Discovering Northern Ireland: a Weekend in Co. Down
Updated: Apr 1
A chance search for a last-minute deal on Airbnb led us to the ridiculously picturesque village of Rostrevor, Co. Down on the northern coast of Carlingford Lough. Eager to escape the madness of the first post-lockdown St Patrick's weekend in two years, its idyllic location at the foot of Slieve Martin and close proximity to a number of hiking and walking trails was very appealing indeed.
The area around Carlingford Lough is famed for its scenery, overlooked by the majestic Mourne Mountains. Visible from a great distance (it's said that on a clear day they can be seen from the top of Croghan Hill in Offaly), the Mournes are the highest and most dramatic mountain range in northern Ireland. The lough itself opens out into the Irish Sea and forms part of the border between Northern Ireland to the north and the Republic to the south. Its natural beauty is staggering, none more so than on a cracking blue-sky day.
Rostrevor is an excellent base for exploring the area and there are loads of things to see and do within a very short distance. The village itself is postcard-pretty, situated on the banks of the River Kilbroney with well-maintained traditional shopfronts, a beautiful church and some fabulous views from the hill across Carlingford Lough. The most photographed spot is evocative of a scene from Wind in the Willows: an arched stone bridge crosses the meandering river while ivy-covered houses with brightly painted doors line its banks, carpeted in a soft green moss.
On the left after the bridge beside the entrance to Kilbroney Park you'll find the start of the Fairy Glen. Follow the river path upstream for a non-strenuous and scenic forest walk. At less than 2kms out and back, this linear route is a peaceful one with expansive views across the open countryside. Pause to enjoy the calming soundtrack of birdsong and the burbling of the river as it flows downhill. There are a number of entrance points here to the adjacent Kilbroney Park.
Carve out a couple of hours during your visit to Rostrevor to explore the surrounds of stunning Kilbroney Park, almost 100 acres of sprawling parkland overlooking Carlingford Lough, dominated by the peaks of Slieve Martin and the Mountains of Mourne and surrounded by vast areas of abundant forest. On a sunny spring day, the views were unbeatable.
A winding path leads you through the heart of the park, lined on either side by an impressive array of trees. Information plaques mark the notable varieties to be found throughout the Tree Trail. Look out for the magnificent turkey oak on the left with its enormous trunk. The first hints of spring were in the air with blooms in tentative blossom, while birds sang noisily above our heads. It was blissful.
The park has many amenities on site including a Children’s Play Park, café and toilets. There are multiple walking and hiking routes for all levels and abilities while the more adventurous may opt for the Mountain Biking trails, renowned as being one of the best in the country. Kids will love the Narnia Trail which brings to life C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia' - the author spent much time in this area as a child. Embark on the trail through a wardrobe door and keep an eye out for quirky features and Narnia sculptures dotted along the route.
You can't visit Rostrevor without making an excursion to see the Cloughmore Stone, high on the hills above the park overlooking the lough. There are a number of different options for getting there, depending on fitness and energy levels. There are three waymarked trails, which vary in length from 2kms to 7kms. The shortest option is to park at the car park off Forest Drive and to make the final short but steep ascent on foot.
More active-minded folk may choose to do as we did - start from Kilbroney Park and take one of the trails through Rostrevor Forest, a particularly scenic but moderately strenuous route with some steep uphill sections. Your calves won't thank you for it but your mind and soul will be rejuvenated. Cocooned by a canopy of trees it's incredibly peaceful, home to a variety of rare plants as well as jays and squirrels. The area has been declared a National Nature Reserve and more recently, an Area of Special Scientific Interest
Rostrevor's most iconic landmark is the Cloughmore Stone, an immense fifty ton granite rock deposited high on the slopes of Slieve Martin during the Ice Age by retreating glaciers. However, local legend suggests that it was thrown there by Fionn mac Cumhaill during a fight with a Scottish giant. Believe that as you will.
Still moaning about that steep uphill climb? Well this is your reward - the most jaw-dropping views of Carlingford Lough against a backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. I audibly gasped as I reached the top and caught my first glimpse of the lake looking tantalising and twinkling in the sun, the skyline punctuated dramatically with evergreen trees and the mountains enveloped in a soft blue haze. I can't promise that you'll get weather like we did but either way, you're in for a treat. It has to be one of the most magnificent vistas on the island.
It seems even C.S. Lewis thought so and is quoted as having written to his brother ...“that part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia”.
The aptly named Kodak Corner is an unmissable detour as you make your way back down to Rostrevor. With an uninterrupted panorama to rival the Amalfi Coast, this designated viewing point is not immediately obvious and can be found at one end of a gorgeous forest trail. There is a seating area here to take best advantage of those sweeping sea and mountain views, perfectly framed by trees. Navigation point here
EATING AND DRINKING IN ROSTREVOR:
The pretty-in-pink Old Schoolhouse Café is a good spot for breakfast or lunch, serving a wide-ranging menu of options for all tastes, and with good coffee to boot. Though we didn't get to sample their evening menu, it was highly recommended to us by a local who was raving about their fish and seafood dishes. At the side you'll find the Shack which serves takeaway woodfired pizza.
The Rostrevor Inn menu offers a cut above average pub-grub fare with a broad menu focused on seasonal, locally sourced produce and catering to all dietary requirements / fussy eaters. The garlic, chili and chorizo prawns were particularly outstanding. There are numerous burger options to choose from including Mexican chicken, Haloumi and a vegan variation as well as a number of fish and other meat dishes. Service was efficient and friendly.
And the award for the best pint of Guinness in northern Ireland goes to....
The delightful Fearon's with its beautifully maintained traditional pub frontage looked very appealing to us on a cold St Patrick's night. Tucked away in a corner beside the church on the old town square, we peered through the window and were enticed inside by the thoughts of creamy pints in a cosy, intimate setting.
Before long we were perched at the bar, chatting to barman Kev and enjoying one of the best pints of Guinness we've had in a while. We had to have a second one - just to be sure. On our second night we popped in again, this time to sample the local Mourne Dew gin. Fresh and citrusy with a floral hint and served in a no-fuss glass, this is an elegant and refreshing gin that goes down far too easily. Perhaps one to avoid if you're planning a climb to Cloughmore the following morning. I speak from experience...
In Dublin this would be hipster-heaven with its shabby chic décor and random bric-a-bric lined walls, no doubt with eye-watering prices to boot. Here it's the real deal - a place for locals to sit and chat with no Wi-Fi, TV or music, unless Kev pulls out his guitar in the later hours. Known locally as Henry's, the bar was tended until 2020 by Henry Kavanagh who was pulling pints here until his death at the age of 94. The pub belonged to his wife's father - it had been in the family since 1820 and they'd been running it since the fifties. There's a real sense of pride here at the pub's long history and the staff are only to willing to share all the stories. An absolute gem of a pub.
One of the most extraordinary places to visit in Northern Ireland is the Silent Valley, an expansive reservoir ringed by mountains and located within the 'Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'. Just 22 kms from Rostrevor, it's a place that feels otherworldly and alien with an almost eerie peacefulness, even more so when completely engulfed in fog and mist. The tops of the mountains were never visible for more than a few fleeting seconds on our visit.
The reservoir is truly an epic feat of engineering, built to gather water from the Mourne Mountains by damming the Kilkeel River valley. Construction was completed in 1933 after thirty years of hard labour and today the Silent Valley and Ben Crom reservoirs are the main water supply for most of County Down and a large part of Belfast.
This massive undertaking included the construction of the 35kms Mourne Wall which stands at up to 8 feet tall in places and which connects the summits of fifteen mountains. The wall is made from natural granite stone and was built using the traditional dry-stone walling technique. The precision of the stonework is truly remarkable and has to be seen to be believed. Today it encircles 9000 acres of mountainous land; its purpose was to keep farm animals away from the waters of the reservoir, and the rivers that feed them.
From the car park, it's a short and easy walk to the start of the reservoir (less than ten minutes). On the way you'll pass a beautifully maintained parkland area with ponds and ducks, and a play area for kids. Information plaques are dotted around the grounds giving you a little insight into the history of Silent Valley. It's worth noting that the Silent Valley café and public toilets are located at this point.
There are a number of walking trails for all ages and abilities, all of which start and end at the car park. The shortest is less than 2kms, the longest at 9.5kms. We opted for the latter, the Ben Crom Dam Walk, a linear route on flat tarmacked terrain which runs alongside the Silent Valley Reservoir to Ben Crom Dam. The start point is the trail to the right as you stand facing the reservoir.
What was remarkable to me is the sheer resilience of nature. In this wild, stark landscape, wild flowers and gorse came bursting through in glorious pops of colour. Even on the rockiest and most exposed areas, little green shoots were flourishing. As the name would suggest, it's incredibly peaceful here and an easy place to be mindful, surrounded by mountains and listening to the gentle lapping of the water.
That all changes when you reach the Ben Crom Dam as the water thunders down from above. It's hypnotic to watch as giant teardrops of water slide into each other like fast-moving icicles. But as you stand closer, you see the incredible engineering at play once more. They don't crash to the base of the dam - it's almost like they dissolve gently into the ground. I could've watched them for hours.
Make sure to climb the steps at the side of the dam. The views from the top are worth the ascent and you get to see the workings of the dam from an entirely different perspective.
Practical info: it's free to visit but there is a £5 charge for the car park. The reservoir grounds are open daily from 10:00 until 18:30 (May to September) and 10:00 until 16:00 (October to April).
If you have access to a car, a drive along the Mourne Coastal Route is highly recommended. With numerous places of interest along the way, and miles of spectacular coastline to enjoy (click here for a little taste of what to expect), it's an idyllic way to spend the day.
This vast sandy beach is located at the mouth of Carlingford Lough and overlooked by those majestic Mournes. Its Blue Flag beach is reputed to have the warmest waters in Northern Ireland but with an icy sea breeze coming at us in full force, I wasn't willing to test that theory. Maybe in summer...
There are fabulous views across to the Cooley Mountains and of the still-active 19th century Haulbowline Lighthouse, which signals the entrance to Carlingford Lough.
The striking rock formations and the incredible pink evening sky made us sharply pull in to the Bloody Bridge car park. In case you're wondering, the name refers to a massacre which took place at the site at the time of the 1641 rebellion.
The bodies of murdered prisoners were thrown over the bridge into the river, turning it red so from this point on, the river became known as the Bloody Bridge River. Despite the horrors associated with the site, the sweeping views across the Irish Sea are pretty awesome, especially towards sunset. Down below the carpark is the entrance to the Bloody Bridge Coastal Path, a linear walking route whose cliffs provide homes to a variety of rare wildlife. On a clear day, it's possible to see across to the Isle of Man.
The popular seaside town of Newcastle is an ideal spot to end your day's travels. Take a stroll along the promenade at sunset and enjoy those fabulous views where you can literally see the "Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea”
Percy French's song about the Mourne Mountains is one of his best-loved works. It has recently been commemorated in a sculpture installed in the grounds of the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa - an apt location which will forever be overlooked by his beloved mountain range.