3 Days, 238 km, 148 miles
Route: Kildare to Louth, via Westmeath and Meath
Relish the fast-paced thrills, passions and pure fun of the races on this exciting three-day equestrian tour. From some of the world’s most exceptional thoroughbreds to quiet green pastures and battlefields where war horses have carved a path through the annals of history. This tour will bring you to the heart of Ireland’s horse-country, with plenty of surprises along the way.
Hooves thumping, heart pounding, crowd cheering – get set for the races.
Within 20 minutes of each other, you’ll find two of Europe’s best race courses: Punchestown and The Curragh. With a very different feel, the nearby Curragh Military Museum focuses on the area’s military history in a fascinating exhibition that reveals how these grounds were used for both the Jacobites in 1686, along with their war horses, and British soldiers during WWI. Heading through green pastures, fix your sights next on the Irish National Stud. Here, stallions mix with stargazing – or at least they used to – thanks to the superstitions of the stud’s founder, Colonel William Hall Walker. The colonel drew up a birth chart for each foal, and if he didn’t like the stars, the foal would be sold. In the stud’s museum you can read the chart of an unfortunate colt called Lord of the Sea: “Saturn in his 5th House… makes him very little good for racing or stud purposes… no good at all except for selling.” Equestrian astrology seems a million miles away at the adjacent Japanese Gardens, also created by Walker with the help of master horticulturalist Tassa Eida from Japan. It’s a beautiful place to lose track of time.
If you have more time
At Goffs, Ireland’s leading bloodstock sales company, eight bloodstock sales are held a year. They’re a thrilling event full of fast-paced action and incredible stallions. In Kilcullen, Berney Brothers Saddlery, founded in 1880, is a showcase of unique craftsmanship, expertise and equestrian knowledge.
Start off with a little retail therapy at Kildare Village, Ireland’s largest designer retail outlet, before refuelling with some croissants in Le Pain Quotidien, the first venue in Ireland for the top boulangerie chain.
Verdant hedgerows line your trail to Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park. Now a vibrant outdoor park with a Famine Cottage, Biodiversity Walk and Fairy Village, Lullymore was once an idyllic monastic retreat. In the early 18th century, all that changed when everyone was massacred except for one monk, Thomas Foran.
Continue your route to be in sight of the Grand Canal – between 1834 and 1852 fast “fly boat” services worked these waters, with two horses towing boats at speeds of around 7mph (it took 13 hours to travel from Dublin to Athy!)
Next it’s Kilbeggan Racecourse, described by the Sunday Times as having a charm that “puts bigger racetracks – like Royal Ascot – in the shade”. Dating back to the 1840s, this course has tons of stories to share, too – next time you’re placing your bets, spare a thought for the Grand National winner of 1916 who had to walk home because of the Easter Rising!
If you have more time
Visit Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery in Kilbeggan. Book ahead to discover the tricks of the trade, and find out if the distillery really is haunted. Or pop into Roche’s Pub in Donadea. No – you’re not imagining things. This pub is slowly sinking into the bog on which it was built. Built in the 1800s, it’s been sinking for more than a century.
Day 3: 1 hr 47 mins, 113 km, 70 miles
Points Of Interest: Navan Racecourse, Brú na Bóinne, Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre, Laytown Strand
Setting the tone perfectly for today’s trail is a gentle wander around 5,000 plants and flowers in Carlow’s stunning 19th century Robinsonian-style Altamont Gardens.
This verdant theme is followed through as you continue on to the “Garden of Ireland”, where Wicklow’s hills bloom with beautiful greens flecked with purple heather. But first, the town of Wicklow regales with somewhat brutal tales from the early 18th century at Wicklow Gaol. Among them, stories of convicts transported from Wicklow to Australia, sometimes just for the crime of stealing bread.
From these so-called ‘Gates of Hell’ back to the heart of Wicklow serenity in Glendalough, famed for its two lakes and spiritual atmosphere. At the monastic village, cast your mind back to what Glendalough must have been like in its heyday – when it was a retreat for peace-seeking monks. But as you wander off into the surrounding hills, spare a thought for St Kevin who was drawn here in the 6th century by the serenity and beauty of the landscape. Walk to the water’s edge at the upper lake, before heading to the fern-green hills around Poulanass waterfall, which cascades gently over mossy rocks.
If you have more time
Treat yourself to a contemporary meal in the welcoming and relaxed setting of Vanilla Pod in Kells.