04/08/2015 – Seeing the photos on TMA of this circle a few months back left such an impression on me. I knew that given the first chance I would try to make my way here to see the stones for myself. If you have access to a car getting there is no problem but it’s not too bad by bus either. There is a bus that runs to Ballynoe but it’s not that frequent. We instead took the 17A bus from Newcastle to Downpatrick. We got off at Ballydugan crossroads on the A25. A couple of miles walk on quietish country roads and we made it to the signposted path to Ballynoe stone circle. The overgrown path off the road to the circle is really lovely and at this time of year it felt like walking through a gateway to another realm. After a few minutes we reached the circle. To folk that have already been I’m sure it will come as no surprise to read that I found Ballynoe stone circle to be as wonderful as I had hoped. A fantastic circle of stones surrounding a cairn with its own kerb. Some lovely outliers as well. Lots to look at and a great location. We sat just outside the circle to have our sandwiches. Just looking across to the stones and the landscape beyond. A perfect few hours spent doing not much of nothing.
Ballynoe is cited by none other than Aubrey Burl as 'one of the great rings of Western Europe'.... so an overcast morning, threatening rain, is probably not the optimum time to visit. But then experience has shown that dear Roisin Dubh rarely accommodates the insignificant wishes of Gladman, so he's well advised to take whatever's on offer, so to speak.
The circle is located a couple of miles south of Downpatrick, the town, as its name implies, more than happy with its association with yer man himself (although the claim that St Patrick's actually buried in the cathedral here is perhaps somewhat, ahem, tenuous). The final approach on foot is along a tree-lined track, the unintentional effect of which, combined with such a distinguished write up, is to heighten the anticipation of the traveller to, well, you get the idea. It therefore comes as quite a shock to find.... no fanfare... no fence, no turnstiles, no hype... in fact not even any people. Just a deep, lush pasture with Slieve Donard (one of the 'Mountains of Mourne') gracing the horizon to the south west and a slumbering arrangement of large stones poking above the grass. Right on!
The sense of anticlimax, albeit most welcome, is fleeting, for the validity of Mr Burl's assertion is soon very much apparent. And then some, since the circumference of the ring is still nearly intact, featuring numerous large orthostats. There's more, however, in the form of a long mound partially surrounded by a heavy, incomplete kerb. Whether this originally enclosed the mound is unclear, although further kerb stones at the western end suggest it did, I guess. The mound itself possesses remains of a cist at its eastern end. So, Ballynoe is a fine, multiphase monument. But which came first, long mound or circle?
Well, perhaps the siting of portal stones outside the (approx) western entrance at Ballynoe might shed some light here, for Mr Burl hypothesises that since this (amongst other features) is very similar to the arrangements to be found at several Cumbrian 'circles (in particular at the wonderful Sunkenkirk), there is a case for suggesting Ballynoe was erected by incomers from across the Irish Sea, perhaps trading axes from Langdale? And of course the great Cumbrian circles do not surround tombs. An intriguing theory, also discussed, incidentally, by Mr Cope in his 'You Gotta Problem...' sleeve notes.
Ballynoe has many other stories to tell, including possible Mid Winter alignments upon the aforementioned Slieve Donard. But perhaps the most significant story is that here we have one of Britain's finest stone circles languishing in relative obscurity. But don't just take Aubrey's word for it..... I happen to think so, too.