Castle Ward: The National Trust’s Winterfell

castle-ward-game-of-thrones

Updated On: June 15, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

When you spend most of your time in a city in Northern Ireland or are visiting to experience the country for the first time, knowing that you are never too far away from any unique locations rich in nature and wonder can be helpful. 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 surrounding estate should be recognised from HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones as the set for Winterfell. The estate’s association with this primary production is just the tip of the iceberg for the vast spectacle 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?

Castle Ward | Strangford | County Down | Downpatrick | Northern Ireland | National Trust

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 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 building is split right down the middle; one side is built in the classical Palladian style, and the other is Gothic.

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 fantastic mix of styles to enjoy. Tours are also available to see the elaborate insides of Castle Ward, so your appreciation for it doesn’t need to stop at just the outside. Around the building, you can also see various gardens, each exploding with colour and distinct personalities. 

The next significant landmark 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 straightforward to cross-reference shots from the show to 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 beautiful old buildings such as the mill or clock tower.

From here, you can fully experience the farmyard’s intricacies, most notably its charming architecture and proximity to Strangford Lough, right on the shore. You can quickly go from the quaint Game of Thrones gift shop (The Slaughterhouse), grab 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 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 many trails for you 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 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 genuinely intrepid walker. If crisp and fresh lough air is your style, a few trails run along the lough shore, 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 with 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 rest in its picnic area in a large courtyard, complete with a small bookstore and a gift shop full of memorable souvenirs. This courtyard is close to the farmyard, where many more activities await. 

You can bring your dog to a dog-friendly cafe or partake in the Slaughterhouse Gift Shop mentioned above. Suppose you can’t get enough of Game of Thrones from that. In that case, there are ‘Winterfell Tours’ that allow you to fully explore the set at the farmyard, partake in cycle trails, and even get a chance to practice some archery to immerse yourself in the Game of Thrones experience. These tours run 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 exercise, seeing the snowdrop flowers come in or perhaps taking a warm tea break in the Stableyard Tearoom. The ‘Summer in the Barn’ programme also runs weekly activities throughout the warmer season. The large and elaborate Winterfell Festival can’t be missed either, with displays of swordplay, meeting Game of Thrones’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.

The National Trust’s Role

Preservation Efforts

The National Trust has played a crucial role in preserving and maintaining Castle Ward. Since taking over the management of the estate in the 1950s, the organisation has undertaken extensive restoration projects to safeguard the property’s architectural integrity and historical authenticity. These efforts have included structural repairs, conservation of original features, and meticulous maintenance of the gardens.

Educational Initiatives

In addition to preservation, the National Trust has prioritised educational initiatives at Castle Ward. The estate offers a range of academic programmes and workshops to promote historical awareness and appreciation. School groups and visitors can engage in interactive learning experiences that cover topics such as Georgian architecture, 18th-century gardening practices, and the historical context of the estate.

Sustainable Practices

The National Trust at Castle Ward is crucially focused on sustainability. The organisation has implemented eco-friendly practices across the estate, including waste reduction, energy-efficient systems, and sustainable gardening techniques. These measures ensure that the estate’s natural and built heritage is preserved for future generations.

Events and Activities

Seasonal Events

Castle Ward hosts a variety of seasonal events that cater to diverse interests. Spring and summer bring outdoor theatre performances, garden tours, and family-friendly activities, while autumn and winter feature harvest festivals, Christmas markets, and festive decorations. These events enhance the visitor experience and foster a sense of community and celebration.

Outdoor Adventures

The estate’s expansive grounds offer numerous opportunities for outdoor adventures. Visitors can explore miles of walking and cycling trails that wind through woodlands, farmland and along the scenic shoreline of Strangford Lough. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot various birds, mammals, and marine life, making Castle Ward a haven for nature lovers.

Special Interest Tours

For those keen on history, architecture, or Game of Thrones, Castle Ward offers specialised tours that provide deeper insights into these aspects. Expert guides share fascinating stories and lesser-known facts about the estate, enhancing the overall experience for visitors. These tours often include access to areas not typically open to the public, offering a unique perspective on the estate’s heritage.

Community Engagement

Local Partnerships

Castle Ward’s success as a cultural and tourist destination is partly due to its strong ties with the local community. The National Trust works closely with local businesses, artisans, and organisations to promote regional heritage and support the local economy. Collaborations include craft fairs, farmers’ markets, and cultural festivals that showcase local talent and produce.

Volunteering Opportunities

Volunteering is a vital component of Castle Ward’s operations. The estate offers a range of volunteer roles, from gardening and conservation work to guiding tours and assisting with events. Volunteers play an essential role in the day-to-day functioning of the estate, and their contributions are recognised and celebrated by the National Trust.

Cultural Heritage Programmes

The National Trust is committed to preserving and promoting Castle Ward’s cultural heritage. Through various programmes and initiatives, the estate serves as a living history site where visitors can learn about Irish culture, traditions, and historical events. Workshops, exhibitions, and re-enactments bring the past to life, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the region’s heritage.

Challenges and Future Plans

Conservation Challenges

Maintaining a historic estate like Castle Ward presents several challenges. Weathering, natural decay, and the sheer scale of the property require ongoing conservation efforts. The National Trust continually assesses and addresses these challenges through careful planning and resource allocation to ensure the estate’s preservation.

Adapting to Modern Needs

The National Trust is continually balancing historical preservation with modern needs. As visitor numbers grow, the estate must adapt its facilities and services to accommodate them while preserving its historical integrity. This includes upgrading infrastructure, improving accessibility, and enhancing visitor amenities without compromising the estate’s character.

Future Developments

The National Trust has several plans to enhance the visitor experience at Castle Ward further. These include developing new educational programmes, expanding the range of events and activities, and exploring innovative ways to engage with a broader audience. Sustainability will remain a core focus, with continued efforts to implement eco-friendly practices across the estate.

Conclusion

Castle Ward is where history, architecture, and pop culture converge. Its unique blend of Gothic and Classical styles, picturesque setting, and rich history make it a fascinating destination in its own right. The estate’s association with “Game of Thrones” has only added to its allure, attracting fans worldwide to explore the real-life Winterfell.

Under the stewardship of the National Trust, Castle Ward continues to thrive, offering visitors a chance to step back in time and immerse themselves in a world of grandeur and fantasy. Castle Ward has something to offer whether you’re a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, a nature lover, or a “Game of Thrones” fan. It stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of Northern Ireland’s heritage and the power of storytelling to bring places to life.

So, if you find yourself around County Down, you’re just a short trip away from a truly unforgettable day, whatever your preference for activity in this fantastic historical site. Further information can be found on Castle Ward on the National Trust website.

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