Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Coast along the wild shores of Strangford

One of Europe’s richest wildlife habitats, Strangford Lough is the largest inlet in the UK and Ireland, covering 80 square nautical miles.

The island-studded sea lough is managed by the National Trust and is a haven for marine life, butterflies and wildflowers.

In ecological terms it is unique and the jewel in Northern Ireland’s coastline. The calm waters of the main shallow basin to the north gave this lough its old Irish name, Lough Cuan, meaning ‘sheltered haven’.

This route, which is linked from Belfast by the traffic-free Comber Greenway, meanders along the shores of the Ards Peninsula and Strangford Lough along minor roads with all the scenery and wildlife right at your wheels.

Directions

By bicycle, from Belfast use the Comber Greenway cycle route to reach Comber. By car: Comber is 8 miles from Belfast — take the A20 out of Belfast towards Dundonald. At Dundonald take the A22 signposted Comber.

Setting out from Comber town centre, follow signposts for Killyleagh/Downpatrick (A22). When you pass the speed limits signposts, follow the brown tourism signs to the left towards Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre.

Follow this road as it twists and skirts along the Lough to Castle Espie. Continue along the Ballydrain Road until you come across a left turn signposted for Nendrum. Turn here and cycle along a causeway to Mahee Island, sitting in Strangford Lough.

After visiting Nendrum monastic site, retrace your journey back along this route and when you reach the end of the Ballydrain Road again, turn left and left again, following signage for Whiterock.

As you cycle down towards Whiterock you can watch how the tidal water surges in around the small islands in the lough, then retreats, leaving the birds free to feed on the emerging mud flats.

From Whiterock, follow National Cycle Network route 99 on quiet country roads through Killyleagh to Downpatrick. Here you can visit St Patrick’s grave before passing through the tiny hamlets of Saul and Raholp on your way to Strangford. Just before Strangford turn left, signposted for Castle Ward Estate. From here follow the shoreline track to Strangford village.

The Backdrop

Designated as Northern Ireland's first Marine Nature Reserve, Strangford Lough is internationally renowned for its abundance and diversity of habitats and species. More than 2,000 marine animal and plant species have been found, most unique to this area.

Look out for common and grey seals, Arctic terns, Irish hares, porpoises and much more.

Comber was a plantation town that owes its development to the industrial revolution. The town’s oldest industry is the spinning mill, which dates back to 1863. Many famous names are linked to Comber, including Major General Sir Robert ‘Rollo’ Gillespie, whose statue stands in The Square and was distinguished in a spectacular attack on a hill fort in the Himalayas.

Whiterock lies in the heart of drumlin country, small regular-shaped hills that formed during the Ice Age. At Sketrick Island are the ruins of one of the massive fortresses built near Strangford Lough in the late middle ages.

At Mahee Island lies one of the finest archaeological sites, Nendrum Monastery, which overlooks the Lough and is reached by twisting lanes and a causeway. It is the best example of a pre-Norman monastic enclosure with buildings and was associated with St Mochaoi in the 5th century until a fire in 976AD during a Viking raid.

Strangford is located on the opposite side of the lough from Portaferry. The stretch of lough between Strangford and Portaferry, called the Narrows, is the only opening to the Irish Sea and it takes approximately 350,000,000 cubic metres of water to fill the lough from low water to high.

As the Narrows at some places is only 500 metres wide, this results in a vast river of water rushing through this opening at speeds of up to 7.5 knots. During the 9th Century the Viking invaders who arrived in their long boats through these fast flowing waters bestowed the name Strangfjörthr or “place of strong currents” for this area.

More information

For further information on cycling or any other outdoor activity, please contact Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN), tel: 028 9030 3930 or cycleni.com.

CAAN in association with Belfast Telegraph have provided this information. Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy of the information. CAAN and Belfast Telegraph, however, cannot accept responsibility for errors or omissions but where such are brought to our attention, the information for future publications will be amended accordingly.

Cycle Name: Comber to Strangford — part of the Strangford Lough Cycle Trail.

Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Strangford Lough.

Nearest big town to start point: Comber.

Distance: Approximately 30 miles linear.

Terrain: All on public road.

Traffic: This route follows minor country roads — however it can be busy through Downpatrick town.

Refreshments: Cafés, toilets and refreshments are available at many small towns and villages along the route.

Publications: Part of the Strangford Lough Cycle Trail developed by Sustrans and Down District Council. Strangford Lough Cycle Map from sustransshop.co.uk

Map: Sheet 21 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discoverer Series, available from Land & Property Services Map Shop (lpsni.gov.uk)

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