Mount Stewart's scenic walks reopened: Excitement as previously unseen paths brought back into use
Previously closed-off paths around the historic Mount Stewart demesne on the shores of Strangford Lough opened for the first time on Wednesday.
Thanks to a £12m restoration project, ramblers have been given the chance to roam a network of trails and natural wonders spread over 800 acres.
The Co Down site has been looked after by the National Trust since it acquired it last year for £4m, with a further £8m spent renovating Mount Stewart House itself.
Financial assistance for the project was provided by Ulster Village Gardens and the Garfield Weston Foundation.
The estate, bought by the Stewart family in the mid-18th century, was developed into a working farm with woodland, orchards, follies, a walled garden and famed formal gardens.
The landscape has remained virtually unchanged ever since, offering three miles of trails that are "lost in time".
Last year, Mount Stewart estate attracted a record 187,000 visitors, and it is hoped the new developments will help it pull in even bigger crowds.
"Jon Kerr, National Trust manager for east Down, explained: "Mount Stewart has always been a real gem, but this newly accessible land really completes the sense of the demesne being a uniquely preserved, historic Irish demesne.
"The history of Mount Stewart is really absolutely fascinating - the family and their guests were players on the international political stage right up until recent times.
"Opening up the demesne allows visitors to really immerse themselves in that history and explore parts of the estate that no one, outside of the Stewart family and their tenants, has previously seen."
Dr Tony Hopkins, Ulster Garden Villages chairman, added: "We're delighted with the completion of these walking trails, which open up the beautiful countryside at Mount Stewart.
"The demesne is right in the heart of east Down and comprises rolling drumlins with stunning - and sometimes sudden and unexpected - views over Strangford Lough and right the way down to the Mournes.
"It really is a precious landscape and a historic one, and we are very proud to have played a part in opening up access to National Trust members, supporters and visitors."
Combined with the recently restored house and some of the most impressive gardens in the British Isles, it is hoped the work will cement Mount Stewart's status as a national treasure and a must-see destination for visitors to Northern Ireland.
The grounds offer insights into the history of the Stewart family and the running of a country Anglo-Irish estate in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
A 10-year plan is in place to develop the remainder of the demesne, with the goal of eventually providing up to 20 miles of beautiful trails.
Visitors to the trails have been advised to expect a muddier experience than the existing formal paths around Mount Stewart gardens, making sturdy walking boots essential.