The Ulster Way is circular walking route which encircles Ulster, almost wholly within the United Kingdom but with some sections skirting through the Republic of Ireland. It was devised by Wilfred Capper MBE, inspired by the Pennine Way, and designed to pass through all six counties of Northern Ireland, displaying some of the Province's finest scenery, which it does. The renewal of the way in 2008 took it across the border in places.
In contrast with the Pennine Way, much of the Ulster Way is on roads, albeit minor roads, rather than footpaths, though there are sections of each.
The Ulster Way is circular and so has no one starting point nor ending point, but to take Belfast as a convenient start and running clockwise:
Belfast and Downshire
From the middle of Belfast, the Ulster Way follows the River Lagan and its canal section southwest, along the canal towpath for 12 miles up to Lisburn, skipping back and forth across the river and thus the county boundary of Antrim with Downshire.
From Lisburn the route turns east again, cutting through the County Down countryside to Drurnbo and Carryduff, then north to Crossnacreevy and the outer suburbs of Belfast and on to the coast of Belfast Lough at Holywood, a journey of 21 miles.
From Groomsport is a stretch of 30 miles taking in some of the wonderful scenery of the North Channel coast of the Ards peninsula. The path heads briefly inland before the coast is gained again, from where the walker has a fine view of Copeland Island. Then the route follows south hugging the coast to Donaghdee, Millisle, and all past the viscious skerries which line the coast all down Ards, past Ballywalter, Portavogie, and to Cloughay, from where the path heads inland across the peninsula to Strangford Lough, following the lough shore south to Portaferry. From Portaferry the ferry is indeed needed, bearing one to the village of Strangford.
Strangford to Newcastle follows the 31 miles of the Lecale Way. This, after looping round a headland, plunges south to regain the coast at the mouth of the lough by Kilclief Castle. Then the route follows the sea to Ballyhornan opposite Guns Island and on to Ardglass, Killough, round St John's Point and west, passing the fine, broad Tyrella Beach, to Ballykinler and Dundrum.
From Dundrum the route passes over the Downshire Bridge to the Murlough Nature Reserve and along the Murlough Banks to Newcastle. From here the Ulster Way will strike out inland.
Newcastle to Rostrevor is the Mourne Way of 26 miles. It climbs straight up from the town into the Tollymore Forest Park under the gaze of Slieve Donard, Ulster's highest mountain, Slieve Commadagh and other great peaks of the Mourne Mountains. Skirting the greatest of the hills, the path then climbs to the summit of Slievenamuck and Spelga before descending to pass over the lower slopes of Cock Mountain and Hen Mountain, then turning up the Rocky River to pass between Rocky Mountain and Tornamrock and over and ddown to the dale of the Shakys Rover, to Rostrevor Forest and on down to Rostrevor on the wooded coast of Carlingford Lough.
- Main article: Ring of Gullion Way
From Newry in County Armagh, the Ulster Way takes a diversion, on the Ring of Gullion Way which is a 37-mile wander around the Ring of Gullion, past many historic sights such as the chambered graves of the Clontygora Court Tomb and the Kilsnaggart Pillar Stone and Moyry Castle. The path zigzags west to touch the border with the Irish Republic and on towards Slieve Guillion itself, which is Armagh's county top and worth a diversion. Down through the Slieve Gullion Forest Park and Carmough Forest, it passes Derrymore House (National Trust) and the fine countryside in which it sits before the path reaches the northern parts of Newry; the end of the Ring of Gullion Way but the start of a section north up the canalised river.
The 17½ miles of the Newry Canal Way runs north from Newry up the Newry River and its canal to Portadown. Points of interest include Poyntzpass and Acton Lake, and the village of Scarva, famed for its sham fight pageant. A little north of Scarva the Ulster Way bereaks off the towpath and heads west across the county, though walkers who wish to complete the Newry Canal Way will continue north to Portadown.
West from the canal, the Ulster Way runs for 38 miles to Aughnacloy in Tyrone. It first heads east to Tandragee and then follows the River Cusher to Clare, whence it follows a wandering way west along well marked tracks meeting no villages of any size until it reaches the county town, the City of Armagh.
The path follows to the centre of the city and its cathedrals. From here it heads west out of Armagh along lanes to the earlier foundation; Navan Fort, which was ancient Emain Macha, famed of the Ulster epic of Cú Chullain. From Navan the path continues west along lanes through the countryside to Killylea and loops round to Tynan, then north over the Dredge Bridge into Tyrone.
Caledon is the first village of Tyrone for the path. From here it heads northwest along lanes through the almost empty, rolling Tyrone countryside, until, after a brief scoot across a footpath, it reaches Auchnacloy.
From here, the 40 miles of the Sliabh Beagh Way pass through some of the most remote parts of Ulster, wandering across the backbone of the Sliabh Beagh hills, in a landscape rich in historical sites and in wildlife. The hills rise and provide fine vistas over fair countryside. The way also here takes a diversion into foreign parts, in short into the Irish Republic.
Auchnacloy lies close to the border and path heads straight across the Ravella Bridge into County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland. The path wanders among hill, bog and forest, reaching the fine Favour Royal Forest as it crosses back into the United Kingdom and Tyrone. This forest, in the Favour Royal Demesne has been designated a "Millennium Forest".
From Favour the path runs south and climbs to the Altadaven Woods, where is the ancient sitee known as "St Patrick's Well and Chair"; where the well (like so many) is reputed in old tales to have been blessed by the saint. Then the Ulster Way trespasses back into County Monaghan and its woods and hills. At the hilly townland of Barratitoppy Upper the path runs in a ring, providing a north route or a south route, or a circle and back again, amongst the hills before the two courses reunite back across the border, but now in Fermangh, in the Mullaghfad Forest.
In the Mullaghfad Forest the path loops round the woods and up to the Carnmore View Point at Carn Rock, legendary burial place of the giant Bith, from whom Sliabh Beagh is said to take its name.
Thereafter the path wanders in great meanders through the Lisnakea Forest and the Tully Forest, eventually leaving the woods to reach Donagh. From there it is a gentler run northwest to Lisnaskea, Fermanagh's second town.
It is 22 miles from Lisnakea to Florencecourt, on a path that provides the first view the Fermanagh lakelands.
Scorning the main route south out of Lisnakea, the path wanders round by Aghamore and its ancient church remains. Then it runs southwest to Upper Lough Erne at Corradillor. The lough here is not a broad water but a scattering of inlets, expanses, islands producing a confusing patchwork of green and blue. At Corradillor the path crosses the Erne to Trasna Island and again to the southern bank and runs west to the linear village of Derrylin.
Above Derrylin rises the modest Molly Mountain (942 feet) and its big neighbour, Slieve Rushen (1,325 feet). The pass passes between the two, though a vigourous walker may wish to divert his path and cap Slieve Rushen on the way. At Springtown the path begins to take a more northerly course to Florencecourt.
The 10 miles from Florencecourt to Belcoo provide another optional track, or a loop south to the border and back again. Here is to be found some particularly varied and interesting walking, for the southern loop is the Cuilcagh Way, which heads up to the mountains (for experienced walkers only) and scales to the summit of Cuilcagh, which at 2,181 feet is Fermanagh's county top, and the summit stands on the border with the Irish Republic (County Cavan, of which it is also the county top). This route heads southwest out of Florencecourt, away from the low ground in the basin of Lough Erne and rapidly uphill south of Trien, passing several swallow holes that dot this landscape, and straight up Cuilcagh. From the summit of Cuilcagh the path follows the border northeast for just under a mile then north, down the mountain, until lanes apeear on the landscape again. From Pollawaddy the Cuilcagh Way may be followed back east to Florencecourt or the Ulster Way continued north.
The lower, short route heads west out of Florencecourt into the fair woods of the Florence Court Estate, then along the northern slopes of Trien. It comes in time to Pollawaddy where it meets the Cuilcagh Way coming down from that mountain.
North of the path junction, the path comes to the internationally famous Marble Arch Caves (which have a visitors' centre). From these caves issues the Cladagh Riiver which runs down a verdant gorge, the Cladagh Glen, down which the Ulster Way follows, before its waters join the Arney River. The original course of the Ulster Way followed the river for its whole course, passing east of Lower Lough Macnean but today's path runs west along the lough's southern shore to Mullaghbane, where it crosses into County Cavan (the village of Blacklion) and then north back to Fermanagh, reaching Belcoo.
It is 28½ miles from Belcoo to Belleek, with yet another optional loop on the way. Straight along the road northwest from Belcoo, north of Upper Lough Macnean, the path comes to Pollagaddy then heads north through the extensive, hilly woodlands of the Balintempo Forest, a high, winding course taking it on through the Big Dog Forest and the Conagher Forest. Reaching the road at Derryvahon, the path may be followed west or in a loop north.
The north loop runs around the Lough Navar Forest, emerging at the specular Cliffs of Magho, which provide views far to the north and west. From here the loop works its way back to close by its start The main route runs west along the roads through the hills and down again to the Erne valley in the far west of Fermanagh, where it crosses briefly into the Republic (County Donegal) before entering the wee border town of Belleek which stands on that river.
The 31 miles from Belleek to Lough Bradan Forest is mainly on mainly quiet, rural roads with some short sections of footpaths through the woodlands of northern Fermanagh, and it darts briefly through southern Donegal. The route is not signposted on the ground.
Belleek is on the north bank of the River Erne in an acute angle of Fermanagh, and the path heads from here north into the Republic (County Donegal) then east and back into the United Kingdom rather than follow the A47 all the way, which road nevertheless it does follow for a mile and a half east from Keenaghan. From the old quarry at Tawnyoran, the path takes a lane northeast, past the end of Keenaghan Lough and running north of Lough Scolban, past slopes set with burns and lochans. From the Lough Scolban the path follows the short Garvary River down to Lower Lough Erne, from where the path heads north and northwest and into Donegal again, and east winding amongst little lakes and down toweards Lower Lough Erne, then to Pettigoe, then up the Termon River which marks the border, crossing the border twice before diving back at Gortnaree and climbing into woodland, then winding through the woods, over the small hill Rotten Mountain]] and to the entrance to Lough Bradan Forest, H214718, on the county boundary some 5 miles north of Ederney.
Lough Bradan to Gortin is 37 miles of forest and hill. There are many miles through this pine woodland and up to Bolaght Mountain (1,132 feet, though the path does not claim the summit) by a fine tarn, Lough Lee. From Bolaght it is downhill to Kilmore Robinson, a "Fairy Water Bog" - one of the largest areas of intact active bogs in Ulster and one of the best examples of this habitat in the United Kingdom.
In more open country now, the path wind northeast to climb to the summit of a steep, wooded hill, Bessy Bell (1,378 feet), an outlining hill of the Sperrin Mountains. Down, over the Strule River, and it is up steeply again onto Tirmurty Hill in the Glen Gortin Forest (a spur of Mullaghcarn, 1,778 feet), then off through gorgeous forests and north to Gortin, a village in the valley of the Owenkillew River.
It is 23 miles to Moneyneany in Londonderry, a route through the Sperrins. Northeast of Gortin the Ulster Way crosses the Owenkillew and up the slopes through the Barnes Gap, a narrow pass through the hills cut by ancient ice, to reach the Glenelly Valley.
Following the Glenelly upstream, the path is in the heart of the Sperrins. To the north looms the bulk of Sawel Mountain, the highest point of both Tyrone and Londonderry. The path leads up along a minor road over the watershed below Mullaghsallagh which marks the border with County Londonderry and then across country over Crockback and Crockmore and down to the lower ground towards Moneyneavy.
From Moneyneavy north to Dungiven is 9 miles. From the lee of the Sperrins, the Ulster Way passes north across the northern extension of the Sperrins, heading north up the saddle between the steep slopes of Mullaghmore to the east and the Banagher Forest to the west. Close to the top of the climb the path passes a crumbling basalt escarpment which marks the southern edge of the North Derry Plateau. From the heights, it is down again into the Benady Glen, which is part of the Roe Valley, an Area of Special Scientific Interest, and soon comes the village of Dungiven, which grew up around the site of an Augustinian Priory founded in 1100, ansd remains overlooked by the yet more ancient escarpments to the east.
From Dungiven, 37½ miles of hill and forest takes the walker to Castlerock on the north coast of County Londonderry. From Dungiven the path heads east and climbs steeply over Benbradagh and though it does not touch the 1,526-foot summit, the views from there are magnificent and worth a small diversion. Down the mountain the path follows a mile and half of the American Road, which was built in 1967 by the United States Navy to provide access to the US Naval Communication Centre on the summit of the mountain. The base was closed in 1977. Beyond Benbradagh the route shuns the easy paths along the Castle River to climb the slopes again up Donald's Hill, and runs past Legavannon Pot, a scarp-edge plunge pool formed by retreating glacial melt water. North of the Pot the route enjoys fine views over the Roe Valley in which glints the River Roe, beloved of anglers. From here the walk follows the Murder Hole Road for a short time: a foreboding name name earned from a notorious highwayman of the late 18th and early 19th centuries named Cushy Glen, who hid the bodies of his victims in a bog hole, until in one attack his intended prey drew a pistol and sent him to eternal judgment.
Northward the route drops down to the coast along the Bishop's Road, which was built by Ferderick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry to reach his residence at the Downhill Estate, now a National Trust property. Ulster Way does not enter the estate but it may be worth a short detour.
Soon the path reaches Castlerock on the Atlantic coast. From here a further 10 miles leads east up to Coleraine, across the River Bann and down the Bann estuary to Portstewart, by the end of the famous Portstewart Strand.
A diversion available to the keen is a 10 miles spur from here to Binevenagh and its Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the headland.
From the seaside resort of Portstewart, in the Liberties of Coleraine, the Ulster Way takes follows the Causeway Coast, taking the Porth path along the clifftop to Portrush and then it soon enters County Antrim, the ninth county on its journey.
The Causeway Coast
The Causeway Coast Way is 33 miles from Portstewart to Ballycastle. The path takes the Porth Path along the cliff-top to Portrush, another popular holiday resort. It continues along the golden sand of Curran Strand to the White Rocks, an Area of Special Scientific Interest for its geology and one of many protected areas along this path
Beyond White Rocks the path comes across the ruins of 16th century Dunluce Castle, once a stronghold of the MacDonnell clan who came to Ulster from the Hebrides, and now open to the public. Then it descends to Portballintrae to cross the Bush River. Just upstream is the village of Bushmills, famous for its whiskey distillery, also open to visitors. The walk continues alongside a section of the coasts of the Giant's Causeway.
From the world-famous Causeway itself (a short detour) the Causeway Coast Way continues as the North Antrim Coast Path, along the rocky Atlantic coast to Benbane Head and a grassy cliff-top that may be the most spectacular section of the Ulster Way, with views over the cliffs, baysm, skerries and out to the islands of the Hebrides: the Mull of Kintyre is clearly visible and the islands of Islay and Jura in clear weather. The path descends past the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, which marks the end of the Noerth Antrim Coast Path.
Through a natural rock arch the path climbs down to the tiny hamlet of Portbraddan, where stands Ulster's smallest church, then to White Park Bay around the headland and to the pretty harbour at Ballintoy. The Causeway Coast continues east past Larrybane Bay where another short detour brings you to Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, raised every summer for over 250 years to allow local fishermen to access their nets, and now in the care of the National Trust.
The final 10 miles from Carrick-a-Rede to Ballycastle is 6 miles most of which is along the main road.
Down the East coast there are two rival routes: the Moyle Way and the coast path. The North Channel is known as the "Sea of Moyle" in ancient Gaelic legends but the Moyle Way is the one away from the sea, running 27 miles from Ballycastle to Waterfoot and through the Glens of Antrim. The walk heads due south on a section of the disused Ballymena railway line, then climbs through Glenshesk beside Knocklayd and beside the pure waters of the Glenshesk River, a river populated with salmon and sea trout. South of Glenshesk it passes through Breen Oakwood Nature Reserve and close by is MacQuillan's Grave, and engraved stone where tradition says a chief of the MacQuillans fell after the Battle of Orra.
On the slopes of Slieveanorra is another nature reserve recognising its bog and moorland habitat. On these slopes was fought the Battle of Orra in 1559 at which the MacDonnell clan covered the ground with rushes to make it appear solid and lured the MacQuillans and O'Neills to flounder into a chest-deep bog, where they were slaughtered. Today there is a gravel track.
From here the Moyle Way trends southeast, passing close to the top of Trostan, Antrim's highest summit at 1,804 feet. Thereafter is a gentle descent into the beautiful Glenariff and its forest and then down through the broadening glen to the sea at Waterfoot, where the coastal path takes over down to Glenarm.
The coast path explores the fine east coast of Antrim, on the North Channel, for 32½ miles from Ballycastle to Glenarm. It is not entirely coastal; from the town it follows the beach at Ballycastle Bay and adjoing rocks for a mile and a half then heads inland initially in the valley of the Carey River, to the coast at Torr Head. Here the coastline is steep and craggy, the road above it looking to to sea, and the path follows the Antrim Coast Road south between cliff and mountain to Cushendun, with its sheltered beach, at the foot of Glendun. From Cushendun it is south again on the coast road, to Cushendall, on Cushendall Bay at the foot of three convergent glens; Glenaan, Glenballyemon and Glencorp. From Cushedall is a short waterside walk to Waterfoot at the bottom of Glenariff, where the Moyle Way rejoins the route.
From Waterfoot the coastline points east and the path faithfully follows by the edge of the sea to Garron Point where the coast turns south again, then the path follows not the coast road (which provides little room to avoid oncoming cars) but a quietr road a little inland immediately beneath the crags and the looming bulk of Knockore. In time the path comes to the little seaside town of Carnlough (at the foot of Glencloy, and around a headland to the pretty village of Glenarm and the bottom of the glen of the same name.
The Antrim Hills Way climbs steeply out of Glenarm to Black Hill at 1,250 feet and then leads south across a series of summits around 1,000 feet high, amongst which is the geologically remarkable Scawt Hill (1,240 feet). All these hills rise gently to the west but fall away steeply to the east, a legacy of the Ice Ages.
South of Scawt Hill, the path comes to the remarkable Sallagh Braes. The Braes are a dramatic, semi-circular basalt escarpment, dropping down to the farmland below like a vast amphitheatre. Below is cultivated land, but above is thistle-clad blasted heath where buzzards fly, and form the top are wonderful views out to sea. Sallagh Braes was formed when glaciers cut into unstable slopes and caused a massive land slip, creating cliffs over a mile long long and 300 feet high.
South of Sallagh Braes the path climbs Agnew's Hill (1,555 feet) and its wind-beaten moorland. On clear days the Belfast Hills, the Mourne Mountains, the Sperrins and the Hebrides all decorate the horizon; Kintyre and Ailsa Craig stand clear against the sea. From here southward the path slowly descends in great zigzags to the old-new village of Ballynure, where the Antrim Hills Way ends.
The 19 miles of the Ulster Way from Ballynure to Belfast run at first on quiet rural roads and on forest tracks and in its last miles through coast and urban landscape. The path heads southeast straight from Ballynure to Straid then into the Woodburn Forest, within sight of Belfast Lough. It then wanders through the forest up Knockagh, where the County Antrim War Memorial stands, and out of the forest southwest to Ballyhowne. South of here it plunges among the cluster of towns that have been created into Newtownabbey, running to the sea at Whiteabbey. Fro Whiteabbey the Ulster Way clings ot the coast southward, meeting the M5 motorway and tucked between it and the shore of Belfast Lough all the way down through the Belfast Docks and ultimately to the banks of the River Lagan in the city centre, where the route bagan.
The Ulster Way was the brainchild of Wilfred Capper MBE, who was inspired by Tom Stephenson's Pennine Way., He first developed the idea for the Ulster Way in 1946, as a waymarked trail that would pass through the six counties of Northern Ireland, linking 15 Youth Hostels which were in place at the time. He developed the route in the 1970s and 1980s, and once implemented, this original route stretched for 665 miles. After the development of the Way, Capper subsequently became the first person to complete the route.
Towards the end of the 20th century, large sections of the trail fell into disrepair or were "lost" due to increased car traffic on some of the road sections, and ambiguity of ownership and land access rights.
In April 2003 the Environment Minister announced a project to improve and maintain the Ulster Way. A new route was agreed in early 2009. The new route was officially opened on 16 September 2009. The new route was completed by Rick McKee and David Creighton, by bike, over 6 days in May 2008. This revised route is 625 miles; the revised route was first completed by schoolboys Matthew Hoper and Simon Harris.
The route was relaunched in 2009 by the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland).
- http://www.millenniumforests.com/location_archfav.html Millennium Forests - Favour Royal Woodland]
- "New Province-wide walking route launched". The News Letter. 2009-09-16. http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/New-Provincewide-walking-route-launched.5649319.jp. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- "History of the Ulster Way". walkni.com. http://www.walkni.com/ulsterway/history/. Retrieved 19 May 2012.
- "The end of the road for NI walkway?". BBC News. 2002-03-20. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1882208.stm. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- "Ulster Way update at May 2009". Northern Ireland Environment Agency. May 2009. http://www.ni-environment.gov.uk/places_to_visit_home/access_to_the_countryside/future_of_the_ulster_way/ulster_way_update.htm. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- "History of the Ulster Way". WalkNI. http://www.walkni.com/ulsterway/history/. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
- Stewart, Linda (2009-09-16). "Get your boots on, the Ulster Way is back on the map". Belfast Telegraph. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/environment/get-your-boots-on-the-ulster-way-is-back-on-the-map-14493765.html. Retrieved 2009-10-11.
Several books have been published as a guide to walking the route. Including:
- The Ulster Way, Paddy Dillon, The O'Brien Press, 1999, ISBN 0-86278-589-8
- Walking the Ulster Way, Alan Warner, Appletree Press, 1989, ISBN 0-86281-227-5