Take on Nature: Slieve na-Griddle on the shortest day of the year
THE path bordered by whin and tattered blackberry bushes twists upwards in a loop towards the summit. It is muddy and slippery – more treacherous because it is not quite daylight yet. Wrens flit between the bushes and a raven craws out of sight, while dark, speckled stools with a twist of fur at one end tell of foxes on the prowl.
At just over 400 feet Slieve na-Griddle barely merits the name of a mountain, but the 360 degree view of the surrounding Co Down countryside belies its stumpy stature. At the summit is a capstone, almost submerged beneath the earth, but with two supporting stones just visible below.
The site has not been excavated and it is believed to be a burial chamber or small passage tomb dating from pre-Celtic times. There is no indication of its alignment, but at least it provides a dry surface on which to sit and contemplate the dawning of the shortest day of the year.
The sun doesn't so much rise on this winter solstice as change the tone of the sky from muggy black to muggy grey, although as the morning progresses beams of light begin to shimmer through the clouds.
Despite the groggy skies, the Mournes to the south are visible and Dromara Hills to the south west. Strangford Lough with its islands and inlets defines the landscape to the north. On clearer days Divis Mountain can be seen and out across the Irish sea the Isle of Man, and on very clear days the mountains of Cumbria.
Across a few fields is St Patrick's Mountain, again not much more than a hill but with equally stunning views. It was here that the saint is said to have climbed after landing on the shores of Strangford Lough.
Van Morrison fans should come up here to visualise the landscape he depicts in his song-poem Coney Island – the Lecale District, Killyleagh, Downpatrick, Strangford, Ardglass and St John's Point.
Until a few years ago Slieve na-Griddle was covered in pines but they were cut down and the falcons which once nested among the hill's rocky crevices seem to have disappeared with them.
New pines have been planted on the higher slopes and birch and beech lower down, a welcome sign of localised reforestation. Below lies Lough Money, stocked with rainbow trout and popular with anglers.
A couple of miles away is a superb dolmen surrounded by a small circle of stones. Set in a field of freshly planted crops, it is like a prehistoric bubble in modernity.
As I stop to take a picture the sky to the north darkens, while to the south east the sun has decided to assert itself. As the rain starts a rainbow arcs into view and provides a surreal backdrop to the dolmen.
But then the rain begins to get serious and within seconds has turned to sleet, small fists of ice pounding my face and soaking through my battered coat.
I stumble back to where I have parked the car and where my waterproofs lie folded up in the boot. Within minutes the downpour has passed and the solstice sun is back.
Although drenched and battered by the hail and rain I feel invigorated. As Van the Man says: Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time.