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Most walkers in the Belfast area will be familiar with some or all of the the coastal path from Holywood to Bangor. However, the final path section of the North Down coast walk is much less well known. This is a pity for this section contains much fine wild walking, diversity and interest.
The walk can be challenging underfoot and in several sections it is relegated to the narrow tidal strip between private land and the sea. Indeed at high spring tides some sections will require a diversion – see Tides Notes for general information on tides.
|Orlock Point Car Park Headland Loop||2.0 miles / 3.2 km||160 feet|
|Orlock Point Car Park to Groomsport||2.6 miles / 4.2 km||140 feet|
|Orlock Point Car Park to Bangor Station||6.3 miles / 10.1 km||340 feet|
Coastal walks tend to be linear unless you happen to live on a small island! My preferred solution is to use public transport where possible. This works well here with a good bus service running from Bangor Bus / Train Station to Donaghadee (Service 3 – March 2022). The minor stop at Portavoe is the ideal starting point. For car users there is a small car park at the edge of the National Trust Orlock Point property. A headland loop is then possible using the quiet minor roads back from Orlock Bay, solving the linear walk problem.
Start at Orlock Bay
Leaving the car parking area just off the busy A2 is one of those ‘down the rabbit hole’ experiences where everything changes and becomes rather strange and wonderful! You find yourself in a secluded rocky bay, a bridge and stream in front with a palm tree and apparently a standing stone straight ahead – enjoy!
The path then rises steeply up a flight of steps to the cliff top which affords an excellent view of the Copeland Islands, the unusually jagged foreshore rocks and deep rich water of the North Channel – very much sea, not Lough!
Careful study of the scene below will reveal human augmentation – recent I am told, but it is easy to imagine dwellers from another time and place at work here!
After about 300m look out for a small ‘sheep track’ dropping away to your right to join a strange gap in the rocks below:
This is part of the Orlock ‘coach way’, an unfinished coast road cut through hard rock, seemingly in places for the joy of doing the difficult thing! However, given that its builder David Kerr, the landlord in the Portvaoe area in the 1820s, had a difficult relationship with the Coastguard and Revenue in an area famed for smuggling, it may well have had more creative uses!
I recommend therefore diverting to the right, along this ‘sheep track’, muddy and a little rough, and follow the coach wheels to an abrupt termination where an inlet cuts perpendicularly across the route. Among the rocks below you might just make out the remains of a rusting riveted girder. There was once a railway style embankment here, bridging the inlet and joining the road you have just walked to another rocky cutting beyond.
In 2019 the Ulster Archaeological Society turned its attention to this conundrum (see link at end of this post for the full report). They identified 500m of evidence of a constructed way, stretching from the rock arch back to the bay at the beginning of our walk. However, when it came an explanation they had to revert to a list of possibilities:
a. An ancient pilgrim’s way;Orlock Coach Road, Survey Report Ulster Archaeological Society (2019)
b. A vanity project by the local landowner;
c. An adrenalin ride for important visitors;
d. A smugglers’ path to outfox the Revenue men.
e. A famine relief scheme to alleviate the suffering of the poor.
f. A scheme to transport freshly quarried stone.
Only (a) was ruled out. The ‘adrenalin ride’ idea was new to me, but rather attractive as it seems to prefigure the later Gobbins coastal thrill path which was opened north of Whitehead in 1902.
As the embankment is no more, please turn left and climb up to rejoin the main path just by a considerately located seat!
Follow the path down and around the next rough undulating section and through the coach tunnel to find yourself in another landscape with broad flat rocky foreshore, overseen by a well preserved World War Two coastal lookout station. The shore is rich in rock pool interest and shells and seaweed here seem particularly diverse.
Here is where I spotted a pair of my favourite sea ducks – the Eider (or Cuddy) duck.
The lookout is worth a visit – official information is on offer and the view is good (but the bars on the window won’t do much to keep the wind out)! This was an Artillery Searchlight Enclosure, one of two located near here, along with two gun emplacements. In the dark days of World War II this lonely site would have been a part of Belfast’s ground defences against the German Luftwaffe raids.
The lookout you just visited dates only to WW2. You would expect Orlock Head in its prominent position to have a much longer history of official sea watching and this is indeed the case. A little online research brought me to the Coastguards of Yesterday website which collects material on the history of Irish Coastguards. A fascinating article there, G186 ‘The landlord, smuggling and the Coastguard’, tells the story of how a local landowner actively resisted the establishment of a coastguard / revenue station on the headland for many years. Eventually he was thwarted and coastguard cottages were built near the headland summit on his land. However, he refused to accept the £5 / year rent from the government in protest at this interference in his trading activities!
The path now undulates gently over the low rock platform and exits the National Trust property and here begins the small cluster of houses which sit around Sandeel Bay.
Orlock Headland Loop (return)
Loop walkers should bear left on reaching Sandeel Lane and follow it out on to Orlock Road. This is a quiet, but narrow road and there is no footpath. On reaching the junction with Orlock Road a left turn and a short (100m) walk will take you onto the main A2 Bangor / Donaghadee Road.On this section you pass the end of Coastguard Lane which leads past the ruined Coastguard station and modern weather mast.
Now turn left and follow a good footpath all the way back (0.6 miles) to the starting point.
Sandeel Bay to Groomsport / Bangor
Those continuing to Groomsport / Bangor should bear right on Sandeel Lane and follow the road around the bay until it cuts inland towards Windsor Holiday Park.
Here the path (little more than a ‘sheep track’) returns to the shore passing a two storey house on the left. It is easy to miss so take care. Once on the small path the route is clearer but can still be very overgrown.
At high spring tide (and particularly with strong onshore winds) the path may not be accessible or safe. In this case you can proceed along the road through the caravan park to exit back onto the coast at the far end. This is a route recognised by the council, but it does not seem to be well waymarked.
The next section around private land follows the coastal access strip, which is often narrow and eroded in places. By definition this type of access is adjacent to the spring high tide mark, so the state of the tide (and weather) should be taken into consideration when planning to walk this section.
Initially the route follows a series of pleasant sandy bays (the sand here seems almost silver). The view back over Sandeel Bay feels tranquil after the rugged rocks of Orlock Head.
Around a promontory the static caravans of Windsor Holiday Park come into view. They are not a thing of beauty, but such parks do provide homes and holidays by the sea for thousands and so earn their place, I think, if developments can be limited and arranged to facilitate the access of others to the coast. However, it is a sobering fact about the whole walk that the only sections of this beautiful coast not built over are those owned by the National Trust.
The shore and view out to sea remains fine, although the path here is minimal and in places eroded and on or very near the spring tide line. At one point a sign indicates an alternative high tide route through the park itself.
Eventually the caravans are left behind as we enter the National Trust ‘McCutcheon’s Field’ a welcome green space. In addition there is now a proper path above the shoreline and easier walking towards Groomsport.
After McCutcheon’s Field the path into Groomsport returns once more to the narrow coastal strip, crossing a beach and then making its way along a rocky shore between houses and the sea. The final approach to the town drops down onto a fine beach with an option of using a rock cut flight of steps worthy of a smugglers tale!
At the end of the beach is a large carpark adjacent to the moorings of the natural haven of Groomsport Bay. The anchorage is formed by the protective barrier of Cockle Island which sits across the mouth of the bay.
Groomsport is a good place to stop, rest and possibly eat. There are several options including a chippy, a seaside bar and a traditional seaside eatery the ‘Cottage Kitchen Cafe’. Good for a coffee, a bowl of home-made soup or a more substantial bite. There are also public toilets here and a small museum and information centre in the beautifly preserved Cockle Row fishermens’ cottages.
Buses back to Bangor (or to the starting point of Portavoe) stop here on Main Street.
Groomsport to Bangor
The final section of this walk is made up of a superb coastal reserve followed by an urban seafront.
Follow the path past Cockle Row Cottages and around the bay. A striking large white house sits alone on the headland ahead, surrounded by rocky open ground and a walled garden. This building is the original coast guard ‘Watch House’ which was built here around 1820. Around 1900 it was converted into a private house and the integral boathouse and first floor projecting Watch Room was removed. As you walk directly towards it (before bearing sharp left to follow the coastal path) you pass a row of cottages which replaced the ‘Crew Cottages’ which previously stood here to house the Coastguard men and their families.
As you bear left cutting across the headland the scenery is transformed again and you enter Ballymacormick Point Nature Reserve.
Here a series of coastal ‘lagoons’ formed by interlocking islands just off the shore, create a sheltered diverse habitat, full of rocky pools and sandy bays, protected by a belt of gorse and bracken. The path runs slightly inland, undulating, on higher ground affording an excellent viewing platform for wildlife and the views framed along its way. Rough and muddy in places some care is required.
Eventually the path turns round the headland and the coast beyond Bangor comes into view.
After a final section across a flat peninsula the path leaves the reserve and returns to the narrow coastal strip. Here the seaward boundary wall of an old estate forms your (not unattractive, but very substantial) left side limit and the sea, the beginning of Ballyholme Bay, the right. Again be aware of tides.
You are soon on the sand and will have to negotiate a couple of small streams (normally easy to cross) before reaching the start of the Bangor Seafront.
Ballyholme Bay proper starts with a flourish – this row of classic seaside villas sit in elevated splendour facing the elements. Boarding houses of yesteryear, or something more grand. Whatever, they make a great start to the long Ballyholme crescent of seaside dwellings from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The past has been valued, preserved and enhanced and all along the seafront you can enjoy examples of happy seaside building. To this end I suggest leaving the concrete promenade at the point where it meets Ballyholme Esplanade and follow this road uphill to enjoy fine elevated views on your right of the South Antrim coast and on your left of the seaside terraces.
If you find yourself in need of refreshment etc. turn left at Sheridan Drive and follow this road for 50m to its junction with Lyle Road. Here you will find two cafes and an ice cream shop which should meet most needs.
Return to the Esplanade and continue until it becomes Ballyholme Road and shortly after this you can cut across a grassed area to rejoin the promenade path.
The crescent of Ballyholme Bay ends at the yacht club, which is followed by the tennis courts and green space along Seacliff Road. Returning now to older Bangor, the seafront is full of historical seafront interest, buildings which intrigue and hint at former functions and lost skills.
Passing an old, and now seemingly unused, walled harbour on the right you turn past Bangor RNLI Lifeboat Station to Bangor Bay itself. However, from the west end there is little to see here but car parks and marina fencing. This part of the town’s seafront has lost its sea. The formerly largely exposed Bangor Bay has been contained by two massive sea walls, which seem to do an excellent job of sheltering the extensive marina and industrial harbour, but in creating this modern haven, I do feel something else has gone.
To find your starting point follow Quay Street around to where it joins Main Street, (by the Red Berry Coffee Company on the corner), and head up the hill 1/4 of a mile to the Train and Bus Station.
Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)
- Orlock Coach Road, Survey Report Ulster Archaeological Society (2019)
- Translink bus and train times
- Tide Times
Many thanks to Mr Denis Mayne who contacted me through the blog and provided a copy of his excellent article “Walking Orlock” originally published in 2004 in “The Bell”, the journal of the North Down Heritage Centre. He also provided very detailed material on the history of the Coast Guard stations at Orlock and Groomsport.