From county Down’s Ards peninsula in the north to the Mourne Mountains in the south, county Down has a coastline waiting to be explored. The Mourne Mountains, from Carlingford Lough to Dundrum Bay, define southern county Down. Tollymore Forest Park sits in the northern mountain area while Kilbroney Forest Park is in the south. The land between the mountains and the sea is called the Kingdom of Mourne. It’s been a farming and fishing area for generations.
Newcastle, defining the northern kingdom boundary, is home to the Mourne Countryside Centre where details on the history, wildlife, and natural features are found. Newcastle is an important resort town with a harbour promenade, sandy beach, and park on the Glen River banks. You can reach Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains, from here.
Tollymore Forest Park encompasses 1235 acres of commercial forest, the Shimna River, and a planned park. Trails and walks are plentiful and take in an arboretum, wildfowl enclosure, azalea walk, lake cascade, mill ponds, an old bridge, a barn, and an avenue of Himalayan cedars. Wildlife is plentiful and includes otters, red squirrels, birds, and foxes.
Early Christian farmstead remains in the area are the Drumena Cashel and Souterrain, an enclosed oval area with drystone walls, house foundations, and an underground tunnel.
Just north of Tollymore is Castlewellan Forest Park, Peace Maze, National Arboretum, and Annesley Gardens. The gardens have both formal and informal elements. Waymarked walks, fishing, nature watching, canoeing, a sculpture trail, and pony trekking are available. It’s the site of the largest hedged maze in the world.
Castlewellan town was a planned one built in 1750 around two squares. North of the town on the southern side of Slieve Croob is prehistoric Legananny dolmen, a slanting capstone supported by three other stones. It dates from BC4000-2000. Another early site is the AD500 crannog in Loughbrickland Lake.
The Annalong Marine Park and Cornmill, halfway down the Mourne coast, dates from the early 19th century. An exhibition tells about the history of milling. In the central area of the mountains, a two-mile walk leads to the Silent Valley reservoir, Belfast’s water supply. Slieve Binnian is the mountain in this area. Another reservoir, Ben Crom, and a natural lake, Sally Lough, can be reached from the trail. Northwest of the reservoir is the Spelga pass and dam, offering views over the northern Mourne fountains.
On a tip of land jutting out into Carlingford Lough are the 13th century ruins of Greencastle, an Anglo-Norman stronghold. The castle had a rectangular keep and D-shaped corner towers.
Further up the lough are Kilbroney Forest Park and the town of Rostrevor. The park has walks in the pine forest while the town grows palm trees. Kilbroney National Nature Reserve is a sand dune and heath system. Guided walks are offered from the visitor centre.
North of Newcastle on Dundrum Bay is Murlough National Nature Reserve. The sand dunes stretch for two miles and attract birds. A 4000-year-old dolmen is in the reserve. Dundrum Castle ruins date from the 13-15th century and consist of a circular keep and walls. Cough Castle just north of Dundrum is a 13th century building with later additions.
The historic town of Downpatrick dominates the Lecale peninsula on which it sits. The market town has narrow medieval streets leading to the town centre. What was once a 14th century abbey church is now Down cathedral, restored in the 18th century. At the east end is a High Cross, dating from 10-11th centuries. The traditional site of St Patrick’s grave is located at the cathedral. The interior has two 12th century figures by the chapter room door, an 18th century organ, a bishops’ throne, and an important choir screen.
The Down County Museum in an 18th century gaol on the mall tells about the history of the town. At the St Patrick Heritage Centre you can learn all about the saint and local sites connected with him through multimedia presentations and an exhibition. Further historic buildings on the mall are Southwell Charity, dating from 1733, and founded as almshouses and a school and the Judges’ Lodgings, which are two late Regency-style houses. On English Street are an 1834 courthouse and a 1745 customs house.
Two miles north-west of Downpatrick, Inch abbey ruins date from c1180. The church was built in the 13th century. Westward are three ruined churches, Loughinisland (the land was once an island). They date from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
Annadorn Dolmen, also on the A24, is a prehistoric rectangular chamber with a capstone and three side stones. North of Downpatrick on the Quoile River, the Quoile Pondage is a nature reserve created when a tidal barrier was constructed. The castle is a late 16th century tower house. A visitor’s centre displays local and natural history.
Near Downpatrick is megalithic Ballynoe Stone Circle, a BC2000 stone circle and a burial mound. Some of the stones are six feet tall. The Giant’s Ring, off the A24 west of Downpatrick, is a large gravel and boulder bank with a circle inside, within which is a megalithic chambered grave.
On the A7, Rowallane Garden belongs to the National Trust. The informal garden of trees and shrubs has a collection of plants from around world, a rock garden, a walled garden, and wildflower meadows. The house in the grounds is headquarters for the National Trust.
Struell Wells, in the Lecale peninsula interior and east of Downpatrick, is made up of five buildings by a stream: a domed roof well, a rectangular well with a pyramid shaped roof, a partially completed 18th century church, a men’s bathhouse with a dressing room, and an unroofed women’s bathhouse. The site is said to be associated with St Patrick.
Continuing east the road first goes to Saul, a hilltop where St Patrick is purported to have made the first Irish convert to Catholicism, and then heads to Slieve Patrick with its path up to an altar and statue of St Patrick.
The ruins of St Tassach’s church in the same area date from the 10/11th century. Closer to the water are the ruins of Audley Castle, a 15th century tower house, and Audleystown cairn, a dual court tomb that held 34 neolithic skeletons, pottery, and flint.
On the northern tip of the Lecale peninsula is Castle Ward, a National Trust property. The 750 acre walled estate has woodland, walks, gardens, a 17th century tower house (Old Castle Ward), a water feature and a temple in the gardens, a wildlife centre, an 18th century mansion, a Victorian laundry, a cornmill, a lead mine, and a sawmill. The house is a combination of Georgian gothic and classical and is built from Bath stone. Stucco work, fan vaulting, Flemish glass panels, and furniture are on view. A tunnel leads to the stable yard.
At the town of Strangford you can catch a cruise on Strangford Lough or cross on a ferry to the Ards peninsula. Twice a day the tide runs at high speed through the narrow opening between the lough and the peninsula. A tower house in Strangford dates from the 15-16th centuries. It offers a climb to a roof walk with views. Further down the road Kilchief castle is a tower house built in the early 15th century.
Continuing down the A2 peninsular circle road leads to the harbour of Ardglass. Jordan’s castle is a 15th century tower house in the town centre. King’s castle and Isabella’s Tower date from the 19th century. St John’s Point lies on the southern tip of the Lecale peninsula, where a lighthouse stands. The ruins of a 10/11th century church are located where a monastery once stood.
Travelling northward from Downpatrick and the Lecale peninsula, the road skirts Strangford Lough up to Newtownards and the Ards peninsula. The 18-mile long lough is a landlocked sea inlet with an 80-mile coastline. The National Trust owns the shoreline and 50 islands, all of which are a wildlife preserve amounting to 14,700 acres of seabed and foreshore that include woodland, wetlands, saltmarsh, and farm fields. Lighthouse Island is a bird sanctuary. Strangford Lough Wildlife Centre, run by the Trust, is at Castle Ward.
The town of Killyleagh is a sailing centre with a turreted castle. It has undergone several re-buildings. On the western shore of Strangford Lough on an island are the ruins of 16th century Mahee Castle and Nendrum monastery. The monastery ruins consist of three enclosures and drystone walls. A round tower and 10/11th century church, school, workshops, and gardens and fields made up the busy religious community.
Close by on the shore is Sketrick Castle, a four-storey tower house built c15th century. Further up the road is the Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre. Near Crossgar, west of the lough on the A7 is the Ulster Wildlife Centre. The one-acre site includes a Victorian walled garden, bogland, meadows, woodland, and wildlife pond.
On the shore of Strangford Lough where the Ards peninsula joins the mainland is the town of Newtownards. The market house dates from 1765, and an old market cross is at the end of the high street. The ruins of Newtownards Priory church are on the south side of the town. Close to the town is the ruined church of Movilla Abbey with a group of 13th century cross slabs. In Scrabo Country Park is Scrabo Tower, a memorial built in 1857. It has 122 steps to the top where far-reaching views make the climb worthwhile. An exhibition and AV show round off the experience.
The Ards peninsula is 23 miles long and varies from three to five miles in width. Its climate and soil are perfect for grain growing. At the southern end, the land becomes marshy. Heading south along the western side of the peninsula, the road leads to Mount Stewart. The National Trust property consists of a neo-classical house with famous outdoor room gardens and both formal and lakeside areas with rare plants. Ruined 12th century Grey Abbey sits beside a stream in 18th century parkland. The church continued in use through most of the 18th century. Of particular interest is the west door with its decoration.
Near the tip of the peninsula, the town of Portaferry serves as a yachting centre. The waterfront is lined with Georgian houses. The castle, a towerhouse, was constructed in the 16th century. The tourist information at the castle offers an AV on the county’s towerhouses, and a heritage exhibition. The town has an aquarium with local varieties of sealife. At the tip of the peninsula is St Cooey’s Wells, the site of a holy well and a place of pilgrimage.
The east coast is altogether wilder than the west, being exposed to the Atlantic winds. Portavogie is a fishing village. West of Millisle is Ballycopeland windmill. Dating from around 1780-90, it ground the grain grown on the peninsula. By the mill is the miller’s house where a display gives the details.
At the town of Ballywalter is Ballywalter Park, a Georgian house that has undergone extension and restoration over the years. The inner hall is 60 feet long and houses a stained glass cupola. A drawing room, library, and dining room add to the sumptuous feel. The conservatory has a collection of exotic plants. Tours are offered by appointment.
Continuing north up the A2 leads to Donaghee, where the 1836 lighthouse was the first in Ireland lit by electricity. There are scenic and marine walks from the town. Moving along the A2 Groomsport comes into view. The seaside resort has sandy beaches and a harbour.
Bangor lies at the head of the Ards peninsula on the south side of Belfast Lough. Bangor Abbey was founded in 558. Only the 14th century tower remains and it has been incorporated into Bangor abbey church.
The town’s heritage centre is in Bangor castle, which now serves as the town hall. The castle was built in the mid 19th century with mullioned windows, steep gables, and a battlemented tower. Galleries tell the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present including the history of the abbey, settlement by Scottish people, and the Viking invasion. An old custom house and tower now serve as a tourist information centre.
A short distance west of Bangor is Crawfordsburn Country Park, with a park centre, glen walk, and coast walk. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum is nearby. The buildings were moved to the 60-acre estate from their original locations and furnished in the style of the times in which they were inhabited. Included are a one room farmhouse, a 17th century farmhouse, a forge, a mill, a weaver’s house, a school, church, and more. The museum gallery contains agricultural and domestic displays, and there are craft demonstrations.
In the county’s interior is Banbridge. The countryside around Banbridge was home to relatives of the Bronte sisters. There’s an interpretive centre at Drumballyroney. The Brontë Homeland Drive starts at Drumballyroney Church and School near Rathfriland, ten miles south of Banbridge. It is well signposted along the 10-mile route.
Snuggled up to the border with county Armagh is the village of Scarva, an award winner of the best kept village title several times. The town, set by the canal, goes in for flower displays on a grand scale. A visitor centre and park are other attractions.
Hillsborough Fort in the town of Hillsborough dates from 1630. It was added to and altered a century later. On the town square Hillsborough Castle, dated 1760, serves as a venue for state functions. The courthouse was once a market house and dates from 1760 with the wings added in 1810. Built in 1662 and added to in 1760, St Malachy’s church interior has Irish oak Gothic woodwork.
Annalong Marine Park and Cornmill
At Newry, on A2 from Newcastle
Tel. 028 3026 8877
Ark Open Farm
Newtownards to Bangor dual carriageway A21
Tel. 028 9182 0445
Web: The Ark Open Farm
On B172, one mile west of Millisle
Tel. 028 9054 3037
Ballywalter, near Newtownards
Tel. 028 4275 8264 or 8203
Web: Ballywalter Park
Newtownards Rd, Bangor
Tel. 028 9127 1200
Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre
On Strangford Lough, 78 Ballydrain Rd, Killinchy Rd, Comber, on the A22
Strangford, Downpatrick, overlooking Lough Strangford
Tel. 028 4488 1204
Castlewellan Forest Park, Peace Maze, National Arboretum and Gardens
Cockle Row Cottages
The Harbour, Groomsport
Crawfordsburn Country Park
Bridge’s Rd South, Helen’s Bay
Delamont Country Park
On the A22 near Strangford Lough and north of Downpatrick
Tel. 028 4482 8333
English St, Downpatrick
Tel. 028 4461 4922
Web: Down Cathedral
Tel. 028 9054 6518
Greencastle Royal Castle
Four miles south-west Kilkeel, off A2
Tel. 028 9054 3037
Tel. 028 9054 3037
Grey Point Fort
Fort Rd, Crawfordsburn Country Park, Helen’s Bay
Tel. 028 9185 3621
Kilbroney National Nature Reserve
A24 south of Dundrum
Tel. 028 4375 1467
Mount Stewart House, Garden and Temple of the Wind
Portaferry Rd, Newtownards
Tel. 028 4278 8387
Murlough National Nature Reserve
On A24, one mile south of Dundrum
Tel. 028 4375 1467
Off the A22 (Killinchy Road) South of Comber
North Down Heritage Centre
Castle Park, Castle Park Ave, Bangor
Portaferry Tourist Information Centre and Visitor Centre
Castle Street, Portaferry
Tel. 028 4272 9882
Quoile Pondage Nature Reserve and Countryside Centre
Off A25 north of Downpatrick
Tel. 028 4461 5520
Tel. 028 9751 0131
Scarva Visitor Centre
Main Street, Scarva
Tel. 028 3883 2163
Scrabo Country Park and Tower
203A Scrabo Rd, Signposted from Newtownards, overlooks Strangford Lough
Tel. 028 9181 1491
St Patrick’s Centre
53A Market St, Downpatrick
Tel. 028 4461 9000
Strangford Lough Wildlife Centre
Off A25, Strangford
Tel. 028 4488 1411
Tollymore Forest Park
Near Newcastle, off Bryansford Rd
Tel. 028 4372 2428
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Cultra Manor grounds, 153 Bangor Rd, Holywood (A2 near Belfast)
Tel. 028 9042 8428
Ulster Wildlife Centre
Lillyleagh Rd, Crossgar
Tel. 028 4483 0282
County Down Tourist Information Centres
Ards Tourist Information Centre
31 Regent St, Newtownards, BT23 4AD
Tel. 028 9182 6846
Banbridge Gateway Tourist Information Centre
200 Newry Rd, Banbridge
Tel. 028 4062 3322
Open: Oct-May, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; June and Sep, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm, Sun, 2-6pm; July and Aug, Mon-Sat, 9am-7pm, Sun, 2-6pm
Bangor Tourist Information Centre
34 Quay Street, Bangor, BT20 5ED
Tel. 028 9127 0069
Cockle Row Tourist Information Centre
The Harbour, Groomsport, BT19 6JR
Donaghadee Tourist Information Centre
Pier 36 Bar & Restaurant, The Parade
Donaghadee, BT21 0HE
Portaferry Tourist Information Centre
Castle Street, Portaferry, BT22 1NZ
Tel. 028 4272 9882
Open: April –June, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm, on Sun from 2-6pm; July-Sep, Mon-Sat, 10am-5.30pm, on Sun from 1-6pm.
Randalstown Post Office
15-19 Main Street
Warrenpoint Town Hall
Warrenpoint, BT34 3HN
Photos of Mourne mountains, Murlough National Nature Reserve, Castle Ward garden, Old Castle Ward, Espsie Wetlands Wildlife Trust, Mt Stewart gardens, Grey Abbey © by Barbara Ballard
Photos of Mourne mountains panorama and county Down landscape courtesy of Visit Britain
Photo of Ballywalter Park house interior courtesy of Ballywalter Park
Other photos courtesy Geograph Britain and Ireland as follows:
Tollymore forest park, Tollymore old bridge, Castlewellan forest park, Greencastle, Rostrevor from Kilbroney forest park, Down Patrick Scotch Street, Downpatrick former assembly rooms, Quoil castle, Struell Wells, St Tassach church ruins, Strangford Lough ferry, Ardglass harbour, Ardglass Jordan’s castle, Killyleagh castle, Scrabo Tower, Portavogie fishermen’s memorial, Bangor seacliff road, Bangor Tower House TIC, Bangor Castle, Banbridge old town hall clock, Scarva flower beds, Hillsborough castle gates by Aubrey Dale; Castlewellan forest park arboretum gate, Legananny dolmen, Ballynoe stone circle by Paddy Heron; Silent valley reservoir and Slieve Binnian by Roger Whittleston; Annalong cornmill by Eric Jones; Downpatrick’s St Patrick cathedral by Wilson Adams; Inch Abbey by Brian Shaw; Rowallane garden by Paul McIlroy; Strangford Lough, Portaferry seafront, Crawfordsburn Country Park by Michael Parry; Nendrum monastery sundial by Wilson Adams
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