Northern Ireland’s ramblers are being encouraged to put on their walking boots to rediscover the Ulster Way.
Thirty years after walkers first trekked the famous pathways, the new improved version is being relaunched today.
The revised route and accompanying website were being launched at Crawfordsburn Country Park in Co Down, providing a 625 mile (1,000km) circular trail around Northern Ireland’s finest landscapes.
The new Ulster Way scales the heights of the Mourne Mountains, sweeps through the Fermanagh lakeland and skirts the spectacular Causeway Coast.
The redrawing of the route, first dreamt up by founding father Wilfrid Capper following a 1946 visit to the Pennine Way, has been coordinated and funded by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), with input from the Ulster Way Advisory Committee and others.
“Walkers will encounter myth and legend such as Cuchulainn, follow in the footsteps of saints and scholars such as Saint Patrick and of course be able to sample the legendary Northern Irish hospitality along the way,” the Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) said.
However, the project is not without its controversial side. While welcoming the revival of the Ulster Way, which had declined over the years due to access problems, deteriorating infrastructure and increasingly congested rural roads, walkers are disappointed that it is now a series of Quality Sections joined by link sections which have not been waymarked and are on public roads.
Reg Magowan, chairman of the Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs and a member of the Ulster Way Advisory Committee, said it would be churlish not to recognise the significant progress that has been made, but suggestions that the problems of significant road walking have been resolved do not stand up to scrutiny.
“Long so-called ‘link’ sections on road with a recommendation to take public transport hardly support the boast of a circular walking route,” Mr McGowan said.
“Who, for example, wants to walk by road from Lisburn to Holywood when the natural route is to link Holywood to the Odyssey?”
He continued: “A major obstacle is the absence of access legislation with teeth in Northern Ireland, unlike England and Scotland, and a reluctance by many councils to exercise the powers they have.
“My federation has been pressing NIEA to fund a development officer dedicated to completing the Way. We believe such a person should work under the auspices of CAAN who have an excellent track record of achieving things on the ground.
“We have received assurances that the Advisory Committee will continue but given that no meetings have been convened for over a year we could be forgiven if we question the value of that assurance.”
Despite the controversy the new website at www.walkni.com/ulsterway, created by CAAN, is expected to create quite a stir as it is a one-stop shop for the Ulster Way including interactive maps, route directions and links to accommodation.