Life off the fast lane: Meath off the M3
IN the first of his series exploring the hidden treasures around our new motorways, Pol O Conghaile takes 10 detours from Meath's M3.
The scenic detour
The new M3 cuts straight through the Boyne Valley, a rich quilt of historical sites including the Hill of Tara and the ancient passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne.
The motorway attracted fierce controversy for impacting on this landscape, but, using it as a starting point, I stumble across a host of surprises I never knew existed. One highlight is the ruin of Bective Abbey, squatting by the Boyne near O'Connell's Cross. Founded in 1147, a recent archaeological dig discovered that Cistercian monks here fed oysters to their guests and, unusually for the time, processed their own corn. It's a marvellous old husk.
Details: Exit the M3, heading east on the N51 or south-west on the R161. Brú na Bóinne (041 988 0300; www.heritage ireland.ie) costs €3/€2.
For Bective Abbey, turn for Kilmessan off the R161.
One for the kids
The new M3 glides through Meath's rolling farmland. So what better way to entertain the kids than to turn off and visit one of its farms?
"Anything Old McDonald has, we try to have one of those," says Matt Murtagh, welcoming me to Causey Farm (main picture) near Fordstown. The farmstead normally caters to groups, but family days are running at 2pm on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout summer, and activities include breadmaking, bodhrán lessons, bubble blowing and bog jumping. If you ask nicely, they may even arrange a sheepdog demonstration.
Details: Exit the M3 at the Athboy Road Interchange, taking the N51 towards Athboy, and turning onto the R164 to Fordstown. Causey farm (046 943 4135; causey.ie) has family days from €14pp.
The lunch break
Before cars ruled the countryside, a passenger train departed Dublin every Sunday at 10am, carrying an enthusiastic coterie of anglers, sightseers and hunters to Kilmessan and Navan.
The railway line is long gone, but Kilmessan's station house remains, today operating as a quaint old hotel squirreled away in the Meath countryside.
I drop in for some lunch, picking a Greek salad and a ramekin of smoked fish (a tiny portion served in a thick white wine and cream sauce) from the list of starters, which go down a treat. Encircled by low stone walls, huge horse-chestnut trees and gently cultivated lawns, the old railway stop is 10 minutes from the M3 but far from the madding crowd.
Details: Exit the M3 at the Blundelstown Interchange, taking the R161. The Station House Hotel (046 902 5239; thestationhouse hotel.com) has a three-course table d'hôte lunch for €19.95.
The en-route activity
Loughcrew in Co Meath is known for its megalithic cairns, but I part ways with the M3 to sample the new adventure course at Loughcrew House & Gardens. Within minutes of arriving, I'm strapped into a harness and helmet and flinging myself down the longest zip-wire in Ireland.
It's a rush; I gobble a lungful of fresh air, skirting through the forest canopy before skidding to a halt 130m later.
Climbing towers, obstacle courses and abseiling are also on offer (perfect for curing driving fatigue), and the gardens (featuring a lime avenue, St Oliver Plunkett's Church and a sculpture of Alice in Wonderland standing by a spotted toadstool) are open for picnics and ambles.
Details: Exit the N3 after Kells. Loughcrew is approximately 20 minutes in the direction of Oldcastle. A half-day at the adventure course (049 854 1356; loughcrew.com) is €30 adults/ €25 children, with a minimum group size of six. Access to the gardens costs €6 adults/€3 children, or €20 for a family of six.
The bypassed town
The new M3 bypasses Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells, taking much stress out of the journey towards Cavan. For my money, however, the town most worthy of a detour is Trim.
Its castle's forbidding keep doubled as York Castle in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and a short heritage trail takes in surrounding sights such as the Yellow Steeple, Sheep Gate and St Patrick's Church. It's spotted with electric splashes of gorse, and don't miss the quirky souvenir shop across the road, which sells everything from miniature Buddha to Celtic crosses.
Details: Exit the M3 at the Kilcarn or Blundelstown Interchanges, following the signs for Trim. Entrance to Trim Castle (046 943 8619; www.heritage ireland.ie) costs €3/€1
The shopping break
Navan's best-known exports are carpets and comedians, but it's high time a small local bakery called Piccolina was added to the list.
Diverting off the M3 to shop in the Town Centre (impressive enough, with its M&S, Eason's and Boots outlets), my pastry senses soon steer me towards this happy hideaway at 1 Watergate Street.
"Everything is made here, from scratch," I'm told, inhaling the warm whiff of scones, baguettes and speciality breads (think apricot and walnut, or blue cheese). I settle for a chocolate-chip muffin (€1) and a coffee (€1.85), which is served with a sliver of chocolate brownie.
Details: Exit the M3 at Kilcarn Interchange, following the signposts to Navan. Piccolina (046 907 1585) is open Monday-Saturday, 7am-6pm.
The overnight stay
There are several upmarket stays within a few miles of the M3, but I pop into Trim's Knightsbrook Hotel in search of a four-star special offer. A soulless housing development doesn't do much for the approach, but once I step through the lobby and peer out on the golf course, things pick up.
The Terrace Lounge works nicely as a spot to sit and watch the golfers outside (afternoon tea is available at €15 for two people), and the hotel's River Spa has been nominated as best overall spa in Ireland by Irish Tatler magazine.
There's also a 17-metre, child-friendly pool, and I can't help noticing an advertisement for Big Tom and the Mainliners -- just one of the acts lined up to play the gigantic ballroom. Knightsbrook has the look of a Celtic Tiger development (it opened in 2006), but a lead-in B&B rate of €39.50pps (midweek) is one of the most competitive around.
Details: Exit the M3 at the Kilcarn or Blundelstown Interchanges, signposted Trim. The Knightsbrook Hotel (046 948 2100; www.knightsbrookhotel.com) also has one night's B&B plus dinner from €99pps.
The hidden gem
Fore is a speck of a village, but it deserves its own roadside billboard. It's the kind of heritage gem we mill past all too often. Fore Abbey is the centrepiece here, a monastic ruin associated with the Benedictine monk St Fechin, but I spend most time examining the clutter of decaying socks, shoes and soothers hung by the saint's well. They've been left here to help cure sick children (or warts, depending on whom you ask), giving some indication of St Fechin's following.
Don't forget to visit the anchorite's cell either. Access to this stone building is with a key from the Seven Wonders pub.
Details: Exit the M3 at Kells, taking the N52 towards Mullingar. Turn west onto the R395. Fore Abbey (044 966 1780; foreabbeycoffeeshop@gmail. com) is about 13km from Delvin.
The pit stop
The M3 is a short stretch of motorway, so don't expect any of those continental-style service lay-bys. The best I found was Trim Retail Park, a small scattering of curvy, stainless-steel buildings set like a commune off the R161.
Filling the tank at 132c a litre, I skipped around the Londis shop to use the toilets in the drive-thru Supermac's behind; clean, fully stocked, and lit by natural daylight -- a rarity in roadside loos. Supermac's itself is bright and well looked-after, with a gallery of cute children's drawings pinned up in a corner. You'll also find an ATM, a tyre shop and a garage nearby.
Details: Exit the M3 at the Kilcarn Interchange, following the R161 in the direction of Trim. Trim Retail Park is on the Navan Road, about a mile outside of the town.
A stop to stretch the legs
Bogs were once central to the Irish way of life. But how long is it since you actually stepped into one, sensing that unique squelch underfoot? The M3 skirts by several tracts of raised bog, and Girley is the perfect place to renew your acquaintance. Its network of looped walks takes in tracts of both woodland and open air, and surrounds me with ferns, gorse, tweeting birds and flitting insects. Whether you walk for a mile or a couple of metres, the effect is the same. It's another Ireland.
Details: Exit the M3 at Kells, following the N52 towards Mullingar. After about 7km, the trailhead for Girley Bog (046 943 7227) is signposted on the left.
The M3 forms part of the main route from Dublin to Cavan and the north west. Linking with the N3 dual carriageway from Dublin, the new motorway runs for 51km (32 miles) from Clonee to Kells in Co Meath. It also includes a new single-lane bypass of Kells, and 10km (6.2 miles) of dual carriageway linking Kells to Carnaross, Co Meath.
There are currently no plans for a motorway link from Carnaross to Cavan, but this 38km stretch of the N3 will be realigned in the coming years.
There are two toll plazas on the M3, one just after Clonee and one between Navan and Kells (at Grange, west of White's Quarry). Tolls cost €1.30 for cars and cover about 30km of motorway each.
The M3 passes through Co Meath. The N3 passes through Dublin, Meath and Cavan.
The speed limits
There is a 120km/h limit on the M3, and a 100km/h limit on the new dual carriageways.
The passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, the megalithic tombs at Loughcrew, and the Hill of Tara are all accessible from the M3.
See discoverireland.ie for more sights and activities in the area.