“This is the oldest bridge in Ireland,” says Trim native James Murray as we paddle down the Boyne River through his hometown. “Some people might say a bridge in their town is the oldest, but they’re not as loud as me.”
If there’s one man with more passion for his hometown than Corkonians, it’s this guy. The local guide runs the Float Through Time tour (€45 per person) along the Boyne, sharing the history of the town on a giant inflatable raft.
Faced with the possibility of getting drenched in the cold spring rain, I come prepared with spare shoes and tracksuits, but a fresh sunny morning set the scene for a relaxing tour of a town I’d only ever thought about fleetingly in the past.
Murray mightn’t have the encyclopaedic knowledge of a trained historian, but he knows Trim inside and out, and gives a passionate tour of an often-overlooked destination that was the jewel of medieval Ireland.
After the Christians settled midway up the Boyne, the town expanded to become the largest on the island. Its centrality trumped Dublin’s, with land adjacent to Trim Castle originally tipped to be the location of Trinity College before it changed to Dublin.
The boat trip is the first stop on a tour of the lesser-visited sights of the Boyne Valley in Counties Meath and Louth. As a Louth man, it pains me to talk about Meath with anything other than disdain (see Leinster Football Final 2010), but for a day out in a place free from the crowds of tourists at busier spots, Trim boasts an impressive line-up for history buffs.
After a pleasant lunch made with locally sourced ingredients at Bective Tea Rooms on the outskirts of Navan, I take a stroll around Bective Stud farm and catch a glimpse of some race-winning horses, and a most adorable baby alpaca named Joey. Since the tea rooms opened in April last year, they’ve already become a local institution with queues regularly snaking out the door of the recently refurbished coach house. Apartments at the farm can be rented for €140-€180 per night, and the owners (Noel and Valerie Moran, who amassed their wealth selling their start-up, Prepaid Financial Solutions) are refurbishing Bective House as a hotel.
Safely across county borders back in Louth, a visit to the Listoke Distillery and Gin School doesn’t disappoint. The small distillery is run by the personable Bronagh Conlon and her husband Sean. After working as a midwife for the best part of a decade, she started a successful jam-making business before opening Listoke in 2016.
Although the company produces 1,500 bottles of gin every day – 98 per cent of their produce is made for international markets including China, Australia, Singapore, Latvia and the US, because they can’t compete with cheaper gins in Irish supermarkets – their primary focus is the gin school. At €95 per person, making your own custom bottle of gin isn’t cheap, but nevertheless proves popular with tour groups, hen parties and for corporate events.
The lab is covered in little jars of spices, peels, natural flavours and distilling apparatuses at each table. I carefully measure out spoonfuls of Listoke’s four core ingredients: juniper berries, coriander, angelica root and orris root. After that, it’s up to me to craft my perfect gin combination, so I scoop in eight more flavours for a rather dubious concoction: orange and lime peels, elderflower, almonds, rowan berries, frankincense (the myrrh smelled quite odd), cassia bark and cacao. Bronagh winces at the smell of it, giving it a four out of 10. Gin de Capplis is not a winner.
My bizarre blend thankfully doesn’t spoil the experience – and I’m told it could have been a lot worse (apparently some fella added a hefty dollop of chilli). With a Listoke gin and tonic in hand, and a taste of their whiskey too, I am happy out, feeling like my Junior Cert distillation knowledge has finally been put to good use.
Visiting the Boyne Valley frequently involves a trip to Newgrange passage tomb, but we take the road less travelled to a lesser-known site. The 32 Stone Age cairns spread across four hills in west Co Meath are known collectively as Loughcrew Cairns.
Local guide Malachy Hand leads us up the large ribbed hill, still showing its scars from pre-famine era farming. The path up to Cairn T, the largest of the group, came into its own during the pandemic when locals flocked there for some fresh air. Although the cairn itself has been closed for five years for safety reasons, the views are worth it on a clear day.
A short stroll from the cairns is Loughcrew Megalithic Centre. A young couple, Niall and Sarah, run a campsite during the summer months, with six spacious glamping yurts (from €250 for two nights) that fit a family of four, and space for caravans and amenities on site. The family-oriented spot is great for a cup of tea before climbing up to the nearby cairns, and traditional cottages hold regular yoga, meditation and drumming circle classes.
Emily Naper is as much the attraction at Loughcrew Estate and Gardens as anything else. I come for the cafe, old stately gardens and to check out the venue, but stay for this powerhouse of a lady (and a lady she is, owing to her knighthood from an old order of Jerusalem).
Naper was born into the Dashwoods of West Wycombe, whose family own an 18th century country house in Buckinghamshire – a frequent place for filming the likes of The Crown, X-Men, Fast and Furious, Clockwork Orange – the list goes on. Apparently her family even helped found the Hellfire Club back in the day. She came to Ireland in the 1980s after her “days as a punk rocker” to marry her first husband, who owned Loughcrew estate and gardens. He has since died and now she runs custom weddings in an old castle ruin, as well as yoga and writing retreats and hen parties, with her second husband.
Strolling around the gardens you can see some unusual modern art created by Naper herself, the ruins of an old 18th century house, and rolling green hills into the distance.
Loughcrew Estate and Gardens may be a little out of the way for some but it’s worth it if you can manage to get five minutes with Naper. Meeting this woman – a well-known personality in the area – is an attraction in itself.
The last stop on my Boyne Valley expedition is Rockfield House, a new venture from the Murtagh family, who also run the ever-popular Causey Farm in Co Meath. Opened last year, the Aristochicks is an opportunity for hen parties – or daring tourists like me – to finally live out their Bridgerton and Downton Abbey fantasies. Guests dress up and role play as Victorian aristocrats upstairs, or get up to servantly high jinks downstairs.
We make a lemon Madeira cake that turns out far better than my gin escapade the previous day, and the craic is mighty during our egg-throwing activities and parlour games in the music room. Dermot Henry, the resident butler leading our experiences, rarely breaks character, and it’s a laugh-out-loud afternoon. My aristocratic outfit is complete with a Willy Wonka style purple top hat. What more can you ask for.
On the surface, the rolling green hills around the Boyne Valley appear little more than generic farmland, but if you know where to look, there are plenty of gems to keep you busy.