Good Apple: Tasty Armagh is a much closer trip than you think
Armagh’s Food & Cider Festival is a tasty excuse to explore this tasty county, writes our travel editor.
"Armagh used to be a place to leave," a local tells me.
There's pride in her voice. Today, the talk is more of arrivals. Of Northern Ireland's foodie 'heartland' and its delicious local ciders, cheeses and meats. Of the storied scenery around Slieve Guillion, or off-piste treats like Groucho's pub in Richhill or Armagh City's surprising Georgian festival (Nov 24).
Best of all, both city and county feel undiscovered.
Cider house rules
“Cider is wine,” Philip Troughton told me on a tour of his Armagh Cider Company (armaghcider.com) near Portadown. I knew about Armagh Bramley apples, but this was a whole new insight... from blossom to bottle. Take a tour (£15/€17), or join a harvest dinner (£40/€45) during the Armagh Food & Cider Festival (Sep 20-23).
When John Mathers was growing up in Newforge House, a gorgeous Georgian pile near Lurgan (above), the dining room was used once a year at Christmas. Today, he and wife Lou have turned it into a deceptively simple Blue Book bolthole with just six rooms (John cooks dinner; Lou desserts). "Nothing clever, nothing smart, nothing fancy," as he told me - though of course, it is also all of the above.
B&B with dinner starts from £110/€122pp, or book a superior room with four-poster from £199/€221 (newforgehouse.com).
PS: For an Armagh dinner with a difference, try Gareth and Kasia Reid's 4Vicars, opposite the atmospheric Church of Ireland cathedral. See 4vicars.com.
Armagh is the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, with both Catholic (top) and Church of Ireland cathedrals dominating the skyline (St Patrick is listed as first archbishop in the latter, from 444AD). Don't miss the rich tapestry of Georgian terraces in between, however (Jamie Dornan was recently spotted filming here for the BBC's Death and Nightingales), nor secretive spaces like the Robinson Library and cathedral crypt. Take a local walking tour with Donna Fox (donnafoxtours.com).
Just outside Banbridge on the A1, the FE McWilliam Gallery (above; femcwilliam.com) is a bright, punchy space pairing contemporary art with a sculpture garden and Quail's at the Gallery - where Mexican chef Fernando Correa cooks up a storm using Heartland produce. Think beef from Limousin cattle, or a deliciously lemony eggs benedict.
I'd love to see Armagh add a characterful new hotel... reboot the derelict City Gaol, anyone?
Visitors from the south often see Northern Ireland as an extra effort, but Armagh is less than two hours from Dublin - closer than Wexford. The Armagh City Hotel (armaghcityhotel.com) has rooms from £79 (€88) B&B.
Pól was a guest of visitarmagh.com.
Read more:Northern Ireland: The foodie fan's break for the Border