Mountains of Mourne Greenway

The first flourish of railway development in Ireland 150 years ago helped to establish towns like Newcastle into prime seaside tourist locations. While Bangor and Portrush still benefit from active railway links, Newcastle lost its rail connection in the 1950s. The time is right to build a 37 mile greenway sweeping from Belfast to the Mourne Mountains, to reimagine this once thriving tourist route.

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The Comber Greenway, our most well-known traffic-free pathway, is almost a decade old in its current form. Stretching the seven miles from the centre of Belfast to Comber it provides wonderful access to the countryside for urban dwellers and commuting options for rural and suburban dwellers.

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Snowy Comber Greenway in East Belfast

It was built on the track bed of the former Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) thankfully instead of a motorway. But the BCDR had operated 80 miles of railway, with five branches and the ‘mainline’ which stretched from Belfast all the way to Newcastle. It’s this mainline which fires the imagination for development of a greenway from the big city to the big mountains.

A Mountains of Mourne Greenway could stretch fully 37 miles from Belfast centre to Newcastle, passing through the towns of Comber, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Downpatrick. Two further branch lines to Ballynahinch and Ardglass takes this vision to a 50 mile network for leisure, tourism and utility cycling and walking.

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Map of the proposed Mountains of Mourne Greenway and branches

The relatively short distances between the main population centres (Comber, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch are in a line 13 miles long, while Downpatrick is just under 10 miles from both Newcastle and Ballynahich) creates strong potential for commuting to workplaces, short leisure trips and a practical alternative to using a private car for town-to-town travel.

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Railway line passes under the old Ravara Road bridge (Ballygowan)

The track bed along the majority of the route is relatively intact, with the occasional section taken over for farmland over the last half century. Ballygowan and Saintfield, in the outer orbit of Belfast, stand to gain the kind of direct benefit to the local economy experienced in Comber as a result of a direct traffic-free link to the city.

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BCDR line passes near to Rowallane Garden outside Saintfield

The beautiful Rowallane Garden on the southern edge of Saintfield is roughly 14 miles from Belfast by the proposed greenway route, making it well within reach for family outings by bicycle.

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Cargagh Road snakes under a derelict railway bridge near Crossgar

The line continues south through Crossgar providing more town-to-town cycling options for locals. From Crossgar to Downpatrick several sections of the old line have been retained as dirt roads and private pathways which have the potential to be repurposed into high-quality greenway.

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The Rann Road north of Downpatrick runs on the BCDR trackbed for roughly 2km

The route enters Downpatrick across the Quoile river, joining Northern Ireland’s only working heritage railway, the Downpatrick and County Down Railway.  A link up with the heritage railway project is a fantastic opportunity to highlight a major tourist attraction, which can provide education on the history of the route of the new greenway.

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Sidings at Downpatrick Station on the heritage railway

Downpatrick itself boasts Inch Abbey, Down Cathedral, regarded as Saint Patrick’s burial place, as well as the Saint Patrick Centre and the Down County Museum.

Leaving Downpatrick the line passes through Ballydugan with the award-winning Lakeside Inn and The Mill at  Ballydugan hotel, in prime position to be boosted by greenway users.

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The old railway line skims Ballydugan Lake

Through Tullymurry lies an area of more recent historical significance with World War I training trenches dug into the Down countryside at Ballykinlar, as featured in Barra Best’s BBC NI series Walk The Line.

Approaching Dundrum the tourism value of the greenway project begins to unfold in a big way. The Dundrum Coastal Path is an existing National Trust trail which utilises the old railway line as part of the wider 47 mile Lecale Way.

Dundrum Bay lies at the edge of the Murlough Bay Nature reserve. The railway line cuts across the bay as a couple of points, and one of bridges constructed to carry the constant flow of ramblers even includes original sleepers and rails. This spectacular section would need a sympathetic upgrade to greenway standard.

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A welcome mat to the world to adorn our tourism advertising

The route passes into Dundrum town, a wonderful stop-off for lunch on a day-trip down the greenway, including the internationally renowned Mourne Seafood Bar. Leaving the village, the line crosses the bay by bridge, with beautiful scenery as the Mourne Mountains begin to loom large.

Continuing its winding path south west, the landscape changes to grassy dunes as it approaches the outskirts of Newcastle. Murlough Nature Reserve is the site of a popular sand dune beach for locals and tourists alike, and the nearby caravan park would benefit from direct traffic-free access to Newcastle town centre.

The line skites between Royal County Down Golf Club (originally developed with BCDR assistance) and residential streets before ending at the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa and the old train station which still stands today.

Newcastle and the surrounding area is a wonderful leisure location for short breaks by tourists and staycationers alike. Short stay accommodation availability lends itself well to a stop-off on a cycling tour holiday of the type Northern Ireland could successfully promote with a fully traffic-free greenway network. The outdoor activity market is rich in the area, with the Mourne Mountains providing hiking and mountain biking trails and the excellent Tollymore National Outdoor Centre nearby.

Beautiful scenery, thrilling leisure activities, great restaurants, welcoming cafes, cosy pubs and world-class accommodation – building a greenway from Belfast to Newcastle is a signature tourism project which will promote the best we have to offer to the world and drive significant economic redevelopment in this part of the country.

 


Ballynahinch Branch

The town of Ballynahinch lies on the man road between Belfast and Newcastle and is notorious for traffic congestion. Running a greenway spur from the mainline at Ballynahinch Junction would offer some options for modal shift towards Saintfield and Comber to the north and Downpatrick to the south.

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A proposed road bypass of the town could cause issues for the preservation of a potential greenway route. A grade-separated junction slated for the exact spot where the railway line passes under the Crossgar Road (picture above) and should the bypass go ahead, a greenway underpass should be designed in to ensure future development.

Ardglass Branch

The former branch line to the fishing town of Ardglass is eight miles from Downpatrick. This section has been taken over by farming and development to a greater extent than the mainline, but local benefit could be derived from extending the greenway network to the coast.

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View from just outside Ardglass Railway Station

There is an opportunity for renovation and renewal of a coastal bridge on the outskirts of the village, a direct path to the Coney Island Caravan Park, and a chance to further promote the area to users of the marina.

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Ardglass Railway Station and platforms still standing today

The old railway station still exists, standing beside a fish processing plant and crying out for some tender love and care – or a nice cafe at the end of a long cycle from the big smoke.


Please leave your thoughts on the potential for a Mountains of Mourne Greenway in the comments section below and share using the social media buttons 🙂

21 thoughts on “Mountains of Mourne Greenway

  1. Fantastic idea, here’s hoping it is supported. These type of projects could happen all over Ireland. A great way to utilise the unused railway networks.

  2. If there was any sanity in transport policy in Northern Ireland, they’d reinstate the railway so people in Down could commute to work in Belfast by train instead of having ever more cars on the roads.

  3. This would be great! Just biked a short part of the Antrim coast – best part of the trip. Would happily have added this to my holiday adventure.

  4. We were just chatting yesterday about the possibility of linking Newry to Rostrevor with one continuous greenway, along the old railway lines and a continuous shorefront promenade between Warrenpoint and Rostrevor. It would be absolutely incredible if the proposals for the Mountains of Mourne Greenway extended to Rostrevor as well!

  5. Wonderful suggestions !! N Ireland needs more traffic free cycle & pedestrian
    ” Ways” . We have beautiful scenery , let’s make it more accessible [& safer] for locals & tourists alike !!

  6. Excellent idea Northern Ireland needs more traffic free cycle routes. What about Fermanagh it is crying out for this sort of facility? The more routes the merrier. So hope this goes ahead.

  7. Are you crowd funding for this? How far have you progressed? All the greenways look briliant – a no brainer for tourism and the environment – Keep me posted!

  8. Belfast to Newcastle — count me in! These “rails to trails” are benefiting health and local economies wherever I have seen them in the Republic and in the U.S. How can we make this happen? What can I do?

    1. Simplest way to begin is emailing / writing to the local MLAs and councillors in the area asking for their support in seeing the greenway project through – if a local community group can take a plan forward in partnership with the council then things can move very quickly. Look to the publication of the greenway strategy next week for more opportunities to direct lobby for individual projects.

  9. Hi Great idea, brilliant.
    I could see this being connected on to Newry from Newcastle and then join the Newry-Carrlingford- Dundalk greenway. There is no old railway connection from Newry to Newcastle but there is plenty of walks through the Mournes.
    Can you tell me when Stormont will be issuing their greenway plans? I see my local greenway Monaghan to Middletown got the funding.
    brilliant site by the way.
    thanks
    SL

  10. Jonathan….what a wonderful prospect, if it were actually realised, and great outline of the potential of the route! And the fact that the cross border link from Carlingford to Newry looks like going ahead could potentially open up a vast array of possible routes! Keep up the fantastic work!

  11. This would a wonderful boost for tourism and for a healthy lifestyle for local people from all parts between Belfast and Newcastle. Let’s make it happen.

  12. Awesome concept, if it can happen.
    In general, who owns the surviving track beds? Are there any rights-of-way access on these for walkers?

  13. Have been cycling on the brilliant Great Western Greenway at Westport and the fledgling Great Eastern at Carlingford. Both are bringing great benefits to the residents in those areas, particularly the Great Western. The same could happen here if the will and money is there to do it. Bring it on

  14. Does anyone ever stop to consider the effects on the existing agricultural businesses or private houses which will lose their privacy, will have day-to-day practical inconveniences, insurance issues, trespass, loss of land, loss of income, loss of capital value, litter and dog fouling issues and potential for anti-social behaviour. Those who have contributed most to the preservation and enhancement of the countryside stand to lose the most.

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