Woodburn Forest and the Knockagh Escarpment

Some of the walks described in “Grand Day Out”  may be appropriate for you as daily local exercise. Please use the maps and modify the routes to avoid hot-spots or places where the paths are too narrow. Turn back if unsure, practice social distancing and step off paths if they are narrow when passing others.

Do not over-stretch yourself physically or explore beyond your comfort zone.

See also: Covid-19 – Stay Local – be MORE Careful

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On arrival, you might think Woodburn Forest looks like just another Forest Service conifer plantation, but it is actually a reservoir catchment woodland controlled by Northern Ireland Water. It contains a descending chain of Victorian reservoirs (built 60 years before the Silent Valley), agricultural landscape history and an old (or ancient) roadway, which once ran to a beautiful glen, down through the Knockagh Escarpment past an ancient monastic site to Carrickfergus. Sadly this ‘Friar’s Glen’ is no longer publicly accessible, so instead this walk climbs to the Knockagh Monument on the high edge of the Escarpment with spectacular views over Belfast Lough, its settlements and surrounding hills.

Stoney (formally Friar’s) Glen, the the site of an ancient Monastic Settlement
TYPEMainly circular route along forest tracks around reservoirs and then ‘there and back’ along minor roads to visit the edge of the Knockagh Escarpment
DISTANCE6.3 miles / 10 km
SURFACESMostly forest tracks with short sections on paths which may become muddy. Significant section on asphalt roads.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS820 feet climb
HAZARDS
  • Some road walking with a short section along a slightly busier/faster road.

  • Deep water and drops around the reservoirs.

Getting Started

The route starts at the public car park adjacent to Woodburn Presbyterian Church. Strangely it is signed ‘Anglers’ Car Park’ but most of the people who use it are walkers. Exit via the pedestrian gate and follow the path onto the forest track and then turn downhill. A fine row of mature beech trees lining the track to your left is the first clue that this is not a standard forest plantation.

Beech lined ‘avenue’

Beech is neither native nor fast-growing so its presence in a mature wood generally indicates deliberate landscaping and often evidence of a big house. In the 1800s there were several substantial farms here so this avenue may date from then.

After 180m you pass a track junction on your right and you continue downhill. A further 250m later, on your right, you should just be able to make out the boundary walls which once enclosed the dwelling house and outbuildings of the former farm you have been walking through.

All that is left of the farmhouse is a pile of stones but the boundary wall is still clearly visible.

Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland, carried out around 1850, records this house as being occupied by Daniel Mulholland and leased from Lord Blayney, along with 54 acres of the surrounding land. The combined property had a rateable value of 40 pounds and 10 shillings per annum. It was normal for farmers not to own the land they farmed, but rent it from large landowners. In the immediate area, most of the land was own by The Marquis of Downshire, Lord Blayney or Conway Dobbs. The first two of these landowners are mentioned in the 1839 OS Memoirs for the area:

The principal landed proprietors (who hold under the corporation), for instance the Marquis of Downshire, Marquis of Donegall and Lord Blayney, derive a considerable sum from the district but, being non-resident and having no interest to serve, pay no attention to their tenantry.

O.S. Memoirs Co. Antrim Vol. 37

Although the reservoirs date from around 1870, the land here was farmed into the mid-1900s, only then being turned over to forestry. Woodburn forest, like most 20th-century conifer plantations on former farmland, still contains extensive evidence of the old field boundaries and lanes which preceded it. If you wander through the forest here you will encounter many walls and ditches and indeed may have some difficulty crossing them. However, in Woodburn, there is something different. Look to the sides of the track you are descending and you will see sharp sided well-defined watercourses. In many places, you can still see the remains of stone walls defining the straight cut channels.

In many places the stone built ditch walls are visible

It is very unlikely that this was done for simple agricultural purposes. There is a complex grid of such deep drainage throughout the wood and my guess is that it relates to the needs of the reservoirs, not the farmland. The three reservoirs in Woodburn forest cover a substantial area (approx. 0.25 sq miles), but their rainfall catchment is relatively small (approx. 3 sq miles). For them to collect and hold enough water to meet the needs of the settlements below it would have been important to get as much rainfall as possible to drain quickly into the reservoirs and not seep below into the groundwater, or evaporate back to the sky. Therefore there would have been the need for a well maintained network of deep drains which I think is what we still see today.

End of the road (or not)

You have been following a long straight track which once ran all the way to Carrickfergus via a glen cutting through the Knockagh Escarpment. It is likely this is the road referred to in the OS memoirs:

Troopers Road, leading across the Knockagh to the mountain from Woodburn, was for the accommodation of the troops to draw fuel, turf for the garrison at Carrickfergus in ancient times; it is 45 feet broad, only furrowed not stoned. 22nd June 1839.

O.S. Memoirs Co. Antrim Vol. 37

If you know the Carrickfergus area, you will be familiar with the modern Tooperslane which today runs from the coast to the base of the Knockagh slopes.

However, your old way is now blocked by the Victorian reservoir ahead. As you come to the water’s edge you should be able to make out the line of your track rising out of the water on the far side and climbing on its way, following the old line to the high ground ahead. Without scuba gear you will have to make a diversion around the reservoir – right would be shorter, but left is more interesting.

Middle South Woodburn Reservoir

So turn left and follow a (possibly muddy) track along the edge of Middle South Woodburn Reservoir. The rather tortuous naming system used here needs a little explanation. While there are only three reservoirs in this part of Woodburn Forest there is a fourth reservoir in woodland to the North. This is called North Woodburn reservoir and the three here lower, middle and upper South Woodburn. These four Victorian reservoirs still supply water for Carrickfergus and North Belfast today.

Continue towards the dam which is nicely fringed with a backdrop of Scots Pines.

Overflow spillway in action – your visit may be very different

When you reach the overflow spillway, continue on the path along the dam top until you get to the midpoint where the gantry to the valve tower meets the path.

Time to talk about reservoirs. Think of these as being like a big bath with an overflow and a plughole. The overflow is to allow excess water to leave the dam in a controlled way and not cause problems. The plug hole is connected to a large underground pipe which runs under the dam and provides a steady feed of water downstream to where it is needed. Careful controlling of the rate at which water comes out of the plughole is crucial and a large rubber bung isn’t going to do the job.

Gantry to the top of the valve tower – the vast majority of the tower is hidden below the water.

The solution is to build a tower over the plughole up to the height of the water surface and fit that tower with valves at various heights to regulate output. If all these valves are opened together the dam can be quickly drained. This might be required in an emergency should the dam wall stability ever become compromised. Alternatively, fast-draining can be used to flush or ‘scour’ sediment from the reservoir floor to restore water capacity.

Given that this is a Victorian structure (some very nice stone and brickwork is hidden here under the water) good maintenance is important. You will be glad to know that in recent years the three dams here were drained and the outlet towers valves completely refurbished to ensure fast control of water levels.

View over Lower Woodburn Reservoir, Carrickfergus and on to Scotland

Now turn around and look downstream from your elevated viewpoint, 85 feet above the original valley floor. Here you have an excellent view down the Woodburn valley over the lower reservoir to Belfast Lough and, on a clear day, the hills of the Mull of Galloway in Scotland.

As you come to the south end of the dam you will see the original Victorian stonework spillway which drained the overflow from this corner of the reservoir. It is rather overgrown, but still apparently operational.

Now turn north keeping to the track along the side of the reservoir, Here you will pass a pair of pillars marking the end of a nicely preserved farm lane which runs to the forest edge and into the farmland beyond.

A pair of solid stone built pillars mark the start of an old farm lane

Your view is now up the Woodburn valley, over the top reservoir and beyond to the summit of Slievetrue (Sliabh an Triúir – ‘hill of the three’ – generally considered to be a reference to three standing stones located half a mile away). An alternative derivation, favoured by the writer of the OS Memoirs, is from tuireamh – lament – relating to rites associated with the massive stone cairn which was once located here.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only ‘Slieve’ in the Belfast Hills The OSNI 1:50,000 map actually uses the uninspiring, but descriptive name name ‘Cairn Hill’. Even though most of the cairn has been removed for building walls etc. there is a lot of archaeology on the height with a mound, chambered grave and, most surprisingly, the remains of a ‘schoolhouse’.

Any self-respecting Irish hill will have had a fort and cairn of some sort, but this seems a windy spot for a seat of learning! According to Thomas Fagan the pupils must have agreed!

“The schoolhouse here alluded to stood 1-storey high, 16 and a half feet square inside, stood in the middle of the cairn and was erected many years ago by the late James Craig Esquire, proprietor of the mountain before mentioned; but in consequence of its lofty and cold situation, it soon fell to disuse and consequently a prey to neglect.”

O.S. Memoirs Co. Antrim Vol. 37
View past Woodburn Upper Reservoir to Wind Turbines on Slievetrue and the old school house!!

As you approach the next dam, the old track you previously followed rises from the watery depths and cuts across your path. Turn left uphill to rejoin this old way which once ran to Carrickfergus.

We will not be able to stay with this route much further but it is still possible to enjoy the idea that you are walking in the steps of monks and travellers of old on their way to the ‘friary’ in the little valley high on the edge of the Knockagh Escarpment or on to town of Carrickfergus beyond. Public archaeological records of the history of this glen suggest little remains visible today, but this was not always so. In particular, there is a fascinating description from 1839 in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the area:

Friar’s Glen / Troopersland in the snow

Near the base of the precipitous cliffs, which form the southern declivity of the hills in the Western Division, is a tract of almost 50 acres, commonly known as Trooper Land, which must from the earliest age have been of great importance. The broken uneven surface of the place presented formidable obstructions to agriculture, and, therefore, preserved it to great extent in its primitive state. There were there several extensive and curious caves, in what is called the Burial Ground. They consisted of a number of bee-hive shaped subterranean structures, connected by a pipe-shaped cave. The bee-hive structures were circular, at the bottom a square entrance, through which a man could scarcely creep.

O.S. Memoirs Co. Antrim Vol. 37

As the track levels slightly you come to a junction where you turn right off the old way onto another old laneway. You are now walking with open land on your left where the forest has been recently clear felled.

Another laneway

As before, sections of this lane are lined with deciduous trees and there are remains of old ditches on each side. In 1850 the land to your left was farmed by Charles and William McCauley, the land to your right by Mary Lough and her son. The Landlord for these and surrounding farms was Conway Dobbs, High Sheriff of County Antrim and owner of Dobbs Castle near Carrickfergus, where his descendants still reside. The Lord Belmont Blog tells us the family owned 5000 acres in Country Antrim.

The patchwork of independent family farms we know today is only just over a hundred years old. In the late 1800s, land reform laws gave tenants the right to purchase the land they farmed and provided long term government loans to facilitate this. Many of these loans were still being paid off in the mid 20th Century.

After 500m you come to another track junction where you turn left, and proceed, again with mature forest on your right and clear felling on your left.

At the edge of clear felling a few trees stand out

After 250m another well-used track joins from the right but you continue straight ahead on the lesser-used way.

You have now joined the line of another ‘old way’ but one much younger and unfortunately much less used – ‘The Ulster Way’. This 665 mile footpath was the brainchild of Wilfrid Capper MBE (1905-1998) and was intended to be a route joining all the Northern Ireland Youth Hostels. Among other things Wilfrid Capper was involved in the establishment of :

  • Ulster Society for the Protection of the Countryside 
  • Ulster Countryside Committee
  • Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs
  • Northern Ireland Mountaineering Club
  • Ulster Tourist Development Association
  • Youth Hostel Association 

He, along with his colleagues in the NI Youth Hostel Association, bought the pristine dunes at White Park Bay and donated them to the National Trust, saving them for us all to enjoy freely today!

So you are now walking on the original route of his path which is, like many other miles, miserably reduced to ‘link’ status. As the official WalkNI Website puts it:

“This is a Link section therefore walkers are actively encouraged to make use of the public transport links between Ballynure and Belfast.”

Ballynure to Belfast – WalkNI

The track gradually becomes less well-defined before turning into a muddy footpath at the point where it exits onto Knockagh Road. Here you should find a weathered waymark, probably dating to the original Ulster Way!

Old Ulster Way Waymark still survives – a point for pilgrims to pause!

The road here has relativity low traffic but can be fast, so exit carefully, turning right to face oncoming vehicles. After 200m you come to the junction with Monument Road which is marked by a brown tourist information sign for Knockagh Monument.

No car park here at the junction with Monument Road – despite appearances!

As you turn into the road you will notice a change in the landscape. Enclosure and ‘improvement’ came late to this high ground which in the 1800s was still classified as ‘wild pasture’. It was generally marshy with few boundaries but had many archaeological sites still intact. The second edition OS map (1848-1862) labelled this whole area as “Masseys Mountain” and Griffth’s valuation tells us that all the land from here to the cliff edge – around 300 acres – was leased as a single unit from Conway Dobbs. The rateable value was £40 per annum, about 1/6 the valuation per acre of the land you passed earlier on your walk. However, there have been big changes here since!

Now the road ahead is ruler-straight, as are the double-height beech hedges lining it. The elaborate field gates are standardised, combine harvester width and come with massive stone-built pillars with knobs on top! Even the strips of forestry in the adjacent fields are straight-edged and right-angled. There is a feeling you have wandered into the grounds of a grand estate where some over-sized Lord holds dominion! Walk on quietly for the next 1/2 mile.

The road straight ahead climbs to disappear at a vanishing point at Knockagh Monument

The road now levels and turns slightly to arrive at the Monument. There is a car park here so fast, effortless access is possible but, I suspect, much less satisfactory than the slow approach by foot.

Ahead lies the high-point of your walk – 910 feet above the Lough stretched out below.
Knockagh Monument in the snow seen from the County Down side of Belfast Lough

Looking up the 110 foot basalt obelisk it is hard to get a sense of scale – even the text is in gigantic point. It is said to be a (smaller) replica of the Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, Dublin, although the proportions of the base differ and the former’s elaborate bronze friezes are replaced with a simple panel of text.

NOBLY YOU FOUGHT, YOUR KNIGHTLY VIRTUE PROVED, YOUR MEMORY HALLOWED IN THE LAND YOU LOVED

The modern reader tends to look back on the First World War through the lens of the great war poets who captured the horror and human losses of mechanised warfare. However, the text here is of its time and would have reflected the spirit of duty and comradeship of many of the young men who left the farms and towns below as they set off for a foreign field never to return.

A lone figure gives scale as they look out over the Lough and Belfast beyond

The focus in the text on the “Men of County Antrim” as distinct from County Down (which shares much of the view here), or indeed any other County also seems strange to the modern reader. However, historically in a largely rural, agricultural society a county, as a piece of known land, bounded by rivers and sea, with its titled nobility and traditions, does make sense. The erection of the Monument was largely the work of the High Sheriff of Antrim, Henry Dupre Malkin Barton, who provided much of the funding. He never saw it completed. He died in 1934 leaving a further £2,500 from his estate to go towards its completion and the employment of a caretaker.

Today High Sheriffs seem an anachronism, County Councils are no more, citizens feel little connection with the ever-shifting bureaucracies which replace them and the urban dominates all. Only in Gaelic Games with its passionate identification with County (and Parish) do echoes of the old land-based loyalties survive.

Dorisland Water Treatment Works is visible at the end of the rainbow. Liquid gold?

Before leaving the Monument look North East over the high perimeter fencing along the line of the escarpment toward Friar’s Glen. In the 1800s this high ground was not intensively farmed, there were few field boundaries and a number of archaeological sites survived, including a number of round raths or barrows. Below the cliffs were remains of an early monastic settlement and to quote the OS Memoirs “Numerous traces of paved and formed paths, that traversed this tract in almost every direction, furnished ample proof that it was once much frequented.” Echoes of these paths remain on modern OS maps in disembodied names such as “Green Lane”, “Cat Lane” and “The Path” which are dotted along the cliff edge.

Surely this site is crying out for the creation of a new clifftop public path so visitors to the Monument can walk and reflect as they enjoy the superb views and explore the archaelogy of this special landscape?

Back to the Reservoirs

It is now time to retrace your steps for one and a half miles to Woodburn South Middle Reservoir. I always aim for looped routes in planning walks, but sometimes ‘there and back’ sections are unavoidable. However, as my wife often reminds me, the view is different on the way back and in this, as in many things, she is of course right!

Returning from the Monument. Rainbows are not guaranteed – but the view will be different

This section ends where you follow our original ‘old way’ back to where it again plunges below the reservoir.

Here you turn left toward the upper dam.

You now find yourself looking up a concrete stairway rising 72 feet to the top dam edge. On summitting there is a sense of deja vu with the top of the valve tower and gantry almost identical to those of the middle dam.

Again, this is a good place to stop and take in the views up valley and down.

Slievetrue and its wind turbines form the skyline above Woodburn South Upper Reservoir

Now turn right and follow the grassy path along the dam edge to where it meets the overflow spillway. Here a narrow concrete bridge with tubular steel handrails and low bars across each end will allow you to cross the waterway.

There is a sense here, as in other parts of Woodburn, that Northern Ireland Water tolerates walkers rather than celebrating them. It is understandable that in the serious business of providing adequate, safe drinking water to the whole population, recreational concerns are not a priority. However, with so little open space available for our growing population to exercise mind and body, it is essential we make better future use of places like Woodburn. Some light-touch improving of the existing path / track network and new, well-designed signage could go a long way towards this goal.

Looking back over the footbridge along the dam-top walk

Cross the bridge and turn left.

The concrete spillways here take complex forms

For some reason, the overflow spillways here are much more complex than the simple linear fall of the middle dam. The flowing forms and interlocking curved concrete walls are almost exuberant. I like to think that the civil engineers were expressing their artistic impulses a little here!

Continue past the spillways with the reservoir on your left. The track passes though some trees and then opens out onto a broad grassy meadow along the waterside. There is no track here and it can be a little wet, but the way is easy to follow until a new path appears running though the scrubby woodland fringing the reservoir.

You soon come to a path junction where you turn right and begin to climb slowly away from the reservoir.

Looking back to Woodburn South Upper Reservoir

The path now turns into a forest road which you follow for 200m.

The strips of farmland immediately around the reservoirs were forested first in the early 1900s and woodland here tends to be more diverse with significant deciduous stands. Here again, along the sides of the track you will see examples of stone-lined ditches.

On coming to a T junction turn right and continue for a further 400m.

Old OS maps name this area Ninescore-acres. Other areas in Woodburn forest include Fourscore-acres and Boydstown. The Townland name here is simply ‘West Division’, which along with ‘Middle Division’, ‘North East Division’ and ‘Commons’ make up the Parish of Carrickfergus. These are not normal Irish townland names which usually derive from the old Gaelic land divisions. There is a hint here that the agricultural hinterland of the crucial garrison town of Carrickfergus was ordered and administered differently from other places.

The ruins of an old farmhouse and associated lanes now hidden deep in the forest.

At the next T junction you turn right and after a further 400m you re-join your first Woodburn ‘old way’ 200m from your destination – the Anglers’ Car Park.

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

External links

Sources

  • Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland Vol. 37, Parishes of County Antrim XIV – Institute of Irish Studies

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