This walk visits the enigmatic Mountsandel Fort on the outskirts of Coleraine, but tries to do so in a way which maximises the sense of place of this narrow strip of ancient human habitat, which for thousands of years has offered shelter, food, transport and more to many different peoples.
|TYPE||Circular walk (some retracing) with riverside and forest sections|
|DISTANCE||4.5 miles / 7.2 km|
|SURFACES||Asphalt and well made surfaced paths – some steep sections with steps|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||400 feet of descent and ascent|
The description below starts from Somerset Riverside Park, a car park 1.5km south of where the Coleraine “New Bridge” crosses the River Bann. However, it is perfectly possible to use a train or bus to Coleraine town and walk to the old bridge through the Diamond and follow the pleasant riverside paths to the new bridge and pick up our route there. This would add an extra 2km to the route (if you are happy to skip visiting the Source Sculpture at Somerset Riverside car park) or 4km if you do the whole route described here.
We all know the story of the lost businessman who stops at a country crossroads to ask a local for directions. After a pause the old fellow removes his pipe and slowly says “Well – if I were you I wouldn’t start from here”. Starting from the right place for walkers is often just as important as your destination and with Mountsandel Fort this is definitely the case. You could start from the small car park in the south east corner of the map above and walk a very efficient, easy 1km to the Fort where a short flight of steps will afford a pleasant view from a grassy mound – but you would be missing out badly. The route below tries to put the Fort in context of river, thick forest, and a demanding steep climb to breach the citadel earthworks. Perhaps even a slight sense of how it might have felt to arrive there a thousand years ago, dressed to kill and not expecting a friendly welcome from the occupants!
Start from the Riverside Park immediately opposite the entrance to Somerset Forest car park. Standing by the large piece of public art “The Source” you will be able to see your primary destination, Mountsandel Fort, sticking out above the tree line on the far side of the River Bann, with its mowed grass making it look a little like an extreme golfing green. To your right you can see “The Cuts” – the tidal limit of the River Bann with a rocky cascade, corralled by piers and a weir with a lock to one side to allow for navigation inland to Lough Neagh and beyond. This is a place which has been important for travel by boat and for fishing as long as humans have lived here.
Leave Riverside Park by the information notice (worth a read) and head north downstream towards Coleraine and the New Bridge. This is a pleasant narrow wooded strip between the busy Castleroe Road and the wet reedy river bank. The path here is level and asphalted making it suitable for bicycles, wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
There are a couple of the usual information boards on this section, detailing historical riverside use and flora and fauna.
After 1km you will reach the bridge – don’t follow the path underneath but turn left and zig-zag up to the level of the roundabout and bridge where you join a pavement. Cross over the bridge on the right hand side. The views are good, but the traffic is fast and noisy so you will probably not wish to linger. At the far side of the bridge the dual carriageway passes under Mountsandel Road and just beyond this a small path cuts back up the slope to join this higher road. Now turn left and after 150m cross carefully over the road to enter Mountsandel Wood at its north entrance (two brown “Mountsandel Fort” signs here make this hard to miss).
Just inside the forest the path splits in two by a useful information panel. Take the right hand lower path and descend towards the river.
The path now levels and you find yourself walking along an invisible riverbank. On your left a beech wood climbs steeply towards the upper path, while on your right there is a marshy mix of alder, birch and willow. It is an in-between place, neither really land or river – remember the river is still tidal here.
After 400m you will come to a junction with a track to your right which leads through the wooded marshland to a jetty and the open river. It is a there-and-back option, but probably the best open view of the whole river you can get on this side, so you may wish to divert.
Continue on for another 250m where the path rises a little as it bends away from the river and you come to a junction with a smaller path which now climbs out of the dark wood and up onto the steep slopes of Mountsandel Fort.
As you zig-zag up the flight of steps you will come to appreciate what a superb defensive position this is. Imagine the trees on your right removed and an unbroken view of the river Bann all the way up to The Cuts and beyond. The oldest archaeological evidence of human habitation found in these woods date back to 6000BC. This commanding site at the terminus of easy river navigation, beside a source of fresh food and a river ford, must have been crucial to the various peoples who lived here through the ages.
The fort you are climbing is generally considered of Norman origin – a rather misshapen Motte. As you reach the hill top the intriguing crescent mound and hollow form you now see may derive from previous or subsequent human activity or maybe just a Norman knight with particular creative flair!
Exit the fort via the short easy flight of steps across the relatively shallow ditch away from the river and turn right towards the official car park. An easy, largely level 1 km walk through pleasant woodland will bring you to the southern exit. Here you double back on the path to your right and drop down to meet the Bann again. This section gets you much closer to the open river than the previous low path you followed to the fort.
The largely beech wood around you does not seem particularly old – there are not many great mature trees here. Almost certainly this area would have been felled in the not too disant past, but allowed to regrow on its ancient woodland soils. The abundance here of wood anemone, bluebells and wild garlic indicate that this is not recent forestation as these species take hundreds of years of woodland cover to establish.
If yours is a winter walk you will have to do without the flowers, but your compensation here is that the river in general, and the Cuts in particular, will be in full view as you walk the next section. For the summer walker the river is only glimpsed between the burgeoning greenery.
Where the high slopes above provided security and overview, this land adjacent to the Bann, with its plentiful supply of salmon, eels and other fish, would have been a premier foodbank. The river as well was crucial for transport in a land without made roads. To see the land as our ancestors did we have to turn it almost inside out – the seas become the connecting highways and the interiors the isolated ‘backwaters’. The rapids at the Cuts would have enforced a stop, to drag or exchange boats, with the opportunity to acquire supplies and maybe to pay tax in tribute to the local powers.
In the early 1600s the Cuts, a systems of piers, weirs and channels, were constructed to allow passenger and cargo boats to pass up and downstream. Two hundred and fifty years later came the railways which heralded the beginning of the end of our water-based view of transport and the world.
On this section you should find an information panel for the heron, a great bird which is easy to see and great to watch. It has a wonderful patience, stillness and stealth while wading to fish, a prehistoric singular form in flight and makes a horrendous din while sitting on its nest! You might think spotting a heron would be pretty impossible through the dense riverside summer vegetation. However, there are a few small gravelly bays on this part of the route which frame sections of the open river and if you look you might just spot one (like I did)!
600m beyond the Cuts the path curves inland and rejoins the earlier route at the foot of the Mountsandel steps ascent. The easy option here is to stay low, but I encourage you to take the high road once again and ascend the Mountsandel Fort steps (but with a twist!)
The fort top is worth a second visit, but the suggestion here is that you cut left on exiting the forest to walk up the ditch or gully which separates the mound from the main slope. As well as giving you a fresh view of the earthworks, you will save a significant climb and have the opportunity to view the metal information panel for the fort itself.
Finish your exploration and join the upper path and turn left. This section runs close to suburbia on your right but still has much woodland interest below on your left. Look out for the final metal information panel on fungi on the path ahead.
After 600m on the top path you rejoin your entry point and exit on to the Mountsandel Road. Now just retrace your steps from earlier back to Somerset Riverside Park, while remembering that the view is different this way around and there is plenty more good stuff to enjoy!