At the foot of the Mourne Mountains, which are the tallest and most dramatic in Northern Ireland, Tollymore Forest Park sprawls across an area of more than 1,500 acres and occupies a special place in the local imagination. This is rumoured to be the inspiration for CS Lewis’s Narnia, and more recently it was a filming location for the ubiquitous television series Game of Thrones. Its enchanting leafy woodlands and peaceful winding rivers are infused with a rarely found tranquillity—and a touch of magic—that’s appreciated by all who visit.
Tollymore Forest Park has changed hands many times over its history. While it’s now overseen by the Forest Service, the park’s footbridges and atmospheric architectural sights scattered along its trails hint at its history under the Hamilton family. The ivy-blanketed follies and charming stone-hewn buildings add to the forest’s fantasy feel. Clanbrassil barn was constructed in the 18th century to resemble a church, complete with a steeple and bell. The Gothic-style gate arches, remote Hermitage and countless other curiosities seem to have been imported from a world of make-believe. Perhaps it’s fitting that these creations were the work of astronomer and mathematician Thomas Wright, a friend of the Hamiltons, whose nickname was “The Wizard of Durham”.
The easiest way to reach Tollymore Forest Park is to drive there. If you’ve hired a car in Belfast, head due south via the A49 for around 60km. The drive itself is a pleasure: as you leave the bustle of the capital behind, you soon find yourself in the greener surroundings of County Down. Take advantage of the route’s proximity to the idyllic seaside resort of Newcastle, at the base of the imposing Slieve Donard mountain. Stop off here for a refreshment and to enjoy spectacular views across the Irish Sea before heading on to Tollymore Forest Park.
Once you reach Tollymore’s car park at the outer edges of the woodland, leave your vehicle and follow the trail into the forest. The paths and many gurgling streams will guide you deeper inside, and as they do, the trees will seem to bend and intertwine above you, creating an enchanting emerald canopy.
There are numberless walking routes for first-time visitors. The River Trail is one such route—it offers a three mile scenic jaunt along the Shimna River. There are plenty of picturesque rocky outcrops, bridges, grottos and caves to explore. Salmon and trout swim in the rushing waters. Exotic trees, such as monkey puzzles and eucalyptus, stand beside the river like silent guardians, while giant redwood, oak and Monterey pines rise up through the canopy.
Venturing deeper into the park, and the woodlands’ transformation into CS Lewis’s mystical world beyond the wardrobe is complete. Torrents of water gush forth from the mouth of a stone lion in a classical fountain at the top of Azalea Walk; standing alone is a stone chair engraved with the poetry of Alexander Pope. There’s a giant, split boulder, or glacial erratic, inscribed with a biblical verse. ‘Stop,’ it invites the onlooker. ‘Look around…’
Take the inscription’s advice, and you may spot some of the wild animals that have made the forest their home. There are over a hundred fallow deer that have lived in the park since the 1970s, and red squirrels were first recorded in the park in 1880, though their grey cousins have become more populous in recent years. Tollymore Forest Park, and the Shimna River which winds through it, are the only places that wild mandarin ducks have been seen in Northern Ireland, while pine martens, badgers, foxes and otters have also taken up residence in the park.
The tranquil ambience and other-worldly feel of Tollymore Forest Park stand in stark contrast to the vibrant atmosphere of nearby Belfast and the clean and colourful Derry/Londonderry. It isn’t difficult to see why these untamed and intimate surroundings had such a profound effect on writers like CS Lewis, who grew up east of the capital. But any visitor can lose themselves in Tollymore Forest Park in much the same way that Lewis supposedly did; it’s hard not to. So near is Tollymore Forest Park to Belfast that if you hire a car during your stay in Northern Ireland, it would be remiss not to head south and escape, if only for a few hours, into a world apparently plucked out of a fairy tale.