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

Downhill Strand/Beach, County Derry/Londonderry

Apologies to those following my page today if you’re getting a lot of update mail in your inbox. I’m trying to get all these pictures posted of a two day trip we had to the Downhill and Binevenagh area so I can move on. They’re also being posted enmasse as a response to a thread on the Northern Ireland Tripadvisor forum which recently stated the top ten tourist places to visit in NI and this area wasn’t mentioned – just plain criminal to me! So I wanted to show why this area should be included. Hopefully it will.

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Under fading light of Winter, we arrived at Downhill Beach.

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You can stay at this little Guesthouse/Hostel which must have one of the most wonderful locations in all of NI. Link below.

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The iconic Mussenden Temple keeps sentry over the beach. This beach was a location for filming Game of Thrones. See here: http://www.downhillhostel.com/burning-of-the-7-game-of-thrones-films-on-downhill-beach-dragonstone/

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Simply world class beautiful. And almost deserted.

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You could be forgiven for thinking these were taken in Thailand.

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A cow on the hill above the beach, as the Sun starts to set.

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Our car in the distance. You can drive onto the beach here. If you don’t have a car its still possible to walk from Castlerock to here (via the train) which will allow you to explore the whole Downhill area.

Gortmore and Binevenagh, County Derry/Londonderry

On a cold November day like this one, you’d better dress up warm for where we are going now. Taking the little twisty road up from Downhill beach (posting that soon) you climb through the wilds of Northern, erm, Northern Ireland to Gortmore and on along the Binevenagh plateau. Amazing views, and very, very, windy. Brrrr!

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The road to Gortmore, bleak, yet beautiful.

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Eventually you will come to this National Trust signpost (one end points to Castlerock, one to Limavady) and a carpark.

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Walk out along this path, and hold onto your hat!

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A panoramic shot of the view up here. Its not called windy hill for nothing.

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Some info provided.

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Gortmore Viewpoint is situated on the Bishop’s Road, on the Binevenagh Loop which is part of the Causeway Coastal Route. On a clear day views extend across to Donegal and the islands of Islay and Jura off the west coast of Scotland. Picnic facilities are available. In addition, a sculpture of Manannan Mac Lir, a sea God originating from this area can be viewed from this scenic viewpoint. The distant headland here is where we went next…

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Getting your bearings.

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Follow the road on from Gortmore through the glorious landscape then take the sign for Binevenagh forest (the lake isn’t very well signposted). Once at the lake above, park your car and set off on foot along the trail ahead. All pics above are full size by clicking (as ever).

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You’ll soon come to this. Prepare for the views and a rush of vertigo!

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Its impossible for any photograph to do this area justice. The height above sea level cant really be conveyed. If you have a fear of heights, get near the edge and youll feel sick haha.

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Like you’re on top of the world. Gortmore is almost 900ft up so I reckon this must be something the same. In the distance before you is Magilligan Point.

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Simply breath taking. And Binevenagh remains a place rarely mentioned in the tourist guides for Northern Ireland. Shame. We cant wait to return. It also proves that even in Winter, you can still get out there and enjoy the countryside.

Castlerock and Belvedere Summer House Downhill

Just by parking your car (or getting off the train) at Castlerock you have so much access to many wonderful sights and coastline around this area. We left the car at “Tunnel Brae” – two carparks with a viewpoint over the town and set off to walk across the Black Glen towards Belvedere Summer house – part of the large Downhill Demesne. I really don’t need to say much more than the walk was absolutely stunning.

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Castlerock beach on a November day.

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Some local information (sorry about the bird poo)

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Known as the Twelve Apostles, and situated just behind the Tunnel Brae carpark, these were old labourers cottages built in the 18th century, if you follow the road along here you will find the path towards Downhill Demesne.

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Another little cottage at the end of the road with a sign for the Black Glen walk.

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From the Black Glen looking back towards Castlerock. Its not as far as it looks.

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We’ve already visited Mussenden so its on to Belvedere.

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Your first view from the valley below. It was built by the Bishops daughter Mary.

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This little set of windswept trees have been painted and photographed many times by others.

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Looking into the Summer house. Its quite small really, but a major part of the entire Demesne. You can get in round the back.

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If you look really closely here, to the far left under the tree, you can see the railway tunnel to and from Castlerock. Another tunnel is at the far end of the headland (under Mussenden) where you are now. These are the two longest railway tunnels in Northern Ireland.

Melancholic Moods at Downhill House

Situated just behind Mussenden Temple (see below), Downhill House seems to exude sadness into the air around it. I don’t know what it is about old abandoned buildings, but you can almost feel a sense of loss of past grandeur. Downhill House doesn’t get the same attention as the famous Temple in front of it, but as you step through its big iron gates you soon realize it has as much to offer by way of awe for its past history. Even in its heyday though, it was insulted for its silly location exposed to just about the worst weather Northern Ireland can ever have, perched on a clifftop exposed to the North Atlantic Ocean. But on this last November day of 2014 (with no one around) the echoes of its old beauty still seemed to resound for me – though very faint now. Wiki page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downhill_House

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Downhill House appears like some Irish Stonehenge in the distance.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a castle from this angle.

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As you step inside through the iron gates (they should be open) this is the sight you see.

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Theres a small labyrinth of broken rooms and walls to explore.

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In the distance here you can see whats known as the mausoleum (though no one was buried there), it is a memorial monument to this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_William_Hervey,_2nd_Earl_of_Bristol and its much taller than it looks when you get closer. I will post pictures of it here soon. The house looks very imposing on this second picture.

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Some history of the house on a post inside.

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Some shots of the front of the house. Be advised, watch your step around the entire surrounding fields, sheep are regularly grazed here and have left many little brown presents hidden in the grass haha. Ive been told too that during the really cold days they actually get allowed into the house for shelter. Not many sheep would have a barn like this.

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The house really does catch the eye on the flat landscape here.

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The view from the “Lions Gate” as you enter from there. And a photo from the (opposite) Castlerock side. This entire area is magical. A must see.