Going Coastal: The big water, big sky of Strangford Lough
The series concludes with a boat trip around the Co Down sea inlet, often drawn but little-visited
Strangford Lough covers an area of 150sq km, yet it is seldom more than 10m deep. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Hugh Linehan and John Murray on board St Brendan. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
As I arrive at the pier in the village of Strangford, Co Down, the low clouds are skimming the tops of the drumlins and the occasional spit of light rain is coming in from the water. Ahead are the Narrows, the powerful channel that gives Strangford Lough (from the Norse Strangfjörthr for “strong current”) its name.
Across the channel is the more literally named Portaferry, with its aquarium and marine biological institute. There’s been a ferry here since 1180; the current version is an efficient roll-on-roll-off with enough room for about 20 cars at a time. Without this service, it would take an hour and a half to get from one village to the other by driving around the lough.
If as a child you ever traced the outline of Ireland’s coastline with a pencil and paper, then you’ll be familiar with Strangford Lough, even if you’ve never been there. It’s that tricky bit in the top right corner where an almost entirely landlocked sea inlet extends far inland from the Narrows, parallel to the coastline and northwards to Newtownards, bounded on the east by the Ards peninsula and the west by the towns of Comber, Killyleagh and Downpatrick.
From the broad, shallow flats of the north end to the fast-flowing deep channel where the lough’s waters meet the Irish Sea is a distance of more than 32km. In total, the lough covers 150sq km. And hardly anyone I know has ever been there.
On its eight-minute crossing, the vessel takes a dogleg route, perhaps compensating for the strong tidal current. Some 350 million cubic metres of water rush through the Narrows and leave again with each passing tide, at speeds of up to eight knots. You can see the buoys and boats straining against their moorings, and numerous eddies and whirlpools dot the surface of the water. This is the only place in Ireland powered by tidal energy; underwater turbines harness the force of the water to provide Strangford village’s electricity.
In Portaferry, I meet up with John Murray, who captains our lovely boat, the St Brendan, and Roly Laird from the Association of Approved Tourist Guides of Ireland. Murray has a long family connection to the area and the lough, and is heavily involved in the local RNLI. We’re going to head north first, along the eastern banks of the lough, then across and down the west side. Laird is a mine of information about the area’s environment, history and heritage.
The sun breaks through as we set off in the St Brendan, leaving the Narrows behind and steering north into the broad expanse of the lough proper. We come to the wreck of the Empire Tana, a cargo liner used in the Normandy landings, which was brought here for salvage after the second World War. Long ago broken in two, its bows and stern rear out of the water at low tide, and are popular with divers as well as four-metre conger eels.