Columban Way (Newtownards – Helen’s Bay Crawfordsburn)

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Please reuse this map but first see
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
  • Some urban road walking and crossings
  • Mountain bikes and scramblers 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 new Market House 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 Newtownards 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However in 1817 North Road was superseded by a grand new Belfast to Donaghadee Coach Road (Belfast Road / Church Road / Regent Street / Francis Street) which cut the town in two and acted both as a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 from the low-lying Newtowards up towards the heights of Conlig before being able to continue to the packet port of Donaghadee. Look at the map above and below you will see how in 1860 the railway extension towards Donaghadee created an earthwork to the north of Newtownards.

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

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 Talbot 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 Works Department.

An unpromising but important junction on your route!

Turn left here 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 old “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 higher 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 the powered variety – so be aware!

Walk straight ahead on a rough vehicle track (can be muddy) with a low whin-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 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 just before you reach the Chimney.

Wind towers ancient and modern ahead.

Leave the chimney base and proceed 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, bear left and the windmill stump will come into view 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 toward the windmill tower through the young re-generating woodland. As the path climbs you will start to gain glimpses of the undulating mine-working terrain on your right, two wind turbines and then the base of the substantial stone tower stump windmill once used to grind lead ore. As you pass this you enter a confusing large flat area of hard-standing with original decapitated park signage posts bored into a large boulder. Here you will see the first of the new Council waymark signs – a yellow arrow on a dark blue ground.

Whitespots Junction Central – the rocky waymark now displays the first of the official Council “Columban Way” waymark metal discs.

Exit to the North West (to the left of the green fencing) as indicated by the orange arrow 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.

A metal disc screwed to a fencing post marks the way ahead

This is probably a good time to point out that this trail is waymarked in both directions. Walkers travelling from Bangor southwards follow similar discs, but with a light blue, rather than yellow, arrow. Be careful this can be confusing if you mix them up!

An example waymark for southbound walkers

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’. This is the last of the visible mining remains. It is also a junction on the route. The new waymarked route leaves the made path and enters the woodland

A waymark disc on the tree ahead marks a route through the woodland

Two paths diverge in the wood

The woodland route does not follow a surfaced path and is marked by a combination of metal discs screwed to trees and blobs of yellow paint on trees. You will need to pay careful attention not to miss these. The area is also used by mountain bikers so there are a number of diverging tracks, some of which go in the right direction. If you have a compass a north-westerly heading will keep you right for Helen’s Tower.

The alternative at this point is to stick with the old Ulster Way route (and surfaced paths) and bear right past the old chimney dropping down to continue along a rough vehicle track. Shortly after this another track merges from the golf course to your right – you continue straight ahead.

After another 300m the track comes to the edge of the golf course with a warning sign ahead. Immediately before this you turn sharp left onto a well-made path. Please note there is currently no waymark at this junction.

Golf hazards ahead – turn left!

You now climb up gently climb into a 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.

The made path you are following actually bypasses Helen’s Tower to the south so if you wish to visit it you need to strike out through the beechwood uphill to your right

The quickest route here is to stay on the made path as shown by the green dotted line above.

However to visit Helen’s Tower you need to turn right at point (C) as your path flattens (but before it begins to dip down the other side of the hill). Also you have now rejoined the waymarked route so metal discs on trees and yellow marks will help you find your way north to the top of the hill by point (B).

Swing right and slightly uphill looking out for yellow marks and discs

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 the remembrance of the Great War, a link between the army training camps of North Down and the bloody battlefields of France.

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!

Now to get to the gate and information board at the Tower you will have had to cross an access road. This is your way forward, so retrace your steps slightly, staying on the vehicle track which heads north to the end of the hill, where recent tree felling has opened up a good view of the route ahead to the North Down coast.

Continue on the track as it turns and descends down to a path junction (waymarked) where you turn right downhill.

Don’t be confused by the second waymark with the light blue arrow pointing back the way you came – this is the reverse route waymark.

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

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 the fast and busy Crawfordsburn Road !

There is often an additional hazard here caused by informal roadside parking which can block the narrow verges – please 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 Dufferin’s great scheme of landscape remodelling of the farmland between Clandeboye Demesne 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 come to the busy and fast Ballysallagh Road. Cross carefully.

Cross over to the gated lane-way opposite – and enter through the pedestrian gate. 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 by no means utilitarian affairs – but bold architectural statements in themselves. Even the river crossings along the way are over-specified with long stone-built culverts used instead 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.

As well as a new small waymark, there is still an old metal sign here which informs 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!

A choice of endings

The council waymarking continues on the Clandeboye Way passing Helen’s Bay Station which can fit in well with public transport use. However I also describe a variation below which goes directly to Crawfordsburn, (closer to the original Ulster Way route) and is somewhat shorter for “through walkers” heading on to Bangor!

Route ending at Helen’s Bay Station

After crossing turn left and walk to the entrance to the next path section where you 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 ending at Crawfordsburn Village

After crossing the dual carriageway TURN RIGHT and proceed 140m along the footpath to the entrance to a laneway and turn left. Locally this is referred to as the “Bridleway Walk”.

The “Bridleway Walk” with tree clumps to the left and right

Follow the lane taking care in case you meet agricultural vehicles.

As you proceed down the lane you will pass see further evidence of Lord Dufferin’s great landscaping scheme in the form of hilltop wooded copses. On your left the small ‘Malaprop Clump’ and on the right the much larger ‘Jan Mayen Clump’. This particular landscape addition references Lord Dufferin’s 1856 arctic adventure which he recorded in his published humorous memoir ‘Letters from High Latitudes’.

After 500m the farm lane meets the edge of Crawfordsburn Village at ‘Meadow Way’ which you follow for 500m to the junction with Ballymullan Road where you turn right towards the village centre. This is the original Belfast Road and still retains the feel of an older way – including a lack of pedestrian pavement – so proceed with caution!

The old road from Belfast into Crawsfordsburn

To travel on to Crawfordsburn Country Park, cross the road and turn left and then, just past the end of the Crawfordsburn Inn right down a short flight of concrete steps into the wooded glen.

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDF)

External links


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

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