The Hills of Mount Stewart

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Before first visiting the great mansion and Gardens of of Mount Stewart it would not be unreasonable to imagine it perched on an elevation with magnificent views over Strangford Lough to the distant Mountains of Mourne. In reality the house shelters in a hollow whose benign microclimate supports lush and verdant gardens which completely shield it from the world beyond.

However, the hills are still there and, thanks to the recent acquisition by the National Trust of land covering the whole of the historic demesne, this walk allows you to visit some of them.

Mount Stewart is a National Trust property with an admission charge, so this is not a ‘free’ walk unless you are a member. Protecting outdoor spaces and making them accessible to the public is expensive and if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford membership or day entry this is a good way to contribute to the Trust’s important work. Also remember they look after many more wonderful sites, like Orlock, White Park Bay and Minnowburn which are free to enter. If you pay the entry charge, this walk, the gardens, the house itself and the squirrel hide walk (see map) can easily fill a very memorable day.

TYPECircular walk through woodland.
DISTANCE3.4 miles / 5.5 km
SURFACESMostly well made compacted surfaces with variable slopes. Some smaller muddy paths
HEIGHT GAIN / LOSS300 feet climb
HAZARDSSome slippy sections. One site with ruined walls

Our walk begins at the trails entry shepherd’s hut close to the overflow car parking fields.

This is the second retro-caravan the Trust have placed here – the first was squashed by a falling tree during a storm! It can happen – be alert!

NT maps, advice and sightings info are available from the ranger here when your admission is checked.

Now head into the woodland along the vehicle width track. Smaller paths branch off to the left and to the right, but stay on the broad route as it swings left and starts to climb steadily up your first hill. The builders of Mount Stewart were not blind to the beauties of Strangford Lough, but lacking double glazing and modern insulation and heating they chose shelter over views. Ahead however you will see how they tried to have the best of both worlds by building the beautifully situated and revealingly named ‘Temple of the Winds’. The view here is superb.

The view north over the peninsula to Scrabo is so perfect it almost feels contrived!
The building seems to have everything – an octagonal two storey core, with dual Greek porticoes, balconies, attached round tower complete with domed roof. This is the XLS conservatory of its day!

Whether you linger at the Temple of the Winds or move briskly on is likely to be dependent on the weather. On a fine day this spot is hard to beat.

Now descend hill number one along the pleasant beech lined track back to base level. The busy Portaferry road is very audible just over the boundary wall, and beyond it, and very slightly below, is Strangford Lough. This part of the Demesne is very low lying and the stream you meet after 100m is deep cut and canalised – as much a drain as a watercourse. Branch right on the smaller path over the bridge here.

The muddy banks of the stream the path crosses here have a distinctly tidal feel

After a further 100m you encounter further evidence of inundation as the path crosses a marshy lagoon – indeed in very wet periods the path here may be impassable and you will need to retrace and divert (see map).

Drowned trees make strange shapes against the blue sky.

The flooded landscape here is spectacular – but rather worrying. These trees are very unhappy – this is not their element. Yet they originally established and grew here so something must have changed to raise the water level.

As you continue, the woodland is diverse and rich in wildflowers – in spring the Bluebells thrive.

A skewed crossroads – you go right

The path swings inland slightly to a junction with a hill beyond. Looking carefully the planting here is different – pines in the main and the Bluebells (flower or plants) have completely gone. The woodland behind you is old – the hill in front is a more recent plantation and slow spreading Bluebells have not established themselves.

Paths run around the hill on both sides, but following the principal that woodland edges are often most interesting I suggest you turn right and continue with the boundary wall below you.

As you circumnavigate the hill, the narrow strip of beechwood on your right gradually broadens and the ground cover becomes more diverse. The wood to the left remains more bare and plantation like – old OS maps show this area as a field in 1830, but planted by 1900. The path you are walking on also dates back to this time – either as a carriage driveway or just an access track.

You now come to a T junction where you turn right and find yourself on a narrow strip of woodland between a field of rich grazing and the high stone built boundary wall.

As you proceed, the path gradually swings to the east and the boundary wooded strip broadens and starts to form a south facing bank.

Bluebell grove with badger track

This sheltered spot with maximum sunshine exposure is not surprisingly the site of early Bluebells.

Continue on to where the path cuts away from the field to drop into a mature beech-wooded shallow glen and rejoins the stream you crossed earlier. Go over the small hump-backed bridge and turn right.

A short distance ahead a small hill rises above the path and a wooden sign marked ‘folly’ points to a minor path. Climb up here to a crumbling (take care) gothic folly – once a haven for visiting artists and the romantically inclined nature lover.

From the folly there is a great view over the undulating woodland, an area particularly rich in wild flowers. The series of small hills and hollows may be a glacial moraine, but the 1830 OS map shows quarries here – so some of this landscape is actually man made.

Retrace your steps and continue to follow the watercourse upstream. Here again the sides are engineered and unnaturally formal – no meandering allowed in this river valley!

There are a number of particularly tall Beech trees here which seem to thrive in this secluded valley. Unlike Oak, Beech is shade tolerant and can survive with a small elevated canopy as you see here.

Just after a river depth gauge (evidence that the stream is not always quietly compliant) is a strange narrow ‘bridge’. It is actually the stream going under the boundary wall, marking the edge of the demesne.

The path now exits the woodland to again run along the edge of field.

Here there is a large brambly mound. Underneath this lies the outline of the Church of Templecrone (associated with St Cronan Beg, Bishop of Nendrum) which was partially explored by the Ulster Archaeological Society in 2014. They speculated that the site may have been also associated with the nearby Norman motte (more of this shortly). Of course the motte itself is likely to have been built on an earlier fort, so here we have a hint of a much older social order controlling the lands of modern Mount Stewart.

Continue along the boundary woodland strip. Here the low wall (and stream) to the right and winding avenue of mature trees make for a delightful airy procession!

At the end of the ‘avenue’ the path once again enters woodland and another low hill lies ahead. At first glance this appears to be simply a recently planted-out field – the trees are young and uniform and the vegetation is grass, not woodland plants.

The path forks here – bear right to contour the rising ground in an anti-clockwise direction.

Looking to your left you will start to spot anomalies in the planting. Hawthorn and Holly and near them patches of Bluebells (flowers or leaves).

Closer inspection will reveal tree stumps of considerable age. A study of old OS maps suggests this is very old woodland which was partly deforested in the 1900s before modern replanting (with some of the woodland flora surviving).

Continue circling around the hill until you come to a path which takes you directly to the motte.

Primroses colonise the newly bared slopes

Up until recently this site had become completely overgrown with naturally established woodland as can be seen from the multiple tree stumps peppering its sides. Stripped bare of this covering, its steep slopes now seem almost vulnerable from erosion. However, in this form it has survived from Norman times and in all probability the site sits on top of much older fortifications and dwellings. St Cronan Beg could well have visited here to meet with the lord of this hill.

Do a full circuit to appreciate the hat like perfect form of this great site and then exit by your entry path to continue your route.

Shortly after rejoining the main path you come to the woodland edge – a great viewpoint, but perhaps more importantly, a vantage point over the land around.

The view across the low rolling hills is clear is clear today. How would it have been in Norman times and before?
Heavily berried Hawthorns underpin the old boundary

Notice that the stone boundary wall here is a step in the slope not a convention field boundary. This structure is similar to the edgings of the hilltop raths in Delamont on the other side of Strangford Lough and suggests that this old boundary might mark the line of an outer defence of the fort / motte behind you.

A non-native Sweet Chestnut stump. Usually a planted species why would this be grown here?

Continue through the young woodland with ancient markers like the gnarled stump above.

The native tree mix has many young Oaks but the closed canopy here means they struggle to thrive in the woodland shade.

You now meet another path where you turn right and head back towards your starting point, crossing a wooded strip between large fields.

Today grazing cattle and woodland are segregated – but this would not have been the way in previous times.

At the end of this the path re-enters woodland and becomes a lane running through an increasingly diverse area with much evidence of animal activity. You then arrive out onto farmland again beside a rather superior ruined piggery.

After a short section on an agricultural track you come to a large vehicle gate where you bear left through a pedestrian gateway back into the forest. Your final hill lies directly ahead and as you will soon discover it is the largest of the day!

Ascend the steep path and steps with care, turning left when you finally make it to the hill top path. After a further short distance turn right and enter ‘The Magic Inkpot’ – a beautifully conceived and executed natural play area which draws on the mythical written tales of Edith, Lady Londonderry. In a time when so much children’s play is synthetic and micro-managed – this place is a welcome revelation.

A playful imagination does not require blue skies and ‘good’ weather

Playtime over – exit via the main entrance and turn right and follow the path 150m to return to the retro hut and your starting point.

External Links

Route Map to Download and Print (PDF)

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