We can’t quite believe how fast the last eight weeks have flown by. In this final installment of our 2018 Ireland trip, we spent a week at the Ulster GP then had three busy days of tourism before our ferry home.
Overview: 11 days, 283 miles
From Belfast we only had a short distance to drive to Dundrod, home of the Ulster Grand Prix (one of the main motorcycle road racing events). We’d struggled to find information on visiting the Ulster GP by motorhome when planning the trip, so in the end we’d just booked ourselves onto the official motorhome area. It wasn’t exactly cheap (£230, which was an early bird price; the normal price is £250). For that we got a week’s trackside parking with electricity, wristbands (worth £30 each) and two programmes (worth £10 each).
To be fair, these events are expensive to run and we’ve been spoiled by how fantastically cheap it is to visit the Isle of Man TT by motorhome (once you’ve got over the price of the ferry) and all the extra free entertainment that’s laid on there during TT fortnight.
The parking wasn’t glamorous, but it was indeed trackside and was close to the grandstand and paddock. Thankfully we weren’t too close to the generator and the “sludge tank” for toilet cassettes did get emptied regularly 😎 All good…..
Our neighbour brought his own viewing platform; it didn’t take long for Mark to wangle himself an invite:
The viewing on the opposite side of the road was also good, and unlike at the TT, here you’re allowed to cross the road between races, so we could get back to the van if we wanted to.
Don’t be fooled by the blue sky in the photo above; it was a brief interlude. Mark was eager for some bike racing after his disappointment at the Armoy Road Races a couple of weeks back. As it turned out, the weather was pretty changeable. Whilst seven of the eleven planned races started, only four went the full distance, with the others stopped due to weather conditions and racing incidents. Sadly, a crash on Saturday resulted in another fatality in what’s been a terrible year on that front.
We left Dundrod on Sunday and headed South. Our route took us right past two National Trust properties; it would have been very wasteful, from a “savings” perspective, not to have visited at least one of them.
The Argory is an 1820s gentry house near Moy in Northern Ireland. The family don’t seem to have been particularly notable, although one of the four generations who lived here, a captain Shelton, was a survivor of the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852.
The guided tour was entertaining, although we were very disappointed that Yvonne wasn’t with us when we were asked in the drawing room whether anyone could play the piano and would they like to have a try of the rosewood Steinway grand piano…. We never seem to have a pianist to hand when we need one! Yvonne – perhaps you need to add a motorhome trip to Ireland to your to-do list and go tinkle the National Trust’s ivories?
Heading South from the Argory, our route took us through Armagh, after which we were soon across the invisible border and back in the Republic. Time to dig the Euros out again….
Our overnight stop was at Fore Abbey just to the West of the Boyne Valley where we planned to spend Monday and most of Tuesday. The first monastery at Fore was founded by St Fechin in 630 AD.
We had a very peaceful night’s sleep in the small car park before looking round the various ruins on Monday morning.
On the opposite side of the road to the abbey itself are St Fechin’s Church (10th century with the addition of a 15th century chancel) on the left of the photo below, and a chapel further up the hill on the right of the photo that housed an anchorite’s (hermit’s) cell in the tower.
The main ruin (below) was a Benedictine Abbey founded around 1200 AD.
Apparently it’s quite rare to find the remains of a columbarium (dovecote). It can’t compete with the dovecote at Penmon Priory on Anglesey (which is fabulous), but it was still good to see.
Our next stop on Monday morning was Loughcrew, where around 30 neolithic passage tombs sit atop a hilly landscape. We could see cairns on both of the hills behind Mark in the photo below.
The walk uphill from the car park was certainly worth it to see the cairn and surrounding tombs on the hilltop.
Loughcrew is well known for its megalithic art:
We were sent down the narrow passage into the cairn in the photo below armed with a couple of small torches…..
Whilst the stones lining the various excavated tombs outside were a bit weathered, those inside the main cairn, illuminated by the Sun at both equinoxes, were in much better condition:
Overall, we both thought that Loughcrew was well worth a visit.
Driving through Kells on the way to our next destination, we didn’t stop in the end for a quick look at the monastic ruins there; they’re in the town, there’s no car park, and the on-street pay and display parking was busy. With limited time remaining, we didn’t have time to spare….
We DID stop briefly, though, at the Spire of Light just outside Kells which Mark had spotted on a “nearby attractions” information board at Fore Abbey. Allow us to present Ireland’s only inland lighthouse:
It’s a folly built in 1791 by the first Earl of Bective in memory of his father. Very odd….
Onward…. the Hill of Tara has been a major spiritual site for millenia and is nowadays a major tourist site.
I felt that visiting Tara was a bit like visiting Stonehenge in that you really need an explanation of the bigger picture (all the known features, both visible and below ground, and what it might all have been used for) to start to get a sense of it. Thankfully, there was an audiovisual presentation and also a guided tour.
Tara was used for the inauguration of kings, for ceremonies at various key times of year (equinoxes and solstices, for example), and for burials. There are huge mounds, earthwork enclosures, and a processional avenue approaching the site.
Of course, on the ground, much of it just looks like a very lumpy field!
Overall, I guess the Hill of Tara is just one of those places that you have to visit on a trip to Ireland. We spent about an hour and a half there. It was interesting, but we weren’t really feeling the spiritual side of it all. Perhaps because we’re not wired up the right way or perhaps you really need to let it all sink in then go back for a second visit once you’ve got a bit of an idea what it’s all about.
Our final stop on Monday was at Monasterboice, which is a famous monastic site in Ireland but one that really doesn’t take long to visit (plus it was on the way to our overnight stop). The things to see here are a 10th century round tower and some high crosses.
The West Cross, in the photo above, is Ireland’s tallest standing high cross at 7m tall. Muiredach’s Cross, in the photo below, is much better preserved and is said to be the finest of its kind in Ireland:
Monday night’s stop was at the harbour in the small town of Annagassan. It was a good overnight stop though not quite postcard-pretty (I’m sure it would have looked much lovelier had the tide been in). At an hour from the port in Dublin, though, it’s one we’ll be keeping a note of for future trips.
We were up bright and early (by our standards!) on Tuesday for the half hour drive to Brú na Bóinne, a complex of three big neolithic burial mounds in the Boyne Valley. We’d been advised to get there early as the visits are by timed tour and only so many tickets are available on the day. We hadn’t booked tickets in advance but arriving at 9.30am there was no problem. By the time we were walking back to SOK at 1.30pm, though, there were notices up saying that all the tickets for the day had now gone…..
There are three big passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Tours go to Newgrange and Knowth but not to Dowth; apparently you can just drive up and look at Dowth if you want to, although it hasn’t been “tidied up” following some enthusiastic 19th century excavations!
We got the bus at the allotted time from the Visitor Centre to Newgrange for a tour that took about an hour.
Newgrange is the best-known passage tomb in Ireland. It has a 19 metre long entrance passage facing South East (so aligned with the sunrise on the Winter solstice) and a cruciform burial chamber (i.e. with three recesses at the end of the passage in which ashes would be placed following cremation).
Many of the 97 kerbstones around the outside are decorated with the same kind of patterns that we’d seen the previous day at Loughcrew, although Newgrange is known for its triple spirals. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the tomb. We both thought that Newgrange was pretty much a supersized version of the cairn we’d seen the previous day at Loughcrew, and that we’d preferred crawling into a small cairn with a torch to the slick visitor experience that you get at Newgrange.
Our second tour was to Knowth. This one has two passages, one East and one West, which align with the sunrise at the equinoxes. Whilst you can’t go into either of the passages, the surrounding area contains 18 smaller satellite tombs, which makes for an interesting landscape:
Peering into one of the passages at Knowth, it looks a lot more regular than the one we slithered through at Newgrange and clambered through at Loughcrew, and the walls seem to have been built up rather than consisting of straightforward standing stones. Hmmmm:
It was now Tuesday afternoon and there was time for just one more visit before heading to the ferry port: the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre. We’d already seen the river Boyne:
The exhibition here, on the ground floor of an 18th century mansion overlooking the site of the battle in 1690, is quite small but gives a good explanation of the progression of the battle without drowning the visitor in too much detail. The main protagonists, William III and James II are discussed together with the background to the conflict.
Basically, protestant William had taken the English throne from his catholic father-in-law James II. James had scuttled off to France in the aftermath but was now in Ireland in an attempt to regain his throne by roundabout means…. The battle was won (somewhat luckily I felt) by the Williamite forces, with James scuttling off back to France again, his go-to tactic in times of trouble. The war dragged on for a further year after his departure before the Jacobites were finally defeated.
The best bit of trivia that I learned was that as different regiments had their own dress at that time, it could be difficult to tell who was on your side and who were the opponents in the heat of the fighting. The solution for this was for William’s forces to wear a sprig from a green plant in their hat and James’ forces to wear a piece of white paper. A 17th century equivalent of rock-paper-scissors? I couldn’t help thinking that greenery must beat paper every time; after all if you lost the sprig in your hat you had a chance of picking something up to replace it with. Not so a piece of paper. To make matters worse, in the exhibition and on the film we saw, the pieces of paper were made into little white rosettes that were then pinned onto the hat – so not only did you have to find a bit of paper, you then had to bring forth your finest high-speed origami skills. It’s no wonder, then, that William’s lot were victorious…… I wonder how greenery would fare against rock and scissors…
And on that note, I’m afraid it’s time to leave you. We’re parked up outside the ferry terminal in Dublin waiting for check-in to begin.
Please keep your fingers crossed for the Ford garage on Thursday morning. So long as the fitting of SOK’s new fuel injector goes OK (those who’ve been reading our Ireland updates as we’ve gone along will already know about the fuel injector saga), we should only be at home for a week or so before departing again in the general direction of Orkney.