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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 August 2006, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Tourism dynamo of Down
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Newcastle from the beach
A Mourne national park is planned, with Newcastle at its heart

As part of a series of features studying the UK's seaside towns, the spotlight falls on Newcastle in County Down.

As you arrive in the small town of Newcastle, you cannot fail to be struck by the looming presence of the Mourne Mountains.

Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest peak, stands majestic with grey-white clouds clinging to its sweeping green slopes.

Yet the splendour of the topography is hardly matched by the down-at-heel main street, where pound shops vie for space with 1960s shopping centres and amusement arcades.

Young mothers push baby-buggies, bored-looking teenagers loiter idly, shopkeepers buzz around, arranging and rearranging their goods.

BournemouthNewcastleRhylNew BrightonWhitstableWeston-Super-MareBournemouthScarboroughRothesay

The wind rips through the street and motorists sit in queues of traffic, gridlocked.

It could be a scene on any high street in any UK town.

But that is a misconception corrected after a day in Newcastle, hearing stories of Tiger Woods being dropped at the local hotel by helicopter.

Big plans

Running parallel to the main street is the newly-built promenade. Its shiny metal railings and freshly-laid walkways flank the seafront, punctuated by dazzling metal sculptures and low-rise blocks of modern apartments.

The new promenade is part of a 14 million regeneration project that is a source of considerable local pride - residents almost universally describing it as "fantastic".

Population: 7,500
Famous visitor: Tiger Woods
Interesting fact: In 1898 Newcastle was 55 minutes from Belfast by train. The line is now closed and the station is a Lidl supermarket.

The person overseeing the scheme is Sharon O'Connor, Down District Council's director of development. Her team started the project in 2000 and it has since become a labour of love.

"Newcastle is the dynamo - it is the part of the tourism product that drives everything else in the area," she said.

The ambitious plans for the town include a complete overhaul of the road system and the creation of a new national park, with Newcastle serving as the "gateway" to the Mourne Mountains.

Family on beach

"We are really trying to redefine Newcastle as less 'kiss-me-quick' hats and amusement arcades, more outdoor pursuits with a family environment where people come to enjoy the physical beauty of the place," said Ms O'Connor.

If John and Jean Gibson are typical of the visitors to the town, Ms O'Connor might well have won half of her battle already.

"We come here to go cycling and walking in the mountains," said Jean while trying to stop her young grandson Christopher from charging back towards the sea.

"There are organised walks and tours, but it's just as easy to make your own path. It really is an wonderful place."

The Gibsons explain that the town has its seamy side - with drunken youths vandalising telephone boxes and picnic areas - but it has not stopped them from buying a second home there.

Helicopter landings

At the other end of the main street lies the Royal County Down Golf Course - regarded as one of the best in the world. Attached to it is the enormous neo-gothic Slieve Donard Hotel.

Built in the 1890s to cater for the holiday-hungry middle classes of Belfast, the hotel kick-started the tourism industry in the area.

Even yesterday when the wind was so powerful it'd split you in two, the pool was still packed
Carmel Ross
Tropicana pools

Since then, it has opened its doors to guests as varied as Charlie Chaplin, Desmond Tutu and Daniel O'Donnell - as well as a Who's Who of the professional golf world.

The hotel's mainly American clientele sport polo-necks, accompanied by plus-fours for the men and tartan pleated skirts for the women - de rigueur for the global golf scene. Compared with the main street, this is a different world.

"Tom Watson is out there playing a round now," explained John Toner, the hotel's manager. "The client that we are aiming for is the international golfer."

He added: "We have a helipad capable of landing three helicopters at the same time."

A different world indeed.

Hectic summer

On a weekday morning, away from the golf set, the Tropicana Warm Sea Pools - one of the few "traditional" seaside attractions - seems to be the busiest place in town.

To a backdrop of squealing children, 22-year-old supervisor Carmel Ross said the pools have been "really hectic" all summer.

Newcastle's main street
There are several pound shops on Newcastle's main street

"Even yesterday, when the wind was so powerful it'd split you in two, the pool was still packed."

The pools are only open from July to September, but if Sharon O'Connor has her way, they will be made into all-year-round indoor baths to be more use for local residents.

The sweeping changes the town is undergoing reflect a sense of resilience and regeneration that seems to permeate its history.

In the mid-19th century, when a boating disaster killed many of Newcastle's residents and wiped out its fishing industry, the town regrouped and began to make a living through mining granite. When cement superseded granite, tourism became the staple.

In the 1960s what Ms O'Connor labelled the "double-whammy" of cheap European holidays and the outbreak of sectarian violence in the province all but destroyed Newcastle's tourism industry.

Once again, outside events are threatening to derail Newcastle's attempts to catapult itself into the tourism major league.

"In three years' time, there's going to be a major local authority reorganisation," Ms O'Connor said.

"If we get a centralised metropolitan-style council, Newcastle will probably just slip off their radar entirely."

Thank you for your comments.

I live in the town and the cold hard facts are it is a wasted space. There could be so much done to make the town better and all we do is build a promenade, and what is the point of this promenade as you cant swim in the sewer of a sea... We should spend the money on cleaning the water in the sea then worry about getting people into it! The only good thing about Newcastle is the Anchor bar!!
Adrian Devlin, Newcastle Co Down

Although I now live in England, we have on many occasions visited Newcastle while on visits "home" with the children. My husband in also an "islander" (from IOW) but loves "Ireland" as much as his home island.

We have climbed Binian and Donard and the scenery and tourist opportunities around Newcastle are multiple - shame about the railway line having been closed!

Well done, Ms O'Connor and friends! Keep up the good work. I am always encouraging people over here to go over there and enjoy some home grown stunning scenery - you don't have to go abroad to enjoy nature's wonders.
Melanie, Milton Keynes, England

As a kid in the 1970s I spent all my holidays in Newcastle - even then during the height of the troubles the place had a magic all to its self which was only evident when you got away from the tacky main street.

The beach is as good as any anywhere in the world, the forests above the town and the mountains themselves are amazing.

Climb only a few hundred feet up the mountain by the river that flows from the heart of the mountains and look back at Co.Down - for me there is nowhere quite like it. It has been more than a few years since I was there but the sense of peace and tranquillity I experienced there stay with me even today.
Mike Smyth, Sunbury, UK

One of my fondest memories was as a small child enjoying my first candyfloss at Newcastle. It was a blissful family holiday with my favourite aunties spent in sparkling sunshine between the beach and the Mournes.

The following year the troubles broke out and it was another 20 years before I went back again. Eager to see that wonderful view of the place where the mountains sweep down to the sea, I could have wept at the sorry state of Newcastle with its boarded up shops lining the wet and windswept high street.

Even Slieve Donard was shrouded in mist. So it is a real delight to see this little gem of a holiday resort on the up again.
C Clarke, Brighton, UK

As a child, we holidayed in Newcastle, both in a caravan and in a rented house. The main attractions were the beach, the putting green and the boating pond. I guess we were easily pleased in those days!
Gerard McArdle, Northiam, East Sussex

We passed through Newcastle last week looking for a small campsite that took tents and touring caravans only, we could not find one and tourist information said one did not exist, all the facilities seemed more suited to people looking for static caravan holiday parks.

If the town wants to attract walkers and other outdoor type visitors then they must expand the number of good tent/caravan campsites. The Mourne mountains looked fantastic and the coast is wonderful, Newcastle was solid with traffic and did seem a bit kiss-me-quick, not what we were looking for.
Nick, Montgomery, Wales

I visited Newcastle about five years ago and the scenery was stunning. The town was pleasant, although somewhat uninspiring for shopping which is what a lot of tourists go on holidays for.
Peter Morrow, Phuket, Thailand

As a father of three, Newcastle is heaven sent. Come hail, rain or shine there is never a dull moment. I can put in 10 days and not do the same thing twice. Our kids love doing the beach, climbing Donard, playing tennis, pitch 'n putt or amusements. Not too far away is Castlewellan park/pond, the Silent Valley, Murloch beach, Tyrella, Rowallane Gardens, Strangford, Portaferry and Tolleymore to name a few. Nowhere better suited for family outdoor and indoor entertainment. Good pubs and great restaurants too for the adults from Seasalt to Zio in Newcastle and Mourneview seafood in Dundrum. Only criticism is Friday and Saturday night antics leaving broken bottles, used condoms etc on the beach - a need for greater police presence!
CJ Smith, Belfast, NI

I live in Newcastle and also work in the Anchor Bar in the town. This summer I have noticed a huge increase in the number of tourists visiting the bar and I would put this down to the town's new promenade which seems to have lifted the spirits of the whole town over the summer period.
Brian McCombe, Newcastle, Co Down

Growing up in Belfast we made regular trips to Newcastle in the Summer holidays - the area is outstanding in natural beauty - the bird reserve at Murlough, TullyMore Forest Park in the Mournes, the town itself was always a bit of a let down. Returned a couple of years ago and it's great to see the improvements being made - it's the only thing letting down an incredible gateway to one of the most perfect areas anywhere on the Earth! I also managed to get to stay at the Slieve Donard - occasionally they have fantastically discounted deals through the local tourist board - well worth it - possibly the best Ulster Fry served outside my Mum's kitchen!
Adam Moore, Nottingham, UK

I second the motion that the Anchor bar is the main attraction, the source of all entertainment, and the source of all hangovers.
Mark Hamill, Newcastle Co Down

My wife and I have been visiting the Newcastle and Castlewellan area for the last seven years and we love the place. I agree that the town could do with some tidying up and it would be nice if some of the empty buildings were regenerated, but it has a lot to offer a family on holiday especially if they have a car. There are three huge forest parks in the area where you can camp, walk, boat, climb, etc; some wonderful beaches, usually almost deserted, and the people are all so friendly. People say "How're you doing?" to you when they see you and they mean it. You never see people looking at their feet when they are walking, like you do in the towns in England. People here look you in the eye and smile. Have a happy Holiday here, we do!
Geoff Lamb, Staines, Surrey , England

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