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Introducing County Down

Seen from the hilltop viewpoint of Scrabo Tower, the treasures of County Down lie scattered around you like jewels on a table. The sparkling, island-fringed waters of Strangford Lough stretch to the south, with the bird-haunted mudflats of Castle Espie and Nendrum’s ancient monastery on one shore, and the elegant country house of Mount Stewart and the picturesque Ards Peninsula on the other.

On a clear day you can see the Mourne Mountains in the distance, their velvet curves sweeping down to the sea, above the Victorian seaside resort of Newcastle. This compact range of granite and heather peaks offers the best hill-walking in the North, with expansive views of mountain, crag and sea. Nearby are Downpatrick and Lecale, the old stamping grounds of Ireland’s patron saint.

Down is a region of lush fields and fertile farmland, a rich landscape in more ways than one – this is Belfast’s wealthy hinterland, studded with expensive villas and endowed with more than its fair share of top golf courses and gourmet restaurants. It’s easily reached from the capital, and at weekends you’ll find city folks browsing the antique shops in Saintfield and Greyabbey, or slurping down fresh oysters in Dundrum and Portaferry.

Down’s neighbour County Armagh is largely rural, from the low, rugged hills of the south to the lush apple orchards and strawberry fields of the north, with Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital, the neat little city of Armagh, in the middle. With the army watch-towers gone, south Armagh is once again a peaceful backwater where you can wander back and forth across the border with the Republic without even noticing.