This two-day, circular route offers a perfect snapshot of life in rural County Down. The lowland terrain makes it accessible to all fit walkers, while the combination of forest trails, quiet, undulating country lanes and a long, golden Newcastle Beach ensures constant scenic diversity. All set within striking distance of Newcastle's traditional, seaside-resort hospitality.
Point of interest:Tollymore Forest Park, Castlewellan Forest Park, Murlough Bay
OS map:Sheet 29
Terrain:Mostly gravel paths
Route:Newcastle to Murlough
The first section of the walk follows the coastline from Newcastle all the way around the promontory of Murlough.
From Newcastle tourist office, walk 100m north along the Central Promenade to the bridge over the Shimna River. Turn right here, then turn left and cross the river via a white metal footbridge. Now follow the promenade north, the wide pavement carrying you easily between town and sea.
At the northern end of the town, descend a set of steps onto the sand. Continue north along the beach, passing beneath the imposing Victorian facade of the Slieve Donard Hotel. The terrain underfoot varies between firm sand and small pebbles, and depending on the state of the tide you may either have a wide space to roam or be confined to a narrow strip at the base of the dunes.
After roughly 2km, the dunes to your left become part of Murlough Nature Reserve. Keep ahead along the sand, continuing all the way to the end of the beach. After roughly 5km the coast sweeps left, and you find yourself walking alongside the narrow channel that drains Dundrum Inner Bay. Part-way along this shoreline you pass the estate’s old boat house, with slipway tracks still running towards the water.
The village of Dundrum can now be seen across the estuary, guarded by the hilltop ruins of its medieval castle. The route leaves the shore just before the three stone arches of Downshire Bridge. Here you join a gravel track, which leads along the final stretch of Dundrum Inner Bay before bringing you to a junction with the A2 road.
Did You Know? The ancient sand dune system of Murlough National Nature Reserve is 6000 years old, and was designated as Ireland’s first nature reserve in 1967. Along the coast, watch out for seals in particular. The area is regularly used by 50 to 130 common and grey seals, with numbers peaking each year between July and October.
Murlough to Castlewellan
A series of lanes and farmland tracks now carry you inland to the town of Castlewellan.
Begin by crossing carefully to the western side of the A2. Follow the road ahead across the Carrigs River and take the first left, joining a quiet lane that winds between high hedgerows and past several farms. At one point a large, prehistoric standing stone extrudes from the verge itself.
At the end of the lane, turn left again. Follow a larger road into the charming village of Maghera, which makes a great spot for a refreshment break. The road swings left in the village and leads across a humpback bridge. The official route continues ahead, but you may chose to turn left and make an out-and-back detour of 600m to visit 13th-century Maghera Old Church and the base of a round tower.
To continue on the signed route, turn right onto a grassy track some 300m beyond the humpback bridge. The track is sometimes squeezed to a single-file footpath as it climbs between the fields, and the ground can be muddy underfoot. You emerge onto a firmer gravel track, still passing traditional farm buildings that seem unchanged for a century.
A short section of paved lane brings you to a right turn. Another stretch of path now leads over the brow of a hill, with fine coastal views to the south. On the far side of the rise, turn left onto a road and continue to a junction with the A25. Turn left here and climb to the top of the hill. The section ends in Castlewellan’s Upper Square, beside the old market house. This was built in 1764 and now houses the public library.
Did You Know? Much of this section follows traditional rights of way, old public paths and tracks that are still used by farmers and walkers alike. Some of the more remote tracks offer an evocative insight into rural times gone by, with small fields enclosed by stone walls, isolated stone sheds and even Victorian-style wrought iron gates lining the trail.
Castlewellan Forest Park
The route now embarks on a scenic circuit of Castlewellan Forest Park.
From the old market house, turn right. Pass through the entrance gates to the forest park and continue ahead along the tarmac driveway. Grassy meadows border the lane until the imposing structure of the castle comes into sight ahead. Constructed from local granite in 1856, the castle was built in Scottish baronial style and is now a private conference centre.
Continue straight ahead at a junction and climb around the back of the castle. The trail passes almost level with the multiple roofs, turrets and chimneys of the ornate building. The lane now becomes a forest track, and continues on through mixed deciduous woodland above the lake shore. As with elsewhere in the park, the magnificent beech trees here are thought to be around 250 years old, and lend the trail a rather stately air.
At the northern tip of the lake, turn left onto a smaller path that brings you past Cypress Pond. Continue descending until you meet the trail that circumnavigates Castlewellan Lake itself. Turn right here and trace the wooded shoreline to a fine viewpoint at the lake’s western tip, where the mile-long expanse of water is laid out before you.
Now turn left and climb gradually away from the lake. Occasional clearances in the trees allow fantastic views across the intervening farmland to the Mourne Mountains. At the southwest corner of the park, keep an eye open for a right turn off the track. A grassy footpath now descends past fields to the exit gate. Turn left at the main road, then left again at a roundabout to return to Castlewellan town centre.
Did You Know? Castlewellan town and forest park both owe their existence to a single family. The Annesley family bought the lands in 1742, and within a decade they had enclosed 350 acres for a park and begun planting it with trees. The family also commissioned a French architect to design the town, which was under construction by 1764.
Castlewellan to Bryansford
This section follows a mixture of rural footpaths and quiet country lanes as you head towards the gates of Tollymore.
At the roundabout in the centre of Castlewellan, turn right onto the A50 towards Newcastle. Follow this road for 300m, then turn right onto a suburban housing estate. Keep straight ahead, past the houses, to the end of the road. Where the road finishes, a grassy footpath continues on, carrying you down into a hollow.
At the base of the hill, pass over a stile into a field on the left, then cross two metal footbridges. You now need to climb again, crossing two meadows on the western side of the hollow. Given the pastoral surrounds, it comes as no surprise to discover that the name for this section of path is ‘Cow Lane’.
Exit the meadow through a gate and join a country lane. Turn left here and follow the road for roughly 800m, where a stone track heads off to the right. This is ‘Green Lane’, appropriately bordered by hedges and woodland. Climb steeply along the track to reach another lane, where the route turns left again.
Almost 2km of road now lies ahead, though the lane sees little traffic. Much of the distance consists of a long, gradual descent towards the village of Bryansford. The section finishes where the lane joins the B180. On the opposite side of the junction lies Bryansford Gate, the ornate gothic entranceway to Tollymore Forest Park.
Did You Know? Take care as you approach Bryansford, especially if the evening is drawing in. There have been reported sightings of the dullahan in this area, one of the most fearsome creatures in Irish fairy mythology. A wild, headless horseman who rides a black steed, legend recounts that wherever the dullahan stops, a mortal will soon come to grief.
Tollymore Forest Park
A network of woodland trails leads you around this historic forest park.
Pass though Bryansford Gate and continue straight ahead along the driveway. This brings you past 18th-century Clanbrassil Barn (where refreshments are available in the summer) to the main parking area. The route now follows the black trail, heading over a wooden footbridge and onto a series of forest tracks.
The first section of woodland contains mainly beech trees, and is carpeted with bluebells in the spring. Pine becomes dominant as the track draws close to the Shimna River. The chutes and rapids of this river can be seen below before the trail dips across Parnell’s Bridge. Once on the opposite bank, turn right and follow a series of tracks around the park’s western corner. The route then climbs gradually to reach the stone wall that marks Tollymore’s southern boundary, with the wild peaks of the Mournes rising directly beyond the wall.
The track plunges into dense pines again as it descends through series of switchbacks to the Spinkwee River, which you cross via Hore’s Bridge. Keep right at the next two junctions, climbing steadily and again passing near the boundary wall. The peak on the far side of the wall is Slieve Commedagh, Northern Ireland’s second highest summit at 767m.
Keep right at the next junction and make the final ascent of the route. The track now sweeps round to the left and begins to descend. Where there are gaps in the vegetation, the panorama extends east over Dundrum Bay and the town of Newcastle. Watch out for a final right turn onto a trail that winds down to a wooden gate, your exit point from the park.
Did You Know? James I transferred the estate of Tollymore to local control in 1611. Over the following centuries different owners added their personal touches to its landscape, and on 2nd June 1955 it became the first state forest park in Northern Ireland. Today the park grounds extend to some 630 hectares.
Tollymore to Newcastle
The final part of the route is virtually all downhill, with wooded tracks and parkland paths bringing you back to the centre of Newcastle.
From the wooden gate that marks your exit from Tollymore Forest Park, continue ahead to a second gate and stile. Cross the stile, and you will find yourself at the top of a narrow tarmac lane. Follow this steeply downhill to reach a junction with a larger road after 500m.
Turn right and follow the larger road for 400m, then turn left onto a track known as Tipperary Lane. The track descends past several houses before entering Tipperary Wood, an enclave of deciduous woodland on the banks of the Shimna River. Continue to follow the track past the local scout campsite until you reach the tarmac of Bryansford Road.
Turn left at the road and cross the bridge over the Shimna. Once on the river’s northern bank, turn right and enter Islands Park. A paved footpath now leads past various recreational facilities and along the river bank, bringing you to a footbridge. Cross the bridge and continue across another section of parkland to reach the Shimna Road, a busy thoroughfare where care is needed to cross in safety.
The route now enters Castle Park, an area that was reclaimed from marshland in the 1930s. Pass the boating lake on your left, which was formed by widening the mouth of the Shimna. The path comes to an end at Newcastle’s Central Promenade, where you should recognise your surroundings from the start of your journey. The tourist office is just 100m away to the right.
Did You Know? The Shimna River is a regular feature along the final section of this walk, and its natural beauty is undeniable. Yet many locals have mixed feeling about the river. Along with its tributary the River Burren, the Shimna regularly causes severe flooding across Newcastle town. Despite recent flood management schemes, nature is still proving hard to tame.
Please be aware that this walking route passes through areas of open land such as hillside, working farmland and working forests. Livestock may be present, ground conditions may be uneven or wet underfoot and all forestry signage should be adhered to. Please refer to the ‘Walk Safely’ information that can be found at the link below.
Facilities:Toilets at Tollymore and Castlewellan parks and Newcastle town centre. Refreshments situated at numerous points along the way.
Accessible toilet facilities:Yes
Accessible terrain:Mostly gravel paths with some minor roads. Steep gradients at times.
Accessible signage:Trail is very clearly signposted
Newcastle Tourist Information Centre, Tel: (028) 437 22222. Also available to download on this page or at www.activitybrochuresni.com
Getting to the start by public transport:Start at the Newcastle Tourist information centre on Main Street