Today the only line still operating over what was once the extensive route system of the Belfast and County Down Railway is that from Belfast Central to Bangor.
The BCDR was founded in 1846 and the first stretch of a system that was eventually to cover some 80 miles throughout County Down – to Newcastle (opened in 1869), Ballynahinch (1858), Downpatrick, Ardglass (from Downpatrick in 1892), Castlewellan (from Newcastle in 1906), Comber – was opened to Holywood in 1848.
In 1865 the Holywood and Bangor Railway extended the line along the shore of Belfast Lough into Bangor. In the 1950s the other routes were closed.
Today, though, the Belfast-Bangor line is one of the most successful in the Northern Ireland Railways system, serving what is commonly known as the Gold Coast, a wealthy stretch of luxury homes and fashionable small towns, hamlets and communities, many of which can be seen along the loughside on the left.
Several small stations on the line no longer exist – Ballymacarrett Junction, Kinnegar and Craigavad – though what remains can still be seen as the train rolls past. Originally all the lines ran from Queen’s Quay Station, now part of the development along the River Lagan and where the Odyssey now stands. Queen’s Quay was one of three terminals in Belfast, the others being York Road (serving Londonderry and Larne Harbour) and Great Victoria Street (also serving Londonderry, Mid-Ulster, Fermanagh, Donegal and Dublin), but in 1976 all the lines were brought under one roof with the building of Belfast Central Station.
Central Station provides an excellent hub for all the railway lines: you can travel from Bangor through to Newry, Londonderry and Larne Harbour.
The first station out of Belfast Central on this 30-minute journey is Bridge End. In 1977 it replaced Ballymacarratt Junction, the platform of which can still be seen. Bridge End is convenient for the Odyssey, the Laganside concert hall, multi-screen cinema, W5 and arena for the professional ice hockey Belfast Giants.
From Bridge End to Sydenham what was once the world’s largest shipyard of Harland and Wolff can be seen on the left, towered over by the now-listed giant yellow cranes (Samson and Goliath). The area is currently being massively redeveloped as the Titanic Quarter, named after the ill-fated luxury liner that was built by Harland and Wolff.
On the left just out of Bridge End is Victoria Park and if you look closely you can see a small boatyard, where concrete boats are built. On the right just beyond Bridge End is the Oval, home of Irish Premier League club Glentoran. Formed in 1882, the Glens – nickname: the Cock ‘n’ Hens – are one of the most famous soccer clubs in Ireland and the first British club ever to win a major European trophy. In 1914 they travelled to Austria, played against teams from Burnley, Celtic, Hertha and an Austrian Select and won the Vienna Cup.
Sydenham serves the East Belfast suburb of the same name and is the nearest station to the George Best Belfast City Airport, which it connects by a regular shuttle bus service (though airline passengers are much better using the regular shuttle bus service). The train runs past the airport, seen on the left. Vague plans exist for a station dedicated to the airport but nothing has yet come of them.
Named after the famous Manchester United and Northern Ireland soccer star, the airport was opened in 1983 and serves all of the major British Isles cities. It was the site originally of the flying-boat services and was established by the aircraft manufacturers Short Brothers. It was the city’s main airport in 1938-39 and was then taken over during the war as a Royal Air Force station.
As the train passes the airport there opens up, on the left, the Belfast Harbour Wetlands Park, now one of the most important bird and wildlife reserves in Northern Ireland. It is surprising to find such a rich source of wildlife in such a heavily industrialised area, but here you can find some 200 different bird species: ducks, gulls, raptors and waders.
The wetlands were formed just some 30 years ago when they were enclosed from the sea and used as a dumping ground for silt dredged from Belfast Lough. Now, however, in addition to the birds, butterflies, plants, fish and mammals abound.
To the left and right as the train approaches Holywood can be seen Palace Barracks, the HQ of countless British Army regiments stationed in Northern Ireland.
The line begins to open out to views on the left of Belfast Lough (the other side of the Lough is County Antrim, served by the Belfast Central-Larne Harbour line. Cave Hill and Black Mountain, Carrickfergus Castle, Knockagh Monument and the Blackhead Lighthouse can be seen).
Holywood was so named by the Normans after the woodland surrounding a monastery founded in 640 by St. Laiseran. It is regarded today as one of the major media centres in Northern Ireland, with PR, marketing and independent film and television production companies based there.
It is also one of the most fashionable – and pretty – small towns, steeped in history and packed with outstanding restaurants, art galleries and interesting little shops. Wealthy merchants from Belfast laid the foundations for its popularity.
One of its many claims to fame is that it is the only town in Ireland to have a Maypole (pic), along the main street. The 70ft pole was originally erected in 1700 by grateful Dutch sailors who had been shipwrecked. They made the pole from the masts of their doomed ship and danced around it with local girls.
In the Square to the right of the station stands the War Memorial depicting a soldier in full kit. It was designed by L.S. Merrifield and unveiled by Mrs Dunlop whose son was one of the first from the town to die in the Great War. The area around the memorial is called Redburn Square, in honour of Second Lieutenant John Spencer Dunville, VC, the second son of John and Violet Dunville of Redburn House, Holywood.
Leaving the station the train runs alongside Belfast Lough on the left and past a small park leading to a sandy beach. There are, seen on the right shortly after leaving the station, the ruins of a 13th century Priory and graveyard.
From Holywood to Bangor the train runs through the Gold Coast, a 10-mile stretch of magnificent houses hugging Belfast Lough. They can be seen on the left.
As with several other still-working stations around the Northern Ireland Railways system, former station buildings have been bought and converted into private homes. The station at Marino, the next along from Holywood, is just such a home, seen on the left.
Cultra Station, now with an abandoned but once impressive red-brick station (now for sale), seen on the left, is the stop serving the award-winning Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, one of the finest of its kind in Europe.
At Cultra walk along the left-hand platform to the bridge over the main road. The Folk section of the museum is to the right, the Transport section to the left. The complex, opened in 1964, sits on over 170 acres of what was once Cultra Manor, in the hills overlooking Belfast Lough and contains many cottages, terrace houses, mansions, churches, banks and schools brought from all across Northern Ireland and lovingly re-built.
The Folk Museum recreates rural life from the early 1900s, with fascinating indoor galleries. There is a café and a shop. The Transport Museum was originally housed in East Belfast before being established at Cultra in 1993.
The Irish Rail Collection is a must-see for railway enthusiasts, the largest in Ireland and one of the largest in Europe. It contains many restored steam engines, carriages, a station and lots of railway memorabilia.
Elsewhere in this section can be found a magnificent Titanic exhibition, a Belfast-built De Lorean car – star of the Back to the Future films – and one of only two Short Brothers-built vertical Take-off aircraft. It’s a real hands-on, not-to-be-missed experience.
Seahill Station serves the largely commuter estates. Though there is no longer a station at Craigavad – remnants can still be glimpsed - on Station Road is Royal Belfast Golf Club, the oldest in Ireland. From Holywood to Bangor marvel at the rich array of wild flowers along the trackside as the train travels through extensive woodlands.
The station that follows Seahill is Helen’s Bay, designed by Benjamin Ferrey in the Scottish Baronial style in1l863 for Lord Dufferin, over whose land the line was built. The family had their own private waiting room and entrance.
At one time the station was used as a restaurant and several attempts have been made to revive it as such. Walk down from the station and you come to a wide beach, effectively part of the Crawfordsburn Country Park (there is no longer a Crawfordsburn Station).
Carnalea Station is a perfect example of a major commercial company (Northern Ireland Railways/Translink) and local residents working together. With the support of the Carnalea Residents Association the station was refurbished in 2005. The station is an ideal stopping-off point to explore the North Down Coastal Path that skirts Belfast Lough from Holywood to Bangor, parts of which can be seen to the left.
There is also the picturesque Carnalea Golf Course to the left, with a wonderful view of the Lough and, on a clear day, all the way to Scotland. The Girl Guides centre is nearby, a magnificent 21-acre site at Lorne.
From Carnalea the line turns inland from Belfast Lough for the final run into the holiday resort of Bangor, through Bangor West Station serving the suburban estates.
Bangor, like Portrush on the Belfast-Londonderry route, is one of Northern Ireland’s seaside gems, with a harbour and a large marina, many shops and first-class restaurants. It was once a mecca for holiday-makers from all over Ireland as well as England and Scotland and though people now take cheap flights to more exotic parts the town still retains its magic.
The modern station is part of an extensive rail and bus system and offers a shop and a friendly café. Bangor is the gateway for such nearby small towns as Donaghadee and Groomsport, both well worth a visit. Outside the station, to the right, is Castle Park and it is short walk down the main street to the seafront and the award-winning Bangor Marina, one of the largest in Ireland, built in 1989.
Directly across the road is is the 17th century Tower House, now housing the town’s Tourist Information Centre. There is a small craft shop and a wide collection of tourist booklets on the area. Bangor also has one of Ireland’s most impressive town parks. Ward Park has a great collection of waterfowl.
Bangor is steeped in early Christian history. Bangor Abbey, famous for its learning and featured in the Mappa mundi, the first map of the world, was founded in 558 by Saint Comgall and sent missionaries around Europe in the Middle Ages. Though little now remains of the original abbey, the present tower dates back to the 14th century.
Bangor Castle, completed in 1852, is an imposing Elizabethan-Jacobean mansion and is where North Down Borough Council now sits. It is also home to North Down Museum, an exhibition space telling the story of the town and surrounding area and featuring a nice cafe.
Bangor is a town of parks and estates. Clandeboye Estate contains woodlands, a lake, formal and walled gardens and farmland. It was first settled in 1674 though the present house dates from 1801. It is the home of the present Lady Dufferin.
Helen’s Tower – built in memory of Helen, Lady Dufferin, grand-daughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan - was immortalised in the poem of the same name by Tennyson and an exact replica stands as the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in honour of the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division who died at the Great War Battle of the Somme.