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Coronavirus: 12 walks in Northern Ireland to take your mind off escalating health crisis

If you are following the advice on social distancing, what better way to go off-grid this weekend than on one of Northern Ireland’s most scenic rambles? Linda Stewart reports


Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Even if you're not currently self-isolating, the coronavirus has meant more people working from home and leaving the house less.

With Government advice being to avoid large gatherings and stay a minimum of two metres away from the next person, it's only normal for people to retreat to the safety of their homes.

This, however, can have serious implications for your general health and, particularly, your mental well-being.

So, what better than a bracing outing on one of Northern Ireland's favourite walks? We decided to road-test the top dozen routes.

Castlewellan Forest Lakeside Walk and Moorish Tower

(3.2 miles/OS sheet 29)


This rewarding trail, voted the favourite family friendly walk, takes you round the edge of Castlewellan Lake on well-maintained, wide forest paths, with beautiful views of Slievenaslat and Castlewellan Castle and a short detour to the Moorish Tower, built by the Annesley family.

The forest park is signposted from Main Street in the village of Castlewellan and then follow the brown waymarkers.

Starting at the Lakeside car-park, the trail follows the southern shore of the lake before winding steeply uphill. A narrow track leads to the Moorish Tower, now hidden in the trees.

When designed, this "tea house", built in 1884 by Hugh, 5th Earl Annesley, would have provided a fine vista across the lake.

A steep descent leads back to the lake shore.

Slieve Donard from Bloody Bridge

(3.2 miles/OS sheet 29)


Slieve Donard

Slieve Donard

Slieve Donard

This steep trek, voted the best bucket list walk in Northern Ireland, climbs from Bloody Bridge car-park on the Co Down coast, along the Bloody Bridge River and finally follows the Mourne Wall to the 850m summit of Slieve Donard, taking in a quarry and disused railway.

Around 3km along the road from Newcastle to Kilkeel, look out for a car-park on the left-hand side. This is Bloody Bridge car-park and the starting point for this walk.

From the southern end of the car-park, cross the main A2 road to reach a gate. Pass through and follow the path on the right-hand side of the Bloody Bridge River.

Look out for the attractive stonework of the original Bloody Bridge. During the 1641 rebellion, this was the scene of a massacre of prisoners on escort from Newry to Newcastle.

After 750m, the path narrows and crosses a wooden footbridge at the confluence of the Bloody Bridge and Glen Fofanny Rivers before reaching the stile.

Beyond the stile, the path picks its way upstream. After 400m, look for an obvious slab of rock inclining towards a narrow section of river. Several conveniently placed boulders make this an easy crossing point. Continue upstream along the opposite bank.

After 80m, the path climbs above the river's course, twisting back on itself along a broad track.

Continue for 30m before turning sharp right onto a narrower track which zig-zags uphill.

Do not take short cuts off the zig-zag section. Above the zig-zag, the path follows an old quarry track which extends 1.4km into the upper valley before skirting along the north side of the quarry.

From a vantage point above the quarry, the line of a disused railway leading to Carr's Face on the slopes of Chimney Rock Mountain can be sighted. Beyond the quarry, the path meets the Mourne Wall at 750m. From here, Slieve Donard can be reached by following the Mourne Wall uphill for 1km to the tower on the mountain summit.

On a clear day, the panoramic view is superb.

Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail

(4 miles/OS sheet 26)


Bog: Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail

Bog: Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail

Bog: Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail

Nicknamed the "Stairway to Heaven" walk, the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail meanders through one of the largest expanses of blanket bog in Northern Ireland, traversing tracks, boardwalk and staircase.

Take the A4 Sligo Road from Enniskillen and then the A32 Swanlinbar Road. Turn right onto the Marble Arch Road and then left, following the signs for the Marble Arch Visitor Centre. Park at Killykeegan Nature Reserve car-park on the right.

Follow the Cuilcagh Boardwalk trail through a fascinating limestone landscape, often referred to as "The Fertile Rock" due to its flower rich pastures. You will see abandoned Irish cottages, dry stone walls and potato cultivation ridges ("lazy beds").

Continue along the gravel vehicle track, where the landscape starts to change to blanket bog. In spring, bog cotton carpets the bog in a blanket of white.

After 4km, start your ascent of Cuilcagh Mountain along the boardwalk, which protects the sensitive blanket bog beneath.

Your final ascent is via a steep section of steps, meandering through a rugged boulder landscape to reach the viewing platform perched at the edge of the mountain plateau, with breathtaking views over the surrounding landscape.

Murlough National Nature Reserve

(2.5 miles/OS sheet 29)


Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Great views: Murlough Bay offers beautiful surroundings and sites linked to history

Murlough National Nature Reserve, a fragile 6,000-year-old sand dune system, is owned by the National Trust and has been managed as Ireland's first nature reserve since 1967.

Butterflies and moths thrive on the heathland, species-rich grassland, lichen-rich hollows, gorse and bracken scrub and woodland. Murlough is signed from the A2, the main Belfast to Newcastle Road, near Dundrum.

Start at the main Murlough car-park at The Cottage Cafe. Enter the reserve through the pedestrian gate, turn left and follow the boardwalk to Spaghetti Junction, where the boardwalks meet.

Continue until you reach a gap in the dunes to the south, where you can take in a great view of both Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh, with Dundrum Castle in the opposite direction. It dates back to the late 12th century and was built by John de Courcy.

Once on Murlough beach, turn left and continue past a black marker post until you reach the next yellow post, then turn left back onto the reserve. Follow the Archaeology Path until you reach the next yellow post.

Stop seven is home to colonies of the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly, which can be seen in flight from late May and June. The UK is a stronghold for this butterfly and it's a priority species in Northern Ireland.

At the yellow post marked 8, you'll find "Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage" site with its vast array of bell and ling heather. Turn left and follow the path for views of Dundrum Castle and the farmland that used to be a satellite landing ground for bombers during the Second World War.

Continue on the path that curves to the right to bring you to the Exmoor Kraal. On reaching the gravel lane, turn left and return to the car-park.

Tollymore Forest Park River trail

(3.1 miles/OS sheet 29)


Nice: Tollymore Forest

Nice: Tollymore Forest

Nice: Tollymore Forest

Voted the favourite Mournes Walk, this trail descends the Azalea Walk to the Shimna River, then turns upstream along the attractive tree-lined riverbank past the Hermitage to cross the river at Parnell's Bridge.

Take the road from Newcastle to Bryansford and the entrance to Tollymore Forest Park is on the left.

Follow the red waymarker arrows from the car park down the Azalea Walk towards the Shimna river to the Hermitage, passing through both conifer and broadleaved woodland before crossing the Shimna at Parnell's Bridge.

Dramatic views of the Pot of Legawherry can be seen from the trail. There is an optional spur to the White Fort Cashel before following the Spinkwee River downstream, past the cascades and back to the Meeting of the Waters.

The trail continues throughconifer plantations, past the duck pond and crosses the Shimna River over the Old Bridge, returning to the car-park via the Green Rig.

The Giant's Lair, Slieve Gullion

(1 mile/OS sheet 29)

Another family favourite, this woodland walk explores Hawthorn Hill Nature Reserve within Slieve Gullion Forest Park.

A magical living storybook is brought to life through a trail of intertwined fairy houses and arts features creating a childhood land with dragons, giants and fairies.

The Giant's Lair is inspired by legend and mythical folklore and the route commands magnificent views of the Ring of Gullion mountains, including Croslieve, Slievebrack and Mullaghbane Mountains.

From Newry, take the Dublin road until the Cloghoge Roundabout (2km). Travel on the B113 towards Forkhill, for approximately 5km past Meigh until the sign for Slieve Gullion Forest Park on the right-hand side of the road just before Drumintee. Follow the drive past the Courtyard Centre to the car-park.

Keeping left, follow the path uphill at the side of the children's play park, through deciduous woodland for about 750m until arriving at a forest track with a log bench on the right-hand side of the path, with views of the Ring of Gullion Hills.

Keeping to the right, continue on the path back into the woodland for 850m, first uphill, before descending directly to the car-park and start point.

Explore the fairy village, tiptoe past the sleeping giant, drop in for a cup of dandelion tea, grab a seat at the Giant's Table, stroll along to the Ladybird House and sneak a peek at local witchy trickster, The Calliagh Berra.

Montalto Estate Garden Walk

(0.56 miles/OS sheet 20)

This trail, which came third in the family favourite vote, is at its most stunning in springtime, when a beautiful display of deciduous azaleas and colourful rhododendron are in full bloom.

This walk is located a short drive from Ballynahinch. Entry to Montalto Estate is via the Spa Road.

Explore the large collection of rhododendron hybrids, sourced from John Gault, a Northern Irish expert. As you make your way past the Summer House, you will see lots of other wonderful shrubbery and planting.

Make your way down to the Rock Garden. In the pinetum, you will also see one of the champion trees, a giant redwood with the largest girth of its type recorded in Northern Ireland.

Visitors can make their way past the historic bathing house, keeping an eye out for the words "Abide with me" inscribed in the concrete as you approach it. No one knows who inscribed these words here, or why they did so. In this area, you will soon be able to explore a planted fern garden.

As you pass the lake, you will see another of the champion trees, this one a beautiful large sycamore, rated as a magnificent spreading lawn specimen.

Portballintrae to Giant's Causeway loop

(5.5 miles/OS sheet 5)

Walkers have named the Giant's Causeway their favourite place to explore on the Causeway Coast and this moderate walk runs from Portballintrae to the Giant's Causeway, taking in beach, cliff and rock formations.

The start of the route is at the car-park at the end of Beach Road in Portballintrae. Continue east past Portballintrae Bay and harbour to arrive here.

Follow the path that leads from the car-park down towards the beach. Bear left across Three Quarter Mile Bridge, crossing the Bush River, and then bear left through the sand dunes to emerge onto Runkerry Beach, and follow the beach along its length.

At the top of the beach, bear left onto a path that runs along the front of Runkerry House to follow the cliff-top path northwards. Follow this path until you reach the Causeway Hotel and the National Trust Giant's Causeway Visitors' Centre. Cross the roof of the Visitors' Centre and take the steps down to the tarmac path that leads downhill to the rock formations.

Continue along the path into the next bay. Bear right at a path junction in this bay before reaching the rock formation known as "The Organ". You are now on the Shepherds' Path. Follow this path uphill (following the red route) and climb the steps that lead to the cliff-top path.

Bear right at the top of the steps and continue back to the visitors centre, emerging onto the road through the car-park. Bear right onto the Runkerry Road before the junction with the main Causeway Road. Turn right after 250m into the railway car-park and join the path that leads away from the station along the railway.

After the path begins to drift away from the beach, bear right onto a sand dune path before meeting the Bush River again.

The paths through the sand dunes lead back to the Three Quarter Mile Bridge, which you cross to get back to the car-park at start of the walk.

Lough Navar Forest/Magho Cliffs

(1.3 miles/OS sheet 17)

The Magho Cliffs are a 9km-long limestone escarpment dominating the southern shore and skyline of Lower Lough Erne on the northern edge of Lough Navar Forest. The 300-metre high cliffs command immense views over the lake and neighbouring counties.

From Enniskillen, take the A46 to Derrygonnelly and then follow the signs for the Forest Drive.

The initial part of the walk takes you across the top of the Magho Cliffs, offering great, panoramic views of the surrounding area.

At the end of this path, take a moment to rest on the bench provided and soak in the tranquil atmosphere.

The cliffs are an Area of Special Scientific Interest, supporting an exceptional range of habitats. Keep an eye out for the array of butterflies and birds feeding in the area. To continue the walk, return back along the cliff-top path and follow the black route waymarkers, which will bring you down the cliff, twisting and winding its way through the woodland with patches of open area providing great glimpses at the cliff escarpment.

The escarpment consists of three distinct rock formations. On top is the Dartry Limestone, the same rock that the Marble Arch Caves are formed out of, and directly beneath that is the Glencar Limestone.

At the very bottom of the cliff, obscured from view by scree and vegetation, is the Benbulben Shale, the oldest of the three rocks. The distinctive cliffs and present-day landscape are a direct result of the last glaciation, which ended around 13,000 years ago, when huge ice-sheets moved across the landscape, scouring out valleys and sculpting the cliffs.

The lower slopes are covered by one of the largest semi-natural woodlands in Northern Ireland, which is very diverse and contains the highest number of woodland species recorded at a single site.

Rare species within the wood include the bird's nest orchid and early purple orchid.

Gortin Lakes

(0.6 miles/OS sheet 13)

This short off-road walk leads around Gortin Lakes with superb views of the Sperrins landscape. The path has recently been upgraded; the firm surface is of a good and consistent standard throughout the walk.

The car-park at Gortin Lakes is situated about 0.5 miles off the main A48 Omagh to Gortin Road. The site is easy to find by following the brown tourist signs from the main road. From the car-park, the walk around the two lakes is laid out in the formation of the figure eight and people can choose to walk in either direction.

The gravel path around the lakes undulates gently, offering the tranquillity of the still, deep water on one side and the natural habitat and vegetation on the other.

The path is easily followed with a number of benches placed, so walkers can take a rest and take in the majestic views.

Ness, Ervey and Burntollet

(4 miles/OS sheet 7)

The steep wooded glen at Ness Country Park is a remnant of extensive natural oakwoods and comprises 20 ha, with riverside and woodland paths including wooden steps and footbridges, and is home to many different species of wildlife and birdlife.

The walk includes Northern Ireland's highest waterfall and the site is home to red squirrels.

The walk starts 4.5 km NW of the village of Claudy and 13km SE of Derry City, well signposted from A6 via Oughtagh Rd.

Follow the path from the car-park at the visitors' centre down to the right, past an area of recently created ponds and across Hone's Bridge.

Follow the path along the north side of the Burntollet River, ignoring the bridge to the right (this leads to a path that is currently closed due to subsidence), until you reach the second bridge. Cross the bridge and ascend the steps.

The path will then lead you past Ness waterfall across Shanes Bridge. Continue on the path into the woodland, passing the viewing point for the waterfall.

Follow this path downhill until you turn right onto a path leading uphill; this path leads above mature woodland and then reaches a turning point, taking a sharp left down a series of wooden steps towards the river, then turning right to rejoin the path to take you back to the visitors' centre.

Take the path to the left from the visitors' centre, crossing the River Burntollet at Brown's Bridge. Follow the path for 1.5km, turning right at the junction. This route loops up to Ervey Wood car-park.

Continue on through Ervey Wood car-park to access Burntollet Wood. Follow the red waymarker arrows around Burntollet Wood in a clockwise direction. You will pass by several viewpoints and information panels describing wildlife and wildflowers in the area.

Pass through a kissing gate to bypass a private property, before re-entering the wood through another kissing gate. Continue to follow the path back to Ervey Wood car-park.

To follow the route back to the visitors' centre, cross the small area of grassland to the right of the car-park and enter the wood through the wooden gate. This path will lead back to the visitors centre.

Cranny Falls

(1.2 miles/OS sheet 9)

The gentle incline of this walk takes the route of an old limestone railway track to the now-disused Gortin Quarry. Interpretation panels along the way illustrate its history. It ends at Cranny Waterfall, where the moist air is good for plants and insects.

Take the A2 (Antrim Coast Road) from Larne-Portrush. Park in the village of Carnlough.

From Carnlough, take the steps going uphill beside the Harbour Lights building. This takes you around to the right and across a bridge over the main road.

This path soon takes you past a car-park and gradually up to Gortin Quarry, where there are seats and viewpoints.

Follow the path left over to Cranny Falls. Come back the same way.

The top 12 walks were voted for by users of WalkNI

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