Wednesday 7 September 2011

41 'Straang Fjord' and 'the low counthry'

Classic boats on Strangford Lough, near Portaferry, Co. Down
September 6, 2011

You may have noticed that I tend to go on a bit about Co. Down?  That's because it's such a beautiful and varied place.  I haven't even covered the half of it!  I was down near Portaferry the o'rr week, visiting a couple of old friends that we haven't seen for a while.  Amazin' how ye lose touch with people!  If ye noticed the photograph with the podcast of last week's show, they live there, right beside that fantastic view.  Portaferry is just one of the small towns and villages ye'll find on the Ards Peninsula, on the east side of Co. Down.  

The Peninsula – or as locals tend to call it 'the lower Ards', or 'the low country,' is sandwiched between the Irish Sea and Strangford Lough.  It includes the most easterly point in Ireland and is a continuation of the Drumlin country further west, on the other side of the Lough.  That's why it is called the Ards – meaning 'heights' after the small hills.  The Lough was named 'Straang Fjord' by the Viking raiders, (referring to the strong currents in the Strangford Narrows); though the original Irish name was Lough Cuan, which simply means 'lough.' 

After visiting our friends we went into Portaferry and bought a fish supper (that's fish 'n' chips, or French fries, to most of you!) and sat in the car watching the sun setting and the ferry racing across the Narrows with the current.  Strangford Lough is a bit like a spoon – wide and shallow mud flats at the north end – near Newtownards and Comber; but narrow and very deep at the Portaferry/Strangford end, where the Narrows are about 200 feet deep and the tide can run up to eight knots.

Across from us was the village of Strangford, with a stone tower facing the water and Audley's Castle a little further north; while on our side there is another fortified tower, Portaferry Castle, plus an old windmill on top of the hill behind.  In the Lough itself, there are over 300 islands known as 'pladdies', which are really sunken drumlins.  You definitely need a chart before you try to sail a boat in the Lough!  Portaferry's other claims to fame are the Exploris – an aquarium with fresh seawater tanks and displays, plus baby seals, etc.; and a sunken tidal generating turbine, set in the strongest part of the current, and which turns with the tide to generate electricity almost continuously.

Strangford Lough is where St. Patrick returned to as a missionary, after he had left Ireland and slavery behind for several years.  There are many old churches and monastic ruins, both on the shores and on islands in the Lough.  On our way to Portaferry, the o'rr week, we stopped off at Grey Abbey, which is a ruined 12th century Cistercian abbey of the 'Grey Friars', hence the name, 'Grey Abbey.'  It was founded in 1193 AD by Affreca, the daughter of the King of Mann (the Isle of Man, that is) and the Isles.  Acroos the Lough, on Mahee Island, near Comber, there are the ruins of a much older (5th century) monastic settlement called Nendrum.
Another great place we visited recently on the Peninsula, is the old Ballycopeland Windmill, which was restored between 1950 and 1978 to full working order.  I remember taking some Native American friends there for a visit, a few years ago.  Co. Down used to be covered with windmills, for milling the barley, wheat and oats that were grown in the fertile fields.  The drumlins were ideal places to situate a windmill – I guess we were way ahead of our time in Renewable Energy production, back then?

At the south end of the Lough, across from Portaferry, just near the end of The Narrows, you will find hundreds of grey seals basking in the sun.  The Exploris Centre in Portaferry rescue those baby seals that have been abandoned, feed them up, then reease tehem into the wild again. 

The north end of the Lough is where all the Brent geese, from Arctic Canada, fly to spend the winter.  They are protected here, and some years ago they fitted radio transmitters to several geese and followed their journey with the help of a satellite, all the way back to Canada.  One of the geese they tracked down to the fridge of a local Inuk hunter!  Ooops!  I guess the idea of conservation hasn't really hit that part of the Arctic, yet.

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