King John’s Progress

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pro+gress n. ..6. Brit a stately royal journey.

Collins English Dictionary

To get to grips with a place it is necessary to escape its static present and seek out the flow of the natural and manmade landscape through time. When everything around you seems ordinary and now, you need to tease out the hints of history, to come to see the ground around you in a deeper dimension. Finding and travelling ‘the old ways’ is a means to do this and that is exactly what this walk tries to do!

Holywood Motte today – with its ascending helical path added in the 18th Century
TYPECircular walk mixed urban and countryside. Footpaths and road walking with significant climb and some steep gradients.
DISTANCE3.2 miles / 5.2 km
SURFACESMostly asphalt paths and roads, but some walking on unsurfaced, potentially muddy, paths.
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS470 feet climb
  • Some road walking on a quiet country road without pavements
  • One busy road crossing with limited visiblity
  • Steep slopes which could be dangerous in icy conditions

King John came to Ireland in 1210 to assert his authority over his Norman knights who had increasingly been freelancing on their own account, rather than acting as agents of the Crown. As part of this campaign he laid siege and took Carrickfergus which was then the principal port and fortified town of Ulster. Carrickfergus had been the stronghold of Hugh de Lacy who had recently formed an alliance with Aoid Meith (Hugh of Omeath) the Gaelic ruler of Tyrone. They then fought together against King John. This was a period of complex power struggles, with ever shifting alliances between the Crown, the Norman knights and the various ruling families of Ireland.

Mission accomplished, King John then proceeded to make a couple of ‘house calls’ to his other fortified towns of Holywood and Dundonald. Bizarrely the history only records that he lost 2 pence playing cards with the Earl of Winchester in Dundonald Motte, but it seems his likely purpose was to allow his local representatives to ‘kiss the ring’ and assure their King of their unfailing allegiance!

We don’t know if he actually stayed in Holywood Motte, but it would seem the sensible accommodation under the circumstances, so this is where our route begins.

Unfortunately the Motte is normally kept behind locked bars and you can only peer through these, past the inaccessible information board to a corner of the mound beyond. No useful information, other than the name, is on display outside.

If you are lucky the gates may not be locked when you visit

The Motte is striking for the steepness of its sides, but also the smallness of its platform top. No room here for a grand hall or a large garrison. This was a place of retreat and refuge. School book lessons about Norman Mottes always included the Bailey – an encircling outer palisade, initially made of wooden stakes, inside which were protected dwellings, animals and the great bulk of the population. The Bailey here would likely have taken advantage of the steep banks of the Twisel Burn (now culverted below the Telephone Exchange) and the low spur on the seaward side. The woods (as in Holy Wood) would have been cleared back to give a good view of approaching boats from the Lough and visitors on foot.

Once a “Mill Village” in miniature!

Now walk up the hill to join Victoria Road. On your left is a terrace of former mill-workers’ ‘white-washed’ cottages. The larger, far-end property, Motte House, having been the mill owner’s residence. These are clearly shown on the first edition 1834 OS map, along with two mills fed from the Twisel, (at this stage an industrial energy source rather than an aid to fortification).

Carefully cross Victoria Road to the post box opposite.

Continue up Victoria Road to the next entrance where you can look in to get a glimpse of Martello Terrace, a handsome three-storey Victorian red-brick terrace.

The original generous gardens are largely intact, still containing mature Scots Pines rather than the more usual bungalows!

Now why Martello Terrace? The simple answer is that they are named after the Martello Tower (defensive / observational structures built around the UK coast in the Napoleonic period), which still stands in a garden at their rear. Unfortunately for this theory, this building was actually a windmill and is clearly shown as such on the 1834 OS Map. I have seen the suggestion that the windmill might have been used as a Martello Tower, but its inland and generally un-strategic location makes this unlikely. My alternative suggestion is that this is an early example of ‘Estate Agent hyperbole’ and this is rather borne out by the terrace’s original given name of ‘Martello Crescent’. Rather over-the-top for four houses in a straight row!

Continue up Victoria Road passing a large new housing development on your left. Its modern footprint almost exactly matches the site of a large mill pond which in the 1800s helped drive the mills below on the Twisel. This was probably fed from the Croft River rather than the Twisel.

An aging, but fully operational kissing gate guards one of Holywood’s few pedestrian public rights of way

At the next corner you come to an aging kissing gate and public footpath which you might wish to explore. About 150m down this path you come to a gap in the top of the high stone wall on your left, through which the windmill stump, (previously discussed), is clearly visible. You can now come to your own conclusion about its suitability as a Martello Tower!

Renewable energy has a long history in Holywood!

Continue along Victoria Road for another 200m where, just after a slight bend you arrive opposite the beginning of the Twisel Path

A Holywood public footpath with a useful sign!

We will save the Twisel for your return route. So stay on the Victoria Road passing the private entrance to Glenlyon House as you bear left. The modern Glenlyon Park wooded glen was once part of this house’s garden.

As we continue on along Victoria Road you might reasonably ask how can we know that this is the actual route King John (and his band of knights) would have travelled? The simple answer is that we can’t, but the road we are on is clearly shown as one of the only five roads leaving Holywood on the 1834 OS map and it joins the path known locally today as King John’s Walk. This path / bridleway climbs out of Holywood in a straight line towards Dundonald and the next suitable Motte accommodation. 1834 is a long time after 1210, but ways, once established by merit of their suitability for the transport of the day, (in this case foot and horseback) tend to stay in use until the modes of transport themselves change.

Continue crossing over the hidden Croft Burn to the junction with Croft Road, crossing carefully into ‘Woodlands’ opposite. The name here hints at this road’s previous role as a tree lined avenue giving access to the walled gardens and associated farm buildings at the back of Ballymenoch House estate.

The modern pedestrian entrance to the former grounds of Ballymenoch Park are less imposing!

Today there is no grand entrance here, but you can access Ballymenoch Park which covers a significant part of the grounds of the former Ballymenoch Demesne. Ballymenoch House has been incorporated into the modern buildings of a retirement home and now stands in separate grounds beyond. Ahead and to your right the houses of Croft Park and Croft Close stand where the farmhouse and walled gardens once were.

So bear right uphill to the T junction and turn left into Croft Park. Keep on the left hand side of the road following around the corner to where you turn left into a pedestrian link path to Croft Close.

Pedestrian link from Croft Park to Croft Close

The path exits at the end of Croft Close where you follow another link path through to Kirkmichael Park.

 Pedestrian link from Croft Close to Kirkmichael Park

Exiting Kirkmichael Park you turn right uphill along Rannoch Road to the junction with Princess Gardens, where you turn right again.

After 40m you come to a gap between two houses with a brown electricity substation to the rear. This is our first ‘Narnia’ moment – with the role of Wardrobe played by the substation! So walk through the gap to find yourself in another world!

There are no signs here to mark the beginning of King John’s Walk

Far ahead and up, the footpath disappears between high tree-lined hedges. To your left a small stream gurgles happily – just before vanishing into its long culvert. The path ahead is wide enough for walkers, horses and farm animals, but not a cart or carriage. This is King’s John Walk proper, his very possible route and certainly an old drove road running across the Holywood Hills to the settlement at Dundonald.

The path probably survives because of its steepness. It would have been unsuitable to upgrade and widen for horse-drawn wheeled vehicles. Pulling a heavy cart up this would have been very difficult – controlling one coming downhill would probably have been impossible (with the braking technology of this time!)

As you climb, enjoying the rich hedgerow habitat, don’t forget to look back at the growing vistas of Belfast Lough framed behind.

The stream here, which adds to the habitat value today, once would have been useful for thirsty horses, livestock and indeed their drovers, as they climbed the steep path ahead.

After 300m King John’s Walk crosses Ballymenoch Road and follows a lane between a tree lined hedge and white garden wall.

As you cross here, to your left the Creighton’s Green Road begins to zig-zag uphill. This ‘new’ road was built sometime in the late 1800s to enable carts and carriages to ascend from Ballymenoch Road up to the plateau above.

You will cross this road three more times as you proceed straight uphill (travelling some 210m less to arrive finally at the same place).

After your second crossing the path runs between a hedge and high fencing

After your second road crossing you come to a short path section which was nearly lost to us several years ago when fences were erected across it. Fortunately a prompt campaign by local people saved the public way for us all to enjoy today.

At your third crossing the path runs up a narrow gulley between a house and an attractive row of stone built cottages. These are probably the same row of buildings shown on the 1834 OS map.

Looking back from the cottages over Belfast Lough

Crossing number four takes you ‘into’ my favourite section of the King John’s Path.

Here is a path worthy of the title ‘Greenway’!

The narrow footway enters a long green tunnel. The ‘bones of the earth’ are exposed as the path bed finds the rock beneath the thin earth skin.

A distant figure vanishes from sight!

As you climb look out for gaps and gates on both sides which frame glimpses of this special landscape.

This last section is only 200m, but it feels somehow much longer before you suddenly emerge in full light at the top of the hill. in open flat land with great views over Belfast Lough and beyond.

After the dark enclosed tunnel – big skies and a great view.

You now have a 500m stretch of road walking along Creighton’s Green Road. Visibility is good and the traffic generally light and moderately paced, but as always with road walking proceed with caution and be ready to step into the verge.

A farmhouse on a small rise by the roadside provides additional colour and interest!

Continue on past a private entrance to ’25 Longhurst’ for a further 100m.

The distant view to the Scottish Hills is nicely framed by this lane.

Opposite the private lane into ‘Ash Farm’, turn sharp right onto a concrete road with several houses and farmland. This links through to Brown’s Brae and back to Holywood.

After 150m the concrete ends, your way crests a slight hill and suddenly a full panorama of the Belfast Hills crescent and the Lough opens up before you.

The communication mast on Carnmoney Hill lies directly ahead

The next 500m will provide the best views to be had anywhere around Holywood – enjoy!

As you descend, concrete reappears and the lane becomes progressively steeper (this could be tricky in icy conditions). You are now on Brown’s Brae proper, dropping to the edge of the suburbs.

As you leave the countryside the surface changes to asphalt and the road gains a pavement. However, this is not continuous on both sides, so you will have to cross at least once. In the next 500m Brown’s Brae transforms into Croft Road and you will eventually come back to the point where you crossed over from Victoria Road on your outward walk.

Turn left into Victoria Road and retrace your earlier route as far as the Twisel Bridge path.

Take care while crossing at the road bend here as oncoming traffic can be fast.

Now drop down the steps to your second Narnia experience of the day – a solitary street lamp burning above the intriguing little stone bridge.

Over the Twisel Bridge a lamp-post burns day and night!

Assuming you are not accosted by any passing fauns, follow the path downstream along the Twisel. All this would have once been part of the system of dams and mill races which fed the watermills down by Holywood Motte. Today it is all pleasant wooded burn-side where, if you are lucky, you might spot a Dipper bobbing on, or under, the rocky waterway below.

The path now joins Church Avenue which you follow past some splendid Scots Pines out onto Church Road and turn downhill.

On your right a fine row of Victorian Townhouses – ahead the Maypole and Holywood Central

You are now looking down one of the two roads which, for most of Holywood’s history, has defined the town. Church Road runs across the Belfast Hills and down to the sea as it turns into Shore Road. High Street linked the traffic from Bangor through to the Lagan crossing at Belfast and on to Carrickfergus. Indeed, up until the coming of steam ships, the principle passenger crossing from Scotland was from Port Patrick to Donaghadee. So again the Holywood crossroads would have seen all the comings and goings from Scotland to Belfast and beyond.

Holywood Maypole (taken 22nd Feb 2021) – the day before the top blew off!

It is rather appropriate that the middle of the crossroads is (normally) marked by a full size ship’s mast – which doubles up as a Maypole!

Everything changed for Holywood in the mid 19th Century when the rapid industrialisation of Belfast meant that Holywood became first a ‘bathing town’ and then, with the coming of the railway, a preferred place of residence for the newly prosperous classes of Belfast. The terraced town houses lining Church Road here are part of that building boom.

A further 200m downhill and you come to the junction with Brook Street which takes you back to the Motte and your starting point. I hope that “The Way That You Went” today bought something fresh and memorable to your understanding of Holywood.

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

External links


  • Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland Vol. 7, Parishes of County Down II – Institute of Irish Studies
  • Holywood Co. Down Then & Now by Con Auld

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By Charlie Reid

Walker, Orienteer and general outdoors person. Interested in practical green technology, map making, history and the future.

Holywood blow-in and editor of walking blog "Grand Day Out (NI)"