When you spend most of your time in a city in Northern Ireland or are visiting to experience the country for the first time, it can be useful to know that you are never too far away from any number of amazing locations rich in nature and wonder. One of these locations you really can’t afford to miss on your Northern adventures is the mythical Castle Ward. The National Trust’s Castle Ward and its surrounding estate should be recognised from HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones, as the set for Winterfell. The estate’s association with this major production is just the tip of the iceberg for the vast amount of spectacle that can be found in this little piece of County Down.
Castle Ward has been a fixture in the rolling green hills of County Down since the early 17th century, located near the glistening waters of Strangford Lough and it is a comfortable walking distance from the idyllic coastal village of Strangford. There are many ways into the grounds of Castle Ward, and a wealth of sights to see before you ever see the titular building.
What can I see in Castle Ward?
When coming into the Castle Ward estate you’ll be first struck by its dense woodland, exploding with life and greenery. Whether you’re driving in or taking one of the many foot trails or even a hoof trail you’ll find yourself transported to a new world, where every direction is full of tall trees and interesting critters. This type of entrance prepares you for the feeling of adventure that comes with Castle Ward, where you begin to feel like a daring explorer, charting your path in an unexplored magical wilderness. The sheer volume and diversity of trees and life around you as you enter guarantees that no two experiences coming into Castle Ward will be the same.
Then there is Castle Ward itself. Depending on which side you approach it from, the large old house may look to you like a Classical landmark, like you’ve stepped into the Roman forum or the Greek Pantheon, or perhaps instead it resembles a foreboding, dark Gothic mansion. The fun thing is, it’s both these things. Castle Ward the building is split right down the middle, one side built in the classical Palladian style, and the other in Gothic. This is because the castle’s probable builder, Bernard Ward, 1st Viscount Bangor had a famous feud with his wife Ann on the design they would choose for their home. Due to their unconventional compromise, we all have this amazing mix of styles to enjoy. Tours are available for seeing the elaborate insides of Castle Ward also, so your appreciation for it doesn’t need to stop at just the outside. Around the building you can also see a varied collection of gardens, each exploding with colour and distinct personalities.
The next big landmark to see is what has made Castle Ward a world-recognized tourist destination, the farmyard, or as most of the world knows it, Game of Thrones’s Winterfell. The farmyard served as a set for this world-renowned production, and it’s very easy to cross-reference shots from the show to really get a feel for what the actors must have seen. As you come across the farmyard through one of the many trails, you’ll be hit by the peaceful ambience of nearby farm animals bleating and clucking near some wonderful old buildings such as the mill or clock tower. From here you can fully experience all the intricacies of the farmyard, most notably its charming architecture and its proximity to Strangford Lough, being right on the shore. You can easily go from the quaint Game of Thrones gift shop (The Slaughterhouse), grabbing your own replica swords or Game of Thrones prints, and then take a coffee or tea to a nearby bench and watch the birds dance across the still waters. A vision of Winterfell, some may say.
These three notable sights make up the most of what you can see when exploring the estate of Castle Ward, but there’s just as much to do there as there is to see there.
What can I do in Castle Ward?
As said above, Castle Ward has a great number of trails for you to take to enjoy a lovely dose of nature, comprising about thirty-six kilometres of land just waiting to be walked. You can take many foot and cycle trails, each with its own flavour. You can take the Castle Trail for instance, which brings you close to Audley’s Castle, another beautiful piece of architecture. You can take a trail that brings you into the heart of the farmyard, or there are even boundary trails that run along the length of the Castle Ward estate for the truly intrepid walker. If crisp and fresh lough air is more your style, there are a few trails that run along the lough-shore itself, or if you’re more into horse-riding the estate offers an enchanting hoof trail for you and your tall four-legged friends. Finally, there’s an option for the botanist in all of us in the fun Bluebell Walks, where you’ll be surrounding yourself in the titular bluebell flowers that run through the estate.
There’s a lot more to the estate than walks too. There’s a friendly visitor’s centre where you can enjoy a rest in its picnic area situated in a large courtyard, complete with a small bookstore and a gift shop full of memorable souvenirs, and this courtyard is located very close to the farmyard where many more activities await.
You can bring your dog along to a dog-friendly cafe, or partake in the above-mentioned Slaughterhouse Gift Shop, and if you can’t get enough of Game of Thrones from that, there’s ‘Winterfell Tours’ that allow you to fully explore the set at the farmyard, partaking in cycle trails and even getting a chance to practice some archery to really immerse yourself in the Game of Thrones experience. These tours run very frequently, and when you’re not doing that, the estate offers many seasonal events that ensure every trip to Castle Ward will be fresh throughout the year.
The estate holds many Winter walks that let you break through the bleakness and cold with a refreshing bit of exercise, seeing the snowdrop flowers come in or perhaps taking a warm tea break in the Stableyard Tearoom. The ‘Summer in the Barn’ programme runs weekly activities throughout the warmer season too. The large and elaborate ‘Winterfell Festival’ can’t be missed either, with displays of swordplay, meeting Game of Throne’s Dire wolves and even falconry shows. No matter the time of the year, there’s something to do for all ages at the Castle Ward estate.
So, if you find yourself around County Down, you’re just a small trip away from a truly unforgettable day, whatever your preference for activity in this amazing historical site. Further information can be found on Castle Ward on the National Trust website.