County Down in Northern Ireland boasts an impressive collection of historic sites, with some of the oldest stretching back to neolithic times. Structures like the Legananny Dolmen and the Ballynoe Stone Circle were built over 5000 years ago. But the county is also home to many sites from a wide plethora of eras.
Down is perfect for anybody looking for Stone Age sites mixed with early medieval monasteries, Norman castles and grand estates.
Here are 10 of the best historic sites in County Down.
1. Castle Ward
This quirky estate building is best known for its dual architecture. On one side it looks like a typical neo-classical house, but one has to just look the other side to find a neo-gothic facade. Lord Bangor and his wife, Lady Ann Bligh had quite different architectural tastes, instead of settling for one, they decided to incorporate both into the estate. In recent years Castle Ward’s historic farmyard was used as a filming location for HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’.
The main building is open to visitors every day all year round. For any hungry explorers, there is a tearoom serving cake.
Hillsborough Castle is not in fact a castle: it’s a stately home, built in 1797 for Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire. Most of what you see today dates from the 1830s and 40s, when an extensive remodelling took place. The Hills were big entertainers, hosting lavish parties for up to 3,500 guests.
In more recent years, Hillsborough Castle hosted Peace Talks in the 1990s, hosted Tony Blair and George Bush in 2003, and saw the meeting of the Queen and President Mary McAleese – the first time the British monarch had met an Irish Head of State since independence.
In 2014, Hillsborough Castle passed into the care of Historic Royal Palaces, a UK charity which manages unoccupied royal residences. The interior of the castle is accessible by guided tour only: it’s worth booking ahead online if you want a particular time.
3. Inch Abbey
The picturesque ruins are located on the north bank of the Quoile River. The site was founded by the Norman knight John de Courcy, who destroyed an older 9th century monastery. The buildings of Inch Abbey are mostly from the 12th and 13th century.
The ruins offer a lovely backdrop for walks around the area. Visitors should be careful not to get too close to the the stone structures because of the potential of falling debris.
4. Ballynoe Stone Circle
A rare survivor of the Stone Age, the Ballynoe Stone Circle is believed to have been constructed some 5000 years ago. The site is comprised of 60 boulders, positioned into a circular shape. Human activity continued in the next millenia, with a Bronze Age burial mound being constructed within the main stone circle.
One can find this exceptional neolithic site North of Dundrum Bay.
5. Narrow Water Keep
The 16th century tower house can be found near the small town of Warrenpoint. The structure was built to replace an earlier 13th century Norman keep. Following the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the tower house was damaged and sold to the Hall family, who lived there until the 19th century. Narrow Water Keep also saw the greatest single loss of life for the British Army during The Troubles, after 18 British Army soldiers were killed by a Provisional IRA ambush.
6. Bangor Castle
The Victorian mansion can be found in the Northern Irish town of Bangor. It was originally built for the Hon Robert Edward Ward and his family in 1852, but it is currently used as headquarters of the Ards and North Down Borough Council.
One can book tours to visit the rooms of the beautiful estate building. The gardens surrounding the building are always open to the general public.
7. Legananny Dolmen
The Legananny Dolmen is another eye-catching Stone Age landmark to visit while exploring Down. One can find the megalithic dolmen southeast of Banbridge and three miles north of Castlewellan. The monument is around 5000 years old, consiting of three corner stones and one stone ‘roof’ slab.
8. Nendrum Monastic Site
It is believed that the monastery has its origins as far back as the 5th century. The complex reached its zenith around 1000 AD. The site became ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’ for hundreds of years before it was re-discovered in the 19th century. Most of what has survived of the early medieval buildings are their foundations and some wall elements. The ruin grounds are open to visitors.
9. Dundrum Castle
Following Norman invasions of Ireland in the 12th century, a plethora of castles were built by the invaders to hold onto their new territory – Dundrum Castle is an example of that. The fortification was built by John De Courcy in 1177. One can find it west of Dundrum village near Newcastle. The castle is open to visitors.
10. Killyleagh Castle Towers
It is believed by some that Killyleagh Castle Towers is the oldest still inhabited castle in Northern Ireland. The oldest parts of the structure are from the late 12th century. The current exterior was partly created in 1666, after the old building got destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces during the English Civil War. The 19th century saw multiple additions, like the turrets, to the beautiful estate house.
Killyleagh Castle Towers is owned by the Hamilton family. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the main building or the grounds of the estate.