Bridging the divide is a series of articles proposing three investments which can boost active travel by linking communities divided only by the cost of a bridge. As the River Bann flows into Lough Neagh, a former crossing point has fallen into memory – now a traffic-free bridge could link more than just two small settlements, it could complete a missing link in tourist trail surrounding Lough Neagh.

Bannfoot Bridge

Bannfoot is a small village situated by the point where the Upper Bann meets Lough Neagh. The sleepy scene which greets visitors today betrays the historic importance of this waterway to the economy of this part of Ireland.

Raymond Okonski [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Looking at the narrow gap across the Bann (photo by Raymond Okonski)
The Upper Bann was once a critical link from inland agriculture and production around Lough Neagh to the sea trade port at Newry. The Newry Canal which opened in 1742 supported barge traffic on the 30 mile trip.

“Before the modern improvements on roads and wheel carriages, this navigation was of more value than it appears at the present time.”
A Nimmo, Tidal Harbours Commission, Appendix, 1846

The canal (which has long fallen into disuse and disrepair, and is better known these days as a popular ‘greenway’ route) was for a time a key economic corridor in north-east Ireland.

By Albert Bridge ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via
Cyclist passing under Steenson’s Bridge on the Newry Canal (photo by Albert Bridge)

“The Newry Canal, located in Northern Ireland, was built to link the Tyrone coalfields (via Lough Neagh and the River Bann) to the Irish Sea at Carlingford Lough near Newry. It was the first summit level canal to be built in Ireland or Great Britain, and pre-dated the more famous Bridgewater Canal by nearly thirty years and Sankey Brook by fifteen years.”
Inland Waterways Association of Ireland

The route from Lough Neagh through to Newry –  which links with the Ulster Canal through Coalisland into Armagh, and the Lagan Canal to Belfast – began at Bannfoot.

The Bannfoot Ferry jetties still visible, looking here from the western Maghery side shore

Bannfoot (originally called Charlestown) has been a crossing point for centuries. A ferry is mentioned at least as far back as 1760 and a ferry service operated up until 1979 – that’s more than 200 years of recorded daily crossings.

The NI Screen Digital Film Archive has a delightful 8mm colour film by John Stevenson, a businessman from Portadown, showing how the ferry moved passengers and (very brave) car drivers between the banks.

However, today the Bannfoot Ferry’s jetties stand silent, and point to the anomaly of the Upper Bann – it’s the only river anywhere on the shores of Lough Neagh which isn’t immediately spanned. The river meanders for a good 9 miles through the County Armagh countryside until it encounters a pedestrian-friendly bridge in Portadown.


The anomaly is stark when you look at the disconnection between neighbouring communities. Maghery and Bannfoot lie just three miles apart along the line of the Columbkille Road. But to get from A to B requires a shocking round trip of 18 miles by bicycle, or 16 miles by car using the motorway.


Public transport is an option between Maghery and Bannfoot, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Translink’s website gives only three journey options on a weekday, the quickest involving  an eye-watering four buses taking one hour and 58 minutes. That may be seven minutes shorter than the quickest Belfast to Dublin train service, but the Enterprise is travelling over 100 miles rather than our three miles in question.

A permanent Bannfoot crossing is unfinished business – the missing piece of the jigsaw in the (currently) 113 mile Loughshore Trail which uses mostly traffic-vacant country roads. A pointed reference is made on the Cycle NI website:

“This route does not follow along the Lough all the way, it veers off further away from the Lough passing through the town of Portadown, crosses the River Bann and back up again towards the Lough heading to Kinnego.”

A similar traffic-free bridge in Maghery was installed in 2007 which turned an eight mile diversion to Tamnamore and back into a joyous skip (or pedal) over the River Blackwater.

There is potential for modal shift – albeit very slight – but it does leave Lurgan, Lisburn, Belfast within striking distance from the south-west corner of Lough Neagh. The car trip from  Maghery to Lurgan using the motorway is about 20 minutes – the equivalent cycle over a Bannfoot Bridge would be just 50 minutes.

Stephen McNally, one of the organisers of the popular Lap the Lough event, thinks the bridge would be transformative for the area:

“It would be a much safer, quicker, quieter and picturesque crossing than navigating through Portadown town centre.

“There are over 20 cycle clubs within 20 miles of the Bannfoot area and probably a further 50 clubs within regular striking distance but none venture this way because crossing isn’t an option… cyclists like a loop. Potentially that’s 5,000+ regular cyclists of all ages, abilities, backgrounds, including youth & families who could be crossing at the Bannfoot producing no emissions, no noise and no impact to the roads or the local community.

“I understand there may be concerns from local residents but they can look toward the bridge at Maghery, operating now for 10 years. It’s been transformative for the area with walkers, cyclists and anglers crossing daily and no negative impact whatsoever.

“A footbridge at Bannfoot would make the Loughshore Trail a much better proposition for tourists too – like many local cyclists they’ve had to deal with the incredulity of cycling to the Bannfoot expecting a bridge – there’s permanent proof with one sorry fellow on Google Maps shown turning back in dismay.


“It’s a time for building bridges and closing divisions both geographical and historical – I think the appetite is there.”

Enhancing a great local cycling network

While the Department for Infrastructure’s Greenway Network Plan only includes the main Coalisland – Dungannon – Portadown – Lurgan route (follow it in yellow in the picture below) the original NI Greenways vision map included consideration of opening up the historic canal routes closer to Lough Neagh.

The potential for cycling around this area is immense – linking quiet country roads to the existing Broad Water four mile path near Moira to the west, the existing Coalisland Canal Towpath to the east and perhaps a fully reopened Ulster Canal south towards the Fermanagh lakes and the island-wide inland waterway network.

Original NI Greenways map considered these routes close to Lough Neagh

It’s also within the orbit of the best urban cycling network in Ireland – the Black Paths which weave their way through Portadown, Craigavon and Lurgan, giving area residents virtually traffic-free access to the Rushmere Centre and back.

There may be another way to look at the current mad diversion though Portadown – it brings cyclists into contact with heavy traffic on the congested Bann bridge. Outside of Belfast and Derry, the Portadown / Craigavon / Lurgan area has the most reported cycling collisions in Northern Ireland.

Connecting local rivals

Two GAA clubs play on either side of the Bannfoot crossing – 2016 Armagh Senior Football Champions Maghery Sean MacDermott’s and High Moss Sarsfields GFC in Derrytrasna. The direct road with the addition of the Bannfoot Bridge would put exactly 5 miles between the two clubs. But it takes a 16 mile trip through Portadown by car for the several age groups from the senior teams to the under 14s to play the fixture at either ground.

The bridge would enable players and families from the whole area to cycle and walk between the grounds for matches – saving a lot of petrol and adding the possibility of group cycles from one ground to the other. The bicycle trip between the grounds would actually be quicker than the car trip through Portadown – another example of why the bridge is a no-brainer?

Charlie Monaghan, Chairman of the Lough Neagh Partnership said of the bridge concept:

“We would very much welcome the development of the Bannfoot Bridge as it would lead to the linking of communities along the southern shore of lough Neagh”.

The Bannfoot bridge is an opportunity to celebrate our industrial heritage with a permanent crossing at this point of historic significance. It would restitch and strengthen natural links between the communities of the Loughshore in two artificially and unnecessarily remote area. A cycling cafe could do roaring trade with the potential passing pelotons, and tourists would find even more reasons to visit this beautiful area.

What do you think of the Bannfoot Bridge idea? Please take the time to leave your comments below and share through your social networks. Election season is a great time to contact your local MLA candidates to ask for their support!

(Note – many thanks to the organisers of The Fréd Festival for highlighting this particular idea!)

Bridging the divide is a series of articles proposing three investments which can boost active travel by linking communities divided only by the cost of a bridge. On the wild Atlantic north coast, the River Bann divides Castlerock and Portstewart – could a bridge invigorate the region’s tourism economy?

Atlantic Gateway

An iconic bridge across the River Bann barmouth as it meets the Atlantic Ocean would directly connect two important tourist destinations, reducing the reliance on vehicle travel on the North Coast.

Castlerock and Portstewart are separated by just over three miles as the crow flies. Looking east from Downhill House the towns appear to sit side-by-side, with a sandy strand linking the two settlements.

View from Downhill House to Castlerock and Portstewart

On closer inspection the River Bann poses a formidable barrier between the two. The Bann runs for 99 miles from Slieve Muck in the Mourne Mountains, through Lough Neagh and into the Atlantic here beside Castlerock.

A barmouth constructed in the 19th century keeps the Bann open to navigation.

Standing on the east side of the barmouth looking up the Bann

Due to this physical barrier, travel between Castlerock and Portstewart means a road journey through Coleraine of about 11 miles.

There are just two reasonable options – by car (taking roughly 25 minutes) or by public transport. Castlerock benefits from regular train and bus services, but getting to Portstewart requires a changing bus or train at Coleraine, both much slower options:

  • 39 minutes by train then bus (£5.40 discounted adult return, £8.90 before 9.30am)
  • 55 minutes by bus then bus (£2.70 discounted adult return, £4.10 before 9.30am)

For a family of four that’s anywhere from £8 return up to £22 for a day travel family card (depending on your mode of travel and time of day) with up to two hours total travelling time out of your day – for little more than three miles as the crow flies.

Seven extra miles of a diversion needed to travel between Castlerock and Portstewart

The alternative to this – highly attractive to local residents and the summer flood of tourists alike – would involve building a bridge across the barmouth. The shortest span at this point is about 190 metres, and a bridge would need to be high enough to maintain navigation through the Bann.

Proposed route edging Castlerock beach and through the dunes of Portstewart Strand

On the Castlerock side the bridge would be approximately 800 metres from Sea Road or 500 metres from the end of the private caravan park behind the golf course.

Across on the Portstewart side of the bridge, the 1.6 mile long strand is a challenging walk and an impractical (at times impossible) cycle or wheelchair journey.

Portstewart Strand stretching towards Castlerock (photo by Tourism Ireland)

Both sides of the bridge have extensive sand dunes between the Bann and the towns. An environmentally sympathetic option – to provide high quality and practical access all year round – would be to use a three metre wide elevated boardwalk, suitable everyday cycling, wheelchair and mobility scooter journeys.

By Clifton Cartwright (Desann) ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
A possible boardwalk across the sand dunes? (photo by Clifton Cartwright)
Portstewart Strand is a National Trust managed property which currently allows vehicle access onto the beach, and is home to the world famous Harry’s Shack restaurant. The proposed 2.5 mile boardwalk route (including bridge) would put Downhill House and Mussenden Temple within a 4.5 mile cycle from Morelli’s on Portstewart promenade.

There are already cycle hire companies on the north coast such as Causeway Cycle Adventures, but this type of medium distance route grafted on to existing seaside towns, major tourist attractions, and the existing traffic-free cycle route on towards Portrush, would surely support more local employment opportunities.

View from east mole of barmouth, Castlerock and Mussenden Temple in touching distance

Further on past Portrush the Department for Infrastructure is proposing to run its Greenway Network all the way to Dunluce Castle, Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway. To the west lies Downhill, Binevenagh, Limavady and on towards Derry City and its growing greenway network. An Atlantic Gateway would bypass the long diversion into Coleraine – while also creating an attractive 13 mile triangular route between Portstewart, Coleraine and Castlerock.

The north coast section of the Greenway Strategy for Northern Ireland

This bridge and route could bring immense benefits to local residents and visitors alike. It can actively displace a significant proportion of year-round resident and visitor journeys from cars to bicycles, given the potentially identical travel times. It also opens the possibility of creating a new architectural centrepiece for our tourism offering with the Atlantic Gateway bridge itself.

What do you think of the Atlantic Gateway idea? Please take the time to leave your comments below and share through your social networks. Election season is also a great time to contact your local MLA candidates to ask for their support! 😉