The footprint of the abandoned Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway winds silently through the Glens of Antrim. The scenery along the old narrow gauge railway route is truly magical; it’s time to make a nailed-on tourism case for creating a walking and cycling greenway to lift the local economy.


The Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway opened in stages between 1875 and 1876. The line was initially constructed to service the transport of iron ore from various mines to the north of Ballymena to Red Bay for shipping to England. A depression in the market in the 1880s led to the line being taken over by the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway in 1884 and it was gradually upgraded to enable passenger services.

Due to the difficult gradient down to Cushendall the line terminated 3 miles away at Retreat, and passenger services halted at Parkmore, just short of where the line crosses Glenariff Forest Park today. The station at Parkmore still stands today, just beside the Ballyeamon Rd / Glenariffe Rd junction. Passenger services ran until 1930 and the line ceased all operations in 1940.

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Ballymena to Cargan

The footprint of the line in Ballymena out to the M2 has been almost fully erased by housing and road development over the decades; it’s impossible to see this being resurrected. For a more contemporary plan to enable leisure walking and cycling trips through the town, the Braid River Greenway offers hope (more later). A brand new link from Broughshane to the old railway line may be possible.

Once out of Ballymena town, intensive farming activity over the last 75 years has removed most traces of the line even from satellite imagery. Occasional glimpses of a railway hedgerow or embankment are rare through Quarrytown until the line reaches Rathkenny – one example being the line approaching the Knockan Road at Turtles Garage in the picture below.

Railway embankment visible at Knockan Road

From Rathkenny to Cargan the line runs in close parallel to the Cushendall Road. This affords a continuous view of embankments, cuttings and tree lines, frequently punctuated by buildings which have cropped up on the old trackbed – the car dealership Wilson’s of Rathkenny being a prime example.

Resurrecting a fully continuous railway line converted to a greenway path through Martinstown to Cargan seems to be a challenging prospect, given this development.

Around and beyond Cargan are the railway sidings which provided the impetus to originally create this railway, to the iron ore mines (see map). This fascinating aspect of local history could be brought to a wider audience by extending pathways outwards from the ‘main line’ along these mining routes, possibly linking in with the Dungonnell Way walking route.


Climbing sharply out of Cargan, the main line frees itself of all building development and hugs the Glenravel Road. Long stretches of embankment dovetail with mountain streams and provide well-worn trails for local livestock.

Looking towards Cargan from Glenravel

At the junction of the main line and Evishacrow mines, the siding bridge can be seen gradually crumbling into the river. Old rails cut to support a concrete track are clearly visible, although the bridge is too fragile to support more than the odd sheep these days.

Mineral siding at Glenravel

The main line sweeps majestically through a valley from here, crisscrossed by the Cargan Water stream, with bridge abutments crying out to carry people across once more.

Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway at Glenravel

There is no difficulty selling the idea of a greenway here – this picture (adding a path and tourists) would proudly sit alongside some of our key tourism draws.

Railway winds through valley at Glenravel

Along the stretch from Cargan to Retreat old bridges which used to carry folk over the railway are visible, many braced against the inevitable deterioration which decades of loneliness brings. Imagine how a greenway project could restore these magnificent features to preserve for future generations and signal our pride in our engineering heritage.

Braced bridge near Parkmore

You can read a little more on the history of the area on the Glenravel Historical Society website.

Glenariff Forest Park

I stumbled upon this section in September 2013 and fell completely in love with the place and the greenway idea. There is a pronounced kink in the Ballyeamon Road as it enters Glenariff Forest Park, which obscures a remarkable straight route through the woods for the old narrow gauge railway. This begins as a hulking embankment at the southern end, rising through the trees towards a cutting at the northern tip where the road latches on once more.

Forest cutting through Glenariff

A stream running across the mossy forest floor meant the railway line needed to cross a bridge. The remaining abutments silently stare at each other in this eerie, hidden clearing.

Old bridge abutments in the forest corridor

The towering trees, swaying and creaking gently in the wind, set against this human achievement of driving a railway across the Glens of Antrim gives a truly magical feel to the place. At the head of the wooded section is another old bridge which used to cross the railway line, marking the boundary between the real world and the secret place beyond, evocative of our own C.S. Lewis and stepping into Narnia.

Looking towards forest cutting from Essathohan Bridge

Just beside the forest corridor are the Essathohan Bridges, the rail and road bridges set side by side. This is one end of the Dungonnell Way and pony track around Glenariff Forest Park. Having an established forest park right on the greenway offers the chance to develop camping facilities, allowing tourists on long cycling holidays the option to base themselves in the area for a night or two.

Essathohan Bridges carrying road and rail over Essathohan Burn

Down to Cushendall

From Glenariff, the route crests over the glen and begins to descend towards Cushendall. The Essathohan siding marks the highest point for any railway in Ireland (319m) which in turn would make this the highest greenway in Ireland – a nice selling point.

The embankment pictured here clings perilously to the side of Crockalough as the railway line reaches its terminus.

Looking back towards Parkmore from Crockalough

The engineering challenge of taking the railway down to Cushendall and Red Bay, or more likely the prohibitive cost, meant the line terminated here at Retreat. This perch on the hill provides epic views down towards Cushendall and, on a clear day, all the way to the Mull of Kintyre.

Embankment and bridge abutment at Retreat

With no rail link beyond Retreat, passengers were carried from Parkmore to Cushendall by coach, however to create a world-class greenway a solution to bridge this 3 mile gap from Retreat will need to be found, perhaps along quieter country lanes down the hill.

Like the ideas to reconnect Ballycastle with Ballymoney with a greenway on the old trackbed, or Newcastle with Belfast along the old Belfast and County Down Railway, the pretty coastal village of Cushendall could once more see tourism and leisure traffic driven to the town by the Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway line.

Braid River Greenway (Ballymena)

Tucked inside DSD’s Ballymena Town Centre Masterplan (PDF) published in 2009 was a proposal to implement a greenway along the Braid River, likely sometime within the 2020s:

“This would entail the establishment of continuous foot and cycle path connections along its length, connecting outlying settlements such as Broughshane and Tullaghgarley with the Town Centre. The project would create opportunities for improved flood mitigation measures, wildlife habitat and riverfront development where appropriate.”

Looking at the map below there are a number of existing pathways across the town hugging the river bank. An obvious plan would be to link these with an improved riverfront, so shamefully surrendered to the car parking needs of the Braidwater retail park. Who knows, perhaps a Maine River Greenway could link the future greenway at Randalstown to Ballymena and beyond to Cullybackey?

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The Ballymena, Cushendall and Red Bay Railway wasn’t the only narrow gauge railway terminating in Ballymena. Not content with the idea of a riverside pathway network and a greenway rising up through the Glens towards the coast, there is scope to create a further greenway from Ballymena to Larne – but that’s for another time..

Building the Glens of Antrim Greenway

The case for building this greenway is strong:

  • a rural location keen for investment
  • strong public transport links at Ballymena
  • existing plans to make Ballymena a greenway ‘hub’
  • world-class scenery able to attract external visitors
  • links to leisure facilities (Glenariff Forest Park) and the Causeway Coast

The greenway plan lies between two council areas, Mid & East Antrim Borough Council from Ballymena to Parkmore and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council from Parkmore to Cushendall. There is also a large section under the control of the DARD Forest Service through Glenariff. However the majority of the route is likely to be in private ownership following the sale of railway property following closure.

Development of a greenway will depend upon the creation of a strong local lobby and partnership between politicians, stakeholders, community interests and landowners. The Great Western Greenway in Mayo isn’t a copy-and-paste blueprint for solving thorny issues, however the partnership working which delivered and maintains that project is worth reflecting on, as are the documented and cherished economic benefits to that remote region.

Cutting through Glenariff Forest Park

While decades of farming and community growth makes a route out from Ballymena challenging to say the least, the upper reaches of the old line sit in plain view and unhindered by recent human development.

The beauty of the surroundings and the resilience of the cuttings and embankments to survive the decades challenges us to imagine how this line can once again carry people, from near and far, across the Glens of Antrim.

The spectacular Dark Hedges near Armoy in County Antrim provided a perfect natural set for the Kingsroad in Game of Thrones. However a piece of hidden history could build on the Game of Thrones tourism boost. A small stone bridge marks the old Ballymoney to Ballycastle railway line, and potential future greenway.


Game of Thrones, HBO’s international hit series filmed in Northern Ireland, is creating a new tourism market. Several memorable locations are dotted around the Causeway Coast, including recent filming for Game of Thrones Series 5 in nearby Portstewart. With the series expected to continue production and be on our screens for several years, and the large loyal following for the original book series by George R.R. Martin, experience tourism for Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland will continue to provide an important niche in the local economy.

The Dark Hedges has always been a spectacular location for North Coast visitors, and its inclusion as a section of the epic Kingsroad running through Westeros in the Game of Thrones television series adds a unique selling point to a great opportunity for the local economy..

Ballymoney to Ballycastle Greenway

The Ballycastle Railway opened in 1880 running between Ballymoney to Ballycastle. It was a narrow gauge railway which operated passenger and freight services for almost 70 years until it was closed by the Ulster Transport Authority 1950. Ballycastle’s position as a seaside town meant a boost from the tourist traffic generated by the railway. The current drive across Ireland to re-open derelict railway lines as walking and cycling pathways (and as successful rural regeneration schemes) makes a compelling case for developing a Ballymoney to Ballycastle Greenway.


Ballymoney is a great starting place for the greenway for a number of reasons:

  • a large town population
  • the railway station linking Ballymoney with Belfast and Derry~Londonderry
  • an existing traffic-free path running from railway station to proposed greenway
  • the future plans to upgrade A26 to Coleraine which should create a quality cycle route to Causeway Coast

The Riverside Park pathway is a great facility for local residents in Ballymoney, which shadows the footprint of the old railway line where it diverges from the current track.

Riverside  Park ‘Greenway’ path running just below the old Ballycastle Railway line in Ballymoney

The old line is now cut by the Frosses Road bypass (see the tree line to the right of the blue sign above) but it continues northwards on the far side, under Kirk Road before running parallel to Knock Road..

Looking towards Ballymoney from a bridge beside Knock Road

This enchanting view makes a greenway easy to visualise, however a common problem on abandoned railways is seen under the beautiful stone bridge..

Bridge beside Knock Road being used as a dump

Further along, the trackbed has become a working lane for local farmers, as the line crosses Conogher Road..

Farm lane on former railway line from Conogher Road

The line continues across farmland and the Bush River before turning East as it skirts the edge of the village of Dervock. A sign for “Station Road” gives away the history of the area, but otherwise there are few remnants of the railway here today. The experience of the Great Western Greenway in Mayo has seen great transformation with thousands of otherwise unexpected tourists bringing business and local employment opportunities to small rural settlements.

The undulating treeline of the railway is clearly visible on Google Maps heading towards the next road crossing, with an impressive bridge at Mostragee Road..

Road bridge at Mostragee Road

As with a number of points along the abandoned railway, housing development since the closure may require route diversions during any greenway development. Crossing the Ballinlea Road the old line heads towards the first highlight for potential greenway users.

The Dark Hedges / Kingsroad

At almost the halfway point between Ballymoney and Ballycastle the line passes underneath the Bregagh Road. In the 18th century the Stuart family planted this row of beech trees on the approach to Gracehill House, and the Dark Hedges have grown to become a world-famous visual spectacle. On the southern end a small stone bridge goes largely unnoticed by visitors, yet steam trains thundered past here over 130 years ago.

In the Game of Thrones television series, the Dark Hedges was transformed into a spectacular section of the Kingsroad, where King Robert Baratheon marches to King’s Landing with a combustible party of Starks, Lannisters and assorted destestable characters.

View of the Dark Hedges from the Ballycastle Railway bridge

The Dark Hedges already attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, which creates some problems given the limited parking (a car is the only realistic way of reaching the area) and ongoing issues with environmental damage, due in part to not catering for the reality of this iconic tourist attraction..

“The site should at least be made a conservation area and the footprint extended to include the land on either side of the trees, the historically important Gracehill House and the dismantled Ballymoney to Ballycastle narrow gauge railway – which has great potential as a cycle route/walkway.”
Photographer Bob McCallion interviewed in the Ballymoney and Moyle Times (May 2014)

Looking under the bridge at the Dark Hedges

Working with the local landowners to address these problems in conjunction with creating a new traffic-free access for visitors could benefit the whole area.

The line continues towards Armoy with an embankment section leaving this impressive bridge abutment visible at Chatham Road..

Bridge abutment at Chatham Road

Like Dervock, Armoy stands to benefit from local and external tourism traffic passing through all year round. It’s already home to the world-famous Armoy Road Races in mid summer, where the start / finish line at the Hillside Road coincidently is at a point where the old railway line runs right beside the road.

An embankment is visible to the west of the Hillside Road as the line head north east towards Capecastle. It’s here we find another wonderful attraction of the old railway and any future greenway – the Capecastle Tunnel.

Capecastle tunnel

The tunnel is 66 yards long, visible near the junction of Islandarragh Road and Hillside Road where the old Capecastle Railway Station was sited. The stonework is in fine shape, but the trackbed itself is covered in water.

Looking down at the southern entrance to the Capecastle tunnel

Restoring this tunnel to its former glory by allowing walkers and cyclists to travel through it as part of a future greenway would be an excellent attraction..

View from Capecastle tunnel (looking towards Dervock and Ballymoney)

The old line continues through cuttings and embankments under the shadow of Knocklayd(e) Mountain, with several crumbling embankments visible from Hillside Road. As the line falls towards the coastline, we meet the Moyle Way – emerging as a forest trail which then makes use of the trackbed on the sweep down to Ballycastle town. The path emerges at Fairhill Street under a beautiful stone bridge..

Bridge at Ballycastle with existing rambling path on old Ballycastle Railway line

Another magical grassy pathway leads from the other side of Fairhill Road towards the town centre, almost pleading with you to take a dander..

View towards viaduct and Ballycastle Railway Station from Fairhill Road

Before the old railway line terminated at Ballycastle Railway Station the small matter of the Tow River had to be crossed – a stone arch viaduct, mostly hidden from public view, stands as a proud testament to our engineering heritage – worthy of being the centre of redevelopment. It’s particularly odd that the last Ballycastle Town ‘masterplan’ (2009) didn’t even reference the viaduct – many other towns would celebrate and protect this type of gateway..

Finally the old railway station is now the town’s Ulsterbus station, is a little less glamorous than its railway predecessor with sad derelict reminders of past glories..

Is a Ballymoney to Ballycastle Greenway possible?

Like any potential greenway project, land access is the biggest hurdle, as explained by Northern Ireland’s Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy:

“Unfortunately, the majority of the track bed of the former Ballymoney to Ballycastle railway line was sold to numerous parties in and around the mid- to late-1950’s. The only portion of the track now left in Translink ownership is the part which now houses the bus station in Ballycastle.”
Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy in response to AQW34586 by Daithí McKay

The experience of many greenways across the UK and Ireland is that solutions can be found if the community and landowner will is there to see it done. Although the particular model may not transfer, it’s remarkable that over 160 farmers and landowners co-operated to allow the Great Western Greenway in Mayo become a reality and success..

“It is amazing what can be done if everyone in a community pulls together.”
Great Western Greenway submission to Northern Ireland Regional Development Committee

No doubt the challenges to seeing a fully-realised greenway from Ballymoney to Ballycastle will be sizeable. But the project has a number of natural advantages:

  • traffic-free pathways already at each end
  • a natural tourist draw at the Dark Hedges (and the wider Causeway Coast)
  • the railway connection at Ballymoney
  • a well-developed tourism economy in Ballycastle

Local entrepreneurship is shown to be stimulated by this type of investment, with bike hire, cafés and craft shops being an obvious and viable step for people looking to start their own business. Greenways have a pleasant habit of providing younger generations in rural communities with an alternative to moving away from the area to find employment.

Projects like this need to be driven from within an enthusiastic local community, and that is the next step. The Game of Thrones tourism link, along with some spectacular natural and human-made points of interest give the Ballymoney to Ballycastle Greenway a great chance of getting off the ground. If local residents, farmers, landowners, community groups, regeneration organisations and politicians can see the potential, we may yet be able to create the Greenway of Thrones.

Explore the remnants of the Ballycastle railway trackbed on Google Maps..


A golden opportunity to link two communities with a new greenway centres on a disused railway just six miles north of Belfast. The ‘Back Line’ between Monkstown and Greenisland has been dormant for over 50 years, yet the land is still in public ownership. Developing a new 2.7km traffic-free path could provide great options for locals trips without the car, and build upon the success of the recently opened Newtownabbey Way.

Monkstown Greenisland Greenway map
(Click to explore the route in Google Maps)

Continue reading “Monkstown Greenisland Greenway”

Potential exists to construct a Greenway from Toome to Magherafelt, on the disused trackbed of the former Belfast and Northern Counties Railway. This important link in an orbital traffic-free path around Lough Neagh could bring valuable tourist spend to Toome, Castledawson and Magherafelt.

The proposed Greenway route begins by linking with another suggested Greenway tracing Lough Neagh to Randalstown. Holding a straight line for the 4 miles to Castledawson, the route has remained mostly undisturbed as seen from satellite imagery. Occasional agricultural land development and industrial buildings encroach onto the former line, but slight alterations and landowner negotiations could resolve these issues.

Continue reading “Toome to Magherafelt Greenway”