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Where is this?

North Down is the northern part of County Down, one of the six counties of Northern Ireland. It includes Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast, as well as the picturesqe seaside town of Bangor.

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Bangor and North Down, Northern Ireland

It can often be a mixed blessing when you return to an area you knew well many years ago, but we were not disappointed in our recent short trip to Bangor, County Down, and the surrounding area.


We flew into Belfast City Airport, which saved us the drive from Belfast International at Aldergrove, on the other side of the city. The City Airport is at the head of Belfast Lough, so our descent in clear skies and bright sunshine took us along the shoreline, where we were able to identify Bangor, Helen’s Bay, and Holywood, before landing.

Being a holiday weekend, we were fortunate to have already booked our hire car, as the rental desks were under pressure from an influx of visitors, who were going to have to wait. We headed for Belfast, about ten minutes drive, which has a compact city centre, so we decided to park and see it on foot. The atmosphere was much less tense than my previous visits seven years ago, with lots of happy shoppers, open air tour buses, and the giant wheel towering above everything at the Belfast City Hall. Many of the shops were familiar from other UK high streets, but others were unique to the area. The staff at the Tourist Information Centre  were very helpful, especially as we were trying to track down a model shop last visited the 39 years ago!belfast

Our eyes widened in wonder at the construction and new buildings, mixed with the old familiar ones which had a new lease of life, and our conversation comprised lots of “ do you remember….?” We felt a baked potato was appropriate for lunch, after which we headed for the car and a drive towards the North Down coast.

The beach at Helen’s Bay is flanked on one side by an old fort, originally intended to guard this side of the approach to Belfast. Now restored, and with free entry, this fort provided excellent views, and a chat with the curator elicited an insight into the history of this former military establishment. His knowledge was also supplemented by explanations from my brother, who as a small boy with lots of imagination and a gang of friends had explored the area on his bicycle.

st helens railway north downDespite the extensive building of high value properties in small discreet estates, Helen’s Bay has an old world charm, which time has not eroded.  We even saw a determined swimmer of mature years taking to the waves, which reminded us of many happy summer dips ourselves, enjoying the slightly warmer waters of the Gulf Stream all those years ago. 

At nearby Crawfordsburn, when we called in to the famous Crawfordsburn Inn, which has stood for centuries, providing accommodation and refreshments for travellers, we saw a wedding was taking place.  They do a highly recommended afternoon tea for those who have time to spare.   The Crawfordsburn Country Park, formerly of the grounds of the old hospital, and in one of whose car parks I took my first driving lesson, is now well used by the local community, for walking, running, impromptu football games, and the beach, as well as providing accommodation in the old hospital building, which is now a gated community of exclusive apartments.

Bangor itself, at least on the outskirts, looked like British towns everywhere, houses, gardens, lots of churches reflecting the different denominations, and new shopping centres. The seafront is also a mix of new, established, and waiting for redevelopment buildings, while the old Pickie Swimming Pool is now reclaimed harbour, smart marina, gardens, and a paddling pool. There is even a boating pond with rather disturbing pedal operated swans!

bangor northern irelandBangor Castle Park is home to some smart new schools, as well as the Bangor Museum. We spent a rewarding couple of hours in here, seeing exhibits of the town through the ages, from early religious settlements to the present times. One room is focused on the town’s cinemas, including the fondly remembered “Tonic” – what a wonderful name for a cinema!

With museums in mind, we headed for the Ulster Folk And Transport Museum, back towards Belfast, near the small village of Cultra. This again had expanded magnificently over the past 40 years, but we were delighted to see in one of the cottages that they still bake soda bread over the fire, and it tasted as good as ever. Other exhibits which were equally fascinating included the police station, the bank manager’s house and the bank, the church, the old school, the sweetie shop, and the dressmaker’s house. Local knowledgeable staff were on hand to demonstrate several of the historic skills and answer questions.

The Transport Museum, which is across the main road, displays an exhibition of steam trains and cars through different periods of history, including the ill-fated De Lorean, which was built in Northern Ireland. Having only ever seen this in the “Back To The Future” films, it was really exciting to get up close and personal with the real thing! This museum also had an extensive Titanic display, as the ship was built in Belfast. The building itself is well thought out, with wheelchair access and a logical progression through the exhibits.

We completed our journey by taking a trip to Ballyholme Bay, once the scene of a number of sponsored swims for charity, and still a delightful beach, with an active sailing club. We concluded that while Bangor had naturally changed, both through time and the unfortunate circumstances of political life in Northern Ireland over the last 40 years, it still held a lot of charm, and was a worthwhile destination.

13 July 2009


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