Carnfunnock Country Park

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TYPECircular Walk through walled garden, parkland and deciduous woodland with great sea views
DISTANCE3.5 miles / 5.6 km
SURFACESMostly well made compacted surfaces with variable slopes. Optional steeper, rougher and potential muddy section in woodland.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS165 feet climb
HAZARDS Optional woodland section on steeper paths requires additional care.

Carnfunnock is not just for families – this elevated parkland has walking with great sea views, a beautiful walled garden, historical interest and mature beech wood trails. It is also easily accessible to the greater Belfast area and sits on the side of the superb Antrim Coast Road – one of the great drives of these islands.

One of the 13 beautifully conceived sundial based artworks in the Time Garden

Getting there

Carnfunnock Country Park is just 3 miles north of Larne along the A2 Coastal Road. There are two large car parks with a time based fee levied on exit.

The Route

Enter the walled garden from the lower car park. This once belonged to Cairncastle Lodge, a ‘big house’ built here by the Agnew family around 1839 as part of the development associated with the then new coastal road which opened up this section of coastline. Ahead is an open air performance space, but we bear right and then right again to enter the Time Garden.

The inset shows the original (restored) Nendrum sundial beside its modern Carnfunnock copy

Here a useful information board gives an overview of the garden sundials and related objects. Just past this there is a reproduction of the ancient sundial from the 5th century Nendrum monastic site on Strangford Lough. Uphill along the ivy-clad inside of the south-facing garden wall there are a series of five blue plaques which explore different ways the sun shadow can be interpreted.

View from a multi sundial looking towards the central Armillary Sphere

At the top of the site there is a hedged circular lawn surrounded by more sundials with an armillary sphere in central position. A combination of a sculpture park, an outdoor science lesson and a tranquil garden – this place shows what can be achieved by real creativity and good design.

Exit the garden via the south gate and turn left downhill for 50m until a flat walled grassed area comes into view on your right. This is the site of the original Cairncastle Lodge and also the ‘chalet bungalow’ built by the Dixon family which replaced it around 1947. Ten years later Larne Council purchased Carnfunnock Estate and the building was then used as Larne Lions’ Club Holiday Home for many years. It was demolished in 2015.

The houses are gone – only the views remain

The old house name ‘Cairncastle’ is also that of the parish, a small settlement inland of Ballygally and a dramatic ruined tower on top of a rock stack between the A2 and the sea at Ballygally Head.

However, by 1900 the Ordnance Survey labels the house simply ‘Carnfunnock’ – the name of the townland (an anglicisation of carn feannóg – the rocks of the hooded crow). This change of name may have been a product of the new interest in the Irish Language and the Victorian fascination for all things Gothic. The fact that the big house next door in the same period went from the rather bland name ‘Seaview’ to ‘Cairndhu’ (the black rocks) might support this speculation!

Now turnabout and retrace your steps uphill following the lane past the walled garden swinging round to the left to follow the lower edge of open farmland. The track is lined with a row of stately Scots Pines – this is the estate road built to join Cairncastle Lodge to the old farmhouse which pre-dated it.

After 300m you come to the farmyard and house – now sadly derelict. After the creation of the estate the farmhouse and outbuildings remained as base of operations and home and for the stewards who managed the lands.

The farmhouse is the oldest building in the park. Abandoned, derelict and I suspect very much endangered. There is no public access.

When this house and farm was built there was no coast road below linking to Larne. Instead access was uphill, though what is now Cairndhu Golf Course and along the ridgeway past Droagh Motte and House and then down to join the inland Old Glenarm Road. You will be following parts of this old route later.

As we passed the farmyard on our right we noticed a group of rooks ingeniously feeding from some hanging bird nut feeders. The big houses have come and gone, but the Corvid / Crow family remains in residence watching and adapting to changing times!

Continue uphill past the farmhouse to a path junction. Here you can divert slightly to visit the Ice House.

An ultra insulated earth bound eco-house of another era!

This building dates to the same time as Cairncastle Lodge and was used to store ice for use in the kitchen. Originally it would have been almost completely buried into the hill with a tunnel connecting to the doorway you see here.

Retrace to the junction and tum left along the field edge with a fine view of Islandmagee and Drains Bay below (possibly from Irish: Draighean – blackthorn).

For the next 300m as you walk above the Golf driving range the view dominates. On a clear day you can see past the rocky Maidens with their twin lighthouses, the dark pyramid of Ailsa Craig, and beyond, Scotland.

You re-enter the woodland and turn uphill passing a path of descending steps on your left. After a short distance you emerge in a small open area by a cottage with two benches with relatively sheltered views. These are well positioned and I can recommend both!

Pass through the pedestrian gate and turn left into the old thorn lined lane. After 150m you come to an information board and you can view Droagh Motte in the field beyond. This Norman fortification would have had a commanding view out to sea and over the high ridge it sits on.

Unfortunately their is no access to the site, but the view through the field gate is still evocative.

Old paths often followed the higher drier, more open ridges rather than the more boggy wooded valley floors below. So as you turn and retrace your steps along this straight level lane you can consider the possibility that this is a ghost of such an old way running past Droagh Motte (or the rath which probably preceded it) up the coast possibly via the larger settlement complex high on Ballygally Hill just to the north.

However, before you get too carried away you will find your line blocked by the garden and grounds of a rather more modern dwelling, where you have to divert slightly to the left and then enter Chaine Wood via another pedestrian gate.

The woodland path also runs straight with white chalk showing through – hinting at the drier limestone geology of this ridge.

This is not an old wood – you will not find it on the Northern Ireland Ancient Ancient Woodland Inventory. It seems to have been established around 1850 by the Chaine family (hence the name) as a place for recreation, with a summer house and series of zigzagging paths looping up and down the slope. The woodland on your left is the youngest part with dense ash and more scrub like vegetation. To your right and particularly straight ahead is mature beech wood – a sure sign of a plantation rather than a true natural woodland.

Between the modern path and the Golf Course the line of the old lane to Carnfunnock farm is still just visible.

The path now takes a turn downhill and you are surrounded by large mature beeches on both sides. There are a number of oaks here too which are worth looking out for. You will see from the map above that three small paths drop off the main path at various points. The junctions are not waymarked and they are easy to miss. The last of these however does have a plastic information post (no 7) just above its junction. This is the start of the alternative route you might wish to use on your return leg.

Your path now climbs again into more scrubby woodland before arriving at another superior seat beside a set of large boulders which block the path.

On a clear day the framed vista here features White Bay Point (Glenarm), Garron Point and Carnaneigh (beyond Cushendun)

You now have a choice. You can simply retrace your steps to the Chaine Wood entrance, or if you have rugged footwear and don’t mind sections of wet and uneven paths you can loop back through the much wilder lower path system. The choice is yours.

Lower paths return (option)

Retrace your steps for 450m to the plastic “Carnfunnock Treasure Trail” post No 7.

Your path leaves diagonally downhill to your left. Initially it may be unclear, but once on it it should be easy to follow.

You are now dropping down into the heart of the mature beech wood. This is a made path, possibly dating back to the Victorian Period, but with with relatively recent wood faced steps added. However these steps have degraded in places so extra care is necessary.

Eventually the path descends to join a level lower path which you turn left and follow.

Although you are still in the middle of the wood you are following an edge marked out by a fence to your right. Below this the wood is much younger, lower and scrubby. The height difference allows for occasional views inland towards the beautiful escarpment of Sallagh Braes to the West and Scawt Hill to the North West.

The winter wood expands the view North-West to Scawt Hill.

After a short distance you come to the remains of boardwalk on your right which once provided access to a wildlife pond and wetland area. This area is potentially dangerous and no longer open to the public – please avoid.

Just past this the path splits with the left option climbing up over a series of wood faced steps.

Look out for a path junction with left option climbing up steps

After a climb the path levels (summer walkers be aware it can be brambly on this section) and runs to another junction just past a rather wet section. Here bear right and continue on the level route, gradually entering younger denser woodland with ash and birch becoming dominant as the visibility decreases. After 200m you cross under some power lines and join another path. Here turn left uphill where you gradually climb back upward to almost rejoin the main upper path. Your path, however, turns away and undulates through the young woodland for a further 200m before finally reconnecting with the ‘main drag’ close to the exit gate.

Now retrace your earlier route but be sure to appreciate the views from a fresh angle.

In the mid ground the hill raths of Ballygally Head and in the far distance 30 miles away, the Mull of Kintyre

When you arrive back at the ice house take the path ABOVE the old farmhouse instead of retracing downhill along the lane.

Endangered farmhouse – look out for barn stonework and round window,

This path runs through a narrow strip of recently planted woodland. There are many young oaks here but look out for your path crossing an old hedge line, still marked by a fine row of old gnarled oaks.

Another tiny glimpse of the old woodland which once would have stood here.

After 300m the path opens out to a picnic area and benches – another fine viewpoint

The sun does not always shine in Carnfunnock but the rain has its beauties too!

Follow the path around the corner of the field and downhill to the junction with Wildlife Garden path. Should you be tight for time or suffering inclement weather you might omit visiting the ‘wildlife garden’ as it is currently in a poor state with not a great deal to see.

However, if you have the time and inclination I do suggest visiting it as it is located within the old walled garden of Cairndhu – the other great house of this headland whose history is intimately linked to that of Carnfunnock. Indeed, for a significant period the two estates were run as one and Cairndhu was very much the grander property.

To visit what is left of the Cairndhu walled garden just follow the signs to the wild garden passing an impressive row of old Monteray Cyprus.

A stone walled well sits beside the rather overgrown and currently inaccessible wildlife garden

For me the main attraction here are the tiny glimpses of the ruined remains of the other great Cairndhu House.

The ruin is private, dangerous and very strictly out of bounds

We tend to think of houses from this period as cold, damp and crumbling, but Cairndhu in the late 1900s early 20th century was a “state of the art” luxury residence with its own gas supply (and gasometer) and every modern convenience. It was built by Stewart Clark, a Scottish textile baron (of Anchor Thread fame) who spared no expense. Indeed 50 years later, in 1947, now owned by Lord and Lady Dixon, it was donated to the Ministry of Health to be used as a hospital on the grounds that the rooms were “large, airy, well lit and the house was equipped throughout with all modern conveniences.” It is sad to see it as it is today.

Loop around the wildlife garden and return uphill to the path turn-off.

Now turn left down hill and continue to the “NI Maze”

The Hornbeam maze was planted in the late 1980s.

Should the Maze be open and you fancy a go the walk map might prove useful! Here is the relevant extract!

The PDF version of the route map will allow you to zoom in ‘all the way’!

Beyond the maze is the upper car park closely followed by the lower car park our starting point.

If the cafe is open is a friendly spot for a coffee or something more substantial and the views from inside and out are of the first order!

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

External Links

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