This route follows the old Ulster Way from Whitespots Country Park (the site of old lead mines), through the Clandeboye Estate woods, past Helen’s Tower, along linear beech woods and farm lanes before joining Clandeboye Avenue for the last 3km to Helen’s Bay Station.
|TYPE||Linear walk with train and bus travel option|
|DISTANCE||6.1 miles / 9.8 km|
|SURFACES||Paths and tracks, generally good, but with short muddy sections.|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||430 feet of ascent, 570 feet descent|
Public transport works well with this walk which starts at the Somme Heritage Centre / Whitespots Country Park close to a bus stop, and ends at Helen’s Bay train station. As you can see from the map above this makes for a simple loop and the Translink Journey Planner will provide an integrated timetable for both services. However, be aware that if travelling from Bangor by bus you will have to cross a dual carriageway on foot to get to the park entrance. Alternatively there is ample parking at the Country Park, but much less provision at Helen’s Bay station.
As you enter the Country Park you will see the Somme Heritage Centre on your right. Given that our route also passes Helen’s Tower, the model for the commemorative Ulster Tower on the Somme battlefield in France, you might want to visit and reflect on the great human costs of war as part of your walk.
Straight ahead you will see the park entrance and a small forest of signs. On the left is an original Ulster Way marker – however, don’t be fooled into expecting a waymarked trail. Time and tide has carried off most of the original waymarking. Next is information relating to trial bike activity and directions to a separate part of the park where this is permitted on certain days. Historically uncontrolled trial bike use caused significant problems here with noise, ground damage and indeed danger; however, judging from the lack of major tracking in the main park area, this solution seems to be working. Saying this, it is still a good idea to keep eyes and ears open for rogue bikers (with and without engines!)
The final sign introduces you to the Country Park and the history of the lead mines, now long gone, leaving behind a complex and fascinating landscape – a mixture of industrial archaeology and prime natural habitat – indeed a large part of the area has ASSI status.
Head up the track through the dense deciduous planting. As the path climbs you will start to gain glimpses of the undulating mine working terrain on your right, two wind turbines and then, appropriately, the substantial stone tower stump of a windmill once used to grind ore. As you pass this you enter a confusing large flat area of hard-standing with decapitated park signage – it would be easy to go wrong here. The map below and photograph should keep you on the right track:
Exit to the North West as shown above where you will find a good gravel track and views of a lake and golf course. A short distance ahead a park path loops off to the right – keep left heading towards the woods (paths also cut off to your left up through the rocky scrub). Stay on the main track and you soon come to a gate marking the end of the Country Park and the start of the Clandeboye Estate woodland. The path now becomes rather muddy as it travels between the golf course edge on your right and a series of low rocky hills on your left.
After 200m you come to another mining relic, the ‘North Shaft Chimney’ – the path bends right, drops and shortly afterwards is joined by another track merging from the right.
Keep straight ahead for another 300m where the track enters the golf course by a warning sign.
Here you turn sharp left and climb up into an superb area of mature beech wood. Many small paths cut off to the right towards the hilltop and Helen’s Tower, but the main route proceeds skirting the high ground to the left hand side. You now need to decide if you will visit Helen’s Tower as it requires a diversion from the through route.
Helen’s Tower Options
Helen’s Tower has historical interest both in relation to its focal role in the grand Clandeboye Estate landscaping project and its significance in relation to remembrance of the Great War, a link between the army training camps of North Down and the bloody battlefields of France. However, the location of the tower itself today does not come with a view – it is not like the nearby Scrabo Tower with its great panorama of all North Down and Strangford. Your visit will be to see the tower itself, standing in thick woodland with just its upper floors projecting above the tree line.
Option One – The Access Road (600m each way / 100 foot extra climb )
This is the easiest, longest, but least interesting route. It also involves the most climb as you have to drop down the far side of the hill to pick up the access road. At (A) on the map below simply turn right and follow the access road as it spirals gently upwards until you arrive at the gate to the tower. Return by the same route.
Option Two – Off Road (700m / 30 foot extra climb)
Judging by the many informal tracks which cut through the wood to the hill top this is the most popular route to see the tower. As you leave the golf course behind and ascend the woodland path, around (C) you will see several rough paths striking approximately north, uphill towards the summit. Select one of these and follow it up until the tower comes into clear view and then make your way to the approach road and information board.
Generally finding the way to the top of a hill is easy navigation as the slope does the work for you. However, coming down again is a totally different matter where people often go wrong. The safe option is to follow the vehicle access track spiralling back down to (A). Should you decide instead to follow the direct route down from (B) to (A) please be aware that the path is rough, steep and slippy and high crags lie just to the north of your route.
Whether you visit the tower or not, you should end up at (A) on the map above. Proceed straight ahead steeply downhill to cut the corner and rejoin the tower access road where you turn right. After 500m you come to a crossroads in level open forest. The track ahead is private, the track to the right looks promising but after 700m suddenly turns into a muddy quagmire. That just leaves left which is the way to take.
The forest now becomes thicker and more mixed, but you will soon catch glimpses of water on your right. Then, as you turn a right hand corner, there is water also on the left as the track crosses a wooden causeway between two overgrown lakes. The area is rich in bird life, both on and off the water. As the causeway ends, an area of fine mature beech woodland overlooking the water opens up to the left – a good spot for a linger or even a picnic!
The track now skirts farmland and the forest edge for the next 500m until it joins another farm track.
Your route is straight across the junction onto a small path which leads you out of the estate via a pedestrian gate onto a busy rural road – take care!
Turn right and follow the road for 250m, making full use of the verges, and cross to the other side when safe, to reach your next section of path accessed via a wooden gateway.
For the next 1.5km you will be walking inside a linear beech wood – part of a massive and complex series of landscape improvements made by the Clandeboye Estate which cover most of the farmland between the walled estate and the coast at Helen’s Bay. It all seems so natural now, but in practice it was a massive landscaping project of wooded boundaries, roadways, bridges and drainage. Today you can enjoy it in its full mature glory.
So, follow along the beech path with farmland on your left and Blackwood Golf Course on your right. The path is muddy in a few places, but generally in good condition. As you proceed you will see some of the full grown trees laid low by ex Hurricane Ophelia in late 2017 – a reminder that forests are not always safe places to be!
After 1300m the path splits – bear right slightly downhill and continue along a narrower more hedge like section until you come to a gate and find yourself on a section of overgrown laneway. After 100m you join the busy Ballysallagh Road.
Cross over to the gated lane-way opposite – there is nothing here to indicate you are on a permissive path except for the ageing wooden gateway. Proceed ahead between the well maintained hedges and enjoy open skies again after your long forested walk. The fertile rolling farmland on both sides reminds you this is primarily a place of work rather than recreation. The farming here is mostly arable and the lack of livestock detracts a little from the scene, but it does make the way ahead cleaner and simpler! Ignore turns to the left and right and proceed onwards for 1km until the lane-way enters a broad stand of mature trees – Clandeboye Avenue.
Turn LEFT and follow the woodland path soon passing an original Ulster Way waymark and bench – still working well.
You are now travelling along the spectacular show-piece of Lord Dufferin’s landscape re-forming project – Clandeboye Avenue. The 3 mile route winds its way through the North Down landscape along corridors of specially planted woodland without ever joining a public road (until the A2 Bangor dual carriageway came along). It does this by either bridging over the public road (as on the Ballysallagh Road) or under as on the Ballyrobert Road and Bridge Road in Helen’s Bay. These bridges, as you will see, are no mean utilitarian affairs – but bold architectural statements in themselves. Even the river crossings along the way are over specified with long stone built culverts used inside of simply running the carriageway over an adequate bridge.
After 300m the woodland bends right – here if you look carefully you can find the entrance to the 50m culvert which was built to facilitate the carriageway! Looking out of the wood to the west you can also see a parallel wooded way – presumably added simply to improve the landscape!
Proceed ahead for another 1200m. Now you come to the low point of this walk – the Bangor Dual Carriageway. The Clandeboye Way here is unceremoniously chopped in two – it could have been avoided relatively cheaply with an underpass at the time of construction and will probably have to be rectified in the future at great expense. The council’s current ingenious solution to this problem is a large sign informing you you have reached the end of the Ulster Way, which starts again on the other side! The problem of course is the traffic, which at rush hour and peak times could make this crossing very time consuming or impossible. However, in more normal conditions, a two stage (broad central reservation) careful crossing should not be a problem. So heed the warnings and disclaimer!
Once on the other side of the road you will find that the EU have been at work improving the next section – but how you are supposed to access this facility without crossing the road (or parking on a busy hard shoulder) is difficult to ascertain! So drop down from the road and follow the next, rather wet, footpath along another wooded section.
The path now starts to slope gently downwards – it is easy to feel you are heading down to the sea and you also have the knowledge that your long walk is nearing its end. A good time to check your train times from Helen’s Bay and add or subtract from your pace to minimise a long wait on the platform (Helen’s Bay Station is attractive and unique, but time there, like on other stations, does seem to pass exceeding slowly!)
As you descend you will catch sight of something unusual through the trees directly ahead. This is the first of the carriageway bridges which separates it from the lesser ways above and below. Unfortunately, on reaching it you may find the imposing aged structure is rather let down by the lack of a little simple modern drainage underneath – it tends to be a bit squishy under there!
Pass through and you will find yourself on a short road section – however it is extremely quiet so traffic is unlikely to spoil your peace and enjoyment. After 500m the traffic exits to the left and you pass through the gateway directly ahead for your last section of tree lined Clandeboye Avenue. Shortly again you will glimpse a bridge ahead – this time complete with heraldic arms and prancing beasts. Unfortunately you don’t need to go under it (but other walks do – see below) – your path bears right, up and through a rather unexpected archway which opens into the station platform subway and your destination!