Experience history in action with a short break to Armagh and Down
Both counties combine to offer beautiful scenery, fascinating heritage and plenty of accommodation options, less than two hours from Dublin
The Mountains of Mourne, in County Down, are believed to be the inspiration for CS Lewis’ magical Chronicles of Narnia.
Whether it’s getting to grips with a potter’s wheel in Ballydougan Pottery, marvelling at 245 varieties of plants in the Montalto Estate’s Alpine Garden, or climbing some of the highest peaks in Ireland, there are activities to suit all budgets and tastes in counties Down and Armagh.
Bordering Monaghan and Louth, these two counties combine to offer dramatic scenery, fascinating heritage and an abundance of nature, less than two hours from Dublin. And with the stunning Mourne Mountains rising up to greet you on your journey, it’s the ideal location for a short break.
A great place to begin your visit is Bloomvale House near Portadown. Built in 1785 as a linen merchant’s house, it is now home to Ballydougan Pottery and distinctive hand-thrown, country style ceramics.
Visitors to the thatched former Huguenot homestead can choose from a variety of experiences – painting a pot, handbuilding a clay house plaque, or a one-to-one masterclass throwing pots on a wheel with a potter.
“We have people with zero skill and people with amazing amounts of skill,” says master potter Sean O’Dowd. “Just come to it with a light heart and don’t expect to make a teapot; that takes about seven years of experience as a potter. With a little help or a lot, you will come away with something special.”
Breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea is served on Ballydougan’s own pottery in the restored Linen Barn, where home-produced linen was once prepared and sorted through before being sent to America and elsewhere. Self-catering courtyard cottages are available for short breaks or longer holidays.
Another excellent attraction to visit in County Armagh is the Oxford Island Nature Reserve. Located on the south-east shores of Lough Neagh, it houses wildlife ponds, reed beds, wildflower meadows and forests. Tourist information can be found at the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, where a Loughside Café boasts panoramic views and freshly made local produce.
Meanwhile, the world-renowned Armagh Planetarium showcases the wonders of the galaxy, with visitors able to take a tour of the night sky in the Digital Dome theatre, and visit the exhibition area to touch the biggest meteorite on display in Ireland. Made of nickel iron, it’s a mere four and a half billion years old.
In County Down, the magnificent Montalto Estate dates back to the 1600s and opened its gates to the public last September. It features a range of trails and walks for all abilities.
Visitors can opt for the 60-minute woodland trail, with its native birch, douglas-fir and beech, the 20-minute Japanese maple-dotted lake walk or the 20/25-minute garden walk, where vibrant rhododendron and deciduous azaleas can be spotted in Springtime.
“The emphasis is on the simple things that give you pleasure, and reconnecting with nature,” says marketing manager Tracy O’Toole.
Throughout the attraction, there are reminders of Montalto’s past and relationship with nature. “The ticket office features a variety of bottles found on the estate during clearing work,” Tracy explains. “You’ll also see an open fire in the office and saddle racks still on the walls.”
In the café, coffee is served on a slice of tree trunk from the estate, while dogs, who are welcome on leads, can drink from bowls held in Montalto wood.
Young visitors are also catered for with a handcrafted tree house featuring treetop views, monkey bars and bridges.
Another key attraction is the picturesque Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, a royal residence and the official home of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Dating back to the 18th century, and surrounded by 100 acres of ground, the Georgian ‘big house’ has played host to guests including Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and George W Bush.
Visitors can explore the stylish State Rooms used by the royal family on a guided tour, and stroll through the elegant lawns, woodlands and glens surrounding the castle.
The castle is currently undergoing a five-year, £20 million (approx €22.5 million) investment set to be completed this Spring, including a new visitor centre, café and shop, restored moss walk and ‘lost garden’.
Did you know?
Hillsborough Castle and Gardens is home to one of the earliest surviving pineries (a hothouse to grow pineapples) reflecting the 18th and 19th century vogue for the fruit as a symbol of taste and wealth. At one stage, the castle also had its own brewery to produce beer for servants.
Plenty to explore and experience
In County Down you’ll also find the unmissable Mountains of Mourne, believed to be the inspiration for CS Lewis’ magical Chronicles of Narnia. You may choose to climb up Slieve Donard, the highest peak at around 850m, or opt for an easy ramble around Tollymore Forest Park.
Situated in the foothills of the Mournes, Tollymore features many unusual follies, some dating back to the 1700s. It’s easy to see why this special park, and the Shimna River which flows through it, have been used as filming locations for Game Of Thrones.
At the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood, a costumed visitor guide is on hand as you step back in time into a typical Ulster town - complete with thatched cottages, schools and shops - from more than a century ago. Visitors can also explore steam locomotives, horse drawn carriages, vintage cars and electric trams in the Transport Museum.
Armagh and Down play host to some excellent courses for golf fans, including Royal County Down (voted number one in a Golf Digest poll of the world’s 100 greatest golf courses), and Rory McIlroy’s home club of Holywood, described by the golf star as “a really nice parkland course overlooking the Belfast lakes and the countryside”.
Where to stay
Accommodation at the Slieve Donard Resort & Spa in Newcastle, overlooking the Mourne mountains and the rolling sand dunes of County Down, starts at £120 (approx €135) B&B per room per night, based on two people. Guests can also avail of a two-night gourmet getaway, which includes a three-course evening meal and full Irish breakfast, or round off a day’s exploring with a hot winter punch as part of the overnight winter warmer package.
In Newry, prices at the centrally located Canal Court start at £109 (approx €123) B&B per room per night, based on two people.
Over St Patrick’s weekend and the Easter holidays, guests can avail of a third-night-free deal. There is also a spa offering anti-ageing facials, skin peels, and a variety of massages.
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