Fair Head aka Benmore, County Antrim

Fair Head is a rocky headland about 3 miles East of Ballycastle and is the closest part of Northern Ireland to Rathlin Island. It is a popular rock climbing area and it is believed to have the largest climbable area of rock in the British Isles. If its your first visit (it was ours) it can be pretty hard to find. Its very easy to see Fair Head (either from Ballycastle town or Murlough Bay – posted earlier) but after following the road signs you’ll come to a small group of old cottages that look like a farmyard and it will seem like you can go no further. Theres a car park to your right as you drive past the cottages, which isnt even marked as a public car park until you actually drive into it, and there is no mention of this being the start of the Fair Head walk (again, until you drive into the unmarked car park using your guesswork). Someone really needs to sort the area out as it looks as if its just been left abandoned, and given its reasonable to assume tourists might want to come here, then could we maybe invest in some further signs? That would be helpful. Thanks Mr Antrim Coast & Glens man 🙂

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So when you find the car park among the (seemingly empty) white cottages, drive in and park up and youll see this sign hilariously hidden behind a wall lol. The sign says there are “yellow circles” marking the route to Fair Head but good luck with that as we found only one which had been bleached white. Maybe they repaint them now and again but we just wandered about like lost sheep (across marshy bog land) and only found the edge of the cliff by trial and error.

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The area up to Fair Head was pretty expansive. The car park from this point is further away than that lake you see in the distance.

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Our first view from the edge. It was hard to keep the horizon straight for the pictures as we couldn’t see it, it was quite a hazy morning. The second bay in the distance is Murlough Bay where the big white house is I posted earlier. The sign says you can walk from here and it takes 90mins, but I really imagine its much more.

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Its always hard to convey exactly how high up a place is in photographs, no picture can really do it justice. The highest point here is 196mtrs above the sea, and quite a bit of it is near vertical. If you have a fear of heights beware! In the distance (in the first picture) you can see Rathlin Island.

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We saw this climber about to descend the huge wall of rock at Fair Head. This picture will give you some idea of the size of the rock face. In the second picture is a little dog who followed us up from just after the car park. She seemed to be alone as no one else was around, and the climber we came upon didn’t know who she belonged to either. When we were leaving she simply disappeared again. Maybe it was some doggy spirit of the Fair Head moors haha woof!

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We made our way back to our car (across wet and squelchy fields) and on passing the lake took this photo of the island on it. The lake is called Lough na Cranagh and the island, known as a “crannog” was man made in the Iron Age by extending a small natural island and surrounding it with a stone wall. It was likely a place of refuge. The entire area of Fair Head is now owned by the National Trust in NI. Hopefully they can invest in some nice signs soon up there then. 🙂

Castlewellan Forest Park, Peace Maze, and Lake, Co.Down, Northern Ireland

Northern Irelands largest forest park, Tollymore (in Newcastle), usually gets most of the interest from our forest hungry visitors, but just a short drive away lies Castlewellan Forest Park, which has a beauty all of its own. In fact the facilities here in Castlewellan easily match its larger brother, and coupled with a huge maze, several lakes, two cafes, and a brilliant bike hire office, make it well worth checking out. Our visit on the 28th December 2014 showed the park to be surprisingly busy, which was great to see in (what was) the depths of Winter. I hope the photos we took entice others to come here too. You’ll love it. 

CASTLEWELLAN CASTLE

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The dominant feature of the forest park, Castlewellan Castle was built in 1856 by William Richard Annesley, it overlooks the huge lake below and can be seen as soon as you enter the park. Today it is a center for many church, and school organizations. There are signs to say the immediate area around the castle is private, but we had no issues walking around its grounds to take some photos. Theres a little black cat who comes out to say hello too. Miaow.

CASTLEWELLAN LAKE

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On this lovely, frost glistening, December morning we had so many great photo opportunities and began snapping away frantically. The largest lake in the park is nearly one mile long, and there’s a fantastic circular path around its shore taking in much of the forest along the way. The route is a big hit with cyclists and there’s even a place to hire bikes if you don’t have one. The distance around the lake is about 2.4miles but its a very easy (and enjoyable) trek. The lake can also be fished. For more info see here: http://www.walkni.com/walks/222/castlewellan-forest-park-lakeside-walk/

ANNESLEY GARDENS (WITHIN THE PARK)

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To access Castlewellan Forest Park you pay just £4.50 per car which is pretty good as it doesn’t matter how many are in your car. Once parked your entrance fee includes all the walks and the gardens which are wonderful in Winter but must be even nicer in the other three milder seasons of the year.

The planting of the walled Annesley garden, the focus of the arboretum, began in the 1850s and rare conifers and maples were later imported directly from Japan. Then came the addition of more rich varieties, including Chilean eucryphias, Australian athrotaxis and pittosporum and Chinese rhododendrons. The arboretum holds many trees with record heights in the British Isles (see one of the monsters above!).

THE PEACE MAZE

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The “Peace Maze” was opened in 2000 and while you may think its nothing more than a quaint curiosity on entering you’re going to be in for a shock. This is one of the worlds largest permanent hedge mazes (it was the largest in the world until 2007 when it was beaten, only slightly, by a maze in Hawaii) and it really will offer a challenge to those without a pigeons sense of direction. The maze covers 3 acres and has 2.18 miles of pathway (the one in Hawaii has 2.46) and upon reaching the center there is a bell you can ring which is said to be the most rung bell in Ireland with half a million rings a year. When you visit the park make sure you go inside and see if you can find your way to the center (on top of the footbridge). Good luck! You’ll need it. The panaoramic picture above shows Castlewellan town, the Mourne Mountains, and a small part of the maze.

For more info on this great forest park see here: http://www.discovernorthernireland.com/Castlewellan-Forest-Park-and-Peace-Maze-Castlewellan-P2881