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Iron Donkey Bicycle Touring : bike tours, cycle vacations and biking holidays in Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Italy and Spain.
 

North of Ireland

THE REGION IN DETAIL

You may find it helpful to view and print off a copy of the regional map and cross reference with the description below. The letters in brackets correspond to the biking routes.

Surrounded by hills and occupying a spectacular position at the head of a wide sea lough, Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, became a thriving industrial port in Victorian times. At one time the city’s shipyard was one of the biggest in the world – the building of the unsinkable Titanic is one of the city’s more dubious claims to fame. Today, Belfast is a lively, friendly and thriving city – well worth a visit, not least to view some of the legacies of the “Troubles”, now very much an event belonging to the past (A, K, L, S, U ).

North of Belfast, Lough Neagh is the largest fresh-water lake in the British Isles. Five of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland lay claim to part of its shoreline. The River Bann, draining the lough to the north, flows through the tranquil, pastoral landscape of the Bann Valley on its way to the Atlantic (B, E).

The town of Antrim, a stone’s throw from Belfast International Airport, is a convenient trailhead town for the routes to the north. Steeple park has a fine Round Tower – all that remains of a monastery founded in the 5th century by Aodh, a disciple of St Patrick. Clotworthy House, in the grounds of the ruined Antrim castle, is now an arts centre (A, B, C, J, T). i

South and north of Antrim there is excellent cycling on the Loughshore Trail, a 90 mile cycle route around Lough Neagh (A, B, C, T).

At the western edge of the Antrim Plateau, Ballymena, dubbed the “city of the seven towers” is a busyNorth of Ireland bike tours market town, surrounded by some of the richest pastureland in Ireland (J).

To the west of the Bann Valley, the elevated Sperrins are an isolated region of sheep-dotted hills, neat farms and wooded river valleys – wonderful cycling terrain! This was Ulster’s gold prospecting country in the 1800s. The Sperrins Heritage Centre is particularly informative. The impressive Beaghmore Stone Circles date from the Stone Age (C, D, E).

North of the Sperrins the Bishop’s Road climbs over the Binevenagh Plateau, giving superb views across the wide expanse of Lough Foyle to Donegal. Mussenden Temple and the Bishops Palace, built by the eccentric Bishop of Derry at Downhill are well worth a visit. Hezlett House is a restored 17th century thatched farmhouse (F). Close to the busy market town of Coleraine, Mountsandel is the oldest inhabited site in Ireland (B, E, F).

East along the Atlantic coast are the picture postcard resorts of Portstewart and Portrush – throwbacks to a bygone age. Continuing east, the sublime Causeway Coast reveals new and ever-more stunning vistas around every corner. Castles in various states of decay cap several of the headlands – Dunluce Castle is the best preserved. A fascinating guided tour of Bushmills Distillery, the oldest licensed distillery in the world, can be concluded with a sampling of its world famous product (F).

The fabled Giant’s Causeway is every bit as impressive as its reputation, and the adjacent Causeway Coastal Path is a marvellous hike. The swaying rope bridge originally used by salmon fishermen to cross to the island of Carrick-a-Rede is an (optional) test of nerve (G).

The neat coastal town of Ballycastle hosts the Ould Lammas Fair – one of the oldest in Ireland. Bonamargy Friary is the burial place of the MacDonnells, the warlike clan who ruled over this region in the 16th and 17th centuries (G, H, I).

Several ferries a day make the six mile trip to offshore Rathlin Island, whose cliffs are home to huge colonies of seabirds. Robert the Bruce gainedNorth of Ireland bike tours inspiration from the endurance and stamina of a web-spinning spider when sheltering in a Rathlin cave following the defeat of his Scots by the English at the Battle of Culloden (H).

Fair Head, to the east of Ballycastle, drops sheer to the sea. From the abandoned coastguard station at Torr Head, Scotland’s west coast appears a mere stone’s throw away (actually 11 miles)! The roller-coaster coast road from here leads to the delightful village of Cushendun, designed by William Clough Ellis, and under the protection of the National Trust (G, H, I).

Cushendall marks the start of the famous Antrim Coast Road that follows the shore south to Larne. Just north of the village are the ruins of 13th century Layde Old Church. The Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough was once owned by Winston Churchill. Glenarm on the coast road is a conservation village with a pleasant forest park (I, J, K).

The sheep-dotted Antrim Plateau rises steeply from the coastline. Nine rivers have carved deep valleys through the basalt on their passage to the Irish Sea and each of the resulting fabled Glens of Antrim has its own unique beauty. Glenariff Forest Park in the glen of the same name has some of the most spectacular scenery with waterfalls, thick woodland and wildflower meadows. On the slopes of Slemish Mountain, St Patrick tended pigs after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery (J, K).

To the south of Belfast, Hillsborough is a charming Georgian town, renowned for its antique shops and restaurants. Hillsborough Castle, an impressive 18th Century mansion, is the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The main street of the nearby elegant town of Moira is lined with fine 18th century blackstone houses divided by carriage archways (L, N, T, R).

The Newry Canal was the first summit canal to be built in the British Isles. The towpath hasNorth of Ireland bike tours now been developed as a cycle path that leads from Portadown to Newry. At Scarva, there is a visitor centre that tells the story of the canal. Loughbrickland, a trout fishing centre, was named after Bricriu, the legendary poet known as “Bricriu of the bitter mouth” (M).

Above Newry the Gap of the North is the ancient crossing point between the provinces of Ulster and Leinster. The hilly Cooley Peninsula to the south of Carlingford Lough is the setting for the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of Ireland’s epic sagas. King John’s Castle, a massive fortress completed in the 13th century, towers above the medieval town of Carlingford. To the west the granite dome of Slieve Gullion, surrounded by the smaller peaks that make up the Ring of Gullion, dominates the surrounding South Armagh countryside (N).

On the northern side of Carlingford Lough in County Down, the pretty coastal resorts of Warrenpoint and Rostrevor have the Mourne Mountains as a spectacular backdrop. Above the fishing port of Kilkeel, the Silent Valley, closed to traffic, is a beautifully peaceful location in the heart of the mountains (O).

The Spelga Pass, the highest point on the road that separates the eastern from the western peaks of the Mournes has great views of the surrounding countryside. The village of Bryansford is the gateway to folly-dotted Tollymore Forest Park. You can ride around the lake to the magnificent arboretum that is the outstanding feature of Castlewellan Forest Park. A few miles away on the coast at Newcastle (where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea) is Royal County Down, considered by those who have an opinion in such things to be one of the finest links golf courses in the world (O, P).

Dundrum Castle, a classic example of a Norman stronghold in Ireland, commands fine views over Dundrum Bay and the Mournes. On the stretch of coast between Dundrum and Strangford, there are several castles in various states of repair, and seals bask on the rocks close to the shore. Ardglass is one of two working fishing ports left in this part of Ireland (P).

In Downpatrick, the county town of Down, St Patrick is buried in the graveyard of Downpatrick Cathedral. The St Patrick’s Centre in the town has the whole story. The surrounding region isNorth of Ireland bike tours known as St Patrick’s Country because of its many associations with Ireland’s patron saint. The hill of Slieve Patrick is an important pilgrimage destination, while at Struell Wells, believed to be a former site of pagan worship, there is a ruined church and a 17th century bath house (P, Q, R, S).

From Strangford a regular ferry makes the short crossing to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula. There are wonderful riding routes around the southern end of the peninsula. Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry displays the diverse life forms that inhabit Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea. North of Portaferry, Mount Stewart House has a splendid interior, but the magnificent gardens are the main attraction (Q).

Close to Strangford village, Castleward, once the home of Lord and Lady Bangor, illustrates their differing tastes. The Palladian front was choice of Lord Bangor while his wife insisted upon a Gothic facade overlooking the gardens at the rear (Q).

Inch Abbey founded by John de Courcy in 1180 has a beautiful setting just north of Downpatrick. On the western shores of Strangford Lough, Nendrum Monastic Site lay forgotten for hundreds of years before being excavated in the mid 1800s. Founded by St Mochaoi in the 5th century, it is the finest pre-Norman monastic site in Ireland – and a great place for a picnic! Castle Espie the showpiece of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is home to Ireland’s largest collection of water birds (R, S).

The Comber Greenway, opened in 2009, is a picturesque cycle route built on an old railway line between Comber, on the northern shores of Strangford Lough, and Belfast . It provides very pleasant, traffic-free access to the centre of the city (S)

Gallery

  • Ballintoy Harbour
  • Belfast City Hall
  • Carrick-a-Rede
  • Carrickfergus Castle
  • Cushendun
  • Dunluce Castle
  • Giant's Causeway From The Air
  • Giants Causeway
  • Gortin Lakes
  • Harland And Wollf Shipyards
  • Salmon Fishing
  • St George's Market
  • The Crown Bar
  • The Mournes
  • Whiterocks
 

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