Carnmoney Hill Seashore Circuit

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TYPEUrban, woodland and greenway walk
DISTANCE11.3 miles / 18.2 km
part one6.8 miles / 11 km
part two4.5 miles / 7.2 km
SURFACESGenerally asphalt / concrete with sections on well made compacted paths. Short sections of mown grassy paths.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS1223 feet climb
HAZARDS400m section walking on a minor road – do not walk this in poor visibility. The area is urban in character so you will encounter people – please take normal precautions.

Where is the best view over Belfast? Some would say from the top of Cavehill, but I would suggest that the views south from Carnmoney Hill are much better, combining the panorama over the Lough and City with spectacular midground profile of Cavehill (which is of course invisible from Cavehill itself). On a clear day this fine walk allows you to judge for yourself!

Apart from the views, this route is full of diverse interest and deserves to be much better known. The walk goes from loughshore, via wooded glens, though parkland up to Carnmoney Wood and then via an ancient laneway to New Mossley. After a short urban section it joins the beautiful Three Mile Water greenway before returning to the sea under the magnificent Bleach Green triple railway viaduct.

Bleach Green Railway Viaducts

At 11 miles this is a long walk with over 1200 feet of climb. Add in the mainly hard walking surfaces and even fit walkers may find it a challenge, both physically and to fully take in the full range of sights and interest along the way! However, it can be cut into two part walks by using the train service from Mossley West to Whiteabbey.

If this is still too much, see the end of this post for three shorter walk suggestions which visit the best sections.

Getting Started

There are good train (Covid permitting) and car travel options for this route. The train option starts at Whiteabbey Station, crosses the A2 by pelican crossing just north of the major roundabout and follows footpaths along the A2 to Hazelbank Park. It does add about 500m to the route and the road walking is not particularly pleasant.

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Walk Sections

Hazelbank to Valley Leisure Park

Hazelbank is a large pleasant park, easy to access off the M5/A2 junction and with lots of parking. From here drop down to the loughshore path and head south until you pass under the M5 to Gideon’s Green, passing through a small car park. There are good views here over the artificial lagoon formed by the M5 and there are normally a range of wading birds to be seen.

This point marks the end of the “natural” Belfast Lough coastline.

The railway embankment, built around 1846, created a new artificial coastline all the way from here to York Road. The Shore Road you will cross shortly was exactly that – a road following the water’s edge all the way to the city centre. The “slob” land between the shore and the railway embankment was then reclaimed and built on. 130 years later the M2 and M5 motorway works repeated this process, but on a massively larger scale.

The route now follows the access road under a low railway bridge across the busy A2 and into Glas-na-Bradan Glen. This excellent green corridor follows Glas-na-Bradan burn for almost a mile and much of the woodland is deciduous and mature. It is a broad multi-user greenway with an asphalt surface, but there is a short section about halfway along where you can turn left to leave the tar and follow the river more closely along a compact path instead.

Glas-na-Bradan Glen Greenway

On exiting the Glen you turn left, cross the busy Church Road and after 600m enter the Valley Park leisure complex. Strike out to your left towards an unusual running track shaped plaza area which seems to be a cross between a sculpture park and outdoor performance area!

An unusual but striking setting under the wooded slopes of Cave Hill

Circumvent the exhibits ending up at the giant metal Megalith which dominates the whole area.

Like the stone originals you will have to guess the deeper meaning here as the information panel has vanished! (Aug 2020)

Now swing to your right passing between the extensive caged outdoor playpark on your left and the great windowless bulk of the classic 1970’s mega sports hall on your right.

Even on a misty day the view here is striking

You now find yourself in water parkland and the path follows a large duck pond on your left and a stream to your right. This is actually a former mill pond which has survived here for 200 years – now with a very different use.

The wooded slopes of Cave Hill form a green backdrop – it is hard to believe that you are surrounded by major roads, a sprawling shopping centre and industrial estates.

Continue past the ponds out onto semi-wooded meadowland where you have the option of cutting a corner on a grass path to bring you to a small fenced off car park at the edge of the park. Find the gate at the end of the car park and exit onto the footpath, turning right along O’Neill Road.

After 300m you come to a major roundabout by Carnmoney Cemetery. Cross with care and continue along O’Neill Road keeping the cemetery on your left.

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Carnmoney Wood to Fernlea Lane

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After 800m you come to the main entrance to Carnmoney Hill Woodland Trust Local Nature Reserve. Like most Woodland Trust properties this consists of a core of old / ancient woodland which has been expanded with substantial new planting of native tree species. Enter the wood past the tiny car parking area and head steeply uphill. At the first bend you come to a well preserved lime kiln.

The limestone/chalk which was burned here to produce quicklime (calcium oxide) for use to improve farmland or make whitewash, would have been quarried from the surrounding area. The Carnmoney area was a major producer of lime and supplied the surrounding districts. However, by the 1800s there would have been no wood to fire this kiln:

There is every indication of this parish having been. as it is said it was. well wooded. With the exception of summit and mountainous north eastern side of the Cave Hill,  remains of natural wood are to be found in the stunted brushwood which is scattered, though thinly, over all its waste and unreclaimned patches, but chiefly under the precipices and broken declivities of the Cave Hill and Carnmoney Hill, and over the steep banks of the little ravines and water courses. The brushwood is very stunted, being eaten down by cattle, and is rapidly disappearing before the operations of the husband-man.

James Boyle O.S. Memoirs 1839

Peat from the local bogs was also exhausted along with any scavengable firewood. The population was dependent on imported coal for home heating and cooking. Fuel poverty was rife.

Previously the energy to produce lime would have come from burning the once abundant surrounding forests. The great woods which once covered Ireland were the rich “oilfields” that supplied the pre-fossil fuel industries with energy and building materials.

Our natural environment has never recovered from the loss of these woods. Today only tiny fragments of the ancient habitats, such as the rocky slopes of Carnmoney Hill, remain.

Continue upwards along a narrow old laneway. To your right the vegetation is dense – a tangle of briar, scrub and relatively immature native tree species. Too steep, rocky and poor for agriculture, this area has been abandoned to nature and is slowly self assembling a new native woodland.

Turning off point for Carnmoney Meadows

After a steep 250m you come to a waymarked junction along with a useful seat and a wooden stile. Turn left onto a grassy path through young woodland.

You are now surrounded by a uniform stand of young oak and other native tree species. This is a very different woodland to that which you have just passed through. These trees were planted on open farmland in a single planned operation. Their rapid growth is impressive, but there is a uniformity here and lack of habitat diversity very different from the naturally regenerating woodland you just passed. They will also need future human intervention to thin and break the canopy to create a true diverse woodland. Is there a happy medium which could perhaps combine the best of both methods to restore our natural woodland riches?

Continue up and out of the wood onto the woodland meadows. Here a patchwork of small fields separated by their original thorn hedges are being managed to try to recreate the diverse flora and fauna associated with traditional hay meadows. However, this “natural” management regime requires regular cutting and removal of the “sward” and this doesn’t seem to have happened for some time. There is a danger the area will revert to scrub woodland – valuable in itself, but different from the vision of high beautiful wildflower meadows envisaged here.

Ben Madigan, Belfast and beyond to the Mournes from the “Hay Meadows”

As you climb the view opens to the south with the side profile of the Cave Hill cliffs, Belfast stretching out below and, on a clear day, beyond to the distant Mountains of Mourne. Seen from this unusual angle Cave Hill looks more dramatic and I think calls to mind and deserves, its grander, older name of Ben Madigan (Beann Mhadagáin).

You now have a choice – there is a path ahead which will take you all the way to the high point of the meadows, with wonderful views on a good day, before dropping all the way back down again (about 150 foot of extra climb). Alternatively there is the compromise as detailed on the route map where you climb to the end of the first field and then cut across to the descent path, joining it adjacent to a beautifully positioned bench, with arguably the best view in Belfast. You decide – but whatever you do, don’t forget to stop and look!

Even on a grey day – this is a great place to sit

Now return down hill past the information boards to exit the meadows by an old farm lane. As this cuts down through the scrubby woodland it turns a sharp bend to reveal a wonderfully preserved ruined farmstead sitting on a rocky shelf looking out over Belfast.

For a moment you might mistake it for a Roman excavation and indeed it is a piece of precious history cleverly preserved for future generations!

This is another good spot to stop, reflect and maybe break out some rations.

Now exit the farmyard to the left through the stumps of pillars along the slightly falling green lane. On your right there is a fine view over the lough, Rathcoole Estate and a small lake surrounded by rich tangled vegetation.

Turn left passing two descending paths and the path turns and climbs steeply passing an unusual “seat post” on the way, You are in a wood, but also under open sky with trees and canopies of stepped heights running from the fern lined path edge to the horizon behind. This is an area of diverse habitats and rich in bird life.

The path steepens again as it switches right and climbs up to a break in the tree line to the semi-open moorland above. Here you pass another seat and official viewpoint before passing through a hedge-line. There is a short loop to a viewpoint on your right here, but I suggest instead to take the next left and follow the path to a stile at the edge of the property, just in front of the TV mast which is a landmark visible from much of Belfast and the North Down Coast. Private farmland lies ahead and beyond is the rocky Carnmoney Hill summit and triangulation pillar.

Here we turn and retrace our route turning left at the main path heading north with the Knockagh Monument sitting on the escarpment crest ahead on the horizon.

After 150m there is a partially overgrown path which branches off downhill to the right, keep left here on the main path which then drops steeply down from an old hedgerow and re-enters the woodland where it joins a track and you turn left downhill. This track descends steadily, zig zagging until it meets the dark tunnel of Fernlea Lane.

No big tractors ever drove down here!

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Fernlea Lane to Mossley Station

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Pass the ruined stile uphill into the dark tunnel of Fernlea Lane. This narrow wall and tree lined passage predates mechanical transport. It is clearly shown on the 1st Series OS maps (survey 1832 – 1846), but is probably much older. It would have served as a farm lane, quarry track and quite possibly a through route skirting higher ground. Travel here would have mainly been on foot, often driving animals and hints of this are still visible in the lane-side watering holes which still can be found.

On a hot day after a steep climb up from Whiteabbey, beasts and drovers would have taken welcome refreshment here!

After 150m you exit the reserve and the lane widens as it is joined by a service road from a water treatment facility. A further 130m and the green lane ends joining a concrete road which turns left and heads steeply uphill. You now follow this service lane for 50m through farmland, past a gate and private house and beyond to an area still blighted by an abandoned quarry and associated fly tipping. This is a shame as the location would lend itself well to a small car park giving easy access to Carnmoney Woods from this side of the hill.

You now come out onto a minor country road which bounds the edge of the residential Ballyduff. There are no pavements here so extra care is necessary. Turn left and walk on the right facing oncoming traffic for the next 400m. Always wear light clothing if road walking and don’t do this route at night or in poor visibility.

Housing now appears on both sides of the road along with a welcome pavement. Follow this for a further 300m passing a wide road junction on your right until you come to a gap in the fence leading out into Ballyduff Park beyond.

This gap and the pedestrian gateway beyond both open into Ballyduff Park.

The “Park” is simply a wide grassed green corridor dropping downhill towards a broad residential road beyond. There is no hard surfaced path but the route ahead is clear and there is now a good view over Mossley and the distant hills beyond.

At the foot of the Park you join the end of Beverley Road which you follow straight ahead to its exit onto a large roundabout complete with zebra crossings. Cross over Manse Road and proceed straight ahead to the junction with Campbell Road. Here is an intriguing bit of urban planning history.

Almost invisible beneath the tree is a “Welcome to New Mossley” wall

This rather forgotten sign, the broad green corridors with associated paths and the woodland fringes, hint at urban planning history here. I have been unable to verify this, but I suspect this area was developed using the powers of the New Towns Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. This legislation, which was heavily influenced by UK post war urban planning ideas, included provisions to enable existing settlement in the urban fringes to be augmented by mini “New Towns”. These would feature a network of wide roads with roundabouts and a car centric view of the future. However, besides this they also included copious green space, pedestrian routes separated from traffic and new neighbourhood centres. As you walk through “New” Mossley today I think you will benefit directly from some of the best outworkings of this vision.

So cross over to join the footpath and turn left to meander through the wooded fringe of Mossley Park Recreation Grounds.

Look out for the old row of Scots Pines behind the younger planting.

Your path crosses the entrance to Mossley Park Pavilion and leaves the roads behind, now following a wooded strip towards the Newtownabbey Way. Turn left at the next path junction and after a further 200m you join the Newtownabbey Way.

Blue signs mark this as Route 93 of the National Cycle Network

Turn right towards Mossley Mill / Whiteabbey and follow the Newtownabbey Way for 600m to Mossley West Station Car Park. As you walk you will get glimpses on your right of a large semi-open area with patches of scrub and wood. In the 1960’s this was farmland, and a network of small fields. Presumably it was cleared in the late 60s for development as part of New Mossley which never materialised.

You are now beside Mossley West Station which lies below you in a deep cutting. The story behind the station’s unusual location (and indeed name) is told in my blog post The Bleach Green Railway Viaducts and the “Loop”.

Here you have the option of a catching a train back to Whiteabbey Station. Be aware if you do this you are likely to have to go to all the way to Yorkgate and change trains to get back to Whiteabbey.

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Mossley West Station to Bleach Green Viaducts

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From Mossley West Station Car Park cross over Carnmoney Road N and turn right where you should be able to enter the grounds of Mossley Mill council offices, museum and theatre.

Opening times sign as of September 2020 – the orange dashed line on the map shows the alternative route

There is a lot to see here even if the indoor public facilities are closed. The main Mill itself is beautifully preserved and integrated into a sharp new building. Above it sits a large mill pond (now fishing lake) which still feeds the mill race running down the side of the site. Between the two an impressive red brick chimney – the smoke stack for the engines which replaced water power – stands crisp and clean.

However, an interesting historical detail is that the owners, the Grimshaws, who had lived in the adjacent Mossley House, were forced to move for health reasons by the air pollution here. Today’s tranquil Three Mile Water valley is a very different place.

The octagonal (I think) chimney and the impressive reinvented Mill building

It is also well worth exploring the inner courtyard between the Mill and the Theatre Building which contains a diverse range of sculptured objects.

When you are finished, exit the site at the foot of the car parks to re-join the Newtownabbey Way.

You now pass through a pleasant informal riverside park with a number of carved trees. The Campbell memorial garden, which contains World War One reconstructed trenches, is accessible via a bridge.

After the park, the path crosses Manse Road and then zig zags down to squeeze under Doagh Road alongside the river.

When the river floods the alternative over-ground route may be required!

Exiting the old stone bridge tunnel into Three Mile Water River Park the sense changes again and tall conifers now line the path. The path then crosses a bridge over Three Mile Water to a junction where you have a choice. Straight ahead over the next bridge the the main asphalt Newtownabbey Way and cycle route continues; up and to the right a new path with an attractive shell grip finish climbs slightly, winding up into the conifer woodland. They are both good options but I prefer the “softer” right hand option which also features a couple of good viewpoints across the Water Park.

The new path shows how good and sensitive pathway design can enhance a place and increase access

This modern parkland is beautifully conceived and maintained. It manages to combine the rich habitats of a wild natural place with almost genteel paths, seats and outdoor tables. We need more good work like this.

There is something here for dog walkers, families and nature explorers

After 750m you come to a junction with a much older concrete path. A right turn here would take you up to the River Park car park, but to continue you need to turn left and zig-zag downhill to cross the Three Mile Water and then up and back to rejoin the main asphalt cycleway. Here you turn right and after 200m leave the Water Park via a gate on to residential roads. The path continues straight ahead until it joins a twisting old minor road (now one-way traffic) cutting across the valley. The valley floor here, up and downstream, was once a hive of water-powered milling activity. A chain of mill ponds and mill races drove the flax, logwood and weaving mills once located here.

The OS first series map (1832-46) shows a “Print Works” complete with race and millpond. However, this was nothing to do with newspapers but was actually a Calico Print Works producing a basic dyed cotton cloth. We tend to think of Linen as the historic cloth of these parts, but cotton cloth was also widely produced for the Irish market. This only came to an end with the advent of fast reliable steamship services across the Irish Sea. These were able to import cheap cotton cloth from giant factories in the north of England undercutting the local product.

Turn left uphill along the pavement and around the next corner find yourself back in a modern urban mixed use area.

This part of the Newtownabbey Way / Cycle route continues to be signed with blue fingerposts, but these are not particularly easy to spot and when I last passed had been turned to point in the wrong direction – so take extra care here!

Cross over the busy junction using the controlled crossing and turn right in front of the shops

Bridge Road will take you to its junction with Monkstown Road where you cross over and turn right. After 70m you come to a junction with Cashel Drive (just before the Monkstown Boxing Club) where you turn left and then after 60m right to rejoin the signposted pedestrian Newtownabbey Way and Cycle Route.

You now enter Monkstown Wood your second Woodland Trust property of the route. Again it is a mixture of old woodland core, primarily along the riverside with a large area of new native species planted in the early 2000s which have now matured nicely. Interestingly, the former active farmland this new forest sits on was actually bought by the Woodland Trust from the Housing Executive. This landscape might have looked very different today!

After 300m you come to a spectacular metal bridge which rather bizarrely features a T- junction three quarters of the way across!

There must be a simpler way to cross a river!

Cross straight over and take the first turn left. At this point you are departing from the cycleway which continues straight on and then turns sharp left to follow a long straight asphalt route along the edge of the wood.

The heavy dotted lines show the hard surfaced cycleway, but the walking is better on the winding forest paths

Keep an eye on the route map here as there are a number of paths which might cause confusion. It is difficult to get really lost but you might not be sure exactly where you are!

A nice feature of this wood is a series of almost life size wooden sculptures based on the theme of woodland visitors. They are a cut above the average with real soul.

The dog walker

After 600m the path breaks tree cover and enters a lovely semi-open area with patches of scrub. There are views down toward the river and beyond to the south Antrim Hills.

The views open and Knockagh Monument appears on the sky line

After a further 300m you are forced back out onto the main asphalt cycleway where you descend quite steeply into woodland. You are now approaching the triple Bleach Green railway viaduct.

Look up – flying railways!
Stone, steel and concrete are all on display here

The three bridges all carry active railway lines. The lower and oldest bridge, constructed around 1847, is stone built with additional strengthening girders. The two upper bridges date from the early 1930s and are made out of concrete. They are a world apart from the dull reinforced concrete planks we know so well which cross our motorways. These light elegant arches, complete with art deco flourishes, seem to belong to the world of Metropolis, not industrial Belfast. However, they were built on a tight budget, largely by unskilled manual labour, to help solve the recurring problem of getting trains up and out of Belfast.

If you want to find out more about the history and engineering here have a look at my post The Bleach Green Railway Viaducts and the “Loop”.

Beyond the bridges you enter the rather dark woods of what was once a famed Victorian garden and beauty spot called Valentine’s Glen. Today it is sadly neglected, part of it has been built on and another section has been sold off for yet more housing. However, local people just call it the Glen and make extensive use of it for walking, exercise and old fashioned outdoor play and are currently mounting a vigorous campaign to “Save the Glen” against its loss to inappropriate new housing.

Putting in the Glen

It is crazy that at a time when many millions of public money are being spent to create new public Greenways in other urban areas, a key gateway part of this otherwise complete existing Greenway may be lost to the thoughtlessness of a sloppy planning decision.

The Newtownabbey Way ends here abruptly as housing development blocks the end of the Glen. You can exit across a bridge onto a residential access road (fortunately some of the former Victorian garden’s great trees have been spared and can still be seen here). However, a better option is uphill through community art pieces and past Whiteabbey Community Centre Car Park.

Nothing could be more “grass roots” than this vibrant community protest art.

Exiting the Glen you come on to Glenville Road where you turn left and follow down onto the busy A2, (cross at controlled crossing) and the sea front beyond.

Looking back the Glen is almost completely hidden with no entrance or gateway to hint at the richness of the Three Mile Water Greenway or historic railway viaducts beyond.

The last mile to Hazelbank is a promenade!

The long walk ends with a gentle promenade along the shore back to Hazelbank (or alternatively via the A2 to Whiteabbey Station).

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDFs)

Shorter Walks

Carnmoney Wood can be easily accessed from the Rathfern Social
Activity Centre. There is a small number of roadside parking spaces here.

Three Mile Water River Park (and upstream to Mossley Mill) can be accessed via a circular route starting at the official car park adjacent to the Doagh Road.

Monkstown Wood and the Bleach Green Viaducts can be easily accessed from the Woodland Trust car park directly adjacent to the Monkstown Road.

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