Columban Way (Comber to Newtownards)

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TYPEFirst section of a long-distance challenge walk which can be a walk in its own right with a bus option to return to start.
DISTANCE5.2 miles / 8.3 km
SURFACESMainly pavement and road walking, good compacted paths through the Country Park Section with some steps. Killynether Wood long option includes rough, rocky and potentially slippy paths.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS400 feet climb (excluding extensions)
  • Some walking on low traffic roads without pavements.
  • Killynether Wood option rough and potentially slippy.
  • Route passes close to abandoned quarries.

This section starts in Comber Town Square where there is an information board marking the beginning of the Comber Bangor section of the Columban Way. The route marked on this panel uses two sections of paths that do not yet exist so we will use a different, shorter and (in my opinion) much more attractive route that makes full use of Scrabo Killynether Wood and Whitespots Country Parks.

This is a pleasant spot and there are good options on the square for a coffee or indeed a full breakfast to fuel the walk ahead.

The route proceeds north east to exit Comber via quiet residential roads

Pass the Rollo Gillespie Monument and exit the square at the opposite corner, turning right into Bridge Street. Use the pedestrian crossing and then turn left into Bridge Street Link. After 50m turn right onto a footpath and follow it across the Enler River.

The river banks upstream and down are heavily fortified with concrete flood defences. Downstream, beyond the road bridge to your right, the Glen River joins the Enler which probably gave the town its Irish name An Comar, meaning ‘the confluence’.

Turn right in front of Comber Primary School and then left to follow Darragh Road uphill toward the edge of the town.

Comber Town Limits with Scrabo ahead

As you reach the edge of the town the pavements stop and you find yourself on a quiet country road with Killynether Wood and Scrabo Tower directly ahead. This is a popular walking route with the town residents and a road sign here reminds motorists to take extra care.

After 400m the thorn hedges fall away as you joint the Ballyhenry Road and turn left uphill.

Ballyhenry Road is part of the Strangford Cycle Trail

You are now in the heart of the rich farmland which surrounds Comber and produces large quantities of vegetables for Northern Ireland and far beyond. The lack of livestock has unfortunately removed the need for hedges but the patchwork of big fields spread around gently rolling hills has its own beauty.

A roadside farm shop displays the riches of the land

The combination of light traffic, great views and good visibility make this section popular with walkers, cyclists and runners.

Some hedges remain here – just

After 1.7km you come to the junction with Scrabo Road where you turn right and then climb up to a T junction the Edge of Killynether Wood.

You share your route here with the round Strangford Cycle route

The road here is busier – so cross carefully turn right and after just 50m enter Killynether Wood via the stone stile beside the green gate.

The stone stile is to the left of the green gate

Once over the stile bear right off the track onto a path which leads directly to the old walled garden which once served the needs of Killynether House.

Almost an enchanted garden!

Today little grows here but grass, but a number of seats have been provided to allow the walker a rest and chance to take in the fine views back over the Comber farmland and far beyond (on a clear day) to the mountains of Mourne. Views enjoyed exit, via the gate at the far top corner to arrive just above the public car park

A LIDAR (radar) view which strips away the trees to show the surface of the terrain

Turn left uphill toward a set of heavy concrete steps – here you have a choice. The main and easier route is up past the steps, staying under the Scrabo crags and then dropping slightly to the Scrabo Country Park car park (orange line above). The longer (0.6 miles) and physically much more challenging high route (marked with the purple line) is to the left, past the former site of Killynether House and then climbing up above the crags to skirt the edge of Scrabo Course before eventually dropping down to the Country Park Car Park. There are sections of potentially slippy rocks and steep uneven steps which may cause problems for the less flexible walker.

This flight of granite block steps likely date from the time of Killynether House

Main Route

Now climb up past the steps where you will see a small sign to “Scrabo Car Park and Toilets” confirming you are on the right path. Continue up through the very mature Beech Wood. A drawing of Killynether House around 1870 shows it sitting on an open hillside with young trees scattered behind and Scrabo Tower visible on the skyline. Beech trees (non-native) were fashionable trees to plant then and as they last for around 150 years the ones around you are near end-of-life! Indeed you will encounter the giant stumps of of some which have already succumbed.

Some of the beech wood Giants have already succumbed to old age here

The path levels and forks – uphill to your left it climbs steeply up through crags. However, our route bears right, staying level and then gradually descending into the Scrabo Country Park car park. Continue reading after the High Route description at: Continuing from Scrabo CP Car Park

High Route

Leave the granite steps to your right and proceed on the level broad path away from the car park with the walled garden below on your left. You are now walking along the former Killynether House driveway. Just past the walled garden the track forks and you should take the right track which now climbs gently up to a small grassy open area with a picnic table – this is all that is left of the former grand house of Killynether. The 1830 OS map shows it here named “Mount Orr” but it seems to have later been rebuilt and remodelled in fashionable Victorian Tudor-Gothic style and renamed Killynether House.

To get a feel for its imposing location have a look again at the Killynether LIDAR (radar) image which reveals the ground contours now hidden below woodland:

In the 1800’s the newly planned woodlands would only have partially protected the elevated site.

By 1937 the House had become a Youth Hostel – one of the large number which were opened in this period to service the boom in outdoor door recreation made possible by mass ownership of bicycles. Friday evenings would see young men (and women) from our industrial towns saddle up and ride, maybe as far as 60 miles, to a Youth Hostel of their choice for a weekend of rural exploration and hostel based socialising.

Hostelers at Slievenaman 1938 (photo by James McGibbon)

With the outbreak of World War 2 the army requisitioned the house and grounds and built Nissan huts to the south of the walled garden. The huts are long gone, but their concrete foundations are now used as the public car park! After 1949 the army left and the hostellers returned, but the building deteriorated and the hostel closed in 1953 and was later demolished in 1966.

The way continues ahead now narrowing to a path running through mature beech woodland. At the wood edge it turns directly uphill for 50m, levels off and then undulates under the steep rocky hillside, negotiates a hairpin bend and then climbs steady to the plateau edge. The trees here are much more mixed with smaller native species taking over from the beech plantations associated with the big house. As so often on “poor” rocky ground, nature has been given a chance to do its own thing.

The path here is narrow, rocky, potentially slippy and informal – proceed with care but look out to your right for a gap opening onto a superb viewpoint, complete with welcome bench.

A fine view over the rich Comber farmland looking East

There are three significant hill tops in North Down, Cairngaver above Cairn Wood (on private land), Helen’s Tower hill in Clandeboye (shielded by trees) and Scrabo here (the one with the views)! So enjoy this precious high place with its great views to the north, west and south. For an easterly view you will have to wait a little longer!

Now continue along the winding path taking extra care as it starts to descend over uneven steps and sections of bare rock.

Both woodland and path are natural here – enjoy but take care

Staying between the golf course to your left and the rocky crags to your right contour around the plateau edge until your path drops down into the Scrabo Country Park car park.

At a dip in the path, stay high to the left rather than dropping downhill to the right

Continuing from Scrabo CP Car Park

Scrabo is the first of the three country parks visited on the North Down Columban Way route and has arguably the best views and walking. To the west, a steep network of paths run through and over Killynether Wood giving great views south to the Mournes and west towards the Belfast Hills.

This LIDAR image exaggerates the vertical, but makes clear the defensive advantages of this bronze age site!

The commanding plateau above and behind you is the site of one of the largest known Bronze Age Settlements in Ireland. There are also the substantial remains of an iron age 300-foot long oval fort (which now has Scrabo Tower in its centre). The dominant role of this site may even extend from pre-history into documented history, as it is very possible that Scrabo was the seat of power of the Uí Blathmac – the first recorded rulers of this area.

Our path now heads east and up initially towards Scrabo Tower, so exit the car park and ascend the steep asphalt roadway ahead.

Decision time

After 100m the main route turns sharply right down steps and through a pleasant picnic area. However, if you have time and energy for the extra return trip of 550m and 75 feet of climb, the extension to the summit and Scrabo Tower will not disappoint. But you then must then retrace your steps back to this junction.

Scrabo Tower Diversion

The Victorian Tower sits on top of the mound of an Iron Age Fort

The inscription states that the tower was erected in 1857 in memory of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry ‘by his friends and tenants‘. However the historical record suggests a minor input from tenants and Trevor McCavery in his meticulous history of Newtownards rather muses ‘Whenever the tenant farmer looked up, the Tower would be there, a gracious but stoney reminder of who was in charge’!

At 135 feet this tower is over twice the height of the neighbouring Helen’s Tower (60 feet). This is a very similar structure that predates it by 7 years and sits on the summit of the neighbouring Clandeboye Estate (we will pass it on part two of this route). It is hard not to imagine a degree of one-upmanship here on the part of the Londonderry family!

A word of warning for those who choose to visit the high point and may be tempted to cut a corner and descend directly towards Newtownards. Many maps do show a pathway here (including the ageing ones on the official information boards) and the Country Park once did provide such a path. However, this is long abandoned to nature and while the intrepid may be able to negotiate some of its old line, it is not to be recommended for the ordinary walker!

Main Route Continued

Descend through the picnic area exiting at the lower corner and at the next junction keep straight on following a paling-lined path along the edge of a massive abandoned quarry.

Peregrine falcons sometimes nest on the high ledges here

This and the chain of similar workings which we will pass below was once the source of the much-prized Scrabo stone. This fine sandstone was easy to work and very attractive and has been quarried here from at least Anglo-Norman times. The ancient monastery at Greyabbey made use of it and public and private construction continued to do so up until the last century. When we walk through Newtownards shortly we will see several fine Scrabo Stone buildings.

Today these quarries are silent apart from the call of nesting birds, and nature has softened and repurposed these amazing workings.

The path continues downwards nicely framing a view of the Newtownards Airport (which was the first commercial airport in Northern Ireland).

The path eventually levels and swings north under the line of quarries.

This great chasm with its soaring cliffs and strange stone pillars is all man-made

You soon come to a path junction where you can choose to walk into the flat floor of the first quarry. Signage here correctly points out that with cliffs there is always the possible danger of falling stone – so make your own call to visit or not.

Continuing on, the path weaves through a wooded area with large boulders scattered through the trees before levelling and running ruler-straight ahead. This is the bed of the old quarry ‘tramway’ which moved the cut stone towards the railway below.

View over Newtownards and beyond to Whitespots

Look down over Newtownards and you will see a straight wooded oversized hedge running along the edge of the built-up area. This is the path of the old railway coming into Newtownards. So how did the stone get down there from up here? The 1900 OS map gives us a clue where it shows at the north end of the quarries an ‘incline’ attached to the tramway running straight downhill via ‘Scrabo Siding’ and onto the railway – a drop of about 100 feet. Elsewhere I have seen the suggestion that this was a funicular – some form of cableway with possibly balancing counterweights. How exactly this worked I have not yet discovered – but it is on my list!

As you continue you pass three junctions where paths turn left into the strange world of the dark wooded quarries. One of these goes through a hole cut through the rock and again there are warnings about possible falling stone. The path loops here are fascinating diversions for anyone interested in the industrial history of the area – a fantastic landscape with great nature value. However, the goals of completing a long walk and exploring fully along the way are not always easily reconciled – so you may wish to leave exploration for another day.

The tramway bears right as another path leads into the old quarries

Now back to older things. I said earlier that the Uí Blathmac people may have lived on a settlement on top of Scrabo. The other place they are associated with is Movilla where the great teaching Monastery was founded by Finnian in 540. It is recorded that Columcille (St. Columba) studied here and it is where he made an ‘illegal copy’ of the book of psalms! with dire consequences (not all scholars agree fully with this tradition).

The high points which moulded history and mark our way today

Movilla is now completely absorbed by the suburbs of Newtownards visible from here on the higher ground to the east of the town. There was an associated settlement here, the ‘city of Mag-bile’, at a time when the low-lying ground in front of you would have been largely uninhabited. Again height and sight over Strangford Lough would have been an advantage in times when unwelcome visitors came by sea!

Movilla is just visible on the low hills to the right of this picture

It was the Normans who changed everything around by creating a new settlement on the low-lying land calling it ‘Nove Villa de Blathewyc’ after the earlier custodians. This was later changed to ‘Nove Villa de Ards’ and anglicised to ‘Newtown Ards’ or Newton for short. The focus had changed from a defensive settlement to a commercial town with a market at its core. The large flat site adjacent to rich and easily cleared fertile land had many advantages, but sitting at sea level it was also hard to drain and sanitation problems would recur in its future history.

At the north end of the quarries the tramway joins a laneway and descends through farmland onto the old Belfast road.

This road opened in 1760 intending to provide a transport ‘bee line’ from Newtown Ards to Belfast, its line following remarkably closely to the modern Dual Carriageway. Unfortunately its straight line was also a steep line, mostly unsuited to the horse-drawn wheeled vehicles of the time. It was superseded by another Belfast Road in 1817 which curves as it climbs and takes a less direct route. This was built to facilitate rapid transit from Belfast to Donaghadee, linking to the Packet Service to Portpatrick in Scotland. Until the switch to Larne – Stranraer this was the primary crossing to Scotland for passengers (and also the daily mail service).

The Romans built ruler-straight roads for marching armies on foot and horseback for whom gradient was not a problem. Also if you pay attention to lesser country roads you can still often see how the smaller older roads are straighter while those dating from the period of horse-drawn vehicles avoid height and hollow and often curve elegantly with the contours of the land. Only with the coming of the fossil-powered motor car did it become possible to return to the Roman disregard for undulations!

The Old Belfast Road has been disconnected from its former destination and is now a pleasant cul-de-sac. So turn right downhill and follow the road to the junction with Messines Road, where you turn left and then carefully negotiate the edge of the roundabout to take the third exit into Scrabo Road.

Looking ahead your eye will be drawn to a strange tower built with warm Scrabo stone. A further 300m and you will come to a fully functional primary school operating in a Jacobean style Victorian building – Newtownards Model National School.

An amazing building still performing its original function and with style!

This school was opened in 1862 as one of a network of exemplar centres of education for the ‘the promotion of united (i.e. integrated) education; improved methods of literary and scientific education; and the training of teachers. The curriculum included workrooms for manual instruction and ‘model farms’ both for the teaching of agriculture / horticulture practice and the production of food for the school! Unfortunately the model school programme was discontinued in the 1870s, but the school survived as a living monument to enlightened ambition in education!

Today the ‘model farm’ is long gone but the playground still has some amazing mature Chile and Scots Pines.

Continue to the next roundabout negotiating it clockwise to the second exit- Frederick Street. Now follow along past the Council Offices and turn right into Regent Street.

The broad straight boulevard made up of Church Street, Regent Street, and Frances Street was built around 1815 cutting north of the old town centre. They acted both as an early ‘through-pass’ for the mail coach and other Donaghadee bound traffic (linked directly to the newly built Belfast Road described earlier) and as an axis to build fine new buildings to showcase the town’s wealth.

St Mark’s Church is another fine building which uses the local Scrabo Stone

Diagonally across the road junction you will see the rather fine St Mark’s Church. The NI Historic buildings database entry states:

Originally the church was meant to have been dedicated to either St. Finnian or St. Columba, both of whom are believed to have had important connections to Movilla Abbey

On Regent Street you will pass another notable building with an educational history – Regent House. However, unlike the Model School this building neither started out (or ended up) as a school – rather it was built as a stylish private home which later became a secondary school from 1924 to 1926 when the school moved to a new building taking the Regent House name with it! After that the building had a number of uses including a carpet shop. Today it hosts a variety of let-out ‘units’.

A still elegant building in inelegant surroundings!

Continue on to where Regent Street meets North Street. This is the start of the second leg of this walk, but if you have the time I suggest visiting the directly adjacent Conway Square which is, in a very real sense, the crux of New Town Ards!

The junction with North Street – Part 2 begins here

Conway Square

Today in Conway Square a giant compass rose marks North, South, West and East

The building of Conway Square and its surrounding cruciform streets in around 1770 marked a new beginning for Newtownards, indeed almost another new town. The market was moved here from beside the 1636 market cross (which still stands) at the end of High Street to the south-east and a grand new Market House with Assembly Rooms was built to oversee the grand square.

South Street ran straight from here back to Comber. North Street exited the square through an arched gateway in the market house (lined with prison cells) and ran dead straight for 1 mile into the heart of the Whitespots uplands. The locations of the apparently missing West and East Street we will discover in part 2 of this route!

The founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, visited the town regularly in this period. However the fine new buildings get no mention – instead he writes:

‘dreary Newtown.. More ruined than ever and very ruinous even by Irish Standards’

John Wesley quoted in ‘Newtown – A History of Newtownards’ by Trevor McCavery

McCavery points out that his focus was more likely on dwellings of the common inhabitants located out of sight on the ill-drained and crowded back streets. Wesley – like a later day Columbanus travelled widely preaching without concern whom he might offend!

Route Maps to Download and Print (PDF)

External links


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

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