Portaferry Retreat

portaferry refugio1

Last year I stumbled across a Facebook post of a foraging event at the Narrows Social in Portaferry… the day after the event.  Gutted.  I love a good forage! I saw pictures of freshly made pizzas topped with wild greens and miso soup with foraged seaweeds, it all looked so fresh and delicious so this year I cleared my diary to make sure I didn’t miss out.

Portaferry is a small town near the southern end of the Ards Peninsula in County Down.  I hadn’t visited Portaferry since I was a child on family day trips to the Exploris Aquarium (reopening in August this year after 2 years of closure to the public) so I decided to avail of the Airbnb accommodation on offer – the Refugio – to make a weekend out of it.  A self contained flat in an old brick building the refugio is just that, a place of refuge.  With the lough on one side and a beautiful garden on the other, where you can help yourself to flowers, veg and herbs, it really is an idyllic place to spend a few days.

portaferry refugio2

Greeted with the warmest of welcomes from Celia and partner David I was shown around the beautiful place which has become a hub of social activity with it’s guest rooms, supper clubs, yoga retreats, slow food cookery classes and craft courses.  I couldn’t ask for more from my weekend digs which came with homemade bread, honey, local granola, kindling and logs for the open fire and even a bottle of craft beer in the fridge!  I was in my element!

Twelve of us convened at the Narrows Social for the foraging workshop.  Introductions were made over cups of tea and lemon and sea spaghetti drop scones before setting on our way to our first foraging site – Knockinelder Bay, directly east of Portaferry.


Lesson one was a simple but important one… don’t forage near a waste pipe! The seaweed here, especially the gut weed, was almost toxic green with it’s “nutrient rich” environment.  Further along we took a look at the various types of seaweed on offer, most of which are extremely tasty and rich in vitamin c, fibre and iron.


David demonstrated how to cultivate seaweed with minimal environmental impact and helped to identify the various species – there are 500 known seaweed species on the Irish coast alone!  Most people in Northern Ireland will be familiar with dulse, it was the salty seaweed treat of my childhood dried out and eaten as a snack (I had sweets too, my parents weren’t that mean!).  I still eat it today but mostly ground up and baked in sourdough bread – delish!  We learnt of how other types of seaweed can be used such as pickling the caper like bladder rack, lightly frying the stringy cabbage like gut weed, making crisps from dried out kelp and my favourite – using the seaweed alternative to pasta – sea spaghetti.


Back towards the Narrows we headed to Ballyhenry, as well as tasting seaweed and limpets – yep they’re edible but I’d stick with mussels, we identified various edible plants like nettles, the coconuty gorse bush and tasted the unusual myrrh flavour of the alexanders plant.   Celia joined us here to set up kitchen for our wild lunch.  Our banquet consisted of cheesy soda farls, with seaweed and sorrel butter, quiche with foraged sorrel, mussels rope grown just where we were sitting, hake wrapped in kelp washed down with homemade lemonade and beer brewed just over the hills.  The feast didn’t end there, dessert came in the shape of carrageen moss pudding and rhubarb compote so beautifully presented with honesty flowers.   A fantastic way to lunch!


Throughout the day I got chatting to the rest of bunch, all lovely people from a real interesting mix of backgrounds.  Tracey of NI Food Tours offers a varied range of tours around County Down and hopes to incorporate the knowledge from the workshop into future tours, David from the Walled Garden at Helen’s Bay specialises in organic heritage fruit and vegetables and an old school friend Erin and wife Jo run the Edible Flower supper club.  Erin and Jo’s food and brews are inspired by local, seasonal and wild food and their travels, the couple will be back at the Narrows Social for a Wild Asian Tastes supper club on 20th August.  For more information click here.  All such lovely people which such passion in what they do.  Just like our hosts Celia and David who have such expertise on their surroundings and environment and are so impassioned to share and educate others, it was a delight to be in their company.


After an amazing day I was thankful I booked myself into the refugio to allow me to enjoy the peninsula a little bit longer.

To explore the immediate surrounding area you can take the self guided Portaferry Heritage Trail following the town’s built heritage from the Norman castle, through shipbuilding in the 1700s to today’s modern lifeboat station. Along the way you’ll take in spectacular views of the town and across the lough from Windmill Hill.


On the trail you’ll find the majestically restored Portaferry Presbyterian Church.  Now known as the Portico of Ards the building, built in 1841 was modelled on the Temple of Nemesis on the Greek island of Rhemnous.  As well as the congregational home it is now an arts venue hosting film, music and theatre events .  My weekend getaway coincided with the Grand Opening Gala allowing me to enjoy the wonderful Ulster Orchestra and guests in the atmospheric setting.  The evening was a real experience hearing of the extensive restoration, the stories behind the stained glass windows and the unique organ with it’s inner workings encased with glass for all to marvel at.  The public are welcome to try out the organ for themselves and to visit the organ loft.  More information here.

For Game of Thrones fans a visit to Fiddler’s Green and the Cuan bar across the water is a must to see the intricately carved doors crafted from the fallen trees of the Dark Hedges.  Also across the water at Castle Ward is the GoT territory  of Winterfell, tours and experiences are run by ClearSky Adventure who also provide a whole range of outdoor pursuits on the shores of Strangford Lough.  I took a Sea Safari with the company along the lough in a high speed RIB boat.  Taking in the shoreside towns of Portaferry and Strangford we headed out towards the open sea towards the lighthouse of Angus Rocks with crazy surface whirlpools swirling all around us.  We passed the now decommissioned SeaGen generator, installed to test renewable energy technology in powerful tidal flows, and spotted seals and other wildlife on our tour.  The trips cost £20 per adult and available to book through ClearSky Adventure.

To get to Strangford the ferry, which you can almost hop on to from the Narrows Social door, runs daily and every half hour with passenger rates from only £1.


A truly memorable weekend retreat enjoying the company of friends, family, new people and myself.  If you wish to book the refugio for yourself you can do so through the airbnb website, contact celia at spouncer@btconnect.com or read more about the narrows here.


More photos on my Instagram gallery.

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