Greenways of Cultra

Hidden paths and Wooded Demesnes

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An alternative name for this walk might be ‘A Tour of the Grand Houses of Cultra’. A good place to start and finish this walk is at Marino Station – particularly if you are travelling by train to and from Holywood.

It begins with a short bramble trail (the Black Path), down the side of the railway line which takes you to the coast and Seapark recreation grounds. It then guides you past some of the grandest homes in Cultra, built on the former Kennedy estate, and back to the coastal path for some great sea views before heading up to the main Belfast to Bangor road. Here you will pass the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and Culloden Hotel before heading down to Cultra railway station and along more tree-lined avenues to your starting point at Marino Station. 

The journey, at a fairly brisk pace, will take you about 75 minutes. 

TYPECircular walk mixed suburban and coastal scenery. Footpaths and road walking with some climbing on roads but not too steep gradients. 
DISTANCE3.65 miles / 8.1 km 
SURFACESMostly asphalt paths and roads, but some walking on unsurfaced, potentially muddy, paths. Sturdy walking boots recommended in wet conditions and winter. 
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS120 feet climb 
HAZARDSSome road walking on quiet suburban roads without pavements. The Black Path is narrow, muddy and quite uneven. Can be quite overgrown in summer with brambles and stinging nettles. Coastal path can be narrow in places with sheer drop down to beach. Risks in stormy weather. 

Cultra means ‘the back of the strand’ and lies just behind the famous North Down coastal path along the side of Belfast Lough. The area covered by this walk was originally owned by the Kennedys of Cultra who, according to Con Auld in his book ‘Holywood Co. Down: Then and Now’ (2002), were meticulous in the residential development of their estate long before town planning was invented. Auld, in fact, devotes a whole chapter to the Kennedys and Cultra.  They were a titled family in Scotland before John Kennedy arrived in North Down around 1668 among a second wave of Scottish settlers. In 1671 the Kennedys acquired the North Down shoreline from Ballycultra to Ballyrobert from the former Hamilton estates.  

The Kennedys were astute business people and built Cultra House soon after their arrival in Ireland. It was situated on a raised beach with the area’s best view over Belfast Lough. It was immediately above a small deep-water harbour and near to yellow, red and grey sandstone quarries which had been used in the construction of Carrickfergus Castle and the Holywood Priory Church. 

The area was sparsely populated – as the 1834 OSI map shows. But, particularly during the later half of the nineteenth century, with the opening of the Holywood to Bangor railway in 1865, Cultra started to be ripe for residential development. Many large plots were leased or sold for fine Victorian houses, mainly owned by wealthy Belfast mercantile families who travelled to and from Cultra to Belfast each day to attend to their business interests.

Cultra continues to have numerous large houses and gardens owned by some of Holywood’s most wealthy patrons. You will see a lot of these dwellings during your walk. 

Marino station opened in 1870 is where we begin our walk. Apparently the first station was built on the Belfast side of the road bridge. However, a new platform and single-storey station house were then built on the Bangor side of the bridge a few years later (no trace of the first station is visible today).

When the line became dual track in 1900 a waiting room, booking office and other offices were added on the new platform which served trains to Belfast. These buildings have now been demolished and replaced with a glass shelter. The single storey station house was given an extra storey, and became the stationmaster’s house with a waiting room attached. This stationmaster’s house is still there and is now a modernised private dwelling.  

Marino station, even now, is very quaint and picturesque, but in August 1907 the stationmaster Patrick Dowd was awarded first prize for its appearance, as it was judged the best of all the stations on the Belfast-Bangor line. In the first half of the twentieth century it regularly won first prize for its floral displays. 

Marino station in 2021 from the Belfast-side road bridge

We begin our walk on the road bridge on the Belfast side of the station. If you face seaward down Old Quay Road you will see a gap on the left-hand side of the bridge. This takes us down the short trail down the side of the railway line. According to local wisdom this trail is known as the Black Path or according to some the Black Pad and came into existence with the arrival of the railway. In winter sturdy walking shoes are recommended as the path can be quite muddy and uneven. In summer it is best to keep legs and arms covered as the brambles can become overgrown and reach out into the trail.

If you choose not to go down the trail you can simply walk on down Old Quay Road to another entrance to Seapark and re-join the rest of the walk there. 

At the end of the Black Path, which is about 300 metres long, you will come to a tarred road (Seapark Grove). Follow it past the railway bridge for a further 100 metres and you will see on your left the Seapark Recreation grounds which is the home of Holywood Cricket Club, Football Club and also a fine crown bowling green. Tennis courts are available for public hire. On a fine summer’s day it is worth pausing to see the cricketers out in full regalia. Cricket may have been played in Holywood as early as 1860 but the present club, as we know it, was formed as a result of a meeting held on Monday, 28 March 1881. 

Continue down Ballymenoch Park and enter the parkland to your right following the tarred path towards the foot bridge with steel railings. Immediately in front you will see Clanbrassil Terrace a block of four houses built circa 1860. The name Clanbrassil comes from the Earl of Clanbrassil – a local landowner from whom the Kennedys bought their land.

According to Con Auld in his ‘Forgotten Houses of Holywood’ (2003) there were originally five houses in the terrace, but the one at the west end was destroyed by fire in 1878. They certainly make a ‘stand out’ landmark and can be seen from quite a distance.

Follow the path towards them and veer to the right up to the Farmhill Road entrance to Seapark. Then take the road to the left along Clanbrassil Road till its junction with Cultra Avenue. Along this road you will see some of the most expensive and extensive houses in Northern Ireland. They really are spectacular. Most have been built fairly recently in the past 20 years or so. Some are the renovations of older properties. There is a good footpath down one side of Clanbrassil Road. 

When you reach the junction with Cultra Avenue turn left towards the sea. Soon you will be at the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club on the right as you enter Seafront Road. On the left you will see the Yacht Club’s boatyard and behind it a charming row of restored two storey cottages. The boatyard is the site of the former Cultra Harbour. The cottages may have housed a customs office when the harbour was trading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Auld explains that the North Down seashore shelves very gently to low water mark. Cultra is the nearest point to Belfast where there is in-shore deep water. An early Belfast Lough pilotage map of 1775 shows Cultra as the customary landing place for passengers from Cross-Channel packets. The Kennedys are known to have re-built the harbour and added a small square light house in the centre of an odd arrow-shaped quay. It is claimed that when completed the harbour could provide anchorage for vessels up to three hundred tons.

Eventually in 1855 the fishermen’s pier in Holywood was replaced by a 600 feet timber quay and was further extended into the Lough for a quarter of a mile. This meant that Cultra Harbour was no longer needed as a landing place for passengers. The basin of the harbour was filled in to provide a yard for the Yacht Club. 

Cultra Harbour has been the venue for all sorts of water sports and sailing for seven centuries. It often attracted large crowds for yacht and rowing races, with attendant festivities. In 1889 the Ulster Canoe Club was founded; it then changed its name to the Ulster Sailing Club and amalgamated with the Cultra Yacht Club in 1899 to become the North of Ireland Yacht Club, which then received the Royal assignation in September 1902 from Edward VII. This marked the completion of its fine clubhouse, which is still in use today. 

 The Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club 

Continuing our journey we head east along Seafront Road, which is part of the North Down coastal path. On the seaward side is a footpath; on the right is housing which enjoys the beautiful sea views and great views of the Antrim coast on the other side of the lough. 

Take time to enjoy the vast array of seabirds feeding round the rocky seashore. It is well worth bringing binoculars and a camera to record the various birds to be seen, particularly at low tide. 

There are many types of gulls and waders – including lots of turnstones and redshanks. In the photos below are pale-bellied Brent geese.  They are winter migrants from the Arctic, who arrive here about October, and head back north for the breeding season in March/April.  They keep in family groups. 

At the end of Seafront Road keep straight on along the coastal path. When you come to a gap in the wall the path deteriorates somewhat and becomes rougher and narrower. Care should taken on this stretch of path as there is a sheer drop on the seaward side and it can also be subject to big waves and spray in stormy weather at high tide. 

When you get to the junction of Glen Road on the right, head up it. Here you will come to the steepest climb on the walk, but it is not too arduous; it extends for about 1 kilometre. It is a quiet road but has no footpaths. Again, you will see on either side of the road some magnificent houses sitting in their tree filled grounds. Some are of a very modern design. 

Glen Road

At the top of Glen Road you will reach the busy main road between Belfast and Bangor. Turn right back towards Holywood. In front you will see a bridge over the main road. To the left you will see the entrance to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Both of these are worth visits in their own right and will provide you with an enjoyable and very educational day out. The Folk Museum sits in its own extensive grounds of approximately 136 acres at the centre of which is Cultra Manor. This was built in 1902 by Sir Robert Kennedy and his wife to replace the previous Cultra House which had been the Kennedy family residence since the seventeenth century. Sir Robert had sold Cultra House in 1870 and pursued a glittering diplomatic career, where he served in exotic places such as St Petersburg, Bulgaria, Persia and Uruguay. He built Cultra Manor in preparation for his retirement in 1912. 

The coastal areas of Cultra had, by this time, been reasonably heavily developed, and building further inland allowed Sir Robert Kennedy to benefit from a very large landscaped plot on which he could site one of the last substantial mansions to be built in the area. 

According to Lord Belmont, Sir Robert and Lady Kennedy died within a few months of each other in 1936, leaving their four daughters to inherit the estate. After the 2nd World War, the family found the maintenance of the mansion increasingly overwhelming and, ca 1952, a smaller Neo-Georgian house was built for them in the grounds of the Manor. 

The Manor House and pleasure gardens were sold in 1961 to the Ulster Folk Museum, and a conversion of the building was undertaken by Robert McKinstry in association with Ian Campbell. This consisted of re-allocating the main rooms as exhibition areas, the servants’ quarters as workshops and library and extending the garages for use as an administration block. The museum opened to visitors in 1964 and the Manor House has since undergone a number of major refurbishments. 

As we head back along the main road on our right is the Transport Museum, which is situated in the grounds of former the Dalchoolin House (now demolished), which was built around the same time as Cultra Manor (1902), and was possibly associated with the Cairns family (Earl Cairns/Viscount Garmoyle). 

Proceed along the righthand footpath and you will soon come to the five-star Culloden Hotel. This is one of Northern Ireland’s premier hotels and part of the Hastings Hotel Group. They provide a short history of the hotel, which they say is steeped in history:

“The origins of Northern Ireland’s longest established five-star hotel go back to 1876 when leading Belfast stockbroker William Auchinleck Robinson JP had a beautiful stone villa built on a magnificent wooded site at Craigavad, Cultra. Named for his wife, Elizabeth Jane Culloden, it was designed in the Scottish Baronial style by Young and Mackenzie Ltd. Among the leading architects of their day, the firm was responsible for many of Belfast’s most prominent buildings. Much of the stone was brought from Scotland by boat, landed at Portaferry, and conveyed by horse and cart to the site. 

“At the end of the 19th century, Culloden House became the official residence of the Lord Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, and was known as The Bishop’s Palace. Four bishops lived here including Bishop Crozier who later became Archbishop of Armagh. Bishop Crozier was a close friend of the celebrated Irish songwriter and entertainer Percy French and godfather to his daughter. French, who wrote the famous song The Mountains of Mourne, was a frequent visitor.  

“Culloden House changed hands several times during the 20th century. In the early sixties it was converted into a boutique hotel by the owner of White’s Home Bakery, Rutledge White. It became widely known for its elegant ambience, French furnishings, beautiful paintings and excellent food. The hotel was bought by Sir William Hastings in 1967. Since then it has been expanded and has become internationally renowned for its luxury. In 1996 the Culloden Estate and Spa became the first hotel in Northern Ireland to be granted five star-status. The hotel now boasts 105 deluxe bedroom suites, 11 luxurious self-catering apartments, six private banqueting suites and a fabulous Health Club and Spa. 

“Over the years the Culloden has hosted countless stars of film, music and sport, as well as world leaders. Rock giant Van Morrison, who has played unforgettable concerts at the hotel, is a regular visitor. Ed Sheeran recalls his breakfast here with ‘Van the Man’ as one of the highlights of his life. 

“Other famous music acts have graced the hotel, including U2, One Direction, Westlife, Ronan Keating, Chris Rea, Lionel Ritchie, Sir James Galway, Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue, Sir Cliff Richard and Dolly Parton. Katie Perry was a regular at the Culloden’s state-of-the-art gym during her extended stay in 2014. Film stars Sir Richard Attenborough, Shirley McClaine and Sir Christopher Plummer have also been welcomed here. Politicians, John Major, Tony Blair, Presidents of Ireland and members of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet all stayed on visits to Northern Ireland.”

Culloden Hotel 

Walk on to the junction with Cultra Station Road on the right and head down it. You will see the Cultra Inn on the right in the grounds of the Culloden Hotel. If you are feeling like a coffee or meal at this point it is a good place to take a break. 

Cultra Inn

Keep to the footpath on the right, cross the railway bridge and you will immediately see Cultra Station (which is the stop for the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, which can be directly accessed by heading up the steps beside the footbridge). Masefield devotes several pages to the station in his railway book.

The original station at Cultra was built with the instruction that it should be a good, sufficient passenger station of ornamental character and in keeping with the high-class villas being built by the famous architect Charles Lanyon on the Cultra demesne. The Kennedy family stipulated that at least half of the trains passing each way daily should stop at Cultra, under penalty for breach of £10 per day. The Kennedys’ permission was additionally dependent on certain trees being spared, which led to curves on the track.

When the track was doubled from the late 1890s a magnificent covered footbridge was built at the Belfast end of the platforms to satisfy the wishes of the Kennedys and other distinguished clientele of the neighbourhood. Con Auld records that there was even a private entrance on the footbridge for the exclusive use of the Robinson family who built the Culloden. 

The station was reduced to a halt status in 1934. Sometime after Second World War the original footbridge was demolished. It did, however, have a brief moment of glory when it featured in a historic documentary film shot in 1942, which was directed by Northern Ireland’s most eminent film-maker Brian Desmond Hurst. The film was about American troops who had come to Northern Ireland that year to train for the war in Europe. 

The station was closed in November 1957, before it was reopened on 1 July 1978 as the recognised stopping place for the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The current footbridge was built at that time at the Bangor end of the platforms to give access to the museums. 

The historic station building was sold in 1960, but was vacated in the 1970s and then fell into disrepair. It was then bought in 2010 with a view to development. The building had been given “listed” status and has since been restored sympathetically to preserve much of its original character. It along with other buildings on the site are now private dwellings. 

Cross the road from the station and go left into Circular Road West and head down towards the coast again. This road lacks a footpath, so care is needed. Again, it is a tree lined road with some mansions, mainly from Victorian times. 

In a couple of minutes you will come down to the junction with Ailsa Road on the left. Head down this straight, level road. The name Ailsa is associated with the Kennedy family and their origins in Scotland in the seventeenth century. Once again there is no footpath.

At the far end of Ailsa Road, on the left, you will see a building of most unusual shape and character. It looks like some sort of gate lodge and is in the grounds of a much larger dwelling which has now been converted into prestige apartments. It is a mixture of different architectural styles, with parapets, slated roofs, and different shapes of windows. It is embellished with gargoyles.

Strange building on Ailsa Road 

At the end of Ailsa Road we turn to the left up Cultra Avenue. At this point it is worth taking a few minutes detour from our chosen route, although this is optional.

Head up Cultra Avenue and on the left you will soon come to Cultra Park. As you look up the Park you will see number 6, which is Cultra House – the site of the original Kennedy dwelling just after they arrived in Ireland.

The Department for Communities Historic Buildings Database (accessed via the Historic Environment Map Viewer) provides quite a bit of information on the history and architectural nature of Cultra House. The current building is described as “a symmetrical two-storey three-bay house with dormer attic, built c.1875, located on the east side of Cultra Avenue. The house consists of a rectangular front block with a triple-gabled return to rear, further abutted by a single storey Edwardian extension. The right gable consists of a projecting full-height canted bay to left; the remainder is recessed, abutted at ground floor by a modern conservatory and two windows wide to first floor. The original grounds have been sold off and now comprise a small private housing development. The house retains a small yard to north and a large lawn with tennis court and shrubs to south. Directly to front is a tarmac turning circle with central water feature reached by a short drive accessed via modern entrance comprising mild steel security gates on rendered piers. The site is bounded by hedging and modern boundary walling.”

The modern day Cultra House

The Department for Communities document provides a synopsis of the history. There has been a building on this site, at least since 1671, and the present house dates from c1875. In 1994 the Historic Monuments and Buildings branch of the Environmental Heritage Service asked the Palaeoecology Centre at Queens University Belfast to date the roof structure at Cultra House using samples of roof timbers. The felling dates and estimated felling ranges for the roof timbers indicated that the roof contained a large number of reused timbers. The dates for the timbers with complete sapwood were 1666 and 1670 and the dates for other samples with the heartwood-sapwood boundary present were 1582 ± 9 years and 1689 ± 9 years. Assuming the roof timbers have been consistently reused from previous buildings on the site, this would approximately concur with the date 1671 that is proposed for the first building on the site, although clearly some of the timbers are much older and may have derived from an even earlier building, or have come from elsewhere.

It was in this year that John Kennedy acquired the townlands, “Ballyrobert, Balleydavey, Craig-a-Vad, Ballygrainy, Ballycultre, Corrow Reagh and Ballybun” from Lord Clanbrassil and that he built Cultra House.

Griffith’s Valuation (1856-64) indicated that the house had fallen somewhat into disrepair, following the death of Robert J Kennedy. It was occupied by the Representatives of Robert J Kennedy Esq in chancery. Mr Thomas Henry Kennedy, uncle to the minor [probably Sir Robert Kennedy (1851-1939)] and also guardian and agent to chancery resided here at that time, also some servants. The front of house was dilapidated and unfinished, the back was neglected and in very bad repair. 

By 1933 ‘Cultra House’ was occupied by Elizabeth M A McCormick and leased from Sir Robert J Kennedy. According to Auld, by this time the house had undergone refurbishment and the addition of a ballroom with stained glass windows. By 1957 the house appears to have been under the control of the Eastern Special Care Management Committee and was used as a residential facility for people with learning difficulties. Alterations and additions were carried out at this time by Stanley A Devon, architect.

When it was no longer required for this purpose the house was bought and restored for use as a private home, the grounds surrounding it providing building sites for eleven residences and the carriage driveway becoming Cultra Park. 

Returning from our interlude to see Cultra House we now near the end of our journey. Head a few yards back down Cultra Avenue and on the left turn into Old Cultra Road. This has a footpath on the left side. Here we will see some more big houses with lovely well-maintained gardens, which in spring and summer are a joy to behold. Some of the Houses have been recently built but exude the charm and character of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times. 

As we meander round Old Cultra Road we come to the end of our walk. At its end turn left into Farmhill Road and on the right you will see Marino station where our walk began! 

Marino Station and journey’s end

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF) 

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By Bill Lockhart

Bill Lockhart has lived in Holywood since 1984. He is a retired forensic psychologist who worked for the Youth Justice Agency, Extern and ran a private psychological consultancy. Since retirement he has been actively engaged with Holywood Shared Town and Holywood Men's Shed. He is convinced of the therapeutic benefits of walking, particularly in nature, and tries to walk daily. He is interested in promoting inclusiveness and wellbeing for all, local history, protecting the natural environment and photography.