Columban Way (Helen’s Bay/Crawsfordburn to Bangor)

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TYPELinear mainly coastal walk with option to use train to return to starting point.
DISTANCE5 miles / 8 km
SURFACESMostly on on hard surfaced made paths. Short sections on rougher and steeper earth paths at Grey Point and Stricklands Glen
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS130 feet climb
  • Several road crossing with moderate traffic
  • In severe weather the path is exposed, particularly on the beach sections at spring tide..

This is the final section of the Columban Way from Carlow to Bangor and in some ways, it is the easiest. At only 5 miles long and with the sea on the left to guide you and a broad asphalt path to follow, a description almost seems redundant. However, it is also one of the most beautiful sections of the walk and it deserves to be taken slowly and enjoyed with full attention. The route described below also augments the council’s waymarked route to add extra interest and to reach back into the historical landscape to find current features which would have been largely familiar to Columbanus and the monks of Bangor.

Route Options

Orange line – our route – purple line – waymarked route

The purple line above shows that the official route from Helen’s Bay Station along Clandeboye Avenue is directly to the sea. The only difficulty with this route is getting started as the entrance to Clandeboye Avenue is subterranean! To find it you use the platform pedestrian subway and you will come upon an arched doorway which leads into the woodland which borders the Avenue. Turn right and right again to pass under the railway (and weathered heraldic beasts), pass the remains of Lord Dufferin’s private coach platform and on to the sea.

The orange line above shows my preferred route which diverts through Helen’s Bay to incorporate the Grey Point headland with its great views over the Lough.

Alternative Crawfordsburn Start for through walkers

If you are combining this route in one day with the previous section from Newtownards you may wish to “cut the corner” slightly and go via Crawfordsburn. If so leave Crawfordsburn village via its entrance to the Country Park (by the petrol station) and simply follow the paths downhill by the river all the way to the sea where you will emerge adjacent to the William Capper memorial post section below.

The Route

Leave the Station Car Park and turn left along Bridge Road. Carefully cross over and after 300m turn right into Kathleen Avenue. After 170m look out for a narrow footpath bounded by high hedges on your left. Follow this through to the Rushfield cul-de-sac and then out onto Fort Road where you turn right for 200m and then carefully cross the road by St John’s Church to enter Sheridan Drive.

Now follow Sheridan Drive downhill for 200m, eventually passing Old Fort Road on your right and then take the next right (unnamed) roadway downhill for 50m where it turns into a narrow hedge-bound unsurfaced pathway. Descend carefully negotiating a few rocky steps to join the coastal path.

Emerging from the bushes the whole of Belfast Lough opens up before you

Turn right and follow the path climbing up onto Grey Point. As you can see from the Helen’s Bay Map there are four viewpoints sitting just off the main path around the headland. Three of these are marked by concrete enclosures which in World War 2 housed searchlights and lookout points associated with the guns of the Coastal defence battery. The building and guns are still intact and can be visited on open days.

Sea trial mile marker on Grey Point

If you leave the main path just in front of the fort and stand alongside the middle search light enclosure and look towards Belfast you should be able to see a strange concrete obelisk standing below on the rocks. This marked the end of Harland and Wolff’s ‘measured mile’ which was used by their great ocean liners Titanic, Olympic and Britannic and other ships for speed tests while undergoing sea trials.

There is much modern history here, but this headland would have been a place of advantage and observation from the time of the first seagoing peoples who came to these coasts. The Northern Ireland Site and Monuments Record, lists a single Mesolithic Site on the headland where a number of artefacts were found in 1919. These are now in the Ulster Museum. Columbanus would have travelled here by land and sea and known the same skylines and shores we see here today.

Continue along the path as it curves and climbs through the mature woodlands which cloak the fortress headland. The path then joins a road for a short distance before turning left again and descending to the sea at Helen’s Bay.

The old searchlight enclosures have been reworked as art and information points

The settlement was originally conceived as a Victorian luxury holiday resort by Lord Dufferin who also built a grand private carriageway which ran 3.5 miles from his house at Clandeboye to the sea and the Grey Point headland. Interestingly the 1860 OS map labels the whole of the modern Helen’s Bay area as “The Sea Park”.

Today the beach is a popular destination for all year-round cold water swimmers. There are many stories of the Celtic Saints immersing themselves in cold water for hours at a time, praying or singing psalms. When I first came across these I struggled rather with the concept and motivation – I now realise they were just 1500 years ahead of their time!

Continue past the beach to the rocky wooded Quarry Point. There is now a pattern to this walk with bays followed by elevated headlands, usually wooded with a rich diversity of tree species.

You now come to the main section of Crawfordsburn Country Park. There is a cafe (toilets) and visitor centre just inland among the maze of car parks.

A the start of the beach a concrete ramp gives access to the shore and at most states of the tide it is possible to drop down here for 200m of sand walking to give your feet a rest from the harder surfaces. There are steps up off the beach just before the Crawford’s Burn reaches the sea across the sand.

Capper Memorial Post

Here you will come to a Memorial to William Capper the founder, walker and developer of the Ulster Way long-distance footpath. Like Columbanus he studied in Bangor and in later years embarked on a long and difficult quest. I wonder what he would make of this post? I suspect he might prefer a living memorial marked by the soles of walkers’ shoes!

Looking out from the headland before Swineley Bay

Now cross the bridge and continue above the second part of the beach and up and over the next wooded headland to reach Swineley Bay

Swineley Bay

Of all the bays on the walk, this is the wildest. Standing here on the sand it is hard to believe that you are right in the middle of the densely populated North Down ‘Gold Coast’!

Beware of high tides and onshore winds at Swineley Bay – the seaweed tells a story

Kelp was once harvested from seaweed gardens here. These were created by placing rocks and stones in shallow waters for seaweed to attach to and grow. After about three years it was harvested and the rock turned to create a new growing surface.

Continue around Swineley Point with its mature stand of Scot’s Pine and then down to the sea again at Carnalea. After bridging a stream below a waterfall the path climbs again and runs between the golf course and the extensive rocky shore below.

This section is particularly good for birdlife and Eider Ducks are often seen swimming just off the rocks. Legend has it that St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne befriended and gave these birds his protection and they are still referred to Cuddy Ducks in Northumbria.

Eider Ducks (this photograph was taken Orlock Head with the Copland Island behind)
Vertical take-off and landings at Carnalea on display by lapwings and a heron

We now come to Smelt Mill Bay, the site historians think was the most probable ‘harbour’ for Columbanus and his fellow monks to have departed from on his travels to Europe. Whether or not this is true, the rocky shoreline here would be largely unchanged since that time including the natural landings like the one in the photograph below:

Is this where Columbanus set sail?

Now the ‘standard’ Bangor coastal walk continues along the next headland to Bangor Bay itself – another possible embarkation point for our Saints. However, unlike Smelt Mill Bay, Bangor Bay has been totally subsumed under a mass of concrete and asphalt and no trace of the beach and bay remains – just a large modern harbour. While you are, of course, free to go this way (the dashed purple line on the map), this description will try to stay closer to the old ground and turn right up Stricklands Glen following a direct line to Bangor Abbey – the centre of the old town.

Stricklands Glen

So leave the coastal path at the head of the bay, following Bryan’s Burn past some unattractive, but absolutely essential, sewage modernisation works. This is soon left behind and you can choose to cross or not cross the burn. The left bank route is shorter but the right-hand route visits a large secluded pond. This was almost certainly a mill pond feeding a flax mill below, which is shown on the 1830 OS map. Today the paths and bridges here seem recreational, but as the name of the bay below, Smelt (or Smirt) Mill suggests the earlier history of the glen would have been industrial.

Exit the glen at the car park and follow glen road out onto its junction with Bryansburn Road. Take extra care at this complex junction and cross over onto Brunswick Road. Now follow this pleasant suburban road 500m to St Comgall’s Church (named after Comgall who founded the Bangor monastery in 558).

St Comgall’s and Bangor Abbey

The church contains a magnificent set of large religious icons, depicting Saint Comgall, Saint Columbanus, Saint Gall, Saint Malachy and Jesus Christ.

Exaggerated LiDAR 3D graphic of Bangor

As you look ahead to Bangor Abbey and the wooded Cross Hill beyond, this is a good time to try to peel away the modern clutter of buildings and roads and try to see Bangor again as it was – a settlement built on hills above two bays with views out to sea and Scotland beyond. The blue line marks the position of the stream which gave Bangor its old name, Inver Beg – the place where the Beg falls into the sea. There was also a well near the stream – possibly the one mentioned in a story about a visiting monk from Iona having his blind eye restored after washing it there as directed by Comgall. Today the stream is totally culverted under Southwell Road and the modern harbour.

Raven Map of Bangor from 1625 (including rabbits)

The old Bangor is still fully recognisable 1000 years later in Raven’s map of 1625. One interesting feature shown is the “Coney Burrow” (or Kinnegar as in later maps) – a rabbit warren on the sandy bay shore. Neighbouring Holywood also had such a warren associated with its Priory (rabbits were often an important food source for the monks) and its name survives to the present day.

Continue on to the end of Brunswick Road and cross the busy junction by the lights to reach the old (and modern) site of Bangor Abbey. Today an impressive sculpture based on the old Bangor Monastic Bell, fused with ideas of waves and motion, sits in the green space.

‘Fluctus Angelorum’ marks the site of the original Abbey

The view of the sculpture and Abbey behind marks a pleasing end to the Columban Way (if you can ignore the din of traffic and the row of tacky advertising signs lining the road behind)!

If you seek something more tranquil go through the gate into the Abbey churchyard beyond. Turn right, and after passing the west door of the Abbey, enter another gate into the old graveyard. A full circuit of the church in this ancient ground, shut off by high stone walls, should give some sense of retreat and maybe even an echo of the cloister!

After visiting the churchyard you should also take a look at Malachy’s Wall beyond the parish hall. This dates from the 13th Century and is the oldest structure remaining on the site.

Malachy’s Wall 13th Century – the oldest remaining part of the Abbey

When visiting old cathedrals and abbeys I always find reading the list of the names of Abbots / Bishop names to be a great help in gaining a sense of the depth of time and enjoying the richness of the language of names. Here is part of the list for Bangor:

From ‘Bangor Abbey Through Fourteen Centuries” by the Rev. James Hamilton

An Extension to Bangor Museum

Our walk has now reached its official end, however, should you find yourself here before 4pm on any day but Monday, you might well choose to continue a further 500m or so past Bangor Castle to the excellent Museum and Coffee Shop. Here you will find sustenance for body and soul in a somewhat monkish environment!

Once Past Malachy’s Wall head uphill past the pumping station

From the end of Malachy’s Wall follow the broad road past the utility substation to a pedestrian entrance to Ward Park. Continue uphill past a series of Columban-themed bell enclosures – each with the name of a significant place in his story.

Turn sharp right at Bregenz for a better route to the Museum

These end rather abruptly at Bregenz. Here you have a choice. You can stay on this broad path until it joins with the Town Hall car park access road. You follow this through an old security barrier, across the car park and flower bed and past another old barrier into a second car park and round the corner to the Museum door.

Alternatively, if you are not keen on car parks, you can take a slightly shorter pedestrian route and turn sharp right at Bregenz across the grass towards the sandstone steps which give access to the rather lovely Castle Gardens.

The grey building to the rear is the Museum – but the entrance is at the back, around the corner

Now walk down the side of the Castle and go through the archway at its end to find yourself at the Museum door.

The Original Bangor Bell in Bangor Museum

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDF)

External links


  • Bangor Through Fourteen Centuries, Rev. James Hamilton 1994

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