Kinnegar Wetlands

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Update 1 June 2021 – RSPB Reserve now open again

If you seek only pristine wilderness and unspoilt coastlines this walk along “The Kinnegar” is probably not for you. However, if you are happy to let the wilderness stay pristine and instead enjoy this fascinating historic coastline for what it is – and for what it could be in the future – read on.

Yet another photo of Holywood Pier at Sunset!
TYPELinear coastal walk
DISTANCE2.6 miles / 4.2 km (there and back)
SURFACESMainly on paved surfaces but one section on a potential muddy track.
HAZARDSThere is a small amount of access traffic on the road section. Water and mud nearby route.

Cunnigar– NOUN rare, dialect, historical Irish, Scottish A rabbit warren

Origin: Late Middle English; earliest use found in Acts of Parliament of Scotland. From Anglo-Norman coninger, conyngere, conyngair, coniger, coningere, coninggre, cuninger, conier, conyer

Lexico / Oxford University Press

Continuing in a north east direction along the shore of the Belfast Lough, the beach is flat and muddy and the soil alluvial until arriving within about a mile of the village of Holywood, when it becomes a firm, hard sand, and there is a curious sandbank running in a south west direction called the Cunifar, which forms a small bay on the coast.

Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland Co. Down Vol. 7 (1834)

Our walk starts at Holywood (or Kinnegar) Pier, opposite the popular Dirty Duck Ale House and beside the Holywood Yacht Club.

The Esplanade from the Pier

The Kinnegar was originally a long sand spit, crowned by low dunes and joined to the shore at Holywood. Running up the lough, it enclosed a shallow bay where the Holywood Lagoons now lie (alongside the railway). At some point rabbits were introduced here (possibly by the Normans) to be used a food source – hence the name.

Old maps show the coast in approximately the same position as today, but of course without the extensive concrete and rock sea defences which now define the coast.

Exposed and shifting dunes have limited agricultural and building value and so have often been spared for more frivolous pursuits well suited to the seaside. This certainly has been the case at the Kinnegar which has seen travelling circuses, boating parties, summer campsites, cricket pitches, bathing villas, tennis courts, a golf club (which later morphed into Royal Belfast), wildfowling and subsequently a rifle range (locally know as ‘The Butts’). It was indeed Holywood’s ‘Coney Island’ – the fun place to go for rich and poor alike.

Holywood Yacht Club still in action after 159 years

It is appropriate therefore that some of this spirit still endures at the Holywood Sailing Club which adds colour and drama alongside the Kinnegar Pier at weekends and on long summer evenings.

A “Sharpie” under cover outside the Yacht Club. This is Holywood’s very own built and designed racing class.

Now leave The Esplanade just past the Dirty Duck to follow a pedestrian way between the yacht club and boat enclosure to join ‘The Esplanade (Part 2)’. Alternatively you can follow the seawall path beside the Yacht Club boat enclosure.

The reconfiguration of roads here has caused many headaches for delivery drivers over the years!

The Esplanade – seafront and a linear green space.

This part of the Esplanade is a virtually traffic free cul-de-sac with seawall path and linear green space. The houses here are diverse in styles and age, but all sit together happily, enhancing their seafront location.

As the grass ends you come to the junction with Kinnegar Avenue. Beyond this a wide promenade continues along the shore with a high security fence on your left behind which is Kinnegar Logistics Base.

The purchase of the land by the War Office in 1887 seems to have followed on, rather logically, from the existence here of a substantial 1000 yards firing range, ‘The Butts’, – something rather incompatible with its other previous recreational uses! The cricket pitch had previously migrated to higher land after the inundation by the sea in 1884 which had lifted the pavilion and deposited it upon the railway line. Apparently the pavilion survived and was eventually moved again, this time by human force, to a new pitch at Spafield. 140 years on we should remember this demonstration of the power of the sea!

No photographs beyond this point!

Between the Kinnegar base and the seawall there is now a great promenade, up to 40 feet wide in places, which allows the free and easy intermingling of social distancing pedestrians, bicycles and the occasional car. The existence of such a beneficial public space is probably the result of happy chance rather than military generosity, but this last year it has been a godsend.

The Ministry of Defence has announced its intention to leave and sell the Kinnegar site. I feel all who care about Holywood must work together to ensure that the new Kinnegar maintains its generous promenade. There is also an opportunity here for a high-quality imaginative redevelopment, echoing the best of the Kinnegar’s recreational, commercial and residential past. It should be made clear to prospective developers that third-rate plans featuring only rows of residential rabbit hutches will not do!

The camp is a strange, but not uninteresting mix of building styles, periods and types. However, most interest is likely to be found looking out to the lough where you should be able to see the usual mix of gulls, oystercatchers, redshank, geese, turnstones and curlew. There is also of course the regular flow of shipping, the familiar Stena ferries, the over-stacked container ships, the gas tankers, the busy harbour tugs and the orange streak of the rushing pilot boat. Beyond all this is the bustling Port of Belfast, backed by the beautiful horseshoe of the Belfast Hills.

Half way along the promenade you come to a vehicle barrier by a guard house. “Non-entitled” vehicles will be turned back here, but pedestrians can pass freely. Access ramps have been recently added to the kerbs so wheelchair users and cyclists can now safely pass as well.

, but cyclists and wheelchair users will have to mount the high pavement without the benefit of a dropped kerb – an unfortunate omission.

Beyond the barrier you will become increasingly aware of the ‘Elephant in the Kinnegar redevelopment room’ – the Waste Water Treatment Plant which sits on what was once the end of the Kinnegar bank.

The great Victorian engineers developed an infrastructure of sewers, pumps and processing stations which succeeded spectacularly in controlling disease, saving millions of lives and making mass urban life possible and pleasant. However, while the Victorians rightly celebrated their pumping houses and sewage works through grand architecture, we hide ours away, like a dirty secret not to be talked about. Kinnegar Waste Water Treatment Plant fits this bill.

Kinnegar Waste Water Treatment Plant – State of the Art?

There has been excellent work carried out in recent years on the Holywood sewer system upgrade – particularly in preventing storm drains and sewers from mixing and releasing raw sewage into the lagoons. However, the job needs to be finished – the technologies exist to virtually eliminate odours and properly clean the water. The future Holywood can then once again be celebrated as a seaside “bathing town”.

In an answer to a recent Stormont question the Minister for Infrastructure said that she anticipated the “replacement of Kinnegar wastewater treatment works, expected to commence around 2024.”

Adjacent to the Water Treatment Plant there is a large ‘informal’ car park. This has always been a popular spot for office workers escaping the urban grind, kite flying families exploring the shore and bird watchers. Now, in the time of Covid 19, it is almost always full. There is much to build on here for the future.

Oystercatchers on a sand bank in Kinnegar Estuary

The access road narrows and then crosses a bridge over the Kinnegar estuary. The tidal mud flats to your left are extremely popular with birdlife, including oystercatchers, mallard, shelduck, teal and lapwings.

As you cross the bridge you are, in a sense, leaving the land behind! Up until the mid-twentieth century there were mud flats here, extending over one mile towards Belfast, covering what is now Belfast City Airport, Holywood Exchange and much of the Harbour Industrial Estate. The land has subsequently been ‘reclaimed’ from the sea, although it is unclear in what sense it belonged to anyone in the first place!

Now there has been a lot of talk about rabbit related topics in this walk so far but very few, if any, actual bunnies. With a little luck this will now change as there is a small warren located on the left as you cross over the Kinnegar Estuary and one or more of the residents are usually out having a nibble!

I like to think these rabbits are the descendants of the original conyngair. In ‘Watership Down’ mode, I imagine them fleeing the rifle range and sewage works across the bridge to make a home in the strange new land of the Belfast Harbour Estate!

Once across the bridge you can explore the open foreshore and shell-rich beach. If you are lucky you might see a ringed plover, but even when present their superb camouflage renders them almost invisible.

Back to the track by the security gates (currently always open) and you may spot a large undocumented anchor.

MSC Napoli anchor No. 2

This is an odd relic of the salvage by Harland and Wolff shipyard of the bow section of the container ship MSC Napoli. The Napoli hit the news in 2007 when it came to grief in severe weather in the English Channel. Stacked bridge-high with containers, the damaged ship began to list severely and a ‘least worst option’ decision was made to deliberately ground it in Lyme Bay, just off Branscombe beach.

The ship was carrying 2,300 containers and 3,800 tonnes of oil. Its assorted cargo included explosives, fertiliser, weedkiller, car engines, chocolate, Polish bibles, vodka, shampoo, wine, coffee, perfume, dog biscuits and frozen ducks.

Press Release: Tenth anniversary of the MSC Napoli shipwreck disaster :

An environmental disaster was feared and subsequently partly averted, but what really caught the public imagination was the bizarre treasure-trove which emerged from the containers as they washed up on the beach. Everything and more from the list above, but also most memorably containers full of high-end BMW motorbikes. Crowds flocked to the beach to help themselves!

West Country Folk Rock group Show of Hands marked the event with a typically pithy song:

Come gangs from the north
Lads off the moor
Wreckers on the cliffs, get down to the shore
Scratch Joe Public
What’s underneath?
A looter, and a pirate, and a thief

Show Of Hands – The Napoli Lyrics

A great deal was laid bare in those few days – the amazing containerisation of world trade that underpins our consumer lifestyle, the environmental risks which sail past us every day and the human primal drive to scavenge.

All of which still doesn’t explain what this anchor is doing here – I will leave you to decide!!

Now follow the rough track past the small pumping building and into a narrow woodland which runs along the shore for the next 250m. You will notice the mixed woodland sits on a low ridge. According to the Ordnance Survey mapping from 1950/60s this was a refuse tip as were several other adjacent areas of land. However, today the many birds which live here don’t seem to mind and neither should we!

The lough here is often a good place to see large flocks of birds – black headed gulls, eider and light bellied brent geese. The artificial shore of concrete slabs, rubble and the occasional twisted sculptural metal, seems to suit them fine.

The path now comes to another popular informal car park and your way terminates with a high mesh fence which pens off a large block of unused foreshore.

RSPB Reserve Visitor Centre
(Now re-opened)

You now have the option of a not particularly interesting 600 metre walk along Airport Road West to the wonderful hidden RSPB reserve. Here an accidental man-made lagoon has been adopted by birdlife and rescued by the RSPB for the birds (and us) to enjoy. Its star attraction are the two artificial islands where hundreds of tern can be seen nesting each year.

There are two ‘outdoor’ hides normally open for public access and also the excellent modern visitor centre. Here you can view the lagoon in heated comfort, access toilets, have access to a range of binoculars and telescopes and ask questions of the very helpful and knowledgeable staff. ‘Ordinary’ bird hides can be a bit scary for novice birdwatchers – like wandering into a strange strict church where keeping very quiet seems the best policy! This is totally the opposite.

The reserve visitor centre was recently modernised but also unfortunately rebranded . However, no one can make you call it “Belfast Window on Wildlife – WOW” if you don’t want to!

There is an admission fee except for RSPB members.

The Return

Now it is time to retrace your steps. On the way out we looked at Kinnegar today and hints of Kinnegar past, now I would like you to think of Kinnegar future. Massive change is inevitable and change for the better is totally possible. As you walk back, imagine how this historic coast could be cleansed and re-developed to combine the best of past and future for all who live here.

Rebuilding Kinnegar Pier – the old is made new

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)"