First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
When the Ward family from Cheshire bought an estate on Strangford Lough in 1570, Ireland was a rough and dangerous place for English settlers. The fortified tower the newcomers built and named after themselves, Castle Ward, was fit for the times. But the house that their descendant Bernard Ward built two centuries later in his beautifully landscaped park was a luxury home, better suited to easier times.
Bernard and his wife Anne could not agree on an architectural style, so they settled for a pragmatic, his-and-hers solution – the south frontage conforming to Bernard’s severely classical design, the north half that faced onto Strangford Lough in Anne’s exuberant Strawberry Hill-inspired Gothic. Inside, the décor carries on the inharmonious theme: Bernard’s rooms are of plain and perfect proportion, Anne’s a riot of onion-dome plasterwork ceilings and Turkish windows.
The National Trust have laid out several colour-coded and waymarked trails through the Castle Ward woods and parkland, and we chose the Boundary Trail that skirts the demesne. There was a bizarre start to the walk, as a silhouette familiar from TV hove in view – the grim stronghold tower of Winterfell, ancestral hall of the Stark clan from Game of Thrones. Remembered as a blackened and smoking ruin full of corpses, there was a curious frisson in finding the real thing standing tall and unblemished – the original fortified tower of the Wards, commanding a really superb prospect of the silky blue waters of Strangford Lough.
Beyond the forbidding old tower the trail led away north along the lough shore, where green and orange seaweed wafted a pungent iodine whiff across the path. An old crowstepped boathouse stood out in the water on a low promontory. Across the inlet the harbour town of Portaferry lay under its hummock of a hill, guarding the narrows where Strangford Lough’s tidal waters meet the sea.
Soon we turned our backs on the lough and followed the path under a clearing sky through sycamore and oak woods carpeted thickly with bluebells. The green parkland of Castle Ward lay in sunshine, gleaming with gorse bushes and buttercup drifts. Coot chicks meandered across a rushy pond, their fuzzy scarlet heads frantically bobbing. Goldcrests twittered sweetly high in the treetops of Mallard Plantation, where bell-like white flowers of wood sorrel still nodded among their trefoil leaves.
From a viewpoint on the demesne wall we looked out west across gold and green lowlands to where Slieve Croob and the neighbouring Mourne Mountains stood veiled in warm grey haze. Then we turned back towards Castle Ward through quiet pastures where the cows and calves gazed stolidly at us before resuming their steady munching.
Start: Castle Ward car park, near Strangford, Co. Down BT30 7LS (OSNI ref J572493) – moderate charge, NT members free
Getting there: Castle Ward is signed off A25, 1½ miles west of Strangford
Walk (8 miles, easy, OSNI 1:50,000 Discoverer 21; Castle Ward Trails map available from Visitor Centre; online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From main car park, right towards Visitor Centre. Before archway, take path on left (‘Trails, Winterfell’). Follow ‘Winterfell’ to Old Tower and gateway beyond. Left along shore, and follow ‘Boundary Trail’ and red arrow waymarks for 8 miles, back to car park.
Conditions: Very well waymarked throughout. Path is shared with cyclists. No dogs between March and October (livestock in fields).
Lunch/tea: Castle Ward teashop
Accommodation: The Cuan, Strangford BT30 7ND (028-4488-1222, thecuan.com) – friendly, family-run hotel
Castle Ward (National Trust): 028-4488-1204, nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-ward
Info: Downpatrick TIC (028-4461-2233); discovernorthernireland.com
The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99).