Stride out in County Down
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County Down boasts a fabulously rich array of walks - from gentle strolls around Mount Stewart lake to farmland trails at Castle Ward.
Castle Ward: Boundary Trail and Farm Trail
This circular trail starts from the 17th-century Castle Ward farmyard and follows the Strangford Lough shoreline along the all ability Shore Trail. It leads on to the Castle Trail and then circles Anglo-Norman Audley’s Castle. The trail continues through atmospheric woodland across a public road and through another section of woodland before reaching open farmland providing great views across the 18th-century landscaped park.
For an alternative shorter walk follow the Farm Trail back to the Farmyard - leaving open farmland the last short section of the trail is a single track that twists and turns through dense woodland finally leading onto Strangford Avenue and back to the Farmyard.
Taking a left continues the longer walk. Follow the boundary wall. It eventually reaches a mature coniferous woodland and then branches left and becomes single track, incorporating some sharp bends and steep drops to the side. The trail crosses a bridge and continues through beautiful landscapes and historic grounds providing outstanding views of Castle Ward house and across Strangford Lough towards the village of Portaferry. The last section crosses the deer park and leads on to Strangford Avenue to the lough shore and back to the Farmyard.
Wildlife in abundance can be seen throughout both trails. Along the shore look out for common seals, wildfowl and wading birds, particularly during the winter months. Throughout the woodlands look out for pine martens, buzzards, nesting herons and badgers at dawn and dusk.
Trail distance: Boundary Trail 8 miles (12.8kms) circular. Farm Trail 2.5miles (4kms) circular.
Mount Stewart: Lake Walk
This is one of the most unique and unusual gardens in the Trust’s ownership, enjoying the mild climate of the Ards Peninsula. From the reception area walk towards the north front of the mansion, along the wide gravelled path and left around the seven acre lake. The banks are planted with primulas, irises and other water-loving plants, as well as the immensely large-leafed gunneras.
You will pass Tir N’an Og, Land of the Ever Young, the family’s private burial ground. On the slopes of this hill can be found paths and steps, running through a variety of shrubs and plants, that favour a hotter climate. Returning to the path at the bottom of the hill you can either follow the lakeside grass path known as the Rock Walk or follow the gravel walk alongside Jubilee Avenue. By crossing a little stone bridge over a stream you reach the Ladies’ Walk which will return you to the mansion house. To the left rises Rhododendron Hill with several alternative paths taking you through a large variety of rhododendrons and azaleas, birches, acers, camellias, enkianthus and eucryphias.
Trail distance: 2.3 miles (3.7kms) circular
Murlough National Nature Reserve
The reserve is an excellent area for walking and bird watching due to its spectacular location at the edge of Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains. Rich in archaeological history it is a site of outstanding geological and nature conservation interest and was the first nature reserve to be established in Ireland. The Nature Trail is one of the best ways to appreciate the unique habitats and wildlife of this special place. Marked with yellow-topped posts the trail initially follows the main visitor walkway, the Slidderyford Path boardwalk, to the beach.
The view from here takes in an impressive shingle storm beach and four miles of magnificent strand set against the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. On a clear day it is possible to see the Isle of Man. After a short walk along the beach you enter the Central Reserve conservation area, via the archaeology path. If you are lucky you may see our Exmoor ponies and Galloway cattle which compliment the rabbits grazing on the reserve. From here the trail loops back to the car park by way of the Back Track.
Trail distance: 2.5 miles (4kms) circular
Strangford Lough: Island Hill
If one word could describe Strangford Lough and its wildlife, it would be ‘movement’. Changing tides with powerful currents and the constant rush of waves back and forth over the shores, all give character to the Lough and profoundly influence the animals and wildlife. At other times the Lough seems like a large and placid lake. Accessible at low-tide from the car park, this walk takes you along a concrete causeway and around Rough Island. Located at the upper end of Strangford Lough, adjacent to North Strangford National Nature Reserve, the walk allows for fine views across the Lough toward Scrabo Tower and the Ards Penninsula. It is also an excellent viewpoint for bird watching.
Between the tides a range of habitats appear from differing grades of mud and sand to boulders and salt marsh. The area is rich in worms, shellfish and other small animals that are a vast food source attracting migratory birds and waders, with some species found in internationally important numbers during the winter. Eelgrass is abundant and is the principal food source of Brent geese, many thousands of which migrate to the lough during September and October.
Trail distance: 1.5 miles (2.4km) circular
For more information on local walks visit www.walkni.com (external link).