The course of true love never did run smooth. Lord Bernard Ward and his wife, Lady Anne, were faced with major architectural issues when they set about designing their 18th century mansion above the shores of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, named Castle Ward.
Lord Ward, a devoted follower of neo-classicism, found himself at loggerheads with Lady Anne’s obsession with Gothic. Neither was prepared to back down. To keep the peace, the front half of the house was eventually designed to his lordship’s spec and the rear treated to a more elaborate facade.
Their unusual house is now run by the National Trust. On a clear day (but this isn’t one of them) you can see boats from the East Down Yacht Club racing around the many islands. There are said to be 365 landforms breaking the surface, one for each day of the year.
Strangford is the UK’s largest sea lough and awash with lethal pladdies – rock and bank formations that lurk just below the surface. Combined with a 9-knot tidal channel to the Irish Sea, it’s not surprising this breathtaking waterway has required extra care from visiting boaty types.
A 60-mile drive around the lough takes about three hours, including a ferry crossing from nearby Strangford village to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula. However, this is not a route to be hurried, even on a wet day. Just exploring the Castle Ward estate and its well-stocked secondhand bookshop involves most of an afternoon.
I’ve already been warned about the weather in this part of Ireland. Earlier, Geoffrey, the Jamaican burser on my Stena Line ferry from Holyhead to Dublin, confided with a shiver that it was freezing compared with his Caribbean home. Having lived in County Down for seven years, I can only sympathise.
It was sunny when the ferry docked in Dublin but by the time I’d reached the border near Dundalk, the heated steering wheel in my Range Rover Sport was called into action. The Army viewing posts that once towered over the landscape here have now disappeared, although the thorny issue of a new Brexit border has yet to be ironed out.
The performance-focussed Range Rover has soaked up the miles on both sides of the Irish Sea. It’s a brilliant cruiser with a luxuriously appointed cabin and a serious turn of speed. The latest infotainment system isn’t as intuitive as it could be to operate but I do know I’ve averaged almost 30mpg.
It’s about two hours from Dublin to Strangford on the east coast of Northern Ireland. The final stretch on the A25 from Newry passes Downpatrick Cathedral, built on a monastic site that is one of the holiest in Ireland. St Patrick’s grave is in the grounds, so this spot is very much on the tourist map.
After visiting Castle Ward, it’s a 10-minute ferry with the Range Rover across the Narrows to Portaferry. When the tide is running fast, the captain has to point the bow high into the flow to stop his vessel being carried downstream. Sail-powered craft need to judge their passage just right to avoid being completely washed away.
Pulling off the ferry, turn immediately left up Lough Shore Road for some spectacular views of Strangford. Look for the seals and porpoise that gather around Dunnyneill Islands. This is also an important bird life area, with a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at nearby Castle Espie.
The A20 north skirts the shoreline for some of the way, passing the pretty village of Greyabbey before reaching Mount Stewart house. The grounds are especially popular, with impossibly manicured gardens and a splendid lake.
Newtownards is a busy working town infested with political flags but after Comber, take the Ballydrain Road south to Mahee Island. This spit of land eventually leads to the obligatory golf club and the more atmospheric Nendrum Monastery. Few tourists make it this far but the drive is worth it just to stand by the round tower and look out across the lough.
Heading south again to Killyleagh and then back to Strangford, my advice is stay off the busy A22 and explore the single-track shore roads down the lough’s west bank. Daft Eddys pub on Sketrick Island has pints and views that will tempt you to stay awhile, sleepy Ballymorran Bay is a fine spot to watch a sunset.
By the time I reach central Belfast it’s early evening. I have dinner booked at OX, next to the River Lagan on Oxford Street. It’s an area that saw more than its fair share of the Troubles but now chef Stephen Toman has made it famous for something else.
With a Michelin star to its name, OX has become the place to eat in Belfast. It offers trendy tasting menus only but expect a meandering journey around your palate that leaves no taste bud untouched. The kitchen tries to source ingredients as locally as possible, everything from the sea herbs to the broad beans.
By 10pm I’m checked in to the Culloden Estate and Spa, seven miles east at Cultra, on the wooded shores of Belfast Lough. The hotel is something of an institution in Northern Ireland, a five-star venue original built for the Bishops of Down in 1876 and then transformed into a luxury hotel.
Looking across the lough from my room towards Carrickfergus, the view is occasionally interrupted by the lights of a passing ferry or tanker – the Titantic would have sailed past here on her maiden voyage from the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard.
I make my way down to the bar for a nightcap. Ironically, this part of the building was once a church. Bob from Milwaukee is making full use of the fact by offering a sermon over a pint of Guinness. It’s difficult not to talk. He’s here to find his ancestors and has a family tree to prove it.
He’s visited the nearby Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and has bought a stack of presents to take home. Pride of place for his daughter is a painting by local artist Jude Fenton. It’s an atmospheric watercolour of Donegal and has inspired him to return again next year.
Misty-eyed, possibly induced by the drink, Bob leans forward and tells me he is amazed at the beauty and warmth of the people of Northern Ireland. Thankfully, with tourism booming in the Province, the dark days here are starting to seem a distant memory.
Stenaline.co.uk, hastingshotels.com, oxbelfast.com, judefentonart.co.uk
Range Rover Sport SDV8
ENGINE 4.4-litre V8 turbodiesel
TOP SPEED 135mph
ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 6.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 33.6mpg (EU Combined)
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 17/04/2018 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.