From an apple bonanza to a race for the stars

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I’m about to make an embarrassing admission - the first and only other time I visited Armagh was last year.

It was for the city’s annual Georgian Day in November and my family and I were blown away by the magical atmosphere, the picturesque cobbled streets and the festive charm of the dazzling outdoor lightshow. We were beguiled by the place and made a promise to return whenever we could.

We kept to that promise recently and decided to make a weekend of it.

Our base was the Armagh City Hotel, which, when we arrived, was buzzing with activity as preparations got underway for an American style barbecue that evening to celebrate Independence Day.

We had a spacious two-bedroom apartment, which was perfect for our two young children to play hide-and-seek and indulge in their usual rascality.

After a quick swim in the hotel pool we set off to explore the city.

Armagh’s elegant centre comprises streets of stone cottages and Georgian houses winding round the hills. The plum area is the beautiful Mall park, which is lined on one side with splendid late-Georgian properties. When we passed a genteel game of cricket was underway.

In the 9th century Armagh became Ireland’s ecclesiastical epicentre. Today, its two St Patrick’s cathedrals, one medieval and Protestant, the other mid-19th-century and Catholic - eye each other on opposing hills.

In the 18th century it reinvented itself, largely thanks to architect Francis Johnston, as an elegant Georgian town, the city of saints and scholars.


Because of the cathedrals and its administrative importance, Armagh was made a city in 1994, one of the UK’s smallest.

Today Armagh retains its plain, stone dress, but there’s a buzz about the place with some tempting independent shops and a thriving cafe culture. There’s also a strong cultural offering, thanks in no small part to the lovely Market Place theatre.

For me the great glory of Armagh is its architecture. It has a number of buildings of fine design, including the handsome neoclassical public library, built in 1771, and the observatory, built in 1790.

Unfortunately, gazing at old buildings holds little appeal for my little people; for them, it’s all about swings and roundabouts.

Luckily, there is a fantastic playpark within the undulating parkland of the Palace Demesne. My daughter awarded it the coveted title of ‘best playpark ever’ - the sunken trampoline clinched the deal.

The Demesne, comprising some 300 acres, is the creation of Archbishop Richard Robinson. The Palace was the residence of the Archbishops of the Church of Ireland from 1770 to 1975.

The walks around the Demesne vary in distance and effort, taking you into the back meadows and around the more formal gardens.

There is also a chance to relax in the Garden of the Senses, made up of five distinct areas linked by a winding path.

Of course, no trip to Armagh would be complete without a visit to the Planetarium.

When we arrived we were met by a couple of actors in Jedi regalia who were training some future Jedi knights. We asked one what he did when he wasn’t a ‘Jedi-ing’, to which he replied ‘‘I’m actually a butcher.’’ You couldn’t make it up!

Our children had a truly out of this world experience at the Planetarium, exploring the exhibition areas, using the interactive displays and touching the largest meteorite on display in Ireland, an amazing 4.6 billion years old - a bamboozling statistic whatever your age.

We also all enjoyed the digital theatre show - The Accidental Astronaut.

Another family favourite in Armagh is Navan Centre and Fort, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ulster and the capital of the provenance.

Dressed in authentic costume, an affable actor called Feargal showed us to his Iron Age house made of sticks and wattle, the floor covered in fur rugs, his ‘sister’ spinning wool into yarn.

The children were allowed to hold his spear, but were a bit disappointed they didn’t meet any wolves during their time travel experience.

There’s a lovely cafe and we ate lunch outside watching the birds flit among the trees.

The walk to the actual fort is beautiful. Wild flowers colour and scent the way and there’s an ecology trail to keep little ones interested. The view from the top of the fort is spectacular and the children enjoyed the simple pleasure of rolling down the hill, carefree and giggling.

A weekend was too short to discover all Armagh’s charms. A third visit is definitely on the cards.