Explorations in the Boyne Valley
Updated: Jun 22
After what felt like an interminable January, a girls' weekend in the countryside was just what the doctor ordered. Less than an hour's drive from Dublin lies a little slice of paradise - a charming wood-paneled lodge nestled away in the Co. Meath countryside, surrounded by trees and lush green fields. Welcome to the beautiful Annie's Cottage in Creewood, an absolute haven of tranquility just a short distance from Slane. Just to point out - it's our second stay in under two months and it certainly won't be our last.
The cottage is an ideal base for exploring some of Meath's most popular tourist attractions such as Newgrange, and other historical treasures of the Boyne Valley including the Hill of Slane, Bective Abbey, Hill of Tara and Mellifont Abbey. It offers easy access to some of the county's loveliest river and forest walks, including the Boyne Ramparts Walk which I wrote about here on my last visit.
It sleeps up to eight people with four uniquely decorated double rooms, each with a fabulous view. Annie's Cottage is available to book through AirBnB.
What to do around the Boyne Valley
Nature lovers and history buffs will relish the rich heritage and scenic beauty that comes courtesy of the Boyne Valley, an area covering much of Co. Meath and the southern part of Louth. Prehistoric monuments are dotted across the landscape, from Newgrange in the east to the lesser-known but no less impressive Loughcrew Megalithic site to the west. To this day, the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane exude a remarkable sense of history, in addition to their panoramic views across the countryside. Architecture lovers will be blown away by the prowess of the builders at both Bective and Mellifont Abbeys.
Two magnificent trees stand sentry at either side of this monumental 12th century Cistercian monastery. On a grey January day, their bare branches swayed in the wind, heightening the eerie Gothic atmosphere. It’s a remarkable place, filled with secret passageways and mysterious nooks and crannies…
Located on the west bank of the River Boyne, Bective was founded in 1147, the second oldest Cistercian abbey in Ireland after nearby Mellifont. The Cistercian ethos of simplicity in all aspects of domestic life is reflected in the architecture, its features plain and unadorned. The buildings standing today date to between the 13th and 15th centuries including a chapter house, a church and a beautiful cloister.
The pointed Gothic arches are typical of Cistercian architecture and showcase the most ornate features on the site. Make sure to look out for the relief of a figure carrying a crozier carved into one of the pillars. During monastic times, cloisters served as a covered walkway for contemplation and prayer.
The monumental tower was added in the 15th century, its defensive features a stark reminder of troubled times in what was then the English Pale. As was the case with many monasteries, Bective was dissolved by King Henry VIII in the mid-16th century. Lands were rented and before long, it began functioning as a fortified site. At this point, the towering chimneys, large stone windows and fireplaces were added.
Like most kids, I was obsessed with castles and fortifications so my inner child revelled in the maze of narrow, claustrophobic passageways, mysterious tiny windows and numerous sets of stairs which seemed to lead nowhere. Birds swooped overhead, adding to the Gothic atmosphere. Not hard to see why Bective featured as a filming site in a number of Hollywood films, including Braveheart.
Hill of Slane
One of the highlights of our weekend away was a visit to the Hill of Slane, its postcard-perfect ruins visible from the iconic Hill of Tara 16km away. Though tourists flock to Tara and to the other significant archaeological sites around the Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Slane is often ignored. The upside of this meant we had the entire site to ourselves to enjoy a stunning late-January sunset and to let our imaginations ruin riot, courtesy of some spooky stories by local man Jim. More on that below...
The monuments stand at the top of a gentle 158m slope with expansive views in all directions of the surrounding countryside. This vantage point came to have some significance during the time of St Patrick. Every Spring Equinox, a great ceremonial fire was lit on the Hill of Tara, then the seat of the pagan High King. It was forbidden to light any other fire until this one was ablaze, and it would have been visible for miles. However, this all changed in 433 when St Patrick went rogue - legend has it that this is where he lit his Pascal Fire first, in defiance of the High King Laoire. I can imagine that tensions were running high on Tara that particular evening...
A plaque tell us that soon after St Patrick, a monastery associated with St Earc was established on the site and was in operation until the 12th century. In 1512, a Franciscan Friary was built on the site of the earlier monastery. The ruins still standing today include a picturesque medieval church and graveyard, overlooked by a remarkably well-preserved early Gothic bell-tower and a striking Monkey Puzzle tree. These are housed within a walled enclosure.
The Hill of Slane was regarded as an important centre for religion and learning throughout the centuries, from the time of St Patrick to its final dissolution in the 17th century. On the right you'll find the equally photogenic remains of the college of Slane Abbey, founded to serve the church and home at that time to four priests, four lay-brothers and four choristers. You can clearly see its layout today, built around an open quadrangle, where the windows, fireplaces and a double garderobe or toilet still survive.
If you get the overwhelming sense you are being watched, then no, you're not being paranoid. As you make your way around, a series of prying eyes emerge from the stonework above your head. On our way up the hill, a fortuitous stop to chat to a friendly local called Jim really brought the site to life for us. He regaled us with stories of the Ghost of Slane, which thankfully we didn't encounter on this occasion. We did, however, introduce ourselves to the Slane Dragon - a small winged creature on the west wall of the refectory. You'll need to climb up some steps to see him.
We tried to avoid the intense stare of the gargoyle, also known as the 'Evil Man', whose beady eyes bore into the back of our heads. According to Jim, if he was emanating a faint yellow or red hue, we were to turn on our heels and run back down the hill. Luckily, he seemed to like us. See if you can find the head of his more "placid" wife (Jim's words). Her face emerges from the same wall like a magic eye picture. High above the windows on the bell-tower of the church (on the Dublin side, as our friendly storyteller was keen to point out...), you'll see the Slane Devil. Just don't look him in the eye.
As we watched the late January sun drop low in the sky, every archway offered another striking perspective with wonderful views across the Meath countryside, and the interplay of light and shadow was a photographer's delight.
Another cool spot to visit around the Boyne Valley is Mellifont Abbey in Louth, on the banks of the River Mattock. Established in 1142, this was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland. The site is remarkably well-preserved with its traditional layout still visible: a church and a series of domestic buildings are arranged around a rectangular cloister.
Visitors today will enter the site through a massive castle-like structure: the remains of the original gate house of the old abbey. Its defensive function was a necessity in these turbulent times because of Mellifont's strategic location on the border between the Anglo-Norman controlled 'Pale', and the territory under the control of the native Irish chieftains.
Its most distinctive feature is the beautiful octagonal lavabo in a late Romansque style, dating to 1210. A lavabo, taken from the French meaning washbasin, was a communal washing place for the monks; a nod, I imagine, to the monastery's links with the famous Clairvaux monastery in France. This is the only one in existence in Ireland and it's extraordinarily beautiful.
Mellifont was a growing community and 1170, we know it was home to 100 monks and 300 lay brothers. On the left as you enter the site is an early English Chapter House, where meetings of the monastic community were held. The building we see today was rebuilt in the 14th-15th centuries and its vaulted ceiling is still intact, though it's not possible to enter.
Mellifont is of significance, not only architecturally but also historically. Devorgilla, daughter of the King of Meath in the 12th century, is buried under the chancel pavement and has an outside role in one of the most significant events in Irish history. Married to Tiernan O'Rourke, King of Breffni, her husband was the man responsible for ousting the infamous Dermot MacMurrough from his kingdom of Leinster. In 1153, MacMurrough abducted Devorgilla and in 1169 enlisted the help of the Anglo-Normans to help him regain his kingdom, the start of a long period of invasion and conquest of Ireland by the English. He promised his daughter Aoife in marriage to Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow, who declared himself King of Leinster in 1171. The rest, as we know, is history.
Before you leave, make sure to take the short walk up the hill behind the Visitors Centre to visit the ruins of a small stone church and ancient graveyard. Believed to date to the 14th century, it was referred to in the 1888-1913 Ordnance Survey map as St Bernard’s Chapel, presumably after St Bernard of Clairvaux, Mellifont's mother abbey in France. The church has an attractive twin bell-cote above the arched entranceway, and is surmounted by a double-arched window. It's very pretty.
Hill of Tara
It's testament to the significance of this place that visitors were milling about here in their hundreds on one of the wettest and windiest Sundays of the past few months. This remarkable site has been in use since the late Stone Age over 5000 years ago as both an ancient burial site and a ceremonial one. It is difficult to get a sense of its magnitude from ground level (especially when the wind is blowing you off your feet) but check out some aerial photos here to see the full picture. The summit of the hill is surrounded by a Iron Age enclosure known as the Fort of the Kings, and within this stands two interlinked earthworks: Cormac's House and the Royal Seat. Below you'll see the Lia Fáil standing stone which stands at the centre of the Royal Seat and which served as the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland.
One of its best-known features is the Mound of the Hostages, the oldest structure on the site. This circular passage tomb dates to approximately 3,000 BC and was used for burials until about 1600 BC. It's similar in style to nearby Newgrange, although smaller in scale: dome-shaped with a small doorway set into the side of the monument, its entranceway marked with undecorated standing stones. Yet again the ingenuity of these Neolithic builders knew no bounds. The entrance is aligned with the rising sun at certain times of the year, illuminating the chamber on important dates in the Pagan calendar: the mornings around Samhain (early November) and Imbolc (early February) which was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid. I look forward to visiting again in more temperate conditions.
The Megalithic site at Loughcrew is the lesser-known sister of Newgrange: a Boyne Valley site of equal historical significance and which is roughly contemporaneous, sharing many of the architectural & artistic features of its more famous sibling. It is estimated to be 5,200 years old, dating to the Neolithic period. The site is a megalithic cemetery, home to a well-preserved series of passage tombs, but it also served as a ritual site. Cairn T is the best known, standing on the highest peak at 276 metres above sea-level. The view up here is spectacular with an uninterrupted 360-degree panorama of the surrounding landscape.
The sheer skill and technical prowess of those Neolithic builders is impressive. Like Newgrange, Cairn T was also ingeniously designed: its alignment marks the halfway point between the winter and summer solstice. It also allows the first rays of morning sun to enter the passageway at dawn, and to light up the decorated back stone. Something to note - the climb up to the hill is quite steep though a short ascent, so sensible footwear is advised.