Exploring County Down
Original Official Site of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board
The Bronte homeland: The countryside between Banbridge and Rathfriland was the homeland of the father and numerous uncles and aunts of the famous Bronte novelists, Charlone, Emily and Anne. The ruins of the cottage at Emdale, where Patrick Bronte was born, are preserved and two other Bronte houses nearby are still lived in. The hilltop parish church and school at Drumballyroney, where Patrick taught before going to England, is on the 'Bronte homeland' route (signposted) and is the nucleus of the Bronte Interpretive Centre.
The Bann river east of Banbridge descends from the Mourne mountains through trout pools and winds along a lovely valley. Take the Dromara/Castlewellan road (via Slieve Croob) for a wonderful view across Dundrum Bay to the Mournes. Slieve Croob (1,775 ft.) forms the centre of a little mountain range of its own, where Legananny Dolmen stands on huge Stone Age legs. See the butterflies, insects and reptiles at the Butterfly House in Seaforde.
St Patrick's Country: You can follow in St Patrick's first footsteps on Irish soil: from the spot at Ringbane, on Strangford Lough shore near Raholp, where he landed in A.D. 432, via Saul where he preached his first sermon (in a barn) and made his first convert, and Struell, where he blessed the Wells, to Downpatrick, where he built a little church. Slieve Patrick hill has a huge statue (with bronzed scenes from the saint's life) and the little Saul church is a replica of an early Christian foundation with round tower.
Also near Downpatrick, ruined Inch Abbey is a Norman foundation beautifully situated on the edge of the Quoile river. Quoile Pondage, where the river joins Strangford Lough, is a freshwater nature reserve with a visitor centre next to the 17th century ruined castle.
Strangford is a lovely village where the car ferry crosses the narrow sea channel - the Viking name means 'violent fjord' owing to the powerful current. There are no fewer than five small castles within a few miles of the village - Strangford, Old Castle Ward, Audley's, Walshestown and Kilclief - all well preserved and beautifully sited.
Castle Ward is the showplace of the lough shore: a magnificent Georgian mansion (one facade classical, the other Strawberry Hill gothic) filled with works of art and period pieces. There is an ornamental lake with wildfowl, a temple and a lovely demesne (National Trust).
Strangford Lough has been described as 'the birds Piccadilly Circus' because of the hundreds of thousands of migrant geese, ducks, shore and sea birds that gather there in vast flocks at different seasons of the year. It is the bird-watcher's dream and the yachtsman's too.
Killyleagh has a huge harbour, and a romantic castle, continuously inhabited for eight centuries.
Rowallane Gardens are at Saintfield, not far from Killyleagh. Maintained by the National Trust, they are specially famous for rhododendrons and azaleas.
Lecale Peninsula is the little-visited region between Downpatrick and the sea coast. Here is the attractive fishing port of Ardglass (with seven small castles) and the old-world village of Killough, with sycamore-shaded streets.
Dundrum, besides being an attractive little trading harbour in a landlocked bay, has the dramatically sited de Courcy's Castle, built by the Normans to dominate this part of County Down. Close by it are Murlough sand dunes, where the National Trust has provided paths and notice boards enabling the walker to learn about the flowers, birds, geology and archaeology of an area whose surface shifts and changes.
Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks These are both near Newcastle, and Ireland has no more lovely or popular places. Each was once a nobleman's demesne.
The National Arboretum at Castlewellan is one of the best in the British Isles. Tollymore's river dashes over cascades and Castlewellan's large lake provides pleasure boating and angling. Each forest park has a cafe, exhibition hall and well equipped caravan and camp sites.
The Mourne Mountains give you two holidays in one: for not only can you spend days rambling and exploring on the heights, you can also linger in the fishing villages at their foot - Annalong, Ballymartin, Kilkeel. Photographers and artists have inexhaustible subjects. Others fish, bathe, golf, seek gemstones on the beach or in the mountains, and enjoy the rich conversation characteristic of 'the Kingdom of Mourne'. The Brandy Pad, Bloody Bridge, the Castles of Commedagh, the Diamond Rocks - each direction has an irresistible lure. The wild, moody and striking interior can be reached only by foot, but trails in the park provide easy access without the need for hiking boots and backpacks. Price: about US$3.20 per car.
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