The road less travelled in Northern Ireland: Lough Neagh, Armagh and the Sperrins
We follow remote roads, that traverse the hills of county Tyrone, visiting passage tombs, discovering the Sperrin Mountains and more
Northern Ireland remains hugely popular with Game of Thrones fans, as well as being home to one of the spectacular natural wonders of the world, the Giant’s Causeway.
Less well-known astonishing discoveries, away from the Dark Hedges and Causeway coast locations, also await. But all too often they go unnoticed.
On a weekend getaway, exploring a bit more off the beaten- track for hidden treasures, we skirt counties Derry, Armagh and Antrim. We also follow remote roads, that traverse the hills of county Tyrone, visiting passage tombs, discovering the Sperrin Mountains and more — our challenge on this trip has been to keep our distance from popular Game of Throneslandmarks.
Where better to start than at mysterious Lough Neagh, a largely ignored gem that borders five of Ulster’s six counties? One minute we’re gliding along a narrow stretch of canal from Toomebridge, Co Antrim. The next, we catch our breath at the vastness of all that water.
One of Europe’s largest lakes is caught in giant shafts of sunlight, empty and silent, except for the screeches of nesting black-headed gulls.
Lough Neagh’s depths nurture ancient creatures, mystical inhabitants that have been around an awful lot longer than any of the events re-imagined from GOT. In fact, an estimated 9,000 years ago, lakeside and island dwellers were eating eels, according to archaeological evidence.
Lough Neagh is Europe’s biggest source of wild eels. Inspiring revulsion and fascination in equal measure, their presence persuades me to abandon plans for a lake plunge.
The best way to meet an eel, I decide, is fried to a golden crisp at The Lock Keeper’s Cottage, which also specialises in home-baked apple pie, made with the Bramley variety unique to county Armagh. It was delicious, but watch out for the tiny bones.
Millions of the slimy snake-like fish are brought to maturity and harvested here, says Gary McErlain as we traverse the mirror-still waters in his fishing boat. A seventh-generation commercial Lough Neagh fisherman, he and his wife Anne-Marie run boat tours, telling visitors about Lough Neagh history, and the lives of those who still rely on the eels for their livelihoods.
One of Ireland’s most renowned poets, the late Seamus Heaney, devoted one of his most famous works, A Lough Neagh Sequence, to this magical expanse of water.
Our base for a few idyllic days, is Ardtara Country House, Co Derry. This nine bedroom getaway has won the ‘most romantic hotel of the year’ award, and its interior reflects that. Hidden away in the heart of mid-Ulster, we have difficulty finding the rambling Victorian mansion at Upperlands due to roadwork detours in and around nearby Maghera.
As the crow flies, Ardtara is close to Lough Neagh and Seamus Heaney’s renowned Home Place museum, in the village of Bellaghy, Co Derry. Armagh city is less than an hour’s spin away, whilst the Sperrins are just up the road — the proximity of everywhere is one of the joys of travelling in Northern Ireland.
Once the home of Ulster linen barons the Clark family, Ardtara is a fashionable high-end hideaway, showing how generations of a wealthy family lived, amid the rise and fall of Ireland’s linen industry. William Clark remains one of the oldest continually-running businesses exporting Irish linen to this day. Yet mills and linen halls crumbling among the woodlands of the estate are reminders of a once powerful industry’s slow decline.
Armagh, Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital city, is our next port of call, with an overnight stay at the friendly, busy Armagh City Hotel on Friary Street, minutes away from the old centre.
Local expert guide Donna Fox, whose walking tours have featured on travel shows worldwide, is leading a night-time tour of this atmospheric Georgian city tonight. St Patrick’s Cathedral and other historic landmarks and laneways glow in the dark, as Donna delivers a lively insight into Armagh city’s past and recent history.
Armagh’s attractions include a famous library, an observatory, a strange sculpture of Brian Boru’s head, and the site where St Patrick founded his first stone church in 445AD, today occupied by St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral.
The largest mountain range of Northern Ireland, the Sperrins are probably the least explored, straddling counties Derry and Tyrone. According to National Geographic magazine, expect some of the most stunning wild scenery of the island.
The next day, we struck out for the Glenshane Pass walking path, stopping at a local landmark, The Ponderosa — the highest pub in Northern Ireland, established in 1858 — for directions, after GPS signals went silent.
The helpful bar manager regaled us with stories about the area, pointing us to the nearest parking spot to start our hike into the Sperrins. Even on a bad day, you can see as far as Errigal in Co Donegal, he said.
The walkers’ paradise of the Sperrins, was once a dangerous place. This peaceful wild terrain used to harbour bandits, who preyed on travellers centuries ago. The most famous was Shane Crossagh Ó Maoláin, an ex-soldier-turned-bandit, who evaded the law for years, but finally met his end on the gallows in 1720.
Over 90 sets of stone circles, dating back to the Bronze Age, have been found all over the Sperrins. The most famous are the Beaghmore Stone Circles. Locating them, negotiating twisty roads and laneways, takes us around in other circles. But these carefully arranged, megalithic cairns and structures are a wondrous sight.
Visitors can also connect with the history of a mystical region, merging the Beaghmore Stone Circle experience with stargazing in the OM Dark Sky Park, whose entrance is a boardwalk away. The two-hour experience centres on the Dark Sky Observatory (omdarksky.com) in Davagh Forest. Visitors travel through space on a virtual reality tour and explore fascinating myths and legends.
In Dungannon, Hill of the O’Neill — a strategic stronghold of one of the mightiest clans of Ulster, who ruled the land for some 400 years — is another must-visit.
Seven of the nine counties in Ulster are spread out on a good day whilst you stand in the preserved ruins of this incredible highland rampart.
Then step inside Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre(hilloftheoneill.com) to hear about sieges and war, including the Flight of the Earls, and how this momentous event changed history on our island. It feels like we’ve now turned full circle, ending a surprising, relaxing odyssey of slow travel.
NORTHERN IRELAND See discovernorthernireland.com ■ Isabel stayed at Armagh City Hotel (armaghcityhotel.com) and the 5-star Ardtara Country House (ardtara.com). ■ Armagh Observatory and Planetarium costs £9 adult/ £6 child (armagh.space). ■ For Lough Neagh boat tours see loughneaghtours.com; for Armagh guided walks see visitarmagh.com.
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