Britain at its best: Discovering the history of County Down, from Stormont to the Queen’s residence

Where else in the world can you drive half an hour from a capital city airport and find an enchanting Gothic tower on a hill overlooking an ancient wood? What’s more, a tower to which the greatest Victorian poets dedicated poems?

I arrived at Helen’s Tower, 11 miles from Belfast City Airport, in darkness. When I woke, I climbed to the roof terrace and was greeted with views of Scotland, the Isle of Man, Strangford Lough and the fields of County Down.

Helen’s Tower overlooks the Clandeboye estate, owned by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, whose sublime paintings of the estate decorate the tower.

Royal approval: Hillsborough Castle, pictured, is the Queen’s residence in Northern Ireland

The tower was completed in 1861 by the 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava — viceroy of India and governor-general of Canada — for his mother, Helen Sheridan.

She was a songwriter, poet and granddaughter of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her son got Tennyson, Kipling and Browning to write poems about her and the tower. They are inscribed in bronze in the gothic dining room. I ate my breakfast, Clandeboye yoghurt, made from milk produced by the estate’s cows, as I read Tennyson’s poem:

Helen’s Tower, here I stand,

Dominant over sea and land.

Son’s love built me, and I hold

Mother’s love in lettered gold.

During World War I, soldiers from the 36th (Ulster) Division trained next to the tower — it was their last sight from Belfast Lough as they sailed to fight at the Somme in 1916.

In 1921, families of the fallen raised money for a replica tower on the Thiepval battlefield.

Helen’s Tower is a handy jumping-off point to visit Belfast and County Down. Ten minutes’ drive away is Cultra Manor, home to the Ulster Folk Museum’s Georgian and Victorian buildings, transferred here across Ulster. These include a pub, spade mill and a still-active basketweaver’s workshop.

There’s a spring in Northern Ireland’s step these days because the Northern Irish government started sitting again in January, three years after it collapsed. At Parliament Buildings, Stormont, only eight miles from Helen’s Tower, there are guided tours of the huge, classical edifice, built after the Partition of Ireland almost a century ago.

Half an hour’s drive from Stormont is Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s residence in Northern Ireland and home to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State.

There are guided tours of the Northern Irish parliament buildings, Stormont (pictured), built after the Partition of Ireland almost a century ago

There are guided tours of the Northern Irish parliament buildings, Stormont (pictured), built after the Partition of Ireland almost a century ago

The castle and its gardens have been refurbished in time for the 35th anniversary of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the tenth anniversary of the Hillsborough Agreement — crucial staging posts towards a peaceful Northern Ireland. 

Hillsborough was a sleeping giant that slumbered for decades until it was reborn, with support from Prince Charles, who has been coming here since he was a boy. Its garden, with its Irish yews and moss walk, has been revived by Catherine FitzGerald and Mark Lutyens.

I stayed at the Grand Central Hotel, an ultra-modern, comfortable spot in the Linen Quarter.

You can take one of the black taxi tours of the murals, peace walls (still dividing troublespots), the Falls Road and the Shankill Road, heartland of the Troubles.

Titanic Belfast — at the shipyard where the Titanic was built — is unbearably moving, particularly the survivors’ recordings you hear while reading the ship’s final telegrams: ‘Come as quickly as possible, old man: the engine-room is filling up to the boilers.’

Belfast’s people are welcoming and funny. When asked why there’s a museum of the most famous shipping disaster in history, they say: ‘She was all right when she left here.’ 


EasyJet flights from London to Belfast from £66 return ( Helen’s Tower from £292 for two nights, sleeping two (; doubles at Grand Central Hotel in Belfast from £130 ( Ninety-minute Black Taxi Tours are £35 (email, or call 075 0121 9776).

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