Windmill Hill

Liz Shaw takes in a splendid view over Portaferry and beyond

High above Portaferry town at the summit of a hill stands the round stump of a windmill, surrounded by a prehistoric ring fort. Set out below lies a vista of such extraordinary splendour that it is unworldly, for the ancient and modern lie all around.

Walk the high cattle pasture to the derelict stone tower and climb the steps inside, holding the cold modern metal rail and feel the wind in your face and hair, as you stand high above the countryside in the special grasslands of the Little Ards. Smell the whins, cattle and occasional scent of wrack as you hear the sound of tractors, cheering from the nearby sports field and children on the playground of the local school.

So much is contained within the arc of vision, from east to west, from the Irish Sea over to Scotland on the horizon and down the Lough to where the sun sets beyond Killyleagh. At the eastern far side is Lecale, where one of Jean de Courcy’s men swam across the Narrows to the rock named after him in 1177, and Kilclief Castle, once the home of a Bishop’s mistress.

Straight opposite is Strangford village, with its white fisherman’s houses and standby ferryboat, and to the right, the roofs of National Trust’s Castleward protrude above the trees. Close by, but standing alone by the shore is the fifteenth century tower house, Audley’s Castle.

Further down the Lough is the old factory chimney at Shrigley, used as a sighting device by yachtsmen navigating round Strangford’s reputed 365 islands. Strangford Lough is a sailor’s paradise, save for the rock pladdies which sometimes catch the unwary boat. In the distance are the blue peaks of the Mourne Mountains said to be the inspiration of CS Lewis’s mystical land of ‘Narnia’.

Off nearer shores to the east is the Routen Wheel, a permanent whirlpool marked by swirling foam. Below this is the small old town of Portaferry with its Scot-style cottages, Georgian and Victorian houses, Marine Biology Station, the Aquarium recording over 1500 marine creatures, chip and ice-cream shops, restaurants and pubs attracting the famous. Nugent House, once the home of descendants of the Norman de Savage family, lies close by the town and on the estate’s shore side, the National Trust Bluebell Wood is to be found. The ferry wends back and forth carrying eager passengers across the kilometre of water where the rush of tide is so strong, invading Norsemen called the Lough Strang Fiord.

To the east, across rich farmlands, Ulster’s hill of Tara appears, its ring fort associated with the tales of Knights of the Red Branch and near its foot, the ancient and mystical meet at the three healing wells of Temple Cooey.

The secret of this place is hidden in the open, but only from the windmill on the hill can it be apparent in one sweeping glance.