The fabulous Four Vicars restaurant, Armagh.
Attention, cider lovers! Have you visited Armagh recently? This orchard county, is beautiful, green, and charming. It also boasts a tiny, yet intriguing city with two cathedrals, Catholic and Protestant, living together in harmony. Both are called St Patrick. Both are magnificent, looming over the town with its quirky cobbled streets, and friendly residents. Armagh has a special place in my heart. I was born there. The timing wasn’t great. I arrived during the height of the troubles, and in fact my mother’s maternity ward in Craigavon hospital was evacuated on the eve of July 12th due to a bomb scare. Unsurprisingly there were few tourists around milling around town back in that period of unrest. But things are different now. Restaurants offer international cuisine, cocktails, Prosecco, and of course, the popular, locally-produced Irish cider, made from freshly pressed apples. The county is thriving, and very much open for business. The annual festival is a must-visit for artisan food and cider lovers to sample the local hospitality! Or If you fancy your own private tour to see where the apples are grown, and watch how the cider is made and bottled, check out www.armaghcider.com
My childhood memories bring me back to picking apples off the ground in my grandfather’s orchards. Like many of our neighbours, we were an apple family. I think the only dessert I ever had was apple tart! Local kids would come to the orchards every year for a couple of weeks to pick the apples properly, for pocket money. ‘They won’t do that now,’ an apple grower recently sighed, however, ‘so we get people in from Eastern Europe mostly.’
Armagh is known for its orchards, however the days of just producing eating and cooking apples, are in the past. Now the industry is so much more than that. Pear cider, cider vinegar, sparkling apple juice and apple jam are just some of the varied citrus offerings.
The county isn’t far from Dublin, less than two hours’ easy driving. Or approximately an hour from Belfast. If you’re taking a day trip to the city, you absolutely must stop off at Gosford Forest Park which is fabulous woodland for the whole family to enjoy. I’d recommend at least an hour there, to get lost in nature, and enjoy its serenity, spot the red deer, and enjoy the new playground. Bring a picnic, but also a rain jacket just in case!
Armagh city, the oldest city in Ireland, with just 15,000 residents, is perfect for strolling around. A walk in the superb palace grounds is glorious on a sunny afternoon. The palace itself, now a government building, was the residence of former Archbishops of the Church of Ireland between 1770 and 1975. Public tours are available in the summer season. I recently popped into The Moody Boar Restaurant and Bistro, the former palace stables, for a delicious slice of apple pie (to revive my childhood taste buds!), after a walk in the Palace Demesne public park. Afterwards, I wandered through town, and paid a quick visit to the gorgeous Georgian library. Flicking through the guest book, I noticed messages from impressed visitors as far away as Canada, Holland, Germany, Korea, Japan and New Zealand! Gulliver’s Travels fans were especially enthralled, given that Jonathan Swift’s own manuscript from 1726 with his own handwritten corrections, is given pride of place in the collection of over 42,000 historical books.
If you’re heading to Armagh, I’d recommend leaving early in the morning, to have the whole day there. If you’re heading to the upcoming food and cider festival however, leave the car at home, and indulge! There’s plenty of value in nearby accommodation, and if you’re hungry after all that cider tasting, why not try out the small, but fabulous 4 Vicars Restaurant, in a quaint Georgian-listed building, for a culinary treat. Booking is advised as this place is popular! www.armagh.co.uk