2018 Ireland: St Patrick’s Way

This was the year I set out to walk St Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland. Things didn’t go entirely to plan …. but there was still much to enjoy, so will focus on the positive!

I didn’t keep a diary during my time in Ireland. So, once again, it will now be up to the old shaky memory to come up with the goods – plus a collection of photos which I trust will capture something of the beauty of the Irish countryside, the highs and lows of St Patricks Way, and the fun that followed in Belfast.

SPW marker

Before setting out, I’d received advice and support from fellow-Camino pilgrim, Sam, who’d written an article about SPW for the Australian Friends of the Camino Chronicle. He was dividing his time between Australia, the US and Ireland – and happened to be in Belfast when I arrived. He very kindly drove up to Armagh to meet me and give me some last-minute tips and advice. Thanks Sam!

AUGUST 2018

From Armagh to Downpatrick …. St Patrick’s Way

I flew to Dublin, then took a bus from the airport up to Armagh in Northern Ireland. With its two Cathedrals (Catholic and Protestant) and many famous megalithic stone-age sites, Armagh is the start of St Patricks Way (SPW). St Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland, so what better place to start …..

The first stamp – at the Navan Centre

To be precise, the Way starts at the Navan Centre, just outside Armagh, and up the road from where I’d booked to stay. The Navan Centre is one of Ireland’s most famous archaeological sites, the legendary site of pre-Christian kings. Today, the Centre is a fascinating interpretative centre with stories and videos of the myths and legends from over 2000 years ago. There are also reconstructed dwellings with actors ‘living’ the life of the ancient inhabitants of the region. In the typical damp and drizzle of Irish weather, I enjoyed wandering around the site, before finding the first marker for St Patricks Way, and stamping my passport.

Here’s my planned itinerary for the 82-mile (132km) walk.

Thurs 16 AugArrive Dublin
Catch bus X4 to Armagh  from Term’l 1
Arrive Armagh Bus Centre 5pm  
 Accommodation:
Fairylands Country House   
25 Navan Fort Rd, Armagh BT60 4PNT
Friday 17 AugVisit Navan Centre
81 Killylea Road  
Fairylands Country House
DAY 1
Sat 18 Aug
Walk to Tandragee  15km Montagu Arms, 9-19 Church St, Tandragee  BT62 2AF
DAY 2
Sun 19c Aug
Walk to Scarva 5-6km MEET PENNY
Walk to Druminargle –  another 5-6 km
Druminargle House,  29 Poyntzpass Road, Scarva  BT63 6LE .  
DAYS 3&4
Mon 20 Aug   & Tues 21
Walk to Newry  20km (along the Newry Canal)    Flagstaff Loft, 16 Flagstaff Rd, Newry  BT35 8QU
(2 nights)
DAY 5
Wed 22 Aug
Walk to Rostrevor  
15 km
Sands BnB, 4 Victoria Sq, Rostrevor BT34 3EU     .
DAY 6
Thurs 23 Aug
Walk Rostrevor to HilltownFielys Brae/ Moyad      Bed & B’fast    44 Attical Rd, Kilkeel
DAYS 7 & 8
Friday 24 Aug Sat 25 August
 2 nights at Meelmore Lodge     Meelmore Lodge at the base of the Mournes
DAY 9
Sun 26 Aug
Walk through the Mournes to Newcastle
Amble In, 14 Bryansford Rd, County Down  BT33 oEQ
Arrive mid-afternoon.
DAY 10
Mon 27 Aug
Newcastle to Ballykinlar / TryellaThe Heights. 3 The Heights, County Down BT30 8PU
DAY 11
Tues 28 Aug
  DOWNPATRICK  
St Patricks Centre & the end of the walk
Air BnB     5C Gaol Lane Mews Downpatrick.   BT30 6BD.                                  
DAY 12
Wed 29 Aug
Thurs 30 Aug Fri 31 Aug
Sat 1 Sept
Bus to Belfast   BELFAST 3 nights     AirBnB   (sharing with Nelson)
1 Parkgate Parade, Belfast  BT4 1ET

Well …. that was the plan ….

Day 1 turned out to be very hot, and most of the 15km walk was on hard roads and tracks. Consequently, by the time I staggered into Tandragee – and up the final hill – I was completely knackered and had blisters the size of 20 cent pieces on both feet. Earlier visions of dinner and music in an Irish country pub rapidly disappeared …. and as it happened, there was a prize boxing fight on TV downstairs in the bar that night, with a local lad fighting and favoured to win!

Day 2 dawned and the blisters were angry. Nothing for it though … I had to push on because I was meeting Penny at Scarva, along the Newry Canal. Tried to take a short cut (which proved a mistake) so hobbled further than I probably needed to. Anyway, I got to Scarva to find a lovely tea-room by the canal, and a brass band scheduled to play in the rotunda in the gardens. Penny was held up along the way somewhere so I left a message and set off to walk slowly along the canal path, knowing she’d catch up. Sure enough … we met at Scarva lock and then had to find our way to Druminargle House – which turned out to be a rather gracious old farmhouse set back from the road.

The lovely town sign at Poyntzpass

DAY 3 involved another tiring walk along the canal, through the little hamlet of Poyntzpass, where I had the blisters seen to at a pharmacy, and on and on and painfully on, until we reached the outskirts of Newry. By this stage I couldn’t walk another inch, so we phoned a taxi which delivered us to Flagstaff Loft and our host, Peter, who turned out to be a very kind and charming Irishman (recently widowed and grieving) who seemed to enjoy our company and cooked us a great dinner – while also recounting many stories about the time of the Troubles in the 1980s. Newry, being right on the border between the Republic of Ireland (Catholic) and Northern Ireland (predominantly Protestant), was in the thick of the fighting and bombs. Even the very house we were in lost its roof and windows at the time. It certainly makes history real when you talk to the people who experienced the events.

By DAY 4, my leg had swollen to almost twice its size and a nasty rash was appearing. Fortunately we weren’t walking that day – and Peter offered to take us for a drive around the area. He was an excellent tour guide and we saw and learned a lot during the day …. from ancient stone circles and fairy rings, to ruined chimneys of homes where illicit poitin (Irish moonshine) was made and drunk, hilltops and valleys, ancient castles and popular tourist haunts. Throughout the day, we found ourselves crossing the border numerous times as the road twisted and curved. We heard that there are even homes built right on the border … with the kitchen in the Republic, and the bedroom in the North! Quite confusing when it came to paying for coffee and postcards too …. should we use Euro (for the Republic) or Pounds (for Northern Ireland)??

Late in the afternoon, we dropped Penny off at the bus station for her bus back to Belfast (or was it Dublin?). Back at the house, I limped upstairs to rest.

DAY 5. In normal circumstances, there’s no way I would have walked on such a blistered and inflamed leg … . but I had an itinerary to keep and accommodation booked. So, in the morning Peter drove me back to the marked Way for the next stage of the walk. (I know I missed a section of the walk through the middle of Newry …. but hey, who cares. Worse was to follow … )

I walked towards Rostrevor until early afternoon, by which time I was in quite a bit of pain – and fairly exhausted. With no phone box or even a village in sight, I had to resort to asking for help at a nearby house. At last some luck … the man who answered wouldn’t hear of my calling a taxi and insisted on driving me to my next BnB, about 5 miles away in the pretty seaside town of Rostrevor. Also, (maybe not surprising in Ireland), he turned out to be the brother-in-law of Peter, our host in Newry!

The BnB people were just as kind and caring as everyone else along the Way. I was driven to the local doctor the next morning – and then to the pharmacist for the prescribed antibiotics. Although the Dr didn’t name it, it turned out that I’d developed cellulitis, a nasty bacterial skin infection probably caused by burst blisters. Left untreated it can rapidly become life-threatening. Fortunately I’m still here to tell the tale….

I had to catch a bus the next day, and then a taxi to my next BnB on a farm in the Mountains of Mourne. It was a bit sad to have to miss walking through the Mournes, but I did take the little Mourne Rambler bus which does a loop up and around the mountains, so got to see some of the local scenery. Fortunately I’d booked 2 nights at Meelmore Lodge in the heart of the Mournes so was able to rest and put my leg up for a while. Meelmore provides accommodation and a pleasant canteen for walkers and campers, and overlooks the spectacular mountains.

In Tollymore Forest

After a couple of days rest, though not completely 100%, I hit the trail again to walk through Tollymore Forest and along to Newcastle. Although the scenery was gorgeous, I can’t say I enjoyed the long walk much – and I got lost for a while. Sam and his wife had been setting out to surprise me by walking back along the Way from Newcastle, but when I didn’t appear (because I’d taken a wrong turn), they ended up walking back to Newcastle and waited for me there. Really, this Walk had turned into a saga of errors and mishaps.

After a night in Newcastle, I limped along the beach and then inland to somewhere in the vicinity of Tyrella. Enjoyed a pub lunch before hobbling on a bit further, then resorting to taking a bus to Ballykinlar for the night.

On the last day I walked a short distance to a nearby service station for a hearty breakfast, then waited 2 hours for a bus for the last leg into Downpatrick.

Well I’d tried … . but can’t honesty say that I really walked St Patrick’s Way.

Receiving my certificate from the Director of St Patrick’s Centre
The Certificate

However, Sam had arranged for the Director of the St Patrick’s Centre to meet me and present me with my Certificate. He was absolutely charming, and I very much enjoyed spending time at the Centre with its displays and stories about St Patrick’s life and its excellent cafeteria.

I spent 2 more days in Downpatrick and discovered the supposed tomb of St Patrick outside the Cathedral, also took a bus ride out past some of the other places that mark St Patrick’s history.

And then it was time to head back to the city.

BELFAST – a weekend with old friends
The bus from Downpatrick to Belfast was an easy ride, and I managed to walk from the bus station to the pre-booked BnB to wait for Nelson’s arrival. This was another chance for us to catch up and see a bit more of the world together. He duly arrived on his bike, after taking the ferry across from Liverpool. He was still living on his boat, somewhere in the north of England.

We enjoyed exploring Belfast – Nelson hadn’t been here before either. It seemed a city of contrasts …. some lovely old buildings, interesting modern streets and squares, pubs with good food and flags flying everywhere. Lots of Union Jacks (they’re fiercely patriotic in Northern Ireland) but also banners, murals and bunting telling something of the story of the troubled history of fighting between Catholics and loyalist Protestants. We didn’t even get to Shankill Rd, Falls Rd or any of the other streets of West Belfast which (sadly, I think) are now on the tourist trail.

But the highlight of our visit was, of course, the Titanic Museum. Located in the Belfast dockyards where the ship was designed, built and launched, the exhibition tells the story of her construction, her maiden voyage, and her ultimate demise in the Atlantic. At least 3-4 hours are needed to see and experience it all. It’s truly a world-class museum that provides a total visual and auditory experience.

With Colin and Sally & the green fields of Ireland

My good friends, Sally and Colin, also made a trip up to Belfast to coincide with my time there. Was great to see them and to spend a fabulous day with them driving up the Antrim coast, enjoying lunch at a lovely, home-style restaurant, then continuing on to the Giant’s Causeway ….. another UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s an area of huge basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption – and obviously a very popular visitor attraction. We climbed over and amongst the giant rocks along and blazed away with phones and cameras. (Nelson chose to go for a marathon bike ride instead – so he missed it all.)

After three great days with special friends – and many shared meals and drinks … it was time to hoist the backpack and set off for Bilbao, Spain.