It’s not every day you see inside a royal house, and visiting 18th-century Hillsborough Castle is the jewel in the crown of this tour through history-laden streets and an ancient forest.
It’s best to do the 1½-mile circular forest walk first, so you can pop into one of the many coffee shops in the village part of the route later. Take your pick of two clearly signposted red-graded trails. They weave around the lake, which is teeming with rainbow trout, and the back of the forest past the Fox Fort rath. Birders love this place because of the many species of waterfowl.
Once back at the starting point, head towards Hillsborough Fort. This impressive stone structure dates from 1630 and was raised by the Hill family, who gave the village its name. It was built to quell Catholic insurgents, and William of Orange spent several nights there on his way to the Battle of the Boyne.
Next stop is the 18th-century St Malachy’s Church, one of the finest examples of Gothic revival architecture in Ireland. Close to the church is the bird bath that marks the resting place of the ashes of the conductor and composer Sir Hamilton Harty. His birthplace is on nearby Ballynahinch Street. Head back to Main Street and continue uphill to the top of the village. You might puff a bit, but the views are worth it, including Downshire Monument, which looks like Nelson’s Column.
After coming back down to Main Street, check out the grand Courthouse in front of the Castle. The Castle itself is more of a mansion – originally built for the Hill family in 1797. It was bought by the government in 1922 and, until 1973, was known as Government House. Have a look at the imposing entrance gates, dating from 1745 and built by Cornish immigrants. There are tours every Saturday in summer, taking in the State Drawing Room, the Red Dining Room and Candlestick Hall. You will also see silver from HMS Nelson.
After that peek behind the scenes at how the other half live, the last leg of the walk will take you down to the Square. You will pass one of the few surviving milestones in Ulster. Hard to believe, but the now manicured area around the Shambles was used as a cattle pen in centuries gone by. Then you’ll be back at the Forest again, with legs and brain both thoroughly stretched.