Posted by: wesleyjohnston | September 16, 2012

The Forgotten Grand Newtownards Bypass

It is now three years since the completion of the succinctly-named Newtownards Southern Distributor Road (since renamed “Messines Road” and “Castlebawn Road” by Ards Borough Council). The road’s main purpose was to allow traffic to go between Belfast and the eastern part of the town (and hence the Ards Peninsula) without having to go through the town centre. This road has been a phenomenal success judging both by the amount of traffic that uses it every day, and just how much quieter the roads in the town centre now are.

I work on the Comber Road in Newtownards, and where it was never worth my while driving into the town centre at lunch time, now I do it regularly because the traffic is so light. I now shop in the town much more than I used to. It has also cleared much of the traffic off Circular Road, which passes Regent House School, making it much less dangerous for pupils walking or cycling to school. These are two examples of how a well-placed bypass road can bring huge benefits and reduce traffic congestion in towns, as well as giving much greater freedom to travellers who just want to get past Newtownards, not be stuck in it. This new road has allowed the people of Newtownards to reclaim their town for themselves.

Of course, the road would not have been possible had it not been for a rather too-convenient strip of land that had been left free of development between Jubilee Road and the Westwinds estate/Cambourne Road. You can see it here:

In fact, this land had been kept free of development since the 1970s – around 40 years. Had the road really been in the planning all this time?

The answer is yes….. and no. Notice three points about this strip of land:

  1. It is considerably wider than it needs to be for the road that has been built.
  2. It widens out even further as it approaches the Comber Road (scroll to the right in the map above).
  3. By contrast, there is much less land where the road curves north towards Scrabo Road (scroll to the left in the map above).

This suggests two things. Firstly, this land was reserved for a considerably more ambitious road than now exists. And secondly, this road would only have used the bit of land that runs beside Jubilee Road, and would not have curved north towards Scrabo Road. So where would it have gone?

Let’s park that question for now, and move about a mile north west to the main A20 dual-carriageway which runs over the hill from Newtownards to Dundonald. Have you ever wondered about the strange split carriageways at the top of the hill here?:

Now, lots of people just assume that the carriageways are split because of this house (whose driveway, incidentally, is actually part of the former Belfast Road that pre-dates the dual-carriageway). However, this cannot be the case, as there is plenty of room to go round either side of the house. The road planners would not have built such a convoluted pair of carriageways just to avoid shifting the road a few metres to the north or south. Indeed, going west, the curve at the top of the hill is really very sharp, much sharper than would normally be built on a road with a 70mph speed limit*.

Now, what is the other reason why planners might deliberately build splayed carriageways like this? Here is a clue. And here is another one.

Have you got it?

Yes, that’s right! Splayed carriageways are a smoking gun that tell us that there was once a plan for our old favourite, the grade separated junction!

Now…. where am I going with this? Let’s cut to the chase. The answer is that back in 1978 when the Dundonald to Newtownards dual-carriageway was built, it was left unfinished at the Newtownards end. The actual plan was to continue it round the south side of Newtownards, over the Comber Road on a flyover and terminate on the Portaferry Road! The bit of road running down the hill to the Ards Shopping Centre, that we all think of today as the “main” road, was actually to be a mere spur to let people access the western side of the town. The splayed carriageways at the top of the hill are in fact the embryonic sliproads that would have allowed this traffic to merge into the unbuilt “main” road. Amazing isn’t it?

The map below shows the route that it would have taken.

At the western end the dual-carriageway would have run fairly steeply downhill, behind the Belfast Road, crossing over Scrabo Road without connecting to it, and then passing by the Westwinds estate. This explains why there is such a wide land corridor here. The road would have passed over Comber Road on a flyover, dropping four sliproads down to a roundabout junction (similar to, say, the Saintfield Road roundabout on the M1 in Lisburn). It would then have curved round the airport to meet the Portaferry Road, somewhat to the east of the modern road that opened in 2009.

Now, having seen THIS plan, you would be forgiven for being somewhat underwhelmed by what was finally built in 2009. However, we have to admit that the 1970s plan was probably a little unrealistic in its ambition and cost, and this is why it never saw the light of day. Still, it is worth spending some idle moments pondering how life in Newtownards and the Ards Peninsula would have been different had this plan actually taken place….

I am indebted to a friend who brought me a copy of an original plan to look at which confirmed all of the above. However, as this is part of his work he asked me not to name him. However, I owe him a big thank you!

*Yes, this road has a national (ie 70mph) speed limit if you are driving a car without a trailer with a full driving license. See here.


  1. Would it not have made more sense for the proposed A20 to loop round a little further and meet with the A21 Bangor Road. Zoom out and take a look at that curve. The result would be a second express way from Belfast to Bangor meeting a more ambitious Bangor Ring Road to the south (current alignment of Rathgale Rd / Ballbo Rd anyone?) and utlimately the A2.

    What were those crazy bastards smoking?

    • Funny enough, there *was* a plan for a more ambitious Bangor outer ring road, along the Rathgael Road corridor in the 1960s!

      • That does not surprise me in the slightest.

        Take a look at where the Rathgael Road joins the A2. In the Forest to the south you can see a line running through the trees (laneway?). It just so happens to run off the A2 with a perfect alignment for a sweeping curve which would join the current Rathgael road route.

        Alternatively look at the green space between Fern Grove and Ballynoe Gardens, saved road corridor?

        I would love to know who was masterminding these schemes. It seems that at the time allot of thought and money was put into protecting route alignments & vesting land with the kind of joined up thinking we can only dream off today.

  2. What a fascinating post. I drive these roads regularly and it’s always good to read about the reasons why our roads are the way they are. Thanks!

  3. Bangor Golf Club’s (very interesting) history webpage refers to the club being notified in 1960 by the council that a dual carriageway ringroad was to be built and that it would cross part of their land. What’s the earliest concrete (pun intended) reference to a proposed ringroad in Bangor that you know of? Are there any early maps/plans of said proposal available to view?

    • Alan – short answer is that I don’t know. However, 1960 is relatively early in road planning terms. While a lot of talk was done in the 1950s, lack of money meant very little happened and it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that planning really went through the roof. So a letter in 1960 would probably be quite an early proposal. I have not seen any of these plans – the first proper “area plans” wouldn’t have been around in 1960 as, before 1973, roads like this were largely internal council affairs. So the best place to look would be in the archives of North Down Borough Council who will have inherited that material, if indeed it still exists.

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