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Most of Ireland's railways were built piece-by-piece, NI's being a typical example of various small companies running lines between two points: Belfast to Ballymena, Londonderry to Coleraine… and nothing in between. And there were almost as many small companies as there were sleepers on the lines: the Belfast and Ballymena Railway, the Northern Counties Railway, the Midland Railway, the Irish North Western Railway, the Great Northern Railway, Northern Railway of Ireland, the Ulster Railway, the London Midland and Scottish, the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway.
Clearly what was needed was a joined-up system, which the companies turned their attention to in the 1800s. On what is now the Belfast-Londonderry route the first tracks were laid from Belfast to Ballymena in April, l848. The Londonderry to Coleraine Railway ran to Limavady in l852 and to Coleraine the following year. The Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway opened to Portrush in l855.
One of many branch-lines - Randalstown to Cookstown - opened in l856. And other lines ran to Portrush and Draperstown, Dungiven and Cushendall. In l860 a bridge over the River Bann at Coleraine finally brought all the lines together and opened the Belfast-Londonderry route. Elsewhere, services to Londonderry were operated through Omagh-Portadown and Lisburn-Antrim, but you’ve probably got a headache trying to keep up.
Starting from Belfast, the journey to Londonderry is the longest single train trip in Northern Ireland at just over two hours. But if you need proof that size isn’t everything this is it.
Interestingly, it takes longer now than it did in the days of the steam trains! And in the days of steam there was a restaurant service on board. As ‘long haul’ travel goes it may not seem impressive but it is, arguably, the most spectacular route in all of Ireland.
So scenic is it, in fact, that it has been featured in the popular BBC television series, Great Railway Journeys of the World, in which Michael Palin waxed lyrical: “A train journey to the North Coast will be an unforgettable experience. Whether you live in Northern Ireland or are visiting, take the opportunity to visit and enjoy the beautiful scenery."
The award-winning Central Station is now the hub of the Northern Ireland Railways system, offering passengers and tourists frequent through services linking Bangor, Portadown, Newry, Larne Harbour and Londonderry. And all with a fleet of shiny new trains serving many rebuilt or refurbished stations and halts.
Leaving Central, the train passes the redeveloped Laganside, through what was once Maysfield railway cattle stockyards, and crosses the River Lagan twice. The Laganside development has been one of the gems of the city, with its gleaming new office blocks, luxury apartments, hotels and, to the left, the magnificent Waterfront Hall.
Shortly after the first crossing, the line branches to the left from the Belfast-Bangor route and travels above the city on an elevated track. To the right the listed yellow cranes – Samson and Goliath – at Harland & Wolff, once the world’s largest shipyard - dominate the skyline. And below them can be seen the Odyssey, a large leisure and concert hall and home to the Belfast Giants professional ice hockey team.
The Odyssey occupies the site of the former Queen’s Quay station that acted as the starting point for the many lines serving County Down. At one time Belfast had three large terminals: York Road served Larne Harbour and Londonderry and Great Victoria Street – now replaced by a much smaller station – served Enniskillen and the West, Mid-Ulster, Londonderry and Dublin.
All the lines were routed through to Central in l976 though there remains a strong link with the railway at York Road, now Northern Ireland Railways Central Maintenance Yard. Look carefully to the right as the train makes its second river crossing and you can see the SS Nomadic tied alongside the Odyssey, a surviving link with the ill-fated H&W-built Titanic. The Nomadic was found in an almost derelict state in a French shipyard - it was to be used to ferry First and Second Class passengers out to the luxury liner - and brought back to Belfast to be restored as the centrepiece of the growing Titanic Quarter.
To the left, just before St Anne’s Cathedral, with its recently added needle spire making it one of the city’s tallest buildings, can be seen Belfast’s famous answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa: the Albert Clock. Like most of Belfast’s buildings the 113ft tall clock was built on wooden piles on marshy, boggy land and now leans four feet off the vertical. It was designed by William J. Barre, built between l865-l870 and named after Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert.
Just along from the Cathedral can be seen the magnificent architectural gem of Custom House on the left. Designed by Samuel Ferris Lynn in the Italian Renaissance style and completed in l859, it was famous as the gathering place for public debate and fiery orators. The Victorian writer Anthony Trollope was employed there. The Square in front of the building is used as one of the city’s foremost open-air entertainment venues.
Further along, to the right, is another city gem. Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office, the graystone building with the square clock-tower, houses another treasure associated with the Titanic: the captain’s table and chairs made for the ship but delivered too late to be installed for its maiden voyage. The graystone church in front is Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian, dedicated to the world’s seafarers. Inside it has many nautical artefacts.
To the right the Lagan opens into Belfast Harbour and Lough before the line reaches the Yorkgate halt, a small red-brick station built to replace York Road in the late l990s.
Just beyond Yorkgate, on the left, the gray building, Midland House, was once the Midland Hotel, attached to York Road station, from where the Londonderry and Larne Harbour trains originally left. What was the station is now the large Northern Ireland Railways Central Maintenance Depot yards. Still on the left at the end of a row of terrace-houses is Seaview, home of Irish Premier League club Crusaders. Formed in l898 the club’s nickname is The Hatchet Men.
The City Council-owned park of Cave Hill can be seen on the left. The Hill is famous for Napoleon’s Nose (the outline of the Hill resembles a man’s profile), the Scottish Baronial-style Belfast Castle (seen amid the trees) and Belfast Zoo. Cave Hill rises 360m to the cliff face of McArt’s Fort, named after the 16th Century chieftain Art O’Neill. To the right lies Belfast Lough. At one time the railway skirted the water but redevelopment and land reclamation pushed it more inland. Whiteabbey is a small, unmanned station serving the nearby commuter village.
This section of the line was closed from l978-2001 and trains to Londonderry ran from Lisburn to Antrim. Now the latter 20-mile line has been closed leaving such stations as Knockmore, Ballinderry, Glenavy and Crumlin abandoned. The Lisburn-Antrim line is, however, maintained and used for crew training. Perhaps the growth in tourism could lead to the line’s re-opening since it runs alongside the International Airport.
From Whiteabbey the line climbs towards the now disused Bleach Green Junction. Bleach Green got its name from the once thriving linen industry when raw linen was spread out in the fields to bleach in the sun. Diverging left from the Larne Harbour line the train travels over the Bleach Green Viaducts, the largest reinforced concrete bridge in the British Isles. They can be seen better on the Larne Harbour-Belfast run.
It becomes now a straight run into Antrim, through rich farmland with the hills ahead. Before arriving in Antrim look to the right and see the now-disused Templepatrick station, now a private residence. The station was built in the l840s and closed in l978. There had been plans to re-open it but these seem to have been abandoned.
Antrim, meaning ‘single building’, got its name from an early church to the north. It sits on the Six Mile Water River and half-a-mile from Lough Neagh. Lough Neagh is one of the largest in Europe and legend has it that it contains a drowned city whose buildings may sometimes be seen through the water. Thomas Moore wrote of it in l852: ‘He sees the round towers of other days/in the waves beneath him shining.’
The Lough is also the place where a naval battle was fought by Viscount Massereene and Ferrard, founder of Antrim Castle in 1662, who had a right to maintain a fighting fleet there. Antrim is also famous for the battle fought in 1798 by the United Irishmen under Henry Joy McCracken. Shane’s Castle is also at Antrim, but only open to the public for specific events throughout the year. The writer Alexander Irvine – My Lady of the Chimney Corner, referring to his mother – was born in the town’s Pogues Entry.
Slemish Mountain, where St Patrick tended his sheep as a boy, can be seen on the right as the train continues through a lush countryside criss-crossed by rivers and streams. Ballymena Station is a modern, rather nondescript, building but it does act as the gateway to a fascinating town whose history dates back to the early Christian period of the 5th and 7th centuries. The town is built on land given to the Adair family by King Charles I in 1626 and it holds Ireland’s largest two-day agricultural show at the Showgrounds.
The town has been associated with many famous sons: Sir Roger Casement was educated in the town; Timothy Eaton, founder of Canada’s Eaton Department Store, was born here; James McHenry, one of the signers of the United States Constitution, was a native; Mary Peters, the Olympic gold medal winner, was raised here, as was Hollywood star, Liam Neeson; former Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley was raised in the town and Alexander Wright, who won a VC during the Crimean War, was born in Ballymena. If you stop in the town, don't miss The Braid - Ballymena's brand new museum, arts venue and Tourist Information Centre.
Cullybackey station was built in l865 and is in need of a lick of paint. On the left stand the station buildings, currently up for sale. The village is on the River Maine and its name comes from the Irish for ‘The corner of the river bend.’ Its most famous son is Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the United States, whose parents left nearby Dreen in 1815. The ancestral home, Arthur Cottage, lies just beyond the village and contains a collection of artefacts devoted to his life.
Ballymoney, the next station on the line, is the perfect place to live in NI… for a long time. It has the highest life expectancy of any other area: 78-years for males and 82.6 for females. For theatre lovers it holds Ireland’s oldest drama festival since 1933.
The town’s oldest surviving building is a church tower dating from 1637 while it can also boast a United States Presidential connection and an Olympic gold medal winner: though born in Ohio, William McKinley, 25th President, was the descendant of a farmer from nearby Conagher. McKinley’s dubious claim to fame is that he was shot dead during his second term. And in 1912 Kenneth McArthur won his Olympic gold in the men’s marathon. The late, great ‘King of the Road’, motor-cycling ace Joey Dunlop was a native of Ballymoney. A memorial statue and garden are in the town.
The station at Coleraine is deceptive. At first glance it doesn’t impress, but the main building to the left is a modern, clean and spacious train/bus terminal. The town is one of the earliest settled in Ireland, indeed the Mesolithic site at Mount Sandel dates from 935BC and is the earliest evidence of human settlement in Ireland. Wooden houses dating back to 700BC have been discovered there.
It is also in an area with the highest property prices in NI, though the compensation comes in the beautiful countryside around it: it is the gateway to the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Distillery and Royal Portrush Golf Club. The town even has a New Zealand wine named after it, excellent with a slice of Coleraine cheddar!
Its famous sons include, yet again, an American President, James Knox Polk, the 11th, whose ancestors were among the first Ulster-Scots settlers, leaving the town in 1680. For a short time, too, former Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lived in the First Coleraine Presbyterian manse in the 1920s.
The infamous Dr John Bodkin Adams, charged in l957 with the murder of two patients but acquitted, lived in Coleraine from 1911 to 1916. He was always suspected of killing 163 other patients.
To the right of the station is the ground of the local Irish Premier League club, known as the Bannsiders.
COLERAINE-PORTRUSH (SPUR LINE)
A short 6.5miles spur line runs from Coleraine to the popular seaside resort of Portrush, serving the University of Ulster and the village of Dhu Varren. The University – built in the l960s – has a worldwide reputation for biomedical sciences. It is also home to the Riverside Theatre.
Look to the left for a large sign for Cromore House, now a residential home, before the train arrives at Dhu Varren. The now-disused station to the left was Cromore Halt, closed some 20 years ago but a railway link is retained by the popular Cromore Halt Restaurant.
The station, once the set-down point for Portstewart, two miles away, has been turned into apartments. The sea and the famed North Coast shoreline of wide sandy beaches opens up on the left as the train approaches Portrush, the view somewhat marred by mile after mile of caravan sites.
Portrush Station was built in l855 as the terminal for the Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway. Built in Stockbroker Tudor style it boasted a newspaper kiosk and a café-restaurant seating 300 people. Though the station is listed, it is a sorry shadow of its former glory. Right beside the station on the left is Barry’s, the famous amusement park.
The town is built on a mile-long peninsula and has two long, sandy beaches, the West and East Strands with White Rocks and Curran Strand stretching from the East. It is, of course, our very own answer to Blackpool, attracting millions of holiday-makers to the many wonderful scenic delights nearby. You couldn’t possibly not enjoy bracing Portrush.
Back on the mainline to the Maiden City/Derry/Stroke City (call it what you will) the line crosses the River Bann with its boats, yachts and rowers … and heads to the most spectacular part of the journey, to the seaside resort of Castlerock, alongside the strands and Lough Foyle, past Mussenden Temple and the beautiful little station of Bellarena with its backdrop of the rugged Benevenagh Mountain, past the City of Derry Airport.
Castlerock locals will tell you, with justification, that they have one of the finest link courses in the world, some of the most beautiful strands and an ancient tree where infamous highwayman Cushy Glen was dangled. It is, though, famous for the 18th century ruins of the Bishop of Derry’s mansion and the Temple (best seen on the return leg of the journey from the left-hand side of the train).
Mussenden Temple is one of Ireland’s most photographed sites, perched on a high headland. It was built in 1785 by the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, as a library and copies the Temple of Vesta in Italy. An inscription around the building, dedicated to Mrs Frideswide Mussenden, sister of the Earl’s cousin Hervey Bruce, says it all: ‘Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore/The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.’
Frederick, born in 1730, was an amazing man: a collector of paintings and sculptures, a great traveller, a keen geologist. He did such good work that he was known as the Edifying Bishop. One of his greatest achievements was the magnificent mansion at Downhill, behind the Temple. It had “as many windows as there are days in the year” and contained a large library, fresco-covered walls, works by Tintoretto, Vandyke and Raphael and a great organ. Built in 1775, a terrible fire swept through the house in l851 though Downhill was restored in the 1870s. It was used by the RAF during WW2 but today it stands as a bare shell on a windswept hill.
On a clear day along this glorious stretch of the line you can see forever, as the train approaches the little station at Bellarena. It opened in 1853, was closed in l976 and re-opened in 1982. Today it is in private hands, a stunningly restored collection of buildings - available for rent - that still retain the station name in the original tiles. Behind it stands the cliff face of Benevenagh Mountain with a small lake on top.
The line now skirts Lough Foyle, running past the airport on the left, into the rather nondescript Londonderry station. This stands on the opposite bank to the city but is served by a bus that takes you into the city centre Diamond. There has been much talk of a larger station being built.
When the Americans entered WW2 their first European base was built in the city, and maintained until the l970s. And it was in Lough Foyle that 68 German U-Boats surrendered in May, l945.
Stroke City is a great destination - don’t forget to visit the Tower Museum, one of the best small museums in the UK and Ireland - to a terrific journey.