Travel: Boyne Valley, Ireland

The imposing Trim Castle. Photograph: Lisa Young
The imposing Trim Castle. Photograph: Lisa Young
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‘Turn right out of the airport, not left, or you’ll end up in Dublin!’ Following these instructions, we drove for 20 minutes before arriving on the cusp of the Boyne Valley. Described as a hive of activity in the least likely of places, this mystical piece of land is an important cornerstone of Ireland’s history, from prehistoric to modern times.

Once Ireland’s ancient capital, it boasts 9,000 years of history within its perimeters. Offering some of Ireland’s best seasonal cuisine, it is home to an emerging number of distilleries. Farm animals fill the green rolling countryside, while villages and towns ooze charm and history.

Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre and Newgrange. Photograph: Lisa Young

Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre and Newgrange. Photograph: Lisa Young

My first stop was a classroom at Listoke Distillery and Gin School, located in a 200-year-old stable building built by Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Battersby, learning to make my own bespoke craft gin with the botanicals grown within the walled gardens. We had a Hogwarts-style welcome: two barn owls (called G&T, which appear on the Listoke 1777 gin bottle) hooted, while Battersby, a friendly Alsation, howled. Our hosts and founders, Raymond and Juliet Gogan, filled our minds with the rich history of the property, as well as its ghost stories.

Entering the classroom, the scent of herbs and spices filled the air. There are four basics when making gin: orris root (fixer), angelica, coriander, and at least 15 grams of juniper (needed for it to be a legal gin). Adding jasmine gives sweetness, a little liquorice gives spice, and a touch of cumin makes it even spicier. With the help of co-founder and gin expert, Bronagh Conlon, I opted for a sweeter flavour, adding honeysuckle, cassia, pink ginger, orange (for a citrus touch) and jasmine, and as the distilling process took place, we enjoyed a delicious lunch made wholly from locally sourced produce.

My next stop was a Battle of the Boyne tour, hugely interesting and educational for adults and children alike. Fought between King William III and his father-in-law, King James II, on 1 July, 1690, it was the last time that two crowned kings faced each other on a battlefield. Details of the clash were described during the tour and mapped out with a large model of the landscape, enhanced with lights to show the moves of each army, and how the battle was won and lost.

We continued, stopping at the 18th-century Beaulieu Manor for a tour of the house and its beautiful walled gardens with owner Cara Konig-Brock. The house has been passed down through the maternal line since the 17th century and the gardens are planted with a vibrant double herbaceous border and fruit trees, featuring a knot garden, lawns and a summer house overlooking the River Boyne.

Our evening was spent back at Listoke Distillery for the launch of the Boyne Valley Food Series – an intrepid group of local restaurants, hotels, food producers and visitor attractions, which are passionate about food, keen to celebrate its journey from the producer to the table, and to link it to the rich heritage of this region.

That night we stayed at the 16-bedroom Scholars Townhouse Hotel, built in 1867 as a convent and Christian Brothers School, now an old charmer of a hostelry run by Mark McGowan and family. It felt like another Hogwarts experience, with dim lighting and a handful of the rooms just large enough for you to get around the bed, but that didn’t faze us because it was full of history. The hotel restaurant served delicious food in the form of Boyne blue cheese panna cotta and pan-fried Clogherhead cod; everything on our plates came from the Boyne Valley.

The following morning at Boyne Boats we met owner Ross Kenny, who hires his paddle boats and himself to the Game Of Thrones production team. Aboard a boat that appears in many of the episodes, we spent a relaxing couple of hours paddling through the Boyne Canal, which passes through the Battle of the Boyne site. Listening to anecdotes about the filming, we paddled along the narrow waterway, finally using the small motor to help us move along when we tired.

Back on land, we made our way to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and Newgrange, one of many Unesco World Heritage sites in the Boyne Valley, and the largest prehistoric megalithic site in Europe. The tombs here hold Europe’s biggest collection of prehistoric megalithic art, and at over 5,000 years old, Newgrange is older than Stonehenge and Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.

Driving onwards towards Rock Farm Slane and Slane Castle, owned by Lord Alex and Lady Carina Mount Charles, it was time for lunch outdoors followed by a walk around their organic farm. With views of the castle and surrounded by battlefields, guests can stay in yurts during the summer, and there are 10 rooms within the castle. We rode e-bikes through the gothic gates of Mill House (the old entrance to Slane Castle), down the ancient demesne avenue, passing St Erc’s 14th century hermitage, and moving onwards to the €44-million Slane Castle whiskey distillery.

Opened this summer and situated in a conversion of the stables, the distillery alone would make a trip worthwhile. But each year, Slane Castle holds a world-famous rock concert, headlined by megastars such as The Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses, and it’s where U2 recorded their 1986-87 album The Unforgettable Fire. The ballroom was used to shoot one of the band’s videos and Alex remembers playing on the band’s instruments at night with his sister when nobody was around.

After dinner at the 18th-century Tankardstown House in Slane, and a sound sleep at Knightsbrook Hotel, at dawn we set off for Loughcrew Cairns (also known as Sliabh na Callighe or “hill of the witch”) near Corstown.

Spring officially begins on 21 March, the day of the vernal equinox, when the rising sun penetrates the passage of Cairn T at Loughcrew. Nobody really knows why the cairns were built, but, when aligned with the equinoxes, it is Cairn T where the dawn light enters the interior of the chamber, illuminating it with a shaft of sunlight and exposing the elaborate engravings on the stone inside.

Our last stop on this magical mystery tour was Trim Castle, the largest, best preserved and most impressive Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland. Dressed as Braveheart and carrying a medieval cappuccino, our guide gave a history lesson and anecdotes about his experience as an extra in Mel Gibson’s film, shot in Ireland.

Visitors can learn about the horrible histories of Trim in a fun way, trying on chain mail and other medieval clothing, then, like us, climb the narrow stairs to the top of the castle and look out for one final view of the beautiful Boyne landscape.

FACT BOX

www.discoverboynevalley.ie

Slane Castle Distillery: www.slanecastle.ie

Rock Farm Slane: www.rockfarmslane.ie

Listoke Distillery: www.listokedistillery.ie

Beaulieu House: www.beaulieuhouse.ie

Battle of the Boyne: www.battleoftheboyne.ie

Boyne Valley Food Series: www.boynevalleyfoodseries.ie

Scholars Townhouse Hotel: 
www.scholarshotel.com

Boyne Boats: www.boyneboats.ie

Brú na Bóinne: www.heritageireland.ie

Tankardstown House: www.tankardstown.ie

Loughcrew Cairns: www.heritageireland.ie

Trim Castle: www.heritageireland.ie

Trim Castle Hotel: www.trimcastlehotel.com

Boyne Valley Garden Trail: www.boynevalleygardentrail.com