Thursday, 13 July 2017

DOWNPATRICK



The south-west reach of Strangford Lough narrows down to the Quoile River, and a short distance upstream lies the cathedral town of Downpatrick.  The name is appropriate in that the cathedral is said to be where St Patrick is buried.  Down Cathedral occupies a site with a religious past stretching back to the 12th century and incorporates parts of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey of Down.  Just across the river is another religious site, Inch Abbey, founded by John de Courcy as an act of repentance for his destruction of Erenagah Abbey.  The abbey is now a ruin, with buildings dating from the 12th and 13th centuries.  The Down County Museum is free to enter and is a rich source of local history, while the St PatrickCentre tells the story of the famous saint and includes an IMAX experience.

Like many cathedral towns and cities, Downpatrick has a range of attractions with something for everyone.  For arty types, the Down Arts Centre offers performances, exhibitions, classes and workshops.  Racing enthusiasts might want to check out what’s on at the town’s racecourse.  Railway buffs can take a trip on the Downpatrick and County Down Railway, the only full-sized mainline heritage railway in Ireland.  Wildlife watchers can head down to the QuoilePondage Nature Reserve, with a riverside path and a bird hide for observing our feathered friends.  Finally, for the religiously inclined, there are four holy wells known as the Struell Wells in nearby Struell, and our old friend St Patrick makes a lofty appearance on Slieve Patrick, where a pleasant walk leads up to a statue of the saint with wonderful views.


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Down Cathedral. Photo by Ross, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 29 June 2017

STRANGFORD



Driving north from Killard Point along the road known as Shore Road the route more or less hugs the shore of Strangford Lough, offering lovely views of this large body of water.  At the point where Shore Road joints the A2 is Kilclief Castle, a tower-house castle built in the first half of the 15th century by Bishop of Down John Sely.  However, the Bishop’s residency at the castle came to an ignominious end when he was ejected and stripped of his office for living with a married woman.

Strangford village is located at the mouth of the main part of Strangord Lough.  The name derives from the name given to the inlet by the Vikings: “Strang Fjörthr” meaning “Strong Fjord”.  The first notable building you will come across at this end of the village is the romantically named “St Mary Star of the Sea Church”, built on land donated by Lord Henry Fitzgerald.  Sadly, the church was badly damaged by fire in 1930, but it was rebuilt as the Stella Maris Church, although it is still shown on maps with the original name.  From the attractive waterfront in the centre of the village there is access to a car ferry service to Portaferry on the opposite shore of the lough.

Strangford lies on a small peninsula to the east of an 'inlet-within-an-inlet', and on the other side of this inlet are a couple of further places of interest.  Like Kilclief Castle, Audley's Castle is another 15th century tower house named after one of its owners, John Audley.  The castle along with the adjoining Audley's Field were used in the filming of Game of Thrones.  A short distance from the shore is the National Trust owned Castle Ward, a somewhat misleading name as it is actually an 18th century mansion.  This was also used in Game of Thrones, in which the historic farmyard featured as Winterfell, the backdrop for the series pilot.


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Strangford harbour front. Photo by Rogere, via Wikimedia Commons


Friday, 23 June 2017

KILLARD POINT



Looking at the map of County Down, the eye is naturally drawn to a large body of water to the south-east of Belfast.  This is Strangford Lough, a large sea loch, and the largest inlet in the British Isles.  At the southern edge of the mouth of the Lough is a peninsula called Killard Point, which includes the Killard National Nature Reserve.  The reserve is reachable from Ballyhornan, a village to the south, via the Lecale Way from which a lane branches off to the right. 

The reserve is rich in both flora, bird life and marine life.  The flora includes wild orchids and an array of other wild flowers, while birdwatchers will see skylarks flitting around in the sky above, and other birds such as terns and sand martins.  The crystal clear waters off the reserve’s sandy bays are home to seals and starfish.  The wild orchids are best seen in June and July.  During World War II RAF Bishops Court was located just outside Ballyhornan, and Killard Point became an outpost of the airfield when radars and height finders were installed there.  Little remains of these facilities today, as the area was returned to a greenfield site. 

About half a kilometre out to sea at Bendberg Bay is Gun’s Island, so named because a French ship called the Amity, which was carrying arms for the 1798 Irish Rebellion, was wrecked just north of the island.  Only one crew member survived.  On the seaward side of Gun’s Island there are colonies of breeding gulls, cormorants, guillemots and kittiwakes.


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Bendberg Bay. Photo by Michael Diamond, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

ARDGLASS



The name Ardglass comes from the Irish Ard Ghlais, or ‘green height’, the feature in question being the hill known as The Ward to the west of the town.  The harbour is an important fishing port with Northern Ireland’s third largest fishing fleet, a major exporter of fish to Europe, including some of the continent’s finest langoustines.  More leisurely activities include golf at the Ardglass Golf Club in Downpatrick and yachting from the Ardglass Marina, also known as the Phennick Cove Marina.  Walkers can head out onto the Ballyhornan Coastal Path, part of the longer Lecale Way.  The ruins of Ardtole Church can be found just outside Ardglass.   Dating back to the 1300s, it is one of the oldest churches in the area, on a site founded by St Patrick.  The church is on top of a hill, with views over the countryside and out to sea.  When the church was excavated in 1914 one of the finds was some of the oldest stained glass in Ireland, now housed in the National Museum of Ireland.


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Ardtole Church. Photo by Albert Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

ST JOHN'S POINT AND KILLOUGH



The lighthouse at St John’s Point is striped like many lighthouses, but is distinctive in that the stripes are black and yellow in the manner of a bumble bee.  It is the tallest onshore lighthouse on the Irish coast, having been extended to a height of 40m in the 1880s, and it was automated in 1981.  In 2015 the locals in the area were up in arms about a proposal to replace the six-ton antique lamp with a cheaper LED version.  The headland was immortalised in song by Van Morrison when, in his song Coney Island, he talked of  “stopping off  at St John’s Point”.  Its other claim to fame is that the ill-fated Titanic did her sea trials in the waters off here.

The village of Killough, formerly named St Ann’s Port, lies on the west shore of an almost-enclosed bay.  The present-day name comes from the Irish Cill Locha, meaning “church of the loch”, the church in question being long since gone.  The harbour was built in the 18th century and became an important departure point for the export of locally grown cereals.  However, by the 19th century the port was going into a decline due to the collapse of grain prices.  Around the same time the village became popular as a seaside destination, not least for its attractive tree-lined main street lined with low-rise cottages and pubs.  Killough and Coney Island, facing the village across the bay, had their moment of Hollywood fame in 2012 when they featured in the short film The Shore, directed by local lad Terry George, which won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.


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St John's Point Lighthouse. Photo by Ardfern, via Wikimedia Commons