Drum Manor Forest Park is probably the smallest of the Forest Service Parks, but it packs an amazing concentration of forest diversity, path types and landscape history. To find a route which visits all of the areas of interest in a single walk, without retracing itself is a classic ‘Bridges of Königsberg’ style problem. As you can see from the orange route line above, I failed to solve the Drum Manor version and there is a 50m short section where retracing is necessary (marked in purple). Perhaps you can do better!
|TYPE||Complex circular walk on forest tracks and small paths|
|DISTANCE||4.4 miles / 7 km|
|SURFACES||Tracks and footpaths generally good condition – one optional short section of rougher wetter small path|
|HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS||400 feet spread throughout walk|
Drum Manor Forest Park is clearly situated on an old demesne of a grand house – presumably Drum Manor. However, it is rather more complicated than that as we will see later. So let’s start by visiting what is left of the house.
Exit the main car park on foot via the vehicle entrance by the ‘No Entry’ sign (take care). Turn immediately right (by the ticket machine) to follow the outside of the boundary car park wall. Ahead is an impressive mature Cedar partially obscuring the walls and turrets of ruined Victorian ‘Tudor’ castle.
Skirt around the front and have a good look at the impressive edifice.
So you have before you a Victorian era roofless fake Tudor castle apparently with a mature garden inside! At the time of writing (June 2018) the stabilised interior was accessible – so if this is still the case for your visit you may well wish to have an explore. My understanding is that the Forestry Service, on taking over the estate, converted the derelict Manor House into a themed garden. Actually very much in the romantic spirit of the house’s builders – if a little less Gothic!
The original Richardson Family house was also on this site – but it was called ‘Oaklands’ – ‘Drum Manor’ was a later invention. Oaklands must also have been a grand affair. The 1830 OS Map shows the main road from Cookstown running broad, tree-lined and straight, directly to the gate lodge and on to the house. Should you have wished instead to continue on towards Omagh, you would have had to turn sharp right and followed the Upper Kildress Road as it skirted around the edge of the, then triangular, wooden demesne (see the pink area on the map).
At the south side of the house look back to the grand corner window with a coat of arms atop. The Latin motto here ‘Virtuti paret robur’ translates as ‘Virtue follows strength’. However robor (strength) is also the Latin for hard timber or oak – which links to the old name of the house. Undoubtedly this area would once have been covered in mature native woodland – of which Oak would have composed a large part. On your walk today you will only see a few old Oaks – most of the mature deciduous woods are now dominated by non-native Beech trees introduced from England. Ironically the Richardsons of Oaklands may have played a significant part in the demise of the Oaks they once celebrated!
Turn away from the house and view the quaintly named semi-wooded ‘pleasure grounds’ which lie between the balustraded walkway and the lakes below. On a fine day here, with families playing and visitors chilling out, this old term from another era seems charmingly appropriate.
Now follow the path from the end of the balustrade down to the corner of the lake. The naturalistic (but artificial) landscape here dates from Drum Manor and the Victorian era. Old Ordnance Survey maps show that the previous Oaklands house had much more formal geometric gardens in this area.
At the corner of the lake turn sharp left and continue through the bushes to the second lake and follow around its edge. To your left there was previously a third ‘fishing lake or fish pond’. These may have been just recreational and ornamental – but they also hark back to medieval monasteries and grand houses who could have the luxury of a captive fish food supply.
Leave the pond behind and enter the scrubby wet woodland crossing a bridge. At the cross roads ahead turn left onto a level track which now runs along the base of a deciduous wooden slope. On your left there is a mature modern conifer plantation showing some storm damage.
After 250m a steep path with a handrail cuts up to your right. Follow this climbing up toward the estate boundary and stands of mature Beech and Scots Pine.
The path bends right and you are now following the strip of mature deciduous trees which mark the old estate boundary. Even where native forests were ‘improved’ by cutting them down and planting conifers – the old boundary trees were often spared to provide shelter for the new growth – so forest edges are often worth seeking out as remnants of past riches with mixed native trees and the associated plants of long established woodland.
In mid-summer the leaf canopy high above is so dense that even on a clear sunny day, light levels here are low.
On your left you will see the remains of parallel earth walls (old lanes perhaps) and a large area of ‘quarry’ where soil, sand or rock has been removed.
After 500m you come to a path junction where you turn left towards the forest edge.
The ground to your right now drops steeply to a large sheltered area which was previously not wooded. This is where the Forest Service chose to lay out their large area of square experimental tree plots forming an arboretum which you will visit shortly
Continue along the path close to the road for a further 500m before turning left and heading downhill in less mature woodland. There is a pink section of highlighting on the map here to avoid confusion as you cross over and follow a short section of route from the later part of the walk.
Turn right and then right again to enter the arboretum. After a short-distance the path turns sharp left and you find yourself on a long straight avenue between tree plots – mostly diverse species of pines, but also some exotics such as eucalyptus and monkey puzzle.
These were once all individually labelled and many of the posts are still there, often lying on the ground – some labels can still be made out. There are also a large number of adjacent new posts so hopefully these will soon be labelled too and you can improve your plant and Latin knowledge. [Update July 2018: new name labels are on their way to the new posts!]
As you proceed you will see that the squares are separated by gaps which in some cases are passable as paths – if you have the time, the area to the right of your route is worth exploring via these.
After 500m you start to climb quite steeply and come to a path junction. The path to your right is broad and well defined but the suggested route is to your left – a much smaller unmaintained path partially overgrown. If you can’t find this or don’t fancy it – don’t worry. You can continue on to the end of the arboretum avenue and then turn left and left again to rejoin the route.
Turn left here onto the unmaintained path and into the heart of the wood. After 50 m the path turns right skirting dense rhododendron and descends towards the ponds to join a larger path where you turn left.
Follow the path along the edge of the fishing lakes and across the arched stone bridge. Now proceed uphill bearing left until you see the picnic table junction where you turn right crossing over another path and out into semi open parkland with the walled garden ahead.
Loop around and enter the walled garden through the black iron gate. This is a wonderfully cared for and tranquil place complete with picnic tables very suitable for stopping for a half-time snack!
Continue into the second part of the walled garden which also contains the former gardener’s house – again this area is beautifully maintained.
Exit through the wall and turn right on joining the Caravan Park access road. After 100m turn left and drop down to turn left again to join the path which leads to ‘Old Kildress Road’. This impressive tree lined track was once the main road from Cookstown to Omagh before it was closed and incorporated into the newly enlarged Drum Manor demesne around 1870.
At the top of the track turn right and follow the path through modern plantation – you are now beyond the grounds of the original Oaklands House in what then was open farmland.
The path runs for 500m before joining a forest road where you turn left and continue on for a further 100m.
Just to your left lies the modern day caravan park. This is one of the eleven ‘Touring in the Trees‘ forest sites spread throughout Northern Ireland. In the 1970’s when this scheme first started many more forests had such sites and the remains of these are still visible in many places. However, this site’s concrete foundations are older, dating from World War Two when American Soldiers were housed here in a transit camp on the way the the battlefields of Europe.
Turn right at the junction and you will shortly pass a large open area – the tent field. This is the site of a previous World Scout Jamboree and various youth organisation camps. Today a solitary tap beside the track is the only clue to such past use.
You are now walking along the rear avenue of the enlarged Drum Manor – there was once a gate lodge at the end of this road but this is long gone and the drive terminates completely after 300m where you turn left onto a woodland path. You are again following the wooded boundary strip and, while most trees here are young, you do come to several larger specimens marking the location of small wooded strips from the old estate.
After 300m the path turns away from the forest edge and twists very gently uphill through a largely coniferous area. This also was fields in the early 20th century with the exception of a small hilltop copse. Your path runs through this and the high point is marked by an anomalous granite boulder still surrounded by a ring of deciduous trees. Bluebells also grow here – more evidence of its wooded past.
Beyond this the path descends slowly through young deciduous wood before reaching a section of mature conifers where it drops steeply down to join the line of the Old Kildress Road again.
As you walk along here look out for some very mature Sitka Spruce in the stands to your left. There is also significant ground vegetation here showing that, where thinned and allowed to mature, these often unloved trees can be part of a richer wooded environment.
After 300m turn off the Kildress Road onto a path which crosses a stone bridge and then turns left to follow a short section of your earlier route. At the next junction turn left and cross the small stream to enter yet another area of mature Arboretum. The path climbs and turns right to exit the arboretum and you now find yourself skirting the ‘pleasure grounds’ among rows of impressive mature Cedars.
As the path bears left, on your right there is a Cedar tree ‘candelabra’ where multiple curved trunks appear to rise from a common point to form an enclosed circle. This amazing copse of mature trunks is actually a single tree!
You now come out on the walkway between the walled garden and the balustrade. A further 50m will take you to a gateway in the wall which leads back to the car park where you started.