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


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.

How the lough was formed
Laird is explaining the great tectonic forces that led to the forming of the lough – the emergence of the continents as we know them now; the effect of Ice Age glaciers in carving out valleys such as this and depositing the softly rolling drumlins that line the shore.

The further north we travel, the calmer the waters become. The Irish name, Lough Cuan, (quiet lough, or lough of the harbours) seems more apposite here. Apart from our boat’s engine, there is remarkably little noise. Roads are mostly invisible from the water, there are few dwellings, and virtually none of the intrusive development that has wrecked much of our coast.

It’s a gentle landscape, dominated by big water and bigger sky, where low-lying islands serve as basking platforms for baby seals, cormorants and tens of thousands of wildfowl and wading birds.

More than 2,000 species of marine life are found in or around the lough. In particular, Laird says, migrating birds are attracted to the 50sq km of sand and mudflats, revealed at low tide in the north of the lough, which provides sustenance for about 55,000 wading birds.

We cut across the western shore, gliding through the channels between islands, passing by the village of Whiterock and turning south again. The shoreline here is more thickly wooded, and some of the islands have discreet residences on them.

The village of Killyleagh is dominated by its castle, believed to be the oldest inhabited in Ireland. Rebuilt in the 19th century, it was described 100 years ago by Harold Nicholson as “pricking castellated ears above the smoke of of its own village and towering like some chateau of the Loire above the tides of Strangford Lough”.

Farther south, the area is full of ecclesiastical history and mythology. Saul is where St Patrick reputedly made his landing in Ireland, and a ruined medieval building marks the spot, alongside a more modern church. We’re almost on the outskirts of Downpatrick, and the area is littered with prehistoric, Celtic, early Christian, Norse and Anglo-Norman sites,

Beyond, we pass the 18th-century Castle Ward, one of two great houses (the other is Mountstewart to the north) on the lough now run by the National Trust. Its dual architecture reflects the differing tastes of Lord Bangor and his wife, Lady Ann Bligh, with one side of the building done in a classical Palladian style, the other in Georgian Gothic.

As Castle Ward disappears behind us we’re back in the Narrows and into Portaferry, less than three hours after we left. It’s the kind of journey that makes you want to come back, to explore the shoreline and the waters of this almost hidden treasure again.

Strangford Lough: A glacial creation
Strangford Lough emerged from under the melting ice-sheets of the Ice Age and is for the most part less than 10m deep. The retreating ice left behind distinctive drumlins, and the lough’s islands are a drowned drumlin field. The lough contains extensive areas of mudflat and sandflats (mainly at the northern end), with gravel, cobble, boulder and rocky shores as one moves further south. The water in the Lough is virtually fully saline except at the mouths of the two moderate-sized rivers, the Comber and the Quoile.

Some parts of the lough are less accessible, particularly where there is a lot of mud or seaweed. These areas are, however, of tremendous importance for wildlife and the Lough’s environmental importance has been recognised nationally and internationally. A range of excellent guides for walkers, cyclists and canoeists is available. More at visitstrangfordlough.co.uk

Attractions and activities
Water activities include the DV Diving Centre in Newtownards, pleasure boat trips from Donaghadee harbour (right) with Nelson’s Boats, and the Strangford sea safari run by the Clearsky Adventure Centre.

For canoeists and boat users, the bothy on Salt Island, just south of Killyleagh, is a bunkhouse that provides basic shelter, accommodation and camping facilities (028-42788387).

For those who prefer a little more comfort, the Old Schoolhouse (theoldschoolhouseinn.com), just south of Castle Espie on the road to Nendrum, has modern rooms and an award-winning restaurant. The Dufferin Coaching Inn in Killyleagh is a popular eating and drinking spot.

There are two designated audio driving routes: the Ulster Scots Connection and St Patrick’s Trail, both of which can be downloaded at discovernorthern
ireland. com.

Walking options include the Lecale Way and the Comber town trail. Fishing and angling are popular in the region, and Michael Patterson in Emerald Flies in Ballynahinch offers fly-tying and fly-fishing instruction.

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