Wednesday, 16 August 2017


The village of Greyabbey is named after the 12th century abbey on its outskirts.  The abbey was founded by Affreca, the wife of the Anglo-Norman invader of East Ulster John de Courcy.  The abbey is now a ruin, but stands in beautiful surroundings set among the parkland and gardens surrounding Grey Abbey House.  The House is one of the finest Georgian country houses in Ireland, and belongs to the Montgomery family.  The gardens include a wide variety of plants, including many from the Southern Hemisphere.  The property has been used several times for filming, including The Frankenstein Chronicles starring Sean Bean.

Kircubbin lies about halfway down the eastern shore of Strangford Lough.  The main activity in the village is fishing and boating for leisure.  The Kircubbin Sailing Club has been active since the early 20th century.  At this point the Mourne Mountains are still visible, a tantalising sight rising up from the far side of the Lough.  

Grey Abbey. Photo by JohnArmagh, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


The northernmost end of Strangford Lough is fringed by an airport, Ards Airport, which is home to the Ulster Flying Club.  Just beyond is the town of Newtownards – Ards is also the name of the peninsula which juts out between the Lough and the Irish Sea.  The town’s history stretches back to the time of St Finian, who in 545 founded a monastery close to the present-day town.  Three centuries later the Vikings came rampaging through the area and destroyed the monastery.  The next major arrival was that of the Normans, who in 1226 founded a town which they named Nove Ville de Blathewyc.  Fast forward to 1605, when the town acquired the name of Newtown, later expanded to Newtownards.  The town saw action during the Irish Rebellion, when an attempt to occupy it on the part of the United Irishmen was met with musket fire from the market house.  The only recent turbulence came during The Troubles in 1993, when there was a car bomb attack on a bar. Due to its proximity to Belfast, just 10 miles away, the town now largely operates as a commuter town for people working in the city.  

St Finian’s legacy lives on in the town in the form of Movilla Abbey, built by the saint in the 6th century.  Little remains of it today apart from what is left of the abbey’s 15th century church.  To the north of the town is the SommeHeritage Centre, which is a memorial to the Irish soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1917.  The museum makes use of sounds and smells to give a realistic and moving sense of what it was like to be in the trenches.  Newtownards is overlooked by the Scrabo Tower at the top of Scrabo Hill on the site of a hill fort.  The tower was built in 1857 in memory of Charles Stewart, 3rd Marquis of Londonderry.  There is also a country park on Scrabo Hill, with magnificent views over Strangford Lough and the surrounding area.  

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View from Scrabo Hill. Photo by Colin Park, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 26 July 2017


During the 12th century, Killyleagh and the other towns and villages around Strangford Lough were under threat from invasion by the Vikings.  But the area had already been conquered during the same century by Normans, including a Norman knight called John de Courcy, who came to Ireland from Somerset.  While there he built a number of castles with the aim of keeping the Vikings at bay, and one of these was Killyleagh Castle, believed to be the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland.  As well as its current permanent inhabitants the castle offers self-catering accommodation for tourists, and it is also used as a concert venue, with past appearances by Van Morrison among others.

The village lies in a tranquil setting on a small inlet on the western shore of the Lough, the pastel-hued cottages giving the waterfront an attractive appearance.  The town was recently reported as being the last predominantly Protestant settlement in the Strangford constituency, a contrast from the mainly Catholic Downpatrick just down the road.  Apart from a bomb in a Catholic-owned bar in 1975 the village escaped the worst of the Troubles and now has a prosperous air.  The parish church, in a slightly elevated position with views of the Lough, is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and lies on a site previously occupied by an old pre-Reformation church.  On the road into the village from Downpatrick is Delamont Country Park, with a seasonal miniature railway, a large heronry, camping facilities and the Strangford Stone, a modern-day megalith erected in 1999.

For events in the area, including the Killyleagh Summer Festival, see the town's Facebook page

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Photo by Bob Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 13 July 2017


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


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