Castlerock, Mussenden Temple and Downhill

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Between the coastal settlements of Downhill and Castlerock there is an extraordinary richness of place. Here you have great beaches, substantial sea cliffs, a classic railway tunnel, a demesne (domain) landscaped on a grand scale and several iconic buildings including the clifftop Mussenden Temple. The human inputs to this landscape came largely from Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry (1730 – 1803), a remarkable man. Brian Fothergill, his biographer, sums him up thus:

Traveller, politician, scholar, collector and the subject of a series of amorous adventures, he was a continuous source of amazement to his contemporaries. Horace Walpole condemned his profligate folly, John Wesley praised his plenteous good works, and George II denounced him as “that wicked prelate”.

‘The Mitred Earl’ by Brian Fothergill

His other popular handle ‘The Edifying Bishop’ referred to his fondness for constructing grand edifices of which Downhill Castle was one. In this walk you will experience a great natural landscape, but one curated and adjusted by a showman with style!

TYPECircular walk with beach, clifftop, road and forest sections
DISTANCE5.8 miles / 9.2 km
SURFACESVaries from sand, surfaced and unsurfaced paths, steep and sometimes muddy paths, forest tracks, road and pavement
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS700 feet of descent and ascent
  • Section walking on a road with no pavement
  • Tidal beach at cliff foot

Getting There

This is another of our walks with a railway focus. Castlerock station is an ideal starting point and for citizens of Greater Belfast wishing to expand their knowledge of the NI railway network this is a way to escape the car and do the travel thing properly. Those on a tight budget will also appreciate the NIR ‘Rail-tracker’ Sunday roaming ticket – which at the time of writing (December 2023) costs £9.00 for an adult.

Alternatively various car parking options are also available – see map.

National Trust

The grounds and buildings of Downhill Demesne are owned and maintained by the National Trust, which also provides parking and toilet facilities at the walled garden (see map). An admission fee is levied at the Lion’s Gate Car Park. Apart from this Car Park the area is generally ‘open’ dawn to dusk for pedestrians , but is not secured in any way.

The Route

So to start – you are at the seaside, so head for the beach, North from the railway level crossing. One of the smallest of the golden chain of North Coast beaches (which starts at Magilligan and runs to the White Rocks beyond Portrush) what it lacks in length it makes up for in drama by merging under the impressive cliffs of the Downhill promontory. Walking on the sand under these cliffs is tempting, but also dangerous as you might get trapped by the incoming tide which turns cliff foot beach into a series of sealed coves with no inland escape! You have been warned.

Our route travels west along the beach for 300m before exiting below the first rocky outcrop beside a characterful basalt built cottage complete with hedge sheltered garden. Join the promenade, turn right and then right again where the Promenade joins Main Street and proceed past the very pink set of apartments perched on the low cliff top on your right. Their rather unusual round fronted car park conceals an interesting history. In the 1970s this was a modern outdoor public swimming pool with coffee shop and library – a revival Lido before its time! Sadly it closed (I think the early 1990s) but is still fondly remembered by many local people.

So around the corner and up the hill, crossing the railway line as it enters the first of the two Downhill tunnels. There is a viewpoint here at the car park, and rightly so with the great long strand of Portstewart stretching away from the mouth of the River Bann, which cuts back inland to run almost parallel to the coast, creating a sand dune island. The original Ulster Way walking guide documents this route, commenting that the author hopes the ferry across the river Bann will be restored soon and suggests that walkers should enquire about this from the offices of Coleraine Distinct Council. In 2022 we are still waiting!

Continue around the corner past the 12 Apostles, a pristine row of former workers’ cottages built for the staff of Downhill Demesne. Here you get your first glimpse of the theatrical imagination of Bishop Hervey.

The caravan site which appeared on your right now comes to an end at a parking area. The main pedestrian entrance to the Demesne lies directly ahead between high hedges.

The Castlerock Moors (option)

‘The Moors’ is an exposed headland to the north of the main route

The main route here proceeds to the left past an old gate lodge and along a hedged-in path. However, you can also go to the right, picking up a small path leaving the parking area and curving around the edge of the caravan site. This area known as the Moors is criss crossed with many unsurfaced small paths and gives you access to the (unfenced) cliff top. It is a great place to explore on a fine day but be aware the paths are rough and if you choose to drop down into the Black Glen, the path is very steep and can be extremely slippy in wet conditions. There is major conservation work going on here so be aware new fences may appear and areas may be closed off.

The Mussenden Temple with Donegal beyond from the Moors

Main Route

The route enters the Demesne by the broad hedged path to your left and proceeds on a straight line for 400m. As you descend a gentle gradient you enter a Glen and eventually come to a path crossroads at its floor.

Extensive recent removal of ash trees here has been carried out as a response to the devastating impact of Ash Dieback disease. Further work may be ongoing so proceed with care and be sure to adhere to any path closure or other safety notices.

Continue straight ahead crossing the glen and climbing back up to exit the wood onto the Demesne parkland. The ruins of Downhill Castle stand on the skyline directly ahead, but here you bear right and follow a grassy path along the edges of the fields back towards the sea.

Passing through a gateway the path runs past a folly (or perhaps old threshing floor) on your right and a line of wooded low crags on your left.

Lady Erne’s Seat – this interesting structure lurks on the valley edge

Head west toward the Mussenden Temple until the cliff curves away from the sea again and you get you first view down into the Black Glen bisecting the headland and forcing the railway back into the open.

After you round the corner, your second great strand view comes into sight, stretching 7 miles to Magilligan Point with the hills of Inishowen rising behind. The Temple looks like it has stood here for hundreds of years and will stand for hundreds more. However, not long ago the National Trust had to employ a large team of abseiling structural engineers to do extensive cliff stabilisation to ensure the Temple will still be there for future generations!

So, on to the Temple itself. When the property is fully staffed, the door on the inland end should be open and you can stand below the dome high above looking out of the great windows to the north Atlantic (on a clear day Islay should be visible on the horizon).

A fire burned continuously in the vault below the library, to keep the books (and presumably also the Bishop) dry and warm!

Used as a library and secure seascape viewing platform the inscription running around the outside of the dome is rather unsettling:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura, 2.1-2.

I understand a literal translation is something like ‘It is pleasant, when the winds are buffeting the waves on the great sea, to watch from the land the great struggle of another…’,!
A rather more benign version is often quoted “Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore / The rolling ship, and hear the tempests roar.

Hopefully your day has less dramatic weather and you can enjoy the elements without the need of a sheltering dome!

Now you have choices. The obvious route is directly inland to explore the ruins of Downhill Castle which now lurks menacingly on the skyline. However, all is not what it seems – those great flanking castellated walls are actually a perspective trick – there are no side walls – just a couple of modest rapidly descending buttresses to create the illusion. Remember at Downhill Demesne you are viewing the work of a showman. The ruins, while interesting, decorate the landscape rather than being its focal point.

If the weather is clear and bright a better option might be to stay with the cliff wall and continue around enjoying the wide coast views over Downhill, Benone and Magilligan until you reach the dovecote and walled garden.

The route marked on the map hedges its bets and strikes out SW along a grass path directly to the walled garden. Which option you choose doesn’t really matter – just make sure you end up at the walled garden (entering via the dovecote or the track from the castle). As well as toilets there is usually a remarkable coffee shack here where a hot drink and snack can be enjoyed in partial shelter!

The walled garden – shelter for doves and facilities for walkers

Now exit via the impressive gateway flanked by two lions – carefully cross the busy road to the footpath and head downhill towards the coast and the lines of incoming breakers on the strand. Unfortunately the footpath stops short as the road narrows and you need to cross over to the right hand side and walk on the grass verge for the last section. Take care here.

Walking on the grass verge with waves ahead and Downhill Beachhouse Self-catering accommodation to the right

At Downhill there are toilets, a small car park and vehicular access to the beach via a bridge underneath the railway which is shared with the river. It would be a pity not to make your second beach visit of the day – perhaps use the footbridge on the right of the river to visit the beach under the Temple and take your own version of the beach-railway-cliffs-and-Mussenden-Temple photograph.

Apparently Bishop Hervey liked to organise races here on horseback (some accounts instead say leapfrog) for candidates to clerical appointments in the diocese – a kind of natural selection! This is also a Game of Thrones filming location (Season 2 – The Burning of the 7), but as the shooting took place at night, they rather missed out on the view.

Look inland and your will see the start of the Bishop’s next landscape intervention – The Bishop’s Road, a seven mile scenic carriage drive cutting up here through the Binevenagh Cliffs and running along the ridge of the mountain with spectacular views over Lough Foyle and the hills of Donegal.

Modern lifeguard tech with the Bishop’s Road behind cutting through the cliffs.

The route now uses the first part of the Bishop’s Road to pass through the cliffs and enter Downhill Forest. Retrace your steps under the railway and carefully cross the busy A2 road to join the start of the Bishop’s Road. There is no pavement here and the road is narrow. On the plus side, traffic is necessarily slow as it negotiates the tight corners. Proceed carefully making full use of the verges when appropriate. Don’t forget to look back as you climb for more great elevated views of Downhill Strand.

Interesting beach scene looking back from the Bishop’s Road

As the road rises above the steepest part of the cliffs it straightens for a distance and then bears sharp right. Here you will find a waymarked forest path cutting to your left. This path runs in a fairly straight line through the first part of Downhill Forest. Today it is mainly a standard conifer plantation, but on your left you will also see stands of mature Scots Pine, which hint at its origin as part of the great Downhill landscape project. The path crosses a shallow ford over a stream which seems to have been diverted from its natural course to augment waterfalls ahead to your left!

Eventually you will join Burrenmore Road where you turn left and then shortly afterwards right onto Springbank Road. There is little traffic here but care is still needed. After 200m you arrive at a gateway and a path re-entering Downhill Forest. Go straight ahead bearing right at a junction where the path ahead drops steeply down to steps beyond. As you continue you will become aware of a steep drop to your left falling down to a long amongst totally linear lake.

The woodland here changes to deciduous

This is the fish pond, another part of the Bishop’s landscaping projects. Proceed the full length of the lake to where the path drops to a bridge and path junction. Continue uphill straight ahead and after a short distance you will see the ruins of an old water powered sawmill on your right.

The wood has almost taken back the mill which once was used to turn it into planks!

The path now joins a vehicle track and you turn sharp left downhill past the sawmill now on your left until you reach the end of the lake. Follow the lake shore with the steep slopes of a wooded hill to your right.

The dirt path cuts diagonally up from the fish lake

Hilltop Plateau Option

You can divert off the main route up the path shown above to visit the hill top plateau. Most of the hill is flat grassland and in the past was a popular camp ground for scouts and other youth organisations. Looking further back at the far end of the plateau there is a heavily overgrown remains of a hilltop fort. The presence of the fort at one end of this strangely flattened hill with steep, easy to defend, slopes all around suggests this may have been a place of considerable power and importance long before Bishop Hervey came and made earthworks of his own!

An army could camp here and not be seen!

Exit the camping field at its North West corner where you will find a track dropping down and crossing a bridge to rejoin the main route.

Main Route

Follow the lakeside looking out for water fowl as you go. At the end of the lake, by the dam, you may just be able to make out the foundations of an old boathouse. The track now comes to a T-junction where you turn right and head towards the forest exit. There are several massive mature Sitka Spruce trees here on your right. The sheltered valley seems to have allowed them the opportunity to grow to these exceptional heights and girths.

Now exit onto the busy A2 road and cross with care. Ahead of you is the Bishop Gate, an attractive entrance and gatehouse with associated gardens, sitting at the top of the Black Glen which you visited earlier (if you have not already done so, you may need to pay admission at this point).

Enter by the gate and keep right down the valley / arboretum following the signs for Castlerock. You will some come to the path crossroads you crossed earlier and here you bear right and retrace your steps from before. Follow the path up out of the woodland to gain a view over the fish-pond, railway line and out to sea. The path now runs straight ahead deep set between hedges for 200m until you arrive back at the 12 Apostles on the edge of Castlerock.

Now return to the station along Main Street taking time to enjoy the interesting mix of house styles here. Seaside seems to have always brought out the desire to build something a little different!

Castlerock circa 2012. Our built environment is always changing!

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

None at present – but please note your National Trust admission fee also covers Hezlett house (see map). This 17th-century dwelling is so much more than a pretty thatched cottage and gives insight into how our ancestors used the natural materials around them to build homes. It is cruck-built – a timber frame construction technique which used a ‘tent’ of interlocking rough tree timbers to form the roof and core structure of the building. Well worth a visit you have time.

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