also makes it a fairly straightforward and quick top to bag should time be restricted. On the day I visited Sawel, an early start meant that I still had plenty of time to drive over to Derry and tackle Errigal.

County Top Rating: 7/10

Useful Information
Height: 678 metres

Recommended Reading
Ireland’s County High Points: A Walking Guide (Walking Guides)
A great guide to the County High-Points from Kieron Gribbon and an essential read if you are planning to do the County Tops.

Activity Map (Outdoor Pursuits) (Irish Activity Map)
The Sperrins Activity Map. Another essential for walking in the Sperrin Mountains.

This is the third article in the series on Ireland’s County Tops.
Click here to see all articles from the series