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Walk of the week: Holywood’s the star in this walk through history


HISTORIC: The Priory

HISTORIC: The Priory

HISTORIC: The Priory

The history of the town of Holywood was first recorded in 634 AD by no less important an historical figure than the Venerable Bede, in the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.

This short walk focuses on the varied history of the town from this time to the modern day. Key historical and architectural landmarks are described within the guide that accompanies the walk, available from North Down Tourism as outlined in the factfile.


Holywood lies approximately five miles north-east of Belfast on the way to Bangor. By car — from Belfast, follow the A2 towards Bangor. On approaching Holywood, take the exit on the right before Palace Barracks and follow straight on towards the town. There is a large free public car park on the left at ‘Spa Field'. Exit the car park and turn left onto High Street, and continue walking until reaching the Maypole and the start of the walk.

By train — there is a regular train service between Belfast and Bangor. Exit at Holywood and take the subway towards the town. Walk up Sullivan Place, turn left onto High Street to the Maypole.

By bus — There is a regular bus service between Bangor and Belfast. Get off in Holywood town centre, close to the Maypole.

From the Maypole walk north-east towards the Priory. Look out for the statue of ‘Johnny the Jig’ on the opposite side of the road, a bronze statue of a youngster playing the accordion. Continue straight on to Holywood Priory, easily identified by the clock tower, and situated at the junction of Priory Park and High Street. The building, now derelict, was founded in the 7th Century. On exiting the Priory turn left and follow Victoria Road uphill.

Turn right onto Brook Street. Approximately 20m on the right you will find the entrance to Holywood’s Norman Motte (opening times apply). Exit the Motte and turn right. On reaching the junction with Church Road turn left up the hill.

Approximately 100m on the right is the Parish Church of St Philip and St James, completed in 1844. Look out for the Old School House at No. 92 opposite.

From here turn back along Church Road towards the sea and the Maypole, passing the Methodist Church on the left. On reaching High Street turn left and walk through Holywood’s main shopping street. You will see various fine buildings including the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church, Holywood Library (once Sullivan School) and, farther along, St Colmcille’s Church, dating back to 1872.

Turn here and retrace your steps back until you reach Sullivan Place (opposite the library). Turn left and head towards the sea. On the left is Queens Hall, built in the mid-1950s. With the hall on your left, cross the road to Redburn Square where you will see the War Memorial.

Take the pedestrian subway from here under the main road to the shore of Belfast Lough. At low tide you may be able to see the remains of the pier, which stretched a quarter of a mile into the Lough.

Retrace your steps back through the subway and turn left into Hibernia Street. On reaching High Street turn left and walk back towards the Maypole and the end of the walk.

The Backdrop

Holywood’s Maypole is the only maypole surviving in Ireland today and early maps show that one has stood on this site since the 1620s. Today it is still the focus of the town’s annual May Day celebrations, when local school children dance around the Maypole alongside market stalls and family attractions.

The town’s rich ecclesiastical heritage is represented today by its most distinctive building, the Old Priory. The ruins that you see today are that of the 12th century Anglo-Norman Augustinian Abbey.

Henry VIII dissolved the Priory in 1541, with its lands passing into the hands of the O’Neill family and then to Sir James Hamilton, First Viscount Clandeboye. Hamilton laid out the town, with a maypole at the crossroads and most of the early buildings clustered round the Priory.

When the Normans invaded Ulster in the 12th Century, fortifications such as Holywood Motte were widely seen across the land. When King John passed from Carrickfergus to Dublin, he is said to have spent the night of Thursday, July 29, in the Government Bailey situated on the Motte before heading on to Dundonald by the way of Victoria Road and Croft Road (formerly King John’s Highway) to stay at Dundonald Motte, where he lost two pence while playing cards.

Further information

For further information on walking or any other outdoor activity, contact Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN), tel: 028 9030 3930 or walkni.com.

CAAN in association with Belfast Telegraph have provided this information. Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy of the information. CAAN and Belfast Telegraph, however, cannot accept responsibility for errors or omissions but where such are brought to our attention, the information for future publications will be amended accordingly.

Walk Name: Holywood Town Walk and Cultural Trail.

Area: North Down.

Nearest town to start point: Holywood.

Distance: 1.5 miles.

Time: Walkers should leave approximately one hour to enjoy this walk, taking in the rich history of Holywood on this cultural trail.

Terrain: Town centre footpaths throughout.

Access Restrictions: The walk is on urban footpaths and is steep in places.

Refreshments: There is a range of refreshment opportunities, from fine dining to coffee shops. Several town centre car parks are available, both free and pay and display, with ample disabled parking included.

Publications: Holywood Town Walk and Cultural Trail. You can pick up a copy of this at Bangor TIC (028) 9127 0069 or download from northdowntourism.com.

Walk Developed By: North Down Borough Council.

Map: Sheet 15 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discoverer Series, available from Land & Property Services Map Shop (lpsni.gov.uk).

Belfast Telegraph

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