First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The little train from Belfast came clacking into Cultra station, not more than five minutes late. On such a beautiful sunny morning as this, though, we didn’t give a hoot about the railway timetable.
At Carnalea we disembarked along with dozens of Sunday folk intent on walking, picnicking and just mucking about beside the sea on the outer shore of Belfast Lough. The coast of County Down is built up with leafy estates of fine houses hereabouts, but there was hardly a sign of them as we followed the North Down Coastal Path west towards Belfast.
The city lay hidden round the curve of the coast ahead, and a thick sea fret veiled the hills across the lough. Nearer at hand were rocky little bays floored with flat grey pebbles where we crunched across cockles and limpets and streamers of green and white seaweed. The coast path was busy with dog walkers, cyclists and earnest runners. A semicircle of rocks and pale gold sand enclosed Swineley Bay, where a black dog leaped joyfully in the shallows while another rolled and wriggled on its back in the bladderwrack with lolling tongue and grinning jaws, the very picture of abandon.
Most of the day visitors had congregated around Helen’s Bay, a good stretch of swimming beach. Here we watched three dark-haired sisters holding hands at the edge of the sea and jumping over each wave as it came ashore – an old-school image of seaside frolics from a railway poster. Families played cricket and shuttlecock on a sward spattered with daisies, and toddlers staggered about on the sands.
Beyond Grey Point the crowds thinned, and we had the coastal path almost to ourselves. Bird’s foot trefoil, scurvy grass, sea campion, scarlet pimpernel and thrift made a yellow, white, red and pink palette of the foreshore. A big Stena Line ferry slid free of the sea fret with a last moan of its foghorn. Within ten minutes the mist had dispersed, and we were staring across Belfast Lough at the grey block of Carrickfergus Castle and an undulating line of hills running south-west towards the city.
The gleaming black heads of two seals broke the surface of the lough. They touched their muzzles and rolled their gleaming bodies together in a private ecstasy. Rounding the last corner, we saw the cranes of Belfast’s docks ahead, and the sharply cut profiles of Divis Mountain and Cave Hill on guard above the city.
Start: Carnalea railway station, Bangor, Co. Down, BT19 1EZ (OS NI ref J 481823)
Finish: Cultra station, BT18 0BP (OS NI ref J 417805)
Getting there: Train from Belfast to Carnalea
Road: Cultra station and Ulster Folk & Transport Museum both signed from A2 Belfast-Bangor road.
Park at Transport Museum (NB: closes at 5 pm); signed footpath to Cultra station; train to Carnalea.
Walk (7 miles, easy, OS NI 1:50,000 Discoverer 15): From Carnalea station, right along lane; left down path between Springcarrie and Carnalea Golf Club; left/west along North Down Coastal Path/Ulster Way. In 6½ miles, at ‘Seafront Road’ sign on right where path joins road (413802), turn left uphill. At junction, left up Circular Road East to Cultra Station.
Lunch: Cultra Inn, next to Cultra station (028-9042-1066, hastingshotels.com)
Accommodation: Clayton Hotel, 22 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast BT2 8HS (028-9032-8511, claytonhotelbelfast.com) – large, comfortable city centre hotel.
Info: Bangor TIC (028-9127-0069)
The Times Britain’s Best Walks by Christopher Somerville (£16.99, HarperCollins) is now out in paperback