Apples lie at the core of Armagh, the Harvest County
Autumn brings out the lushness of the Armagh countryside, and sees a number of harvest-related events taking place
Long Meadow apple farm
It’s the season of mellow fruitfulness, and as such it’s a great time to visit Ireland’s Orchard County, Armagh.
The fruit remains the basis of the county’s apple and cider industries, and out of this has sprung an annual food and cider festival, and Crannagael, along with several other artisan food and drink producers, get involved over four days every autumn.
On a recent whistle stop tour I got to see first hand how a network of local producers have taken a simple product, the apple, and grown it into a thriving industry. But they have also created something more around this humble fruit, (the Armagh Bramley was recently awarded the coveted protected geographical indication/PGI status) and are now hoping to attract more visitors to Armagh because of it.
If your stay is short you could base yourself in Armagh city, which is also the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, and, with its distinctive Georgian architecture and two cathedrals, is worth a visit. We based ourselves further north in Newforge House, just outside the village of Magheralin, which is an excellent spot for taking in the many seasonal activities on offer.
Autumn is one of the best times of the year to visit Armagh, not only due to the lushness of the countryside, with its low-hanging fruit and burnished colours, but also because a number of harvest-related events take place, including the festival.
You can’t go very far in Armagh without the distinctive smell of apples wafting on the air, and the McKeever family, owners of Long Meadow Cider Company, was eager to show us the traditional method of making the drink – apples pressed, fermented the natural way, with no additives or colourings, and simply bottled.
A ramble around the orchard is fascinating, and tours can be organised all year round, with lunch provided. The family will also host a couple of Art in the Orchard events as part of the upcoming festival, giving painters, both novice and seasoned, an opportunity to interpret the trees, the apples and the landscape.
John and Jane Nicholson regularly open the doors of their splendid 1760 home, Crannagael, and they were eager to regale us with tales of the first Bramley sprig that made its way to Armagh over 200 years ago, all while enjoying a glass of their homemade sloe gin and apple pie.
There could be no better setting than Crannagael for an orchard murder mystery dinner and a spot of Agatha Christie sleuthing, which takes place as part of the festival. You’ll also find self-catering lodgings nestled in the Nicholsons’ garden.
For something a little more physical you can cycle the route of the Giro D’Italia, departing Armagh City, bound for the picturesque village of Loughgall – home to Loughgall Country Park, and is the perfect place to burn off some of those cider and pie calories.
Just a couple of miles away, near the Battle of the Diamond site, lies Dan Winter’s house, where you can listen to master storyteller Hilda Winter. A visit to nearby Sloan’s House museum and interpretative centre will also wile away a couple of hours.
Everything is in close proximity here – Armagh is a small county – and a short drive took us to the pretty village of Richhill, home to the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre, taking place on the last weekend in October.
We were advised not to leave the area without visiting the FE McWilliam gallery in Banbridge, just across the border in Co Down. The gallery celebrates the work of sculptor Frederick Edward McWilliam (a contemporary and friend of Henry Moore) who was born in Banbridge in 1909. The sculptor’s London studio has been recreated just outside the gallery space, with several of his larger surrealist bronze pieces scattered around the gardens. Lunch in the gallery café Quails was excellent, and filled us to the brim before the 90-minute drive back to Dublin.
Two nights B&B at Newforge, a homemade takeaway mini-picnic after breakfast on one of the days, a three-course seasonal dinner with “nippy-sweetie”, the owner’s homemade gin and vodka infusions, costs from £199 per person, and is valid until November 30th.
The festival runs from September 20th-23rd. See visitarmagh.com