Connswater and Comber Greenways Loop

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The creation of Greenways as a means of improving urban life has been one of the success stories of the 21st century. By providing local outdoor exercise, access to green space and linking communities separated by traffic, noise and pollution they can deliver community benefit in the long term. East Belfast is fortunate to have two of the best Greenways. The older Comber Greenway along a disused railway line is an efficient pedestrian and cycle route from the heart of the city far into open countryside. The newer Connswater Greenway ingeniously links existing parks via a rescued urban waterway and a great new cultural hub based around the imaginary world of Belfast author C S Lewis. This walk explores both.

TYPEUrban walk along Greenways, parks and cultural sites
DISTANCE7.1 miles / 11.5 km
– Clarawood shortcut reduces by 1 mile
– Omitting Victoria Park Island reduces by 1.2 miles
SURFACESWell made paths and pavements
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS300 feet climb
HAZARDS
    Several road crossings
Sam Thompson Bridge – gateway to the greenway

Our route starts at the Belfast Harbour Estate end of the Sam Thompson bridge. There is a small car park here (4 hour time limit) which appears to be something of an afterthought. Bicycle access is relatively good (except for zero provision at the dangerous Sydenham Road Roundabout) and last but not least, there is a very pleasant 3/4 mile walk from Sydenham Station (pink highlight line on map) which is a good alternative.

Sam Thompson was a shipyard worker, trade unionist and playwright whose work dealt with sectarianism and political corruption. So, with the cranes and planes behind you, follow in his path from the shipyard to his home ground of East Belfast.

Victoria Park – a beautiful place even though it is shaped by the needs of industry, commerce and transportation.

Cross the bridge to the edge of the ‘lake’ and turn right.

Victoria Park – almost an island within a lake within an island!

Walking by the lake (or is it a river?) you have a good chance of seeing Coots with their white flashed heads.

As you approach the car parking, fork right uphill and to the crest of the earthworks (flood defences). The lower part of the Connswater scheme is actually a massive upgrade to the flood defences of East Belfast. It would have been quite possible that the scheme would have restricted its remit to this function and ignored public access needs. Fortunately, for once, joined up thinking triumphed in the public sector and a scheme which delivers massive benefits for flood control, the environment and public recreation was born.

Ahead to the right – the ‘bunny hole’ under the Sydenham bypass.

You now have to drop down to a narrow, one car wide tunnel, with no footpath, under the Sydenham bypass. This amazing design oversight is not normally a major problem for the walker as car traffic is generally light, but do take care.

High spring tide at Sydenham bypass bridge – cars cross a few feet above the water line.

Coming out of the tunnel bear right and climb to the top of the elevated river bank path. What you see now depends very much on the state of the tide. At high spring tide only grassy banks show, at low tide the carefully stabilised muddy sides are fully exposed, However, exposed is OK as the mud is alive with good things for birds, so apart from at high tide you should see a wide range of waders and other water birds here. Look out for Teal Ducks (signature teal flash on their heads) and maybe even a Little White Egret (small member of the Heron family).

Notice the mud banks stabilised with woven hurdle-like matting.

Ahead lies the first of the new Greenway footbridges – this one named in honour of James Ellis. Many here remember him as the genial actor who brought an Northern Irish accent to popular UK television in Z-Cars as PC Bert Lynch. However, he was also the theatre director who brought Sam Thompson’s play about sectarianism “Over the Bridge” to the stage of the Empire Theatre, after the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre rejected it for being offensive and dealing with political and religious controversies!

Cross over and take in the fine view ahead.

East Belfast skyline – Terraced houses, the Oval football ground, Goliath and Cave Hill

Continue upstream crossing Mersey Street by the road bridge. The arches of this bridge are totally submerged at high spring tide. This part of East Belfast was built on coastal marshes and owes its existence to the engineers who constructed new islands, seawalls and the docks of the Belfast shipyards.

Round the next bend you arrive at C S Lewis Square, a crossing point of the Connswater and Comber Greenways and a living social and cultural centre for East Belfast. Named in honour of C S Lewis, the Belfast born and raised popular theologian, writer and brilliant children’s story teller. His most famous creation – Aslan the Lion – the powerful and benign lord of Narnia, watches over the square.

Aslan’s hill was once green – but the feet of a multitude of exploring children have worn it almost away.

The square has been a hit with visitors and local people alike. The popularity of the sculptures depicting many of the characters from the Narnia books, seems to speak to a hunger for constructive forward looking images of cultural identity. The house gable mural by the adjacent community garden echoes this positivity.

East Side Visitor Centre and (possibly more importantly) Jack Cafe – a good spot for a break

Have a good explore here. As well as the sculptures there is the visitor centre with excellent background info on East Belfast, ‘Jack Cafe’, ‘Freight’ container bistro, SUStrans transport Hub and the community garden. When you’re finished, cross the road to where the Connswater re-emerges and continue upstream.

You are approaching the end of the tidal Connswater as it passes through the car parks of the large shopping centre

The Greenway now is squeezed between shopping centres, car parks and a chain of drive-in fast food outlets. The lures of retail therapy and mass market industrial eating are all around – set your eyes to the path ahead where better things await the traveller!

As you round the bend beyond the shopping centre the tidal river begins to look more like a fast flowing tumbling stream and a green wedge opens out. Ahead are MUGAs (Multi Use Games Areas) and a large well equipped children’s playground, followed by a broad open area which rises up to the Beersbridge Road crossing. Cross and turn left by red brick Elmgrove Primary School – ahead you can see old mill buildings. Cross the road bridge and turn sharp right down into the ‘The Hollow’ and Conn O’Neill bridge.

Conn O’Neill’s Bridge in the heart of the Hollow

Hey, where did we go?
Days when the rains came
Down in the hollow
Playin’ a new game
Laughing and a running hey, hey
Skipping and a jumping
In the misty morning fog with
Our hearts a thumpin’ and you
My brown-eyed girl
You, my brown-eyed girl

Brown Eyed Girl
Van Morrison

This is that location referenced in Van Morrison’s, possibly most famous, song, “Brown Eyed Girl”. Also the slender stone arched bridge here was by tradition used by Conn O’Neill, Lord of Upper Clandeboye and the Great Ards when travelling from Belfast to his Grey Castle / Caisleán Riabhach / CastleReagh. This is also the tidal limit of the Connswater. Finally the weir above guards the river junction which lies just ahead.

You could choose to be unimpressed by the lack of grand scale or, like me, wonder at the riches and depth of this previously neglected little corner.

You could easily miss the river junction as the Loop separates, run parallel and then veers to the right.

Continue up past the weir beyond where the Connswater splits into the Knock and Loop Rivers – logically therefore this junction is the source of the Connswater. Shortly after this you cross another footbridge and a housing access road and come to the corner of Dixon Park.

As the rivers divide so do the paths – the Loop path heads toward the wonderful Cregagh Glen – but that is for another walk!

In 1938 the green space ahead passed from being grounds of the private Orangefield Estate to become parks playing fields and other sports facilities. The section ahead, Dixon Playing Fields, remains a popular venue for local adult and youth sport.

Pass by two more Greenway access bridges on your left and up and out onto Grand Parade and cross to enter Greenville Park – an undulating mown grassland popular with families and those who like to sun themselves outside on a fine day.

Another previously separated green space which has been joined together into the greenway.

After a short distance the path crosses the Knock River again and then follows the marshy river edge upstream. The long elevated concrete bridge you pass here confirms that this is an area long subject to flooding, and the survival of its rich marshland habitats are probably more down to it being unsuitable for housing rather than benign policy.

Caution – urban Heron at work!

You stand a good chance of seeing a Heron on this section stalking the river edges. Except when flying, movement will not give them away – they are masters of patience and stealth.

Clarawood House flats look over the Knock River and bulrush lined wildlife pond.

Another junction lies ahead. At Clarawood House the Greenway bears right away from the Knock River along the nicely named Marshwiggle Way and this is our main route. However, you do have a choice here to take a shorter alternative (1 mile less) through Clarawood. This option avoids the need to walk along a 500m stretch of the Knock Dual Carriageway, but misses out a visit to the old Knock Burial Ground.

Clarawood cut-through

The Greenway fingerpost marks out the Clarawood turning

Turn left through the gate in the high green wire fence and pass between Clarawood House and the mid-rise housing to the right onto Claraway where you meet the Knock River again on your right. Clarawood is modest public housing, but it does actually have its own woodland green space and an adjacent park. This is a lot more than you can say for many “Exclusive Developments” named Elms or Beeches which seem to exclude primarily trees and green spaces in the quest to pack in more profit!

Turn left onto Clara Park, crossing the Knock River for the last time and climb up with a row of interesting older houses on your right which would once have looked out onto a very different landscape. As Clara Park swings to the right you are now in an area of red brick semi-detached houses with proper gardens, front and back. After a further 100m you reach the Sandown Road at the junction with the Comber Greenway and rejoin the main route .

Marshwiggle Way

If not taking the Clarawood option, continue up a well surfaced path. Straight ahead you can see the open rising ground of Lisnabreeny and on the skyline the site of Conn O’Neill’s Grey Castle. The associated settlement of Castlereagh, as it came to be known, was then totally separate from Belfast and for many years very much a law unto itself.

Continue uphill passing the playing fields of Grosvenor Grammar School until you come to a large area of green space on your right which today is trying very hard to regenerate itself into a forest with mixed deciduous trees sprouting out above the scrub! This was formerly Laburnum playing fields, but has been disused for many years. An article in the Belfast Telegraph tells me that there are plans to turn it into a ‘mixed’ development of apartments, an hotel, sports pitches (including crazy golf) and to become a ‘destination hub’ on the Connswater Greenway. I don’t doubt the apartments – as for the rest, time will tell.

Continue up to the end of the Marshwiggle Way where it exits onto the Knock dual carriageway. This is the end of the Greenway although the mysterious walled mound on the other side of the road here is shown on the masterplan as the site of a proposed artwork ‘Gateway Feature’. Watch this space!

Turn left and follow the footpath. You now pass a petrol station where various refreshment options and customer toilets are available. Shortly after this the dual carriageway ends and the road climbs up to a high point at the junction with Knockmount Park (naming overkill!).

Accessible handrails but no access!

Turn up Knockmount Park for a short distance to the old walled burial ground.

This is the ‘cnoc / hill’ top which gives the distinct we now call Knock its name. Surrounded by houses and without access to the hill top ahead or view this is easy to miss, but looking back to the Castlereagh Hills you can regain some sense of this as a high place and vantage point.

The different layers and styles of stonework in the protecting wall tell a story themselves. The lower layers presumably date from a time when the wall just marked a boundary and perhaps kept out grazing animals. The rather over-the-top castellations seem to be a later addition designed to mark the importance of the occupants. Some of the larger tombs seem to express similar sentiments!

Turn up Knockmount Park for a short distance to the old walled burial ground gate. The different layers and styles of stonework tell a story themselves. The lower layers presumably date from a time when the wall just marked a boundary and perhaps kept out grazing animals. The rather over-the-top castellations seem to be a later addition designed to mark the importance of the occupants. Some of the larger tombs seem to express similar sentiments!

This picture was taken through the bars of the gates.

Unfortunately there is no public access, but the view through the gates of this rocky mini necropolis with scatted yews, speaks of a site much older than the urban environment which now surrounds it. Tradition has it that a church associated with St Columba once stood here and it is also a possible burial place of Conn O’Neill who once ruled this territory from the Grey Castle in Lisnabreeny in the hills above. Archaeology (and common sense) tells us that any prominent hilltop like this will have had a complex history as dwelling, fort or religious site from the outset of a settled human presence.

Apart from a well preserved motte nearby in Shandon Park (also inaccessible) suburbanisation has removed almost all traces of earlier habitation. We need to be careful to preserve the little we have left.

Return to the Knock Road, turn left and descend to the junction with Sandown Road where you again turn left and drop down to the valley floor to cross the Knock River for the last time in this walk. The river now disappears to your right under police Head Quarters, crosses the Knock Road to the famous Cherry Valley (where it provides the valley), crosses the Comber Greenway then almost skirts Dundonald Cemetery, where it crosses to Stoney Road and climbs to its source in the high ground behind the Stormont (or Dormant) Estate.

Junction with the Comber Greenway

100m further you come to a pedestrian crossing and the Comber Greenway. Turn left to leave the traffic behind and follow the path along the line of the old Belfast Comber railway,

Neill’s Hill Station Platform

Almost immediately we come across the platform which was once Neill’s Hill Station. Looking at the OS map of 1900 we can see that Neil’s Hill was not a settlement, but a 94 foot hill in open countryside with fields sloping all the way down to the Knock River. To the North of the line there were a number of very large houses, each with extensive private grounds. To the west the ends of Cyprus Gardens and Cyprus Park looked onto fields and marked the edge of the East Belfast suburbs.

So where is Neil’s Hill today? The ordinance survey mapping tells the story. the 1900 map shows a sand siding line running past Neils Hill hight point joining the Comber line just past this platform. On later maps the hill (and the siding are) gone and the houses of ‘Sandhill Gardens’ occupy its place. Sand from the ground to your left was used to build the suburbs of East Belfast.

The Greenway straight but twisting

Greenways which follow railway lines make for easy cycling, but can be a little monotonous. As you continue along however you will see that the broad asphalt way has been made to snake left and right creating bends and therefore added interest. The cutting is also richly lined with natural generating woodland and from time to time there are glimpses to the left and right of gardens and other green spaces.

North Road Bridge

As you approach the North Road bridge it looks rather bleak and industrial. However, be sure to look up as you pass underneath as the concrete edifice is only an extension of an older brick built bridge behind. The original courses of skew brickwork above are clearly visible.

After another 500m the path crosses the Beerbridge Road and enters Bloomfield Walkway.

Leafy suburbs are left behind as you enter Bloomfield Walkway

Terraced streets now back directly onto the greenway. The hedges and gardens are gone but in their places is green space, The Bloomfield Walkway Community centre and a MUGA.

After the centre the walkway exits into a car park and the route becomes less clear. Follow through the car park to its exit onto Ravenscroft Avenue, cross and turn right and walk a few meters to join the busy Newtownards Road. Turn left to the pedestrian crossing. Straight across you can see a small open space with a library and if you look carefully a man looking into a wardrobe.

I always imagined a rather larger wardrobe – but then it was for children to step through!

Cross over over to find yourself in the entrance to C S Lewis Square where the sculpture “The Searcher” commemorates C S Lewis with reference to his most famous book – ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.

Hopefully modern visitors do not mistake this rather bleak corner for the square proper which now lies straight ahead. However, beware – to get there you have to pass by the White Witch – but on the plus side Mr Tumnus the fawn and the beavers are hiding in the trees to guide you on your way!

C S Lewis Square where there is always something going on.

Back in the square you might wish to do some follow up research, or make purchases in the Visitor Centre or just enjoy refreshments in the relaxed cafe.

Low tide as the Connswater exits its culvert below C S Lewis Square.

Now retrace your earlier path back down the Connswater to the underpass to Victoria Park . The chances are that the tide will now have flowed in or out and transformed the landscape and the wildlife habitat – so keep your eyes open!

View from the cleverly landscaped flood defences in Victoria Park

If you are short of time you can return directly to Sam Thompson Bridge. However, I would strongly recommend a circumnavigation of the Victoria Park Island (just over a mile) to get a break from walking on asphalt and a little closer to nature.

The bridge from the main car park is the only route onto the island.

So go through the car park and over the bridge to the island which, as far as I can determine, has never been given a name – other than the shamefully inadequate – “the playing fields”. I like to go around anti-clockwise, which feels right, and leaves passing the Sam Thompson Bridge again to near the end of the circuit. The stone compacted path snakes around the marshy wooden edge of the island and gives regular glimpses of the lake (or is it a river) and its bird life (which tends to avoid the straight bare edges of the “mainland”). Along the way you will see outdoor exercise stations, parkrun posts, the sports pitches, Samson and Goliath (and possibly other temporary residents of the shipyard) and a ‘pond’ which forms an inlet into the island (with an another bridge over its outlet).

Exit the island back though the car park and climb up to join the Connswater river bank again on a compacted earth path. You are now just below the dual carriageway bridge, turn right and follow the bank top path back towards the Sam Thompson Bridge.

Big crane spotting is made more complicated by the the fact they are on 500m long rails and move! However remember Goliath is the one furthest inland.
Of all the many new bridges on the Greenway this is the most elegant and useful

This last section of river seems to be particular rich in wader bird-life with redshank, curlew, oystercatcher, and godwits often present (except at high tide).

Cross the Connswater one last time on Sam Thompson Bridge to return to your starting point.

External Links

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

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