Columban Way (Newtownards – Crawfordsburn Part 2)

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TYPEMixed but largely off-road linear walk with some climb as short steep sections
DISTANCE7.6 miles / 12.2 km
SURFACESRoads, pavements, unmade, sometimes muddy paths and well-made tracks
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS500 feet climb
HAZARDS
  • Some urban road walking and crossings
  • Mountain bikes may be present around Whitespots
  • Three crossings over fast roads.
Looking North in Conway Square

This section starts at Conway Square in Newtownards. This is the largest square in any Northern Ireland town and almost has the feel of a plaza – especially on a fine day.

The paving features a giant compass and you need to head due north. Today you need to circumvent the old town hall (now arts centre), but in 1770 when the square was created you could have proceeded through a gated archway in the building in front directly onto North Street.

So exit Conway square and carefully cross the grand boulevard of Regent/Francis Street to the start of the rather more modest North Street.

In the previous Columban Way blog I described how around 1770 the town was redeveloped around Conway Square with a South-North axis of new roads running ruler-straight from Comber towards the high ground of Whitespots. I also mentioned that we would encounter West Street and East street later. Well 60m along North Road you will arrive at the compass centre at the junction of West and East street. You may be a little underwhelmed and wonder why here. To understand we need to look at a map of Newtownasds with a little historical detail added.

The modern town is still shaped by ghosts of railways and roads past

West Street was once the main road to Belfast as shown by the dotted purple line above. All road traffic from Belfast would have turned right here to enter Conway Square through the gated archway in the old Assembly Rooms.

However in 1817 North Road was superseded by a grand new Belfast to Donaghadee Coach Road (Belfast Road / Church Road / Regent Street / Francis Street) which cut the town in two and acted both as a fashionable boulevard and high-speed mail coach through-pass! Today West street joins Corry Street then Glenford Road and terminates at Bully’s Acre (this green space was the pauper’s graveyard from the time of the Great Famine).

Now back to North Street. I mentioned previously that it ran for a straight mile up to Whitespots, but looking ahead it seems that this cannot be!

Just past the “New Railway Bar” North Street loses its way!

The clue is on your left – the “New Railway Bar”! Clearly the “new railway” has been and gone but it has left an indelible mark on the landscape in the form of the massive earthworks ahead required to gently elevate the trackbed for the low lying Newtowards up towards the heights of Conlig before being able to continue to the packet port of Donaghdee. Look at the map above and below you will see how in 1860 the railway extension towards Donaghdee created an earthwork to the north of Newtownards.

At Newtownards the railway was forced to climb sharply to continue towards Donanghdee

On top of that embankment sat the new Railway Station which today is the site of the College of Further Education. North Road was diverted to the left to pass under the railway.

So we divert to passing the site of the old railway bridge and carefully crossing Tabort Street to join the linear green space which marks the line of the old railway. Turn right and continue to follow the diverted North Road 250m as it bends north-east.

Immediately after crossing Glenburn Road you come to Quarry Heights with a signpost to the Council Work Department.

An unpromising but important junction on your route!

Turn here left and follow the pavement on the right hand side to the first bend. Here you turn left away from the industrial estate and onto a welcome much more pleasant country lane!

Quarry heights splits in two – you need the left-hand country lane

Not only have you escaped the town but you have also returned to the true “North Road” as it now completes its climb up into Whitespots.

Detail from James Williamson’s map of 1810 showing North Road (and windmill)

After 500m the road changes to a lane and then enters the rolling open land of Whitespots with height ground and the Country Park ahead.

The asphalt road eventually turns into a laneway following the old North Road

The semi-open upland you are now on is popular with local walkers, but is also used by bikers including powered variety – so be aware!

Walk straight ahead on a rough vehicle track (can be muddy) with a low win covered hill to your right and higher ground rising to your left. After 300m you will see a smaller track joining from the left servicing a concrete utility building (with electric pole behind).

Turn left here leaving the broad track behind and follow the track diagonally uphill passing the utility building on your left.

Look out for the utility building to the left – don’t continue toward the chimney to the far right

The path narrows to pedestrian width and climbs steadily. Don’t forget to look back as you go as this part of Whitespots has by far the best views over Strangford Lough and Scrabo.

View over Strangford Lough, Newtownards and Scrabo

The path now begins to level as you cross the invisible boundary of Whitespots Country Park. Ahead you can see the woods of Clandeboye and against the sky the impressive tower of South Shaft Chimney. This impressive stone structure was built in the 1840s along with an engine house to pump water out of the lead mines which once dominated this area. The engine house is long gone, the spoil tips and excavations are softened by woodland, but the chimney looks as good as new.

North towards Conlig the bronze age people who lived here from 2000-300 BC mined copper and combined it with tin to produce the tools, weapons and decorative goods which now define their era to us. In 1780 lead mining began in the area ahead and continued sporadically over the next 100 years. The mines generally produced thin profits for the owners and the men that worked them endured horrendous conditions underground and associated poor health.

Heading towards south shaft the path can be wet in places

Continue towards south shaft an unmissable waymark on the trail. The area here is designated for use by trail bike enthusiasts and the council has provided a concrete path for access for them which you will cross as it just before you reach the Chimney.

Wind towers ancient and modern ahead.

Leave the chimney base along the level path straight ahead with your next landmark the windmill stump ahead and slightly to the right. The path is well defined and easy to follow. As you start to descend you will see green metal fencing on your right which protects the top of old mine shafts. Soon after this the path bends right and descends to the base of the old quarry where you emerge from the woodland with the windmill stump directly ahead.

 ‘ a powerful windmill, driving a crusher; iron shafting & is fitted with a self-adjusting sail apparatus’

Inventory of the buildings on the mine dating from December 1864

This impressive structure (which is marked on the old 1810 map earlier in this post) actually predates the lead mines and was originally used to grind corn. Ore grinding was its second life and today it still keeps its modern cousins, the wind turbines, company.

Head up the track through the dense deciduous planting. As the path climbs you will start to gain glimpses of the undulating mine working terrain on your right, two wind turbines and then, appropriately, the substantial stone tower stump of a windmill once used to grind ore. As you pass this you enter a confusing large flat area of hard-standing with decapitated park signage – it would be easy to go wrong here. The map below and photograph should keep you on the right track:

Whitespots Junction Central – the rocky waymark has seen better days, but still points in generally the right direction toward Helen’s Tower(HT)!

Exit to the North West (to the left of the green fencing) as shown above. There you will find a good gravel track and views of a lake and golf course. A short distance ahead a park path loops off to the right – keep left heading towards the woods (paths also cut off to your left up through the rocky scrub). Stay on the main track and you soon come to a gate marking the end of the Country Park and the start of the Clandeboye Estate woodland. The path now becomes rather muddy as it travels between the golf course edge on your right and a series of low rocky hills on your left.

Close to the chimney are the ruins of the pump house which once kept the lead mine shafts below dry. It contained a Cornish pumping stream engine – apparently, the only one ever installed in Ireland

After 200m you come to another mining relic, the ‘North Shaft Chimney’ – the path bends right, drops and shortly afterwards is joined by another track merging from the right.

Keep straight ahead for another 300m where the track enters the golf course by a warning sign.

Golf hazards ahead – turn left!

Here you turn sharp left and climb up into an superb area of mature beech wood. Many small paths cut off to the right towards the hilltop and Helen’s Tower, but the main route proceeds skirting the high ground to the left hand side. You now need to decide if you will visit Helen’s Tower as it requires a diversion from the through route.

Helen’s Tower Options

Helen’s Tower has historical interest both in relation to its focal role in the grand Clandeboye Estate landscaping project and its significance in relation to remembrance of the Great War, a link between the army training camps of North Down and the bloody battlefields of France. However, the location of the tower itself today does not come with a view – it is not like the nearby Scrabo Tower with its great panorama of all North Down and Strangford. Your visit will be to see the tower itself, standing in thick woodland with just its upper floors projecting above the tree line.

Glimpsed through the trees, Helen’s Tower has a full story-book tower impact!

Option One – The Access Road (600m each way / 100 foot extra climb )

This is the easiest, longest, but least interesting route. It also involves the most climb as you have to drop down the far side of the hill to pick up the access road. At (A) on the map below simply turn right and follow the access road as it spirals gently upwards until you arrive at the gate to the tower. Return by the same route.

Option Two – Off Road (700m / 30 foot extra climb)

Judging by the many informal tracks which cut through the wood to the hill top this is the most popular route to see the tower. As you leave the golf course behind and ascend the woodland path, around (C) you will see several rough paths striking approximately north, uphill towards the summit. Select one of these and follow it up until the tower comes into clear view and then make your way to the approach road and information board.

Generally finding the way to the top of a hill is easy navigation as the slope does the work for you. However, coming down again is a totally different matter where people often go wrong. The safe option is to follow the vehicle access  track spiralling back down to (A). Should you decide instead to follow the direct route down from (B) to (A) please be aware that the path is rough, steep and slippy and high crags lie just to the north of your route.

Main Walk Continued

Whether you visit the tower or not, you should end up at (A) on the map above.

This junction can look confusing but worry – both the paths heading downhill go to the same place!

Proceed straight ahead steeply downhill to cut the corner and rejoin the tower access road where you turn right. After 500m you come to a track crossroads. Straight ahead there is a “No Entry” sign, but here you turn left.

The forest now becomes thicker and more mixed, but you will soon catch glimpses of water on your right. Then, as you turn a right-hand corner, there is water also on the left as the track crosses a wooden causeway between two overgrown lakes.

The area is rich in birdlife, both on and off the water. As the causeway ends, an area of fine mature beech woodland overlooking the water opens up to the left – a good spot for a linger or even a picnic!

The track now skirts farmland and the forest edge for the next 500m until it joins another farm track.

Your route is straight across the junction onto a small path which leads you out of the estate via a pedestrian gate onto a busy rural road – take care!

Turn right and follow the road for 250m, making full use of the verges, and cross to the other side when safe, to reach your next section of path accessed via a wooden gateway.

For the next 1.5km you will be walking inside a linear beech wood – part of Lord Duffin’s great scheme of landscape remodelling of the farmland between Clandeboye Desmesne and the coast at Helen’s Bay. It all seems so natural now, but in its time it was a massive landscaping project of woodland planting, road building, bridge building and new drainage. Today you can enjoy it in its full mature glory.

So, follow along the beech path with farmland on your left and Blackwood Golf Course on your right. The path is muddy in a few places, but generally in good condition. As you proceed you will see some of the full grown trees laid low by ex-Hurricane Ophelia in late 2017 – a reminder that forests are not always safe places to be!

Walking the day after Hurricane Ophelia

After 1300m the path splits – bear right slightly downhill.

Your path bends to the right

Continue along a narrower more hedge-like section until you come to a gate and find yourself on a section of overgrown laneway. After 100m you join the busy Ballysallagh Road.

Cross over to the gated lane-way opposite – there is nothing here to indicate you are on a public path except for the ageing wooden gateway. Proceed ahead between the well maintained hedges and enjoy open skies again after your long forested walk. The fertile rolling farmland on both sides reminds you this is primarily a place of work rather than recreation. The farming here is mostly arable and the lack of livestock detracts a little from the scene, but it does make the way ahead cleaner and simpler! Ignore turns to the left and right and proceed onwards for 1km until the lane-way enters a broad stand of mature trees – Clandeboye Avenue.

Turn LEFT and follow  the woodland path soon passing an original Ulster Way waymark and bench – still working well.

Ulster Way bench with original waymark post nearby.

You are now travelling along the spectacular show-piece of Lord Dufferin’s landscape re-forming project – Clandeboye Avenue. The 3 mile route winds its way through the North Down landscape along corridors of specially planted woodland without ever joining a public road (until the A2 Bangor dual carriageway came along). It does this by either bridging over the public road (as on the Ballysallagh Road) or under as on the Ballyrobert Road and Bridge Road in Helen’s Bay. These bridges, as you will see, are no mean utilitarian affairs – but bold architectural statements in themselves. Even the river crossings along the way are over-specified with long stone-built culverts used inside of simply running the carriageway over an adequate bridge.

Start of the long culvert with ‘Ottawa Screen’ woodland strip beyond

After 300m the woodland bends right – here if you look carefully you can find the entrance to the 50m culvert which was built to facilitate the carriageway! Looking out of the wood to the west you can also see a parallel wooded way – ‘Ottawa Screen’ another landscape improvement!

Proceed ahead for another 1200m. Now you come to the low point of this walk – the Bangor Dual Carriageway. The Clandeboye Way here is unceremoniously chopped in two – it could have been avoided relatively cheaply with an underpass at the time of construction and will probably have to be rectified in the future at great expense. The council’s current ingenious solution to this  problem is a large sign informing you you have reached the end of the Ulster Way, which starts again on the other side! The problem of course is the traffic, which at rush hour and peak times could make this crossing very time consuming or impossible.  However, in more normal conditions, a two stage (broad central reservation) careful crossing should not be a problem. So heed the warnings and disclaimer!

Once on the other side of the road you will find that the EU have been at work improving the next section – but how you are supposed to access this facility without crossing the road (or parking on a busy hard shoulder) is difficult to ascertain! So drop down from the road and follow the next, rather wet, footpath along another wooded section.

The path now starts to slope gently downwards – it is easy to feel you are heading down to the sea and you also have the knowledge that your long walk is nearing its end. A good time to check your train times from Helen’s Bay and add or subtract from your pace to minimise a long wait on the platform (Helen’s Bay Station is attractive and unique, but time there, like on other stations, does seem to pass exceeding slowly!)

As you descend you will catch sight of something unusual through the trees directly ahead. This is the first of the carriageway bridges which separates it from the lesser ways above and below. Unfortunately, on reaching it you may find the imposing aged structure is rather let down by the lack of a little simple modern drainage underneath – it tends to be a bit squishy under there!

Pass through and you will find yourself on a short road section – however it is extremely quiet so traffic is unlikely to spoil your peace and enjoyment.  After 500m the traffic exits to the left and you pass through the gateway directly ahead for your last section of tree lined Clandeboye Avenue. Shortly again you will glimpse a bridge ahead – this time complete with heraldic arms and prancing beasts. Unfortunately you don’t need to go under it (but other walks do – see below) – your path bears right, up and through a rather unexpected archway which opens into the station platform subway and your destination!

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDF)

External links

Sources

  • Newtown – A History of Newtownards, Trevor McCavery, White Row 2013

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