Lured in by a lecture on bats at Ardress House during the summer was where my National Trust adventure began. Initially panicked that I was finally turning into my parents, the informative speaker and the general atmosphere allayed any anxieties I had.
Warm smiles greeted me and handed out free caffeine, kids excitedly made bat themed arts and crafts, and people sat themselves down on rustic pews to listen to the guest lecturer. He talked learnedly about the eight bat species we have in Northern Ireland, and the species the South have too. Who knew that Soprano Pipistrels were so small? Or that we had so many misconceptions about bats?
In a Blue Peter style moment, he brought us outside to see one he had found dead earlier that day, and to give us a chance to see some live ones as dusk set in.
Two hours later and I was still standing in the archway of the drive at Ardress House, where the grand driveway meets the apple orchard with its uniform rows of soldier-like trees standing to attention. The crackle of the bat detector letting us hear them call out to each other as we watched them flit about.
A few months in and I am now the proud owner of a Bert the Bat toy, courtesy of the NT gift shop. Here are my highlights…
1. Ardress House
Ardress House is home to a pretty orchard, where the smell of ripe fruit in the autumn time hangs in the air. Whether it’s a walk around Lady’s Mile with the dog or your kids; Sunday Summer barbecues; Apple picking in the orchard and enjoying the fruits of your labour; or immersing yourself in the history of the house, this is a beautiful place and well worth the visit.
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2. The Argory
The Argory is a great place to go if you have children. They constantly seem to have craft fairs on (Christmas, Easter, Halloween – you name it) with lots of craft stations to occupy children.
Their coffee shop is a hidden gem. The heady aroma of freshly baked goods beckons you from behind the counter, as a friendly barista takes your order and brings new meaning to the expression ‘service with a smile’. There is something arguably pleasant about all of the NT workers… possibly because they feel a sense of pride in what they are protecting by working for such a beautiful organisation.
Blackwater Books will smile seductively as you walk out into the courtyard. Music might mingle in the air. Dulcet tones or husky voices ringing out through the air from the bands that play on Sundays.
A sustainable playpark made mostly of wood and a zip line will tempt even the most stern adult to “give it a go” and relive their childhood.
There are so many beautiful walks – but my favourite has to be the one that runs along the Blackwater Canoe Trail and meanders to a place where your eyes are greeted by a corridor of trees. Autumn is quite possibly my favourite time of year to be here. Leaves, acorns and beech tree nuts litter the ground like an autumnal red carpet. Pine sap seeps through the air. Cool air tickling your face and turning your cheeks red.
Don’t forget to look out for glistening spider webs along the verges, at the base of trees, or try to look for the different types of fungi.
3. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge
Not for the faint hearted or those who suffer from vertigo! Carrick-a-Rede is a stunning (if not slightly terrifying) tourist attraction. There is a reason why it is almost always sold out: it is spectacular. Once you finally make it over the bridge (great photo opportunity by the way) you can see nothing but open sea and sparkling blue water. Giant rock faces jut out as people stand, sit, or wonder at the impressive sights. Birds sit precariously on the side of the little island. Apparently porpoises, dolphins and basking sharks are also residents there, if you’re lucky enough to spot them.
Nestled in Moneymore, Springhill also boasts of batty nights out for the family. A charming historical house with lots of secrets to share. Don’t touch the wallpaper – it’s laced with arsenic to preserve the colour. See the famous painting which graces the front cover of the classic Jane Eyre. See if your children can spot all the cuddly critters in each of the rooms- hunting for bug plushies as you immerse yourself in history. Hear with horror the chilling tale of the master bedroom.
If none of that tickles your fancy, go up to see the old tower or visit the bookstore. Take a walk around the gardens or visit the costume museum. Maybe even purchase yourself a bee or butterfly friendly plant, grown on site with love and care.
Crom is so massive that it’s hard to actually contain it all within a single article. There are stunning ruins, charming walks and a walled garden.
An old petrol pump is nestled near the stable to add to the history and charm. The sustainable projects the NT is working on here is truly awe inspiring, and their camping facilities look truly compelling.
Perhaps the most breaktaking thing of all is the boat house, with two boats tied up, paint peeling and water logged as the river flows easily past, taking its time. I feel like nothing I can say will ever do this place justice: it is an endless source of fascination.
This is a place that oozes romance, tranquility and natural beauty.
The walks are extensive, so choose wisely. Pack wellingtons, especially as you head down to the ruins of the castle. See the ancient yew trees and stand in awe at the nature and charm. Look out for squirrels, deer and other wildlife, this place is teeming with life. Whilst the NT has the wonderful “50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾” to keep children entertained; a lot of the stuff is great for adults too. I personally loved finding different types of caterpillars crawling along the foliage, catching a glimpse of a rabbit scurrying down a burrow, and learning about the different wildlife in the education centre on site.
Crom also boasts of being a nature reserve, offering people the chance to go on a deer safari if you’re crafty enough to keep an eye out for the events they have on!
If you’re looking for a romantic or family getaway, there are also holiday cottages (in addition to the camping mentioned earlier) which look like something out of a quaint little story book. Canoes and boats are available to rent, ensuring there’s something for the more adventurous of heart too.
Another equally stunning place to go to learn about history is Florencecourt. I decided to give the stunning 18th century house a miss, focusing on the sustainable estate and gardens instead. The Blacksmith’s Forge called to mind Heaney, transporting me back in time to a place where skill and mastery of trade were of paramount importance. The Sawmill, Cattle Yard and Carpenter’s Shop were equally fascinating. We may have even stopped to sit down on the “His and Hers” seat – marvelling at the craftsmanship.
Heaney was called to mind again when I passed the Ice House, en route to the oldest yew tree in Ireland. Blackberries greeted me, red, green, glossy purple clots.
Calves peered curiously over the fence of their field, watching as we traversed our way to catch sight of the most important trees in Ireland.
Dogs were everywhere, happily wagging their tails as their owners brought them round the many extensive trails, curiously sniffing the Lady’s Well.
In addition to this, there are pleasure gardens, a walled garden, and a kitchen garden restoration project. This is a different way of life. A way that makes you realise the simplicity of the past. A way that makes you recognise the importance of growing your own food and makes rob want to escape to the country (no, really!!).
7. Murlough Nature Reserve
Murlough has been a staple of my life, even before becoming an NT member. The smell of seaweed, the slap of waves against the sand, soft sand dunes.
My favourite thing about Murlough? Walking to the furthest end to see the seals lounging on the beach or swimming in the water, peeping cautiously at any land seals to decide if they are friend or foe.
If that’s not your thing, walk the other way – straight into Newcastle for an ice cream if it’s sunny, or a coffee if it’s cold!
A ball flies through the air on the walk back, a golden retriever or maybe an excited spaniel bounds eagerly to catch it. What is it about the National Trust that makes it such a wonderful place for dogs?
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8. Mount Stewart
We accidentally stumbled upon Mount Stewart after a night out in Belfast with friends. We googled what was nearby and I liked the sound of the many walks and the stunning white stag statue.
Music greeted our ears as we realised we had arrived in time for Jazz in the Park. Impressed, we realised the NT wasn’t just historical houses and pretty walks… they have lots of activities and events on to draw you in. Unfortunately, it was the warmest day of the year, and I had chosen jeans. I needed to keep walking. We stumbled across a little alcove, a plateau of land at the lake side. We sat down on the stone seat and watched as a stream of ducks swam around, hopped out and waddled straight up to our feet, plonking themselves down on the ground for a bit of a breather. Was this real life? Had I been transported into an Enid Blyton novel?
Again, we didn’t bother going into the house (deciding to save that for another day); there was too much walking to do and far too little time.
9. Wellbrook Beetling Mill
Wellbrook Beetling Mill was amazing. We made our way over bumpy, potholed roads and pulled into the car park, where flax was sprouting up from the ground. There were only two other people on our tour, one of the NT’s secluded hidden gems. We received a tour of the beetling mill, learned about the rich linen history, the painstaking method of making the flax linen ready, and even got to try out the machinery!
Our tour guide talked learnedly about the mystery behind the song Pop Goes the Weasel and showed us the difference between unbeetled linen and beetled linen, before guiding us back down the steps to see the giant beetling press. Giant jaws spun round, thrashing menacingly. I shuddered as I recalled her claim, “this is the job children would have done.”
On the way home we stopped off at Beaghmore Stones, NI’s version of Stonehenge. Thinking it hyperbole that they are “The Darkest Skies in NI” I needed photographic evidence. The rumours were true.
Another non NT stop off: Drum Manor Estate – to catch another glimpse of ruins. Here, nature has risen up and reclaimed the foundations of what remains of the stunning architecture.
Everything about the National Trust suggests a sense of community. Everything about the National Trust is special: their love of nature, history, and their desire to share it with you.
Next on my list? Castle Coole, Rowallane Gardens and maybe Castle Ward to feed my Game of Thrones withdrawal symptoms.
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