Alternative St Patrick 2

Altar Native St Patrick

A trip to the Ards Peninsula, in Co Down, Northern Ireland now offers a novel way to get into the spirit of the patron saint of Ireland’s anniversary and it was the brainchild of the Northern Irish tourist board.

Saint Patrick is a unifying icon for all Irish men and women as the Christian legend is borne out by mediaeval manuscripts and relics of the holy sites established in his name. The seat of Christianity in Ireland is in Armagh and although we in the Republic of Ireland have many adopted pilgrimages that offer the same virtues of stamina, humility, congregation and shared worship, if you want to combine a Christian soulful reminder with a leisure break, you can now retrace the steps of the early Christian teachers on a 90-mile exploration of the two Ulster counties.

St Patrick’s conversion of celtic or gallic Ireland from druidic or brehon society to his faith began with his kidnap and enslavement as a shepherd on Slemish, (about a half an hour’s drive out from Belfast) that can offer you a day’s hike up a fairly steep hill and a spectacular view of the north Antrim coast and on a clear day, the west coast of Scotland. If you’ve started your  ‘church and castles’ theme actually in Scotland and are making your way to Wales, Brittany and Galicia in northern Spain via Ireland, the hikers can do the Slemish haul-ass up the mountain while the sane people get in an air-conditioned motor vehicle and do the highlights listed below.

It’s OK. I do understand that some people take pleasure in cycling holidays that range over 50 miles a day, so even moderately fit people could get the gist of this trail in a two-day stopover in Ireland on their way to the bright lights of big cities, but this is about tailored holidays for fit 50-somethings who, to take a lesson from Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love, and have enough to write home about afterwards.

So. Heading south from Belfast, go first to Bangor, Co Down, where you’ll find Bangor Abbey, a modern-day Church of Ireland chapel that was given a fresh sprucing up in the early 1960s with the addition of a mural behind the altar. Encased in lovely concave stripes of moulding the depiction of Patrick offers an absorbing focal point, while the thoughtful provision of cushions to kneel on will attract fans of cross-stitching and tapestry. Stained glass windows that are pretty in themselves change the hues of the shafts of light on the interior, making the trip to the Abbey for a moment’s prayer a happy experience. Historians will like Bangor Abbey’s place as ‘the light of the world’ as it was here that St Comgall established the abbey in 558 as a training centre for missionaries. St Columbanus left from here to resuscitate the Christian faith on mainland Europe during the Dark Ages. There’s a little museum about 10-minutes’ walk around the corner called North Down Museum*, that outlines the importance of the missionary work done from here that links the three saints (Patrick, Comgall and Columbanus), and as a reward 🙂 there’s a very sweet gift shop for mementoes selling one of my favorite NI products Bog Standard homeware (candles, soaps, linens) and fun fridge magnets for a couple of quid. But no matter what kind of a gardener you are it’s the exhibit in the yard that’ll gladden your heart: a hazel wattle-walled cylinder, insulated with natural materials, and roofed with spectacular thatch.

Having seen that church and interpretive centre, you could head for Movilla Abbey at Newtownards for your first stop for photos, and on to a refreshments break at Hamiltons (see below), or continue on to Inch Abbey, in Downpatrick where you’ll find a Game of Thrones location (‘one of the best examples of Anglo-Norman religious architecture in Northern Ireland’). Spring and summer visitors will enjoy the ‘Cadfael’-style physic garden similar to those the monks husbanded in their day: medicinal and restorative herbs like wormwood for the ladies, and some of the more familiar shrubs.

Afterwards we went to Balloo House in Killinchy for lunch, and also had a browse of the Crafty Fox across the road from this particular food Mecca. First the restaurant: a local, typically British Isles rural pub has been taken over by a great chef, Danny Millar. He runs a restaurant in it that combines top notch locally sourced ingredients (that are organic where possible) with 21st century interpretations of glamour. For instance, I had a scallop starter that sat on a bed of risotto through which little shards of black pudding infused the starchy (filling) element of the dish with just enough salt and herby flavors to complement the melt-in-your-mouth medallions of fish. Then (so much for the 5:2 diet, eh?) then, I had another fish dish: this time a bed of beans with two pieces of white fish that had been filleted and floured on one side to keep the tender white meat intact long enough for you to get through the generous helping of the comforting vegetables. A two-course meal here is £13.95 and the three courses cost £17.95. The desserts sounded divine but I found that if you’re watching your weight, the starter size of the scallop dish would have been filling enough to skip right on past the bigger ‘main’ version to the nirvana of cake. But I’d already had my just desserts earlier in the day at….

Harrisons of Greyabbey, Newtownards

The salads and savory hot dishes here looked fresh and inviting, but our scheduled visit was for mid-morning tea. If your prescribed way of boosting your metabolism is to work off sugars with vigorous activity (hence the cycling holiday not martyrdom) then this farmshop, plant nursery and CAKE HEAVEN is worth going out of your way for. As a Christian-themed tour following the St Patrick’s Trail, I found the farm shop here to be equally as fabulous as the Crafty Fox mentioned above in Killinchy. Handbags you’d very happily acquire, pottery pieces, paintings, and truly high class prayers all winked at me invitingly. (And you’d know a high-class prayer because…..I hear you say?.) When you’ve eschewed the strength and comfort of regular church going for most of your life you find an echo of it in hippiedom: spiritual affirmations like I am a Wonderful Woman Who has all she needs Within to Ward off the random evils of this World. Or the abbreviated version: Woman needs not Wine to Win.

The sayings on sale here were ‘out and proud’ declarations of faith as they were inspirational Bible quotes.

* to differentiate it from the Down County Museum that’s in Downpatrick.

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